Bast is the Goddess known to many as the cat-headed patron Goddess of cats. While this is sort of true, she is much more than that.
Worshipped in Lower Egypt nearly 5000 years ago she is a daughter of Ra. As such, she is a Sun Goddess, and serves as a warrior and protector in his name, and as such carries the title of The Eye of Ra. Her name’s meaning is uncertain. But because the b3s-sound is written with the hieroglyph of an ointment jar, it most likely meant “She of the Ointment Jar”. She is also associated with protective ointments.
Back then, she was displayed with a lion’s head, just as Sekhmet, a similar Goddess in Upper Egypt. After the unification of both Egypts, one would expect these deities to merge, as that is what usually happened in such cases. Both taking on elements of the other. But in this case, both Goddesses were strongly rooted and had many worshippers, so they started to diverge. It also didn’t help that Lower Egypt had lost many a conflict between them and Upper Egypt and as such also lost in influence.
So around the first millemium, Bast became associated also with domestic cats, who were revered for their hunting abilities that kept food storages safe and vermin at bay, but were seen as less fierce than lions. Her images depicted her now more often with the head of a cat instead of a lioness. The nurture and care mother cats show their young also slowly turned Bast from a Warrior Goddess into more of a Mother Goddess type. Still very protective but in a different way. Now she not only protects the pharaoh, but also children, and mothers. Which in turn, and probably helped by the fertility of cats in general, lead to her being seen as a fertility Goddess as well. Eventually, when the Greek influence in Egypt grew, her transformation became complete, as she was now mostly seen as a lunar Goddess instead of solar as they associated her with Artemis, the huntress.
While she was revered in many places (like Memphis, Heliopolis, Denderah, Sais and so on), her main center of worship was Per-Bast, or in its more commonly known Greek form, Bubastis (modern day Tell Basta). It is located in the Nile Delta, about 80 km north east of Cairo. This is where her temple stood, described by Herodotus as a majestic square building on an island in the middle of the city, lower than the rest so one could look inside to see the grove of trees encircling the shrine itself.
Her festival was celebrated at Per-Bast, but also at other cities like Memphis, Thebes and Esna. Herodotus describes it as many men and women (some 700.000) coming to the city in ships. The women sing, dance and shake their sistra (a rattler-like instrument) along the way, there are many sacrifices and a lot of drunken revelry. This was apparently customary for Deity festivals, as the same is known for others 🙂
In later times Bast is regarded as the mother of Maahes (also known as Mihos or Miysis in Greek) with Ptah being the father.
Bast is also often referred to these days as Bastet. This, however, is merely another spelling, and not another pronunciation. During the New Kingdom, the -t at the end of words tended to vanish from speech. To emphasise when it was to be spoken, an extra -t was often added. And that generally comes with an extra vowel as well. So Bastet is just Bast.
For me personally, I have always been drawn to cats. Which only grew after I finally had my own after I moved out. At first I started worshipping Bast in honour of cats. But as I learned more about her, I became more invested. I turn to her for strength and protection and I honour her by giving her a revered place on my Altar and showing respect to her creatures.
S.D. Cass. All About Bast. www.per-bast.org/bast/historical.html
C. Scott Littleton, ed. Mythologie, een geÍllustreerde geschiedenis van mythen en verhalen uit de hele wereld. 9789057643378
Herodotus. Found referenced in all other sources.
Wikipedia (even though they insist on Bastet). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bastet
Encyclopedia Mythica. www.pantheon.org
Knowledge gained over the years of education and general reading.