Egyptian minor deity, worshipped since (at least) the Second Dynasty of the Delta (Lower) Kingdom.
Let’s get the poetry out of the way, and then sort out the facts.
Although spoken of as such, Her primary role is not that of a Mother, or Protective, Goddess but one of healing. She is the Lady of the Ointment Jar, the surcease of pain, the ever-attentive nurse of the sick and the infirm. With a shake of Her mystic systrum, or rattle, the distraught become calm, wounds heal, bones knit, and the frail and despondent regain strength and hope. To receive Her kiss is a blessing of the first water. At the same time, she is she, who comes at her own discretion, never gives more than is needed, takes what she is due, and always leaves precisely when her work is done.
Although a daughter of RA, she moves by night, implacably rooting out vermin and evil. Her daytimes are spent in worship, tending to Her many young, and in her duties to the sick. In the more ancient representations, she is a conventionally animal-headed human, but over the years, the preferred human female face in Egyptian art became somewhat cat-like, as can be seen in the popular bust of Nefertiti, with high cheekbones, a short, straight, and narrow nose, large, accented eyes, and a thin and delicate frame, rather than the plump and sturdy body type found in most non-royal Egyptian bodies found. To close the circle, fully realistic, or “catlike” statuettes are to be found in the period closest to the Greek invasion, but with strangely human faces, unique in Egyptian art.
According to Herodotus, the fetes of Bastet, in Her home temple on the Delta, were the most joyous and loved of all, with the Temple grounds centered on a thick forest of trees, where many cats were to be found, lying in the shade, or waving their tails amid the branches of the trees. It was a capital offense to kill or mistreat a cat, and the death of a cat in a household would call for the family to shave their eyebrows in grief.
Of course, this could not survive the pestilence that was Christianity, an d cats became vilified, cats and cat owners killed as symbols of the old polytheism, untilour more modern, more enlightened,times.
Reality, in this case as with many other ones, is more complex than the myth. Cat mummies have been found, yes, but not all of these felines reached a pampered old age, but had had their necks snapped as kittens. Yes, it’s true that Bastet, and her lionine sister Sekhmet to the South, were goddesses, but comparatively minor ones: you might compare the medieval saints Nicolas and Valentine in Christian mythology. To say that special veneration was given to the ordinary animal, other than general good treatment, is not strictly historical: Bast is a goddess that appears as a cat,and is worshiped, but there aren't sacred cats, as such, any more than there are sacred jackals, hawks, or dung-beetles. Melanism doesn't seem to enter into this except that a black cat in a desert would have been more than a rarity.
The role of Bastet as a healer has only recently been uncovered, although her soubriquet of "Lady of the Ointmant Jar" has been known for some time. Apparnently, cats evolved purring as a response to the fact that, also because of desert heat and the prevalence of larger predators (mostly hawks and the like) cats must spend most of the day either sleeping, or immobile hidden in the shade, but spring forth with great spead and acrobatic dexterity by night. The subsonics of the cat's purr helps keep bone density and guards against muscle atrophy, as well as lowering blood pressure and speeding healing from wounds. Since Egyptian temples were often used as hospitals and schools, it takes little imagination to conjure up a temple where invalids would be helped into hammocks or cots in the Grove, where they'd be surrounded by (presumably) much-pampered pussies supplimented by rattle-bearing priestesses, in case ithe Gpddess is feeling moody. (Cats are cats.) Interesting picture, if only to remark on how quiet the process must have been...definitely not a musical one. The cat mummies, found in such numbers later generations used them as fertilizer, may have been at once population control and take-home souvenirs for the family shrine. ("And that's from when Uncle Cheops passed his kidney stone...")
During the Ptolemaic and Roman occupations, the cat became a symbol of Venus, and it is true that domesticated cats were for many years imported from Cyprus, Venus’s isle, and were popular Roman pets, on a level with monkeys, or other exotic beasts. )Her corresponding flower is the Pink Rose. her tongue being the petals, and her claws the thorns.) The Cats of Rome have long naturalized and have formed much-cared-for feral colonies, even attracting, at times, Papal attention. The Muslim world is strongly pro-cat, and cats are the only animal specifically welcome in mosques.
Cats had a somewhat spotty reputation after that, and it's not unusual to see evil cat myths and saintly ones in the same region. On one hand, we have the lovely (and altogether Bast-like) tale of Avigal, Protectrix of the Christ Child, the specifically monastic poem Pangur Ban, and the Norden cult of the Venus-like Freya (whose chariot was pullled by grey cats) but we find no specific blanket belief concerning cats being “good” or “evil” creatures until...
The vilification of black cats came about because of the Cathar heresy, which flourished in Toulouse in the 13th century..In Papal Bull Vox in Rama, Gregory IX described an initiation ritual where, at the conclusion of a homosexual orgy, “a black creature with hindquarters furred like a cat would suddenly fill the room with light”. Even this is dubious, since the only other Bull known from this Pope is the canonization of St. Francis de Assisi, which hardly seems in character, so to speak.
Nonetheless, in France, killing cats became a popular entertainment, often by burning, and in fact several French monarchs amused their court in such a fashion, even as the bubonic plague was raging. Folk cat burnings were only stopped in the 19th century, but some communities keep up the tradition in symbolic form. (Yet, paradoxicly, we can find notable cat owners straight through the witch-burning period, from Petrarch, to Erasimus, to Cardinal Richeleu, on through Johnson, Hogarth, and our own Ben Franklin.) Nowhere do we see cat ownership as such, vilified, or persecuted, however. Yes, there are witches and cats, but only because familiars could just as easily be dogs or "imps", and "a witch and her cat" is a llittle more distinctive thanl than "a witch and her horse". In American Hoodoo, hexmastery, and other jolk magicks, black cats are mainly to be found dead, as bones, and paws and other gris-grisly giblets. It makes me feel proud to be Episcopalian.
Now, find a cat. Maybe Bast will shake her rattle for YOU.