While he traveled Egypt, the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus (c. 490-420 BCE), took notes on the local history, religion, mythology, and his own contemporary observations on the Egyptian countryside and people. One of the goddesses (and the worship surrounding her) that Herodotus described was Bastet, the popular feline goddess who was thought to protect women and homes, as well as being a general goddess of pleasure. The epicenter of Bastet’s worship was the city of Bubastis where a temple to the goddess was located, which also—interestingly enough—acted as a gigantic cat cemetery. Herodotus witnessed one of the annual festivals dedicated to Bastet in the city of Bubastis—it was a sight that he likely found baffling.
Herodotus’s description of the festival of Bastet is reminiscent of the modern day celebrations of Carnival and Mardi Gras. He wrote that when it was time for the festival, the Nile River and other waterways filled up with barges ushering hundreds-of-thousands of celebrants to the city of Bubastis, where they would make sacrifices and drink a lot of wine.
Herodotus gave a colorful description of the revelers traveling to Bubastis on their barges and boats. He wrote that as they sailed toward their destination, they would sing and play music with castanets and flutes, while those without instruments clapped along to the song. When their boat passed a village or town, the celebrants would steer up to the shore and have an interesting exchange with the local people. Sometimes, they would continue to just play music, but other times they acted quite salaciously.
According to Herodotus, female celebrants traveling on these boats to Bubastis would often shout at the women that they could see on the riverbanks. Herodotus did not go into much detail on what was shouted, but the line is frequently translated as shouting ‘abuse.’ Yet, the most shocking sights happened when some bold women in these boats heading for Bubastis stood up and expose their bare loins for all of the people observing from the riverbanks to see—and with allegedly hundreds-of-thousands of celebrants gathering in Bubastis, Herodotus may have seen a whole lot of exposed women around the festival of Bastet.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002).