One often wonders at the modernity of ancient works of art: more than two and a half millennia have passed since the creation of this Egyptian faience statuette, yet it would hardly be surprising to encounter such a striped dress on the street – or even on the catwalk!
The photo is a bit misleading, though. Not only does it conceal the size of the figurine (the fragment is only about 10 centimetres tall), but makes the absence of the head seem almost natural, whereas it is precisely the head that would reveal to us who the lady in the striped dress really is.
Fortunately, there are other signs that can help us determine her identity. Besides the pattern of the dress, there is the udjat eye amulet decorating the neck, the sistrum held in the bent right hand, the little basket hung upon the now fragmentary left arm, and the small Nefertem figure held forward in the same hand.
These attributes are customary in the representation of Bastet, the cat-headed goddess of Egypt. The udjat eye provides her with protection and conveys a strong connection to the sun god: Bastet was one of the goddesses worshipped as Ra’s daughter – the Eye of the Sun.
Nefertem, who appears in the hand of the goddess with a lotus crown on his head, was regarded as her son; perhaps the basket, too, served for carrying her offspring (similar statues may show the goddess accompanied by her kittens).
Music and dance were closely tied to the cult of Bastet, and the sistrum in her right hand probably refers to this quality. It evokes the myth of the Sun’s Eye in which the goddess raging as a wild lion was placated by the rattling sound of the sistrum.
Some assume that the pattern of her long robe imitates cat fur; her dress also appears striped on bronze examples of the statue type commonly designated by Egyptologists as the “housewife Bastet”.
The cult of Bastet became prominent in Egypt in the first millennium BC. According to Herodotus, about 700,000 people gathered for her great festival in Bubastis every year, praising the goddess even before they reached the town. “When the people are on their way to Bubastis, they go by river, a great number in every boat, men and women together. Some of the women make a noise with rattles, others play flutes all the way, while the rest of the women, and the men, sing and clap their hands” – ’cause everybody digs a swinging cat.
Housewife Bastet figures. Foreground: the faience figurine of the Metropolitan Museum on an archival photo (still with the head), source: Nora E. Scott, The Cat of Bastet. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, NS 17/1 (1958), 1–7, 3 (jstor).
Background: bronze statuettes of Bastet. From left to right: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 34.6.1, CC0; British Museum, EA37641 © The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0; Christie’s 3748/166, source: christies.com; Rijksmuseum von Oudheden, F 1960/8.2, CC0; British Museum, EA57278 © The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0; British Museum, EA25565 © The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
The excerpt from Herodotus (II, 60) is translated by A. D. Godley. Video: Floyd Huddleston – Al Rinker: Everybody Wants to Be a Cat (Aristocats) performed by DCappella.