The ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses are an absolutely fascinating topic. From gods with green skin and the heads of falcons or crocodiles to goddesses with the head of a cow, they had it all. And all of them had tons of symbolism. There must have been a reason that Hathor, referred to as ‘the great one of many names,’ was depicted as a cow-headed woman after all. Given the many domains she ruled over, it is clear Hathor was one of the most important deities of ancient Egypt.
Who Was Hathor?
We can trace back the mentions and depictions of Hathor to almost 5000 years ago. Her role and the domains she ruled over affected every part of the Egyptians’ lives, from love, childbirth, and music to death and the afterlife. This is also why Hathor also had dozens of names and epithets. Hathor may have been worshiped even in the predynastic period.
As Hathor was the sky goddess, she may have been the mother or consort of either the sky god Horus or Ra, the sun god. Since those two were considered the ancestors of the Pharaohs by the people of ancient Egypt, it would make Hathor their symbolic mother.
Hathor had two sides to her personality. She was the goddess of motherhood, love, sexuality, beauty, joy, and music. This was the softer and more nurturing side of her personality. But she was also the vengeful protector of Ra and the goddess who helped souls transition to the afterlife. This dual aspect of Hathor was very important since the ancient Egyptians considered it to be the epitome of femininity.
A woman with the head of a cow was one of the most common depictions of Hathor in Egyptian mythology. But she was also shown as a lioness or a cobra from time to time.
Origins of Hathor
Depictions of cattle goddesses and deities with bovine horns on their heads have often appeared in the art of predynastic Egypt. The people of ancient Egypt venerated cattle, thinking of the milk-giving animals as the ultimate symbol of nurturing, nourishment, and motherhood. A stone palette from one of the earliest periods of Egyptian history, the Gerzeh Palette, shows a cow’s head surrounded by stars. The cow head and stars shown together seem to indicate a cattle deity connected to the sky, like Hathor.
Thus, Hathor in some form was being worshiped even before the rise of the Old Kingdom. However, the first clear reference to Hathor only took place in the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. A difference between Hathor and the predynastic art of the cattle goddess is the horns, which are curved outwards for the former rather than inwards.
A bovine deity that appears on the Narmer Palette has been theorized to be Bat. Bat was one of the minor Egyptian goddesses, depicted as a woman with inward curving horns on her head. Some Egyptologists disagree and state, on the basis of passages in the Pyramid Texts, that this may have been Hathor.
Hathor rose to importance during the Fourth Dynasty. She supplanted other Egyptian gods and goddesses, including Bat, when she became the patron deity of cities like Dendera and certain cults in Upper Egypt. As the importance of Ra as the king of the gods and father of the Pharaohs increased, so did the status of Hathor as his consort.
In the valley temple of Khafre, Giza, Hathor is depicted with Bast. Hathor is supposed to represent Upper Egypt while Bast denoted Lower Egypt.
Meaning of the Name Hathor
The literal meaning of the name ‘Hathor’ is the ‘house of Horus.’ Scholars and historians have interpreted this name in various ways. One of the popular interpretations is that Hathor was the mother of Horus, with ‘house’ meaning ‘womb.’
The hieroglyph for her name is a square with a falcon inside it. Some interpret this as Hathor being the wife of Horus rather than his mother. It could also mean ‘sky goddess’ since the sky is where the falcon resides. Her name was also supposed to refer to the royal family whose mythical mother she was through Horus.
Titles and Epithets
Hathor had many titles and names. Some of the epithets given to her include:
- The Primeval Goddess
- Lady of the Holy Country
- Lady of the West
- The Distant Goddess (shared with Sekhmet and Bastet)
- The Foremost One in the Barque of Millions
- Lady of Stars
- Lady of the Southern Sycamore
- Hathor of the Sycamore
- Hathor of the Sycamore in All Her Places
- Hand of God
- Hathor Mistress of the Desert
- Hathor Mistress of Heaven
While some of these titles are clear enough, some of the others are not as obvious. As the goddess of motherhood and childbirth, she was called the ‘Mother of Mothers.’ As the goddess of sexuality and dance, Hathor was called the ‘Hand of God’ or ‘Lady of the Vulva.’ These were both supposed to refer to the act of masturbation, which provides us with an interesting view into the minds of the ancient Egyptians.
Iconography and Symbolism
The Egyptian goddess had several forms and was depicted in different ways. Most commonly, we see Hathor as a woman in a sheath dress of red or turquoise and wearing a headdress with two horns and a sun disk. The Hathor-cow icon is also quite common, with the cow bearing a sun disk between its horns and nursing the king. Hathor was also depicted as a woman with the head of a cow.
The goddess Hathor was also depicted as other animals from time to time. In her most ferocious forms, she was shown as the lioness or the uraeus, a stylized form of the cobra. The more passive form was the sycamore tree. When shown in that form, Hathor was depicted with her upper body rising out of the trunk of the tree.
Hathor was usually depicted with a staff in hand. This staff was at times made of a stalk of papyrus but at times it was a was the staff. The latter was unusual for an Egyptian goddess since it was reserved mainly for male deities of great power. Mirrors, made with bronze or gold in ancient Egypt, were another one of her symbols. They represented the sun disk and were also a mark of femininity and beauty.
Most Egyptian art and sculptures have gods and human figures in profile. However, when Hathor was depicted as a human woman with the ears of a cow or cow horns, she was shown from the front. These mask-like images were usually found on the columns of temples in the Old Kingdom. The temples could be devoted to Hathor or other female deities of ancient Egypt.
Isis took over some of the roles and positions of the goddess Hathor in later years. Even in the depictions, Isis was at times shown with the sun disk and dual horns on her head and it became difficult to identify which goddess it was. Thus, Hathor lost much of her influence and position with the rise of Isis.
The worship and mythology behind the origins of Hathor are an important part of Egypt’s history. While we can see that her importance waned in later years, it is still important that she was the goddess of so many things. Hathor and the roles she fulfilled did not disappear after all. They were just given to another goddess, Isis, and the mythology around them changed a little in the Ptolemaic years.
The mythical origins of Hathor are disputed. Some sources claim that she was the personification of the Milky Way. Hathor was the cosmos and in her cow avatar, she produced the milk that became the sky and the stars, flowing from her udders.
But other stories about the beginnings of Hathor are less benevolent. She was the hungry, violent deity that Ra unleashed upon humans to punish humankind for their wrongs. Delightfully, in Egyptian mythology, it is difficult to differentiate between daughters and wives and mothers. Thus, according to this myth, Ra was the creator of Isis although he may have been her consort or son too.
When Ra unleashed Hathor upon the world, she tore up homes and destroyed crops, and wreaked destruction. She transformed into the goddess Sekhmet in this destructive form, venturing far into Egypt and away from Ra’s side. When the other gods pointed out to Ra that there would be no humans left at this rate, Ra had to think of a plan to call Sekhmet out of her bloodthirst. He asked Tenenet, the goddess of beer, to brew a red beer. Sekhmet drank this, thinking it was blood, and fell asleep. When she woke up, she had become the benevolent mother goddess again.
The Hathor and Osiris Myth
Isis is the main female deity involved in the Osiris myth, as his wife who tried to resurrect him. However, Hathor appeared in the story in a minor way. When Horus the Younger, the son of Isis and Osiris challenged Set, they had to take part in a trial before nine important gods. The most important of these is Ra, who is referred to as Hathor’s father in this myth.
When Ra begins to grow tired and bored of the trial, Hathor appears before him and reveals to him her naked body. Osiris is immediately restored and goes back to passing judgment for the trial.
This may sound like an utterly bizarre story to us, given the relationship between the two, even though we excuse the gods for a lot of things. However, the symbolic meaning of this story may be the balance of masculinity and femininity and how the latter can exercise control if the former is slipping.
Domains and Roles
Hathor had many roles and attributes. These all contradict each other and still seem to work together. She was not a deity who had a minor domain but was actually the preeminent goddess for the early Egyptians. She played a role in the lives of all people, from birth right up to the afterlife.
The ancient Egyptians thought of the sky as a body of water and the place from which their gods were born. As the mythological mother of the world and even of some of the other gods, Hathor was called the ‘mistress of the sky’ or the ‘mistress of the stars.’
She was represented as a heavenly cow in this form. This Hathor-cow form gave birth to the sun and placed it in her horns every day. Hathor being the goddess of the sky is evident from her name itself.
Where Hathor, Horus, and Ra are concerned, no one knows who was born of whom and who fathered whom. Hathor was the feminine counterpart to solar deities like Horus and Ra. In some places, she is said to be the consort of the sun god Ra and the mother of Horus the Elder. But in some places, she is said to be the daughter of Ra and the wife of Horus.
Hathor was one of the goddesses who played the role of the Eye of Ra. This role was also tied to her position as a goddess of motherhood. Symbolically, Ra entered Hathor every day, impregnated her, and she gave birth to the sun every dawn. This sun had a feminine aspect, the eye goddess, also a form of Hathor. This eye goddess would continue the cycle by again giving birth to Ra as her son. Yes, it’s confusing. But it is only meant to symbolize the constant cycle of life, death, and rebirth that the Egyptians believed in.
As the Eye of Ra, Hathor also enacted punishment upon humans on behalf of Ra. This is how she came to be known as the ‘Distant Goddess,’ because of her journeys far from Ra’s side. If she lost herself and went on a rampage, Ra called Hathor back to her more gentle and benevolent form. The two forms of this complex deity reflected the nature of a woman, who the Egyptians believed was capable of extreme tenderness and great rage.
Goddess of Music and Joy
The Egyptians, like many of the other pagan religions, held music and dance in great respect. Their festivals were full of drinking, feasting, music, and dancing. These were thought to be the gifts of the gods. Hathor was connected with music, dance, incense, drunken revelry, and flower garlands. Her epithets and worship reflected all of this. Temple reliefs found in temples to Hathor depict musicians playing a variety of instruments, like lyres, harps, tambourines, and the distinctive sistra.
The drunken revelry aspect associated with Hathor can be traced back to the Eye of Ra myths. Since Hathor was soothed and calmed by the beer that she drank during her rampage, drinking and music and other products of human civilization were said to be important to her. The red waters of the Nile, reddened by silt, were compared to wine.
Goddess of Beauty and Love
Connected to her role as mother and creator, Hathor was also the goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality. Egyptian creation myths say that creation began with the god Atum and his act of masturbation. The hand that he used was the female aspect of creation and can be personified by the goddess Hathor. Thus, one of her epithets is the ‘Hand of God.’ We can certainly not claim that the Egyptians were not creative.
Along with Ra, various forms of Hathor were the consort of other gods such as Horus, Amun, Montu, and Shu. Hathor appears in the story “The Tale of the Herdsmen” in the form of a hairy, animal-like goddess and a beautiful naked woman. Hathor was said to have beautiful hair and her hair was a symbol of her sexual appeal.
Goddess of Motherhood and Queenship
Hathor was the divine mother of Horus and the divine counterpart of the Egyptian queens. The Iris and Osiris myth claims that Horus was the son of these two. However, Hathor has been linked with Horus as Horus’s mother for much longer. Even after Isis was established as his mother, Hathor would appear in depictions suckling the child Horus. Since the milk of a goddess was supposed to denote royalty, this was meant as a sign of Horus’s right to rule.
The Egyptians worshiped divine families. These were typically made up of a father, mother, and young son. In the Dendera Temple, the trio is made up of a grown Horus of Edfu, Hathor, and their child Ify. At the temple of Kom Ombo too, Hathor in a local version of herself was worshiped as the mother of Horus’ son.
One of the enduring symbols of Hathor is the sycamore tree because of the milky sap that it produces. The milk came to represent fertility and gave rise to many of Hathor’s epithets. Hathor is considered the mythological mother of all human beings since she had a hand in the creation of humanity, quite literally.
Goddess of Fate
Hathor was also associated with shai, the idea of fate in ancient Egypt. In the New Kingdom, she is mentioned in two stories, “The Tale of the Doomed Prince” and “The Tale of the Two Brothers” as appearing at the birth of major characters to predict the manner of their deaths.
The Egyptians believed that there was no escaping one’s fate. It was set in stone and inevitable. However, in “The Tale of the Doomed Prince,” the titular prince escapes the violent death Hathor sees for him. The story is incomplete but it seems to imply that the gods can help one escape their fate if they wish to.
Foreign Lands and Goods
Interestingly enough, Hathor’s role as goddess of the sky and link with the stars meant that she was also charged with the protection of trade and foreign goods. The Egyptians, like all the people of the ancient civilizations, were navigated by the stars and the sun. Thus, Hathor not only guided their way but also protected their vessels during their journeys to Nubia or beyond. Since she was believed to wander around a lot in her role as the Eye of Ra, these lands were not alien to her.
Egypt had a flourishing trade with many countries, including the coastal cities of the middle east. It is no wonder that the worship of Hathor spread much beyond the borders of Egypt itself. Evidence of the worship of Hathor has been found in Syria and Lebanon. The Egyptians too began to adapt the local deities of these places and associate them with Hathor.
Death and Afterlife
Hathor was not bound by the line between life and death. She could cross over into Duat, the land of the dead, as easily as she crossed into other nations. She was mentioned in several tomb inscriptions, from the time of the Old Kingdom. The Egyptians believed that she could help a soul enter Duat and transition to the afterlife.
Hathor was sometimes identified with Imentet, the goddess of the west and personification of necropolises. The Theban Necropolis was usually depicted as a mountain with a cow coming out of it.
The Egyptian afterlife, in New Kingdom texts, is portrayed as a beautiful and bountiful garden. Hathor, as a tree goddess, was thought to provide fresh air, food, and water to the dead. Thus, she was the very symbol of a peaceful and blissful afterlife.
Worship of Hathor
Hathor was an important part of the ancient Egyptian religion in its early days. Even when her importance waned, she continued to play a role and was worshiped far and wide. As a creator god, it is no wonder that she was regarded so highly.
Hathor, more than any other Egyptian goddess, has various temples dedicated in her honor. The most important of these is the Temple at Dendera. However, the center of her worship during the time of the Old Kingdom was Memphis. At Memphis, she was known as the daughter of Ptah, who was the most important deity in the city.
As the rulers began to expand their kingdoms and develop cities, Hathor’s influence spread to Middle and Upper Egypt as well. She was commonly associated with necropolises and temples for Hathor could be found at the Necropolis at Thebes and at Deir el-Bahari. The tomb workers for the latter had their village nearby, at Deir el-Medina, and that too had a temple to Hathor.
In the beginning, most of the priests for Hathor were women. Royal women often fulfilled priestly duties in those days and non-royal women took part as well. However, as religion became more male-dominated in later years, no-royal women priests disappeared. Women did still continue on as musicians and performers at temple cults.
Offerings for Hathor included clothes, food, beer and wine, sistra (musical instruments often associated with the goddess), and menat necklaces. During the Ptolemaic era, people also began to offer a pair of mirrors, which would represent the sun and the moon.
Temple of Dendera
Hathor was the patron goddess of the city of Dendera and the temple there is the oldest of the temples dedicated to her in Upper Egypt. The temple has undergone constant expansions and maintenance by the Egyptian pharaohs and remains one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt.
Apart from the halls and shrines, the temple also has a network of subterranean crypts to store vessels and other objects. Dendera is the place where we learn of Hathor’s son Ify and he also has a shrine at the temple.
The festivals dedicated to the goddess Hathor were about the unrestrained joy of life. They involved copious amounts of drinking and dancing. One of these festivals was the Festival of Drunkenness, which was supposed to celebrate the return of the Eye of Ra. The feasting and merriment were meant to represent everything that death was not. It was supposed to be the opposite of the sorrow and grief that accompanied death. The Egyptians believed that drinking could help them reach a state in which they could communicate with the divine.
A festival celebrated at Thebes was the Beautiful Festival of the Valley. Hathor only came to be associated with the festival in the New Kingdom, since it was dedicated to Amun originally. The effigy of Amun was brought to the temple at Deir al-Bahari to stay overnight and this was seen as their sexual union.
During the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, Hathor became the prominent goddess of the Egyptian court. The kings donated gold to her temples to keep her favor since she was seen to grant kingship. They contributed to spreading her influence to various provinces to bind them closer to the court. This is why Hathor is associated with local deities and takes on many of their attributes.
Royal women who were not the reigning queen could become priests in the cult of Hathor. Mentuhotep II claimed legitimacy for his rule during the Middle Kingdom by portraying himself as her son and images appeared of the Hathor cow suckling the king. The priestesses were depicted as his wives.
As the kings were seen to be the human embodiment of Ra, so were the queens seen as the embodiment of Hathor. Hatshepsut, in contrast, showed her status as a reigning queen by taking on titles and epithets that had belonged to Hathor. This showed that she had power in her own right, independent of any man.
The Five Gifts of Hathor
Initiation into Hathor’s cult required a ritual called the Five Gifts of Hathor. This was for the common people of the New Kingdom, where they were asked to write down the names of five things that they were grateful for while counting off the fingers of their left hand.
Since the left hand was the hand they used to hold crops while harvesting them, it was always visible to them. This was useful because they could always keep good and positive things at the forefront of their mind while working. The ritual was meant to keep people humble and satisfied so they did not envy those more prosperous than them.
Worship Beyond Egypt
Hathor was worshiped in other parts of the world as well, from Nubia in the south to Syria and Lebanon in the east. Indeed, Hathor was such an important deity in Byblos, Syria, that it was even thought to be her residence at some point. Pendants with Hathor’s face carved on them have been found in Mycenaean tombs, indicating a certain degree of familiarity on the part of the Mycenaeans. They knew that the Egyptians connected her to the afterlife.
The Nubians fully brought the goddess into the fold of their own religion. Since Nubia was conquered and ruled by the Pharaohs for a long time, this makes sense. Pharaohs like Ramses II and Amenhotep III built temples for their queens in Nubia, equating them with several female deities, including Hathor.
While Hathor was not directly involved in the funerary practices of the ancient Egyptians, she was a common feature in tomb art. The walls of the tombs were filled with scenes of drinking and dancing as well as images of the sistrum and menat necklaces. These symbols obviously associated with Hathor were meant to be a comfort to the deceased. Festivals were not only a bridge between the human and divine but also the living and the dead. Thus, the Egyptians wished for the dead to participate in the festivals that they celebrated.
Hathor was said to take on deceased men and women as part of her retinue in the afterlife. Tombs were painted with images of the deceased women dressed as goddesses, showing them as the followers of Hathor. This practice continued into the Roman era, long after the other facets of the Egyptian religion had worn away.