Hathor – One Of Ancient Egypt’s Greatest Female Deities

Angela Sutherland  - AncientPages.com - One of the largest and most complex pantheons of gods belongs to Egypt. In this pantheon, Hathor is a goddess of heaven and mother, depicted with a cowhorn (or cow's head), along with a sun disk on her head.

Hathor passing the Ankh to Seti

Hathor passing the Ankh to Seti. Image credit: BasPhoto - Adobe Stock

No doubt, one of ancient Egypt’s greatest female deities is Hathor. She is believed to have been worshiped already during the pre-Dynastic Period but most evidence of her importance can be found in records of later dynasties.

Occasionally, she is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts and much more often in the Coffin Texts of the late third millennium BC (the “Eye of Horus), and later, in other religious literary works.

In the north, in the Nile Delta, she was also the "Eye, taking the form of the guardian cobra goddess Wadjet, whose symbol was placed on the forehead of pharaohs.

Most of the goddess’ common forms were a cow, a lioness, a snake, a sycamore tree, or papyrus, which “was the home of Hathor, the sky, and mother goddess as she was a goddess.“ 1

In her cow form, Hathor is a  life-giving goddess closely related to fertility. She was seen as the symbolic mother of each pharaoh, but it was not the only link between her and the pharaoh. Hathor was Horus’ wife and each pharaoh was believed to be the earthly embodiment of Horus, so, because of this link, each pharaoh had a right to be described as “the son of Hathor”.

Hypostyle hall of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, first century AD

Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, first century AD. Image credit: A. ParrotPublic Domain

She was known as the wife or mother of Horus. Her name was included in the hieroglyphic sign representing a walled building or courtyard and literally means “the house of Horus” referring to the goddess’s mythological role as a mother of the ancient falcon god.

Hathor - A Healer And A Protector

Women in ancient Egypt believed in her protection. She was worshiped with Horus and their son Ihy at Dendera, and later many other cultic places. She was “ believed to dwell in the mountain chain, which ran from Deir el Bahari to Deir el Medineh. Shrines dedicated to her were built over the years each end of the range, north and south.” 1

Many titles, attributes, identities, and associations attested to Hathor's importance.

Worshipers also considered her healer and protector because in one myth is told she restored the sight of Horus after his eye had been wounded by Seth. She was known to purify sick people and even cure them with the water of the Nile River.

She protected the homes, blessed couples with fertility, watched over pregnant women and children and spread joy in the homes.

Goddess Of Joy, Celebration, Love, Pleasure, And Dance

Her favorite musical instrument was the sistrum (kind of rattle). By shaking it, she tried to drive away evil spirits and bad influences. One story dated to the time of Hathor’s worship at Dendera says that people believed that she and Horus had a son called Ihy, a god in ancient Egyptian mythology who symbolizes the musical ecstasy of playing the sistrum. His name means "sistrum player".

Banquet scene from the tomb chapel of Nebamun, 14th century BC. Its imagery of music and dancing alludes to Hathor

Banquet scene from the tomb chapel of Nebamun, 14th century BC. Its imagery of music and dancing alludes to Hathor. Image source

The goddess sensuality influenced even such great divinities as Ra. Legend has it, once Ra was depressed, and Hathor probably wanted to boost his mood, so she danced naked in front of him until he suddenly began to smile. On this special occasion, Hathor’s priests quickly moved her statue from the shrine to the roof of the temple, and so she once again was symbolically much closer to Ra, and he was now smiling.

Hathor’s “priests and priestesses were accomplished musicians and actors. They would create rituals that were as much art as ritual. People would go to the temple of Hathor to have dreams explained, or when they needed the spark of inspiration. Egyptians looked at Hathor much the same as Greeks looked at their nine Muses.  Hathor was so popular that she had more celebrations than any other Egyptian deity. With her association with pleasure and joy, is it any wonder? She also had more children named for her than any other deity. Naming a child for a particular god or goddess was to give that child a natural connection to that deity. To give a child, male or female, a name that included the name of Hathor, was to give that child a natural grace and beauty. The name bestowed  all the gifts of Hathor on that child, including fertility, abundance, grace, beauty, and compassion.”  2

Hathor - As A Destructive Lioness Sekhmet

She also probably personified the nighttime sky or the Milky Way. However, her connection with the sky is obvious. It is written in Pyramid Texts 546, “my kilt which is on me is Hathor, my plume is a falcon’s plume and I will ascend to the sky,” and this is a reference to Horus and Hathor as sky deities.

Copy of a statue of Hathor (center) with a goddess personifying the Fifteenth Nome of Upper Egypt (left) and the Fourth Dynasty king Menkaure (right); 26th century BC

Copy of a statue of Hathor (center) with a goddess personifying the Fifteenth Nome of Upper Egypt (left) and the Fourth Dynasty king Menkaure (right); 26th century BC.  Image credit: Daderot  - Public Domain

Hathor’s name means “Temple of Horus” (Huwt-Hor) and as such even more demonstrates that she is “Lady of the Sky” while Horus was entitled “Lord of the Sky”.

But there is also a clear association of Hathor with the sun god Ra. Seeing the people's bad attitude toward him, Ra decided to punish them by sending his "Eye of Ra" (the goddess Hathor), who punished humans so they began to drown in their blood. It was Ra, who commanded his Eye Hathor to turn into Sekhmet, the lioness goddess, and ordered her to teach the humans a lesson. Terrified by the massacre, Ra saved the survivors of this massacre the next day by getting Hathor drunk.

As the ancient Egyptian culture lasted for several thousand years, its people often merged old beliefs with new ones.

Also, one deity was often associated with another. So, it was also the case with Hathor, however, her relationship with other gods is, rather complicated. In the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, she is a mother, daughter, and wife, and has several personifications and identities.

Sometimes she is wonderful, sweet, and sensual and on other occasions, she surprises us as a goddess of destruction, by, for example, acting in disguise of another deity.

As a funerary goddess, Hathor was identified with the underworld, especially at Thebes, the capital of Egypt for long periods during the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom eras, with the necropolis on the west bank of the Nile River. This area was under Hathor - 'Lady of the West's protection, depicted as a cow (associated with fertility) leaving the arid desert. The dying people believed that once in the afterlife, they would be protected by her.

The ancient Greeks are said to have identified their love goddess, Aphrodite with Hathor, and in the Phoenician city of Byblos, she was revered as the “Lady of Byblos”.

Her fame reached far beyond Egypt’s borders.

Written by – A. Sutherland  - AncientPages.com Senior Staff Writer

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References:

  1. Wilkinson, Alix. "Symbolism and Design in Ancient Egyptian Gardens." Garden History22, no. 1 (1994): 1-17.
  2. Page J. Biles K. Invoking The Egyptian Gods

Alison Roberts, Hathor Rising: The Power of the Goddess in Ancient Egypt

Rosicrusian Egyptian Museum

Leeming, D. The Oxford Companion to World Mythology