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In Egyptian mythology, Hathor was a goddess of the sky, fertility, women, and love. She was one of the most important Egyptian goddesses and was celebrated and worshipped in shrines and temples across Egypt. Hathor was known for various roles and characteristics but was predominantly admired for her protective and nurturing qualities. In later Egyptian mythology, Hathor became associated with Ra, the God of creation.
Let’s take a closer look at Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of the skies.
Origins of Hathor
Some historians trace the origins of Hathor to Pre-dynastic Egyptian goddesses. Hathor could have developed out of these earlier deities, who appeared in the form of cattle and were worshipped for their qualities of motherhood and nourishment.
According to another Egyptian myth, Hathor and the creator god Atum shaped and created all living beings. Atum’s hand (known as the Hand of Atum) was represented by Hathor, and when the god pleasured himself, it resulted in the creation of the world. Another narrative states that Hathor and her companion Khonsu, who was also a creator god, procreated and enabled life on earth.
Despite several accounts of the history and origins of Hathor, she assumes a solid and concrete form only from the 3rd Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. This was the time when the sun god Ra became the king of all deities, and Hathor was assigned to be his wife and companion. She became the symbolic mother of all the Egyptian kings and rulers. This point in history marked a significant change in the popularity of Hathor as a divine mother and sky goddess. However, Hathor was gradually replaced by goddesses such as Mut and Isis during the New Kingdom.
Characteristics of Hathor
Egyptian art and paintings depicted Hathor as a cow who freely provided milk and nourishment to the people. Several other images also portrayed her as a woman wearing a headdress of horns and a sun disk, to symbolize her attributes as a nurturing mother and her connection to the sun.
In human form, Hathor was portrayed as a lovely woman, wearing a red and turquoise dress and a wig. Sometimes she was also represented as a lioness, cobra, uraeus or a sycamore tree. In these images, Hathor is usually accompanied by a papyrus staff, sistrum (a musical instrument), a Menat necklace or hand- mirrors.
Hathor’s symbols include the following:
- Cows – These animals are symbols of nourishment and motherhood, traits associated with Hathor.
- Sycamore Tree – The sap of the sycamore tree is milky and was believed to be a symbol of life and fertility.
- Mirrors – In ancient Egypt, mirrors were associated with beauty, femininity and the sun.
- Menat Necklace – This type of necklace was made of several beads and was seen as a personification of Hathor.
- Cobra – Hathor was often represented by cobras. This represents the dangerous side of Hathor.
- Lioness – Another common representation of Hathor, the lioness is a symbol of power, protection, ferociousness and strength, traits associated with Hathor.
Symbolism of Hathor
- Hathor was a symbol of motherhood and nourishment. For this reason, she was depicted as a milk-giving cow or a sycamore tree.
- For the Egyptians, Hathor was an emblem of gratitude, and the myth about the five gifts of Hathor reflected the importance of being grateful.
- As a solar goddess, Hathor symbolized new life and creation. During every sunrise Hathor gave birth to the sun god, Ra.
- Hathor became the symbolic mother of all Egyptian kings due to her association with the sun god, Ra. Several kings claimed to be her descendants in order to establish legitimacy.
- In Egyptian mythology, Hathor was an emblem of birth and death. She determined the fate of newly born children and came to represent death and afterlife.
- Hathor was a symbol of fertility and the Egyptians celebrated her by dancing, singing, and playing the sistrum.
Hathor as a Sky Goddess
As an Egyptian goddess of the skies, Hathor was said to reside there with her companion Ra. Hathor accompanied Ra on his journeys across the sky and protected him by taking the form of a four-headed cobra.
Hathor’s name in Egyptian meant “House of Horus”, which may refer to her dwelling in the sky, or the name given to her due to the association with Horus. Some Egyptian writers believed that Horus, who lived in the sky, was born to Hathor every morning.
Therefore, Hathor’s name could also be a reference to the birth and residence of Horus, who was closely associated with the sky goddess, before his integration into the Osiris myth.
Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the statue of Hathor.
Hathor as a Solar Goddess
Hathor was a solar deity and a feminine counterpart to sun gods such as Horus and Ra. She was called the Golden One as a reflection of her bright light and radiant rays.
Hathor and Ra had a complicated relationship that was intertwined and connected with the life cycle of the sun. During every sunset, Hathor would have intercourse with Ra and become pregnant with his child.
At sunrise, Hathor would give birth to a child version of Ra, who would then travel the sky as Ra. This cycle continued every day. Hathor’s position as Ra’s companion and mother altered with the rising and setting of the sun.
Hathor and the Destruction of the Human Race
In most Egyptian myths, Hathor was described as both a benevolent and a fierce goddess. On one occasion, Ra sent Hathor as his representative to punish rebels who questioned his supreme authority. To fulfil her duties, Hathor turned into the lion goddess Sekhmet, and began a massive slaying of all humans.
Ra did not anticipate this level of anger and conceived of a plan to distract Hathor. Ra had red ochre powder mixed with beer and poured it over the land to prevent Hathor from killing more people. Hathor stalled and drank the red liquid without being aware of its composition. Her drunken state pacified her wrath, and she became a passive and benevolent goddess once again.
Hathor and Thoth
Hathor was the Eye of Ra and had access to some of Ra’s greatest powers. In one myth, she is described as being his daughter, and at one point ran away with the Eye of Ra to a foreign land. On this occasion, Ra sent Thoth, the god of writing and wisdom to fetch Hathor back.
As a powerful orator and manipulator of words, Thoth was able to convince Hathor to come back and return the Eye of Ra, which was needed to keep the country peaceful. As a reward for Thoth’s services, Ra promised to give Hathor’s hand in marriage to Thoth.
Hathor and Celebration
Hathor was closely associated with music, dance, drunkenness, and festivities. Her priests and followers played the sistrum, and danced for her. The sistrum was an instrument of erotic desires and reflected Hathor’s image as a goddess of fertility and procreation.
The people of Egypt also celebrated Hathor every year when the Nile flooded and turned red. They assumed the red hue to be a reflection of the beverage that Hathor had drunk, and to pacify the goddess, people composed music and danced to various tunes.
Hathor and Gratitude
The Egyptians believed that worshipping Hathor evoked a sense of joy, happiness and gratitude. Gratitude was an important concept in Egyptian religion and determined an individual’s position in the Underworld. The gods of the Underworld judged a person based on their feelings of gratitude.
The importance of gratitude in Egyptian culture can be further understood by looking at the story ‘The five gifts of Hathor’. In this tale, a peasant or a farmer participates in the ritualistic worship of Hathor. A priest in Hathor’s temple asks the poor man to make a list of five things for which he is grateful. The peasant writes them down and returns the list to the priest, who declares that all things mentioned are in fact gifts of the goddess Hathor.
This ritualistic tradition was frequently done to instigate a sense of gratitude and joy amongst the people. This tale was also used as a moral treatise and urged people to live with satisfaction, happiness and gratitude.
Hathor as a Goddess of Birth and Death
Hathor was both a goddess of birth and death. She was associated with childbirth and determined the fate of the newly born offspring by assuming the form of Seven Hathors. Wise women, or the Ta Rekhet, consulted and communicated with Hathor on all matters of birth and death.
Hathor’s most popular emblem, the sycamore tree, with its life-giving milk, was seen as a symbol of creation and birth. During the annual flooding of the Nile, the water was associated with Hathor’s breast milk, and seen as an emblem of new life and fertility. In one creation myth, Hathor’ s depicted as a chief nourisher, and feeds all living beings with her divine milk.
In the Greco- Roman period, many women replaced Hathor with Isis, as the goddess of death and afterlife. People also believed that burial sites and coffins were Hathor’s womb, from which humans could be reborn again.
Hathor as an Alluring Goddess
Hathor was one of the few goddesses in Egyptian mythology who had sexual appeal and charm. There are several stories that narrate her bodily assertiveness and allure. In one myth, Hathor meets a shepherd who does not find her attractive in her hairy and animal-like form as a cow. But in the next meeting, the shepherd is charmed and seduced by her nude and beautiful human body.
Another myth speaks of Hathor seducing the sun god Ra. When Ra neglects his chief responsibilities due to anger and frustration, Hathor pacifies him by showing her body and genitals. Ra then becomes happy, laughs loud, and reassumes his duties.
Worship of Hathor
Hathor was worshipped by youngsters and old people alike. The youths and maidens of Egypt prayed to Hathor for love and companionship. Newlywed women requested the goddess for healthy children. Families that were broken due to conflict and strife, sought the goddess for help and left her many offerings.
Representations of Hathor in Egyptian Art
Hathor features in several tombs and burial chambers as the goddess who ushered people into the Underworld. There are also images of many women shaking a papyrus stalk as a tribute to Hathor. Etchings of Hathor can also be found on coffins.
Festivals in Honor of Hathor
- Hathor was celebrated in the third month of the Egyptian calendar. The Festival of Drunkenness celebrated the return of Hathor and the Eye of Ra. People not only sang and danced, but also attempted to reach an alternative state of consciousness in order to connect to the goddess.
- Hathor was also celebrated and worshipped during the Egyptian New Year. A statue of the goddess was placed in the most special chamber of the temple, as a symbol of a fresh start and new beginnings. On the day of the New Year, an image of Hathor would be placed in the sun to mark her reunion with Ra.
- The Festival of the Beautiful Reunion was the most popular of all Hathor’s festivals. Images and statues of Hathor were transported between different temples, and at the end of the journey, she was received at the shrine of Horus. Images of both Hathor and Horus were then taken to the temple of Ra, where rituals were performed for the sun god. This festival could have either been a marriage ceremony marking the union of Hathor and Horus, or simply a ritual to honor the sun god.
Hathor was one of the most important goddesses of the ancient Egyptian pantheon and played many roles. She held great power and had influence over many aspects of daily life. Although her popularity and prominence declined over time, Hathor continued to have a special place in the hearts of many Egyptians, and her legacy sustained.