The goddess Hathor was one of the most important and popular members of the Egyptian pantheon. She was most commonly represented as a cow goddess. Her manifestations and associated activities were numerous and diverse, and complementary aspects such as love and hate, or creation and destruction, characterized her from the earliest stages of her worship. Because she was a prehistoric goddess, the origins of her nature and her cult are difficult to discern, but her existence is evident from prehistoric times continuously through the period of Roman domination. Her aspects incorporated animals, vegetation, the sky, the sun, trees, and minerals, and she governed over the realms of love, sex, and fertility, while also maintaining a vengeful aspect capable of the destruction of humanity.

Hathor's name in Egyptian, Ḥwt Ḥr, means “House of Horus” and is written in hieroglyphs with the rectangular sign for a building, with the falcon symbol of Horus inside. The imagery of Hathor emphasizes her primary manifestation as a cow goddess. She most often appears as a female figure wearing a headdress comprised of a sun disk with an appended uraeus set between two tall cows' horns. In later times this headdress often incorporates two tall feathers standing between the horns; or she may wear a vulture cap or the hieroglyph for “west,” depending on the context of her depiction. She very often wears a menat, a necklace made of many strings of beads counterbalanced by a heavy pendant at the back. Hathor is also frequently depicted as a cow; the Hathor cow usually bears the sun disk between its horns and wears the menat necklace. A third type of image of Hathor is a female face seen from the front, with the ears of a cow and a curling or tripartite wig. This face appears on certain types of votive objects and can form the capitals of columns in temples to the goddess. The back-to-back version may have originated from the cult object of another cow goddess, Bat, whose similar iconography was absorbed by Hathor by the eleventh dynasty.

The roots of Hathor's cult may be found in the predynastic cow cults, in which wild cows were venerated as embodiments of nature and fertility. Even in early images of her, the multiplicity of Hathor's aspects is apparent. For example, the rim of a stone urn from Hierakonpolis, dated to the first dynasty, is decorated with the face of a cow goddess with stars at the tips of its horns and ears, a reference to her role (or that of Bat) as a sky-goddess (compare also the Narmer Palette). This role may be linked to her relationship to Horus: since he was a sun and sky god, she, as his “house,” resided in the sky as well. Evidence for this belief appears in the funerary texts: as early as the Pyramid Texts, the pharaoh is said to ascend to Hathor in the sky, and later, in the Coffin Texts, the nonroyal deceased also engage her there.

An ivory engraving from the first dynasty shows a recumbent cow and is inscribed “Hathor in the Marshes of King Djer's city of Dep (Buto),” reflecting Hathor's association with the papyrus marsh and vegetation in general. Hathor was also a tree goddess, and from the Old Kingdom was called “Mistress of the Sycamore.” Her role as tree goddess complemented her aspect as cow goddess, allowing her to embody all the creative and fertile qualities of the natural world. The tree goddess was also important to the deceased, to whom she offered shade and a drink from her branches. Hathor's aspect as tree goddess originated in the Nile Delta, and in this role she had a close relationship with Ptah, a creator god from Memphis. A procession in the New Kingdom brought Ptah to visit Hathor, then referred to as his daughter.

Hathor was also a goddess associated with love, sex, and fertility. On another ivory engraving from the first dynasty, a front-facing Hathor is flanked by signs for the god Min, a god identified with fertility, indicating their affiliation. The Greeks likened her to Aphrodite, their own goddess of love and beauty. Numerous hymns praise her and the joy and love for which she was responsible, and in these she is often addressed as Nb.(t). “the Golden One,” a name whose origins and intent are uncertain. Throughout the history of her cult, Hathor received as offerings a variety of fertility figurines, as well as votive phalli, and she was viewed as a source of assistance in conception and birth. One of her epithets was “Lady of the Vulva,” and she appears in medical texts as well as prayers in relation to pregnancy and childbirth.

Hathor was an important funerary goddess. In Thebes she was called “Mistress of the West” or the “Western Mountain,” referring to the mortuary area on the west bank of the Nile. Her prominent role in funerary imagery and ritual was strongly connected with her role in promoting fertility. It was believed that Hathor, as the night sky, received Re each night on the western horizon and protected him within her body so that he could be safely reborn each morning. Based on this divine paradigm, Hathor was seen as a source for rebirth and regeneration of all the deceased, royal and nonroyal, and they all hoped for similar protection from her.

Hathor was also associated with the mountains in the Sinai, where the Egyptians mined for turquoise and copper. The “cave of Hathor” formed the core of her temple at Serabit el-Khadim, where she was worshipped as “Mistress of Turquoise.” She was also worshipped at the copper mines at Timna, a site on the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula. Hathor's popularity extended out of Egypt to foreign cities; she was worshipped as “Mistress of Byblos” at that city on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

Because the prehistoric cow cults from which Hathor's cult emerged existed throughout the country, her original cult center is difficult to determine. Her cult may have originated in the Delta region, where her son Horus also had an important role, and she is known from the site of Kom el-Hisn. Dendera in Upper Egypt was an important early site of Hathor, where she was worshipped as “Mistress of Dendera (Iwnt).” Meir and Kusae were also important cult sites from the Old Kingdom and later. Based on the distribution of titles within her cult, it appears that the Giza-Saqqara area was the focus of the cult in the Old Kingdom. By the First Intermediate Period, however, that focus had shifted southward, and from then on Dendera served as the cult center of Hathor. Evidence indicates that a temple existed there from the Old Kingdom, and a temple structure of some sort was maintained continuously through the time of the major Greco-Roman temple that still stands today. At Dendera, Hathor had a close relationship with Horus of Edfu, a nearby site. In this case she was not mother but consort to Horus, and had with him two children, Ihy and Harsomtus.

Deir el-Bahri, on the western bank of Thebes, was also an important cult site of Hathor. The area was the site of a popular cow cult prior to the Middle Kingdom. This cow goddess was specified as Hathor in the eleventh dynasty when the pharaoh Nebheptre-Montuhotpe built his mortuary temple there. He closely identified himself with the falcon god Horus and took the title “Son of Hathor, Lady of Dendera”; he also built temples to Hathor at Dendera and Gebelein. In the New Kingdom, both Hatshepsut and Thutmose III built their mortuary temples at Deir el-Bahri, and both temples incorporated Hathor shrines. Hathor was worshipped as a cow at this site, and the mortuary temples were decorated with reliefs of the king being suckled by Hathor as a cow.

Hathor's appearances in narrative mythology equally reflect her varied and often obscure nature. One unusual myth, the meaning of which is uncertain, nonetheless clearly implies her sexual aspect. In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, a troubled Re is approached by Hathor, who then exposes her self to him, causing the god to laugh. Two more fully understood myths that involve Hathor and Re reveal the duality of Hathor's nature, veering between joyful and destructive. In the Destruction of Humanity, the elderly Re, ruling on Earth, sends Hathor as his eye to punish his wayward subjects. Upon witnessing the destruction wreaked by Hathor, Re repents his decision, and to stop her from continuing, floods the land with beer dyed to resemble blood, to which Hathor is drawn. She becomes harmlessly drunk, and the people are saved. Based on this myth, Hathor was also worshipped as the goddess of drunkenness. In a second myth, Hathor is described as a lioness in the Nubian desert. Re sends Thoth to bring her to him for protection and companionship. On their return, Thoth immerses the lioness in the cool waters of the Nile in order to quell her fierceness, rendering her calm and joyful. These myths illustrate the aggressive and destructive aspects of Hathor which were integral to her complete character. In this mode she was linked to Sakhmet, the destructive lioness, and Tefnet, the angry lioness in the Nubian desert. This transformation of the goddess from a destructive aspect to a calm and joyful one was essential for the Egyptians in the maintenance of their cosmos, and thus festivals devoted to Hathor incorporated excessive drinking along with music and dance with the intent of pacifying the great goddess.

These myths also illustrate Hathor's complicated relationship with Re. In the myth in which Hathor is the eye of Re, she is interpreted as his daughter, as is also the case in the Contendings of Horus and Seth. Yet Hathor is commonly perceived as the mother of Re, based on several factors. Hathor was understood to be the mother of Horus, based on a metaphorical reading of Ḥwt as “womb,” and as Re overtook Horus in the mythology, especially as related to kingship, Hathor was described as the mother of Re as well. She also absorbed this role from another cow goddess, Mḥt Wrt, the great flood, who in the creation myth was the mother of Re; she gave birth to the sun god and carried him between her horns, an iconographical element later adopted by, and essential to, Hathor. Hathor's role as Re's mode of successful rebirth each day made her both wife (whom he impregnates with himself) and mother (who gives birth to him on the eastern horizon).

In her role as mother, Hathor's importance in the institution of kingship was established from its earliest stages. Because Horus was the first royal god, Hathor became symbolically the divine mother of the pharaoh. She is often depicted in this role as a cow, linked to a myth in which the infant Horus is hidden from his murderous uncle Seth in the marshes of Chemmis, and there suckled by the divine cow. The image of Hathor as a cow suckling the pharaoh is common from the New Kingdom, emphasizing the divine aspect of the king, and it was as a cow that Hathor was worshipped at Deir el-Bahri, site of several royal mortuary complexes. The cow goddess is integral to the concept of kingship from its first appearance, exemplified on the Narmer Palette, which depicts the original unification of Egypt and presents the canonical image of the Egyptian king. The top of the palette shows the name of the king flanked by two cow heads—perhaps of Bat, in this case, but because of Bat's close relationship and eventual submission to Hathor, this can be seen as basic to Hathor's character as well.

Hathor also appears in relation to the king in the Pyramid Texts, in which the king is said to perform ritual dancing and shaking in the Hathor cult. Sculptures of the king with Hathor appear as early as the reign of Menkaure and are common through the late periods. In addition, Hathor played a significant part in the sed-festival, the royal ritual devoted to the symbolic rebirth of the king, as is illustrated by the reliefs in the tomb of Kheruef depicting the sed-festival of Amenhotpe III.

Rituals in Hathor's honor often incorporated music and dance. Beginning in the Old Kingdom, we find numerous tomb scenes showing dancers performing with musicians in her honor. In Thebes, the music and dancing integral to the Valley Festival, a celebration that brought relatives to the tombs of their deceased family members on the western bank, were performed under the patronage of Hathor. The two objects most characteristic of and sacred to Hathor were the sistrum, a type of rattle, and the menat necklace, which could be shaken like the sistrum; both were utilized in these dance and music rituals. A related ritual was the zšš wʒḏ, or Shaking of the Papyrus, which is said to be performed by the king in the Pyramid Texts and is portrayed in the tombs of many private individuals as well. The shaking of the papyrus plants sacred to Hathor is linked to the shaking of the sistrum, which in its earliest form was called zššt (“shaker”). The king also danced for Hathor during his sed-festival, as written in the reliefs from the tomb of Kheruef.

The calendar in the temple at Dendera lists more than twenty-five festivals in which Hathor was celebrated. Many occurred only under her aegis, while others were specifically celebrated for her. On New Year's Day her cult statue was brought to the roof of her temple so that she could be united with Re in the form of the sun rays, an act which occurred on other festival days as well. On the twentieth day of the first month, the Egyptians celebrated the Festival of Drunkenness in her honor, and in the spring there was another festival in her honor that related to the myth of her return from the Nubian desert. The most prominent and elaborate festival of Hathor was her sacred marriage as Mistress of Dendera to Horus of Edfu. In this summer festival, Hathor's cult statue was taken by boat from Dendera to Edfu, stopping along the way at several cult sites and arriving at Edfu at the new moon. She stayed at Edfu with Horus for thirteen days before returning to her temple. This union produced two sons, Ihy and Horus-Sematawy.

Hathor was one of the most complex and mysterious of the Egyptian gods, and also one of the most enduring. Her status as a prehistoric goddess makes determining her origins nearly impossible, and it is also difficult to untangle the myriad aspects and myths which together form her character. Nonetheless, it is clear that she played a vital role in Egyptian society from its highest levels to its lowest, essential to the identity and characterization of the king and a favorite goddess of the general population, who flooded her local cults with offerings and prayers.

Bibliography

  • Allam, Schafik. Beitrage zum Hathorkult (bis zum Ende des mittleren Reiches). Berlin, 1963.
  • Bleecker, C.J. Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion. Leiden, 1973. An overview of Hathor, in English.
  • Galvin, Marianne. “The Priestesses of Hathor in the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period.” Ph.D. diss. Brandeis University, 1981. A systematic study of the distribution and relationships of titles in the Hathor cult.
  • Pinch, Geraldine. Votive Offerings to Hathor. Oxford, 1993.
  • Roberts, Alison. Hathor Rising: The Power of the Goddess in Ancient Egypt. Rochester, Vt., 1997. An interpretive study focusing on the serpent aspect of Hathor.
  • Troy, Lana. Patterns of Queenship. Uppsala, 1986. An investigation of the mythology and character of Hathor and how it defines the structure of royalty and ritual, especially of women.
  • Wente, Edward F. “Hathor at the Jubilee.” In Studies in Honor of John A. Wilson. Chicago, 1969.

Deborah Vischak