In Egyptian mythology, Hathor (Egyptian for house of Horus) was originally a personification of the Milky Way, which was seen as the milk that flowed from the udders of a heavenly cow. Hathor was an ancient goddess, worshipped as a cow-deity from at least 2700 BC, during the 2nd Dynasty, and possibly even by the King Scorpion. The name Hathor refers to the encirclement by her, in the form of the Milky Way, of the night sky and consequently of the god of the sky, Horus. She was originally seen as the daughter of Ra, the creator whose own cosmic birth was formalised as the Ogdoad cosmogeny.
An alternate name for her, which persisted for 3,000 years, was Mehturt (also spelt Mehurt, Mehet-Weret, and Mehet-uret), meaning great flood, a direct reference to her being the milky way. The Milky Way was seen as a waterway in the heavens, sailed upon by both the sun god and the king, leading the Egyptians to describe it as The Nile in the Sky. Due to this, and the name mehturt, she was identified as responsible for the yearly inundation of the Nile. Another consequence of this name is that she was seen as a herald of imminent birth, as when the amniotic sac breaks and floods its waters, it is a medical indicator that the child is due to be born extremely soon.
Hathor was also favoured as a protector in desert regions (see Serabit el-Khadim).
Some egyptologists associate Hathor with artificial light as evidenced by what has been purported to be a representation of an electric lamp in a temple dedicated to her worship (see Hathor temple). Though other scholars believe the representation to be that of a lotus flower, spawning a snake within (see Hathor temple).
Origin of name
Originally recorded in Egyptian records as hwt hr.w "The House of Horus", her name is reconstructed to have been once pronounced *Hawit-Hāru (hah-wiht-haa-ruh), surviving directly into Coptic as Hathōr. It was adopted into Greek in the form of Aθύρ Athūr. but who was Hathors husband?
Goddess of Motherhood
As a provider of milk, and due to cows careful tending of their calves, the cow was a universal symbol of motherhood, and so Hathor became goddess of motherhood, gaining titles such as The Great Cow Who Protects Her Child and Mistress of the Sanctuary of Women. Because of the aspect of motherhood, her priests were oracles, predicting the fate of the newborn, and midwives delivering them.
As a mother, since she enclosed the sky, she was seen as the mother of Horus. Symbolically she became the divine mother of the pharaoh, who was identified as Horus. Hathor was sometimes said to be the mother of Isis, although it was more accurate to say she was her mother in law. As Horus was also said to be the son of Ra, Hathor was identified as Ra's wife (Ra created her in a non-sexual manner), gaining the title Mistress of Heaven. Having been identified as Ra's wife, it was said she arose from Ra's tears, and thus was identified as the Eye of Ra.
In art, Hathor was often depicted as a golden cow (sometimes covered in stars), with the titles Cow of Gold, and The one who shines like gold, or as a woman with the ears of a cow and a headdress of horns holding the sun-disc, which represented Ra. Also, Hathor was sometimes identified as a hippopotamus, which the Egyptians also considered quite motherly creatures, and sometimes as an aquatic form of the cow.
In her position as divine mother to the pharaoh, Hathor was sometimes depicted as a cow standing in a boat (representing the boat of Ra with which he, as the sun, crosses through the sky), surrounded by tall papyrus reeds (as were common in the Nile delta), with the pharaoh often pictured as a calf standing next to her. As divine mother, she was also represented with, or as, an uraeus, a stylised cobra, which symbolised royal power.
Sometimes, the local depictions of Hathor, with their slight variations on emphasising certain features, were treated separately, and seven of them, any seven, which was perceived as a mystical number (it divides the lunar month into 4 equal parts, and was the number of known planets at the time), named by their different titles, were considered special if gathered together. These Seven Hathors, in Hathor's context as a mother, were said to dress in disguise as young women, and attend the birth of a child, and then one by one announce aspects of his fate. In later centuries, this 7-fold aspect of Hathor was identified as the Pleiades.
The cow's large eyes with long lashes and generally quiet demeanor were often considered to suggest a gentle aspect of feminine beauty. There are still cultures in the world where to say that a girl is as pretty as a heifer is a great compliment, rather than taking you cow as an insult. And so Hathor rapidly became a goddess of beauty, and fertility, thus also a patron goddess for lovers.
A tale grew up around this in which Ra is described as having been upset over Horus' victory over Set (representing the conquest in 3000BC of Lower Egypt by Upper Egypt), and went off to be alone, and so Hathor went to him and started to dance and stripped naked, showing him her genitals, which cheered him up, so he returned. The tale is thought also to describe a solar eclipse, as it depicts Ra, the sun, going away to sulk, and then returning when cheered up.
In her position as a female fertility goddess, who readily strips naked, she was often depicted in red, the color of passion, though her sacred color is turquoise, and so gained the titles Lady of the scarlet-coloured garment, and Lady of [sexual] offerings (Nebet Hetepet in Egyptian). Sometimes her fertility aspect was depicted symbolically as a field of reeds. Her position as one of beauty lead to her being depicted in portrait, which was highly unusual by Egyptian artistic conventions, indeed, only she and Bes were ever depicted in this manner. Her beauty also lead to her being symbolically depicted by mirrors. Hathor's image was also often used to form the capitals of columns in Egyptian architecture.
Eventually, Hathor's identity as a cow-goddess of fertility, meant that her Hathor became identified with another ancient cow-goddess of fertility, Bata. It still remains an unanswered question amongst Egyptologists as to why Bata survived as an independent goddess for so long. Bata was, in some respects, connected to the Ba, an aspect of the soul, and so Hathor gained an association with the afterlife. It was said that, with her motherly character, she greeted the souls of the dead in the underworld, and proffered them with refreshments of food, and of drink. She was also sometimes described as mistress of the acropolis.
The assimilation of Bata, who was associated with the sistrum, a musical instrument, brought with it an association with music. In this form, Hathor's cult became centred in Dendera and was led by priests who were also dancers, singers, and other entertainers. Hathor's temple at Dendera contains an image, that has come to be known as the Dendera Light, which some have controversially claimed may be a depiction of an electric lamp. Hathor also became associated with the menat, the turquoise musical necklace often worn by women. A hymn to Hathor says:
- Thou art the Mistress of Jubilation, the Queen of the Dance, the Mistress of Music, the Queen of the Harp Playing, the Lady of the Choral Dance, the Queen of Wreath Weaving, the Mistress of Inebriety Without End.
Essentially, Hathor had become a goddess of Joy, and so she was deeply loved by the general population, and truly revered by women, who aspired to embody her multifaceted role as wife, mother, and lover. In this capacity, she gained the titles of Lady of the House of Jubilation, and The One Who Fills the Sanctuary with Joy. The worship of Hathor was so popular that more festivals were dedicated to her honour than any other Egyptian deity, and more children were named after this goddess than any other. Even Hathor's priesthood was unusual, in that both men, and women, became her priests.
The Middle Kingdom was founded when Upper Egypt's Pharaoh, Mentuhotep II, took control over Lower Egypt, which had become independent during the First Intermediate Period by force. This unification had been achieved by a brutal war that was to last some 28 years, but when it ceased, calm returned, and the reign of the next Pharaoh, Mentuhotep III, was peaceful, and Egypt once again became prosperous. A tale, from the perspective of Lower Egypt, developed around this.
In the tale, Ra (representing the Pharaoh of Upper Egypt) was no longer respected by the people (of Lower Egypt) and they ceased to obey his authority, which made him so angry that he sent out Sekhmet (war goddess of Upper Egypt) to destroy them, but Sekhmet was so bloodthirsty that she could not be stopped. Ra pours blood-coloured beer on the ground, tricking Sekhmet, who thinks it to be blood, into drinking it, which makes her stop the slaughter, and become loving, and kind.
The form that Sekhmet had become by the end of the tale was identical in character to Hathor, and so a cult arose, at the start of the Middle Kingdom, which dualistically identified Sekhmet with Hathor, making them one goddess, Sekhmet-Hathor, with two sides. Consequently, Hathor, as Sekhmet-Hathor, was sometimes depicted as a lioness. Sometimes this joint name was corrupted to Sekhathor (also spelt Sechat-Hor, Sekhat-Heru), meaning (one who) remembers Horus (the uncorrupted form would mean (the) powerful house of Horus. However, the two goddesses were so different, indeed almost diametrically opposed, that the identification did not last.
Wife of Thoth
When Horus was identified as Ra, under the name Ra-Herakhty, Hathor's position became unclear, since she had been the wife of Ra, but mother of Horus. Many attempts to solve this gave Ra-Herakhty a new wife, Ausaas, to solve this issue around who Ra-Herakhty's wife was. However, this left open the question of how Hathor could be his mother, since this would imply that Ra-Herakhty was a child of Hathor, rather than a creator.
In areas where the cult of Thoth was strong, Thoth was identified as the creator, leading to it being said that Thoth was the father of Ra-Herakhty, thus Hathor, as the mother of Ra-Herakhty, was in this version referred to as Thoth's wife. Since Ra-Herakhty was, in this version of the Ogdoad cosmogeny, depicted as a young child, often referred to as Neferhor, when considered the wife of Thoth, Hathor was often depicted as a female nursing a child.
Since Thoth's wife had earlier been considered to be Seshat, Hathor began to be attributed with many of Seshat's features. Since Seshat was associated with records, and with acting as witness at the judgement of souls, these aspects became attributed to Hathor, which, together with her position as goddess of all that was good, lead to her being described as the (one who) expels evil, which in Egyptian is Nechmetawaj also spelt Nehmet-awai, and Nehmetawy). Nechmetawaj can also be understood to mean (one who) recovers stolen goods, and so, in this form, she became goddess of stolen goods.
Outside the Thoth cult, it was considered important to retain the position of Ra-Herakhty (i.e. Ra) as self-created (via only the primal forces of the Ogdoad). Consequently, Hathor could not be identified as Ra-Herakhty's mother. Hathor's role in the process of death, that of welcoming the newly dead with food and drink, lead, in such circumstances, to her being identified as a jolly wife for Nehebkau, the guardian of the entrance to the underworld, and binder of the Ka. Nethertheless, in this form, she retained the name of Nechmetawaj, since her aspect as a returner of stolen goods was important to society, and so considered worth noting.
When the Ennead and the Ogdoad were combined, when Ra and Atum were identified as one another, Hathor, as the daughter of the combined Atum-Ra, was sometimes confused with Tefnut. Consequently, the tale, a metaphor for an historic drought, in which Tefnut had fled Egypt after an argument with her husband (Shu), but is persuaded to return, became occasionally transformed into one in which Hathor had an argument with Ra, and fled, later returning. The aspect of the story in which Tefnut turned into a cat and attacked those who went near, neatly fitted with the tale in which Hathor was said to have been Sekhmet, contributing to the frequency with which the tale occurred featuring Hathor rather than Tefnut.
Beliefs about Ra himself had been hovering around the identification of him, a sun god, with Horus, who by this time was also a sun god, in the combined form Ra-Herakhty. Consequently, Hathor became identified with Isis, and since this identification was much simpler than that of Horus and Ra, it was more strongly, and more permanently made.
In this form, which, technically, is really Isis, Hathor's mother was consequently Nut, and she was sometimes even described as being the wife of Horus, leading to a level of confusion, in which Horus, as Hathor's son, was also his own father. This form of Horus was known as Horus-Bedhety, referring to Bedhet, where the view was most commonly held, or as Ihy, referring to his aspect as a sistrum player, since he was the son of Hathor, who was by now associated with the sistrum. When Horus assimilated with Anhur, to become Arsnuphis, so Hathor was occasionally Anhur's mother as well.
Nethertheless, when Ra subsequently assimilated Amun, into Amun-Ra, it was sometimes said that Hathor, as a cow, was married to Sobek, or rather to a generic crocodile-god, since Sobek had become thought of as merely a manifestation of Amun. Shortly afterwards, Hathor became fully merged into Isis, whose cult was much stronger.
Hathor outside the Nile river in Egypt
Hathor was worshipped in Canaan in the 11th century BC, which at that time was ruled by Egypt, at her holy city of Hazor, which the Old Testament claims was destroyed by Joshua (Book of Joshua 11:13, 21). The Sinai Tablets show that the Hebrew workers in the mines of Sinai about 1500 BC worshipped Hathor, whom they identified with the goddess Astarte. Some theories state that the golden calf mentioned in the Bible was meant to be a statue of the goddess Hathor (Exodus 32:4-32:6.), although it is more likely to be a representation of the 2 golden calves set up by Rehoboam, an enemy of the levite priesthood, which marked the borders of his kingdom.
The Greeks also loved Hathor and equated her with their own goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite.
Some ancient texts refer to a serpent of light residing in the heavens. This is believed to have been inspired by the Milky Way (a similar allusion to the ouroboros).
- 2340 Hathor Discovered 1976 Oct. 22 by C. Kowal at Palomar. Like the other objects of Aten type, (2340) is named for an Egyptian deity. Known as a sky-goddess and the daughter of Ra, Hathor was also identified with Aphrodite. Name proposed by E. Helin, who made an independent discovery of the object and who also made crucial recovery observations in 1981.