Hathor was a major goddess in ancient Egyptian religion who played a wide variety of roles.
As a sky deity, Hathor was the mother or consort of the sky god Horus and the sun god Ra, both of whom were connected with kingship, and thus she was the symbolic mother of their earthly representatives, the pharaohs.
She was one of several goddesses who acted as the Eye of Ra, Ra’s feminine counterpart, and in this form, she had a vengeful aspect that protected him from his enemies. Her beneficent side represented music, dance, joy, love, sexuality, and maternal care, and she acted as the consort of several male deities and the mother of their sons.
These two aspects of the goddess exemplified the Egyptian conception of femininity. Hathor crossed boundaries between worlds, helping deceased souls in the transition to the afterlife.
Hathor was often depicted as a cow, symbolizing her maternal and celestial aspect, although her most common form was a woman wearing a headdress of cow horns and a sun disk. She could also be represented as a lioness, cobra, or sycamore tree.
Cattle goddesses similar to Hathor were portrayed in Egyptian art in the fourth millennium BC, but she may not have appeared until the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC). With the patronage of Old Kingdom rulers, she became one of Egypt’s most important deities.
More temples were dedicated to her than to any other goddess; her most prominent temple was Dendera in Upper Egypt. She was also worshipped in the temples of her male consorts. The Egyptians connected her with foreign lands such as Nubia and Canaan and their valuable goods, such as incense and semiprecious stones, and some of the peoples in those lands adopted her worship.
In Egypt, she was one of the deities commonly invoked in private prayers and votive offerings, particularly by women desiring children.
During the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC), goddesses such as Mut and Isis encroached on Hathor’s position in royal ideology, but she remained one of the most widely worshipped deities.
After the end of the New Kingdom, Hathor was increasingly overshadowed by Isis, but she continued to be venerated until the extinction of ancient Egyptian religion in the early centuries AD.
Hathor took many forms and appeared in a wide variety of roles.
The Egyptologist Robyn Gillam suggests that these diverse forms emerged when the royal goddess promoted by the Old Kingdom court subsumed many local goddesses worshipped by the general populace, who were then treated as manifestations of her.
Egyptian texts often speak of the manifestations of the goddess as “Seven Hathors” or, less commonly, of many more Hathors—as many as 362. For these reasons, Gillam calls her “a type of deity rather than a single entity“.
Hathor’s diversity reflects the diversity of traits that the Egyptians associated with goddesses. More than any other deity, she exemplifies the Egyptian perception of femininity.
Hathor was given the epithets “mistress of the sky” and “mistress of the stars“, and was said to dwell in the sky with Ra and other sun deities.
Egyptians thought of the sky as a body of water through which the sun god sailed, and they connected it with the waters from which, according to their creation myths, the sun emerged at the beginning of time. This cosmic mother goddess was often represented as a cow.
Hathor and Mehet-Weret were both thoughts of as the cow who birthed the sun god and placed him between her horns. Like Nut, Hathor was said to give birth to the sun god each dawn.
Hathor’s Egyptian name was ḥwt-ḥrw or ḥwt-ḥr. It is typically translated “house of Horus” but can also be rendered as “my house is the sky“.
The falcon god Horus represented, among other things, the sun and sky. The “house” referred to may be the sky in which Horus lives or the goddess’s womb from which he, as a sun god, is born each day.
Hathor was a solar deity, a feminine counterpart to sun gods such as Horus and Ra, and was a member of the divine entourage that accompanied Ra as he sailed through the sky in his barque.
She was commonly called the “Golden One”, referring to the radiance of the sun, and texts from her temple at Dendera say “her rays illuminate the whole earth.” She was sometimes fused with another goddess, Nebethetepet, whose name can mean “Lady of the Offering“, “Lady of Contentment“, or “Lady of the Vulva“.
At Ra’s cult center of Heliopolis, Hathor-Nebethetepet was worshipped as his consort, and the Egyptologist Rudolf Anthes argued that Hathor’s name referred to a mythical “house of Horus” at Heliopolis that was connected with the ideology of kingship.
She was one of many goddesses to take the role of the Eye of Ra, a feminine personification of the disk of the sun and an extension of Ra’s own power. Ra was sometimes portrayed inside the disk, which Troy interprets as meaning that the Eye goddess was thought of as a womb from which the sun god was born.
Hathor’s seemingly contradictory roles as mother, wife, and daughter of Ra reflected the daily cycle of the sun. At sunset the god entered the body of the goddess, impregnating her and fathering the deities born from her womb at sunrise: himself and the Eye goddess, who would later give birth to him.
Ra gave rise to his daughter, the Eye goddess, who in turn gave rise to him, her son, in a cycle of constant regeneration.
The Eye of Ra protected the sun god from his enemies and was often represented as a uraeus, or rearing cobra, or as a lioness. A form of the Eye of Ra known as “Hathor of the Four Faces“, represented by a set of four cobras, was said to face in each of the cardinal directions to watch for threats to the sun god.
A group of myths, known from the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC) onward, describe what happens when the Eye goddess rampages uncontrolled. In the funerary text known as the Book of the Heavenly Cow, Ra sends Hathor as the Eye of Ra to punish humans for plotting rebellion against his rule. She becomes the lioness goddess Sekhmet and massacres the rebellious humans, but Ra decides to prevent her from killing all humanity. He orders that beer be dyed red and poured out over the land. The Eye goddess drinks the beer, mistaking it for blood, and in her inebriated state reverts to being the benign and beautiful Hathor.
Related to this story is the myth of the Distant Goddess, from the Late and Ptolemaic periods. The Eye goddess, sometimes in the form of Hathor, rebels against Ra’s control and rampages freely in a foreign land: Libya west of Egypt or Nubia to the south.
Weakened by the loss of his Eye, Ra sends another god, such as Thoth, to bring her back to him. Once pacified, the goddess returns to become the consort of the sun god or of the god who brings her back.
The two aspects of the Eye goddess—violent and dangerous versus beautiful and joyful—reflected the Egyptian belief that women, as the Egyptologist Carolyn Graves-Brown puts it, “encompassed both extreme passions of fury and love.”
Music, dance, and joy
Egyptian religion celebrated the sensory pleasures of life, believed to be among the gods’ gifts to humanity. Egyptians ate, drank, danced, and played music at their religious festivals.
They perfumed the air with flowers and incense. Many of Hathor’s epithets link her to the celebration; she is called the mistress of music, dance, garlands, myrrh, and drunkenness.
In hymns and temple reliefs, musicians play tambourines, harps, lyres, and sistra in Hathor’s honor. The sistrum, a rattle-like instrument, was particularly important in Hathor’s worship. Sistra had erotic connotations and, by extension, alluded to the creation of new life.
These aspects of Hathor were linked with the myth of the Eye of Ra. The Eye was pacified by beer in the story of the Destruction of Mankind. In some versions of the Distant Goddess myth, the wandering Eye’s wildness abated when she was appeased with products of civilization like music, dance, and wine.
The water of the annual inundation of the Nile, colored red by sediment, was likened to wine, and to the red-dyed beer in the Destruction of Mankind. Festivals during the inundation, therefore, incorporated drink, music, and dance as a way to appease the returning goddess.
A text from the Temple of Edfu says of Hathor, “the gods play the sistrum for her, the goddesses dance for her to dispel her bad temper.” A Hymn to the goddess Raet-Tawy as a form of Hathor at the temple of Medamud describes the Festival of Drunkenness as part of her mythic return to Egypt.
Women carry bouquets of flowers, drunken revelers play drums, and people and animals from foreign lands dance for her as she enters the temple’s festival booth.
The noise of the celebration drives away hostile powers and ensures the goddess will remain in her joyful form as she awaits the male god of the temple, her mythological consort Montu, whose son she will bear.
Sexuality, beauty, and love
Hathor’s joyful, ecstatic side indicates her feminine, procreative power. In some creation myths, she helped produce the world itself.
Atum, a creator god who contained all things within himself, was said to have produced his children Shu and Tefnut, and thus begun the process of creation, by masturbating. The hand he used for this act, the Hand of Atum, represented the female aspect of himself and could be personified by Hathor, Nebethetepet, or another goddess, Iusaaset.
In a late creation myth from the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BC), the god Khonsu is put in a central role, and Hathor is the goddess with whom Khonsu mates to enable creation.
Hathor could be the consort of many male gods, of whom Ra was only the most prominent. Mut was the usual consort of Amun, the preeminent deity during the New Kingdom who was often linked with Ra. But Mut was rarely portrayed alongside Amun in contexts related to sex or fertility, and in those circumstances, Hathor or Isis stood at his side instead.
In the late periods of Egyptian history, the form of Hathor from Dendera and the form of Horus from Edfu were considered husband and wife and in different versions of the myth of the Distant Goddess, Hathor-Raettawy was the consort of Montu and Hathor-Tefnut the consort of Shu.
Hathor’s sexual side was seen in some short stories. In a cryptic fragment of a Middle Kingdom story, known as “The Tale of the Herdsman”, a herdsman encounters a hairy, animal-like goddess in a marsh and reacts with terror. On another day he encounters her as a nude, alluring woman.
Most Egyptologists who study this story think this woman is Hathor or a goddess like her, one who can be wild and dangerous or benign and erotic. Thomas Schneider interprets the text as implying that between his two encounters with the goddess the herdsman has done something to pacify her.
In “The Contendings of Horus and Set“, a New Kingdom short story about the dispute between those two gods, Ra is upset after being insulted by another god, Babi, and lies on his back alone. After some time, Hathor exposes her genitals to Ra, making him laugh and get up again to perform his duties as ruler of the gods.
Life and order were thought to be dependent on Ra’s activity, and the story implies that Hathor averted the disastrous consequences of his idleness. Her act may have lifted Ra’s spirits partly because it sexually aroused him, although why he laughed is not fully understood.
Hathor was praised for her beautiful hair. Egyptian literature contains allusions to a myth not clearly described in any surviving texts, in which Hathor lost a lock of hair that represented her sexual allure.
One text compares this loss with Horus’s loss of his divine Eye and Set’s loss of his testicles during the struggle between the two gods, implying that the loss of Hathor’s lock was as catastrophic for her as the maiming of Horus and Set was for them.
Hathor was called “mistress of love”, as an extension of her sexual aspect. In the series of love poems from Papyrus Chester Beatty I, from the Twentieth Dynasty (c. 1189–1077 BC), men and women ask Hathor to bring their lovers to them:
“I prayed to her [Hathor] and she heard my prayer. She destined my mistress [loved one] for me. And she came of her own free will to see me.”
Motherhood and queenship
Hathor as a cow suckling Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh, at Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahari, 15th century BC
Hathor was considered the mother of various child deities.
As suggested by her name, she was often thought of as both Horus’s mother and consort. As both the king’s wife and his heir’s mother, Hathor was the mythic counterpart of human queens.
Isis and Osiris were considered Horus’s parents in the Osiris myth as far back as the late Old Kingdom, but the relationship between Horus and Hathor may be older still. If so, Horus only came to be linked with Isis and Osiris as the Osiris myth emerged during the Old Kingdom.
Even after Isis was firmly established as Horus’s mother, Hathor continued to appear in this role, especially when nursing the pharaoh. Images of the Hathor-cow with a child in a papyrus thicket represented her mythological upbringing in a secluded marsh. Goddesses’ milk was a sign of divinity and royal status. Thus, images in which Hathor nurses the pharaoh represent his right to rule.
Hathor’s relationship with Horus gave a healing aspect to her character, as she was said to have restored Horus’s missing eye or eyes after Set attacked him.
In the version of this episode in “The Contendings of Horus and Set“, Hathor finds Horus with his eyes torn out and heals the wounds with gazelle’s milk.
Beginning in the Late Period (664–323 BC), temples focused on the worship of a divine family: an adult male deity, his wife, and their immature son. Satellite buildings, known as mammisis, were built in celebration of the birth of the local child deity.
The child god represented the cyclical renewal of the cosmos and an archetypal heir to the kingship. Hathor was the mother in many of these local triads of gods. At Dendera, the mature Horus of Edfu was the father and Hathor the mother, while their child was Ihy, a god whose name meant “sistrum-player” and who personified the jubilation associated with the instrument.
At Kom Ombo, Hathor’s local form, Tasenetnofret, was mother to Horus’s son Panebtawy. Other children of Hathor included a minor deity from the town of Hu, named Neferhotep, and several child forms of Horus.
The milky sap of the sycamore tree, which the Egyptians regarded as a symbol of life, became one of her symbols. The milk was equated with water of the Nile inundation and thus fertility.
In the late Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, many temples contained a creation myth that adapted long-standing ideas about creation.
The version from Hathor’s temple at Dendera emphasizes that she, as a female solar deity, was the first being to emerge from the primordial waters that preceded creation, and her life-giving light and milk nourished all living things.
Like Meskhenet, another goddess who presided over birth, Hathor was connected with shai, the Egyptian concept of fate, particularly when she took the form of the Seven Hathors. In two New Kingdom works of fiction, “The Tale of Two Brothers” and “The Tale of the Doomed Prince“, the Hathors appear at the births of major characters and foretell the manner of their deaths.
Hathor’s maternal aspects can be compared with those of Isis and Mut, yet there are many contrasts between them. Isis’s devotion to her husband and care for their child represented a more socially acceptable form of love than Hathor’s uninhibited sexuality, and Mut’s character was more authoritative than sexual.
The text of the first century AD Papyrus Insinger likens a faithful wife, the mistress of a household, to Mut, while comparing Hathor to a strange woman who tempts a married man.
Hathor was one of several goddesses believed to assist deceased souls in the afterlife. One of these was Imentet, the goddess of the west, who personified the necropolises, or clusters of tombs, on the west bank of the Nile, and the realm of the afterlife itself. She was often regarded as a specialized manifestation of Hathor.
Just as she crossed the boundary between Egypt and foreign lands, Hathor passed through the boundary between the living and the Duat, the realm of the dead.
She helped the spirits of deceased humans enter the Duat and was closely linked with tomb sites, where that transition began. The Theban necropolis, for example, was often portrayed as a stylized mountain with the cow of Hathor emerging from it.
Her role as a sky goddess was also linked to the afterlife. Because the sky goddess—either Nut or Hathor—assisted Ra in his daily rebirth, she had an important part in Egyptian afterlife beliefs, according to which deceased humans were reborn like the sun god.
Coffins, tombs, and the underworld itself were interpreted as the womb of this goddess, from which the deceased soul would be reborn.
Nut, Hathor, and Imentet could each, in different texts, lead the deceased into a place where they would receive food and drink for eternal sustenance. Thus, Hathor, as Imentet, often appears on tombs, welcoming the deceased person as her child into a blissful afterlife.
In New Kingdom funerary texts and artwork, the afterlife was often illustrated as a pleasant, fertile garden, over which Hathor sometimes presided. The welcoming afterlife goddess was often portrayed as a goddess in the form of a tree, giving water to the deceased. Nut most commonly filled this role, but the tree goddess was sometimes called Hathor instead.
The afterlife also had a sexual aspect. In the Osiris myth, the murdered god Osiris was resurrected when he copulated with Isis and conceived Horus.
In solar ideology, Ra’s union with the sky goddess allowed his own rebirth. Sex, therefore, enabled the rebirth of the deceased, and goddesses like Isis and Hathor served to rouse the deceased to new life. But they merely stimulated the male deities’ regenerative powers, rather than playing the central role.
Ancient Egyptians prefixed the names of the deceased with Osiris’s name to connect them with his resurrection. For example, a woman named Henutmehyt would be dubbed “Osiris-Henutmehyt“. Over time they increasingly associated the deceased with both male and female divine powers.
As early as the late Old Kingdom, women were sometimes said to join the worshippers of Hathor in the afterlife, just as men joined the following of Osiris. In the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1070–664 BC), Egyptians began to add Hathor’s name to that of deceased women in place of that of Osiris.
In some cases, women were called “Osiris-Hathor“, indicating that they benefited from the revivifying power of both deities. In these late periods, Hathor was sometimes said to rule the afterlife as Osiris did.