All day, everyday
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This month, we’re taking a look at the ever-beloved and celebrated goddess, Hathor! More than just a pretty face with an impressive set of horns, Hathor is one of the most famous gods to come out of Egypt. The cult was so widespread, she had more temples than even Horus! As much as Egyptians adored falcons, they loved cattle. She was worshipped everywhere, for pretty much everything. Life, death, love, party, foreign trade, sexuality, music, the sky, the eternal flood, the starry night, creation and destruction; Hathor’s cults got their hands into everything! We’ll take a look at how Hathor’s cults came to be, and how she came to be celebrated by the elite, royal family and the common workers.
To start, Hathor’s beginning is difficult to pinpoint. There’s a goddess that was worshipped in Sheshesh (Sistrum Land), at a site later called Diospolis (modern day Hiw). Many believe that to be linked to Hathor, and if so then that means she has pre-dynastic roots (3000 BC). Others believe her to have started in early cow cults- which might place her even earlier. Studies in the Sahara have found that cattle were probably worshipped a long time before domestication in 7000 BC. Even before then, cow horn cores have been found in burials from 10,000 BC!
At the very least, an ivory gown engraving reading, ‘Hathor in the marshes of King Djer’s city of Dep’ places her and her bovine affiliations as early as the 1st Dynasty (2920-2770 BC).
Despite such early roots, she still remains relatively unknown in early dynasties. Pyramid Texts from the Old Kingdom (5th-6th dynasties) mention her infrequently. But during the First Intermediate Period (9th-11th dynasties) is when she really starts to make her mark and starts appearing heavily in the Coffin Texts and religious literature.
It’s no surprise that this is mainly due in part to her becoming associated with Ra, the ever popular solar sky-god. As his daughter, consort, and (once she absorbs the goddess Mehet-Weret) his mother as well. The eye of Ra, the primeval flood waters that birthed creation, the milky way and starry sky are all attributed to Hathor, and suddenly the humble cattle goddess now rules over eternal creation.
… Hathor was the personification of the great power of nature which was perpetually conceiving, and creating, and bringing forth, and rearing, and maintaining all things, both great and small. She was the ‘mother of her father. and the daughter of her son,’
The Gods of the Egyptians, E.A. Wallis Budge p431
As Hathor’s cult grows, it absorbs and assimilates smaller known goddesses and their attributes, and she eventually rules of near every aspect of life as we know it. The Egyptians worship her for the sky, and she becomes popular in the Royal Sun Temples. The ties with Ra don’t hurt, but her bovine form is especially revered here. One myth tells of her standing tall enough that her legs act as pillars, and her belly the sky; while the sun god flew into her mouth and would be reborn again each morning. This motif of her facilitating regeneration appears quite often. It was said that every day, she would receive the dying sun in the west before it passed through the Duat.
In fact, as much as Hathor is worshipped for conception, creation, and birth, she is also prominent in death. As Mistress of the West, The Western Mountain, and Mistress of the Sycamore, if men wanted to assimilate with Osiris after death- women wanted Hathor. As Osirian beliefs gain popularity, so does this aspect of the goddess. In Deir el-Bahri, the western bank of Thebes, she had a major cult established, and was said to watch over the deceased in their graves.
It almost goes without saying, but Ra is hardly the only one to thank for Hathor’s rise to fame. She’s almost entirely worshipped and remembered for her relation to Horus, which is evident enough in her name. In hieroglyph, her name is represented as a hawk inside of a rectangle/walled structure, read as Het-Heru, ’House of Horus’. It can also be read as Het-Hert, ‘House Above’, though I think for the sake of retaining their popularity, Hathor cults were happy to celebrate their relationship with the Osirian cults. And so was Egypt. They loved the union between their two favourite gods, and would collaborate during festivals.
In the third month of the summer season (between June 25th and July 24th) the two cults would hold a marriage ceremony between Hathor and Horus. The priests at Hathor’s temple in Dendera would bring a small statue figure of her and lead a procession down to Horus and his temple in Edfu.
‘Eventually, on reaching Edfu during the day before the new moon, the statues of Hathor and Horus participated in various rituals before being placed in the birth house where they spent the night together. For the next 14 days the celebrations which followed this divine marriage represented one of the greatest religious festivals of ancient Egypt in which royalty, nobles and commoners alike participated.’
The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Richard H. Wilkinson, p 144
Her command over the royal family is likely also due in part to this partnership. As we learned in the Horus post, ruling pharaohs would refer to themselves as the physical embodiment of Horus, as to show the people they were descendants of gods. They would also call themselves the son of Hathor, and to her as ‘wife of the king’. In the 4th Dynasty, the king’s wife would act as Hathor’s priestess, and likely as a physical embodiment as well. Even into the New Kingdom (1550-1307 BC), royal wives were associated with Hathor. In many depictions, she’s shown in both roles as mother and wife, either in her human form helping the pharaoh, or in her bovine form nursing him.
But Hathor didn’t belong to just the royal family. She was celebrated by everyone- and everywhere. While her main cult centre was in Dendera, and temples spread out through all of Egypt, she was also worshipped in places beyond Egypt’s borders. There were temples in Nubia, Sinai, and Byblos. The Greeks especially liked Hathor, and assimilated her with their own goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite. As the patron goddess of foreign trade and goods, she was also worshipped as the ‘Lady of Turqoise’ at mining sites, including Serabit el-Khadim, where her temple was built into a cave. In the Old Kingdom (2575-2465 BC), her cult focus was in the Giza-Saqqara area (not far from modern day Cairo), and by the Intermediate Period (2134-2040) it moved south.
Being worshipped in so many places and for so many different attributes, it actually got to be too many for those who worshipped her. In the Book of the Dead, there is a reference to the Seven Hathors. As it turns out, all the aspects and forms of the goddess got to be so overwhelming, that cult narrowed it down to seven, and when praying would name those seven forms. There was Hathor of Thebes, Hathor of Heliopolis, Hathor of Aphroditopolis, Hathor of the Sinaitic Peninsula, Hathor of Momemphis, Hathor of Herakleopolis, and Hathor of Keset.
You might say Hathor’s popularity is only due to her relationship with Horus and association with Ra. While these ties definitely helped her rise from a humble cattle goddess to assimilations with the royal family, her cult became its own behemoth. People wanted to love Hathor. A goddess who simultaneously represents creation, destruction, life and death is paramount to the Egyptians worship of the Cycle. She became the divine embodiment of the natural order of the universe, and is still remembered because of that.
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