Hathor: The Egyptian Goddess of Love and Beauty and the Fierce Protector of Ra
This article will cover who Hathor is in Egyptian mythology.
You will also learn more about her history and the myths and legends behind her name. How was she depicted through the ages?
Read on to find out.
Who Is Hathor in Egyptian Mythology?
In the mythology of ancient Egypt, Hathor was one of the most powerful and highly regarded goddesses of the pantheon.
Considered one of the 42 state gods of Egypt, the worship of Hathor was widespread throughout the kingdom. Although many men revered her, Hathor was considered the protector of women and was also honored as the Egyptian goddess of love, music, fertility, beauty, cosmetics, and pleasure. Hathor was also believed to assist souls traveling in the afterlife in reaching their destinations.
Worshipped before the dawn of Egyptian civilization during the Predynastic Era and throughout the history of the Egyptian empire, Hathor was the mother (and sometimes partner) of the god Horus. In addition, Hathor was believed to be the daughter of the sun god Ra (and sometimes sister, consort).
Because Horus and Ra were associated with kingship, Hathor was considered the spiritual mother of the pharaohs. Because of her multiple roles as both mother and consort of Horus and daughter and consort of Ra, Hathor was also closely associated with the proper role of the pharaoh’s wife.
As Ra’s consort, and therefore his feminine counterpart in Egyptian mythology, Hathor held one of the Eyes of Ra (a role shared with Sekhmet and Bast). In this aspect, Hathor acted as the vengeful protector of Ra.
When not acting as Ra’s consort, Hathor also enjoyed the company of other Egyptian deities (namely Atum, Anum, Khonsu, and many others) and mothered their sons and daughters. Hathor is credited with being the mother of Horus (the child), Neferhotep, Ihy, and dozens of other local, territorial gods.
Hathor’s largest temple and cult center were in Dendera, located in Upper Egypt, with another large temple complex in Memphis. As one of the most widely worshipped gods of ancient Egypt, more temples were dedicated to Hathor than any other goddess, and as the consort of several male gods, Hathor was worshiped in their temples.
Worship of Hathor was not just common throughout EgyptIn addition, but widespread throughout the Mediterranean, Canaan, and Nubia. And unlike other gods of Egypt, both men and women could serve as Hathor’s priests.
In ancient Egypt, Hathor was also known as a private god, meaning that she was thought to move in the lives of individual worshippers, not just state-sponsored events and rituals. A great deal of evidence exists that Hathor was privately invoked in homes, especially by women desiring healthy children and heavenly protection.
By the late New Kingdom period (1550-1070), many of Hathor’s royal attributes were assimilated by Isis and Mut. Still, Hathor’s popularity remained high until the end of the Egyptian religion in the 4th century AD when Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The meaning of Hathor’s name
In ancient Egypt, Hathor’s name was pronounced “hwt-hwr,” meaning “House of Horus” (also “Domain of Horus” and “Temple of Horus”). The name Hathor can also be translated as “my house is the sky.” As Horus was often used to represent the sun and the sky, Hathor was symbolic of the goddess’s womb (the house), which the sun god sprang from every day.
In later myths, Hathor was believed to be the mother or consort of Ra, the sun god. As such, Hathor’s name came to be associated with Ra’s barge, as Hathor stood on a prominent place upon Ra’s ship that sailed across the sky and into the night, through the Duat (Egyptian underworld), and back again at dawn.
As Hathor was considered the mother of the pharaohs, Hathor’s name was also associated with the king’s ability, after death, to be revived to rule and live again. Because of this association, Hathor’s name is equated with rebirth, revival, inspiration, life, and light.
Some of Hathor’s official titles were “The Golden One,” “Hathor of the Four Faces,” “Lady of the Vulva,” “Lady of Contentment,” “Lady of the Offering,” “Mistress of the Sky,” and “Mistress of the Stars.”
In Egyptian artwork, Hathor was often represented as a woman with the head or ears of a cow. In temples, Hathor was typically represented as a female wearing a simple headdress of cow horns with a sun disk. In the home, Hathor was typically represented simply as a white cow, which symbolized her maternal aspect. Sometimes, Hathor was depicted as a domestic cat.
When depicted as a woman, Hathor was known for her exquisite, dark hair. Hathor’s hair was often linked to her sexual allure, and a few myths compare the loss of a lock of Hathor’s hair as the equivalent of Horus losing his eye or Set losing his testicles.
As Hathor represented the ideal Egyptian female, dark and perfumed hair became representative of ideal beauty throughout Egypt’s dynastic history.
In temples, Hathor is typically depicted holding a stalk of papyrus or a was scepter (a long and straight staff with an animal head at one end and a forked end at the other). Hathor is one of the few female deities depicted with a was scepter, as only supreme male deities or the Eyes of Ra could wield its authority.
The goddess Hathor also commonly carried a sistrum or menat (rattle like musical instruments) or a small mirror, as mirrors (typically gilded in gold and bronze) symbolized both the sun and beauty.
Hathor, the cow goddess
In more detailed versions of Hathor in cow form, Hathor was depicted as pure white and carrying a food tray on her head with milk flowing from her udders.
In this form, Hathor was referred to as Hesat, drawing a parallel to the Egyptian primordial sky goddess named Mehet-Weret, also represented as a cow whose name meant Great Flood, who was once thought to bring the yearly inundation of the Nile.
Over time, Hathor assimilated the attributes of Mehet-Weret and was credited with this annual flooding of the Nile. Various other representations of Hathor depict her as a cobra, a sycamore tree, and a lioness.
Possible Origins of Hathor and the Ideal Feminine
Worship of cattle was common during Predynastic Egypt (over 5,000 years ago). Images of what are believed to be goddesses were carved and molded with their arms upright and curved, drawing comparison to bovine horns.
As cows were commonly worshipped in ancient polytheistic cultures as symbols of motherhood (due to the care given to calves and milk for humans), to the ancient Egyptian mind, it made perfect sense to depict mother goddesses as having a cow form.
A stone palette from the Nagada II period of Predynastic Egyptian history (circa 3500 – 3190 BC), called the Gerzah Palette, depicts the outline of a cow’s head with curved horns and surrounded by stars, which suggests that worship of the cow was also linked with that of the sky.
Later goddesses that were represented with cow imagery, such as Hathor, were also associated with the night sky and the stars, particularly what is now known as the Milky Way (as in ancient Egypt, the Milky Way was believed to resemble divine milk).
Artifacts explicitly attributed to Hathor have been dated to the cusp of Dynastic History (circa 3100 BC). Still, as Egypt moved into the Old Kingdom period, the worship of Hathor began its rise to prominence. By the Fourth Dynasty (2600 – 2500 BC), the worship of Hathor began to feature prominently in the Egyptian religion, as Hathor became the patron god of Dendera in Upper Egypt.
At the temple of Dendera, Hathor took the place of an earlier crocodile-headed god and absorbed the Cult of Bat. By the Middle Kingdom period (2035 – 1650 BC), Hathor had completely assumed Bat’s characteristics, replacing Bat as the goddess of the Milky Way and the night sky.
As the pharaoh increasingly became linked to the sun god Ra, Ra became the king of the gods, as the pharaoh was king of all upon the earth. As the worship of Hathor ascended in popularity, soon Hathor was depicted as Ra’s wife and thus became named as the pharaoh’s divine mother.
As the Cult of Hathor grew throughout Egypt’s history, Hathor began to take on different roles by assuming the attributes of smaller, local goddesses.
As Hathor assumed more and more roles of other goddesses, the lesser deities began to be referred to as manifestations of Hathor, commonly called the Seven Hathors in Egyptian texts (it is theorized that there were as many as 362 manifestations of Hathor, as whenever Hathor worship was introduced to a new village or territory, other goddesses were supplanted, and their characteristics were then given to Hathor).
Through this process, and due to the number of goddess aspects she absorbed, Hathor became linked with the concept of the ideal of the Egyptian feminine.
Hathor as a Solar and Sky Deity
Because of Hathor’s close association with Horus and Ra, Hathor was considered a solar goddess in the Egyptian pantheon. In her temple at Dendera, Hathor’s official title was Golden One, Whose Rays Illuminate the Whole Earth. As a member of Ra’s entourage, she was the companion of Ra as he sailed across the sky upon his barge. In Heliopolis, Hathor was worshipped beside Ra and even had her temple within his complex.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the sky was a large body of water and that the sun sailed through the waters every day. It was believed that Hathor was the womb from which the sun god emerged every day.
While it can be confusing for modern western minds to understand how Hathor could fulfill the roles of mother, wife, and daughter simultaneously, to the Egyptian mind, these roles merely symbolized the daily cycle of the sun.
Egyptologist Lana Troy described Hathor and Ra’s solar process as thus:
“At sunset the god [Ra] entered the body of the goddess [Hathor], 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
As the consort of Ra, Hathor held the honored role of one of the Eyes of Ra. As an Eye of Ra, Hathor was considered the female aspect of the sun and Ra’s power.
In this role, Hathor was considered a vengeful protector of Ra and was often depicted as a cobra or lioness. As a cobra, Hathor was referred to as Hathor of the Four Faces and depicted as four cobras scanning the four cardinal directions for threats.
In different periods of Egypt’s dynastic history, Bast, Sekhmet, and Hathor were all thought to play the roles of the Eyes of Ra. However, during Egypt’s late history, it was believed that Hathor took the forms of Bast or Sekhmet whenever she acted as the Eye of Ra.
During the Middle Kingdom period (2030 – 1650 BC), as a protector of the sun god, Hathor became known for her viciousness. In the Egyptian text, The Book of the Heavenly Cow, as the Eye of Ra, Hathor is sent to punish humans who were plotting an overthrow of Ra.
At the command of Ra, Hathor fused with Sekhmet as a lioness and obliterated Ra’s enemies, but filled with blood lust, Hathor was unable to stop herself from killing every human she could. Worried that Hathor would not stop until she killed every last human upon earth, Ra ordered beer to be dyed red and poured out copiously. The Eye of Ra, mistaking the beer for blood, drank every drop of beer she could find, and soon drunk, changed back into the benevolent goddess Hathor.
In the Late Kingdom era, Hathor again became known for her savagery. In a tale called the Distant Goddess, as the Eye of Ra, Hathor herself began to rebel against Ra’s commands and fled the kingdom, traveling west to Libya. Once there, Hathor began to rage, filled once again with bloodlust and fury.
Frightened that he would forever lose his protective eye, Ra eventually sent Thoth to bring Hathor back to Egypt by throwing a celebration filled with drinking and sensual pleasure designed to entice the goddess to return home. Upon her return, Hathor agreed to become the consort of the sun god and was given greater responsibility in the kingdom.
As the Eye of Ra, Hathor was depicted as the ideal female, equal parts vicious fury and benevolent love. As the embodiment of both extremes, Hathor was held in awe by all who worshipped her and desired those attributes.
Goddess of Dance, Music, and Celebration
Hathor’s many names link her to the celebration of religious festivals and music. As Egyptians believed that the sensory pleasures of life were gifts from the gods, Hathor was held in high esteem, naming her Mistress of Music, Dance, Garland, Myrrh, and Drunkenness.
In numerous temples, funerary texts, and hymns, attendants are depicted lighting incense to perfume the air while musicians play harps, tambourines, and lyres in Hathor’s honor. A musical instrument called a sistrum, which was a small metal frame with metal rods and beads that rattles when shaken, was dedicated to Hathor and was essential to her worship.
The U shape of the handle, along with its transverse rods, resembled the cow head of the goddess, and the instrument was often used in religious dance movements that bordered on erotica, as the sistrum was linked to the creation of new life.
Many of the annual Egyptian festivals were designed to entice Hathor to return to help with the inundation of the Nile, incorporating music, dance, and celebration.
The Festival of Drunkenness, which was celebrated at her temple in Medamud, was one such festival. During the festival, drunken debauchery was encouraged, with drum playing and dancing the central focus as the Hathor statue was moved into the temple’s main booth. The seemingly chaotic yet joyful noise was thought to drive away evil spirits and keep Hathor’s bad temper at bay as she awaited the return of her temple consort, Montu.
Hathor as the Goddess of Love, Beauty, and Sensuality
The ancient Egyptians believed that sensual pleasure was a gift from the gods and was necessary for creation. Sex was meant to be enjoyed and wasn’t shamed or shunned. As the goddess Hathor, the female aspect of Horus and Ra was of primary importance in representing the ideal feminine. Hathor was often linked to rites and celebrations of fertility and love.
Several Egyptian myths credit Hathor with assisting with creation. At Heliopolis, the cult center of Atum, Atum was thought to have created the world through the act of masturbation, with his seed that was within himself coming forth and releasing all things, including his children Shu and Tefnut.
The hand he used to pleasure himself, The Hand of Atum, was referred to in the feminine, as it was believed that Hathor was the personification of the hand that helped Atum relieve himself of creating the world.
When Egypt fell under Hellenistic influence during the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305 – 30 BC), the worship of Khonsu took center stage, as King Ptolemy IV believed Khonsu healed him of a terrible illness.
Ptolemy IV began a massive temple building project, building temples throughout Egypt to honor the god that saved his life. Khonsu was given the title Greatest of all Gods and was believed to explicitly protect the family of the king. Hathor became known as the wife of Khonsu, appearing alongside him in his temples, as it was with Hathor that Khonsu mated to create the world.
Due to her status as reflective of the ideal feminine, Hathor was linked sexually with several male gods throughout Egypt, including Horus, Ra, Amun, Montu, Shu, Khonsu, and many other powerful deities. These trysts were not just represented in festivals and on temple walls but were also written in texts, stories, and poems.
One such story was Contendings of Horus and Set, in which Ra and Babi become involved in an argument. Babi, the baboon god, insulted Ra and sent him into a depression, causing him to lay lifeless and forlorn. After some time of Ra acting this way, Hathor decided to straddle Ra, stand over him and expose herself, which made Ra laugh, clearing his head.
His depression thus ended. Ra then stood and went back to ruling the gods. As order was dependent upon the ruler performing his necessary duties, Hathor used her feminine sexuality to stop the cosmos from falling into disorder. This popular myth reveals that sex and sensuality were considered essential for one to perform their duties in ancient Egypt and were highly esteemed.
While Hathor and Isis are often compared as mothers and consorts, they are represented quite differently. While Isis was symbolic of the devoted wife and caregiver, Hathor was more often represented as impetuous with unashamed sexuality. While Isis represented single-minded stability, Hathor symbolically stood for passion and fury, prone to emotions and seductive reasoning.
While Isis was linked to Osiris and later Amun, Hathor was always known as a goddess who copulated sexually with many male deities, thus creating several children that she always nourished.
Hathor as the Ideal Mother
In Egyptian mythology, Hathor wasn’t simply Horus’ mother. Instead, Hathor was often depicted as Horus’s wife or partner. In being both, Hathor was considered the deific counterpart of the pharaoh’s queen, particularly regarding raising heirs to the kingdom.
During Predynastic Egypt, Hathor was linked with Horus as his mother. By the end of the Old Kingdom period, according to the Osiris Myth, Isis became known as Horus’s mother. But even after this role switch, Hathor was often shown nursing the pharaoh in his infancy and holding other matronly duties.
In her cow form, the milk from Hathor represented receiving nourishment from the gods, thus giving the pharaoh divine right to rule. After Horus lost his left eye after his battle with Set, it was Hathor who healed the wound with milk, giving birth to the well-known Eye of Horus.
During the New Kingdom, temples began to form around the concept of the divine family. These families usually took on the form of a male deity, a female deity, and a young son. The male and female deities were usually major gods, and the child would become worshipped as a local god.
Hathor was the primary goddess used to create these trinities, and she became worshipped all over Egypt as the mother of the gods. The child god represented the local territory and depicted the renewal of the skies and natural world. Many established temples, such as Hathor’s Temple at Dendera, added additions known as a mammisis dedicated to the triune gods of the area.
Hathor’s Role in the Afterlife
As one of the primary gods of the Egyptian pantheon, Hathor had a significant role to play in the Egyptian afterlife.
Often referred to as the symbolic goddess of the west, Hathor represented the massive necropolises to the west of the Nile River. In numerous myths, Hathor was known to leave Egypt and travel to the lands of the west. Therefore, Hathor was symbolic of the soul’s passage from the living [east] and into the land of the dead [west].
Due to her role in accompanying the souls of the dead into the Duat (afterlife), Hathor was held in high regard within temples that prepared bodies for their passage into the other world. One of the primary necropolises of Thebes was depicted as a mountain with a cow (representing Hathor) rising from it.
As Hathor assisted Ra upon his daily sail across the sky, it was from her womb that he emerged each day after entering into Hathor in the evening. To parallel, this belief, the tombs of the dead were believed to be like the womb of Hathor, where the dead would be reborn as Ra was reborn. Even the Duat was sometimes depicted as symbolic of Hathor’s womb.
As sexuality was a central motif in the life of an Egyptian, the afterlife also recognized sex as essential. Since Ra’s nightly entrance into Hathor is what enabled his birth the next day, it was believed that Hathor would stimulate both male and female souls in the afterlife to wake them up from their slumber.
It was through this sexual stimulation that souls would be awakened to begin their journey through the Duat. Once awakened, Hathor would welcome the deceased into the afterlife and nourish the soul with food and drink. Other depictions pictured Hathor as a sycamore tree, giving life-giving sap to the dead in the lush fields of the afterlife.
By the New Kingdom period, Hathor took on even greater prominence, sometimes taking the place of Osiris in the afterlife.
Conclusion: Hathor, Egyptian Goddess of Love and the Sacred Feminine
In Egyptian mythology, Hathor was one of the most powerful and highly regarded goddesses of the pantheon. One of the forty-two state gods of Egypt, the worship of Hathor was widespread throughout Egypt’s history, from Predynastic Egypt to the end of the Roman occupation.
Hathor was considered the protector of women and honored as the Egyptian goddess of love, music, fertility, beauty, cosmetics, and pleasure. Hathor was also believed to assist souls traveling in the afterlife in reaching their destinations.
- Hathor was known as the mother and consort of Horus and the daughter, sister, and consort of Ra.
- Throughout ancient Egypt, Hathor was considered symbolic of the ideal feminine and motherhood.
- Hathor held the esteemed role of the Eye of Ra, protecting Ra and doing his bidding against his enemies.
- While Hathor’s primary temple was found in Dendera, more temples were built to Hathor than any other Egyptian god.
- Unlike other gods, both men and women could serve as Hathor’s priests
- While known as a state-sponsored god, Hathor was also commonly worshipped in homes
- Hathor was worshipped as a solar and a sky deity, responsible for giving birth to Ra and his barge in the morning, sailing with him throughout the sky, consummating with him in the evening, and traveling into the underworld with him at night.
- In Egyptian artwork, Hathor was often represented as a woman with a cow’s head or ears.
- In temples, Hathor was typically represented as a female wearing a simple headdress of cow horns with a sun disk
- In the home, Hathor was typically represented simply as a white cow, which symbolized her maternal aspect.
- The goddess Hathor carried a sistrum or menat (rattle-like musical instruments) or a small mirror, as mirrors (which were typically gilded in gold and bronze) symbolized both the sun and beauty.
- Hathor’s name was pronounced “hwt-hwr,” meaning “House of Horus” (also “Domain of Horus” and “Temple of Horus”). The name Hathor can also be translated as “my house is the sky.”
- Hathor was considered the goddess of love, dance, music, pleasure, and beauty; linked sexually with many male deities throughout Egypt’s history.
- Due to her relationships with Horus and Ra, Hathor was believed to represent the ideal mother, particularly in relation to the pharaoh and the queen.
- Because of her status as one of the most powerful gods of the pantheon, Hathor was given a prominent role in the Egyptian afterlife, responsible for reviving the dead and helping them through the Duat.
While many of Hathor’s royal attributes were eventually assimilated by Isis, Hathor’s popularity remained high until the end of the Egyptian religion in the 4th century AD. The Egyptian goddess of love, dance, and music enjoyed the greatest of ancient Egypt’s worship, festivals, and celebrations.
However, the consort of the greatest gods of Egypt’s history was more than just a simple counterpart. Hathor blazed her trail across both the sky and the Duat, was more than an equal match for her male partners, and served as an inspiration to the women of an empire for four millennia.