Hathor – The Great Mother
The apple of daddy’s eyes, Hathor is one of the most cherished icons of ancient Egyptian religion. She was considered the Earth Mother and was depicted as a loving cow.
She was sometimes shown as a woman with a cow’s head, or as a woman with cow ears, or also as a woman with cow horns.
In some myths, she is thought to have risen around the same time as Ra and took her place beside him on the solar boat. She is considered a sky-goddess and thus wore a solar disk on her head (even in her cow form).
The name Hat-Hor means “House of Horus”.
As the great Celestial Cow, she was sometimes seen as the mother of Horus where she would give birth to him, as the sun, every day. He would fly into her mouth to be born again the next day.
She was sometimes seen as his consort and united with him in a sacred marriage which was celebrated as a festival every year during the Ptolemaic Period of ancient Egypt.
Goddess of Love, Goddess of Destruction
Although almost all the deities in ancient Egypt had both benevolent and what one would consider unsavory qualities, the two polarities were really pronounced with her. See if you don’t agree…
…She was considered to be the expression of beauty, femininity and goodness. She represented the woman and was the goddess of love, music, art and joy. But at one instance she can transform into a blood-thirsty destroyer of man. Yes, our lovely peaceful cow was known for her killing rampage on mortals.
Ra had at one point lost the respect of mankind, and they laughed and taunted him, ridiculing his old age and loss of potency. He decided to punish them and sent out his powerful daughter Hathor to teach them a lesson.
Hathor transformed into the fearless lioness Sekhmet to carry out these orders. She slaughtered people left and right and became addicted to it. She started to love it! She was enjoying it so much that even after Ra asked her to stop, she couldn’t. It was only after a lot of effort and trickery that the gods managed to stop her from wiping out the entire human race.
If you’d like to read the full story, check out The Eye of Ra and the Destruction of Mankind.
Hathor’s Function and Worship
Other than being a symbol of both motherly love and vengeful destruction, she had some practical roles in the underworld as with most of the important deities. She was one of the gods and goddesses who oversaw the trial of the soul to make sure it was fair.
She also fed and watered the souls (like a good mother) to help them on their journey, stopping to eat and drink under the shade of her sacred sycamore tree.
She also became the gate-keeper and greeter of the dead at the entrance of the Western Mountains where the underworld was. She was thus named “The Lady of the West”, or “Mistress of the West”.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped her lovingly, and her main cult was in Dendera. Dendera has to be one of the most beautiful temples in my opinion because of the amazing celestial depictions, such as the Dendera Zodiac.
Her face was also carved into some of the most impressive tombs and temples, such as Hatshepsut’s and Nefertari’s. Alongside Isis, she also had a temple at Philae.
As mentioned above, during the Ptolemaic Period, Hathor was part of a really beautiful ceremony called Festival of the Sacred Marriage where a statue of her would be taken from her sanctuary in Dendera and led with a procession towards the temple of Horus at Edfu.
Along the way, people would celebrate and stop several times to conduct rituals and prayers. The procession would arrive at Edfu on the eve of the anniversary of Horus’s victory in his great battle with the Red God Seth over the throne of the world.
Horus would leave his temple to greet his new wife on the waters of the Nile, where they would both travel on the royal boat up to the temple to spend the night there together.
The celebrations would continue for two weeks after, with different festivities and symbolic rituals of the great battle and sacred marriage. The people themselves would make offerings, dance, drink and feast.
At its end, Hathor would then take the journey back to her home in Dendera, to return once again the year after.
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