Hathor’s name means either ‘House of Horus‘, implying an early and exclusive association with Horus either as consort or son, or ‘High/Heavenly House’. Even if the latter was originally the case, Hathor’s name comes to be written exclusively in the form incorporating the name of Horus. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of Egyptian Goddesses, Hathor is the preeminent solar Goddess in the Egyptian pantheon as well as the Goddess of beauty, sexuality, pleasure, intoxication and ecstasy, music and dance, as well as foreign lands and the luxury goods imported from them. She is also the chief executive of Re, his so-called ‘Eye’—irt, a pun on ir.t, ‘doer’ or ‘agent’. The most active element in the solar nature is always represented in Egypt as feminine, and Hathor shares the title of ‘Eye of Re’ with other Goddesses such as Sekhmet, Tefnut, and Wadjet, to name just a few, but in the breadth of her functions Hathor perhaps embodies it to the highest degree. Hathor is depicted as a woman wearing a headdress with the solar disk, uraeus and cow’s horns, as well as a red headband; or in bovine form, wearing a solar disk, uraeus and two plumes between her horns and often the menit (or menat), Hathor’s characteristic necklace. The bovine Hathor is typically shown emerging from a papyrus thicket, which evokes the role of the Hathor-cow as wetnurse of Horus when he was hidden in the marshes. The eye of the bovine Hathor is often rendered in the form of the wedjat, the composite human/hawk/cheetah eye associated with Horus. A very distinctive mode of depicting Hathor, which seems to have been transferred to Hathor from the Goddess Bat, occurs atop columns or adorning sistra, showing her by face alone, frontal, with cow’s ears. In these depictions Hathor does not wear a headband, but a thick wig or natural hair bound by fillets, Hathor’s beautiful hair being one of her important attributes. Hathor is associated with two objects in particular: the rattle or sistrum and the menit, a necklace of turquoise beads with an elaborate counterpoise. One theory as to the function of the sistrum (zesh’shet) is that its noise resembles the rustling of papyrus in the marsh, one of Hathor’s major festivals being that of ‘rustling the papyrus’ (zesh’sh wadju) (Bleeker, 88). Substances with which Hathor is particularly associated are gold—’the Golden’ is a common epithet of hers—and turquoise, both perhaps evoking the sky. Although especially associated with sexuality and with bringing lovers together, Hathor is also strongly associated with maternity, and a group of ‘seven Hathors’ is mentioned as prophesying at the individual’s birth (e.g., in the folktales of The Doomed Prince and The Two Brothers (trans. in Lichtheim vol. 2). Hathor is herself the mother of Ihy as well as Harsomtus, ‘Horus the Uniter of the [Two] Lands’, a cosmogonic form of Horus.
Hathor can be regarded as either mother or consort of Horus, as well as mother, consort or daughter of Re, and can be posited in similar relationships to any number of other Gods of the pantheon, none of these relationships being exclusive, even—indeed, especially—those instances in which she is mother, consort and daughter at once of the same God, for Hathor embodies in a certain sense the very activity or presence of the Gods with whom she is most intimately involved. A spell in the Coffin Texts for “Becoming Hathor” (CT spell 331) affirms, “I am Hathor who brings her Horus and who proclaims her Horus … I am she who displays his beauty and assembles his powers … Truly I am she who made his name.” That this role governing manifestation extends, in some sense, to the rest of the Gods is implied when the Goddess affirms, in the same spell, “there is no limit to my vision, there are none who can encircle my arms … I am the uraeus who lives on truth, who lifts up the faces of all the Gods, and all the Gods are beneath my feet.” Such statements are typical of Egyptian hymns, which generally seek to express that unique sense in which the deity in question is indeed supreme; what is important in each case is the nature of the supremacy, its specificity, not the generality of the attribution of supremacy to each and every God or Goddess, which is a virtual ritual requirement. In the case of Hathor, her supremacy derives particularly from her association with beauty itself. Thus a hymn invokes Hathor as “the beautiful, the lovely one, who stands at the head of the house of the beautiful; the Gods turn their heads away in order to see her better,” (Bleeker, 26).
Hathor’s most important roles in myth are as the nubile daughter and victorious enforcer of Re, on the one hand, and as the wet-nurse and consort of Horus, on the other. Her roles as mother of Re and of Horus seem more metaphorical than mythic, but they are commonplaces of Egyptian theology. Hathor is a sky Goddess, but is distinguishable from Nut inasmuch as Nut is the sky (or, rather, the divinity immanent in the sky) whereas Hathor resides in the sky. Although the bovine Hathor, on account of Hathor’s association with the sky, is often identified with the celestial cow who is, strictly speaking, Mehet-Weret, Hathor’s cow is more characteristically a wild cow of the marshes. This is vividly conveyed by a reported epiphany of Hathor in which a cowherd, tending his herd in the marsh, sees Hathor in the form of a naked woman with disheveled hair and, frightened, urges his herd homeward out of the marsh (Bleeker, 39). Living sacred cows of Hathor were kept at several sites in Egypt, perhaps the most important one being at Momemphis in the southwest Delta, who was known as ‘She who remembers Horus’, alluding to the myth in which the Hathor-cow suckles the infant Horus in the marsh. The pharaoh may be depicted being suckled by the Hathor-cow as a symbol of the transmission of sovereignty, or encircled by the Hathor-cow’s menit necklace as a symbol of divine charisma. The office of the pharaoh involves a tight bond with Hathor, and part of the reason why so many other Goddesses may be identified with Hathor to varying degrees is because of Hathor’s tendency to absorb the functions of other deities insofar as they touch upon this office. Hathor is depicted presiding over the pharaoh’s birth, suckling him either in her bovine or human form, presiding over his rejuvenation at the heb-sed festival, and ensuring his resurrection after death. In turn, as the symbols appropriate to the pharaoh are increasingly taken up by commoners over the course of Egyptian history, Hathor’s role in relation to the pharaoh is generalized.
In the Book of the Celestial Cow, when Re, who has grown elderly reigning as immanent sovereign upon the earth, learns that humans are conspiring in rebellion, he sends Hathor, as his enforcing ‘Eye’, to strike the humans and kill them “in the desert lands,” a task which she reports back to Re as having been “sweet for my heart,” (Piankoff, 28). Hathor can be Goddess of pleasure and executrix of divine wrath at once because she embodies the potency of solar divinity as such. The term used in this text for the place where Hathor strikes the humans is significant, inasmuch as it can mean either a high place in the desert or a necropolis, and Hathor was strongly associated with the western desert as the land of the setting sun and the entrance to the netherworld, and is often identified with Amentet, the personification of Amenti, the western or ‘Hidden’ land, bearing the sign for the west on her head. One of the important festivals of Hathor was the ‘beautiful festival of the desert valley’, in which banqueting, dancing and other festivities at the necropolis sought to bring joy to all the dead there interred. It was also common in later times for deceased women in personalized copies of the afterlife literature to be referred to as ‘Hathor N.’, the same way that deceased men and women alike are referred to as ‘Osiris N.’.
Another important mythic episode involving Hathor occurs in the Conflict of Horus and Seth. When Re’s efficacy has been called into question by the phallic God Babi, who taunts him with the phrase, “Your shrine is empty,” Re withdraws from the divine tribunal over which he is presiding and which is to decide whether to award the kingship to Horus or to Seth. Hathor, bearing here the epithet “Lady of the southern sycamore,” (Lichtheim vol. 2, 216), lifts Re’s spirits and induces him to return and convene the tribunal again by displaying her genitalia to him. By awakening the desire of the demiurge, Hathor acts as the engine driving the cosmogonic process. Barguet 1953 remarks on the similarity in shape between the counterpoise of the menit-necklace and certain wooden plaques found in certain tombs of the 11th dynasty which depict in simplified fashion a woman displaying her genitalia, and which are perhaps the basis for the elaborate forms taken by later menit counterpoises. Later in the Conflict, when Horus has had his eyes gouged out by Seth, Hathor, again characterized as “Mistress of the southern sycamore,” milks a gazelle and pours the milk into his eyes, healing them. In this way the same function of cosmic regeneration is expressed in radically different symbolic forms linked by the common epithet borne by the Goddess in the two episodes.
The word menit, with the boat determinative rather than the necklace and counterpoise, means a mooring-post, and the verbal form mni, “to moor”, has a range of metaphorical uses. The association between Hathor’s necklace and symbolic mooring-ropes appears to be exploited in CT spell 753, which refers repeatedly to the “bark of Hathor”, the operator wishing that he might “lift up the mooring-ropes, for I have tied the knot for Hathor,” (Gosline 1994, 42-5).
Texts also allude to a myth in which Hathor suffers an attack of some kind upon her hair. Hathor’s beautiful hair is indicated by her epithets “Lady of the tress” or “She of the tress,” and scenes of hairdressing have sometimes been interpreted as alluding to the cult of Hathor. In a fragmentary spell from the Ramesseum Papyrus (XI), the operator declares “My heart is for you… as the heart of Horus is for his eye, Seth for his testicles, Hathor for her tress, Thoth for his shoulder,” thus placing the episode of Hathor and her tress alongside other well-known episodes in which some distinctive part of a deity suffers injury: Horus, as a hawk, is distinctive for his eyesight, while Seth’s sexual appetite is essential to him. The myth involving an injury to Thoth’s “shoulder” is not well understood, but it may refer to the wing of the ibis. In attempting to reconstruct the myth concerning Hathor’s tress, Georges Posener compares it to a similar incident in the Egyptian novelette The Two Brothers, in which a supernatural female, suggestive in certain respects of Hathor, is walking by the sea when it surges up toward her out of desire for her. She runs away, and the sea commands a pine tree by the shore to seize her, but it only manages to pull off a lock of her hair, which is carried by the sea to the place where the pharaoh’s wash is being done. The pharaoh, smelling the delightful fragrance coming from the lock of hair, decides to seek out the woman it came from. This tale also strongly resembles a myth involving Astarte. Another tale which may echo the lost myth involving Hathor’s hair is found in the Westcar Papyrus (5, 7). The pharaoh Sneferu goes boating on a lake with twenty beautiful women as his rowers. The leader of the rowers, while fingering her braids, accidentally causes a turquoise ornament to drop from her hair into the water. The magician Djadja-em-ankh parts the waters and retrieves the ornament, to the pharaoh’s great satisfaction.
Hathor is also said to reunite Atum with his children Shu and Tefnut in CT spell 331, and a text from Dendara (Chassinat IV, 233-234; discussed in Daumas 1951, 381f) connects this with the presentation to Hathor of a necklace of nine lotus petals, representing the Ennead, or idealized totality of the Gods. In the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus (xxvii), this reunion, effected here by Atum’s personified ‘Eye’, results in the creation of humanity from Atum’s joyful tears, a play on the words remi, ‘tears’, and romi, ‘humans’. Sometimes Hathor is depicted with four faces, in which case she is particularly identified as ‘Temit’ (or ‘Temet’), the feminine counterpart of Atum or an epithet meaning ‘the universal one’: “How beautiful is your visage when you appear as Hathor with these four faces that Re loves to see. Turn you your visage toward the west, Temit is the Lady of Saïs. Turn you your visage toward the east, Temit is the Lady of Bubastis. Turn you your visage toward the north, Temit is Wadjet, Lady of Pe and Dep, Lady of Life at Pe and Dep, Wadjet who makes life flourish. Turn you your visage toward the south, Temit is Nekhbet, Lady of Nekheb, at the head of the beautiful ones who are found among the followers of the bark of Re and in the bark of Khepri when you open the northern sky,” (Papyrus Chester Beatty VIII, in Derchain 1972, 4).
Barguet, Paul. 1953. “L’Origine et la Signification du Contrepoids du Collier-Menat.” Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale 52: 103-111.
Bleeker, C. J. 1973. Hathor and Thoth. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Daumas, François. 1951. “Sur Trois Représentations de Nout à Dendara.” Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 51: 373-400.
Derchain, Philippe. 1972. Hathor Quadrifons. Istanbul: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten.
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]
Gosline, Sheldon Lee. 1994. “The Mnjt as an Instrument of Divine Assimilation.” Discussions in Egyptology 30: 37-46.
Lichtheim, Miriam. 1975-80. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Piankoff, Alexandre. 1955. The Shrines of Tut-Ankh-Amon. New York: Bollingen.
Posener, Georges. “La legende de la tresse d’Hathor.” In Egyptological Studies in Honor of Richard A. Parker, pp. 111-117.