Hathor was one of the oldest and most comprehensive neters or deities of ancient Kemet. She was known as the great mother; as protector of women and childbirth; as patron of music, dance, merriment, and sexuality; as nurse and healer; as “Queen of the West” who received the setting sun and protected the dead; and as a bloodthirsty avenger who acts out the commands of Ra. She was a personification of the Milky Way, the Daughter of Ra, and the wife of Heru.
Hathor was depicted as a cow, woman, or some combination thereof: fully bovine, a woman with cow's ears, a cow with horns and a disk on its head, or a woman with horns and a disk. In keeping with the cosmology of the people of Kemet, early associations of Hathor were never fully displaced by later ones. The result is a complex array of attributes, myths, stories, and symbols associated with this popular neter, as discussed in this entry.
An early association of Hathor was with the great mother that was symbolized by a cow. According to Charles Finch and Gerald Massey, the cow was a common symbolic archetype of motherhood among ancient peoples because the devotion that cows pay to their calves and their ability to provide life sustaining milk was analogous to the activities of human females. Celestially speaking, Hathor was seen as the heavenly cow whose milk was the Milky Way. In this sense, she was the great cosmic mother who conceived, brought forth, and maintained all life.
The name Hathor means “House of Horus” and reflects this association in that it is the Milky Way—the galaxy—that encircles Horus, the sun, or in effect serves as his “house.” The “waters” of the Milky Way were referred to as the “Nile in the Sky,” which caused Hathor to be seen as responsible for the annual Nile flood. In this guise, her names were Mehurt, Mehet-Weret, and Mehet-uret. This releasing of the waters was correlated to the rupturing of the amniotic sac that occurs in a pregnant woman just before giving birth, again linking Hathor to women and childbirth. It was said that Seven Hathors, disguised as young women, would appear at the birth of a child, and each would pronounce the fate of the child. These Seven Hathors varied by locality within Kemet and would be depicted as either women or cows.
The most important fact was that there were seven of them. The titles of the seven according to Queen Nefertari's tomb are Lady of the Universe, Sky-Storm, Your from the Land of Silence, Your from Khemmis, Red-Hair, Bright Red, and Your Name Flourishes through Skill. Other names for the seven include Lady of the House of Jubilation, Mistress of the West, Mistress of the East, and Ladies of the Sacred Land. Throughout a person's life, they were called on in matters of love and of protection from evil spirits. In death, the Seven Hathors appeared as cows and nourished and protected the deceased. Hathor is also linked with fertility, beauty, and love. As a neter of fertility, she appears as either a cow or a field of reeds. For love and protection, she is represented with the color red. The prominent role that Hathor played throughout the life cycle of Egyptians earned her a place as one of the most popular neters of Kemet.
Hathor is considered the foremost among the female neters and the provider of food for the dead in Tuat, the underworld. She is shown as a cow walking out of the funeral mountain. As the cosmic cow, her four legs were the pillars that held up the sky and her belly the firmament. Each evening the sun as Heru flew into her mouth and was reborn the next day. In some guises, she was the eye of the sun (i.e., the radiant heat and light that emanates from the center of the sun). She was also linked with the moon.
Hathor gets even more complex when considering her relationships with other neters of ancient Egypt. As patriarchy emerged in the civilization of Kemet, Hathor would become the consort, wife, mother, or daughter of a masculine Neter. At first she was consort to early sky bull deities, keeping with her status as divine cow. She was worshipped as part of the triad of Hathor, Horus, and their son Ihi. She was the mother of Heru, therefore the divine mother of the pharaoh, which was shown by Hathor being depicted as a full cow standing in Ra's solar boat with a young calve, the pharaoh, standing next to her. As mother of Heru, she became wife of Ra, Mistress of Heaven. Hathor was also said to be the mother of Isis.
After the Middle Kingdom, Hathor was combined with a neter of war from Upper Kemet known as Sekhmet. In many ways the opposite of Hathor, Sekhmet was bloodthirsty and enjoyed the slaughter of humans. In this guise, Hathor was the Daughter of Ra. When Thoth rose in prominence and was considered the father of Ra-Herakhty, Hathor as mother of Heru became his wife and took on attributes of acting witness to the judgment of souls. Hathor received the Dead as the wife of Nehebkau, the guardian of the entrance to the underworld. In later times, she also was identified as Isis, and their attributes would eventually fully merge.
Hathor's main temple is 37 miles north of Luxor in Dendera, known in ancient times as Iunet. This temple started as a shrine that dates from 5500 BC to 3100 BC and contains the remains of cows. The structure was rebuilt during the time of Khufu (2589–2566 BC). The structure that exists today was initially built over a period from 332 BC to 395 AD. A ceiling in this temple contains a detailed map of the heavens showing the hours of the day and night, the regions of the moon and sun, northern and southern stars, planets, and the 12 signs of the zodiac. Although rebuilt in the Greco-Roman era of Egyptian history, scholars suspect that the astrological information depicted is much older.
Dendera was the principle location for the followers of Hathor and was home to numerous feasts, which included drink, dance, music, merriment, and sexuality. There were other temples to Hathor located throughout Kemet and were collectively known as the seven Hathors: Hathor of Thebes, Heliopolis, Aphroditopolis, Sinai Peninsula, Momemphis or Ammu, Herakleopolis, and Keset. These were actual physical structures, as opposed to the Seven Hathors who were mythological or perhaps priests from one of her temples.
The merriment that often took place at Hathor's temples was officiated by her priests, who were both male and female and often dancers, singers, and musicians. She became the patron of this population and a neter representing joy. This association could have originated when Hathor was merged with another cow goddess of fertility from earlier times who was symbolized by a particular musical instrument. Hathor is also known as a healer. In one of the versions of the great battle between Set and Heru, Set tore out one of Heru's eyes, and it is Hathor who restored it. The wedjat eye, which would become a popular symbol of healing and protection throughout Kemet, also belongs to Hathor.
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