Egyptian Goddess Hathor: Story, Facts & Symbols

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Egyptian mythology was full of powerful and complex figures. In this lesson, we'll check out the myths of Hathor and see what role this goddess played in Egyptian civilization.

Who is Hathor?

What does the planet Venus have in common with the Nile River, cows, and rattles? Nothing at all. At least not in our culture. In ancient Egypt, however, this list of attributes would have been easily identifiable with the goddess Hathor.

Hathor was one of the most popular goddesses in all of Egypt, who was worshipped widely across the empire. She was the goddess of mothers, women, and women's physical and psychological wellbeing but also known as the goddess of dance, beauty and music. She was the personification of joy, goodness, celebration, and love. She was also associated with the sky, the movement of planets, Venus, birth, and rebirth after death, as well as the cyclical rejuvenation of the entire cosmos. And, most of the time she had the head of a cow. Overall, this isn't a goddess it would have been easy to forget.

Hathor
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Hathor in Egyptian Mythology

Hathor is one of the older deities in Egyptian culture, and as a result, the myths surrounding her are a little inconsistent. After all, Egyptian civilization thrived for 3,000 years. Stories change with time.

There are two main myths that explain the origin of Hathor. In one, she is associated with another primeval goddess, Sekhmet. In the traditional version of the story, the Sun god Ra unleashed Sekhmet as a force of pure destruction to punish humanity for its wickedness. Sekhmet nearly destroys all of humanity until the Egyptian god of beer intervenes and brews a red beer that she drinks, thinking it's the blood of humans. She passes out and wakes up as Hathor, the personification of benevolence and the exact opposite of her former, destructive self. Partly thanks to this story, Hathor was the goddess of not only joy, but drunkenness.

In another story, Hathor's origins are conflated with the goddess Isis. As Horus (son of Ra) battles his uncle Set (sometimes known as Seth) for control of the cosmos, he becomes angry that his mother Isis isn't doing enough to help. So, he cuts off her head while she sleeps. She wakes up, perturbed at being decapitated, and places the first head she could find, a cow's head, on her body. This is a later story from the New Kingdom, when Isis and Hathor were often worshipped as one.

Thanks to the various myths about Hathor, there are a few ways you may see her depicted in Egyptian art. She is often shown as a woman with the head of a cow and is very occasionally shown as an entire cow (conflated with the primeval cow goddess whose milk created the Nile). More frequently, you may see Hathor symbolized as a woman who only has the ears or horns of a cow, with the red sun disk of Horus between her horns. Her other symbol is the sistrum, a rattle-like percussion instrument which she uses to drive evil away from the world.

Hathor (right) is often identifiable by her horns
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Role of Hathor

Egyptian mythology was obsessed with motifs of regeneration, rebirth, and cycles of existence. Humans were reborn after death, the Nile rejuvenated itself yearly, and even the Universe had to be renewed on a cyclical basis. Considering the importance of these themes, being a goddess of birth and rebirth was hardly insignificant. We also can't ignore the fact that a goddess who helped maintain cosmic order was so closely associated with joy. For the Egyptians, the message was clear: peace and happiness on Earth came from maintaining the cosmic cycles (which stemmed from respecting the authority of the Pharaoh and the gods).

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