Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
Hathor is an ancient Egyptian goddess associated, later, with Isis and, earlier, with Sekhmet. She is always depicted as a cow or with the attributes of a cow. In her form as Hesat she is shown as a pure white cow carrying a tray of food on her head as her udders flow with milk. Although in time she came to be considered the ultimate personification of kindness and love, she was initially literally a blood-thirsty deity unleashed on mankind to punish humans for their sins.
An ancient tale similar to that of the biblical flood tells of the great god Ra becoming enraged at human ingratitude and evil and releasing Sekhmet upon humanity to destroy them. He regrets his decision after a time and, in an attempt to stop Sekhmet's blood lust, has beer dyed red and dropped at Dendera for her to drink. She becomes drunk, falls asleep, and wakes up as Hathor the benevolent. All the later goddesses of Egypt can be considered forms of Hathor. She was the primordial Mother Goddess, ruler of the sky, the sun, the moon, agriculture, fertility, the east, the west, moisture and childbirth. Further, she was associated with joy, music, love, motherhood, dance, drunkeness and, above all, gratitude.
Unlike other deities of ancient Egypt, whose clergy needed to be of the same sex as the deity they served, those who served Hathor could be men or women. Hathor's cult center was at Dendera, Egypt, but she was widely regarded and worshipped throughout Egypt to the extent that she was also honored as a goddess of the afterlife in the Field of Reeds (the Egyptian land of the dead). Originally, when one died in ancient Egypt, whether male or female, one assumed the likeness of Osiris (lord and judge of the dead) and was blessed by his qualities of moral integrity. So popular was Hathor, however, that, in time, the female dead who were deemed worthy to cross into the Field of Reeds assumed Hathor's likeness and qualities while the male dead continued to be associated with Osiris.
Hathor was, in early times, worshipped in the form of a cow or as a cow with stars above her. Later she was pictured as a woman with the head of a cow and, later still, as a woman complete with a human face but sometimes with the ears or horns of a cow. She is popularly known as the 'cow goddess' today. Throughout history she has been known as the daughter of Nut and Ra, Wife of Ra, mother of Ihy. Some ancient stories depict her as the mother of Horus the Elder and others as the wife of Horus of Edfu, resulting in the birth of Horus the Younger (usually regarded as the son of Osiris and Isis and, so, marking Hathor as an older goddess than the Osiris/Isis myth). Her cult was popular with both the poor working class of Egypt and the ruling elite.
A part of the initiation into her cult appears to have been a ritual known as The Five Gifts of Hathor in which a communicant would be asked to name the five things they were most grateful for while looking at the fingers of their left hand. As the poor of Egypt did not own their own land, but labored for others in the fields, their left hand was always visible to them as they reached out to harvest grain (which would then be cut by the blade in their right hand). By naming the five things one was grateful for, and identifying them with the fingers of the left hand, one was constantly reminded of the good things in one's life and this kept one from the `gateway sin' of ingratitude from which, it was thought, all other sins followed. For the more affluent of Egypt, considering the Five Gifts would have been a way to keep from envying those more prosperous than oneself and a means by which one was reminded to be humble in the face of the gods.
In her earthly form as a dairy cow, Hathor was known as Hesat, the wet-nurse to the gods, and is always associated with motherhood and motherly instincts. Milk was known as `The beer of Hesat' and The Milky Way as seen in the night sky also came to be associated with her as it was considered a heavenly Nile River, the giver and sustainer of all life.
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