Hathor with Ramses II & Amun

Hathor with Ramses II & Amun / Photo Courtesy: [Rocco Lucia / Flickr]

Among the deities of the ancient Egyptian religion, Hathor was considered one of the most popular goddesses. Her widespread worship and many legends described her as a mother goddess, as well as the patron goddess of the sky, the arts, joy, motherhood, marriage, festivals, miners, and love, to name a few. Due to the fact that she was a strong, feminine figure who had the backs of ladies everywhere, she was particularly admired among women.

As her fame and popularity grew over the centuries, her attributes were later adopted by several goddesses such as Isis and Sekhmet. In fact, many consider Hathor to be the primeval goddess who all other Egyptian goddesses either evolved from or were in some way based on.

As strange as this may sound, ancient Egyptian mythology was incredibly flexible, with one diety sometimes evolving into another. Occasionally two different deities were even considered different aspects of the same god or goddess.

Hathor’s iconic appearance

Hathor was closely associated with the cow, an animal that provided milk and nourishment in ancient times. She was occasionally depicted as a pure white cow, but more often as a woman with double horns on her head.

Between the horns, she carried a sun disk that was decked out with a “Uraeus” or upright cobra that symbolized sovereignty and divinity in ancient Egypt. The sun disk probably goes back to her associations with the sky god Horus and Ra, the god of the sun, but more on that later.

Hathor - Ancient Egyptian goddessHathor - Ancient Egyptian goddess
Hathor – Ancient Egyptian goddess / Wikipedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Hathor also wore a heavily beaded menat necklace, which she was often appeared wearing in art. Occasionally, she was also shown offering the necklace to Horus or a pharaoh who had found her favor.

But what exactly is a menat necklace, you ask? It’s basically a beaded necklace that forms a crescent shape, sort of like a letter C. The C shape hangs over the chest of the person wearing it, from one shoulder to the other.

How did the whole thing stay in place? In addition to other features, there were two beaded strings on either end of the C that were attached to a large counterweight in the back.

Though she may have been known as a motherly figure, Hathor was renowned for being a woman who knew how to look good. Not only was she said to have been stunningly beautiful, but she was also a lover of ancient cosmetics.

Due to this fact, wearing make-up back in ancient Egypt was seen as a form of devotion to the queenly goddess. The ancients also said that Hathor had killer hair and she wore it in a style so distinctive from her ancient counterparts that it’s known to archeologists to this day as the “Hathor hair-do.”

Some Egyptian texts reference an incident in which she lost a lock of hair, though we have no surviving accounts of the full story. Apparently, it was catastrophic because it represented her sexual allure..

See, in many pieces of Egyptian art, you’ll see hairstyles or wigs that are pretty uniquely Egyptian. Hathor, on the other hand, seems to have preferred the natural look. She wore her locks parted in the middle and flipped at the end, not unlike many women today.

Interestingly, some Egyptian texts reference an incident in which she lost a lock of hair, though we have no surviving accounts of the full story. Apparently, it was catastrophic, because the lock represented her sexual allure. Maybe she made sure her followers wiped the incident out of history like a bad Instagram story.

Relationship with other gods

Due to the fact that she was around long before any surviving records, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact point in history when Hathor first appeared. Some scholars believe her to have been popular as early as 3200–3000 BCE, due to a cow-headed goddess who appears on the Narmer Palette.

This theory seems to be supported by a passage from the Pyramid Texts (2613-2181 BCE), the oldest religious writings in the world. Some, however, argue that the figure in question was actually Bat, another cow-goddess whose legend Hathor may have evolved from.

Regardless, Hathor is an incredibly ancient deity who had quite a complicated relationship with many of the male deities of ancient Egypt. Take Ra, the sun god, for instance. At one time or another, Hathor was rumored to be his mother, daughter, wife, or any combination of the three.

Some people believe that Isis sort of evolved out of Hathor over time, as the two are often hard to differentiate.

Then there’s Horus, the god of the sky. Hathor was said to be his mother, but then again, so was Isis. This is among the many reasons that some people believe that Isis sort of evolved out of Hathor over time, as the two are often hard to differentiate.

Though ancient Egypt left us with a pretty murky and, at times, tabloid-like impression of the goddess’ origins, there is one story that seems to have been among the most popular.

This story implies that while Hathor ended up being the personification of love in her later days, it was only after a far shadier past. In a story described in an ancient text call The Book of the Heavenly Cow, a tale unfolds in which the mighty sun god Ra becomes incredibly upset with humanity.

Much like the Biblical God in the story of Noah and the ark, Ra decided that humans had all turned into wicked, ungrateful creatures. He decided to unleash his wrath on the earth via a war goddess known as Sekhmet, who would serve as the “eye of Ra.”

Some say that Hathor was turned into Sekhmet, others that she was first born as Sekhmet and transformed into Hathor later on. Regardless of the situation, at that point, she wasn’t very nice.

Sekhmet’s wrath

Sekhmet basically went around destroying everything in her path, fueled by a blood-lust unlike anything humanity had previously seen. At first, Ra sat back watching the whole thing with smug satisfaction, but at a certain point the other gods pointed out that maybe the lesson was going a little too far.

Mistaking the beer for blood, Sekhmet drank so much that she passed out for several days.

What happened next? Ra decided to calm Sekhmet down with a batch of strong beer that had been dyed red. Mistaking the beer for blood, Sekhmet drank so much that she passed out for several days. When she awoke, it was in the form of Hathor.

From that point on, Hathor became the loving, gentle goddess that all of ancient Egypt grew to know and love. However, there’s more to the story.

Apparently, the hangover she awoke with didn’t deter her from seeking out more good times because she went on to become known as the queen of harp playing and “mistress of inebriety without end.” Additionally, Hathor was said to have loved dancing, singing, music, and all other forms of revelry.

The Dendara Temple

While Hathor was worshiped throughout all of Egypt, her main cult center was located near the town of Dendra, Egypt. Archeologists have found evidence that there was a temple on the site from as early as 1500 BC, but the present-day temple is believed to have been constructed around 116 BC to 34 AD.

Old as it may be, the Dendara Temple is impressively none the worse for wear. Today it’s considered one of the best-preserved temples from ancient Egyptian times and can still be visited this day.

Some of the ancient worshipers who traveled to the Dendara Temple probably came in hopes of being blessed with some of Hathor’s legendary powers of healing. In one famous story, she was said to have healed the god Horus after he had his eyes gouged out by a rival god named Set.

The eye of Horus was said to covey protection, power, and good health.

Hathor restored Horus’ eyes to their rightful owner, leading ancient Egyptians to believe that the “eye of Horus” possessed magical healing powers. It became a symbol commonly used on Egyptian amulets and was said to covey protection, power, and good health.

The Serabit Al-Khadim Temple

Not only was Hathor popular in ancient Egypt, but the “goddess of a hundred temples” even had a temple in Siani. While this has led some scholars to suspect that Hathor was originally a Canaanite, rather than Egyptian, goddess, there’s another explanation that may make more sense.

Back in the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1186 B.C.E.) the Egyptians set up their own mining operations in Siani’s Serabit el-Khadem. It was then that they built the Serabit Al-Khadim Temple, which was packed full of shrines and sanctuaries dedicated to Hathor.

She must have been pleased by their efforts because the Egyptians had a great deal of success mining turquoise in the area. This led to Hathor being dubbed the “Mistress of Turquoise” and to the creation of some of ancient Egypt’s most beautiful jewelry.

Though in many ways linked with life and birth, Hathor also played an important role in death. She was said to have helped the dead by providing them with food and safe passage as they made their way to the underworld.

While many ancient Egyptians once identified life in the afterlife with the god Osiris, eventually he was mainly identified with by men, while women sought to become identified with Hathor after they died. Now, Hathor’s story continues to fascinate and inspire people all over the world as her myth lives on to this day.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101: