The double life of the Goddess of love and pleasure.
Egyptian Past is a blog series containing stories related to Egyptian antiquity, focusing on the artefacts in our collection.
She is many things wondrous: goddess of joy, and of love, personification of kindness and beauty. Her bovine eyes and long lashes are the embodiment of femininity and passion. She is divine and maternal; yet blood-thirsty and dangerous. She is the great one with many names. She is Hathor.
The sacred figure of goddess Hathor was much cherished among Egyptian amulets. She was a patron of women, love and sexual attraction as well as fertility, conception, pregnancy and childbirth. Her passion as wife, mother and lover was an inspiration to men and women alike, but Hathor was inherently a feminine goddess.
Originally she was depicted as a celestial cow, but later as a female with the ears of a cow, and wearing a headdress with horns and a sun disc set in between them. Her milk flowing from the udders symbolised the heavenly Milky Way in the night sky.
Hathor also nurtured the souls of the deceased by offering them food. As a cow she suckled the souls to nourish them for their journey into the afterlife. In this funerary role she was known as Lady of the West as she received the setting sun in the west of Thebes and protected it until next morning. Dying people wished to be received and protected by Hathor in a similar way.
Hathor evoked pleasures such as sex and joy. The Lady of Life - her other title – reflects her feminine, light-hearted spirit. One legend recounts that she lifted the spirits of an unhappy Ra by revealing her intimate parts and dancing before him. Thus she became the patron of music and dance, associated with the sistrum - a percussive instrument and a fetish of fertility.
Hathor, Goddess of Beauty, was often depicted on cosmetic items such as mirrors, not to reflect vanity, but feminine confidence and charm. Her association with precious fragrances, music and dance embodied the tantalising appeals of the female sex.
But Hathor had a dark side. She almost achieved ‘the destruction of mankind.’ On the request of her father Ra, the story goes, Hathor was transformed into the feline-like Sekhment, who was sent to punish humans for their sins and ingratitude. Blood-thirsty and vicious, Sekhment went on the rampage to obliterate humanity. When Ra realised his mistake, he dyed beer red to trick Sekhment into believing it was blood. When drunk she fell into a slumber. Then Ra returned her back to Hathor – the caring, loving, maternal and light-hearted goddess.
Hathor had strong links with colours and precious stones. Sometimes she was depicted in red, symbolising her bold passion in love and pleasure, but her sacred colour was turquoise. It is only fitting that she was a patron of miners and a goddess of the Sinai Peninsula, where many famous mines were located. The mines contained turquoise and malachite, precious materials which were treasured by females and used in cosmetics and adornments.
For example, eye shadow was made by grinding malachite into powder – and it also protected the eyes from infections. Turquoise stones in a typical colour of faience, were often used in jewellery. Inspired by the colour of Hathor, women often wore a menat (strings of beads, necklace) with faience amulets. They were expected to bring luck and good fortune, and had protective powers in the afterlife.
Prepared by Natalie Cassaniti and Stan Florek