Hathor, the Cow Goddess… Plus, the Narmer Palette

What’s not to love about Hathor, the Egyptian cow goddess of beauty, sensuality, music, dancing, wine, maternity and much more. She could change from a cow, to a woman with a cow’s broad head and cow ears, to a beautiful woman with cow horns and a sun disk. She could also take the form of a lioness, goose, and a sycamore tree! She was popular with both pharaohs and common people alike. Her beginnings trace back to the dawn of Egyptian history. She is even found on the Narmer Palette, considered Egypt’s most important historical relic, that dates back to 3,100 BCE and reflects much of the next 3,000 years of Egyptian art and history.

Today, Peggy and I are continuing our series on our trip up the Nile in March with Uniword Cruises traveling with our excellent guide, Sabaa. Once again, we will be mixing the mythology, history, and architecture that make Egypt such a fascinating place. All of the photos in this post were taken by either Peggy or me.

Photo of Hathor the Cow Goddess and Peggy Mekemson taken by Curt Mekemson.
Of all the goddesses I have read about, Hathor is my all-time favorite. Peggy good naturedly agreed to pose with her. I think the side profile of Hathor looks a lot like George Washington. Another role, perhaps?
Lacking a photo of Hathor as a cow, I decided to throw in a California cow I found while hiking down the Pacific Crest Trail and named Hathor. It’s only fitting that the goddess of motherhood be very pregnant like this big bovine is.

Gods evolve over time. Hathor is certainly an example of this. She probably started out as the local goddess to a pastoral tribe of nomads as they moved their cattle from place to place. Her responsibilities grew as the regions she was identified with expanded and she took on the role of other female deities. The most dramatic increase in her territory was when Narmer, the pharaoh of Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt around 3,100 BCE. (Lower Egypt included the Nile Delta where it flowed out into the Mediterranean. Upper Egypt followed the Nile south of Cairo as it climbed up to the cataracts at modern Aswan.) The unification of these two areas is central to much of the subsequent history of Egypt. Since the Narmer Palette showed the first phase of the unification, plus Hathor, it’s worth looking at closely. The palette is located in the Museum of Egyptian History, which was just outside the backdoor of our hotel in downtown Cairo.

This is the back of the Narmer Palette. Following is what I’ve been able to derive from the various interpretations.

Two images of Hathor are located at the top of the Palette look favorably down on the Narmer. You might say that she is offering her blessing, supporting his position as pharaoh. Such approval was critical in legitimizing the position and power of the pharaohs, who also claimed divinity and made sure gods were part of their family trees. The raised relief between the two images of Hathor spells out Narmer’s name in hieroglyphics, represented by a catfish and a chisel. The background, called a serekh, symbolizes the entrance to a castle and was used to show that this was a pharaoh’s name. Later pharaohs would use a cartouche to emphasize their names.

A number of other things are used to demonstrate Narmer’s power that would be common to future pharaohs. One, he is smiting his enemy. Pharaohs did lots of smiting. In this instance, Narmer is using his mace to pound what I believe is his chisel into the head of his unfortunate enemy from Lower Egypt. Two, he is much larger than anyone else. Three, the bowling pin shaped hat on his head is the white crown of Upper Egypt, the Hedjet. Below his belt, Narmer’s kilt features four more images of Hathor on top of columns, just in case there are any doubts about her support. His beard will be seen on all future pharaohs. And finally, he has one fine tail. It’s a bull’s tail that symbolizes pharaohs could take the shape of large bulls.

The small figure off to the left is his servant, who is tasked with carrying his sandals. On the right, Horus, the falcon god, is perched on a papyrus plant while he uses a rope to pull up another enemy out of the marsh by what appears to be a hook through his nose. That would hurt. Note how his claw and leg have become an arm and a hand. This likely symbolizes that Horus also supports Narmer’s military success over Lower Egypt. Two more dead enemies are shown on the bottom.

Here’s the front of the palette, which is packed with even more symbolism. Once again, Hathor and the pharaoh’s name are on top.

From left to right on the next level, we have the servant still faithfully carrying Narmer’s sandals. His flower may be the lotus, the plant symbol of Upper Egypt. It looks quite perky. Narmer is wearing the crown of lower Egypt here, showing the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt and the fact that he now rules over both. He is still carrying his mace. His right hand, however, holds a shepherd’s crook that will become another symbol of pharaohs— and, far into the future, popes. His catfish and chisel come next, announcing him. Below them is another servant carrying what appears to be wilted papyrus, the plant symbol of Lower Egypt. Compared to the perky lotus, are they mourning the defeat? Standard bearers come next followed by the defeated enemies. Their heads have all been cut off and are laid between their feet. This isn’t enough, however. They have also been de-manned and their parts draped over their heads. Not a pretty picture in anyone’s book— or blog. Above them, a barque, Ra the sun god’s boat, sails across the sky, which is a story for a future post.

The delightfully weird mythical beasts below with their long necks are called serpopards, a modern name concocted from serpent and leopard. Egypt adopted them from neighboring Mesopotamia. The round space in the middle is designed for grinding minerals used in makeup, possibly for ceremonial purposes in the worship of the gods. Could it be Hathor? The goddess of beauty was also the goddess of makeup. Below, Narmer has adopted his bull persona and is destroying the walls of a village or city where he is smiting another enemy.

Now back to Hathor.

Here’s Hathor in her form as a beautiful woman, smiling down on people entering the Egyptian Museum of History. The horns on her head display the sun disk. Wadjit, the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt, adorns her head while Nekhbet, the vulture goddess of Upper Egypt, soars beneath her, both providing protection.

One of my favorite myths about Hathor is how she served time as the Eye of Ra, which like the Eye of Horus, could wander around on its own. Unlike the Eye of Horus that brought good things, however, the Eye of Ra was an object of power and could bring devastation.

In the Book of the Heavenly Cow from the Middle Kingdom, Ra becomes angered by humans’ lack of respect and bad behavior so he releases his eye Hathor in the form of Sekhmet, the lion goddess, upon humanity to destroy it. Note the parallel here with the God of the Old Testament, who decides to flood earth and destroy humanity for similar reasons. The goddess in a passion of blood thirsty destruction descends on mankind killing everyone she finds and destroys their farms, towns and cities. At first Ra is pleased that humanity is getting what it deserves, but eventually becomes concerned (with the help of the other gods) that maybe he has gone too far, and soon there will be no humans left on earth. Who’s going to worship him? He decides to show mercy.

He asks Tenenet, the goddess of beer, to brew a large, potent batch, dye it red, and deliver it to where Sekhmet will see it. (Brewing a large batch of beer in Ancient Egyptian terms was indeed large. Vats found in Hierakonpolis could brew up to 300 gallons of beer at a time.) Sekhmet finds it, and, thinking she has found a huge cache of blood, drinks it down to relieve her blood lust, the whole batch! Glug, glug, glug—becomes drunk beyond imagination, and falls into a deep sleep. She wakes up in the form of the beautiful Hathor who henceforth does only good for the people of Egypt and becomes their most beloved goddess. 

Another set of myths I enjoyed about Hathor was her relationship with Horus, partially because it reflects how myths can change and don’t necessarily need to be consistent. In at least one version of the Isis-Osiris myth that I shared in my last Egypt post, Hathor nurses the young Horus with her bounteous udders while he is hidden in the papyrus marshes of the Nile Delta. She also helps hide him by shaking a sistrum, an ancient Egyptian music rattle that sounds like rustling papyrus, and muffles any noise Horus may make. Need it be said that Hathor was also the goddess of the sistrum?

Another myth suggests that Hathor was the mother of Horus. So much for Isis. But maybe that’s okay, since Isis eventually takes over the role and form of Hathor, looking exactly like her. And finally, this gets a little kinky: Hathor becomes the lover/consort/wife of Horus. BTW, Hathor translates into the House of Horus, giving a whole new meaning to “I’m home, Honey.”

Now it’s time to wrap up this post with some photos of Hathor. Many of these images came from the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, which we will visit later.

This is from Hathor’s temple at Dendera. Ra, the sun god, has just completed his nighttime journey through Nut and is born again. His rays shine down on Hathor. Take a moment to look at the other images, like the snake emerging from the lotus.
New hair-do?
Same hair-do, more basic version.
On a column: Big Hathor above; little Hathor below.
Hathor looking a bit more cow-ish at Dendera. Grin. Check out the nose and nostrils! Same hairdo.
And finally—an interesting trio, to say the least. Hathor is on the left, in her human form. Horus comes next. He is wearing the combined crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. And no, he is not overly excited to be in the presence of two beautiful semi-clad women. That’s a dagger in his belt. Isis is last. Note how Isis now looks like Hathor. Both are wearing the vulture goddess, Nekhbet, as a hat, and both display horns holding the sun disk from which the cobra goddess, Wadjit, dangles. The only difference between the two is that the object protruding from the sun disk above Isis is her crown.

Our next post will feature Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. We will be back in Egypt the following week.

43 thoughts on “Hathor, the Cow Goddess… Plus, the Narmer Palette

  1. Second paragraph under the back of the palette, I think you meant bowling pin shaped hat.

    This was a fun post to read, Curt. I do love the details and the deep dive into stories about the goddess Hathor. Her cow ears are pretty endearing. I also love how she clearly has kinky hair and her hair styles reflect that. What marvelous marvelous carving skills those ancient scribes had. I had not previously heard of the Narmer Palette and I think it’s simply wonderful. I appreciate how you described so much of what is on it. I hadn’t even noticed that Horus’ claw turned into a forearm and hand – that is so cool.

    The sculpture at the Museum of History is my favourite. It is magnificent and really does look like a benevolent goddess.

    • One, immediately went back and made the correction, Crystal. Thanks.

      The post was a long one for me, but I had a kick putting it together. The more research I do, the more I see and the more sense it all makes to me. I find it endless fascinating. I check for a quick fact and find myself lost to the world for 20-30 minutes. 🙂

      The Palette is amazing. The basic themes are repeated over and over and over, for 3000 years.

      Hathor was flanked on the museum entrance by two statues of Cleopatra. It makes for quite a display.

      • That happens to me too! I was talking with another blogger about it. I want to get the facts right, so I do a little research, and ….I often don’t resurface for a long time. I can take 2 or 3 hours to make a post on those occasions. But, like you, I consider that a “fun” post!

  2. I have a huge book on Egypt, but still have not gotten through it all. That depiction of Ra has him looking a bit cross-eyed, maybe the sun’s too hot?

  3. This is wonderful. So many interesting parallels with ancient Greek myths too. It all seems humorous now – but I assume that it was not a joking matter at all to the Egyptians. And one request: please make the final exam an open book one.

    • Laughing about the final exam, Frances. And you are right about the parallels as the myths are handed down and modified to meet the needs and experiences of different cultures. Joseph Campbell’s book, “The Transformations of Myth Though Time,” does an excellent job of exploring the subject.
      The Egyptians could be serious, deadly serious, but I am also finding they had a sense of humor.
      Thanks much for your comment.

  4. A very cool post, Curt. There’s a great book (the name eludes me) that I read some years ago that talked about the origins of religions and the stories and symbolism that extended through time and took on multiple variations. Your mention of the shepherd’s crook and Ra’s rampage made me think of how far back the stories go. I tend to dwell on Christianity’s borrowing and revision of Roman, Greek, and Celtic mythology, but it goes back so much further. And I like how even within one civilization the stories change. Looking forward to learning more. Thanks for the great photos.

    • I was in college, D, when I read a similar book. It totally changed (shook) my perspective on Christianity/religion and led to a fascination with mythology that has been with me down to the present. As I like to say, my rock that was Peter shifted to an active fault zone. Grin. Thanks for your addition.

  5. Curt and Peggy, great post. The Narmer Palette was amazing when I saw it and with your detailed explanation even more so. Thanks for the additional information!

  6. Curt and Peggy, great post. The Narmer Palette was amazing when I saw it and with your detailed explanation even more so. Thanks for the additional information!
    Keep getting a duplicate post message. Don’t know why!

    • Thanks, Steve. It was both fun and interesting doing the research on the Palette. My fascination with Egypt continues to grow.
      Don’t know what to tell you about the duplicate message. WP works in mysterious ways at times. Ignore the second one.

  7. Another fascinating post, Curt, and I’m not surprised you used a CA cow from the PCT named Hathor! I am in awe from these adventures you and Peggy are able to go on. Absolutely wonderful! Looking forward to the next!

  8. WOW, I love this post Curt and Peggy certainly seems to resemble all of the good natured traits of Hathor. She looks stunning and radiant. Hahaahaha of course you used a cow from California. Keep having fun! I don’t think you need a reminder though! 💞

  9. Holy Cow! What a story!

    Ok, I admit, I wasn’t familiar with Hathor, and still am not with most of the Egyptian pantheon. Hathor is one talented bovine.

    Do the Egyptians veer Muslum these days, or are there various sects?

    • Hathor is my favorite, Dave! Indeed a holy cow.
      As for Egypt, the vast majority of the population is Muslim. This doesn’t mean that the local towns people and farmers in rural areas don’t still hold to some of the old beliefs.

  10. Well this was a fun and interesting read. Had me laughing out loud at times. Also the Narmer Palette would seem to indicate that propaganda goes waaaaaaay back.
    I love how humans turn themselves into pretzels to try to explain the world, and to stay safe.
    Great post Curt.

    • The pharaohs were masters of propaganda, Alison. No doubt about it. One wonders if they believed their messages. Ramses II coming up in my next post was the epitome, leaving statues of himself everywhere! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post! –Curt

  11. I think I just found the explanation for monotheism. Keeping track of this crew would have required a good bit of effort. One god is much less complicated! I did recognize a lot of the images here: ones I’ve seen in the past, but had no context for. It was great getting this overview of some of the details.

    • Laughing. It would have been a chore. One way the process was simplified that the major gods, such as Hathor, kept assuming the roles of other gods, which eventually may have led to some type of monotheism. Another was the creation of triads which I will touch on in my next Egypt post, kind of like the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Grin.

  12. I loved this post Curt. And yes, there does seem to have been quite a lot of smiting! The evolution of Hathor is really fascinating. (and Peggy is lovely posing next to her!)

  13. Very fun post on Hathor, whom I barely know! Your research and explanation of the various figures is much more thorough than I have been able to manage as I try to write a post on the Angkor complex in Cambodia and all the vastly interesting bas-reliefs there. I’ll let you do the hard work while I end up telling dumb travel stories and posting photos! 🙂

    • Ha, I seriously doubt that you are capable of telling ‘dumb’ travel stories, Lexi. I’ve always enjoyed your tales and photos. 🙂 Just glad that you are out on the road again. Thanks. –Curt

  14. Curt, I love Egyptian antiquities, and the quality of carving on the palette is amazing. Great photo of both sides. When you consider how many Egyptian burial pieces there are in Egypt as well as in museums scattered around the world, there must have been a HUGE amount of stuff that got buried, because grave robbers are a clever and persistent lot. And seeing all your photos of Hathor reminds me what a prominent place she played in the Egyptian Pantheon. I can also tell you took quite a deep dive into the mythology as well. Good post. ~James

    • Thanks, James. Like you, I’ve been a fan of Egyptian mythology and history for a long, long time, dating all the way back to high school. Going there was an incredible treat for both Peggy and I. I can’t believe it took us so long. As for the amount of stuff, they just keep finding more and more. Everywhere we went there were archeological digs going on.

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