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.