Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
It is no easy matter to gauge the true mythological significance of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, patron of[Pg 163] women, of love, and of pleasure, Lady of Heaven, and Mistress of the Underworld. She occupied a very important position in the pantheon of ancient Egypt, dating as she did from archaic or even pre-dynastic times. We find a multitude of mythological ideas fused in the Hathor conception: she is a moon-goddess, a sky-goddess, a goddess of the east, a goddess of the west, a cosmic deity, an agricultural goddess, a goddess of moisture, even on occasion a solar deity. Though her original status is thus in a measure obscured, it is supposed that she is primarily a moon-goddess, for reasons which follow hereafter.
The original form under which Hathor was worshipped was that of a cow. Later she is represented as a woman with the head of a cow, and finally with a human head, the face broad, kindly, placid, and decidedly bovine, sometimes retaining the ears or horns of the animal she represents. She is also shown with a head-dress resembling a pair of horns with the moon-disk between them. Sometimes she is met with in the form of a cow standing in a boat, surrounded by tall papyrus-reeds. Now in mythology the cow is often identified with the moon—why it is hard to say. Perhaps it may not be too far-fetched to suppose that the horned appearance of the moon at certain seasons has suggested its association with the cow. Mythology is largely based on such superficial resemblances and analogies; it is by means of these that the primitive mind first learns to reason. Or it may be that the cow, naturally of great importance to agricultural peoples, was, by reason of this importance, associated with the moon, mistress of the weather and principle of growth and fruitfulness. The fact that Hathor the cow is sometimes shown in a boat suggests that she was also a water-goddess, and heightens the probability that she was[Pg 164] identified with the moon, for the latter was regarded by the Egyptians as the source of all moisture.
The name Hathor signifies 'House of Horus'—that is, the sky, wherein dwelt the sun-god Horus, and there is no doubt that at one time Hathor was regarded as a sky-goddess, or a goddess of the eastern sky, where Horus was born; she has also been identified with the night sky and with the sunset sky. If, however, we regard her as a moon-goddess, a good deal of the mythology concerning her will become clear. She is, for example, frequently spoken of as the 'Eye of Ra,' Ra, the sun-god, probably possessing in this instance the wider significance of sky-god. She is also designated 'The Golden One,' who stands high in the south as the Lady of Teka, and illumines the west as the Lady of Saïs. That she is mistress of the underworld is likewise not surprising when we consider her as identical with the moon, for does not the moon make a daily pilgrimage through Amentet? Neither is it astonishing that a goddess of moisture and vegetation should be found in the underworld dispensing water to the souls of the dead from the branches of a palm or a sycamore.
On the same hypothesis we may explain the somewhat paradoxical statement that Hathor is 'mother of her father, daughter of her son'—that she is mother, wife, and daughter to Ra. The moon, when she appears in the heavens before the sun, may be regarded as his mother; when she reigns together with him she is his wife; when she rises after he has set she is his daughter. It is possible that the moon, with her generative and sustaining powers, may have been considered the creative and upholding force of the universe, the great cosmic[Pg 165] mother, who brought forth not only the gods and goddesses over whom she rules, but likewise herself as well. It was as the ideal of womanhood, therefore, whether as mother, wife, or daughter, that she received the homage of Egyptian women, and became the patron deity of love, joy, and merry-making, "lady of music and mistress of song, lady of leaping, and mistress of wreathing garlands." Temples were raised in her honour, notably one of exceptional beauty at Denderah, in Upper Egypt, and she had shrines without number. She became in time associated or even identified with many local goddesses, and, indeed, it has been said that all Egyptian goddesses were forms of Hathor.
As guardian of the dead Hathor is figured as a cow, issuing from the Mountain of the West, and she is also represented as standing on its summit receiving the setting sun and the souls of the dead (the latter travelling in the footsteps of the sun-god). In this case Hathor might be regarded as the western sky, but the myth might be equally significant of the moon, which sometimes "stands on the mountains of the west" after the time of sunset, with horns resembling hands outstretched to welcome the unseen souls. Yet another point is worthy of note in connexion with the mythological aspect of Hathor. When she was born as the daughter of Ra (her mother was Nut, the sky-goddess) she was quite black. This fact admits of several interpretations. It may be that Hathor's swarthy complexion is indicative of an Ethiopian origin, or it may be that she represents the night sky, which lightens with the growth of day. It is still possible, however, to regard her as typifying the moon, which is 'born black,' with only a narrow crescent of light, but which grows brighter as it becomes older. It is unlikely that the keen eyes of these primitive peoples would fail to[Pg 166] observe the dark disk of the new moon, faintly outlined with light reflected from the earth.
In the following myth of Ra and Hathor the latter is plainly identified with the lunar deity:
Long ago there dwelt on earth Ra, the sun-god, the creator of men and things, and ruler over the gods. For a time men gave to him the reverence due to his exalted position, but at length he began to grow old, and they mocked him, saying, "Behold! his bones are like silver, his limbs are like gold, his hair is like unto real lapis-lazuli." Now Ra was very wroth when he heard their blasphemy, so he called together his followers, the gods and goddesses of his train, Shu and Tefnut, Geb and Nut, and Hathor, the eye of Ra.