On the Eighth Day of Christmas, my Goddess gave to me…
eight maids milking.
Today we return to our discussion of the goddesses, with a visit to Egypt. Probably the best known cow goddess is Hathor, and her counterpart Bat.
Cow goddesses played a significant role in the pantheon of Ancient Egypt. Hathor is probably the best known of them, and was quite popular amongst pharaoh and pauper alike – she was worshipped by both the common people, and the royalty who ruled over them. It is undeniable that in Dynastic Egypt, Hathor was a paramount female goddess. Egyptologists cite the evidence of pottery vessels and cow amulets to support such a belief, and further evidence suggests that the concept of a mothering cow goddess extends even further back in time to the Predynastic Egypt of 7000 B.C. The location and economy of Egypt certainly supports the idea of the life-giving importance of the woman, the cow, and the milk in an increasingly desert environment.
Certainly many agricultural cultures of the times revered the cow, seeing her as a nurturing entity – the perfect mother. However, not all of them necessarily adopted a cow goddess. Evidence of such in Predynastic Egypt appears to be based upon three assumptions: the beliefs surrounding Hathor and other earlier cow goddesses; depictions of cattle are to be identified as cow goddesses; and that women are associated with cattle. While there is clear evidence of the symbolic importance of cattle in Predynastic Egypt, what is not so clear is whether those cattle truly represent the Divine Feminine…or rather a bull, and thus the power of the king.
An example of such an argument can be found in the depictions of bovines seen on the Narmer palette, a stone ceremonial item dating from the very beginnings of the First Dynasty, approximately 3000 B.C. Interestingly, a depiction of a bovine creature on one side of the stone clearly indicate it is a bull; however, the row of bovine heads across the top have been interpreted as being either Bat or Hathor. Why it is assumed that these images must be cows as opposed to bulls is questionable, since there is nothing to identify their gender as such. However, based upon our knowledge of these female deities, one tends to presume that these are in fact depictions of a cow goddess.
We do know that Bat and Hathor existed – Bat is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, as well as a Sixth Dynasty stone tablet, and Hathor first shows up in the reign of Khafre of the Fourth Dynasty. Hathor is the better known goddess…and the more enduring of the two. Indeed, Bat appears to have been assimilated into Hathor over time, and had pretty much disappeared from existence by the time of the Middle Kingdom – which began with the Eleventh Dynasty around 2000 B.C.
So who is Hathor? She is the goddess who personified joy, feminine love, and motherhood. At different times we can find her playing the role of a sky-goddess, a sun-goddess, a moon-goddess, a goddess of the east, a goddess of the west, a goddess of moisture, a goddess of fertility, an agricultural goddess, and a goddess of the underworld. She was originally thought to be the personification of the Milky Way, which is considered to be the milk that flows from the udders of a cosmic cow. She was the “Mistress of Heaven”; the Celestial Nurse who who fed the Pharaoh in the guise of a cow. As the “Mother of Mothers” she was goddess of women, fertility, children, and childbirth. She was also the patron goddess of dancers and associated with music. Many of her priestesses and priests were artisans, musicians, and dancers who added to the quality of life of the Egyptians and who worshipped her by expressing their artistic natures.
But Hathor had her destructive side also. In her role as the Eye of Ra – defender of the sun god – she manifested as the goddess Sekhmut and unleashed her wrath on Egypt, slaughtering people by the hundreds. Even when Ra himself asked her to stop, Sekhmut refused – such was her blood lust. Finally the slaughter was stopped when beer dyed red (to resemble blood) was poured over the killing fields, and upon drinking it Sekhmut became drunk and passed out, sleeping for several days. She awoke with no further taste for human flesh, and transformed back to her gentle, loving Hathor self.
A multi-dimensional goddess, Hathor had many relationships, many associations, many images, and many symbols. She was much loved and much worshipped – even outside of Egypt. Many were the festivals dedicated in her honor. Today her temples can still be found in Egypt, and in fact the Temple of Hathor at Dendera is one of the best preserved temples in the country. Indeed, the legacy of Hathor continues to influence not only Egyptian mythology, but modern day feminist theory to this very day.