Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Lady of the Jubilant House

This week, someone asked: Can we bring it back home to the four HJ pantheons with a segment on Hathor? And the answer is totally yes. Hathor is awesome. We are pretty much always dying to talk about Hathor.

There is no Egyptian goddess more beloved, popular and important than Hathor, with the possible exception of Isis, whose later cult managed to absorb a lot of Hathor's imagery and roles but which still didn't quite manage to eclipse its much older forbear. Hathor's one of the most long-running and perennially popular of Egypt's deities, with important roles in life, death, rulership of the kingdoms and the creative acts of birth and artforms alike. She is the goddess of essential womanhood, encompassing beauty, sexuality, motherhood and companionship, and also the patron of all arts and artists, especially music (symbolized by the sistrum she is often shown carrying) and dance.

Also, she's a cow, which is not as weird as it might seem at first. Like many of Egypt's oldest deities, Hathor was probably originally worshiped in zoomorphic form, and only later began to be depicted as human-like. Our oldest artwork of her shows her as a cosmic bovine, towering over those she protects and nurtures; the cow is a popular symbol in Egyptian mythology representing nourishment, protection, motherhood and comfort, and therefore Hathor, who is the preeminent goddess of all these things, appears frequently as a giant cow or a cow-headed goddess who symbolically feeds the whole world just as a single cow might feed a family with her milk.

Although Hathor appears as more human-like in the later Egyptian kingdoms, more often appearing in anthropomorphic form, she never quite sheds all her bovine attributes. Often, she appears with the head of a cow, or if she has a human head, she retains cow-like ears or great cow horns sprouting from her head, between which the sun is often held in order to illustrate her background as the first daughter (or wife, depending on the version) of Ra and the original Eye that he sent forth into the world to do his bidding.

Because of her status as one of the oldest and most important among Egyptian goddesses, Hathor has been through a lot of transformations over time; Egyptian religion continued in an uninterrupted stream of ritual and belief for thousands of years, which is a lot of centuries in which stories could change and evolve and deities could be reinterpreted or repurposed to suit their worshipers' needs. Most of her oldest myths revolve aroiund her status as the first goddess created by Ra, the primordial sun god who brought much of the world into being, and retell how Ra was lonely in the beginning of time and therefore created Hathor from his own seed in order to have a companion. She was born as the Golden One, the most beautiful among goddesses who accompanies Ra on his journeys and serves as his devoted daughter and sometimes wife, and she was the first Eye of Ra that was sent out into the darkness to begin to know the universe and report back to him.

It's interesting that Hathor was the first Eye of Ra, because while the Eye serves an important function as a representative of Ra and reporter of information to him, she also invariably goes rogue at some point and turns violent. In later Eyes of Ra - including the notoriously bloodthirsty Sekhmet - this is par for the course, but Hathor is so firmly associated with ideas of joy, beauty and feminine gentleness that the story of her rampage across the world is a surprising one that doesn't match up with most of her other stories. In that myth, humanity begins to disrespect Ra and plot to overthrow his worship, so he sends Hathor to lay waste to the offenders, which she does so thoroughly that the world is in danger of being entirely depopulated, and the gods are forced to then corral her and prevent her from overzealously wiping all of humanity off the face of the earth in her desire to please the sun god.

It's possible that Hathor was originally a fiercer protector figure than she eventually ended up, and that over time her positive and loving associations became so strong that later myths decided to divorce her from that original violent role, leading to the popular variants on the myth in which Hathor either calls Sekhmet to perform the rampage across the world for her or "becomes" Sekhmet for a limited time, shedding her normal persona in order to perpetrate violence; or, also possibly, maybe Sekhmet was originally intended to be merely an aspect of Hathor but later became separated to be worshiped in her own right, leading to two goddesses about whom the same story is told. It's also possible that since all of the Eyes of Ra (after Hathor, almost uniformly lion or cat goddesses, again making her the odd woman out) were created as his daughters and servants that her myths were somewhat required to include such acts, regardless of what she was doing at any other time in mythology.

No matter where that story comes from, however, when applied to Hathor it underlines her role as a fiercely protective mother figure to all of her various charges, which include Ra, Horus, the pharaoh, and any mortal who calls upon her as the cosmic mother she is.

Hathor's relationships with other gods are more complicated than anybody's need to be, again because the ancient Egyptians were so deeply in love with her that they felt the need to constantly attach her to all parts of their religious life and find ways to insert her into cults even when she had nothing to do with a particular deity or worship prior to that point. In addition to being Ra's first daughter, she was also widely regarded as his wife, which was understood as an expression of her personification of undying and sensual love and Ra's requirement of such a person to support him. In those parts of Ra's cult that considered him to be undergoing a constant cycle of birth and death - often by being born each morning as Khepri, the scarab beetle morning manifestation who begins rolling the sun into the sky, crossing the heavens as the familiar falcon-headed Ra, and setting in the evening as the ram-headed Khnum who returns to clay - Hathor also appears as Ra's mother and nurse, taking tender care of him when he is in his child form and standing by his side as he enters adulthood (apparently without any dissonance between the idea of her also being his wife and/or daughter; Hathor is exceptionally flexible that way).

And Ra isn't the only confusing falcon-headed man in Hathor's life; Horus, and by extension the pharaonic rulers he represents, is also frequently associated with her and appears in various cult depictions as her son (nursed on the milk of her form as the cosmic cow, and by extension passing that power on to the pharaoh), her husband (representing feminine power supporting his rule, and again considered symbolically to therefore also be the divine wife of the pharaoh), or a divine foster child who is given to her to nurse when his mother is unavailable or inadequate. By the later stages of Egyptian mythology, when the story of Osiris, Isis and Horus as a family unit had become extremely popular, Hathor ceased being attached to Horus as frequently as Isis became more firmly considered his mother; theories suggest that while Isis is indisputably the mother of Horus who is the son of Osiris, Hathor may have originally been considered the mother of the more primordial sky-god version of Horus who was at one point considered a sibling to Isis and Osiris, and to only have fallen out of favor in this depiction once the two Horuses became confused and then merged in Egyptian religious thought.

It's not surprising that a lot of what we end up talking about in regards to Hathor is who she's associated with and what relationships she has with other deities; she's the closest thing among the Egyptian gods to the classical idea of a love goddess, and all her powers and most of her stories revolve around her great beauty, artistic skills and ability to support, entertain and please the other gods and humanity by being generally too awesome to ignore.

For example, in one myth it is related that Ra became disenchanted with the world, which had ceased to entertain him; this was a source of consternation for the gods, since if Ra decided to abandon the world the sun would no longer travel through the sky and the world of humanity would fall into chaos and destroy itself (alternatively, in another version of the story Ra is irritated or exhausted by the ongoing squabble over kingship between Horus and Set and refuses to participate in the proceedings, grinding the trial to decide between them to a halt). They called upon Hathor to cheer him up, which she did by entering his chambers and performing a seductive dance for him, ending by flashing him a full view of her genitals. Ra laughed heartily and declared that he could never abandon a world that had something that beautiful in it, and returned to the other gods along with Hathor, who was thereafter sometimes referred to by the excellent title Great Lady of the Vulva.

Hathor is no passive and meek goddess to be bossed around by the male gods around her, in spite of how much she is beloved, and in the very rare case that anyone attempts to abuse her, retaliation is swift and brutal. In another myth, the chaos god Set saw Hathor bathing in the river, and smitten by her great beauty he attacked her. However, Hathor was more powerful in matters of sexual procreation than Set and did not appreciate his assault, and she inflicted a debilitating disease on him for daring to touch her, declaring that as the wife of the sun she could only be impregnated by holy fire. The story is probably partially borrowed from a similar Mesopotamian myth about the gods Ninhursag and Enki, but it illustrates Hathor as the boss of all sexual matters very clearly.

Finally, Hathor also represents the heavens themselves, and all the stars contained therein; in her bovine form, she is conceived of as standing so large that her cow body encompasses the entire sky, and all of the world occurs around her ankles. Said ankles, spangled with fancy stars and comforting night imagery that also tie in to Hathor's incredible beauty, are the pillars of the sky. The idea of Hathor as supporting the sky may be partly responsible for the great popularity of Hathor-columns, which are architectural supports with Hathor's head on them that were used in various temples, chapels and mortuaries to represent her symbolically supporting those structures as well.

We could seriously spend all day posting pictures of Hathor being awesome, but we need to get back in the writing trenches. Respect Hathor and her cults on your journeys, because from her comes all joy, and irritating her can't end well considering that she might just decide to cut you off.