The Worship of Hathor in Ancient Egypt

Introduction
Temple at Dendera
Temple at Edfu
Deir-el-Bahri & Abu Simbel
Credits

Although there were many changes in beliefs, mythology & worship over time and in various regions of the Egypt of the Pharaohs, Hathor tended to be regarded as a major goddess throughout much of it. Hathor was actually the Greek version of the name Het-Hert, meaning House or Mansion of Horus. Originally considered as the mother of Horus, this title eventually went to Isis and Hathor was in later times regarded as his wife.

Religion played major role in life and culture of Egypt as seen in remaining buildings and art.

The temples were main centres of political power and administration as well as worship - most people who could not write could go to temples, scribes would write letters, keep records (marriages, etc). They were also major landowners, renting out land to tenant farmers and employing artisans to support them.

These centres of worship were elaborate and costly, built of stone more durable than domestic homes made of mudbrick.

There were two principal types of temple: cult temples and funerary or mortuary temples. The cult temple housed the images of the god and mortuary temples were shrines to the dead king.


Statue of Hathor in the British Museum, London

Dendera


Entrance to Hypostyle Hall

Although there were many shrines and chapels dedicated to Hathor throughout Egypt, her main centre of worship in Dendera north of Luxor, near the Nile river.

Dendera one of the best surviving temples. Known as Pr-Hathor (House of Hathor) or The House of the Sistrum, it was built in the time of the Ptomemies. This dynasty was of Greek origin, the founder of which was Ptolomey I. After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was split up between his Generals, Ptolomey taking Egypt under his administration, and eventually his status was raised to that of Pharaoh.

The building of temples was one way of appeasing Egypt's general populace who would naturally have harboured suspicions and ill-feeling at accepting what was essentially foreign rule.

The site was built over that of earlier shrines. Evidence of these buildings date from Old Kingdom times, as far back as Khufu who built the Great Pyramid. It was completed during a time of Roman rule.

Recognising Egypt as an important part of the empire, Rome also didn't impose it's own belief systems on Egypt. In fact, successive Emperors took the title of Pharaoh.

The most famous Queen, Cleopatra VII Philopator herself commissioned some of the work on the temple and most likely visited the site itself. Perhaps she once trod the same stairs up to the roof that visitors to the temple can climb up today.


Hypostyle Hall

An outside wall shows carvings in relief of Cleopatra and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion who lived approximately 6 years. Many later temples, such as the one at Dendera, followed a similar procession from outer courtyard to inner sanctuary symbolising the emergence and progression of the Egyptian people from the primordial waters, through marshland, then on to dry land.

The temple complex was walled with mud brick and fronted by huge stone entranceways, or pylons, leading into open courtyard. This in turn led to the Hypostyle Hall, which is a type of hall filled with massive columns. Egyptians did not use the arch in construction, so needed many huge pillars to hold up the roof of a large building.

Further in is the Hall of Appearances which shows wall scenes of the Pharaoh breaking the earth to build the temple and dedicating the first foundation stone to Hathor. The hall contains six side rooms, three on either side. These include a treasury, storage rooms and a room with an outside exit which enabled priests to fetch water from the sacred lake and other items needed for rituals.

The Hall of Offerings was lit by only four vents in the ceiling. This is where offerings would have been laid out. On either side are staircases leading to the roof where chapels to Isis and Osiris are situated. This hall leads in turn to the Hall of the Ennead. Egyptian texts used the term to describe a 'council' of the main gods and goddesses. This hall contained the central sanctuary itself surrounded by shrines including those to Isis, Sokar, Harsomtus, Hathor, Ra, the Throne of Ra, Ihy and the Gods of Lower Egypt.

The ceilings of shrines and chapels to various gods and goddesses in many places were often painted with stars and astrological scenes.

The now-famous circular zodiac centred around the north pole, apparently originating from Greek sources, was found on the ceiling of a chapel to Osiris and is believed to date from circa 200BC. It was sold to France in the early 20th century. A copy of the zodiac is now there, with the original being preserved in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Several crypts have been found on the site, but only one is now open to the public. These would have been used for storage, especially statues of gods during their 'resting' time between festivals and ceremonies. Not all of the shrines were used at the same time. However, during the New Year Festival, all statues were taken out of the crypt and placed in their respective shrines.


The Sacred Lake

Dendera also had two Birth Houses or mammisi. These were chapels used for the celebration of a particular god's birth. One built in later Roman times is situated outside the main temple complex next to the even later Coptic Christian church.

To the rear is the Sacred Lake, the main water source for ceremonies. This was enclosed by a wall with steps leading down into the water on each side. The lake has now disappeared and is covered by a small group of trees and shrubs.

The decoration of capitals of pillars and columns used in many ancient buildings of Egypt were typically that of the lotus or papyrus which has grown and been used throughout Egypt's long history. Others were decorated with likenesses or faces of various rulers and gods. Capitals depicting the head of Hathor were popular in many shrines.

Others were decorated with likenesses or faces of various rulers and gods. Capitals depicting the head of Hathor were popular in many shrines.

Below is a typical example, with a stylised face showing plaited hair, typically with the ears of cow. Hathor was often depicted this way in carvings, statues and relief images, also with the body of a woman and head of a cow.


Many of the columns of the Dendera temple have been defaced, possibly by Christians.

However, some columns on the roof are still in good condition and show Hathor's face more clearly.

Edfu

Further upriver is the temple of Edfu, dedicated to Horus. This is considered to be the best preserved temple of all. Compare the similarity of it's Hypostyle Hall to the one at Dendera.



Entrance to Hypostyle Hall, Edfu

A major festival "The Feast of the Beautiful Meeting" celebrated the marriage of Hathor and Horus. A statue of Hathor was taken from Dendera and transported with great ceremony and festivity by barque upriver to Edfu, in symbolic re-enactment of the wedding of these two great deities.

Part of the preparations for rituals and ceremonies included the dressing of the images in various coloured cloths, then leaving them to 'rest' overnight in a chapel or 'bedchamber'. At dawn they would be carried up to the roof, to be 'awakened', brought back to life by the sun.

This festival would typically have lasted several days, probably with much red beer drunk in honour of Hathor. Her image was then returned to Dendera to symbolise Hathor returning home to await birth of her son Ihy - also known as Harsomtu.

A relief in a southern crypt at Dendera shows his birth from the sacred lotus flower and his title of Uniter of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt).

Deir-el-Bahri & Abu Simbel


Temple of Hatshepsut, Deir-el-Bahri

Mortuary temples were constructed as the burial place not only for royalty, but also for those of high rank or birth, and for such as those who could afford them. In later times some were also used for administration purposes.

Probably the most complex and famous of this type, the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahri, is situated across the Nile river from Thebes and was built by the architect Senmut. It was dedicated to Amon and Hathor, with chapels to Hathor and other gods such as Anubis located within the grounds.

Other shrines to Hathor include one at the huge double temple complex at Abu Simbel built by Rameses II in approximately 1290-1224 bc.

This comprises two temple cut into the rock face - a massive one dedicated to Amon-Ra, Ptah and Ra-Harakhte: and a smaller one for his wife Nefertari, which was dedicated to Hathor.


Relief from wall at Temple at Edfu
depicting Horus, Hathor and their son Ihy

Hathor column

The chapel of Hathor at Deir-el-Bahri is again typified by columns depicting her face with the ears of a cow. Unlike the temple at Dendera, these columns seem to have survived in better condition.

Hathor column at Edfu

Hathor column in the 'Small Temple' at Abu Simbel


The entire site was taken apart and reassembled on higher ground in a huge undertaking funded by UNESCO, in order to save it when the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s.


2001 C Pearson

Hathor in cow form

In a relief on the wall of Hathor's chapel,
she is depicted in her complete animal form of a cow


I can be contacted at:

Credits

Picture of Hathor column at Edfu by Enric Corbero. For a virtual tour of some places to see in Egypt, and other countries of the world, visit his site at: http://www.virtourist.com

Plans of Temple of Dendera courtesy of Sobekhotep. Go to http://members.tripod.co.uk/Amun/index2.htm for a virtual tour of some more Egyptian sites, including plans, maps and photos.

Hathor head clipart from Neferchichi's Tomb.

Neferchichi's Tomb

Background textures from Eos Development.

Photo of statue in the British Museum was taken by myself.

All other photos Mark Millmore. Go to http://www.discoveringegypt.com his excellent educational site.

All images in this essay are used with permission from their respective owners.


Hathor fanlisting Horus Fanlisting