Dancing for Hathor: Women in Ancient Egypt

“Perhaps surprisingly the most common career for women, after housewife and mother, was the priesthood, where women served deities, notably Hathor, with music and dance. Many would come to the temples of Hathor to have their dreams interpreted, or to seek divine inspiration. This is a wide ranging and revealing account told with authority and verve.

The fragmentary evidence allows us only tantalising glimpses of the sophisticated and complex society of the ancient Egyptians, but the Greek historian Herodotus believed that the Egyptians had ‘reversed the ordinary practices of mankind’ in treating their women better than any of the other civilizations of the ancient world.

Dancing for Hathor: Women in Ancient Egypt
Dancing for Hathor: Women in Ancient Egypt

There is clear evidence for the symbolic importance of cattle in Predynastic Egypt, but little evidence of the particular importance for the cow, as opposed to the bull.

The most cited ‘evidence’ for a Predynastic cow goddess is that of the Naqada II to First Dynasty depictions of a bovine head shown facing forward in conjunction with five stars, one on each ear and horn, and one on top of the head.

This head is similar to a later, little-known deity, Bat, a bovine with curled horns and human-shaped eyes and mouth; it is also sometimes said to be like Hathor. Bat represented the seventh nome…

She is shown, for example, in one of a series of triads depicting King Menkaure of the Fourth Dynasty accompanied by Hathor and one male or female nome deity. Thus, as far as we can tell, she was never a major deity. Hathor, as we shall see was a major goddess who sometimes took cow form.

Marriages in ancient Egypt were generally arranged by parents for communal stability and personal advancement. However, there is ample evidence that romantic love was also important; it was a popular theme for poetry, especially during the New Kingdom.

Contrary to some popular belief, common Egyptians did not practice incestuous marriage. A wife was commonly referred to as one’s sister in poetry and literature, but this was a reference to closeness rather than actual blood relation. Moreover, most Egyptologists agree that ordinary citizens did not practice polygamous marriage.

The main purpose of marriage was to have children. The ‘Instruction of Ani’ advises:

Take a wife while you’re young,

That she may bear a son for you;

She should bear for you while you’re youthful,

It is proper to make many people.

Happy the man whose people are many,

He is saluted on account of his progeny.”

Dancing for Hathor: Women in Ancient Egypt, by Carolyn Graves-Brown

Follow Egypt Museum on Facebook to get latest posts and updates.