What is an identity? Are we defined by where we are from, who our parents and children are, or what we look like? Do our names signify our essence? Can facts, variables, and perceptions clearly describe the nature of Self? Questions such are these are being asked in our twenty-first-century society. No longer contained by villages, limited by singular racial and cultural heritage, or relegated to one expression of individuality, we find modern men and women struggling to find a vocabulary to express the sustained substance of self-ness. Just as the question of identity is currently being challenged, so it was presented in the mythology of ancient Egypt. Gods and Goddesses transcended borders, cultures, form, nomenclature, and even actions. The nature of Egyptian Gods is described by Geraldine Pinch in her book, Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction:
For the Egyptians, deities were first and foremost possessors of power. They were all available by prayer about any subject, but there was some degree of specialization. The nature of deity could be expressed by their names and epithets, by their appearance, and by the roles they played in myth. (39)
At times, a God could be represented in one form and then transform into an entirely new context, leading to an ambiguity of identity. A specific example of this phenomenon is recognized in the form, symbolic function, and mythology of the Goddess Hathor.
The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt describes the forms of Hathor in the following way:
Hathor: Important bovine goddess worshipped in three forms: as a woman with the ears of a cow, as a cow, and as a woman wearing a headdress consisting of a wig, horns and sun disc. […] In her vengeful aspect she sometimes also shared the leonine form of the goddess Sekhmet, and in this guise she was regarded as one of the ‘eyes’ of the sun-god Ra. She was also described as ‘lady of the sky’ (119).
From this description, it is clear that Hathor has a variety of physical appearances. In other descriptions of her being, she has been associated with the Goddess Ma’at, the moon, and the sycamore tree. The Egyptian Mythology edition from the Library of the World’s Myths and Legends explains that sometimes Hathor was the daughter of Nut and Ra, at other times she became the wife Ra, the Eye of Ra, the mother of Ihy (the God of Music), and sometimes the mother of Horus the Elder by Ra, or the wife of Horus of Edfu. “Her name [has been] interpreted to mean ‘House of Horus’” (80). Hathor can also be said to “suckle the pharaoh, the living Horus” and the queen is also identified with Hathor. From these descriptions, it is clear that the form, body, and role of Hathor is extremely flexible and that though features of her form signify her persona, her identity is not limited to physical constructs.
Beyond the physical lies personality, or in the case of the Gods, symbolic function. The symbolic function can also be described as the archetypal identification of the persona. What is the thrust of the God or Goddess? From where is his or her energy derived? Is the deity limited to one archetypal image, or does it navigate multiple symbols? The Dictionary of Nature Myths articulates the symbolic and archetypal nature of Hathor in this description:
The popular Egyptian goddess Hathor has been labeled a sky goddess, a moon goddess, a sun goddess, a goddess of agriculture, a goddess of moisture, and a universal Mother Goddess and creator of the universe. […] [S]he personified the female principle—primitive, fruitful, creative, and nourishing. Hathor was a fertility goddess and, in that sense, also a goddess of love, much like Isis, the Greek Aphrodite, the Babylonian Ishtar, and the Sumerian Inanna—all of them goddesses with lunar attributes. (89)
While this description focuses on images of the nurturing mother, Hathor’s alter-ego or counter-balance is embodied by Sekhmet. Additionally, Hathor is also associated with music. Compared to her physical incarnations, her symbolic associations begin to constellate an identity. When the mother is present in nature, relationships, or symbolically, so is Hathor. Her form matches the situation, though her function is contained within a certain behavioral spectrum.
While the flexibility of Hathor’s form foreshadows her universal presence, it is in her mythology that we begin to recognize her character. For example, it is said that Hathor is associated with the sycamore tree, since when “Osiris’s drowned body was washed ashore at Byblos in Phoenicia it was a sycamore tree which grew up around it and enclosed it” (82). As a cow, she is depicted as suckling dead souls, specifically those of the dead pharaohs, so that they are “sustained during their mummification, their journey to the judgment hall of Osiris and the weighing of the soul” (82). In general, she was recognized by women at all levels of status as being the protector of pregnancy. In contrast, one myth, which is described by George Hart, explores how the tension of the opposites is expressed by Hathor. Hart explains that one day the God Re is instigated to reap vengeance. To do his bidding he calls on the Eye of Re, which becomes (at this time) his daughter, Hathor. Rather than expressing herself as a Mother figure, Hathor embodies her opposite, “a deity of invincible destructive powers, pursuing men in the desert and slaughtering them” (48-49). In doing this work, Hathor takes on the form of Sakhmet, who is described as “a ferocious leonine deity whose name means the ‘Powerful One’” (49). In the story, the Eye of Re is Hathor but transformed into Sahkmet, who lusts for the blood of mankind. He becomes sympathetic and distracts Hathor’s bloodlust with red-colored beer that looks like blood. She becomes intoxicated and fails to slaughter the rest of mankind. While the devouring mother in the form of Sahkmet has been the primary figure in this myth, it is the nurturing mother that is called upon by Re to inspire the re-procreation of mankind. In this way, we may understand the balancing relationship between opposing symbolic functions that may be conveyed through manipulating, uniting, and intertwining the form and characters of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses.
Through the variability of form, symbolic function, and mythological representation of Hathor, we may begin to comprehend the aspects of identity that are consistent, that shift in relation to context, and that may be adapted. In answering the question of what is identity, the Ancient Egyptians may provide a new vocabulary for understanding the individual separate from an established context. As seen with the description of Hathor, representation over a variety of mythological experiences and association with a constellation of archetypal images provide a narrative foundation for initiating an integrated sense of being.