Principal Egyptian Goddesses
The consort of Ptah, the god of craftsmen who created through his mind and not his actions, was thought to have been a daughter of Ra, the sun god. Many stories are told of her: how she guarded the boat of the sun god as it passed through the twelve zones of the afterworld. The best known is that of the Destruction of Mankind.
When Ra became displeased with mankind who had ceased to worship him and provide the necessary offerings, he ordered Sekhmet, in her lion form, to destroy them. But after many had been killed, Ra took pity on the humans and ordered Sekhmet to stop the killing. However, she refused, and after consulting the Council of the Gods, Ra decided to have great quantities of beer brewed, which he colored with red dye from a fruit (kakadi, which grew near Aswan). This was done and the red beer was spread out over the fields as though it were blood. Sekhmet, rising from her sleep after her long day of killing, mistook the beer for blood and drank it. She then became so drunk that she was incapable of doing any further damage.
This story is sometimes attributed to Hathor but seems far more in keeping with Sekhmet who represented the fierce rays of the sun at midday.
Neith was the national goddess of Lower Egypt, a great huntress whose symbol was a crossed bow and arrows. She was worshipped right from the beginning of Egyptian history and her temple, apparently constructed of reeds with her symbol on a pole in the courtyard, is the earliest picture of a religious building that we have in Egypt. Neith’s temple in Sais in the Western Delta, is now totally destroyed. She always had an entirely separate existence of her own and was never paired with any male god.
Many of the early queens had their names compounded with that of Neith, such as Neith-Hotep, whose name means ‘an offering to Neith’.
The worship of Neith played a major role at Esna where she appears as a creator goddess who formed all things.
Another powerful goddess was Hathor, ‘the Golden One’. She was the ‘Lady of Dendera’ where she has a temple that survives to this day. She was a sky and cow goddess. She acted as nurse to the king and when the Greeks arrived, she was identified with Aphrodite with whom in fact she had little resemblance, being more like the Near Eastern mother goddesses. Officially, she was paired off with Horus, but he had other consorts apart from her. Their child was either little Horus or Ihy, the god of music.
Hathor had many aspects, one as a goddess of the dead, particularly in Western Thebes where she is shown as a cow emerging from the hillside above the tombs. Mainly, however she is represented as a woman with cow horns on her head and a golden disc between her horns. Ritual music was important in her worship and the sistrum, a sort of rattle made of metal, was her symbol. This is still used within Christian Church in Ethiopia to ward off evil spirits. Hathor was the most popular of the afterworld deities and is portrayed in all the royal tombs. She has another aspect representing the fates who can foretell a child’s future at its birth. There was seven forms of these Hathors known by special names, such as ‘You from the Land of Silence’.
Hathor was also a strong fertility figure. Even today Egyptians who are barren come from miles away to her temple to jump over certain figures such as Bes, protector of children, and to pass their hands over figures of the goddess Hathor and Horus carved in the crypts.
Isis, the wife of Osiris and mother of young Horus, is probably the most important of Egyptian goddesses. She is known as Mistress of Magic and Speaker of Spells. This is made very clear in the story of ‘How Isis Obtained the Secret Name of Ra’, when she caused the god to be bitten by a scorpion who had been fashioned by her from the earth and the gods spit. As the scorpion was made of the divine essence of the god, no remedies against its poison could prevail and Ra suffered great agonies until finally he was forced to reveal his secret name to Isis, who thus obtained power over him.
Isis appears as the perfect wife and mother, and when her husband was murdered by his brother Seth, who was jealous of his good works, she hunted for his dead body. This involved her in a long journey throughout the length of Egypt, asking children if they had seen Osiris’s coffin, as she knew that children would notice such things. Her search took her to Byblos, on the coast of Phoenicia. There, the coffin had been washed ashore, and a tamarisk tree, realizing the coffin contained a god, wrapped its trunk around it to protect him.
As Osiris was a fertility god, the tree grew to a gigantic size and was noticed by the king of Byblos, who ordered it to be cut down and placed in the hall of his palace to support the roof. Isis, still searching, disguised herself as a middle-aged woman, and became nursemaid of the ailing prince of Byblos. She finally revealed her true self to the king and queen of Byblos and asked for the coffin, that was wrapped inside of the trunk of the great tree. She returned to her homeland with the coffin and hide it under a bush while she went to go see her young son Horus, whom she had left in the care of the goddess Wadjet. Seth, out hunting by moonlight, came upon the coffin and recognizing it, opened it and tore the body of Osiris into sixteen pieces, and scattered them throughout the land, saying, ‘I have done the impossible, I have destroyed a god’. Isis had to begin her search all over again, and every time she found a piece of the body she built a shrine over it.
As the mother of Horus, Isis became the symbolic Mother of the Egyptian King, who was known as the living Horus.
Bastet, the cat goddess, was an important goddess in the late period, that is the last thousand years (b.c.e). Her shrine was at Bubastis, in the Eastern Delta. Orginally a lion goddess,of whom there were several in Egypt, by the sixth century (b.c.e) she had become entirely feline, and it is to her that many bronze cats seen in museums are dedicated.