Cow Deities in Ancient Egypt? (Pagan Blog Project 2012 #6)

auf deutsch: Kuhgestaltige Gottheiten in Ägypten (übersetzt von Sati)

Cow deities. What in the world were those ancient Egyptians thinking? “Cow” doesn’t have many positive associations for us today: fat, ungainly, clumsy. “Bovine” means stupid, dull, inert, stolid, and sluggish. “Bull” can have positive masculine associations, but also means destructive and angry. “Bull in a china shop.” “A red flag to a bull.” 

Hethert (Hathor, Hwt-Hrw) 

They’re not minor deities. Hethert is one of the main solar goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon, and given the title of “Eye of Ra.” The Eye goddesses acted as divine enforcers, and as mentioned in the above link, the Egyptians saw the active solar principle as female. In addition to being associated with beauty, love, sex, joy, and motherhood,  she was also the “Mistress of the West,” with the funerary role of welcoming the dead to the afterlife and providing them with food. Music, dance, and mining are also among her other interests. She had many major temples, including the complex at Dendera, and during the yearly Festival of the Beautiful Reunion her icon was sailed 100 miles in a grand procession to visit the temple of Heru (Horus) her husband. Does any of this seem cow-like to you?

Bat

Less is known about Bat, because many of her aspects were  credited to Hethert. Her name consists of “Ba” (the soul-like component of a person) with the feminine ending of ‘t.’ She’s mentioned in both the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts. There’s a sculpture in which she and Hethert are portrayed together, on either side of pharaoh Menkaura, so she wasn’t just an earlier form of Hethert.

Mehet-Weret and Ihy

Mehet-Weret, the Celestial Cow has a role similar to the goddess Nut, and gives birth to the sun god Ra every morning. Ihy is the son of Hethert and Heru (Horus) and is depicted as a typical child god, or as a calf. He plays the sistrum or menat rattles, and is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and the  Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead.) Ihy is one of my four musical deities (Bast, Hethert, Ihy, and Bes) so he gets a daily mention in my shrine.

 The Apis Bull 

The Apis was a bull, required to have specific color markings, who was the living icon of Ptah. His worship dates back to the first dynasty, and he was consulted as an oracle. He was housed in the city of Memphis, with a harem of cows, and when the Apis died his body was mummified and buried in a special necropolis. In later periods he began to be identified with Wesir (Osiris.) The Greek writer Herodotus wrote that when the Persians invaded Egypt in the sixth century BCE, the Perisan King Cambyses stabbed the bull to death, and was driven mad as punishment. The carcass of the bull was thrown into the street, and no person or scavenger would touch it… except for dogs. That’s the story of why dogs are considered ‘unclean’ in Egypt.

Other incarnate bull deities include Mnevis, worshiped in Heliopolis, and Buchis, worshiped in Hermonthis, who was associated with Montu. It’s interesting that all three bull incarnations were consulted as oracles.

So…. why cows?

As I mentioned in my Animal-Headed Deities post, our modern ideas of animals can be highly mythologized, driven by story books and commercials. We’ve had several thousand more years of selective breeding to try and produce a large domestic animal that won’t kill us. Underneath that, the cow is a herd animal that evolved in a predator-rich environment. Forget about Cow Tipping too. It’s a complete hoax. Any large tempting target of an animal would never have made it past the Pleistocene if it was stupid and defenseless.

Horns

The horns you see aren’t there for decoration. They’re long pointed spears, meant to inflict huge damaging puncture wounds. Modern cows are polled, meaning the cells that produce horns are destroyed by heat or chemicals when they’re calves. A few modern breeds, like Polled Herfords, were genetically selected to be hornless. A quick image search on “ancient Egyptian cattle” will show you the long, curving horns you see on Hethert’s (and later, Isis’s) headdress. They’re a deadly weapon, showing her status as an Eye of Ra.

Hooves

Hooves are the second deadly weapon. Unlike members of the horse family, that primarily kick to the rear, a cow’s hind legs can deliver a bone-shattering kick to the front, rear, or side. If you visit an old dairy farm, you can see how the three-inch iron pipes that formed the milking stalls are bent from the kicks of cows. A predator that attacks a cow risks being gored, then stomped into a paste.

Heart

Cows are also fiercely maternal. In modern dairy practice the calves are separated from their mothers immediately to short-circuit this instinct. The cow will call her lost calf for days with a deafening roar-  something you’d expect to hear from a movie dinosaur. Without fossil-fueled transportation and refrigeration, even upper-class Egyptians would have been much closer to their animal food sources than modern people. They would have been acutely aware of the strong maternal instincts,  and associations with care and protection made perfect sense.

Exodus and the Golden Calf

In the biblical story of Exodus, Aaron and the Israelites melted down their jewelry and made an icon of a golden calf, while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai getting the original commandments. When Moses finally reappeared, he was so outraged that he broke the tablets. Of course, that raises the question about how slaves who were drafted for pyramid-building had enough gold jewelry on hand to make an icon big enough to be seen from a mountainside.

The golden calf or bull is often thought to have been the Apis. But I wonder… Maybe after being footsore, away from the comforts of civilization for the first time in their lives, trekking through the desert, sleeping on the ground… Maybe kind, protective, joyful Hethert would have made a better choice?  Imagine the fury of the patriarchal Moses, seeing his people worshiping a female idol!

Cow Deities Today

I hope this will give you an extra dimension of meaning the next time you celebrate the “cow” holidays, like Beautiful Reunion and “Moomas,” make an offering, or prayer. One final thought- cows seem to be naturally attracted to music. You can stand at the edge of a pasture and sing, play a recorder or guitar, and the cows will walk over and listen to you. They’ll just stand there quietly and listen. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Hethert and Ihy became associated with music!

***

This year I’m participating in the Pagan Blog Project 2012. The object is to write a post every week for it, two for each letter of the alphabet.

 Images are from the Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Beautiful and insightful post, as always.

  • RaasAlHayya

    I have heard that in ancient Egypt, the cow was considered graceful and beautiful…the way we think of deer in modern Western society.

  • I have to confess that I didn't know a thing about the realities of cows before reading this post, and have myself been guilty of thinking "seriously, who chooses a cow to represent a god?" This was a really wonderful post for me to read, thanks so much. 🙂

    • helmsin2

      You're welcome! I grew up on a farm, so I worked with them first-hand. But on the face of it, it does seem like an odd choice. Hethert is such a major goddess, and thinking of her as an Eye of Ra got things clicking. 🙂
      The other idea is that their cattle were closer to wild animals, at least at the start.