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Historic Beer Birthday: Hathor, Egyptian Goddess of Drunkenness

Today in ancient Egypt was celebrated as the Nativity of Hathor. She “was a major goddess in ancient Egyptian religion who played a wide variety of roles. As a sky deity, she was the mother, or consort, of the sky god Horus and the sun god Ra, both of whom were connected with kingship, and thus she was the symbolic mother of their earthly representatives, the pharaohs. She was one of several goddesses who acted as the Eye of Ra, Ra’s feminine counterpart, and in this form she had a vengeful aspect that protected him from his enemies. Her beneficent side represented music, dance, joy, love, sexuality and maternal care, and she acted as the consort of several male deities and the mother of their sons. These two aspects of the goddess exemplified the Egyptian conception of femininity. Hathor crossed boundaries between worlds, helping deceased souls in the transition to the afterlife.” But she was also “called the mistress of music, dance, garlands, myrrh, and drunkenness.”

Here’s the initial part of her entry on her Wikipedia page:

Hathor was a major goddess in ancient Egyptian religion who played a wide variety of roles. As a sky deity, she was the mother or consort of the sky god Horus and the sun god Ra, both of whom were connected with kingship, and thus she was the symbolic mother of their earthly representatives, the pharaohs. She was one of several goddesses who acted as the Eye of Ra, Ra’s feminine counterpart, and in this form she had a vengeful aspect that protected him from his enemies. Her beneficent side represented music, dance, joy, love, sexuality and maternal care, and she acted as the consort of several male deities and the mother of their sons. These two aspects of the goddess exemplified the Egyptian conception of femininity. Hathor crossed boundaries between worlds, helping deceased souls in the transition to the afterlife.

Hathor was often depicted as a cow, symbolizing her maternal and celestial aspect, although her most common form was a woman wearing a headdress of cow horns and a sun disk. She could also be represented as a lioness, cobra, or sycamore tree.

Cattle goddesses similar to Hathor were portrayed in Egyptian art in the fourth millennium BC, but she may not have appeared until the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC). With the patronage of Old Kingdom rulers she became one of Egypt’s most important deities. More temples were dedicated to her than to any other goddess; her most prominent temple was Dendera in Upper Egypt. She was also worshipped in the temples of her male consorts. The Egyptians connected her with foreign lands such as Nubia and Canaan and their valuable goods, such as incense and semiprecious stones, and some of the peoples in those lands adopted her worship. In Egypt, she was one of the deities commonly invoked in private prayers and votive offerings, particularly by women desiring children.

During the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC), goddesses such as Mut and Isis encroached on Hathor’s position in royal ideology, but she remained one of the most widely worshipped deities. After the end of the New Kingdom, Hathor was increasingly overshadowed by Isis, but she continued to be venerated until the extinction of ancient Egyptian religion in the early centuries AD.

Banquet scene from the tomb chapel of Nebamun, 14th century BC. Its imagery of music and dancing alludes to Hathor.

Music, Dance, and Joy

Egyptian religion celebrated the sensory pleasures of life, believed to be among the gods’ gifts to humanity. Egyptians ate, drank, danced, and played music at their religious festivals. They perfumed the air with flowers and incense. Many of Hathor’s epithets link her to celebration; she is called the mistress of music, dance, garlands, myrrh, and drunkenness. In hymns and temple reliefs, musicians play tambourines, harps, lyres, and sistra in Hathor’s honor. The sistrum, a rattle-like instrument, was particularly important in Hathor’s worship. Sistra had erotic connotations and, by extension, alluded to the creation of new life.

These aspects of Hathor were linked with the myth of the Eye of Ra. The Eye was pacified by beer in the story of the Destruction of Mankind. In some versions of the Distant Goddess myth, the wandering Eye’s wildness abated when she was appeased with products of civilization like music, dance, and wine. The water of the annual flooding of the Nile, colored red by sediment, was likened to wine, and to the red-dyed beer in the Destruction of Mankind. Festivals during the inundation therefore incorporated drink, music, and dance as a way to appease the returning goddess. A text from the Temple of Edfu says of Hathor, “the gods play the sistrum for her, the goddesses dance for her to dispel her bad temper.” A hymn to the goddess Raet-Tawy as a form of Hathor at the temple of Medamud describes the Festival of Drunkenness as part of her mythic return to Egypt. Women carry bouquets of flowers, drunken revelers play drums, and people and animals from foreign lands dance for her as she enters the temple’s festival booth. The noise of the celebration drives away hostile powers and ensures the goddess will remain in her joyful form as she awaits the male god of the temple, her mythological consort Montu, whose son she will bear.

A drawing based on an ancient Egyptian wall painting shows a drinking festival in progress. The upper row of figures features revelers drinking wine, including one woman who has overindulged. The lower row shows a procession with musicians. (by Betsy Bryan)


Many of Hathor’s annual festivals were celebrated with drinking and dancing that served a ritual purpose. Revelers at these festivals may have aimed to reach a state of religious ecstasy, which was otherwise rare or nonexistent in ancient Egyptian religion. Graves-Brown suggests that celebrants in Hathor’s festivals aimed to reach an altered state of consciousness to allow them interact with the divine realm. An example is the Festival of Drunkenness, commemorating the return of the Eye of Ra, which was celebrated on the twentieth day of the month of Thout at temples to Hathor and to other Eye goddesses. It was celebrated as early as the Middle Kingdom, but it is best known from Ptolemaic and Roman times. The dancing, eating and drinking that took place during the Festival of Drunkenness represented the opposite of the sorrow, hunger, and thirst that the Egyptians associated with death. Whereas the rampages of the Eye of Ra brought death to humans, the Festival of Drunkenness celebrated life, abundance, and joy.

In a local Theban festival known as the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, which began to be celebrated in the Middle Kingdom, the cult image of Amun from the Temple of Karnak visited the temples in the Theban Necropolis while members of the community went to the tombs of their deceased relatives to drink, eat, and celebrate. Hathor was not involved in this festival until the early New Kingdom, after which Amun’s overnight stay in the temples at Deir el-Bahari came to be seen as his sexual union with her.

Several temples in Ptolemaic times, including that of Dendera, observed the Egyptian new year with a series of ceremonies in which images of the temple deity were supposed to be revitalized by contact with the sun god. On the days leading up to the new year, Dendera’s statue of Hathor was taken to the wabet, a specialized room in the temple, and placed under a ceiling decorated with images of the sky and sun. On the first day of the new year, the first day of the month of Thoth, the Hathor image was carried up to the roof to be bathed in genuine sunlight.

The best-documented festival focused on Hathor is another Ptolemaic celebration, the Festival of the Beautiful Reunion. It took place over fourteen days in the month of Epiphi. Hathor’s cult image from Dendera was carried by boat to several temple sites to visit the gods of those temples. The endpoint of the journey was the Temple of Horus at Edfu, where the Hathor statue from Dendera met that of Horus of Edfu and the two were placed together. On one day of the festival, these images were carried out to a shrine where primordial deities such as the sun god and the Ennead were said to be buried. The texts say the divine couple performed offering rites for these entombed gods.Many Egyptologists regard this festival as a ritual marriage between Horus and Hathor, although Martin Stadler challenges this view, arguing that it instead represented the rejuvenation of the buried creator gods. Bleeker thought the Beautiful Reunion was another celebration of the return of the Distant Goddess, citing allusions in the temple’s festival texts to the myth of the solar eye. Barbara Richter argues that the festival represented all three things at once. She points out that the birth of Horus and Hathor’s son Ihy was celebrated at Dendera nine months after the Festival of the Beautiful Reunion, implying that Hathor’s visit to Horus represented Ihy’s conception.

The third month of the Egyptian calendar, Hathor or Athyr, was named for the goddess. Festivities in her honor took place throughout the month, although they are not recorded in the texts from Dendera.

And here’s another account of the Festival of Drunkenness, from Just History:

There was an importance placed on beer in Egyptian culture as well. The source of this festival is a mythological story of how beer saved the world.

The story goes that Re, the sun god, was frankly salty about the “duplicitousness” of mankind and called his children together to discuss it. A Council of the Gods is called, and they decide to punish the rebellious men by letting loose the goddess Hathor. She stormed out in the form of Sakhnet, which literally means female magical power. In some stories this is the form of a great flood, and in others it is the form of a lion. Whatever this form is, Hathor went to town killing everyone up and down the Nile Valley. Re and the other gods started to feel bad about what they let loose, and tried to get her to stop, but at this point Hathor was in a blood rage and would not and could not stop. In order to stop her murderous rampage, the Council of the Gods flooded the fields with beer that had been tinted red with ocher to look like blood. Hathor greedily lapped it up and got drunk and passed out. Mankind was saved by drunkenness.

Originally, it was thought these rituals took place in later in Egyptian history when they were ruled the Greeks and Romans. However, recent discoveries from the excavations of the Temple of Mut complex in Luxor show they took place much earlier- around 1470 BCE. Dr. Betsy Bryan’s research has found the Festival of Drunkenness was celebrated by people at least once a year, sometimes twice, in homes, temples and makeshift desert shrines. It was different than many other temple ceremonies as the priests or pharaoh would act on behalf of the people. In this ritual, everyone participated together- the elites and the peasants. The scene is described in a hymn to Sakhnet as young women with flowing garlands in their hair serving alcohol to everyone They all drink to the point of passing out, then are awoken to the beating of drums and the priests carried out a likeness of the goddess Hathor and they present their petitions to her. It wasn’t just drinking going on either. Graffiti was found discussing “traveling the marshes”, which is a euphemism for having sex. These festivals took place at the beginning of the Nile floods in mid-August, which hearkened to the fertility and renewal of the land by the floods.

The excavations have found what is termed a “porch of drunkenness” associated with Hatshepsut, the woman who became pharaoh. The porch was constructed at the height of her reign. It has been theorized that Hatshepsut was instrumental in popularizing the festival to justify her assumption of pharaonic powers by association with a Great Goddess. There is also a tantalizing discussion of Hatshepsut driving off enemies of Egypt termed the “shemau”, which at least one historian believes was the Jewish people. Then the festivals would be a time to celebrate the fertility of the remaining Egyptians and to replenish their population. This would place the Biblical exodus much earlier than theorized. There is no additional corroboration for this theory however.

No one knows why the porch of drunkenness was taken down. Hatsheput’s name was stricken by her successor, Thutmose III, so it could have been part of that campaign. The ritual fell out of favor as well, and according to Bryan it had lost favor completely by the reign of Amenhotep III. She observed that Egyptians did not like the alcohol making them lose control, and that was what this ritual was about- taking them to the edge of chaos. However, in the time of the fun loving Greeks and Romans it regained popularity. Herodotus reported in 440 BCE that the festivals drew as many as 700,000 participants and drunkenness and sexual permissiveness was the rule. There are also mentions of the festival as late as 200 CE. Although the significance of it had gone, there’s nothing better than a good party.

The Ancient Egyptian Festival of Drunkenness

The Festival of Drunkenness is a religiously significant celebration that was held annually (said to be biannually in some places) by the ancient Egyptians. The background story for the celebration of this festival can be found in a text known as The Book of the Heavenly Cow . In this text, there is an ancient Egyptian myth involving the destruction of mankind. According to the myth, human beings were saved from extinction thanks, in part, to alcohol.

The Destruction of Mankind

In The Book of the Heavenly Cow , there is a myth known as the ‘Destruction of Mankind’. This story begins by stating that once upon a time, human beings lived together with the gods, and were ruled over by Ra (Re). It goes on to say that when Ra had grown old, mankind began to conspire against him. Ra became aware of mankind’s scheming, and decided to summon the other gods to his palace, in order to obtain counsel from them.

After explaining his dilemma to the gods, it was suggested to Ra that he ought to release his Eye, so that it might smite down humanity. He agreed with this suggestion, and sent his Eye in the form of the goddess Hathor to punish mankind. In the meantime, the humans fled to the desert, as they became fearful of Ra.

Nevertheless, Hathor, who was transformed into a lion (or the warlike goddess Sekhmet), descended and slew mankind in the desert. In one version of the story, the goddess went on a rampage, and was about to wipe out all of humanity when Ra took pity on mankind. It was through Ra’s subsequent intervention that mankind was saved. In an alternate version of the myth, it seems that Ra had planned the event to save mankind, so that he could be the savior of humanity.

Thus, Ra summoned his messengers, and ordered them to bring him a great amount of haematite from Elephantine. He then ordered the haematite to be ground. In the meantime, barley was also being ground to produce beer. When both substances were ready, Ra had the haematite put into the beer, so that it resembled human blood. It is written that 7,000 jars of this beer were made.

One night, Ra poured out the blood-like beer, which flooded the fields “three palms high.” On the morning of the next day, the goddess saw that the fields were flooded with what seemed to be human blood, and was delighted at the sight. She began drinking the liquid without knowing that it was actually beer, and soon became intoxicated, then fell asleep. As a result, mankind was saved from destruction.

The Day of Celebration

The Festival of Drunkenness is celebrated on the 20th day of Thoth, the 1st month of the ancient Egyptian calendar. The festival of drunkenness was a communal affair and on one level, the celebrations took place in temples. On another level, this festival took place in peoples’ houses and shrines.

Typically, the participants of this festival would be served lots of alcohol, get drunk, and fall asleep. It was not regarded, however, as a social drinking session, but was sacred event. In the temples, the celebrants would be awoken by the sound of drums and music. Upon waking up, they would worship the goddess Hathor.

Other aspects of the ritual celebration included dancing and the lighting of torches, which was performed in the hopes that the devotees of the goddess would receive an epiphany from her. Another activity believed to have been undertaken during the festival was sex. In a hymn regarding the festival, there is a phrase “traveling through the marshes”, and it has been speculated that this is an ancient Egyptian euphemism for having sex.

One explanation for this activity is provided by regarding Hathor in her role as a goddess of love. Alternatively, it may have been linked to the fertility of the land as well. The Festival of Drunkenness was typically celebrated around the middle of August, the period when the Nile began to rise. Therefore, sexual activity during the festival may have also been perceived as a means of bringing the Nile floods back, and thus ensuring the fertility of the land.

Egyptian painting of dancers and flutists, from the Tomb of Nebamun.

And apparently Hathor and drunkenness, too, played a role in Ancient Egyptian funerals.

Funerary Practices

As an afterlife deity, Hathor appeared frequently in funerary texts and art. In the early New Kingdom, for instance, Osiris, Anubis, and Hathor were the three deities most commonly found in royal tomb decoration. In that period she often appeared as the goddess welcoming the dead into the afterlife. Other images referred to her more obliquely. Reliefs in Old Kingdom tombs show men and women performing a ritual called “shaking the papyrus”. The significance of this rite is not known, but inscriptions sometimes say it was performed “for Hathor”, and shaking papyrus stalks produces a rustling sound that may have been likened to the rattling of a sistrum. Other Hathoric imagery in tombs included the cow emerging from the mountain of the necropolis and the seated figure of the goddess presiding over a garden in the afterlife. Images of Nut were often painted or incised inside coffins, indicating the coffin was her womb, from which the occupant would be reborn in the afterlife. In the Third Intermediate Period, Hathor began to be placed on the floor of the coffin, with Nut on the interior of the lid.

Tomb art from the Eighteenth Dynasty often shows people drinking, dancing, and playing music, as well as holding menat necklaces and sistra—all imagery that alluded to Hathor. These images may represent private feasts that were celebrated in front of tombs to commemorate the people buried there, or they may show gatherings at temple festivals such as the Beautiful Festival of the Valley. Festivals were thought to allow contact between the human and divine realms, and by extension, between the living and the dead. Thus, texts from tombs often expressed a wish that the deceased would be able to participate in festivals, primarily those dedicated to Osiris. Tombs’ festival imagery, however, may refer to festivals involving Hathor, such as the Festival of Drunkenness, or to the private feasts, which were also closely connected with her. Drinking and dancing at these feasts may have been meant to intoxicate the celebrants, as at the Festival of Drunkenness, allowing them to commune with the spirits of the deceased.

Hathor was said to supply offerings to deceased people as early as the Old Kingdom, and spells to enable both men and women to join her retinue in the afterlife appeared as early as the Coffin Texts in the Middle Kingdom. Some burial goods that portray deceased women as goddesses may depict these women as followers of Hathor, although whether the imagery refers to Hathor or Isis is not known. The link between Hathor and deceased women was maintained into the Roman Period, the last stage of ancient Egyptian religion before its extinction.

Hathor welcoming Seti I into the afterlife. (13th century BCE)

And Treasures of Egypt has a great overview of Hathor, and so does History Cooperative.

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