The Tattooed Priestesses of Hathor
She was known as the mother of god and the daughter of god, the eye of god, the creatrix of the rays of the sun, the embodiment of the circular essence of life. She was the Lady of the Limit or the one who spreads to the edge of the universe and the Lady of the West who welcomed souls to the afterlife. She was the goddess of fertility and assisted women in childbirth. She was Hathor the Celestial Cow whose legs formed the pillars of the sky and the Milky Way ran across her belly.
It is believed that the worship of Hathor dates to pre-dynastic times and in fact she may represent many of the earlier original female deities such as Bat, Sekhmet and others all combined into one figure. Female deities gradually became less important as complex agrarian society became predominate and the emergence of the ever increasing ownership of both goods and land exalted the male gods who represented power through physical strength. Male domination of society pushed the sacred feminine aside and began the systematic removal of the sacred feminine from virtually every religion on earth. When the gods are no longer female then human females have less power or no power, they are second to the male who is in the image of the divine but it was not always this way, once there was balance and many of the earliest deities were seen as having a dualistic nature embodying both the masculine and the feminine. The worship of Hathor paints a vivid picture of this type of transition, from the temple of the greatest god, the mother of all to the modern perception of a cult of tattooed prostitutes.
Hathor was one of the most important gods in early Egypt and she remained important up until the middle kingdom when the significance of the female gods waned and with it the role of women in the priesthood. Hathors temple may have been one of the few that allowed women to hold equal positions as men but by the new kingdom only men seem to hold the title of priest and women are reduced to the role of shemayet or musicians.
It is this trend towards the marginalization of women within the temple that leads us all the way to the late 19 th century when several tattooed female mummies were discovered. Before this discovery only pictures in tombs and on pottery were the best evidence that some Egyptians were tattooed. Previously tiny faience female figurines showing tattoo patterns on their thighs, wrists, abdomen, and upper body had been discovered in tombs and the tattoos on the newly discovered mummies were in many instances almost identical to the figurines. Suddenly it became obvious that the tiny figurines were actually depicting real tattoos and their meanings could be directly traced to the priestesses of Hathor.
The figurines were found in both male and female burials but only female tattooed mummies were found. The function of the faience figurines in the tombs has been theorized to serve as a fertility charm, an amulet to assure the dead a good sex ‘after life’, or to represent a feminine ideal but considering that Hathor was known as the Lady of the West, who welcomes the dead it seems that the figurines might represent Hathor herself or her earthly representatives and thus serve as a guide for the deceased.
When the tattooed women were discovered most academics dismissed them as women of low status, probably prostitutes, ‘dancing girls’ or maybe royal concubines because the area where the bodies were found, Deir el-Bahari, was the site of royal and high status burials. The most famous of these tattooed mummies is Amunet, Priestess of the Goddess Hathor. The mummy of Amunet was discovered in 1891 by the French Egyptologist Eugène Grébaut and from all accounts the tattoos were seen as quite sensual, of course at this time curved table legs were also considered sensual so one must view their reaction in context to their Victorian mores.
Not everyone however was swept up in visions of beautiful dancing girls, their tattooed bodies undulating in sensuous dances as they swirled through the smoke of incense, transported into trance-like states by the music of their sistrums (rattles); no, one man a prominent doctor who participated in the examination of the mummies saw more, a medical reason for the markings. Dr Daniel Fouquet suggested in 1898 that the markings were not ornamental but therapeutic and were probably for the treatment of chronic pelvic peritonitis and although I applaud his forward thinking the assumption of chronic pelvic infections does still suggest that he believed these women were prostitutes or at least very sexually active. The truth is many of the priestesses were the wives, sisters, and daughters of other priests, high officials and even pharaohs so even if sexual contact was a part of their worship, they should not be judged by current religious moral standards. To infer things about their life based on modern or in this case Victorian beliefs is not only unfair; it is bad science. Doctors, and I would imagine most men of the Victorian era, thought of the scary dark nether regions of a woman’s reproductive system as a mysterious, unclean place so primitive and primal that it was best left alone so they naturally brought these prejudices to bear on their “scholarly” descriptions of the priestesses.