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Ancient Egypt:
Which Goddess is Which?

by Shira

 

Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

Although the drawings and carvings from ancient Egypt can be fascinating to view, you may find them even more interesting if you learn a bit about what these images express. This knowledge allows you to interact more with the image, to see it through the eyes of those who created it thousands of years ago, and to impress your friends with your knowledge.

One simple way to start is to learn how to recognize some of the most important deities. This article assumes that you already have some cursory background about the goddesses Hathor, Isis, Ma'at, Nut, Sekhmet, and Tefnut. If you do not, before reading this article you may want to read the sections about them in the article "The Goddesses of Ancient Egypt" elsewhere on this web site.

 

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Isis or Hathor?

About the Goddesses

Many people know that the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor was associated with a cow. She would often be portrayed as having the head of a cow; for example, on the handles of mirrors and on the tops of columns in temples.

Hathor was also often portrayed as a woman wearing a headdress that consisted of a pair of horns surrounding a sun disk, as shown in the drawing to the right. Because of the cow horns, many people assume that this headdress always indicates that the goddess pictured is Hathor.

However, other goddesses could wear the horns and sun disk, including Sekhmet, Tefnut, and Isis.

The drawing to the right could represent either Hathor or Isis. It does not contain enough information to specifically link it to one or the other.

Hathor or Isis?

Hathor

Hathor

The most reliable way to identify which of these goddesses appears in a particular image is to look for the goddess' name in hieroglyphics. Typically, her name will appear somewhere near her head.

Hathor's name means "House of Horus", and her name is written as a square (representing a house) with a falcon (representing Horus) inside.

Isis is a queen, and therefore a throne is used as the symbol for writing her name.

In both cases, the symbol could be facing either to the right or to the left. It depends on how the rest of the image is drawn.

Isis

Isis

Test Yourself

Now that you know how each goddess' name is written in hieroglyphics, see if you can correctly identify which one appears in each of these illustrations.

Question #1

This popular image comes from the tomb of Queen Nefertari and shows the queen being escorted by a goddess. Some people have identified the goddess in this image as Hathor because of the headdress with horns, while others have identified it as Isis.

Now that you know how Hathor's and Isis' names are written in hieroglyphics, study the writing on the wall next to the goddess and see if you can identify which one it actually is.

If necessary, click on the image to see it in more detail. (Note: after you click on it, your browser might try to fit the entire picture on the screen. To see still more detail, click on the displayed image with your mouse and it should zoom in further.)

See the bottom of this article for the answer.

Goddess

Question #2

Here too we have a goddess wearing the sun disk headdress. This image comes from a funerary scene in which a row of deities sits in judgment of the deceased person.

This image provides two clues to the identity of this goddess. Can you find both clues?

Click on the image to get a closer look at the detail. (Note: after you click on it, your browser might try to fit the entire picture on the screen. To see still more detail, click on the displayed image with your mouse and it should zoom in further.)

See the bottom of this article for the answer.

Goddess

 

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Isis or Ma'at?

About the Goddesses

Many people automatically assume that when a goddess is depicted with outstretched wings, then that goddess must be Isis. They don't realize that other goddesses may also be shown with wings. Ma'at, in particular, is another goddess frequently shown in human form with outstretched wings. However, others may also be drawn this way, such as Nut.

Click on any of these three images to see more detail.

Typically, if the goddess being shown is Isis, the throne hieroglyph for her name will appear somewhere nearby. It may be in the form of a headdress, such as shown in this picture, or it may be written on the wall next to her head.

Isis

Isis

Ma'at too is often drawn with outstretched wings. She is normally shown with a headdress of a single ostrich feather. Alternatively, the feather may appear as part of the writing on the wall near her head.

Maat

Maat

Nut usually is not drawn with outstretched wings, but such images of her do exist. When Nut is the goddess shown in the image, hieroglyphs will appear near her head in the form of a bench-shaped symbol (which represents "night"), a semicircle ("loaf"), and a pot.

Nut

Nut

Other goddesses may also be drawn with wings. Some may be drawn with the head of an animal, such as Wadjet being drawn as a cobra or Nekhbet being drawn as a vulture. Therefore, wings alone do not indicate which goddess it might be. It's necessary to look at the surrounding information.

Test Yourself

Question #3

Now that you have some clues on how to identify a winged goddess, study this image to determine which goddess it represents.

Click on the image if you need to see a closeup for further detail.

See the bottom of this article for the answer.

Goddess

Question #4

Here is another winged goddess, this one from a painting on a coffin. Can you identify her?

Click on the image if you need to see a closeup for further detail.

See the bottom of this article for the answer.

Goddess

 

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Sekhmet or Tefnut?

About the Goddesses

Both Sekhmet and Tefnut are frequently depicted as lionesses in ancient Egyptian art, and both are frequently shown wearing a headdress consisting of the solar disk. With these similarities, it can be difficult to know which one a given image represents.

Tefnut

Tefnut

The key is to look at the headdress. In images of Tefnut, the headdress contains two Uraeus (cobra heads); whereas in images of Sekhmet there is only one. On images of Sekhmet, the Uraeus may sometimes include a tail.

Also, Sekhmet is typically shown with rounded ears, whereas Tefnut's are pointed.

Sekhmet

Sekhmet

Test Yourself

Question #5

This popular image appears on many web sites. Some identify it as Sekhmet, while others identify it as Tefnut. Can you determine which one is correct?

If necessary, click on the image to see it in more detail.

See the bottom of this article for the answer.

Goddess

 

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Check Your Answers

Here are the answers to the five questions posed above. How did you do?

Question #1

The correct answer is "Isis". The throne icon appears in front of her head, and it faces the same direction that the goddess faces. Question 1

Question #2

The correct answer is "Hathor". The first clue is Hathor's name in the very upper right-hand corner, with the falcon's head facing in the same direction as the goddess' head. In hieroglyphics, a symbol can be written facing either to the right or to the left, depending on the context.

The second clue is the cow's head on the handle of the mirror being held by the goddess.

Question 2

Question #3

The correct answer is "Ma'at". The important clue is the feather headdress on her head. Question 3

Question #4

The correct answer is "Nut". Above her head are the loaf symbol, the pot symbol, and under those the night symbol. Together, these represent her name in hieroglyphics. Question 4

Question #5

The correct answer is "Sekhmet". The goddess in this illustration has only one cobra head on her headdress. Tefnut would have had two.

If this image had included a tail for the cobra, it still would have been Sekhmet. There need to be two heads in order for it to be Tefnut.

Also note the rounded ear, another clue that this is Sekhmet. Tefnut's ear would have been pointed.

Question 5

 

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Related Articles

Other articles related to ancient Egypt on this web site that you may find helpful include:

 

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