Egyptian goddesses portrayed women’s passive role in the community. Each goddess, regardless of her popularity or the power she sometimes exerted, reinforced the Egyptian female ideal who bore children and obeyed her husband. One goddess who fit the description of the ideal woman was Isis. The myth of Isis says that when the god Seth betrayed her husband Osiris and tore him to pieces, Isis and sister Nephthys gathered his remains and made Osiris whole again. Isis conceived a son named Horus with the resurrected Osiris. As a mother and a wife, Isis was particularly important to women. Isis was frequently invoked to protect children because she used her magical powers to hide her newborn son Horus in the marsh away from the jealous Seth. Isis and Horus were also frequently called upon to ensure a safe delivery for a woman in labor. Prayers and spells such as “For speeding up the child-birth of Isis” could be recited during a difficult delivery. Clearly Isis must have possessed great magical powers to resurrect her husband and protect her child, yet she still conformed to the ancient Egyptian feminine ideal.
Although occasionally less benevolent than Isis, the goddess Hathor also acted the part of the model Egyptian woman. Hathor was the goddess of love and music who was often depicted as a cow because of her role as a nurturer and provider. The importance of Hathor was emphasized by her identification with royalty. The pharaoh could be identified with many gods, but he was often referred to as the son of the sun-god Re. As his wife, the queen wore the sun disc and horns of Hathor, who was the daughter of Re. Though the queen was the woman most directly associated with Hathor, ordinary people could call on Hathor for protection. One mother invoked Hathor to be present at a birth: “Rejoicing, rejoicing in heaven, in heaven! Birth giving is accelerated! Come to me, Hathor, in my fine pavilion, in this happy hour.” Hathor’s powers, like those of Isis, were used to protect women. Although these powers were vast, they never directly impacted the male worlds of politics and war.
The ancient Egyptians viewed many of their goddesses as potentially good as well as potentially evil. Hathor could be either benevolent or destructive. The popularity of the nurturing version of Hathor reflected society’s idealized woman, but the Egyptians realized that even the nurturing mother could become violent. Goddesses were not always cast in traditionally feminine roles. Hathor’s destructive counterpart was Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of war and sickness. When the god Re wished to destroy mankind he sent Sekhmet to carry out his wish. He later changed his mind but Sekhmet refused to stop, relishing the destruction she was causing. Re checked Sekhmet by getting her drunk and mankind was saved. Significantly, a male god stops Sekhmet’s plans, suggesting that regardless of her powers, no woman can override the wishes of a man.