The mighty Ra had ruled the land of Egypt for so long that no human being could conceive of, let alone count, the number of years. Although the sun god had governed fairly and well, it was clear that he was becoming old and frail, for apparently even the deathless ones were somewhat susceptible to the aging process when they took an earthly form.
Consequently, various groups of people in different parts of Egypt began to question Ra’s continued ability to rule. They held secret meetings behind his back, and some began plotting to overthrow him and set a human king on his throne.
What these conspirators did not realize was that Ra, frail or not, still held many important powers. Among them were extremely acute senses of sight and hearing; thus he was able to watch and overhear the plotters as they drew their plans against him.
Ra decided that something had to be done to teach these ungrateful humans a lesson, so he secretly convened a council made up of most of the gods to ask for their advice.
“Why have you asked us to come here?” they inquired. Ra proceeded to tell them of the humans’ treachery. Then he turned to Nu, the oldest among the council members, the dark abyss from whom he himself had originally risen. Nu’s great age, Ra reasoned, could surely be expected to produce considerable wisdom.
“From the tears of my own eyes I gave these mortal creatures life,” said Ra. “And now, see how they repay me by plotting to do away with me and rule Egypt, by themselves, without Ra as their leader. Tell me, great Nu, what punishment should I unleash on them?”
“You have every right to feel betrayed and angry, my son,” replied Nu without hesitation. “You are indeed a great god—even greater than I, who gave you life. And the humans should not be allowed to escape your punishment. In my opinion, that punishment should take the form of your divine and fearful Eye. Send the Eye of Ra to chastise these thankless ones!”
Hearing this pronouncement, the rest of the gods sang out almost in unison, “Nu speaks wisely. Send the Eye of Ra to strike down these guilty ones, these transgressors against divine justice! Kill them all!”
Hathor’s Bloody Rampage
“I shall do as you suggest, my fellow divinities,” Ra agreed, nodding his head. Looking out upon the land, he saw many of the humans scurrying about, leaving their homes and cities, and fleeing into the desert. It was clear that somehow the conspirators had learned of the meeting of the gods and now hoped they could hide from Ra’s wrath by running away. But they were sorely mistaken. For at this moment the Eye of Ra appeared in the form of the goddess Hathor. Often the humans had seen her as a kind and loving deity, a sort of generous mother-figure; but now they were about to discover her darker side. When she stood before her father as the instrument of his vengeance, no words passed between them, for none were needed.
Hathor whirled in a fury. She leaped into the sky and flew out over the desert, where she easily found the conspirators against her father cowering behind rocks and inside crevices. Transforming herself into a gigantic and vicious lioness, she swooped down on them, rending and tearing their bodies, as the others scattered in terror. One by one, in groups, and indeed by the thousands, she slaughtered them and drank their blood, which splattered over her and soaked the sands. When she had killed all who had hidden in the desert, she began attacking the villages and cities, smashing down houses and devouring every human being she could find. Even innocent children and infants were not safe from her rampage.
All day long, Ra sat quietly, watching his daughter Hathor’s murderous spree. The prayers, as well as the screams, of the dying reached his ears, and his mood steadily changed. “There is no doubt that the human conspirators deserved punishment,” he said to himself. “But these men are now all dead. And it seems cruel and wasteful to allow the rest of humanity to suffer for the crimes of a handful of men.” Ra also reasoned that if all the humans were killed, he and the other gods would have no one left to worship them.
The Lady of Drunkenness
Therefore, when darkness came and Hathor rested from her attacks, Ra urged her to quench her rage. “You have fulfilled my wish to punish the humans,” he said. “There is no need to kill any more of them.” But his daughter was in no mood for such meek and sympathetic talk. The taste of human blood had excited her, and she was anxious to resume her killing spree in the morning, when she planned to finish the grisly job she had started. “You cannot change my mind,” she told Ra. Then she lay down and went to sleep.
Seeing that Hathor was out of control, Ra decided that he would have to resort to trickery to keep her from killing the rest of humanity. Quickly, he summoned the swiftest messengers he could find and ordered them to run as fast as a shadow to the site of Aswan, a city far to the south, where the soil was very red. The messengers’ task was to bring back as much of this red ochre as possible before
Meanwhile, Ra enlisted the aid of his high priest at Heliopolis and the priest’s slave girls. When the messengers returned with several large baskets of ochre,
the high priest hurriedly made a red dye from the colored earth; and as swiftly as they could, the slave girls brewed seven thousand jars of beer. Not long before sunup, at Ra’s orders, the high priest mixed the red dye into the beer, producing a mixture that looked almost exactly like blood. Very carefully, so as not to awaken Hathor, Ra poured out the red-colored beer, forming a huge puddle on the ground near where she slept.
No sooner had Ra finished when morning broke and Hathor awakened, ready and eager to resume her slaughter. “What is this?” she exclaimed, suddenly spying the large red puddle. “More human blood!” she chortled, and immediately began lapping it up. Just as Ra had hoped, drinking so much beer so quickly made his daughter extremely intoxicated. Soon she felt woozy, tired, and could no longer remember why her father had sent her into Egypt. Dragging her feet, the drunken goddess went back to sleep and did not wake up for many days. This was why, in later ages, Hathor became known as the “lady of drunkenness” and people drank strong beer when
celebrating at her festivals.
The Ascension of Ra
The whole episode had several lessons to teach. The surviving humans learned that they must not insult or plot against the immortal gods. Hathor learned to control her lethal temper. And Ra came to the conclusion that he was indeed too old and tired to rule Egypt properly. What is more, the slaughter of so many innocent people had made his heart sad. Now he longed only to rise into the heavens, where thereafter he would sail his boat of light across the sky every day.
Hearing of Ra’s wish to leave Egypt and reign in the sky, Nu arrived with the goddess Nut. At Nu’s order, Nut transformed herself into what later came to be called the Divine Cow. Seated on the cow’s back, Ra, gleaming with a divine radiance, rose proudly into the heavens, while the humans looked on in awe. As a last parting gift to the surviving mortals, the sun god ordered Thoth to watch over
them and to teach them the art of writing, the first step toward a higher civilization.
Label: Egyptian mythology