The Ancient Egyptian Book of Gender

Be them all! They’re magic!

There’s a temple in Egypt, near Dendera, devoted to the Goddess Hathor.

Hathor’s my girl, ok? Not only do we have the same cute-as-hell, shoulder-length, “bisexual-chic” haircut right now, but I’m a double Taurus (sun and moon signs) and I’m suuuper into astrology in the sense that I have a horoscope app on my phone that I open when I’m bored or on the toilet. Hathor is basically Taurus.

Hathor represents joy, love, music, dance, sexuality, maternal care, and giving birth. She’s often depicted as a cow or as a woman with a crown of cow horns and two cow ears poking out of her hair (conspiracy theorists refer to these as her “alien ears”).

Fun fact: At another temple in Philae, the pillars are topped with the carved faces of Hathor. If you walk down the row of pillars, you’ll notice that her expression gradually transforms from distressed to blissful, or blissful to distressed, depending on the direction you’re walking. It’s said that this is a depiction of the goddess giving birth, but I like to think of it as PMS.

It’d be great to see a photo of that, huh? Kind of hard to picture on your own? Don’t worry, I got you. I was there in 2017:

I love that last expression so much. It’s exactly this expression:

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Pawnee Goddess. Photo via NBC.

The temple of Hathor in Dendera is covered with carvings of Hathor as a goddess of the night sky. There’s even a birthing chamber where women who gave birth would look up at the ceiling and see a stunning image of Hathor giving birth …not to a baby, but to herself. Or to her other form, at least. She’s breathing life both from her mouth and from her womb.

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Photo via me, 2017.

Hardcore ancient Egyptian mythology geeks might be thinking right now — “Ahem. That’s not Hathor giving birth to herself. That’s the goddess Nut, goddess of the night sky, giving birth to Hathor.”

And I’m going to respond, quite obnoxiously, that by the time the temple at Dendera was built, they had evolved into one goddess. Gods and goddesses blended together over time for the purpose of conflating two or more concepts. Horus the falcon god had become the masculine god of the day sky and Hathor the cow goddess had become the feminine goddess of the night sky. Their two temples, Hathor’s in Dendera and Horus’s in Edfu, are nearly symmetric twins.

Every god or goddess is an archetype. Eventually, Judaism blended every archetype into one God. This could have been a lovely metaphor for the idea that every one of us has every archetype within ourselves, but things didn’t really turn out that way, unfortunately. It does, however, offer kind of a fun explanation for the many instances in the old testament when God contradicts himself. How very human of him.

I just read a beautiful article on Medium written by Aira Lee about how the show Good Omens and its representation of gender-neutral characters helped her to come into herself as a non-binary person and embrace both her traditionally “masculine” and traditionally “feminine” sides:

“I’ve always disliked gender roles. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that until recently, but I never even really understood them in other people. I’ve always found masculinity and femininity equally off-putting. I was never really a Girl, nor was I a Boy. I was just a person. I was just me. And I was always told in no uncertain terms that this was unacceptable. You can’t just be a person in this world, you have to be a gender, and you have to follow that gender’s rules.”

Those gender rules are ancient, clearly, and I’ve always been frustrated with them myself.

  • action-oriented
  • forceful
  • logical
  • receptive
  • nurturing
  • instinctual

Couldn’t they just as easily have been reversed? Or couldn’t any single person pick and choose among these traits? Like Aira, I’ve struggled with these concepts my entire life and I’ve felt uncomfortable in my own skin for not fitting easily into one box or the other.

For this reason, I visited these two temples with some trepidation. I was afraid that the sharp polarity would be grating, that the weight of thousands of years of gender stereotypes and inequity, not to mention 27 years of my own trauma around it, would come crashing down on my head all at once. (You can’t start crying in an Egyptian temple, ok? All the guards will come over and start juggling or dancing or doing whatever they possibly can to cheer you up. It causes a major ruckus. I know this from…stories.)

The Yang:

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Exterior of the Temple of Horus at Edfu. Photo by Bernt Rostad on Flikr.

I went to Edfu’s Temple of Horus first and I’m not quite sure how to describe the feeling of being there. It was a bright sunny day and I felt… confident. Curious. Adventurous. If a smirk and the phrase, “Let’s do this” could be considered a feeling, it was that.

Prior to visiting, I had read about a tiny library within the temple called the “House of Life”.

The Library or “House of Life” in Edfu. Photo via me, 2017.

According to Normandy Ellis’s book on Ancient Egyptian religions, Imagining the World Into Existence, every temple kept one of these rooms but most of them have been destroyed. They were tiny versions of the Library of Alexandria and the original texts were similarly lost. Some copied versions are said to have found their way into the Old Testament, though, and we know what was housed in this particular library in Edfu because the hieroglyphs on the wall tell us their titles.

  • The Books and the Great Rolls of Pure Leather That Detail the Smiting of Demons, the Repelling of the Crocodile, the Protection of the Hour, the Preservation of the Barge, and the Carrying of the Barge
  • The Book of Bringing Out the King in Procession
  • The Book of Conducting the Ritual
  • The Book of Appeasing Sekhmet
  • Knowing All the Secrets of the Laboratory
  • Spells for Repelling the Evil Eye
  • The Book of Driving Away Lions, Repulsing Crocodiles, and Repelling Reptiles
  • Knowing the Divine Offering in All Their Details, and All the Inventories of the Secret Forms of the Neteru, All the Aspects of the Associated Deities, Which Are Copied Daily for the Temple, Every Day, Each One After the Other, So That the Souls of the Deities Will Remain In This Place and Will Not Leave This Temple — Ever
  • Instructions for Decorating a Wall
  • Instructions for Protecting the Body
  • Knowing the Periodic Returns of the Two Heavenly Bodies
  • List of All the Sacred Places and What Is In Them
  • Every Ritual Related to the God’s Leaving His Temple on Festival Days

…Is it weird that I’d probably grab “Instructions for Decorating a Wall” first? Is that lame? It’s just that I follow all the apartment decor accounts on IG and I think it would be the ultimate.

If you’ve gotten this far in the article, you have to comment down below and tell me which book you’d pick. I have to know. Don’t forget.

Anyway, I felt super-charged with the energy of all that ancient knowledge. And as I walked among the giant pillars and explored the dark-and-spooky hieroglyphic-lined staircase, I felt the edges of my creative mind spark with inspiration. I wanted to build something. I wanted to say something.

I knew that my general knowledge of the traditionally “masculine” traits was influencing these feelings, but I couldn’t help myself. There was an energy here and I liked it a lot.

Did that mean that I was more in touch with this side of myself than I was with the other?

The Yin:

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Photo via me, 2017.

The group I was traveling with was greeted at the entrance to Hathor’s Dendera temple by a friend of our guide named Sami. He was tall and lanky and had a tranquil smile that reminded me of Mr. Rogers. He stood framed in the door as though he was the keeper of this temple and we gathered around him instinctively.

He looked at all of us with affection, then gestured to a woman who was decked out in the clothes she’d bought at a bazaar the day before. “I looove that scarf,” he said to her. She blushed and inexplicably went over to give this stranger a side-hug, which he returned.

“Sami is an archeologist here,” said Emil, our guide, who grabbed his friend and gave him a big kiss on the cheek and a warm hug himself.

“You’re lucky to have Emil,” said Sami. “He’s a good tour guide and a good person as well.”

Emil squeezed his friend’s shoulder, then herded us all inside past Sami, who stepped aside until we had all passed, then floated off back to his work serenely.

I felt tenderness and love here. Whether that was some ancient energy or simply the aura of Sami himself, I can’t know, but it felt different from the Temple of Horus.

The first thing you notice when you enter Dendera temple is the sweet chirping of the birds. This causes you to look up — and you’re rewarded with the most stunning ceiling art, complete with some of the original sky-blue paint.

After we explored the birthing chamber and went up to the roof for a little dancing (you have to dance in the temple of the Goddess of Dance, apparently), we were left to our own devices for a while.

In most temples, Edfu included, the guards have figured out this cute little trick to get extra cash out of tourists.

If you stray even a little from your pack, they’ll pretend to pick you out of the crowd and offer to show you something really special, something they only show to truly worthy people. They’ll guide you to some random, tucked-away spot on the wall they’ve deemed mystical-looking enough, then they’ll convince you to place your hands on that spot and close your eyes so you can feel the “essence” of it.

Whether or not you feel the essence, you’re gonna have a hard time walking away from that spot without paying the guard a little something extra for his attention. This is because he’s asked you outright to do so and he’s staring at you expectantly and now it’s super awkward if you don’t. So you fumble around with money you can’t remember the exchange rate on, he picks out his favorite bill, and you wander away slightly stunned, feeling …less than magical.

I got pretty good at avoiding eye contact with temple guards.

“Miss!”

Oh wow, is that a hieroglyph of a helicopter on the ceiling? How the hell did that get there?

“Miss! Come this way!”

Oh look, the laces of my slip-on ballet flats just came untied. I should fix that.

This creates a bit of a tense atmosphere in a lot of the temples, but you get used to it. Dendera felt different, though.

Must have been all that ancient feminine chill.

I wandered up a set of stairs with another woman in our group, to a room that overlooked the birthing chamber. A handsome guard followed us, but he kept his distance. I snapped the picture below and then she wandered away.

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photo via me, 2017

The guard stuck around.

“This is where men watched,” he offered. Then, asking permission with his eyes to scoot past me, he went over to the windows and pointed out that the frames were carved with images of male gods, as though they were peering down into the birthing chamber. “Look how small,” he said with a smile, indicating how tiny the male gods were in comparison to the carved images of Hathor herself throughout the temple. “They cannot imagine.”

It took me a moment to decipher his meaning: In this temple, Women held the power. Men were relegated to the cheap seats.

But what was women’s great power? Giving birth?

I’m about to get really contemplative, ok? And I’m gonna do my absolute best to take you on this journey with me.

This was perhaps as close as I’d ever come to thinking about the act of giving birth as a magical power, as a true miracle. Something worthy of worship. Beyoncé tried to tell us, but I don’t think I was listening properly. We tend to brush off childbirth these days as just another thing people do. We don’t really give it the spiritual recognition it deserves.

But the idea that this was a woman’s main source of power made me …sad. And then I found myself questioning if sadness was the right reaction to be having.

Somehow sensing my confusion, the guard gestured to a small alcove behind me in the wall, perfect for sitting. “Meditate. Take your time.” Then he stepped out of the room and turned his back to me to give me some privacy.

…Yeah, ok. I’ll meditate now, I guess.

If this guy asked me for money later, I’d probably just give it to him. He had a gentle way of creating space that was a nice change from the pushiness of the guards at the other temples.

I hopped up into the alcove in the wall, sat cross-legged, and frowned at the carved images of the male gods looking down at the power of childbirth. I don’t know if I’d have called it a meditation, actually. It was more of a “sussing”.

  1. This feminine power to create life has gone through a looong period of disrespect. Women have so often been forced into childbirth, treated at best like an unequal partner in the process and at worst like nothing more than breeding chattel. (“I [God] will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” Genesis 17:16–19) Like the cow herself, we’ve lost our status as powerful spiritual beings.
  2. I’d never felt drawn to giving birth myself. I figured that if I ever did have kids, I’d adopt. But physically building a whole person in my belly and then pushing that person out of my vagina? Not my thing. Did this mean I wasn’t in touch with my feminine side? Was I missing out on the miracle? Was I small and uncomprehending in the face of this immense power just like these silly, tiny male gods were? What about women who can’t have babies? What about trans women? What about cis men who wanted to embrace their feminine sides?

Still a little sad, but having sorted out some thoughts, I hopped out of the alcove and was greeted now by two men at the door — the guard who had waited for me, and a much older man in a traditional galabeya. They smiled warmly and indicated for me to follow them.

I did, wondering if I was going to have to pay both of them now.

They brought me further up the stairs to another small chamber. This one was darker, lit only by the light from the entrance and from a single skylight. The men directed me to stand in the exact center of the room, right below the skylight, then they stepped back out.

“Take your time,” the guard said again.

Um. Ok. This was starting to feel like I was at a party with a blindfold on and these two were spinning me around and around and I was gonna have to start swinging at a piñata soon. I’d look real ridiculous if I swung at something that was out of my reach.

I looked up and saw …Death.

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photo via me, 2017

The ceiling was black with soot. Emil had told us earlier that these temples were largely abandoned for many hundreds of years, so they were often used as homes for squatters. They’d build fires to keep warm and to cook food. Archeologists were trying to clear off the soot, but this had to be done very slowly and carefully so as not to rub off any of the original paint colors.

I loved the thought of someone sitting next to a fire in this room, alone, contemplating the flickering pictures of death on the walls. Every hieroglyph on the wall was a depiction of some stage of death, from caring for the dying to mummifying them to anointing them and sending them off to the next life. In every image, women seemed to be helping the process along.

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photos via me, 2017

Ok, so birth and death were both honored in this temple of the feminine. Both were just as sacred and they each required similar midwifery. But oh no, here came the inferiority complex again…

I thought back to changing my grandfather’s diaper when he was on his deathbed.

I’d tried to be gentle but he still winced with pain when I shifted him onto his side. And when I finally got the diaper out from under him, he slipped from my hands and fell back onto the bed rather unceremoniously. He whimpered and I apologized profusely. I was definitely out of my element.

But I managed to make him laugh a minute later when I asked if he’d thought about what he wanted on his tombstone.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “‘He was born, he died, that was the gist of it’.”

It’s funny because that’s the shortest story he ever told.

One of the men gave a bird-like whistle to catch my attention and I turned around. I swear to god, there were three of them now. Another old man in a galabeya and a headscarf sat on the ground as though he’d been there all along.

“Come,” said the guard.

He guided me out of the chamber and pointed up at the ceiling. At first, I couldn’t quite make out what I was seeing through all the soot:

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photo via me, 2017

Look closely. It’s a Hathor within a Hathor within a Hathor. Stacks of Hathors. Evolutions of Hathors. Russian doll Hathor.

This was my second time here in Egypt. I’d visited when I was 15, but I’d been so young and so absorbed in culture shock that I hadn’t had much headspace available for this kind of contemplation. This time was different, though. I was different. I’d been through births and deaths and bliss and heartbreaks and I’d been around the world and I’d been impacted by so many different people… I was basically a whole new person myself.

Maybe this “feminine” power didn’t have to come from actually giving birth or actually being fantastic at death. Maybe it came from the knowledge that we are constantly dying and giving birth to ourselves. Maybe it’s just a recognition and an acceptance of the awesome power of change.

The guard put a gentle hand on my back and turned me around to point out one more image:

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photo via me, 2017

Was it an adult fetus or a yoga position? Are you squinting right now?

Whatever, both options were a pretty good metaphor for the idea that we’re forever going to feel like we don’t know enough, like we’re constantly being initiated into something. We’re born and we die and that’s the gist of it, but we also grow. And the growing can’t happen without a bunch of little deaths and little births along the way. (Sometimes really big deaths and really big births.) And if we take a second to look back at earlier iterations of ourselves, which can so often seem like past lives entirely, we can see how far we’ve come and perhaps be a little more content to be the giant, awkward, adult fetuses we are in this moment.

And maybe we can even step into the beyond with confidence that this cycle has never ended, and that it never will. It’s far older than the first hieroglyph.

This, I think, is the power of the “feminine”. And we’ve all got that power in us, no matter what we’re packing in our pants.

This may be a stretch, I etymologize, but…

The word gist comes from the old French word gesir which means ‘to lie’. This turned into the Anglo-French legal phrase cest action gist or ‘this action lies’, which denoted that there were sufficient grounds to proceed; gist was adopted into English denoting the grounds themselves.

So you could interpret what turned out to be my grandpa’s final words to me as —

“He was born, he died, those were sufficient grounds to proceed.”

I really tried to give the guard and his friends some money but they wouldn’t take it. I wish I’d asked them their names, at least, but I was a bit high on existential comprehension.

On the way back out to our group’s bus, I spotted a little gift shop and bought myself a reminder:

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Hathor and Taweret on my bookshelf. Photo via me, 2019

This statue of big Hathor and little Hathor, which now sits on my bookshelf in my bedroom, originally sat by herself amongst a bunch of Nefertiti busts and sphynxes and King Tuts and I was so happy to have found the perfect, most unique version of her that I might have overpaid just a bit.

I spent the rest of the trip seeing identical statues in shops all over Egypt.

If you’re wondering what that little gold creature is on the right, I wondered that too when it reached out to me telepathically in a little shop near the Valley of the Kings and said, “Bitch, you better take me home”.

Turns out it’s Taweret, a pregnant hippo goddess with a crocodile on her back, lion paws, tig ol’ bitties, and a penis. She’s apparently a fierce (to the point of terrifying) protector of children and childbirth. She will guide you through the birthing process and she will eff up anybody who gets in your way.

She’s guiding me through the birth of my new Medium publication:

This is a brand new community of writers dedicated to supporting each other through the very growth process I’m talking about. We tell hero’s journey stories that entertain, educate, and inspire. I’d LOVE for you to join us, so go give us a follow and here are the Submission Guidelines.

It’s a spectrum.

Listen, if Tawaret can be pregnant with a penis, you can be whoever the hell you want to be. The traits I’ve described above may be referred to as “masculine” and “feminine”, but that’s only because we’ve been living in boxes for thousands of years.

If you want to embrace and explore all the archetypes for yourself, that feels super healthy. If you want to pick and choose traits like you’re in a candy store, great. If you want to slide up and down the spectrum based on the weather or how you’re feeling this week, fantastic.

Do you. The gods and goddesses are here for it and so am I.

Oh, and I still want you to tell me which book you’d choose from the Edfu Temple library. Comment below! I’m polling this thing!

Written by

Snarky writer of weird-ass little stories that connect history, travel, and culture. Get updates and writing tips at www.KatlynRoberts.com.

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