The Egyptian Sistram

The Egypimg_2647tian political unification occurred around 3100 B.C. It is believed that social organization developed and was passed down through the females of the group, due to nurturing as males left on hunting parties. In the Egyptian prehistoric period, the Badarian ( ca. 4500-4000 B.C.), women’s graves were larger than men’s graves. This suggest that the status of the woman as mother grew and the need for goddesses that governed the agricultural cycle began. The images of cows, bulls, and sheep appeared and suggest that they had ritual pertaining to the food supply and increase of herds. Images of snakes and hippopotamuses also appeared. Amulets of gazelles and hippopotamuses were found in graves of the Badarian period. Their burial site suggest the use of dogs as protectors in the community and that the age of the cow bones suggest that they were used for milk rather than slaughter. Some of the amulets found in these sites depict a cow-mother goddess form, suggesting that the cow became a divine mother goddess early on. In the unification of Egypt, King Narmer placed the image of the cow goddess Bat on the Narmer Palette, transcending her role in the birth of humans to the birth of a nation. This put the king in the place of absorbing the power of the goddess as pharaoh, thus taking the emphasis of the goddess away and placing it on the god. The roles of Isis and Hathor became divine in which they would have the responsibility of reviving the king when he died.

In a reversal of patriarchal mythologies, the Egyptian belief placed the goddess Nut as the sky and the god Geb as the Earth, her husband. In her status of the sky, she is to swallow the sun and rebirth him during the winter Solstice. Nut and Geb parent the gods of Egypt, and she is placed over the life, death, and birth as she gazes down to earth. Their children were Isis and Nepthys (the two banks of the Nile) and Seth and Osiris. When the pharaohs claimed godship as Horus (the son of Isis and Osiris), they then become born of the goddess Nut, the mother of all gods. Originally, Nut was in the form of a cow goddess or vulture, harkening to the divinity and importance of cows before the unification of Egypt. Hathor emerged as a major deity in contrast to the sun god. She was considered in the Pyramid Texts as the Eye of the Sun, the heat and light from the center of the solar disk. In this role, she became the chief of all goddesses in the 4th Dynasty, as well as the mother of the king. She is given the title Mistress of the Sycamore, a tree that was used in the building of the Egyptian temples. As the tree goddess, she dispenses water to the dead. Her influence continued into the 6th Dynasty. It is believed that she was the mother of Ihy, a sistrum player. The sistrum is considered to be an important cultic instrument for the Hathor cult that existed from the 6th-4th Dynasties. In hymns to Hathor, she was given the title of Sekhmet (believed to be the darker side of Hathor). Hathor served as the goddess of love and fertility, with a festival for young women during the Inundation of the Nile, celebrating their sexuality and roles as women.

The sistrum was used in the festivals of Hathor, in which a person must play the role of Ihy (her son) and rise from the dead to her music and perfume. Ihy is a musician and carries the sistrum in statues. The original sistrums were shaped like a temple naos, the edifice housing the sacred cult image, where the deity dwells. It was usually held by a priestess/goddess or the queen and is associated with the secret initiation in the temple. In the original sistrums the image of Hathor resides between the handle and the naos. The image of Hathor began to be left off the sistrums when their designs turned into loop sistrums instead of in the form of the naos sistrum between the reign of Amenhotep and Tutenkhamen. The loop sistrum was typically made of bronze with a handle of wood. By the time of Akhenaten’s reign, the image of Hathor was completely removed from the sistrum and images of it were either seen in Nefertiti’s hands or their daughters’ hands to signify their divinity alongside Akhenaten.


Lesko, B. S. (1999). The great goddesses of Egypt. Norman: U Oklahoma Press.

Roberts, A. (1995/1997). Hathor rising: The power of the goddesses in ancient Egypt. Rochester: Inner Traditions Intl.


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