In ancient Egypt, Hathor was the goddess of old, later re-imagined as Isis, who gave all the good gifts of life to humanity. Early depictions of the goddess show a queenly woman with the sun disk and horns on her head; later she came to be seen as a woman with the head of a cow or, simply, as a cow, symbolizing her life-giving energy and bounty toward humanity. Music and dance were a large part of the worship of Hathor and, unlike other deities who had clergy of their same sex administering to them, the cult of Hathor included men and women as priests and priestesses. Though her cult center was at Dendera, worship of Hathor was widespread throughout Egypt and was especially popular among the poor.
The Poor in Ancient Egypt
The farmers who worked the land almost never owned it. "Most arable land in ancient Egypt belonged to the pharaoh, his nobles, or the religious temples; they collected the bulk of the crops and the farmers kept a modest portion for themselves and their families" (Nardo, 12). The crops included emmer wheat and barley, peas, lentils and other vegatables and fruits. Every day at harvest time, the farmers would go to the fields, reach out with their left hand to grasp a stalk of wheat, cut it with a small scythe in their right hand, and leave it for the worker behind them to pick up in a basket. All day they farmed the land they did not own and had no hope of ever owning, their left hands always before their eyes reaching for the crops to harvest.
The Five Gifts of Hathor
When a poor farmer joined the cult of Hathor the priest or priestess would take hold of their left forearm and say, "Name the five things you would miss the most if you were to die right now." The person would have to name the first five things which came to mind without thinking too precisely on them - perhaps something like, "My wife, my children, beer, my dog, the river." The priestess or priest would then raise the person's left hand in front of the person's face and say, "These are the five gifts of Hathor" and the person would look at the five fingers of their left hand as the priestess would continue, "Every day you have at least these five things to be grateful for and, should you lose one, there will always come another." When that person went back out into the fields and reached out for the stalk of wheat to cut, under the hot sun, they would see their left hand always before them and be constantly reminded of the five gifts of Hathor.
In ancient Egyptian belief, as in all pagan belief structures, gratitutde toward the gods kept one steady on the path through life while ingratitude was a `gateway sin' which then opened one up to all the other sins. As soon as one stopped feeling grateful one moved toward darkness and disbelief and bitterness in life. The Five Gifts of Hathor, which one could always remember by simply looking at the fingers of their left hand, were constant reminders of all that was good and important and worth waking up for every morning - and giving thanks for every night.
Contributor's Note: A version of this article was first published on the site Suite 101. C. 2009, Professor Joshua J. Mark