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The Theology of Hathor of Dendera: Aural and Visual Scribal Techniques in the Per-wer Sanctuary


The Ptolemaic temples are some of the best-preserved examples of Egyptian religious architecture; they represent the culmination of a long line of development, reflected in an increase in the number and polyvalency of hieroglyphic signs and iconographic elements in the wall reliefs. This development widened the scribal playing field for creating expressions that function on multiple aural, visual, and thematic levels.

There have been few scholarly studies of these plays on words, signs, and iconography; despite the intrinsic relationship of texts, reliefs, and architecture in Egyptian monuments, there have been no comprehensive studies of these techniques within a unified architectural space. I was therefore motivated to study these scribal methods within the most important cult chamber of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera: the Per-wer Sanctuary. Building upon the work of Gutbub, Guglielmi, and Derchain, I extended their approaches to the material in several ways: examining these techniques on both micro- and macro-levels, from their smallest details to their broadest thematic connections; foregrounding individual techniques to determine the words and phrases singled out for emphasis; synthesizing their use in the interconnections formed between scenes and texts within the three-dimensional space of the cult chamber.

I found that these scribal techniques support the three main themes of the Per-wer: Hathor as Creator and solar goddess; the Myth of the Distant Goddess; the King as Intermediary between the human and divine worlds. The myth creates the context for the King's interaction with the goddess, allowing his ritual actions to restore cosmic balance and activate the creative process. By communicating across boundaries, the scenes link complementary pairs, creating a network of interrelationships that mirrors the perfection of the divine Creation.

The results of my study suggest that this three-pronged approach could profitably extend to those of other cult chambers at Dendera, and to other Graeco-Roman temples, whose reliefs also contain plays on words, signs, and iconography. By studying these complex techniques of the ancient scribes, we can thereby come closer to understanding how they envisioned the universe and the place of humankind within it.

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