In ancient mythology, Nekhbet is a local goddess from the early predynastic era. The ancient Egyptians called this goddess the patron of the city of Nekheb (El Kab). Subsequently, she became the patron of Upper Egypt. Later, she became overall the second patron for all of unified Ancient Egypt. In Egyptian religion, people viewed Nekhbet as the protector of all the rulers of Upper Egypt. The bird vulture represented the mighty goddess.
The Roots of Goddess Nekhbet’s Name
Texts also refer to Nekhbet as Nekhebet or Nechbet. She appeared as one of the “Two Ladies” in the Nebty name of the pharaoh. This appearance was with her counterpart Wadjet (cobra goddess of Lower Egypt). People often referred to the goddess as “Hedjet” (White Crown).
It referred to the crown of Upper Egypt and regularly showcased it as a heraldic device that represents Upper Egypt. Moreover, Nekhbet protected the royal children and later all young children and expectant mothers.
According to evidence, the goddess was already popular in Predynastic Egypt. However, her association with the town of Nekheb (modern-day El Kab) was unique. This city holds the most significant shrine to the goddess and housed one of Egypt‘s oldest oracles. This fact further demonstrates itself since her name means “she of Nekheb”.
However, by the Early Dynastic Period, Nekheb and Nekhen merged. Nekhen was the cult centre of Horus, the Elder. Hence, people combined Nekhbet and Wadjet to form the Nebty name of the pharaoh. Subsequently, this fully established the goddess position as the representative of Upper Egypt.
Depiction of Nekhbet
History depicts Nekhbet as a winged goddess with her outspread wings as a symbol of protection. A vulture deity with outstretched wings is a symbol of the goddess. People called the Egyptian white vulture goddess demonstrates itself “Mother of Mothers, who hath existed from the Beginning”. The ancient texts link Nekhbet to funeral imagery and the cult of Osiris. Its believed that the goddess was present at the birth of Osiris.
Nekhbet guarded and protected the pharaoh and the non-royal deceased. Imagery often depicted her as a vulture with extending a wing to the front flying above the person she watched. The other pointed towards the ground. It represented the protection of the deceased.
Symbols of Nekhbet
People continued the association of Nekhbet with childbirth as she was the patron deity of birth. Ancient symbols depicted Nekhbet perched on top of a circular object. Some signs saw her as carrying a circular object in her claws. The ancient Egyptians named this object Shen, the round ring. Legends say that everything inside the circle had lasting protection. Furthermore, it symbolised divine power.
Similarly, another symbol that depicted the goddess was the Lotus or water lily. It symbolised the sun of creation, rebirth, regeneration and represented Upper Egypt. The goddess headdress displayed the White Atef crown in Upper Egypt. Moreover, the Egyptians linked Nekhbet, as the goddess of heaven, with both the moon and the sun. This link occurred when the ancient Egyptians described her as the “Eye of Ra“.
Nekhbet and the Vulture
The ancient Egyptian vulture is also called the White Scavenger Vulture. The adult vultures plumage is white and has black flight feathers in the wings. The kings considered the birds as royalty, and hence they protected white vultures under the law. The Ancient Egyptians viewed vultures as excellent models of motherhood. And therefore, they chose the bird to symbolise such an important goddess. It led to the coining of the term “Pharaoh’s chicken”.
Furthermore, the ancients believed that the bird was all females and able to reproduce without males. Hence, white vultures symbolised purity. Ancient symbols often depict the queens of Egypt wearing vulture headdresses that represented Nekhbet.
The tale of the Two Ladies
Originally Nekhbet was the white vulture goddess for the White Crown of the south of the country. Contrarily, Wadjet was the goddess of the Red Crown of Lower Egypt in the north. Later on, there was a unification of Lower and Upper Egypt.
The ancient people paired Nekhbet with Wadjet. Collectively, the people of Egypt referred to the two goddesses as the ‘Two Ladies’. Also, Ancient religious Egyptian texts often refer to Wadjet and Nekhbet as the ‘Two Ladies’. People saw Wadjet as a forceful defender. At the same time, they viewed Nekhbet as a meeker and motherly defender of Egypt.
Additionally, the ceilings of a temple in Kom Ombo (Ombus) showcases a picture of the two protective winged goddesses. Nekhbet wears the White Atef crown; however, Wadjet wears Lower Egypt’s Red Crown (Deshret).
The Roles of Nekhbet
Egyptian art and paintings depict the goddess as the nurse of the future king. She often nurtures and breastfeeds the royal child. Moreover, being the mythical mother of all Egyptian kings, the ancient Egyptians called Nekhbet the ‘Mother of Mothers’.
Moreover, she protected deceased kings. She took the form of a vulture to shield the dead with her outspread wings. Many images depict her as Osiris, god of the underworld, in tombs and burial chambers. Her affiliation with the royal family made her the most renowned goddess of Egypt.
Furthermore, the kings had the Shem, a symbol of Nekhbet, etched onto their crowns. They saw it as an emblem of guidance and protection. Moreover, in the epic battle between Horus and Set, ancient tales say that Nekhbet protected Horus and guided him on his attempt to reclaim the throne.
The Rise of Mut
In the era of the New Kingdom, the powerful Mother goddess Mut absorbed Nekhbet. No wonder Mut often wore a royal vulture crown that depicts the “Two Ladies”.
The mighty goddess protected the sun god on his journeys across the sky. Also, an essential role of the goddess was to defend Ra from Apep, the serpent monster. Thus, all this positioned Nekhbet as a powerful and influential goddess. The royals and the people linked the goddess with protection, childbirth and fertility. Besides, her symbols represented divine power and protection. Currently, modern culture depicts the goddess as a watchful white vulture.