Ancient Egyptian culture recognises Nephthys, also known as Nebet-Het, as a powerful goddess. She belonged to the Great Ennead of Heliopolis from Egyptian mythology. The myths recognise Nephthys as the daughter of god Geb and goddess Nut. Mythology pairs the goddess herself with Isis, her sister, in funerary rites.
Moreover, the goddess was also the sister and wife of god Set. They both were protectors of the mummies. Mythologies linked goddess Nephthys with mourning, night and childbirth. Also, it connects her with magic, temple services and protection, embalming and beer.
The Iconography of Goddess Nephthys
“Nephthys” literally translates to “Lady of the House”. Many people in the past have mistaken the literal translation of her name and identified her as the lady who rules a domestic house. The error repeats itself in many tales linked with her deity. However, the goddesses name means explicitly “Lady of the Temple Enclosure”. It directly connects her with the role of priestess.
Most likely, the title itself is just a byname that describes Nephthys function. It links her with one specific temple or a special Egyptian temple ritual. Additionally, Nephthys and Isis represent the monumental gate of the ancient Egyptian temple. This entrance symbolised the sisters and Akhet or horizon.
Relationships of the goddess
The Fifth Dynasty Pyramid Texts describes Nephtys as the goddess of the Heliopolitan Ennead. Nephthys is the sister of Osiris, Isis and war-like deity Set. Contrary to Isis, who represents the birth experience, Nephthys symbolises the death experience.
Few ancient Egyptian temple theologies call Nephthys the “Helpful Goddess” or the “Excellent Goddess”. These Egyptian texts describe the goddess as someone who represented protective guardianship and divine assistance. Moreover, mythology regards the goddess as the mother of the deity Anubis. However, in other myths, Anubis appears as the son of Isis or Bastet.
According to the famous tale of Osiris, the ancient Egyptians called goddess the primary nursing mother of the incarnate god Horus. The texts consider her to be the nurse of the reigning pharaoh. Tales depict Nephthys most often in this role. However, according to other myths, the goddess featured as a dangerous and fierce divinity. The legends say that Nephthys could burn the enemies of the pharaoh with her hot breath.
The Symbolism Of The Goddess
A kite or a female with falcon wings symbolises the goddess in a funerary role. The outstretched wings represent a symbol of protection. The association of Nephthys with the Egyptian hawk reminded the ancients of lamentations during mourning rituals.
Moreover, the Pyramid Texts identify Nephtys association with death and putrefaction. The hieroglyphics depicting her name were a combination of signs that stood for a sacred temple closure and a lady’s symbol on top of the enclosure sign.
The tales have depicted the goddess as a morbid but vital force of heavenly transition. That essentially meant how a pharaoh became more ready for their journey to the afterlife due to Isis and Nephthys. All the dead considered her as a necessary companion for their cosmic journey.
Moreover, the Pyramid texts consider the sisters, Isis and Nephthys, as a force before whom demons trembles in fear. Additional, their magic was necessary to navigate the different levels of Duat or the realm of death.
Nephthys in Different Mythologies
Recent research has questioned the linkage of the goddess with Set. An egyptologist, Levai notes, that there is very little information in the early Egyptian sources that associates Nephthys to Set. According to it, the marriage of the goddess to Set wasn’t part of the legend of murder and resurrection of Osiris.
Nephthys helps Isis
The famous tale recounts how Nephtys helped Isis gather and subsequently mourn the body of Osiris after Set murdered him. Moreover, she served as the watchful guardian of the baby Horus. Specifically, the Pyramid Texts refer to Isis as a birth mother and Nephthys as the nursing mother.
Nephthys Plays part with Osiris
Nephtys was also one of the four “Great Cheifs” that ruled the Osirian cult centre of Busiris in Delta. Additional, she occupies an honorary position in the holy city of Abydos. The town held annal rites in which two chosen females played the role of Isis and Nephthys. Together, the selected priestess would perform “Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys”. The “Festival Songs of Isis and Nephthys” formed an essential element of several Osirian rites in major Egyptian cult centres.
Protectors of the Canopic Jars
Additionally, the goddess was one of the protectors of the canopic jars in Hapi. The son of Horus, Hapi, guarded the embalmed lungs. Hence, Nephthys became endowed with the title “Nephtys of the Bed of Life”. It directly referred to her regenerative powers on the embalming table.
Queen of the Embalmer’s Shop
Furthermore, the city of Memphis honoured the goddess with the title of “Queen of the Embalmer’s Shop”. Here people linked her with the jackal-headed Anubis as a patron. Additionally, people also considered the goddess as a festive deity. Her rites could approve the consumption of alcohol beer.
Beer Goddess at Edfu
Other reliefs in Edfu, Dendera and Behbeit showcase her receiving lavish beer offerings from pharaohs. Later, she would return the beer using her power as a goddess and bless the pharaoh joy with no hangover.
Depiction of the goddess:
General textual themes represent the goddess as someone whose unique domain was darkness or the dangerous edges of the desert. An ancient myth in the Papyrus Westcar recounts the story of the goddess along with Meskhenet and Heqet. In the tale, gods travelled as dancers in disguise while assisting a priest’s wife from Amun-Re. This lady was preparing to deliver sons destined for fame and fortune.
Several ceramic amulets depict Nephthys. Additionally, the goddess is present in various magical papyri that sought to summon her noble qualities to help the mortals.
People understood Nephthys less clearly than her sister Isis. However, she was equally important in the Egyptian religion. The work of Erik Hornung and several other scholars confirmed Nephthys’ religious position. Moreover, the ancient Egyptian dedicated a temple to Nephthys in the town of Sepermeru during the 19th Dynasty. Pharaoh Ramesses II headed this project due to his devotion to the goddess. Similarly, there are several accounts of the power and glory of the goddess Nephthys.