Neith (Nit, Net, Neit) was an ancient goddess of war and weaving. Goddess Neith was the patron goddess of the Red Crown of Lower Egypt and the city of Zau (Sais, in the 5th Nome of Lower Egypt) in the Delta. According to the Iunyt (Esna) cosmology, Neith was the creator of the world and the mother of the sun, Ra.
Neith was the tutelary deity of Sais, where her cult was centred in the western Nile Delta of Lower Egypt. It is attested as early as the First Dynasty. Neith was also one of the three tutelary deities of the southern city of Latopolis (Koinē Greek: Λατόπολις) or Esna (Snē) (Sahidic Coptic: ⲥⲛⲏ from earlier Egyptian: t3-snt, also iwnyt). Latopolis existed on the western bank of the Nile some 55 kilometres (34 mi) south of Luxor (Thebes).
Symbolism of Neith
Neith is a far more complex goddess than is generally known, however, and of whom ancient texts only hint of her true nature. Egyptians portrayed her as a fierce deity in her usual representations, a woman wearing the Red Crown, occasionally holding or using the bow and arrow, and in others, a harpoon. A religious silence was imposed by ancient Egyptians for secrecy, employing euphemisms and allusions and often relying on symbols alone.
Neith also is a goddess of war and hunting, and that is the symbolism depicted most often. In her form as a goddess of war, she made warriors’ weapons and guarded their warriors’ bodies when they died. Her symbol was two arrows crossed over a shield. The hieroglyphs of her name usually are followed by a determinative containing the archery elements, with the shield symbol of the word being explained as either double bows (facing one another), intersected by two arrows (usually lashed to the bows), or by other imagery associated with her worship. Her symbol also identified the city of Sais. This symbol was displayed on top of her head in Egyptian art.
Goddess Neith was usually shown carrying the sceptre (symbol of rule and power) and the ankh (symbol of life) as a deity. She is called such cosmic epithets as the “Cow of Heaven”, a sky-goddess similar to Nut, and the Great Flood, Mehet-Weret, as a cow who gives birth to the sun daily. In these forms, she played a role in creating both the primaeval time and the daily “re-creation”. As protectress of the Royal House, she is represented as a uraeus and functions with the fiery fury of the sun. This led to her personification of the primordial waters of creation. Ancient Egyptians identified her as a great mother goddess in this role as a creator. She was the personification of the primaeval waters, able to give birth (create) parthenogenetically.
Later, as religious practices evolved throughout the long history of their culture, ancient Egyptians began to note their deities in pairs, female and male. When that tradition arose, Neith was paired with Ptah-Nun. Similarly, her personification as the primaeval waters is Mehet-Weret, conceptualised as streaming water, related to another use of the verb sti, meaning ‘to pour’.
Neith is one of the most ancient deities associated with ancient Egyptian culture. Flinders Petrie (Diopolis Parva, 1901) noted that the earliest depictions of her standards were known in predynastic periods, as can be seen from a barque representing her crossed arrow standards in the Predynastic Period, as is displayed in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Her first anthropomorphic representations occur in the early dynastic period, on a diorite vase of King Ny-Netjer of the Second Dynasty. The vase was found in the Step Pyramid of Djoser (Third Dynasty) at Saqqara. Her worship predominated the early dynastic periods and was demonstrated by a preponderance of theophoric names (personal names that incorporate the name of a deity) within which Neith appears as an element. The predominance of Neith’s name in nearly forty per cent of early dynastic names, particularly in the names of four royal women of the First Dynasty, clearly emphasises the importance of this goddess concerning the early society of Egypt, with particular emphasis on association with the Royal House.
In the very early periods of Egyptian history, the central iconographic representations of this goddess appear to have been limited to her hunting and war characteristics. Egyptologists suggested that Neith’s imagery’s hunting and war features may indicate her origin from Libya, located west and southwest of Egypt, where she was the goddess of the combative peoples. However, there is no Egyptian mythological reference to support the concept that this was her primary function as a deity.
It has been theorised that Neith’s primary cult point in the Old Kingdom was established in Saïs (modern Sa el-Hagar) by Hor-Aha of the First Dynasty to appease the residents of Lower Egypt by the ruler of the unified country. Textual and iconographic evidence indicates that she was a national goddess for Old Kingdom Egypt, with her sanctuary in Memphis showing the high regard held for her. She was known as “North of her Wall” as a counterpoise to Ptah’s “South of his Wall” epithet. While Neith is generally regarded as a deity of Lower Egypt, her worship was not consistently located in that delta region.
Her cult reached its height in Saïs and apparently in Memphis in the Old Kingdom and remained significant, although somewhat through the Middle and the New Kingdom. Her cult regained cultural prominence again during the twenty-sixth dynasty when worship at Saïs flourished again and at Esna in Upper Egypt.
Neith’s symbol and part of her hieroglyph also bore a resemblance to a loom, and so in later synchronisation of Egyptian myths by the Greek ruling class of that time, she also became the goddess of weaving. At this time, her role as a creator was conflated with that of Athena, a Greek deity who wove all of the world and existence into being on her loom.
Sometimes Neith was pictured as a woman nursing a baby crocodile. She then was addressed with the title, “Nurse of Crocodiles”, reflecting southern provincial mythology in Upper Egypt that she served as the mother of the crocodile god, Sobek. As the mother of Ra, in her Mehet-Weret form, she was sometimes described as the “Great Cow who gave birth to Ra”. As a maternal figure (beyond being the birth-mother of the sun-god Ra), Neith is associated with Sobek as her son (as early as the Pyramid Texts). Still, in later religious conventions that paired deities, no male deity is consistently identified with her in a pair, so she is often represented without one. Later, triad associations made with her have little or no religious or mythological supporting references, which appear to have been made only by political or regional associations.
Some modern writers assert that they may interpret that as her being ‘androgynous’ since Neith is the creator capable of giving birth without a partner (asexually) and association of creation with sexual imagery, as seen in the myths of Atum and other creator deities. However, her name always appears feminine. Erik Hornung interprets that in the Eleventh Hour of the Book of the Amduat, Neith’s name seems to be written with a phallus (Das Amduat, Teil I: Text: 188, No. 800. (Äg. Abh., Band 7, Wiesbaden) 1963). See also Ramadan el-Sayed, La Déese Neith de Saïs, I:16; 58-60, for both hieroglyphic rendering and discussion of an androgynous nature of Neith as creator/creatress deity, and Lexikon der Ägyptologie (LÄ I) under “Götter, androgyne”: 634-635 (W. Westendorf, ed., Harassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1977).
In reference to Neith’s function as creator with both male and female characteristics, Peter Kaplony has said in the Lexikon der Ägyptologie: “Die Deutung von Neith als Njt “Verneinung” ist sekundär. Neith ist die weibliche Entsprechung zu Nw(w), dem Gott der Urflut (Nun and Naunet). (Citing Sethe, Amun, § 139)”. LÄ II: 1118 (Harassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1977). The antiquity of Neith reaches deeply into the prehistoric periods. However, when female deities as the sole creators (through parthenogenesis) were quite common in human cultures (and even into the neolithic), she should be considered in that role without reaching for other explanations for her not following later conventions. She was supposed to be the eldest of the Ancient Egyptian deities. Neith is said to have been “born the first, in the time when there had been no birth” (St. Clair, Creation Records: 176).
In the Pyramid Texts, Neith is paired with the goddess Selket as the two braces for the sky, which places these goddesses as the supports for the heavens (see PT 1040a-d, following J. Gwyn Griffiths, The Conflict of Horus and Seth, (London, 1961) p. 1). This ties in with the vignette in the Contendings of Seth and Horus when, as the most ancient among them, Neith is asked by the deities to decide who should rule. In her reply, Neith selects Horus and says she will “cause the sky to crash to the earth” if he is not selected. She was appealed to as a judge in the dispute between Horus and Seth.
An analysis of her attributes shows Neith was a goddess with many roles. From predynastic and early dynasty periods, she was referred to as an “Opener of the Ways” (wp w3.wt), which may have referred to her leadership in hunting and war and as a psychopomp in cosmic and underworld pathways, escorting souls.
References to Neith as the “Opener of Paths” occur in Dynasty Four through Dynasty Six, and Neith is seen in the titles of women serving as priestesses of the goddess. Such epithets include: “Priestess of Neith who opens all the (path)ways”, “Priestess of Neith who opens the good pathways”, and “Priestess of Neith who opens the way in all her places”. (el-Sayed, I: 67-69). el-Sayed asserts his belief that Neith should be seen as a parallel to Wepwawet, the ancient jackal god of Upper Egypt, who was associated in that southern region with both royalties in victory and as a psychopomp for the dead.
The prominent imagery of Neith as wp w3.wt was as the deity of the unseen and limitless sky, as opposed to representations of Nut and Hathor, who respectively represented the manifested night and day skies. Neith’s epithet as the “Opener of the Sun’s paths in all her stations” refers to how the sun is reborn (due to seasonal changes) at various points in the sky, under Neith’s control of all beyond the visible world, of which only a glimpse is revealed before dawn and after sunset. Neith reigns as a form of sky goddess at these changing points, where the sun rises and sets daily, or at its ‘first appearance’ to the sky above and below. At these points, beyond the sky that is seen, Neith’s true power as the deity who creates life is manifested.
Georges St. Clair (Creation Records, 1898) noted that Neith is represented at times as a cow goddess with a line of stars across her back (as opposed to representations of Nut with stars across the belly) [See el-Sayed, II, Doc. 644], and maintained this indicated that Neith represents the full ecliptic circle around the sky (above and below), and is seen iconographically in ancient texts as both the regular and the inverted determinative for the heavenly vault, indicating the cosmos below the horizon. St. Clair maintained it was this realm that Neith personified, for she is the entire sky that surrounds the upper (Nut) and lower (Nunet?) sky, and who exists beyond the horizon, and thereby, beyond the skies themselves. Neith, then, is that portion of the cosmos that is not seen and in which the sun is reborn daily, below the horizon (which may reflect the statement assigned to Neith as “I come at dawn and sunset daily”).
Since Neith also was the goddess of war, she thus had a different association with death: in this function, she shot her arrows into the enemies of the dead, and therefore Neith began to be viewed as a protector of the dead, often appearing as a uraeus snake to drive off intruders and those who would harm the deceased (in this form she is represented in the tomb of Tutankhamun). She also is shown as the protectress of one of the four sons of Horus, specifically, Duamutef, the deification of the canopic jar storing the stomach since the abdomen (often mistakenly associated as the stomach) was the most vulnerable portion of the body and a prime target during battle.