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Nehebkau with a snake's head and human body, from Kom Ombo
Image © Marie-Hélène Cingal

Nehebkau, God who Joined the Ka to the Body, God of Protection and Magic

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: June 26, 2013


nhhbcross determinativekaw ka with appendage determinative

Statue of the snake-headed Nehebkau

Image © Asartehuti
Nehebkau (Nehebu-Kau, Nehebkhau), 'He Who Unites the Kas', was a benevolent snake god who the Egyptians believed was one of the original primeval gods. He was linked to the sun god, swimming around in the primeval waters before creation, then bound to the sun god when time began. He was a god of protection who protected the pharaoh and all Egyptians, both in life and in the afterlife.

Homage to thee, Netethib, daughter of these four gods who are in the Great House. Even when the command of Unas goes not forth, uncover yourselves in order that Unas may see you as Horus seeth Isis, as Nehebkau seeth Serqet, as Sobek seeth Nit, and as Set seeth Netethib.

-- Wallis Budge, E.A. 2003, Gods of the Egyptians: Volume 2, p. 63

He was depicted in the form of a snake with arms and legs, occasionally with wings. He is sometimes shown holding contaniers of food in his hands, in offering to the deceased. Less often, he is shown as a two headed snake, with a head at each end of the reptilian body.

Among the greatest of the festivals ... were those in honour of Nehebkau which, according to Dr. Brugsch, were celebrate on of Tybi [the fifth month], that is to say, nine days after the 'Festival of Ploughing the Earth'.

-- Wallis Budge, A.E. 2003, The Gods of the Egyptians: Volume 2, p. 63

His name comes from the ancient Egyptian word for 'yoke together' or 'unite', nhb nhhbcross determinative, with the word for the plural of a part of the spirit, the ka kaw. His name implies that he is the one that brings together the ka - the double of a person, an animal, a plant, a body of water or even a stone - and unites the double with the physical body that the ka would reside in, be it an animate or inanimate object.

Homage to thee, O my heart. Homage to thee, O my heart-case. Homage to you, O my reins. Homage to you, O ye gods, who are masters of [your] beards, and who are holy by reason of your sceptres. Speak ye for me words of good import to Ra, and make ye me to have favour in the sight of Nehebkau.

-- Wallis Budge, A.E. 2003, Book of the Dead, p. 455

An ithphallyic Nehebkau holding the Eye of Horus, from an Hypocephalus In life, Nehebkau was invoked by the people to protect them from and cure them of venomous bites. The Egyptians believed that he swallowed seven cobras (seven was a magical number to the ancient Egyptians), using them for his magical power. It was believed that he was one of the gods who announced the new pharaoh to the rest of the gods, at the begining of the new pharaoh's rule.

He was at one point a rather fierce and aggressive deity, and so the god Atem had to press his nail into Nehebkau's spine, so he could control the snake god. The ancient Egyptians believed that he could not be overcome with magic, fire or water. Nehebkau in the form of a winged snake

O thou adze of Atem which is upon the vertebra of Nehebkau, which brings to an end the strife in Hermopolis, fall! Perish!

-- Shorter, A.W. 1935, The God Nehebkau, p. 48

After death, it was Nehebkau who protected and fed the pharaoh, offering food and water to the other justified dead. The drink was known as the 'Milk of Light', magical liquid that would heal the deceased had they been bitten by a poisonous animal. (This may also either be in reference to the Milky Way, a representation of the Nile in the heavens, or a connection between Pyramid Text 381d, "and that N. may suck thy milk, which is white, light and sweet", and the prior discussion about the feast Nehebkau presents the king.) This made him a deity who was a friend of the dead.

As a friend to the deceased, he was depicted as carrying food and drink in vessels. This may be a pun on the word ka - karoll of bread determinative triple strokes - making him 'He Who Unites the Sustenance'.

He was one of the fourty two gods in the Halls of Ma'at, who helped to judge over the deceased. According to Alan W. Shorter in The God Nehebkau (1935, p. 48), his epithet, "coming forth from his cavern" is a reference to this role in the underworld. Deceased rulers could be identified with this god: "Pepi: He is Nehebkau of numerous coils". Nekebkau as a snake with human legs, from the tomb of Sethnakht & Tausert

Image © Caroline Dekker

Hail Nehebkau, who comes forth from thy city,
I have not sought to make myself unduly distinguished.

-- Wallis Budge, A.E. 2003, Book of the Dead, p. 584

One tradition states that he is the son of the scorpion goddess Serqet, and another says that he is the son of the earth god Geb and Renenutet, the goddess who gave the rn - the true name - to each child at birth. His wife was the minor goddess Nehemtawy, nhmt-aw3y n hmmta w3ycobra determinative 'She who Rescues the Robbed', who wears a sistrum-shaped headdress; she was a form of the Eye of Ra as the 'distant goddess' from the tale of Hathor and Sekhmet. He is also connected with the goddesses Sekhmet and Bast He was a form of the sun god while he lived in the waters of Nun, before creation. He swam in the water in the form of a snake with the other primeval gods, living in chaos. Amulet of Nehebkau as a snake-headed man

There remains to be considered the connexion of Nehebkau with the goddesses Sekhmet and Bast ... The explanation which appears to be the most probable is that, in this association of Sekhmet-Bast with Nehebkau and other serpent-demons, we have a reminiscence of the original character of these as enemies of the Sun-god. We known from various passages in the religious texts that the cat and the lynx (an animal of cat-like nature) were the sworn foes of these serpent-demons ... Alternatively, Nehebkau might be associated with Sekhmet-Bast, when identified with the Eye of Ra, in his honourable capacity as servitor of the Sun-god.

-- Shorter, A.W. 1935, The God Nehebkau, p. 47

Nehebkau did not have a priesthood, but many people invoked him in magical spells to gain his protection and cures against snakebites. He was a snake god of protection, who was called on when the people needed him. He was, they believed, one of the original gods of Egypt, only turned from chaos by the sun god. He was a benevolent god, a god of magic who bound the ka with the physical form, and who judged them in the afterlife. Although he did not have a cult following of his own, he was a god who they invoked in magical spells, both in life and in the land of the dead.

Further Information about Nehebkau

Video of Nehebkau

A video filled with images of Nehebkau (and other deities), by Egyptahotep:

© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2002 - present

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