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The vulture goddess, Nekhbet

Nekhbet, Goddess of Upper Egypt, Childbirth and Protector of Pharaoh

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: November 29, 2012

 

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Nekhbet, wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt Nekhbet (Nekhebet, Nechbet) was the predynastic vulture goddess who was originally a goddess of a city, but grew to become patron of Upper Egypt, a guardian of mothers and children, and one of the nebty (the 'two ladies') of the pharaoh. 'She of Nekhb', named after the town Nekhb (El Kab) nkhbjar determinative town determinative, was a local goddess who, with the rise of the pharaohs, became the great goddess of all of Upper Egypt, while the other 'lady', Wadjet (Edjo), became goddess of Lower Egypt. These two goddesses were linked closely together due to the Egyptian idea of duality - there must be a goddess for both of the Two Lands. Nekhbet became Upper Egypt (the south) personified.

She was depicted as a woman wearing the crown of Upper Egypt or the vulture headdress, a woman with the head of a vulture, as a full snake or as a full vulture with the White Crown on her head, her wings spread in protection while holding the shen (shn) symbol of eternity in her talons. (However, occasionally, such as in the tomb of Nefertari, she was shown wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt.) She was often shown with Wadjet, who was sometimes shown as an identical goddess - either as a woman or a snake - wearing the crown of Lower Egypt.

Nekhbet was given the title the 'White Crown', and depicted with this crown, because of her link with the rulership of Upper Egypt. By dynastic times, she was more a personification than an actual goddess and so Nekhbet was often used (with Wadjet) as a heraldic device around the sun disk or the royal name and were part of the royal insignia. The earliest found representation of the nebty title was in the reign of Anedjib, a pharaoh of the 1st Dynasty. From the 18th Dynasty onwards, she began to be represented as protecting the royal women in the form of one of the twin uraei on the headdresses of the queens. Nekhbet as a vulture

Nekhbet and Wadjet on Tutankhamen's brow Linked to the pharaoh and the crown, she often appears in war and offertory scenes, in vulture form hovering over the head of the pharaoh, holding the shen symbol and the royal flail. Yet she also is shown sometimes as a divine mother of the pharaoh, suckling him herself. It was in her mothering role that she was known as the 'Great White Cow of Nekhb', where she was described as having pendulous breasts. She was seen as the pharaoh's own protective goddess, right from his birth until his death.

It was mostly during the later times that she was venerated as a goddess of birth, specialising in the protection and suckling of both the gods and the pharaohs. Unlike Heqet and Taweret, she was never a popular goddess of the people due to her very close association with rulership. It was only during the New Kingdom that the people started worshiping her as a protector of mothers and children as well as being the goddess of childbirth. Until then, she had strictly been a protector of the pharaoh. The Sociable Vulture

Image © Kulturni dum Holice

In Southern Africa, the name for an Egyptian vulture is synonymous with the term applied to lovers, for vultures like pigeons are always seen in pairs. Thus mother and child remain closely bonded together. Pairing, bonding, protecting, loving are essential attributes associated with a vulture. Because of its immense size and power and its ability to sore high up in the sky, the vulture is considered to be nearer to God who is believed to reside above the sky. Thus the qualities of a vulture are associated with Godliness. On the other hand the wide wingspan of a vulture may be seen as all encompassing and providing a protective cover to its infants. The vulture when carrying out its role as a mother and giving protection to its infants may exhibit a forceful nature whilst defending her young. All these qualities inspired the imagination of the Ancient Egyptians. They adopted what seemed to them at the time to be motherly qualities, the qualities of protecting and nurturing their young ... Thus the qualities of being a mother in the eyes of the Ancient Egyptians may be seen as one of protecting, defending, bonding, pairing, care, attention and affection for her child. These beliefs formed the philosophical thinking behind the Ancient Egyptian civilisation and resulted in them bestowing on the mother the attributes of the vulture.

-- The Kiswahili-Bantu Research Unit for the Advancement of the Ancient Egyptian Language, Ma-Wetu

Nekhbet was thought to be the wife of Hapi, in his Upper Egyptian aspect. She was also linked to Horus in his role of god of Upper Egypt. Due to her vulture form, she was linked to the goddess Mut, the mother goddess and wife of Amen. Both Mut and Nekhbet were a particular type of vulture. One theory is that it was the Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) that was normally associated with the goddesses and to royalty. Howard Carter, on the other hand, suggested that it might be the Sociable Vulture (Vultur auricularis): The Griffon Vulture

256, S. NEKHBET INSIGNIA - of diadem ...


...

The vulture-Nekhbet insignia finely modelled in gold. The eyes of obsidian, details of eyelids minutely defined. The beak, nostrils, brows, ears, wrinkled occiput, and the well defined partial covering of stiff feathers on the back of the neck, as well as the general shape of the head, are all characteristic of Vultur auricularis (Dand.), the Sociable Vulture, peculiar to the middle and southern provinces of Egypt into Nubia.

-- Carter, H., The Howard Carter Archives

Yet she also had a fierce side, as most Egyptian protective deities did. She was linked to war and combat. In many war scenes, it is she who hovered above the pharaoh, protecting him from his enemies. In the story of Horus and Set, when Horus is trying to find and rout the followers of Set, Horus pursued them in the form of a burning, winged disk, attended by both Nekhbet and Wadjet as crowned snakes, one on each side of him. In this form, she was given the title 'Eye of Ra', and was thus linked to the other goddesses who took this title - Bast, Tefnut, Sekhmet, Hathor, Isis, and her 'twin' in duality, Wadjet. Wadjet wearing the Red Crown and Nekhbet wearing the White Crown, blessing the Pharaoh

There are actually two sections to Nekhb ... In a smaller enclosure is the Temple of Nekhbet, with its several pylons, hypostyle hall in front, a mamissi (birth house) dedicated to Nekhbet (the embodiment of Hathor). The temple was begun around 2700 BC, and enlarged in by later pharaohs of the 18th through 30th dynasties, including Tuthmosis III, Amenophis II, and the Ramesids. The second part of the ruins is the necropolis, which is situated on a rocky outcrop.

-- Tour Egypt, El Kab and El Ahmar

A temple of Nekhbet was built at Nekhb, along with the temple's birth house, smaller temples, the temple's sacred lake and some early cemeteries. It is possible that it was first built during the Early Period, but major building projects were started during the 18th Dynasty. The remains of the temple, though, belong to the works of the pharaohs of the 29th and 30th Dynasties. During Greco-Roman times, she was identified with the Cretan goddess Eileithya, a goddess who was thought to aid women in childbirth. Nekhbet was venerated at this temple and inside the town of Nekhb itself.

She was worshipped by the kings of the Old Kingdom and throughout most of Egypt's long history: Nekhbet as a human woman, from Dier el Bahri

King Userkaf
Year 5

...
Nekhbet in the sanctuary of the South: 10 offerings of bread and beer every day.
Wadjet in Pernu: 10 offerings of bread and beer every day.

...

King Sahure
Year 5

...
Nekhbet, mistress of Perwer*: 800 daily offerings of bread and beer; Wadjet, mistress of Perneser*: 4,800 daily offerings of bread and beer.

-- Horne, C.F. 1997, The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East: Egypt, Volume 2, pp. 18-19

Nekhbet as a woman wearing the White Crown * Perwer (pr wr) meant 'Great House' and was a temple at temple at Nekhb; Perneser (pr nsr) meant 'House of Flame' and was a temple at Per-Wadjet (Buto).

From local goddess of a predynastic town to the goddess of Upper Egypt, Nekhbet became one of Egypt's symbols. From the personal protector of the pharaoh and she who bestowed the white crown to the pharaoh, she became the symbol of rulership in ancient Egypt. And from the wet nurse of pharaoh to the guardian of mothers and infants, she took on the role of protector, she moved from the pharaoh's own goddess to one who looked after mothers and children through the whole land. She was worshipped as a goddess as well as being the personification of the south, the vulture goddess who was one half of a manifestation of the idea of duality that was a basis of ma'at for as long as the pharaohs ruled Egypt. She was more than just a goddess - she was half of the land of Egypt itself.

Detail of Nekhbet wearing the White Crown of Lower Egypt, Kom Ombo


Further Information about Nekhbet


Video of Nekhbet

A video filled with images of the goddess Nekhbet (and other deities), by Egyptahotep:


© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2001 - present

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