Nephthys, Sister of Isis, Mistress of the Houseby Caroline Seawright
January 31, 2001
Updated: November 29, 2012
The goddess Nephthys one Egyptian deity who seems to have been ignored or pushed into the background. She didn't become a major cult figure, like her sister Isis, but one must remember that Nephthys, too, was a sibling of the most famous gods of ancient Egypt - Isis and Osiris. Nephthys was also the sister-wife of the god Set, the god of storms and the desert... and aunt to the god Horus.
The Egyptian name of this goddess was Nebt-het (Neb-hut, Neb-hwt, Nebt-hut, Nebthet) which means "Mistress of the House":
...but by the word "house" we must understand that portion of the sky which was supposed to form the abode of the Sun-god Horus; in fact "het" in the name of Nebt-het is used in exactly the same sense as "het" in the name "Het-Hert," or Hathor, i.e., the "House of Horus."
-- E. A. Wallis Budge (1904), Gods of the Egyptians: Part 2, p. 254
However, the word 'mansion' in Nephthys' name may be read as 'temple' or 'enclosure':
...these are hieroglyphs representing her name. There is a Hw.t sign which means "enclosure/mansion/temple" and there is a nb sign meaning "lord". Together with the single absence of the feminine .t ending they spell nb.t-Hw.t "lady of the enclosure". There is also a town in Upper Egypt which is called Hw.t though its fuller name is Hw.t-sSS.t, meaning "enclosure of the sistrum" ... this city, the metropolis of the 7th Upper Egyptian nome, was associated with Nephthys since she was considered literally from her name to be the "lady of Hu" ... with a name like nb.t-Hw.t "lady of the enclosure", Nephthys does not seem to be the real name of the goddess.
-- Geoff Graham (1997), Ancient Egyptian Language Discussion List
Despite being the wife of Set, this goddess was seen as a loyal sister to her other siblings, helping Isis to gather Osiris' scattered limbs (after Set cut him into pieces), and helping her yo revive the dead god. Nephthys thus became associated with the dead, becoming a friend of the deceased. She offered guidance to the newly dead, and comfort to the family of the one who died. Along with Hapy - the baboon headed Son of Horus - Nephthys was the goddess who guarded the lungs in their canopic jar on the north cardinal point.
Nephthys saith unto the Osiris Ani, whose word is truth:- I go round about thee to protect thee, O brother Osiris. I have come to be a protector unto thee. [My strength shall be near thee, my strength shall be near thee, for ever. Ra hath heard thy cry, and the gods have made thy word to be truth. Thou art raised up. Thy word is truth in respect of what hath been done unto thee. Ptah hath overthrown thy foes, and thou art Horus, the son of Hathor.]
-- The Book of the Dead, The Texts in the Funeral Chapter
Nephthys was depicted as a goddess with the hieroglyph of her name (a basket and a house on top of each other) on her head, though she was also sometimes given wings or the form of a bird (the kite), making her a solar deity, as well as a goddess of the dead. In the later period, she became the mother of Anubis, with Osiris as the father.
As comforter, Nephthys stood at the birth-bed to offer comfort and help with the birth of new born children - Isis was seen as the midwife. The two sisters were often together, only being able to be told apart by the hieroglyph on their heads. Also, like her sister, Nephthys was thought to have great magical powers - she was the Mighty One of Words of Power.
Yet, originally, where Isis was visible, birth, growth, development and vigour, Nephthys was invisible, death, decay, diminution and immobility. Nephthys was the darkness to Isis' light. Isis was the day, her twin sister the night.
The goddesses were personified by two priestesses who were virgins and who were ceremonially pure; the hair of their limbs was to be shaved off, they were to wear ram's wool garlands upon their heads, and to hold tambourines in their hands; on the arm of one of them was to be a fillet inscribed "To Isis," and on the arm of the other was to be a fillet inscribed "To Nephthys." On five days during the month of December these women took their places in the temple of Abtu (Abydos) and, assisted by the Kher Heb, or precentor, they sang a series of groups of verses to the god.
-- E. A. Wallis Budge (1904), Gods of the Egyptians: Part 2, p. 259
Here is an except from the 'Songs of Isis and Nephthys', sung to Osiris by the two priestesses:
Hail, thou lord of the underworld, thou Bull of those who are therein, thou Image of Ra-Harmachis, thou Babe of beautiful appearance, come thou to us in peace. Thou didst repel thy disasters, thou didst drive away evil hap; Lord, come to us in peace.
O Un-nefer ... Thy souls flieth after Ra, thou shinest at dawn, thou settest at twilight, thou riseth every day; thou shalt rise on the left hand of Atmu for ever and ever. Thou art the glorious one, the vicar of Ra; the company of the gods cometh to thee invoking thy face, the flame whereof reacheth unto thine enemies. We rejoice when thou gatherest together thy bones, and when thou hast made whole thy body daily. Anubis cometh to thee, and the two sisters (i.e., Isis and Nephthys) come to thee. They have obtained beautiful things for thee, and they gather together thy limbs for thee, and they seek to put together the mutilated members of thy body. Wipe thou the impurities which are on them upon our hair and come thou to us having no recollection of that which hath caused thee sorrow.
Come thou in thy attribute of "Prince of the Earth," lay aside thy trepidation and be at peace with us, O Lord. Thou shalt be proclaimed heir of the world, and the One god, and the fulfiller of the designs of the gods. All the gods invoke thee, come therefore to thy temple and be not afraid. O Ra (i.e., Osiris), thou art beloved of Isis and Nephthys; rest thou in thy habitation for ever.
-- E. A. Wallis Budge (1900), Egyptian Religion, p. 106
One of the reasons, during the later period of Egyptian history, given as to why Set and Osiris hate each other was because of Nephthys, Set's sister-wife. The goddess Nephthys was barren (she represented the desert, as did Set), and she hit on the plan of disguising herself as Isis and seducing Osiris. Getting Osiris drunk, Nephthys took Osiris to her bed, and the two had drunken sex together. Osiris dropped his garland of melilot flowers in the act of passion. Set found the adulterous goddess and the flowers, and knowing to whom the flowers belonged, he began to plan Osiris' death. The child of this union was thought to be Anubis, god of mummification.
Now as the overflowings of the Nile are sometimes very great, and extend to the boundaries of the land, this gave rise to the story of the secret intercourse between Osiris and Nephthys, as the natural consequence of so great an inundation would be the springing up of plants in those parts of the country which were formerly barren.
-- John Gardner Wilkinson (1841), Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptions, p. 334
Among her titles, the goddess Nephthys was known as the Lady of the Body (of the Gods), the Dweller within Senu, Lady of Heaven, Mistress of the Gods, the Great Goddess, Lady of Life, and Lady of Joy. Her major centres of worships were Senu, Hebet, (Behbit), Per-mert, Re-nefert, Het-sekhem, Het-Khas, Ta-kehset, and Diospolites. Her principal sanctuary was at Iunu (On, Heliopolis). However, despite this there were no cult temples dedicated to the goddess Nephthys until the Ptolemaic period.
Nephthys was the darkness to Isis' light, the bareness to contrast her sister's fertility. Friend to the dead, their protector, she was a beneficial deity who offered both guidance and comfort. Although linked with death and decay, Nephthys was also a bringer of life into the world, and rebirth into the land of the dead. Leaving her husband Set, she became a follower of Osiris and a supporter of her sister. In Egyptian art, the twin sisters were almost always shown together. Great of magic, Nephthys was seen as a good goddess who would give them rebirth in the land of the dead, just as she had helped Osiris to be reborn.
Further Information about Nephthys
- Nephthys - Wikipedia
- Nephthys - Encyclopedia Mythica
- Nephthys - Tour Egypt
- Nephthys - André Dollinger
- Nephthys - Global Egyptian Museum
Video of Nephthys
A video filled with images of the goddess Nephthys (and other deities), by Egyptahotep:
© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2001 - present
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