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Nephthys in splendour

Nephthys, Sister of Isis, Mistress of the House

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: November 29, 2012


nbhwt egg determinative

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": The goddess Nephthys on the Coffin of Tuthmosis IX

...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."

-- Wallis Budge, E.A. 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

In either case, be she a goddess of an area of the sky, a mansion, or a temple enclosure, the hieroglyphs which make up her name were actually her title rather than a personal name. What the personal name of Nephthys actually was is up for speculation. Nephthys Keeling on the Sign for Gold

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.

Nephthys as a Kite from Nefertari's Tomb - notice the detail! 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.

-- Wallis Budge, E.A. 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: Nephthys, Protecting a Corner of Tutankhamen's Coffin

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.

-- Wallis Budge, E.A. 1900, Egyptian Religion, p. 106

Melilot Flowers 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). The goddess Nephthys with Seti I

Most of the cult temples dedicated to the goddess Nephthys that have been discovered were founded during the Ptolemaic period, including the 'birthplace of Nephthys' at Hiw (Diospolis Parva), and temple Per Meru (Komir) - the 'House of Love' - to Nephthys and Anqet, containing a hymn to these goddesses (The Intrepid Wanderer's Guide to Ancient Egyptian Goddesses 2008, p. 215, p. 220). One notible exception was the House of Nephthys of Ramses-Miamun ('beloved of Amun') which is in the house of Set, mentioned in the Wilbour papyrus, which, according to Henk te Velde and Herman te Velde (1977) in Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion (p. 131), was founded during the time of Rameses II.

Though her personality is far less-definitive when compared with that of Isis, Nephthys was still a goddess of considerable prestige. Ramses II himself built a temple for her in the frontier-town of Sepermeru, midway between Oxyrhynchus and Herakleopolis, in what was once Upper Egyptian Nome XIX. There, alongside temples of Set and Ra-Horakhty, her sanctuary was called "The House of Nephthys of Ramses-Meriamun", and was specifically endowed with pharaonic land-holdings under the administration of her prophets and wab priests. According to Papyrus Wilbour, another temple (also dubbed The House of Nephthys of Ramses-Meriamun) appears to have been built in affiliation with Set and Ra-Horakhty institutions in Su, nearer to the Fayyum Oasis.

-- The Intrepid Wanderer's Guide to Ancient Egyptian Goddesses (2008), pp. 158-159

The wall depicting the hymn to Nephthys and Anqet at their temple in Per Meru
Image © A. Lecler

Sally L.D. Katary (1989) in Land Tenure in the Ramesside Period notes that the House of Nephthys is mentioned as a khato-land (land entrusted to the temple) of the pharaoh, and that Pramheb administered the lands belonging to the Temple of Nephthys. The Wilbour papyrus describes the situation of a priest from the temple of Set called Pramheb, to a steward called Sethos, requestion for assistance with taxation. After a greeting to the deities Ra-Horakhty, Set and Nephthys, he gives a set of instructions to the steward. Part of this letter describes, "...and tell him, he is not to tax (me on account of the) people, for I (personally) have no people. For I am responsible for the galley, and I am responsible likewise for the House of Nephthys, and behold, the multitude of temples that are in the district, it is not comfortable for me" (Adolf Erman 1995, Ancient Egyptian Poetry and Prose, p. 200).

The cultivated land of a second temple to Nephthys, "under the authority of the prophet Merybarse", and was "to the south-east of Iy-idhu", and is noted as being 30 aroura, or 82,050 square metres (Mahmoud Ezzamel (2012), Accounting and Order, p. 148). Although associated with larger temples of Set, these Houses of Nephthys was clearly their own entities.

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

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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