The Feast of Nit: Ancient Egypt’s Supreme Being as Divine Androgyne

Nit (pronounced Neet; also known as Net in Egypt and Neith to the Greeks) is among the oldest, most complex of the Neteru (Deities) known to us from ancient Egypt; according to nineteenth-century Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge, Her worship was widespread even in predynastic times (The Gods of the Egyptians, Vol. 1, p. 450). She was worshiped as Mut Ur, or “Mother Great,” long before the name of Aset (“Isis”) would fervently issue from the lips of devotees. Likened by the Classical author Plutarch to the Athena of the Greeks, Nit was renowned as a warrior goddess, famed for her death-dealing arrows.

Reverse of a 1994 Egyptian silver five-pound coin depicting Nit as warrior goddess. Her head bears the stylized crown of Lower Egypt.

Reverse of a 1994 Egyptian silver five-pound coin depicting Nit as warrior goddess. Her head bears the stylized crown of Lower Egypt.

Her cult center stood in the ancient Delta city of Saïs (the modern Sa el-Hagar), whose civic emblem bore Nit’s symbols of a pair of crossed arrows over a shield. She was to Saïs what Athena was to Athens: an unassailable Protectress. (Incidentally, the comparisons between the two goddesses don’t stop there; both are of probable Libyan origin.) Like the Roman Minerva, Nit was the seen as the inventor of the human craft of weaving; however, like the Norse Nornir (Goddesses of Fate), it’s clear that the weaving extends into metaphysical territory, indicating Nit’s power over fate or destiny.

Nit with the glyph of the weaver's shuttle atop Her head.

Nit with the glyph of the weaver’s shuttle atop Her head.

But what else would you expect from the Creator?

“I am everything which hath been, and which is, and which shall be, and there hath never been any who hath uncovered my veil.” –Plutarch in Of Isis and Osiris, referring to an inscription in the Temple of Nit at Saïs

“Father of Fathers and Mother of Mothers”: Nit as Divine Androgyne

Yes, that’s right: unlike any other goddess known to us from the Two Lands, Nit has the distinct honor of having been worshiped as a self-begotten, eternal Force capable of conceiving and birthing the hosts of the Gods and all of Creation ex nihilo; thus She was something of a Divine Androgyne, integrating the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine. Complete unto Herself, She had no need of a consort. As Budge states:

“…in very early times Net was the personification of the eternal female principle of life which was self-sustaining and self-existent, and was secret, and unknown, and all-pervading; the more material thinkers, while admitting that she brought forth her son Ra without the aid of a husband, were unable to divorce from their minds the idea that a male germ was necessary for his production, and finding it impossible to derive it from a power or being external to the goddess, assumed that she herself provided not only the substance which was to form the body of Ra but also the male germ which fecundated it. Thus Net was the prototype of partheno-genesis” (The Gods of the Egyptians, Vol. 1, p. 462).

Furthermore, in Upper Egypt, Nit was hailed as “Father of fathers, and Mother of mothers,” also “the great cow who gave birth to the sun, who made the germ of gods and men, the mother of Ra, who raised up Tem in primeval time, who existed when nothing else had being, and who created that which exists after she had come into being” (Budge, p. 463).

The Mother of the Sun, the Mother of Crocodiles

Some scholars speculate that, linguistically, Nit’s name is etymologically related to Nun, the concept of the primeval waters of chaos that had to be differentiated from solid ground (in the form of a conical mound) at the outset of Creation. No stranger to fluidity Herself in terms of bypassing gender constructs, Nit declares, in a funerary text dating from the IV Dynasty, that “she came forth from the god, and the god came forth from her” (qtd. in Budge, p. 454). Unlike what biblically informed Westerners read in the Book of Genesis, Creation, to the Egyptians, was not a one-time event; it is a phenomenon repeated daily, illustrating the concept that Nietzsche would come to call “eternal recurrence” (refer to his Thus Spoke Zarathustra if you’re interested). And so, equipped with the necessary heka (magical might), Nit has the power to conceive and give birth to Ra each day; in this regard, one of Her early titles of Apt-uat, “Opener of the Ways” (an epithet of the god Anubis, I might add), can be applied to the birth canal, not just to Her function as gatekeeper to other worlds (though Nit has strong associations with the Underworld, as we’ll soon see).

Bronze statuette of Nit. Those familiar with Mesopotamian cult objects might note the striking similarity to effigies of Ba'al.

Bronze statuette of Nit. Those familiar with Mesopotamian cult objects might note the striking similarity to effigies of Ba’al.

Strangely, Nit as Mother of the Sun God also correlates with Her title as “Mother of Crocodiles,” chiefly the god Sobek. In the Theban Recension of the Book of the Dead, according to Budge, upon the deceased there should be placed a talisman featuring a drawing of a Nit-headed hawk and the Utchat Eye, both of which are known symbols of the god Heru (Horus to the Greeks). Budge equates Nit not only to Heru in general (with all those solar associations) but to localized forms of Heru in Upper Egypt, and the god Sobek is one of those localized forms. Nit was also depicted in tomb descriptions as suckling a crocodile at each breast; in fact, twin crocodiles are often flanking Her. They could represent the god Henti, whose hieroglyphs bear twin crocodiles, but He in turn could be an aspect of Ausar (Osiris), just as as Sobek could be seen as an aspect of Heru (Budge, p. 457). If all of this makes as much sense to you as a David Lynch movie, just remember that the ancient Egyptians were quite comfortable with the idea of composite deities. Again, think of Egyptian cosmology as the territory of the primeval waters of Nun, where nondifferentiation rules. And as Lady MacBeth can tell you, “Hell is murky.”

The crocodile god Sobek at the temple of Kom Ombo, Upper Egypt

The crocodile god Sobek, son of Nit, at the temple of Kom Ombo, Upper Egypt

Protectress of the Dead

Crocodiles were both revered and feared in ancient Egypt, and since their heka was often associated with the Duat or Underworld, it’s not surprising that Nit, as Sobek’s Mother, would also have an association as a Protectress of the Dead. Many of Nit’s attributes in this regard were passed on to other goddesses like Nebet-Het (sister to Aset), the scorpion-headed Selqet, Sekhmet, and others.

As a weaving goddess, Nit spun the linen cloth that comprised mummies’ shrouds, which strongly equates Her with Nebet-Het, the funerary goddess equated with the West Bank of the Nile (beyond whose shore the dead were buried) and hailed as “The Lady of the House of Beauty” (i.e., the embalming tent). Nit was also thought “to perform some important ceremonies in connexion [sic] with the preservation of the dead, and it would seem that these were of a magical character” (Budge, p.454). In the funerary text of the Pharaoh Teta, Nit is mentioned in connection with Aset, Nebet-Het, and Selqet “as one of the four goddesses who shot forth flame” (Budge, p. 455) as a form of magical protection of the deceased. These four goddesses were paired with the Four Sons of Heru, Whom They assisted in protecting the body parts relegated to canopic jars, as one jar was assigned to each of the Sons.

As Budge explains:

“Thus Isis says, ‘I conquer the foe, I make protection for [Imseti] who is in me”; Nephthys says, ‘I hide the hidden thing, and I make protection for Hapi who is in me”; Net says, ‘I pass the morning and I pass the night of each day in making protection for Tuamutef who is in me”; Serqet says, ‘I employ each day in making protection for Qebhsennuf who is in me.’ The Egyptian word used here to express the meaning of ‘protection’ is sa, and the character represents a knot of a peculiar kind; the part which knots and cords tied in various ways have always played in magical ceremonies is too well known to need description, and it need only be pointed out here that the sign indicates that the protection which Net exercised on behalf of the dead must have been of a magical character” (The Gods of the Egyptians, Vol. 1, p. 456).

In a prayer from a priest of Nit in the great temple at Saïs, one Anhk-f-en-Khensu, dating from circa 550 BCE, the deceased petitions Nit to unloose Her cloak for him. He also refers to Her reputation for inscrutability (just as the god Aten, it should be known, was called “the Hidden One”) and mysterious, self-begotten origin:

Hail, Mother Great, not hath been uncovered Thy birth!

Hail, Goddess Great, within the underworld which is doubly hidden, Thou Unknown One!

Hail, Thou Divine One Great, not hath been unloosed Thy garment!

O unloose Thy garment.

Hail, Hapt (Hidden One), not is given my way of entrance to Her,

Come, receive the soul of Osiris,

Protect it within Thy two hands. (qtd. in Budge, pp.459-460)

Thinking of Nit Today on Her Feast Day

Nit’s inscrutability, Her nature as a self-begotten Deity, Her ability to conceive and give birth to life without a male consort–these all resonate with features known to Virgin Goddesses. It makes sense when we use Barbara G. Walker’s definition of a “virgin” in the ancient world as a woman who was complete unto herself–not our distorted understanding of “virgin” as a woman who has never had sexual intercourse. So in that sense, Plutarch was onto something when he made comparisons between Nit and the virgin goddess, Athena.

I feel Nit’s energy is also closely tied with my favorite virgin goddess of the Classical world: Artemis. It’s fitting because Nit’s warrior goddess emblem depicts her with bows and arrows, the iconic weapons associated with Artemis as Divine Huntress as well. As the sun courses through the sign of Sagittarius the Archer, the zodiac sign that always makes me think of Artemis first and foremost, especially with this young waxing moon we’ve currently got in our night skies, I find it fitting that Nit’s Feast Day in the Cairo calendar takes place today. I’m thinking of the ways in which I have always been and still view myself as both a spiritual warrior and a virgin in the Classical sense (hey, I’m a Virgo too), complete unto myself. I will light candles at my shrines to both Artemis and the Hosts of Egypt tonight, and then go out and do something wondrous to celebrate my freedom of being as a woman complete unto herself.

As I do Will, So Mote It Be!

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