As with a lot of other Deities from other pantheons, Her name is more of a title; it means “Mistress of the Temple” or “Lady of the House.” The hieroglyph for Her name atop Her head depicts a libation bowl as would be found in a temple, and in terms of iconography it matches Her with depictions of other divinities She is often paired with; besides Her sister Aset, those would be the Goddesses Nit (Neith) and Serqet (Selket).
She’s mentioned first in Old Kingdom funerary literature (2649-2150 B.C.E.), where she rides the night boat of the Unseen World (Duat), meeting a deceased king’s spirit and accompanying him into the Duat. A hauntingly beautiful prayer from the Pyramid Texts reads:
I have come to You, Nebet-Het,
I have come to You, Night-Boat,
I have come to You, True Before the Red,
I have come to You, Birth-Brick of Souls.
Gone is Orion, caught by the Underworld,
Yet cleansed and alive in the Beyond;
Gone is Sothis, caught by the Underworld,
Yet cleansed and alive in the Beyond;
Gone am I, caught by the Underworld,
Yet cleansed and alive in the Beyond.
It is well with me and with You
It is peaceful for me and for You,
Within the arms of Our Father,
Within the arms of Atum.
As the prayer above states, She is often identified as the Night Boat itself within which the god Ra makes His nightly journey into the land of the dead, and She is compared to the West itself: “the West calls to you as Nebet-Het.”
This youngest daughter of Nut and Geb was seemingly lacking in cult status until the late New Kingdom period (1550-1070 B.C.E.). Amulets depicting Her date from the 22nd Dynasty onward, circa 945 B.C.E. By the time we get into the Late Period (712-323 B.C.E.), She is worshiped as the main Goddess of Kenmet or Hut-Sekhemu (Classical Diospolis Parva, the modern city of Hiw; it was the capital of Upper Egypt’s 7th nome). She was worshiped as an auxiliary Goddess in the Late Period at Antaeopolis, Hemen, Heliopolis, Ihy, and the Kharga Oasis.
I often wonder: Could it be that the ancient Egyptians were afraid of what Nebt-Het represented, and so were less inclined to commit Her to daily worship habits? Or could it be that the epithet “Lady of the Temple / Lady of the House” is just a placeholder, a title for another already well-defined Goddess with a known, established cult? Hopefully, more archaeological evidence will be forthcoming.
Attributes and Imagery
Nebet-Het is associated with death and mourning throughout Egyptian history and today She is venerated not simply as the process of death itself, but as a companion who gives guidance to the newly deceased. She is a winged Goddess who comforts the deceased’s living relatives. The earliest depiction gives Her a compound name of Nebet-Het-Seshat, the delineator and recorder of Time; prayer from the Coffin Texts (beginning in First Intermediate Period of 2191-2055 B.C.E. at end of the Old Kingdom) invokes her to bless the dead:
O [NAME], Heru protects you. He causes Nebt-Het to hold you together, to create you in Her name of Seshat, Mistress of Potters, She is a Great Lady, Great of Life in the Night Boat, who raises Heru up.
Her hair is metaphorically compared to the strips of cloth shrouding the bodies of the dead.
She was thought to appear in bird form: the kite, the swallow, even the crow.
In later periods of Egyptian history, Nebt-Het was understood as a Deity of Liminality—Her name extends to the regions fringing on mountains and bordering the sea; the Hellenistic Egyptians called her Teleute (“End”), probably relating to Her funerary character. Her liminal times of day were dusk and dawn, and She was thought to be the first to welcome the newly deceased into the Underworld–right at its entrance (more liminality). With Her son, Anpu (Anubis), she oversees the liminal process of transforming the fresh corpse into the preserved mummy. But most intriguingly, like Her husband, Set, She is given the epithet Sutekh and associated with the liminal state of consciousness we call drunkenness! In a relief depicting a beer offering engraved on the walls of Edfu Temple in Upper Egypt, an inscription reads that Nebet-Het can “give drunkenness without pain [i.e., hangovers].”
Nebet-Het protects the body of the deceased (and the canopic jars housing the deceased’s organs) and is often depicted offering libations on behalf of the dead. She stands at the head of the sarcophagus, with Aset at the feet.
Since the opposite end of the spectrum of death is birth, it’s not surprising to find Nebet-Het assisting at the birth of children. Then again, this was a death-related activity as well considering that infant and mother mortality rates were high in ancient Egypt. But She is a healer, too; She healed Horus from a scorpion’s sting, and Isis petitions Nebet-Het for Her magic.
Nebet-Het finds the missing. Isis was seeking for the missing Osiris but it’s Nebet-Het and Her son who actually find Him.
The Goddess also has little-known, bad-ass aspects that I was very happy to discover in my research. They’re like Hekate and Sekhmet combined, so you had better watch out! Like Sekhmet, Nebet-Het was actually another of the “Eye” Goddesses that carried the divine vengeance of Ra, flushing out the enemies of the Gods and kings. As a punisher, She specifically hunted down people who carried the Evil Eye.
In the Greek Magical Papyri texts dating from the 2nd to the 5th centuries Common Era, Nebet-Het is involved with invoking the spirits of the dead and especially helping magicians control the muuet, the spirits of the angry, hungry dead.
I don’t know about you, but to me these impressive roles show that Nebet-Het was far from irrelevant to the ancient Egyptians’ lives, or merely Isis’ shadow: She represents a force, which, like the equally unsafe Sekhmet, commands respect, humility, adoration, and yes, even a sense of dread when contemplating Her awe-full might. Her fullness of Being naturally expresses Itself in an array of epithets:
A’at “The Great”
Ba-Ankh A’a “The Great Living Ba”
Djeryt “Mourning Bird (Kite)”
Em Hat Wiya Ra “In the Prow of Ra’s Boat”
Haiyut-Hemenut “Mourning Woman”
Henut-Amenti “Mistress of the West”
Her Ta-Wer “In the Cemetery/Grave”
Mesketet “The Evening Boat of Ra”
Nebet Ankh “Lady of Life”
Nebet Duat “Lady of the Unseen World”
Nebet Henqet “Lady of Beer” (Editorial comment: 😀 )
Nebet-Hotep “Lady of Offerings”
Nebet Ihy “Lady of Jubilation”
Nebet Merut “Lady of Love”
Nebet Neferu “Lady of Welcome”
Nebet Per-Nefer “Lady of the Beautiful House” (i.e., embalming tent)
Nebet Resh “Lady of Watchfulness”
Nebet Senedj-en-Ma’a-es “Lady Whose Glance Causes Terror”
Nebet Sekhem “Powerful Lady”
Nebet Sesh “Lady of Writing”
Netjeryt “Holy One”
Nofret “Perfect One”
Pesdjet-a’at “One of the Great Nine”
Sedjmet-Nebet “Lady Who Hears”
Weret “Great One”
A Birthday Petition to Nebet-Het
Nebet Sekhem, Powerful Lady, with pleasing eyes, accept my offerings of figs, beer, fresh-baked bread, and cakes,
O Nebet-Hotep, Lady of Offerings,
And deign to comfort all who need You in their hour of need, You who are no stranger to the soul’s dark passage,
Mourner of Ausar who gathered His body together, who pulled Him together,
Who split open His mouth for Him.
Nebet Resh, Lady of Watchfulness,
Protect my beloved and blessed dead
Offer them welcome
And grant all who mourn fortitude and solace
Until the day we can be reunited again,
Blessed before the throne of Your Brother, Lord of Eternity.
And with Your Wayfinding son, gentle and wise Anpu,
Neb-ta-djeser, Lord of the Sacred Land,
Come to me and witness well the works of healing, remembering, and laying to rest
That which must go into the West.
Praise to You, Netjeryt! Holy One! Dua Nebet-Het!
Works Cited and Suggested Reading
Almond, Jocelyn and Keith Seddon. Egyptian Paganism for Beginners: Bringing the Gods & Goddesses of Ancient Egypt into Daily Life. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2004.
Baines, J., Leonard H. Lesko, and David P. Silverman. Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, Personal Practice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Betz, H.D., ed. Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Budge, E.A. Wallis. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: (The Papyrus of Ani) Egyptian Text, Transliteration and Translation. 1895. New York: Dover Publications, 1967.
—–. The Egyptian Heaven & Hell. 1905. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989.
—–. The Gods of the Egyptians: Studies in Egyptian Mythology. Vols. I and II. 1904. New York: Dover, 1969.
Faulker, R.O. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. Aris & Phillips, 1978.
—–. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Frankfurter, David. Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Lesko, B. The Great Goddesses of Egypt. University of Oklahoma, 1999.
Meyer, M. and Smith, R., eds. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Harper San Francisco, 1994.
Müller, W. Max. Egyptian Mythology. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004.
Page, Judith and Ken Biles. Invoking the Egyptian Gods. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2011.
Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Siuda, Tamara L. The Ancient Egyptian Prayerbook. New Lenox, IL: Stargazer Design, 2009.
—–. Nebt-Het: Lady of the House. New Lenox, IL: Stargazer Design, 2010.