It’s very fitting that on this fifth and final of the ancient Egyptian Epagomenal Days (according to my reckoning of the Cairo Calendar), this liminal time between the year that is ending and the one that is beginning, that we celebrate the birth of the Great Goddess Nebet-Het (Nephthys), Wife of Set, Sister to Auset and Ausar, Mother of Anpu (Anubis). She is “the Lady of the House,” i.e., the embalming tent, the mourning kite and funerary goddess, the One Who Welcomes Those Who Enter Amenti.
I truly do believe in my heart that She Wyrdly marked me, to borrow the words of Edgar Allan Poe, “from childhood’s hour.” The parade of funerals in my own blood family starting from my early childhood (and shocking deaths too, I might add, such as my being the first person to surprisingly discover my maternal grandfather’s body after he had hung himself; I was 8 years old at the time) were, in hindsight, an Ordeal Path that ultimately baptized me into Her service. Her eerily-lit Underworld pathways are not for everyone but I look back on none of those profound episodes of loss with self-pity. Nephthys is absolutely my heart’s delight, and the Chief Power to Whom I dedicated myself for lifelong service when I became ordained as a Priestess in the Fellowship of Isis nine years ago. She is also the Patroness of my Death Midwife work.
Her Cult Status in Ancient Egypt, Attributes, Epithets, and Functions
The hieroglyph for Her name depicts a libation bowl as would be found in a temple, so the phrase “Lady of the House,” in addition to referring to the embalmer’s tent, also refers to Nephthys as guarding the sanctity of the temple (Taylor 64). Her function as guardian and guide goes all the way back to Old Kingdom funerary literature (circa 2649-2150 B.C.E.). A prayer from the Coffin Texts (First Intermediate Period) gives Her the compound name of Nebet-Het Seshat, the Delineator and Recorder of Time, and She is invoked to bless the dead on the Night Boat (which, itself, She becomes identified with):
“O [NAME], Heru protects you. He causes Nebet-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.”Faulkner, R.O. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Philips, 1973-1978., Vol. 2, p.219.
There are no temples dedicated to Her until the late New Kingdom period (1550-1070 B.C.E.), and the first known amulets of Hers date from the 10th century B.C.E. (Taylor 66). Could it be that the ancient Egyptians were afraid of what Nephthys represented, and thus were less inclined to venerate Her in daily life in civic-run temples, or could it be that Her cult status was indeed more widespread, and that the title “Lady of the Temple”/”Lady of the House” is a placeholder for another already well-defined Goddess Name with a more established cult? We do know that by the Late Period (712-323 B.C.E.), She was worshipped as the chief Goddess of Kenmet or Hut-Sekhemu (the modern city of Hiw, known in the Classical world as Diospolis Parva, the capital of the Upper Egyptian 7th Nome [Taylor 81]).
Nephthys is associated with death and mourning throughout Egyptian history and today is venerated not simply as the process of death itself, but as a Companion Who gives guidance to the newly deceased, and as a Winged Goddess (Her bird forms include kite, swallow, and even crow) Who comforts the deceased’s living relatives.
Her hair is metaphorically compared to the strips of cloth shrouding the bodies of the dead (Taylor 56).
In later periods of Egyptian history, Nebet-Het was understood as a Deity of liminality: Her name was applied to the regions fringing upon mountains and bordering the sea; it’s for this reason as well as for Her funerary character that the Hellenistic Egyptians referred to Nephthys as Teleute (End) (Teeter 88). She is the Goddess of Welcome at the liminal entrance to the Underworld (Duat or Amenti); She governed the liminal process of transforming a fresh corpse into a preserved mummy (with Her Son Anubis, God of Embalming). She is best hailed at the liminal times of dusk and dawn. Most intriguingly, along with Her spouse of Set and the Goddess Sekhmet, She is given the epithet of Sutekh (“The Intoxicated One”), associated with the liminal state of consciousness known as drunkenness! In a beer offering engraving at the Temple of Edfu, Nephthys is praised for “bestowing drunkenness without pain [i.e., hangovers]”! (Teeter 111)
Epithets of Nephthys include the following (Clark 178):
- Sister of the Gods
- The Good Sister
- The One Who Stands Behind Her Brother
- Mourning Woman
- Lady of the Bed of Life (i.e., the coffin)
- Lady of the Western Country (where the dead reside on the West Bank of the Nile)
- She of High Voice in the Earth of the Region of Silence
- Lady Great in Magic
- Lady of the House of Beautification (i.e., the embalming tent)
Nephthys is depicted protecting the body of the deceased and offering libations on the dead’s behalf. She protected the canopic jars that preserved the vital organs as well, as the famous artifact of King Tut’s Canopic Chest illustrates: it depicts Nephthys, Her sister Isis, Neith, and Selqet as guarding the young pharaoh’s remains, stationed at the four corners of his sarcophagus.
As the flip side of the coin of death is new life, Nephthys was thought to assist at the birth of children…but in ancient Egypt that carried a high mortality burden as well for both mothers and children.
As Weret Hekau, a Woman Great in Magic, Nephthys healed the infant Horus from a scorpion’s sting and She finds, along with Anubis, the scattered parts of the slain Osiris. Intriguingly, in the Greek Magical Papyri texts dating from the second to the fifth centuries Common Era, Nephthys is invoked, along with Her spouse, Set, to help the magician command the muuet, the spirits of the angry, hungry dead (Pinch 72). She was said to punish those who carry the Evil Eye (Pinch 128).
Prayers of Praise to Nephthys
I have two prayers praising Her to share: the first is a translation of one of the Pyramid Texts–dating from the Predynastic Era–and the second is my own, composed seven years ago:
Petition to Nephthys (Trans. Siuda 14)
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.
My Hymn to Nephthys
(c) 2014 Ana Urošević Applegate
with pleasing eyes,
accept my offerings of beer, figs, and myrrh oil,
O Nebet-Hotep, Lady of Offerings,
And deign to comfort me in my 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 me fortitude and solace
Until the day we can be reunited again,
Blessed before the Lords of Eternity.
With Your Way-finding 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 to the West.
Praise to You, Netjeryt!
Works Cited and Suggested Reading
Betz, H.D., ed. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Clark, Rosemary. The Sacred Magic of Ancient Egypt. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2003.
Faulkner, R.O. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Philips, 1973-1978.
Lesko, Barbara S. The Great Goddesses of Egypt. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006, revised ed.
Siuda, T. Nebt-Het: Lady of the House. New Lenox, IL: Stargazer Design, 2010.
Taylor, John H. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2011.