Had in Ancient Egypt the Goddess Nephthys a Lower Status?

There is a scene of the Book of the Dead from the tomb of Ay, in which are depicted on the solar boat the gods of the Heliopolitan cosmogony and the Myth of Osiris (apart from Seth): Re-Horakhty, Atoum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Horus…and out of the boat Nephtys stands alone apart from her fellows. Why?

Scene of the Book of the Dead from the tomb of Ay. XVIII Dynasty. Ancient Egypt.

Scene of the Book of the Dead from the tomb of Ay. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Isis and Nephtys were usually represented together. They were a perfect divine team in Ancient Egypt for the favour of the Osiris’ resurrection. They were always depicted both collaborating together for the corpse’s resurrection.

However, Nephthys had in some way a secondary role and maybe not the same prestige as her sister Isis.

Firstly, Isis was the wife of Osiris, the dead god, so she supported the main responsability in the regeneration of her husband’s body. Isis, although assisted by Nephthys, was the one who made the ancient Egyptian mourning ritual on the mummy of Osiris for restoring his vital faculties.

Resurrection scene from the tomb of Maya in Saqqara. XIX Dynasty. Ancient Egypt

Resurrection scene from the tomb of Maya in Saqqara. XIX Dynasty. Photo: ahramonline.

On the other hand, Nephthys was not the wife of a valued god. According to the lore of Ancient Egypt her husband was Seth; he was the one who killed Osiris, so Seth was the incarnation of the evil. We can afirm that Nephthys had not married well.

Isis, Nephtys and Horus. Metmuseum. Late Period. Ancient Egypt

Isis, Nephthys and Horus. Late Period. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York.

In addition, Nephthys was not officially mother. And maternity was a very important element in this duet of mourners, since maternity granted the resurrection of the dead as a new born. The real mother of Horus was Isis. Nephthys just help her sister in her duties as mother, as a nursemaid.

Finally, in an Old Coptic magical text Isis accused Nephthys of adultery. There is a version of the lore which counts how Osiris met Nephthys thinking that she was Isis. With this confusion Nephthys could seduce Osiris and have a sexual union with him. According to some versions of the lore from this union was born Anubis. This was a very important god in the pantheon of Ancient Egypt, whose family ties are not clear.

In any case, ancient Egyptian had arguments to consider Nephthys with less prestige. Nephthys had her value among the gods of Ancient Egypt thanks to Isis and her high position in the ancient Egyptian pantheon had a weak spot due primarily to the adultery and her bad marriage. Maybe for that reason she appears apart from the rest of gods in the scene of the Book of the Dead from the tomb of Ay.

Although another question gets to our mind: if Nephthys had a lower status, why was she represented here in a bigger size?…

2 responses

  1. Interesting question. The Ennead seems to be representing divisions of powers that proceed in an orderly manner until Seth and Nephthys appear as secondary children of Nut and Geb. Seth is sometimes not represented due to fear of his power and Nephthys though represented, is given the outsider treatment. Perhaps that is why?

  2. Nephthys was not at all considered to have lower status than her fellow national gods. Quite the opposite: her magic power was considered necessary to complete the work of Isis in resurrecting Osiris and the Deceased Pharaoh. They needed to act together. Nephthys, however, represented the Night Journey of the Sun God (Re) where Isis represented the Day Journey. In this way, Nephthys was especially connected with the evening rites that took place in the Embalmer’s parlor, where she would assist the mummified into “new birth” in the Underworld. (Isis was the fertile goddess who assisted humans born into the earthly life.) They reflected each other, but both were necessary. Also, Nephthys was through much Egyptian history also an aggressive warrior goddess, who accompanied Set on the Night Bark to protect Re and use her magic to slay the serpent Apophis. This was the role of Set and Nephthys in the Western places at the edges of the desert (and in the Oases) and they both had important cult temples in those places. Yes, Nephthys had her own temples. In temples along the Nile (like Edfu, especially) she could be a dangerous, violent force, spitting venom and fire to protect the sacred space and its gods, quite apart from Isis. Also, in some territories, it was Nephthys alone (and not Isis) who protected the local relics of Osiris (like in Komir, where Nephthys also had her own temple), and, in Nephthys’s case, she was always the goddess who protected the Sacred Phoenix in places where the Phoenix was worshipped. She was also beloved of the Egyptians for being the constant help of Isis and the protector of Horus, so she was considered more motherly than very many goddesses in that role. At many temples, she was considered a goddess of drunken festivals and wild celebration (much like Hathor) and many spells (usually ones that involved magic at night, or with the dead) sought her help alone. Surely, in later times when Isis became the main actor in almost every story, Nephthys seems to us more like a shadow. But in her own places, she took on fearsome roles (with a few myths all of her own, not involving Isis or Osiris) and the status as constant companion of Isis (and Osiris, and Horus, and others) made her one of the most respected divinities. These gods all gained their fame by the company of other gods, one way or the other. She was definitely considered a mighty, magical, festive, but also probably morbid deity … she, more than any other goddess, represented the end-of-life and the uncertainty of the Tomb. Much more to her than meets the eye. If I find some good books about her, I will let you know. Nice site! Ciao~

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