Nephthys – Silent Goddess of the Shadows
by Lesley Jackson
Take any book of Ancient Egypt and look for Nephthys in the index, more likely than not it will read ‘see Isis and Nephthys’. Why isn’t Nephthys viewed as a goddess in her own right? She doesn’t appear to have been worshiped on her own and there is no evidence for any cult centre or temples dedicated to her.
At first glance Nephthys can appear as a passive victim and, dare I say, a bit too quiet and uninteresting. Does Nephthys personify the perpetually unappreciated or is she merely a shadow side of her globally recognised, illustrious sister Isis? Certainly she is seldom portrayed on her own and is usually mentioned in the same breath as Isis. They are referred to in terms such as the Twin Sisters and the Two Kites and are depicted as physically identical twins, distinguishable only by their headdress. A longer second glance is required to discern the essence of Nephthys.
Nephthys’ Egyptian name was Neb-hut, Lady of the Mansion, and her headwear is the hieroglyph for this; a semicircle on top of a square. The mansion (or house) is equated with the residencies of the deities as well as the royal houses. This is an important title for an overlooked goddess, which hints at her former importance. Isis wears the hieroglyph for throne and legitimises the rule of deities and kings. Nephthys was a goddess from pre-Dynastic times. Wainwright1 suggests that she was originally a sky-goddess and her association with Seth (a storm god) and Min (a fertility and thunderbolt god) support this. Her son, Anubis, was also an ancient god. As the rites of Osiris, and the solar religion of Ra, became dominant some of the older deities were absorbed into it. Nephthys was probably incorporated because she was too popular or powerful to ignore. The status and role of Nephthys declines throughout Egyptian history. In the Book of the Dead there are a lot fewer references to her than in the earlier funerary texts. By the time we get to the Greco-Roman period Nephthys is fading away and she plays no part in the mystery cults, which is surprising given her mysterious but helpful nature.
The biography of Nephthys will probably be familiar so this is a brief summary. She is the youngest daughter of the Sky goddess, Nut, and her husband Geb, the Earth god. Her other siblings are Isis, Horus the Elder, Osiris and Seth. Nephthys becomes the reluctant wife of Seth, the Chaos God and murderer of Osiris. This marriage is unfulfilling and so Nephthys has an affair with Osiris. Some report that he was the innocent victim as both sisters looked alike! (Don’t you feel sorry for these easily confused males?) Their child is the jackal-headed Anubis, whom Nephthys abandons in the marshes. Isis finds Anubis and brings him up. No ill-will arises between the two sisters as a result of this soap opera drama and when Osiris is slain Nephthys mourns with Isis and helps resurrect Osiris. Anubis also appears unharmed, emerging as the helpful guide and protector of the deceased.
So far we have Nephthys as the unfaithful wife who betrays her sister and the bad mother who abandons her baby. Her best achievement seems to be mourning. It is important to remember that the details of this myth come via Plutarch2 and the Greeks liked their goddesses (and women) to be victims. The exposure of unwanted infants was a Greek not an Egyptian practice.
This one act of rebellion and betrayal seems to be the only action that Nephthys takes by herself. Although she appears in many myths she usually just watches or joins in the lamentations echoing the words of Isis. When the young Horus is fatally stung it is another goddess who tells Isis what to do, while Nephthys wails alongside the distressed Isis. In a Middle Kingdom myth Ra sends four goddesses to help Queen Ruddedet give birth to royal triplets. Heqet (the frog goddess of childbirth) hastens the birth and Isis names the children. Meskhenet (the goddess of destiny) predicts their fate whilst Nephthys just stands there. You could ask why Nephthys is in the story. Is she there purely because Isis is there; a younger sister tagging along without friends or confidence of her own? Is she there because she is a part of Isis, a shadow that cannot be separated? I sometimes wonder if Nephthys is like the 13th fairy in Sleeping Beauty, but in this case they were wise enough to invite her. Nephthys is an ancient goddess and the Egyptians were reluctant to jettison the old deities and rituals in case they were still important. Maybe Nephthys did contribute but this was hidden; a silent protection perhaps or an as yet unidentified gift or promise.
Duality and symmetry were very important to the Egyptians so the portrayal of twin goddesses is not unexpected. A symmetrical image is often aesthetically more pleasing as well as giving symbolic protection to both sides. Duality was a major preoccupation for the Egyptians and they viewed the world in terms of directly opposing but connected opposites. Their geographical world split very neatly into two; desert and fertile land, inundation and drought, Upper and Lower Egypt. The south-north flowing Nile further emphasised duality by splitting east from west, sunrise from sunset and mirroring the Milky Way, or Celestial River, which flowed above. It is no great leap of logic to have two goddess connected to these features. Nephthys is associated with the western horizon, death and the afterlife while Isis is associated with the eastern horizon and life.
“Ascend and descend; descend with Nephthys, sink into darkness with the Night-bark. Ascend and descend; ascend with Isis, rise with the Day-bark.”3
That said, Isis herself has a very important funerary role. The Two Sisters are sometimes aligned with the Two Ladies who were the protector goddesses of the state. Isis was equated to the vulture goddess Nekhbet of Upper Egypt and Nephthys to the cobra goddess Wadjyt of Lower Egypt.
The Egyptians loved order and so their extensive pantheon was usually based on groups of either two of three deities. The triad of god, goddess and child was most the popular but there are plenty of examples of pairs. Most tend to be male–female pairings as this gives a dualistic and balanced pair. Two exceptions are Isis and Nephthys and the ever battling Horus and Seth.
At one point in my research I did consider whether Isis and Nephthys were an echo of the ancient double goddesses described by Vicki Noble.4 Dual goddesses represent the duality of nature and women (relating to day and night, birth and death) and the sovereignty of women and women sharing power. I concluded that they probably weren’t but were more a consequence of the Egyptians’ preoccupation with duality in all forms; although the pairing of Isis and Nephthys does represent some aspects of the double goddess themes. The Two Divine Sisters can’t be separated.
“I have come so that I may be joined to the two Sisters and be merged in the two Sisters, for they will never die.”5
The Egyptians believed that each person was made up of a number of discrete elements, the body, the soul and so on. One of these was the ka, the vital life force. The ka came into being when the individual was born and was considered to be their double. After death it was essential that all components were reunited and who better to call upon than the Two Inseparable Sisters? “Mine are Isis and Nephthys, the two fair sisters; may your doubles be joined in peace.”6 In life Isis and Nephthys can also help us achieve a healthy personality where all aspects of the self are integrated rather than working destructively against themselves.
Despite her having Seth as her husband, Nephthys was never equated to him or suffered as a result of his demonization. (Seth was originally a benevolent god.) Her relationship with him was said to be unhappy but I have not seen any Egyptian texts referring to this only the Greco-Roman ones. In the Pyramid Texts we have a rare reference to Nephthys without Isis. “O Seth and Nephthys, go and proclaim to the gods of Upper Egypt…”7 True to her inactive character Nephthys never takes the side of Seth in the conflict between Horus and Seth. Isis does intervene to save Seth at one point, much to the fury of her son Horus.
The scribal goddess Seshat might have been an aspect of Nephthys. In a number of funerary spells Nephthys is referred to as Seshat. “Nephthys has collected all your members for you in this her name of Seshat.”8 Nephthys’ association with the logical Lady of Lists is surprising as they appear opposites, until you start to look at the more mysterious aspects of Seshat which include afterlife and shamanic roles as well as the secret teachings of the House of Life. Seshat is also an ancient pre-Dynastic goddess.
Nephthys is the Mistress of the West, the protective funerary goddess for all the deceased. Her role in the afterlife is very important. She is a devoted companion and support to Isis and Osiris and a caring comforter to the bereaved. Nephthys is a goddess of boundaries and transitions; of the dawn and dusk, of the borderlands, of birth and dying, a liminal goddess of the twilight and the in-between places. Thus she is able to assist both deities and people as they pass through the critical times of birth and death and to support those who mourn. Plutarch applied Greek logic to analyse the myths and to remove the magic. He states that Nephthys was referred to as the End and was considered the extremities of the land as well as the boundary between the fertile land of Osiris and the desert of Seth. Her productive liaison with Osiris was equated to the Nile inundation at an unusually high level which flooded and fertilised normally unproductive land. I do not believe that a myth should be reduced to simple geography. Natural phenomena may illustrate an underlying truth of a myth but it isn’t the complete or true meaning.
However, the concept as Nephthys as the End, or the Edge, does reflect some aspects of her character.
“Nephthys is that which is below the earth and non-manifest, while Isis [is] that which is above the earth and manifest.”9
Isis and Nephthys represent the things which are and those that have yet to come into being. Nephthys is also good at concealing things. “I hide the hidden thing.”10 She protects not by strength and confrontation but by confusion and invisibility.
“Hidden are the ways for those who pass by; light is perished and darkness comes into being – so says Nephthys.”11
Nephthys is enigmatic and nebulous and definitely not easy to pin down. One spell states “Isis speaks to you, Nephthys calls to you”.12 Here Isis appears as the clear instruction and Nephthys as the haunting evocative call that tugs at you but you don’t know why. Isis is a lot more plain speaking and easier to comprehend and follow that the enigmatic Nephthys. Although mysterious Nephthys is not a magician and it is interesting to note that her son, Anubis, was conceived naturally while Isis conceived Horus by the power of her magic, Isis most definitely has magical and mysterious aspects but she often appears more as the map and the timely message compared to Nephthys who is intuition and subtle subtexts that you often can’t make any sense of. I’ve struggled to get this article into a coherent and logical structure, this probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise given the Lady I’m contemplating as I write. In contrast, my previous article about Seshat, the Lady of Writing, flowed out in an orderly fashion.
Nephthys is not a shadow of Isis in the sense that she represents all the negative, unpleasant or dangerous aspects of Isis that have been hygienically extracted and locked in the cupboard. Isis keeps her dark side and at times shows it. I think that Nephthys complements Isis by representing the mysterious and unmanifest but she cannot be defined purely by her relationship to Isis. Should anyone be defined purely by their relationships? As each person is both an individual and part of a larger group so can Nephthys be viewed as a goddess in her own right but one who works very closely with her sister.
Is Nephthys overshadowed? Yes, but Isis overshadows everyone. We also need to reflect on how we perceive shadow. In a hot sunny country being in the shade isn’t viewed as a bad thing, the Egyptian word for shadow has connotations of protection. With people as with plants, a lot can be destroyed, or manipulated, by ruthless over exposure. It is possible to have a fulfilling life without having a high public profile or a high status position. It is possible to work alongside someone in a supportive and caring role without losing your individuality. As below so above. Maybe Nephthys does not want to be the principal goddess. She shows us that silence can be productive and nurturing. Nephthys is enigmatic; calling us on to things not easily discerned. A goddess of intuition and patience, a quiet goddess whose ego is under control.
Nephthys is a goddess in her own right who is closely bonded to her sister. She has her own wisdom, both practical and otherworldly, but most importantly she genuinely cares for and supports Isis and never tries to usurp power for herself. Divide and rule is a valuable tool of patriarchies, so it is pleasing to see the dual gods, Horus and Seth, forever at each others throats while the Twin Goddesses support and compliment each other. For this attribute alone, Nephthys is a goddess worthy of our contemplation.
- WAINWRIGHT, A Seshat and the Pharaoh “Journal of Egyptian Archaeology”, Vol 26 (Feb 1941).
- MEAD, G R S Plutarch: Concerning The Mysteries Of Isis And Osiris, Kessinger Publishing (Reprints) 2002.
- FAULKNER, R O The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Digireads.com Publishing 2007. Utterance 222, p50.
- NOBLE, V The Double Goddess, Bear & Company 2003.
- FAULKNER, R O The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, Aris & Phillips 2007. Vol II, Spell 562, p169.
- FAULKNER, R O, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, Aris & Phillips 2007. Vol I Spell 341, p275.
- FAULKNER, R O, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Digireads.com Publishing 2007. Utterance 217, p44.
- FAULKNER, R O, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Digireads.com Publishing 2007. Utterance 364, p119
- MEAD, G R S, Plutarch: Concerning The Mysteries Of Isis And Osiris, Kessinger Publishing (Reprints) 2002. p224
- BUDGE, E A W, The Gods of the Egyptians, Vol I, Dover Publications 1969. p456
- BUDGE, E A W, The Gods of the Egyptians, Vol II, Dover Publications 1969. p9.
- FAULKNER, R O, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Digireads.com Publishing 2007. Utterance 422, p139.