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Egypt: Gods - Nephthys


Nephthys

Nebt-het, or Nephthys, was the daughter of Seb and Nut, and the sister of Osiris, and Isis, and Set, and the wife of Set, and the mother of Anpu, or Anubis, either by Osiris or Set. The name "Nebt-het" means the "lady of the house," but by the word "house" we must understand that portion of the sky which was supposed to form the abode of the Sun-god Horus; in fact "het" in the name of Nebt-het is used in exactly the same sense as "het" in the name "Het-Hert," or Hathor, i.e., the "house of Horus." In the earliest times Nephthys was regarded as the female counterpart of Set, and she was always associated with him; nevertheless she always appears as the faithful sister and friend of Isis, and helps the widowed goddess to collect the scattered limbs of Osiris and to reconstitute his body. In the Pyramid Texts she appears as a friend of the deceased, and she maintains that character throughout every Recension of the Book of the Dead; indeed, she seems to perform for him what as a nature goddess she did for the gods in primeval times when she fashioned the "body" of the "Company of the Gods," and when she obtained the name Nebkhat, i.e., "Lady of the body {of the Gods." The goddess is represented in the form of a woman who wears upon her head a pair of horns and a disk which is surmounted by the symbol of her name, or the, " symbol only; and her commonest titles are, "dweller within Senu," "lady of heaven," "mistress of the gods," "great goddess, lady of life," "sister of the god, eye of Ra, lady of heaven, mistress of the gods," "lady of heaven, mistress of the two lands," "sister of the god, the creative goddess who liveth within An," etc. The chief centres of her worship were Senu, Hebet, (Behbit), Per-mert, Re-nefert, Het-sekhem, Het-Khas, Ta-kehset, and Diospolites.


In the vignettes of the Theban Recension of the book of the Dead we find Nephthys playing a prominent part in connection with isis, whose efforts it seems to be her duty to second and to forward. She stands in the shrine behind Osiris when the hearts of the dead are weighed in the Great Scales in the presence of the god; she is seen kneeling on, by the side of the Tet, from which the disk of the Sun is thrust upwards by the "living Ra," at sunrise; she is one of the "great sovereign chiefs in Tettu," with Osiris, Isis, and Heru-netch-hra-f; and she kneels at the head of the bier of Osiris and assists him to arise. In the address which she makes (Chap. cli.A), she says, "I go round about behind Osiris. I have come that I may protect thee, and my strength which protecteth shall be behind thee for ever and ever. The god Ra hearkeneth unto thy cry; thou, O son of Hathor, art made to triumph, thy head shall never be taken away from thee, and thou shalt be made to rise up in peace." Like Isis, Nephthys was believed to possess magical powers, and Urt-Hekau, i.e., "mighty one of words of power," was as much a title of the goddess as of her husband, Set-Nubti, the great one of two-fold strength. Nephthys also, like Isis, has many forms, for she is one of the two Maat goddesses, and she is one of the two Mert goddesses, and she is one of the two plumes which ornamented the head of her father Ra. In her birth-place in Upper Egypt, i.e., Het-Sekhem, or "the house of the Sistrum," the goddess was identified with Hathor, the lady of the sistrum, but the popular name of the city, "Het," i.e., the "House," seems to apply to both goddesses. In the Serapeum which belonged to the city, or the House of the Bennu, Osiris was re-born under the form of Horus, and Nephthys was one of his "nursing mothers." The form in which Osiris appeared here was the Moon, and as such he represented the left eye of the Bennu or Ra, and as he thus became closely associated with Khensu and Thoth, to his female counterparts were ascribed with attributes of Sesheta and Maat, who were the female counterparts of Thoth. Nephthys, as the active creative power which protected Osiris, the Moon-god, was called Menkhet, and in allusion to her beneficent acts in connection with him the names of Benra-merit and Kherseket were bestowed upon her; and the former appears to belong to the goddess when she made herself manifest under the form of a cat.

From Plutarch's treatise on Isis and Osiris we may gather many curious facts about the Egyptian beliefs concerning Nephthys. Thus he tells us that the Egyptians call the extreme limits of their country, their confines and sea-shores, Nephthys (and sometimes Teleute, a name expressly signifying the end of anything), whom they suppose likewise to be married to Typho. Now as the overflowings of the Nile are sometimes very great, and extend even to the remotest boundaries of the land, this gave occasion to that part of the story, which regards the secret commerce between Osiris and Nephthys; and as the natural consequences of so great an inundation would be perceived by the springing up of plants in those parts of the country, which were formerly barren, hence they supposed, that Typho was first made acquainted with the injury which had been done his bed by means of a Mellilot-garland which fell from the head of Osiris during his commerce with his wife, and afterwards left behind him; and thus, they say, may the legitimacy of Orus the son of Isis be accounted for, as likewise the spuriousness of Anubis, who was born of Nephthys. So again, when they tell us, that it appears from the tables of the successions of their ancient kings, that Nephthys was married to Typho, and that she was at first barren, if this indeed is to be understood, not as spoken of a mortal woman, but of a goddess, then is there design to insinuate the utter infertility of the extreme parts of their land, occasioned by the hardness of the soil and its solidity." Plutarch tells us, moreoever, that "on the upper part of the convex surface of the sistrum is carved the effigies of a Cat with a human visage, as on the lower edge of it, under those moving chords, is engraved on the one side the face of Isis, and on the other that of Nephthys." The face of Isis represents Generation, and that of Nephthys Corruption, and Plutarch says that the Cat denotes the moon, "its variety of colours, its activity in the night, and the peculiar circumstances which attend its fecundity making it a proper emblem of that body. For it is reported of this creature, that it at first brings forth one, then two, afterwards three, and so goes on adding one to each former birth till it comes to seven; so that she brings forth twenty-eight in all, corresponding as it were to the several degrees of light, which appear during one of the moon's revolutions. But though this perhaps may appear to carry the air of fiction with it, yet may it be depended upon that the pupils of her eyes seem to fill up and to grow larger upon the full of the moon, and to decrease again and diminish in their brightness upon its waning--as to the human countenance with which this Cat is carved, this is designed to denote that the changes of the moon are regulated by understanding and wisdom."

From the above paragraphs it is clear that Nephthys is the personification of darkness and of all that belongs to it, and that her attributes were rather of a passive than active character. She was the opposite of Isis in every respect; Isis symbolized birth, growth, development and vigour, but Nephthys was the type of death, decay, diminution and immobility. Isis and Nephthys were, however, associated inseparably with each other, even as were Horus and Set, and in all the important matters which concern the welfare of the deceased they acted together, and they appear together in bas-reliefs and vignettes. Isis, according to Plutarch, represented the part of the world which is visible, while Nephthys represents that which is invisible, and we may even regard Isis as the day and Nephthys as the night. Isis and Nephthys represent respectively the things which are and the things which are yet to come into being, the beginning and the end, birth and death, and life and death. We have unfortunately, no means of knowing what the primitive conception of the attributes of Nephthys was, but it is most improbable that it included any of the views on the subject which were current in Plutarch's time. Nephthys is not a goddess with well-defined characteristics, but she may, generally speaking, be described as the goddess of the death which is not eternal. In the Book of the Dead (Chap. xvii. 30), the deceased is made to say, "I am the god Amsu (or Min) in his coming forth; may his two plumes be set upon my head for me" In answer to the question, "Who then is this?" the text goes on to say, "Amsu is Horus, the avenger of his father, and his coming forth is his birth. The plumes upon his head are Isis and Nephthys when they go forth to set themselves there, even as his protectors, and they provide that which his head lacketh, or (as others say), they are the two exceeding great uraei which are upon the head of their fahter Tem, or (as others say), his two eyes are the plumes which are upon his head."

This passage proves that Nephthys, although a goddess of death, was associated with the coming into existence of the life which springs from death, and that she was, like Isis, a female counterpart of Amsu, the ithyphallic god, who was at once the type of virility, and reproduction, and regeneration. Isis and Nephthys prepared the funeral bed for their brother Osiris, and together they made the swathings wherewith his body was swathed after death; they assisted at the rising of the Sun-god when he rose upon this earth for the first time, they assisted at the resurrection of Osiris, and similarly, in all ages, they together aided the deceased to rise to the new life by means of the words which they chanted over his bier. In late dynastic times there grew up a class of literature which is now represented by such works as the "Book of Respirations," the "Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys," the "Festival Songs of Isis and Nephthys," the Litanies of Seker," etc., works which supply us with the very words which were addressed to Osiris and to all those who were his followers. The goddesses were personified by two priestesses who were virgins and who were ceremonially pure; the hair of their limbs was to be shaved off, they were to wear ram's wool garlands upon their heads, and to hold tambourines in their hands; on the arm of one of them was to be a fillet inscribed "To Isis," and on the arm of the other was to be a fillet inscribed "To Nephthys." On five days during the month of December these women took their places in the temple of Abydos and, assisted by the Kher Heb, or precentor, they sang a series of groups of verses to the god.

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