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Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Goddess Nephthys

  • Other Names: Nebet-het, Nebt-het, Nebthwt
  • Titles: Lady of the House; Lady of Life; Lady of Darkness; Lady of Death that Is Not Eternal; Mistress of the West
  • Origin: Egypt
  • Attributes: Skull and bones
  • Colors: Black, red
  • Planet: Moon
  • Birds: Vulture, crow, kite
  • Animal: Snake
Nephthys is almost universally depicted as a woman with the hieroglyphic symbols of her name (a basket and a house, stacked on top of each other) situated atop her head, though she can also be depicted as a bird (most often a kite or some other form of falcon/hawk). She was associated with funerary rituals throughout ancient Egyptian history and was venerated not as Death itself, but as the companion who gives guidance to the newly deceased, and as a Lady With Wings who comforts the deceased's living relatives.

 Quiet Nephthys is overshadowed by her famous and more flamboyant siblings - Isis, Osiris, and Set - yet she, too, is a vital, significant and powerful deity. Nephthys is the spirit of magic, sorcery, darkness, decay, death, and immortality. She was also said to be the source of both rain and the Nile river (associating her with Anuket) and was thought to protect women in childbirth (with the assistance of her sister, Isis). Thus she was closely associated with both death and life.


Isis, Nephthys, Osiris, and set are quadruplets. Isis and Osiris fell in love in the womb and were married. Nephthys and Set were paired off by default. Set desired Isis, too. Nephthys wished to bear a child, but Set was infertile (like the desert that he represented) and was frequently described as either bisexual or gay.

Some believe that Nephthys was originally conceived of as the female counterpart of Set. He represented the desert, while she represented the air. As his female counterpart, Nephthys was often considered to be barren as well.

As a goddess of the air, she could take the form of a bird, and because she was barren she was associated with the vulture - a bird which the Egyptians believed did not bear children. The Egyptians thought that all vultures were female (because there is very little difference in the appearance of a male vulture), and that they were spontaneously created from the air. While the care shown by a mother vulture for her child was highly respected, the Egyptians also recognised that vultures fed on carrion and associated them with death and decay. As a result, Nephthys became a goddess of death and mourning, as well as childbirth and protection.

Although she was technically infertile, later myths claimed that she was the mother of Anubis by either Osiris or Set (depending on the myth). According to one myth Nephthys disguised herself as Isis to get the attention of her neglectful husband Set, but instead seduced Osiris (who apparently did not realise that it was Nephthys). An alternative myth made it clear that Nephthys intended to seduce Osiris from the beginning and drugged his wine to make her task easier, while a less common myth held that she did trick her husband into a brief daliance in order to concieve Anubis. It is suggested that this tale also explained the flowering of a plant in a normally barren area because Set apparently discovered the adultery when he found a flower left by his brother Osiris.

Although she betrayed her sister and they underwent a period of estrangement, they eventually reconciled. When Set killed Osiris, Nephthys became Isis' great ally and constant companion. Nephthys shared maternity of Anubis with Isis. Anubis invented the mummification process, which ultimately helped to resurrect Osiris. Nephthys also assisted in the temporary revival of Osiris' virility, so that Isis, too, might conceive a child.

Nephthys is a modest but determined spirit. No cult centers have been discovered that are dedicated to her alone, but she shares shrines with others. Shunning the spotlight, Nephthys quietly sets about fulfilling her desires. She has her son, her beloved sister, and eventually found personal satisfaction as consort to Min. She is venerated with all three.

Nephthys is a guardian spirit, invoked in magical rites. She may be petitioned for fertility, especially by those who have been assured that they will never have children but wish to prove naysayers wrong.

Nephthys guards the threshold between life and death, fertility and sterility. Egypt was known as the Black Land with black, the color of the rich, fertile soil, considered emblematic of life and abundance. The harsh, dry desert, which challenges survival, was known as the Red Land. In Egypt, the dividing line between fertile earth and the desert, the black and red, was visible. One could literally stand with one foot on fertile land, the other on barren soil. Nephthys straddles, determines, and rules over that borderline.

Found in: Encyclopedia of Spirits
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