Nephthys: The Egyptian Goddess of Mourning and the Protector of the Dead
In this in-depth bio, you will learn who Nephthys is, her role in Egyptian mythology, and the myths and beliefs behind her name.
We will also be discussing how she’s depicted in Egyptian artwork and literature. Continue reading.
Who Is Nephthys in Egyptian Mythology
In Egyptian mythology, the goddess Nephthys represented the air, mourning, and childbirth. She was also frequently associated with the protection of the dead, embalming, darkness, health, and the making of beer.
Nephthys was a member of the Great Ennead of Heliopolis (nine deities of the creation mythos of Lower Egypt) and has played an important role in the Osirian resurrection myths made popular during the Middle Kingdom period (2050 – 1650 B.C.). Believed to be the daughter of Nut and Geb, Nephthys was the sister of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Horus the Elder.
Several myths name Nephthys as the mother of Anubis, assisting the jackal-headed god of mummification in the embalming of the deceased. Due to this, Nephthys commonly appears in Egyptian funerary reliefs and tomb paintings, with inscriptions on coffins naming her as an essential protector of the dead.
She is also believed to watch over the canopic jars which protected the organs of the deceased. Other myths mention Nephthys as barren, associating the goddess with mourning and vultures, as Egyptians believed vultures to be unable to procreate.
In the Ennead mythos, Nephthys and Seth are associated with one another as both sister and brother and wife and husband. While Seth was typically thought of as the rival of Osiris, Isis and Nephthys were very close. Typically, Isis and Nephthys shared roles in Egyptian funerary rites due to their protection of the slain god Osiris after being murdered by Seth.
While a great deal of controversy among archeologists exists regarding the extent of her worship throughout ancient Egypt, it is agreed that worship of Nephthys existed in some form from Predynastic Egypt (6000 – 3100 B.C.) until Christianity became the state-sponsored religion in the 4th century A.D.
Major temples and complexes dedicated to Nephthys were located in Karnak and Luxor, Heliopolis, Hebet, Permet, Senu, and Hetsekem, with the Ramesside pharaohs (1292–1069 BC) paying her particular honor as “Mother Nephthys.”
How Nephthys Was Depicted in Egyptian Artwork and Literature
Due to their familial connection and their intertwined mythos, Nephthys and Isis appear very similar to one another and were only differentiated by their headdress. When the worship of Nephthys was at its zenith, the two goddesses were depicted as twins, with Nephthys representing the darkness that balanced the light of Isis.
Appearing as a beautiful Egyptian woman with dark hair, Nephthys was typically represented with a house or basket headdress, symbolizing her role as divine mistress of the house and temple. She was also depicted with red or sky-blue robes outlined with silver.
In funerary depictions, she was sometimes shown with a crown etched with her name when presented in her human form. In her left hand, she held the key of life (ankh), and in the right, she held the shabti staff representing good luck.
Life-sized statues of Nephthys were common in temples throughout Egypt, with the best surviving statue currently housed at the Louvre in Paris.
When depicted as an animal form, Nephthys appeared as a bird of prey, specifically as the Egyptian hawk. The Egyptians equated the hawk’s long cry as that of a cry of mourning, linking the animal (and Nephthys) with the mournful cries of the funeral dirge.
As the protector of the dead, the depiction of the hawk of Nephthys was commonly found on canopic jars, the most famous of which was discovered in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Her priestesses, who performed the role of professional mourners at royal funerals, were known as the “Nephthys Kites,” also called “Hawks of Nephthys.” Additionally, the virgin high priestess of Nephthys annually recited the “Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys” at the “Festival of Osiris” at Heliopolis.
This recital proved to be so popular that it spread throughout the Egyptian empire as an essential component of the “Book of the Dead” and became a part of common funeral rites throughout the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Although commonly associated with funerary rites and the Osirian mythos, Nephthys also had an important role as the festive deity of beer and prevention of hangovers. In depictions found at Benbeit, Dendera, and Edfu, she is seen receiving offerings of beer from the pharaoh. In response to the gift of beer, she was believed to offer the power of giving the joy of drunkenness without the obligatory hangover.
In Egyptian literary works regarding childbirth, Nephthys was believed to help bring forth sons that achieved fame and fortune. In the Westcar Papyrus, written during the Second Intermediate Period (1782 -1570 B.C.), Nephthys took on the disguise of a traveling musician to assist the wife of a priest of Ra in bringing forth three children who are then born with limbs covered in gold and wearing lapis-lazuli crowns.
In hieroglyph form, Nephthys was represented with the sigil for temple enclosures (hwt) with the symbol for mistress (nb) on top of it.
The Names of Nephthys and the Meanings Behind Them
The name Nephthys is the Greek transliteration of the Egyptian name “Nbt-hwt” or “Neb-thwt,” variously spelled “Nebet-Het,” “Nebt-Het,” or “Nebet-hut.”
Worship of the Egyptian god Nephthys existed in some form from the beginnings of Egypt’s known history. Therefore, the exact origin of her name has not been identified. However, the meaning of Nephthys name has come to be identified as “Mistress of the House.”
While early scholars equated this title with the Egyptian home and duties of the housewife, this has been discovered to be erroneous. In truth, Nephthys name meant “Mistress of the Temple Enclosure,” which associated her with the role of royal priestess of Egypt.
At one time, she was considered one of the primary gods of ancient Egypt. Consecutively, Nephthys was honored with several official titles, including:
- Friend of the Dead
- Most Excellent Goddess
- The Goddess of Help
- Queen of the Embalmer’s Shop
- Mistress of the Sistrum
- Beloved Sister
- Nephthys of Ramesses Meriamun
- Nephthys of the Bed of Life
- Protector of the Dead
- Foremost of the Sed Festival in the Booth of Annals (also inscribed, Foremost of the Booths of Herakleopolis)
- Helper of the Dead
- Mother Nephthys
- Mistress of the House
- Lady of the Temple Enclosure
The Origin Story of Nephthys and the Gods of the Ennead
One of the most popular creation myths of ancient Egypt came from the Ennead cult of Heliopolis, which included the goddess Nephthys.
In the myth, before there was an earth or a cosmos, there was nothing but chaos, symbolized by dark waters. One day, out of the waters came the self-created god Atum, who stood upon an earthen mound called “ben-ben.” As the first created being, he stood alone in nothingness and desired companionship.
Using semen from pleasuring himself and spit, he created his son Shu (god of air) and daughter Tefnut (goddess of moisture). Entranced with the swirling chaos, Shu and Tefnut left Atum’s side and went to explore the darkness.
After not returning for a long period of time, Atum began to despair for his children. To illuminate the darkness, Atum created a flaming eye and sent it to search for Shu and Tefnut. While the larger eye was gone, Atum created another lesser eye to help him see the ground beneath his feet. Soon, Shu and Tefnut reappeared with the larger flaming eye.
To reward the larger flaming eye for finding his children, Atum assigned the larger eye to be the sun and the lesser flaming eye to be the moon. And in his happiness, the god cried tears of joy, which became the first humans when falling upon the mound at his feet.
To create a new home for humanity, Shu and Tefnut procreated to create the earth (Geb) and sky (Nut). However, Geb and Nut were inseparable, locked in eternal copulation. To keep them apart, Atum separated Geb and Nut and fashioned pillars between them so that they could never touch again, thus enabling creation to bloom between earth and sky.
However, due to their previous contact, Nut found that she was pregnant and gave birth to five gods – Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys, and Horus the Elder. Atum then tasked the children of Geb and Nut with ruling the world with Maat (righteousness and justice) and gave Osiris (as the firstborn) rule over all living creation.
The Role of Nephthys in the Osirian Resurrection Myth
Osiris was much loved by humanity. He ruled with fairness and righteousness, and the land blossomed and bloomed. Osiris took Isis to be his companion, and together they taught humanity art, religion, agriculture, and literature.
But while the earth and heavens thrived, the god Seth grew very jealous of everyone’s love of Osiris. He took Nephthys to be his wife, but the jealous god desired the attention that was lavished upon his older brother.
Even Nephthys desired Osiris due to the love and adulation the god gave Isis, and the goddess set a plan into motion that would affect the pantheon of gods and all of creation in terrible ways.
– Nephthys Seduces Osiris
Wanting to experience the love that her sister Isis experienced, Nephthys took the form and scent of Isis. She seduced Osiris, deceiving the god and sleeping with him (some versions of this myth feature Nephthys giving Osiris large amounts of beer or drugging his wine).
Osiris left behind in Nephthys room a flower that he commonly wore in his hair. When Seth later came to the bed of Nephthys, he discovered the flower and believed that it was Osiris who seduced his wife.
Consumed with rage, Seth concocted a murderous scheme to finally eliminate Osiris. Creating a highly decorated box tailor-made to Osiris’ dimensions, Seth threw a large party along the Nile River and offered the ornate chest as a reward for whoever could fit into it best.
Osiris, unaware of the evil in his brother’s heart, lay in the chest and found it fit perfectly. But before he could get out of the chest, Seth slammed the lid, nailed it shut, and shoved it into the Nile. As Osiris was now missing, Seth assumed the throne of the living, with Nephthys as his queen.
– The Birth of Anubis
Upon taking her place as queen, Nephthys soon found that she was pregnant with the child of Osiris. Knowing if the child were born and found that Osiris was the father, Seth would kill the child. Therefore Nephthys hid the pregnancy from her husband. At birth, she named the child Anubis and gave him to Isis, who became his protector.
– The Quest for the Corpse of Osiris
Still searching for her husband, Isis heard tales of a strange tree that had been discovered in the land of Byblos. The tree had a feeling of beauty and had a sweet aroma, so the king and queen of Byblos had the tree removed from the Nile and carved into a beautiful pillar that now stood in their throne room. Isis, feeling the power of Osiris from the tree, disguised herself and became a nursemaid to the prince of the court to get close to the pillar.
In becoming close to the prince, Isis wished to see the child become immortal and never taste death. Every night when the babe awoke to feed, Isis would call forth a magical fire to burn away the mortal portions of the child and strengthen his ka.
However, one night the queen stumbled upon the goddess dipping her child in the mysterious flames and reacted in fear. Seeking to calm the mother, Isis revealed her true form, terrifying the queen even more. The queen begged Isis to spare their lives. Isis asked for the carved pillar that held Osiris and then returned to Egypt.
Upon her return, Isis found that Egypt had changed. Seth ruled with an iron fist, causing the land to go barren. Knowing that Seth would react with anger if he knew the body of Osiris had been found, Isis hid the body in the Nile’s marshes. Finding Nephthys, who felt responsible for Osiris’ horrible death, Isis asked her sister to keep watch over the body while she found herbs for a magic spell to resurrect the god.
However, Seth knew Isis had discovered Osiris, as she would not return to Egypt empty-handed. Knowing how much Isis trusted Nephthys, Seth tricked his queen into revealing where Osiris was hidden.
Upon finding the slain god, Seth hacked Osiris into many pieces, tossing his body parts throughout the land, throwing the god’s penis into the Nile. When Isis returned with Anubis and the necessary herbs, Nephthys told her twin what had happened and pledged her help to recover the bits of Osiris from around the world.
– The Resurrection of Osiris and Re-Establishment of the Rightful Heir
The sisters collected all of Osiris’ body parts, with one exception – the penis. In throwing the god’s penis in the river, Seth knew that fish would consume it. Unable to become whole, Osiris could never return to the land of the living.
Isis and Nephthys worked together to assemble the rest of Osiris, reciting spells and invocations which came to be known as the “Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys,” which would be recited at funerals throughout Egypt for over 2000 years.
Using their combined magic, and with the help of Anubis, the twin sisters successfully resurrected the slain god. Knowing he would have to leave the land of the living, Isis flew around the body of Osiris, drawing his remaining seed to the surface and into herself, becoming pregnant with Horus the Younger.
After rising from the dead, Osiris descended to the Duat to become lord of the dead, and Anubis became the god of mummification and embalming. Nephthys, honor-bound to Isis, kept the birth of Horus secret from the god Seth, setting up a series of epic battles between Seth and Horus to take control of the future of Egypt.
For 80 years, Horus the Younger and rightful heir to the throne battled Seth for the soul of Egypt. Throughout the years of combat, Seth took Horus’s eye but lost his testicles to the son of Osiris.
Finally, after Isis tricked Seth into admitting that he had acted dishonorably in the murder of Osiris, the god Atum took control of Egypt away from Seth and gave it to Horus. Seth was banished to the deserts outside of the kingdoms of Egypt, but Nephthys was honored for defending Osiris and Horus and named the protector of the temple.
Osiris named her “Friend of the Dead” because of her role in his resurrection, and she became known as the protector of the people in death.
Nephthys, Mistress of the House and Friend of the Dead
In the grand myths of ancient Egypt, Nephthys played an essential role in the fate of Osiris and his resurrection. As the goddess of the air, mourning, and childbirth, she was revered throughout Egypt as the protector of the dead, the goddess of embalming, and even as the patron of beer.
- Nephthys was one of the nine gods of the Ennead cult and a major part of the Osirian resurrection myth
- Nephthys was typically depicted as the twin of the goddess Isis, only differentiated in artwork by her headdress. Together, the goddesses were known for the funerary “Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys,” which became an essential component of the Book of the Dead
- Nephthys animal form was as a hawk, with its mournful cry symbolic of funeral mourning
- The name Nephthys was a Greek transliteration of her Egyptian name “Nbt-hwt” or “Neb-thwt,” variously spelled “Nebet-Het,” “Nebt-Het,” or “Nebet-hut”
- In myth, while Nephthys was partly responsible for the death of Osiris, she was remembered more for helping to restore the god to life and protecting him from the murderous Seth
- Believed to be the mother of Anubis, Nephthys worked with her son to prepare the dead and came to be known as the Friend of the Dead
While not as famous in modern times as her twin sister Isis, Nephthys played an essential role in Egyptian mythology. The Book of the Dead still bears her many names and her lamentations thousands of years later.
Portrayed in funerary depictions throughout northwest Africa and the Mediterranean, Nephthys still reigns over the silent tombs and temples of ancient Egypt.