(Nehebu-kau) Nehebkau’s name means either ‘He who harnesses/yokes the kas,’ or, more conceptually, ‘Bestower of dignities’ or ‘Appointer of positions’; sometimes his name is written with ka in the singular. The term ka is frequently translated as ‘double’, for it may be depicted as a twin, or as ‘spirit’, but it has a wide semantic range, from the most concrete, e.g., ‘food’, to the most ideal, e.g., the essence or nature of something (or, more typically, someone), with its most representative usages falling somewhere in the middle of this continuum. Something’s ka is the source of its being what it is and of its continuance in the state of being what it is, whether this source be viewed in a more refined sense, which yields the notion of something’s essence or someone’s personality, or in a more immediate and tangible sense, which yields the notion of one’s livelihood, or the set of circumstances allowing for one to be successful. Nehebkau is depicted as a serpent of indefinite species (but in any event not an uraeus cobra) or as a serpent-headed man, or as a serpent with human arms and legs. Sometimes the serpent form of Nehebkau is shown with two heads at the front and a head where his tail would be. In his humanoid form, Nehebkau may hold a snake in each hand. His typical consort is Serket, who is also sometimes regarded as his mother; otherwise, Renenutet is identified as his mother. Nehebkau is also linked conceptually with Nehmetaway, inasmuch as she bears the epithet nehbet-ka, the feminine form of Nehebkau’s name but for ka being in the singular, in her function as Goddess of justice. Nehebkau sometimes appears on the thrones of statuettes of Sekhmet and Bast, indicating that his functions literally support theirs.
In PT utterance 229, “the fingernail of Atum” is said to have pressed down on the vertebrae of Nehebkau, and thus to have “stilled the turmoil in Unu [Heliopolis].” In PT utterance 263, four divinities who are possibly the four sons of Horus, are to “tell my good name [the deceased king is speaking] to Re and announce me to Nehebkau, so that my entry may be greeted.” PT utterance 308 could be interpreted as stating that Nehebkau is understood as the son of Serket; at any rate, the affirmation, which is directed to the “two daughters of the four Gods who preside over the Great Mansion,” is that “I have looked on you as Nehebkau looked on Serket,” and stands parallel to affirmations that “I have looked on you as Horus looked on Isis” and “as Sobek looked on Neith.” But since the divinities in question are simply to “come forth at the voice to me [the deceased king], being naked,” it cannot be said with authority what the king intends to do with them, and the relationship between Nehebkau and Serket could be sexual rather than filial. In PT utterance 510 the deceased king identifies with Nehebkau, “multitudinous of coils.” In PT utterance 609, the four divinities of utterance 263 “will raise up this good utterance of yours to Nehebkau when your daughter has spoken to you, and Nehebkau will raise up this good utterance of yours to the Two Enneads,” i.e. all the Gods, represented by the doubling of the ideal number nine.” In PT utterance 727, Nehebkau apparently takes the poison of a snake instead of the deceased king, for it is said that Nehebkau “burns with the poison.”
CT spells 84-88 are particularly important for understanding Nehebkau because they belong to the genre of ‘transformation’ spells (i.e. for invoking the God). Spell 84 refers to Serket again, although some variants substitute Seshat (an error?). Serket is said to have become pregnant by the operator, who is identified with Nehebkau. She is angry with him, and possibly attacks him. The operator claims to have made something between the Goddess’s thighs “as [like] Him-whose-head-is-raised,” a term for a serpent, indicating either Serket/Seshat’s pregnancy, state of arousal or, if it is indeed Serket, who is depicted as a scorpion, perhaps her preparedness to strike. The result for the operator, however, is beneficial: “I have surpassed the spirits, I have surpassed the sages, and I have said that they shall make for me a standing-place by reason of it.” CT spell 85 refers to a motif frequent in connection with Nehebkau, the idea that he swallowed seven uraei (the cobras who spit fire in defense of Re); CT spell 374 states that these uraei became seven of Nehebkau’s vertebrae. A more abstract theme which emerges in these spells is of Nehebkau as one who in some fashion embodies the collective powers (kas) of the Gods. Thus in CT spells 86 and 87, Nehebkau is “the great Ennead of Atum,” that is, the manifold of Gods proceeding from Atum, or “the Bull [a pun, for ka='bull'] of the Tribunal of Atum” or “of the Enneads,” that is, the manifold-of-manifolds of Gods. Similar is spell 88′s claim that Nehebkau “obeys no magic.”
CT spell 762 conceives Nehebkau as the son of Renenutet and Geb, and articulates further Nehebkau’s conceptual relationship to the other Gods: “You [the deceased as Nehebkau] are indeed the ka of every God … Stand up; Horus has greeted you, for he recognizes you as the ka of all the Gods; there is no God who has not his ka in you.” Nehebkau thus embodies something, perhaps the very concept of the ka as such, without which the Gods could have no kas; it is a matter of a necessary condition, if not the sufficient condition, for the Gods’ mode of being. Similarly, CT spell 647 affirms that Nehebkau “grants souls, crownings, kas and beginnings.” In CT spell 1076, this is expressed by stating that Nehebkau “eats his fathers … [and] his mothers,” and “swallowed the Hehu,” that is, the ‘Chaos-Gods’ who constitute the members of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad and who represent the state of formlessness prior to the emergence of the cosmos.
The Book of the Dead mentions Nehebkau as present in the day bark with Re (BD spell 15A1), thus lending his powers to the maintenance of cosmic order. Nehebkau is also among the deities cited in the so-called ‘Negative Confession’ of BD spell 125; Allen translates the denial delivered to him as “O uniter of attributes [i.e., Nehebkau] who came forth from the city, I have not made distinctions (of others) from myself,” (p. 99) perhaps with a degree of speculative excess. In BD spell 17, the deceased says, “I fly as a hawk, I have cackled as a goose, I destroy eternity like Nehebkau.” The first part of the formula, involving the hawk and the goose, is familiar from a variety of contexts, while the reference to ‘destroying’ eternity perhaps means that identifying with Nehebkau grants the deceased a power of persistence and renewal more durable than eternity itself.
Nehebkau’s occurrence in amulets and magical spells indicates that he was assumed to exercise a protective function for the living individual as well. A spell against infectious disease (no. 18 in Borghouts) is to be said “over Sekhmet, Bast, Osiris and Nehebkau, drawn in myrrh on a bandage of fine linen,” and applied to a person’s throat. In another spell (no. 87), Nehebkau is characterized as “prominent in the Palace, who restores people to life with the work of his arms,” a phrase which is interesting insofar as the hieroglyphic sign for ka is a pair of outstretched arms.
Shorter, Alan W. 1935. “The God Nehebkau.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 21: 41-48.