Sister of Isis and her constant companion, Nephthys’ name, Nbt H[w]t, means ‘Mistress of the House’. Nephthys is depicted anthropomorphically, identifiable by a headdress composed of the two hieroglyphs which make up her name, or, along with Isis, as a small bird of prey, a kestrel or kite. A paradigmatic depiction of the two sisters shows them at either end of the bier upon which lays Osiris, with Isis at the foot and Nephthys at the head – hence PT utterance 505, in which the deceased affirms, “Isis is before me and Nephthys is behind me.” In this icon the sisters are at once mourning their brother and also preparing his resurrection, which takes the form of the conception by Isis of Horus as successor and avenger of his father; and just as Nephthys assisted Isis in the search for Osiris, so she assists Isis in rearing Horus and protecting from the many dangers which threaten him as an infant. There is something in the disposition of Isis and Nephthys before and behind Osiris which transcends the funerary sphere: Isis and Nephthys assume the same positions before and behind lady Ruddedet when they assist at the delivery of the royal children (Lichtheim vol. 1, 220). Nephthys has Seth for consort as Isis has Osiris, and the pair is representative of Upper Egypt as Isis and Osiris are of Lower Egypt (e.g., PT utterance 217). A close attention to the sources is required to discern those qualities appertaining to Nephthys alone rather than to Nephthys and Isis together.

Myths tend to make somewhat more of Seth’s connection to foreign Goddesses like Anat and Astarte, but Nephthys seems to share some of Seth’s qualities. Combat prowess, for instance, is implied by PT utterance 222, the deceased king affirming, “Nephthys has favored me and I have captured my opponent,” and CT spell 44 asks on behalf of the deceased that Nephthys “put the terror of you into the spirits as when Re rises from the Double Gates.” In a non-funerary spell to bring protection, the operator affirms “I am among Gods – Seth is on my right, Horus on my left, Nephthys is in my embrace,” (Borghouts, no. 115). On the other hand, Nephthys is said to act against Seth. In a hieratic text (MMA 35.9.21), Nephthys speaks of having kept Seth away from Horus, of having “refused to recognize the face of Seth” on Horus’ behalf, as well as of having lied to Seth and walled up his cavern (Goyon, Pap. Imouthès), while another text speaks of Nephthys returning to Heliopolis certain divine relics that had been in Bê’s (Seth’s) power (Meeks, Mythes et Légendes du Delta, §7). A fragmentary text concerning a lamp-lighting festival celebrated in Letopolis (Ibid., §18) relates an incident in which Nephthys hides herself from Seth in the water at night, but is discovered by him when he lights a lamp with the oil of the abdu fish, whose characteristic function is to swim before the solar vessel and warn Re of the approach of Apophis; note that this fish is said to have been born on the last of the epagomenal days, which is also the day of the ‘birth’ of Nephthys (Meeks, p. 230).

The tradition reported by Plutarch according to which Nephthys is the mother of Anubis by Osiris seems to find little support in indigenous Egyptian sources, although it was probably not unknown. Anubis is also regarded sometimes as the son of Nephthys and Re. Nephthys seems sometimes to have been regarded as the wife of Osiris in the netherworld as Isis is on earth, however; Osiris and Nephthys can thus be depicted as a couple (as in the statue of Ramose from the Louvre, E 16378). Nephthys is sometimes given the title Onnophret, the feminine form of the Osirian epithet Onnophris or wn.nfr, “the beautiful existent”. Nephthys can thus on rare occasions represent the deceased as Osiris normally does, or the wife of a male deceased (Meeks, Mythes et Légendes, p. 227f).

Independent of her sister, Nephthys seems to exercise the function of recording or administering destiny, invoked as she who “makes firm the commands of the Gods,” (Kom Ombo, 413) or as “reckoner of lifespan, mistress of years, mistress of destiny and providence, atenet [feminine form of the name of the solar disk, the aten] who ordains that which comes to be,” (Dendara II, 149). She is sometimes said to offer Ma’et (truth, order, justice) to Atum, a role resembling that of the pharaoh, such that it has been suggested that Nephthys is the guardian of the divine succession as Isis is of the royal succession (Kom Ombo, 414).

PT utterance 222 juxtaposes Isis and Nephthys, urging the deceased king to “descend with Nephthys, sink into darkness with the Night-bark,” and to “ascend with Isis, rise with the Day-bark.” This association of Nephthys with the sun’s nocturnal journey is possibly underscored by utterance 359, in which at the left side of the deceased are Nephthys, Seth and Khenty-irty, a God depicted in hawk form whose name means ‘Foremost in eyesight’. In utterance 532, a passage describing the recovery of the body of Osiris by the sisters, it is said that “Isis comes and Nephthys comes, one of them from the west and one of them from the east, one of them as a ‘screecher’ [a raptor of some kind], one of them as a kite.” It becomes common later for Isis and Nephthys both to be depicted as black kites; hence CT spell 24 says that “the Two Kites, who are Isis and Nephthys, scream for you, striking for you on two gongs in the presence of the Gods.” Here, however, it seems that Isis is the ‘screecher’ from the east and Nephthys the kite from the west, for in utterance 720 it is said to the deceased that “the West calls to you as Nephthys.”

Another form of complementarity between Isis and Nephthys is to cast the former as mother and Nephthys as wetnurse; hence in PT utterance 553, the deceased is “a spirit whom Nephthys suckled with her left breast,” and in 555 he affirms “My mother is Isis, my nurse is Nephthys.” Something else is implied when both Goddesses are identified as the mother: “Isis conceives me, Nephthys begets me,” (utterance 511). In the latter case, it is perhaps a matter of a special role for Nephthys in the resurrection, the second birth, as it were. In utterance 364, Nephthys, identified with Seshat, “Lady of Builders,” has collected the limbs of Osiris/the deceased, while in 365, the deceased is “a spirit whom Nut bore, whom Nephthys suckled, and they put you together.” The reference to Nut here is meant to evoke, not only the sky, but also the coffin. That Nephthys plays a leading role in the resurrection is clear from PT utterances 628-630, in which Nephthys addresses the deceased king in the first person, promising to restore his heart – awareness – to him. In CT spell 53, it is said that “Nephthys has favored you, you being renewed daily in the night-time,” combining the association of Nephthys with the sun’s nocturnal journey with her resurrection function. This seems to be underscored by CT spell 373, for “breathing air among the waters,” in which Nephthys addresses someone called “the Outcast”, apparently Seth, of whom it is said that “He-whose-hand-is-extended is upon the Outcast … the Outcast, the son of Nut, has fallen on his side and his breath has been taken away.” Nephthys says, “Hidden are the ways for those who pass by; light is perished and darkness comes into being.” Nephthys seems here to perform a nocturnal resurrection upon Seth, which is transmitted by him to the deceased, who affirms that “It is the Outcast who speaks to me and informs me that life is provided and that air is breathed among the waters.” That Nephthys specializes in reconstituting the body is apparent in CT spell 778, which states that “Horus has protected you [the deceased]; he has caused Nephthys to put you together … she will mould you in her name of Seshat, Mistress of potters, for such is this great lady, a possessor of life in the Night-bark, who raises up Horus.” Nephthys is perhaps identified in this role with Seshat, the patron Goddess of scribes, because the latter presides over the construction of sacred buildings, which are themselves living bodies of a sort. Nephthys bears the epithet “protector of the statues and guardian of the idols,” which Gutbub has compared to the description of the pharaoh as one who “protects the temples, guards the sanctuaries, and restores the statues,” (Kom Ombo, 413f). That her role in this respect transcends the Osirian context is indicated by a text concerning the “divine relics of the Place of the Wedjat” at Heliopolis, namely “the two eyes of Horus, the thumb of Atum, the hand of Haroeris, and the ear of Horakhty,” none of which are fragments of the Osirian body, but which have been damaged by Seth and which Nephthys heals in a ritual that involves fashioning simulacra of these divine members out of clay mixed with fat (Meeks, Mythes et Légendes, §7). Nephthys is also involved with Horus in the preparation of sacred unguents and perfumes, with the title “mistress of the laboratory” (Dendara IX, 158, 9).

Nephthys is the unfailing companion of Isis in her mourning for Osiris, her search for him, his resurrection, and the rearing of Horus. Therefore it is not surprising that the two of them are proverbial for friendship. A state of paradise is thus described in BD spell 182 (21st dyn.): “Every man is friendly to his fellow, without wrath or strife, as Isis and Nephthys have been friendly each to the other.” A late spell in Coptic to cause sexual attraction, however, uses as a trope the need of Isis to win back the desire of Osiris, whom she has learned to be having sex with Nephthys (PGM IV. 94ff). This text also provides some support for Plutarch’s account of the conception of Anubis by Osiris and Nephthys. Another spell (PDM lxi. 100-105) is for something called “the red cloth of Nephthys,” but its use is unclear; it seeks to bring someone to the operator, perhaps for sex. The red cloth might refer to the menstrual blood of Nephthys. A vessel divination spell calls for using an amulet of Nephthys and ass’s dung on the brazier in order to speak to the spirit of a dead person (PDM xiv. 84). Nephthys has also been discerned in a Greek-language spell (PGM XI.a 1-40), the goal of which is to acquire a magical servant. The spell refers to Nephthys by translating her name into Greek as Oikouros, literally ‘Mistress of the House’. In this spell, Nephthys appears, upon invocation, as a woman “of extraordinary loveliness, possessing a heavenly beauty, indescribably fair and youthful,” riding upon a donkey (an animal associated with Seth). The Goddess transforms herself into an old woman – the servant – then back into her own form, leaving the old woman behind when she leaves. A spell to assist in childbirth (Ramesseum Papyri IV, plate 18) refers to Nephthys bearing a daughter by Hemen: “Hemen … made pregnant his mother Nephthys with a daughter.” It seems, however, that the purpose of this formula is to identify the woman in labor as a daughter of Nephthys and Hemen, rather than to allude to a Goddess born of Nephthys and Hemen.

Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Barns, John W. B. 1956. Five Ramesseum Papyri. Oxford: Griffith Institute.
Betz, H. D. 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [PGM, PDM]
Cauville, Sylvie. 1998. Dendara. Leuven: Peeters.
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]
Gutbub, Adolphe. 1973. Textes fondamentaux de la théologie de Kom Ombo. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
Lichtheim, Miriam. 1975-80. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Meeks, Dimitri. 2006. Mythes et Légendes du Delta: d’après le papyrus Brooklyn 47.218.84. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.

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6 Responses to “Nephthys”

  1. wonderful article. thanks for sharing!

  2. [...] combined five goddesses, and those goddesses were (if I remember correctly): Ma’at, Hathor, Nephthys, Nekhbet, and Sothis/Sopdet. (The entries linked to there are all from Edward Butler’s [...]

  3. [...] blow right by most of the stuff you find on the internet about Nephthys and go right to this wonderful article by Edward Butler of the Henadology blog to discover the most fascinating things about Nephthys. From the Pyramid Texts to temple [...]

  4. [...] the nature of Heru-sa-Aset’s position in the Mysteries, as well as that of my beloved Lady, Nebt-het (Nephthys), as the chief mourner, along with her sister the newly-widowed Aset (Isis). It may be a tough [...]

  5. [...] (through multiple dreams and meditations) by the two Kemetic Goddesses Het-heru (Hathor) and Nebt-het (Nephthys) (My Ladies, as I’ve been calling them), I confirmed through various divinations [...]

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