(Net) Neith, whose importance in Egyptian religion as a deity at once intimately involved in the formation of the cosmos but also engaged in its ongoing maintenance can be judged from the frequency with which the epithet ‘the Great’ is applied to her, is depicted anthropomorphically, often with a pair of crossed bows over her head, echoing her early cultic emblem of crossed arrows; she is also depicted wielding bow and arrow as huntress and warrior. Neith typically wears the crown of Lower Egypt. Her association with this crown is especially close inasmuch as its name – when it is not simply referred to as the deshret, or ‘red’ – is virtually indistinguishable, at least as it is written, from her own. Neith is one of the representative Goddesses of Lower Egypt; her city, Saïs, is the site of the ‘House of the Bee’, a temple of Neith which becomes a symbolic shorthand for Lower Egypt in general. Mother of Sobek and of other related crocodile Gods, Neith is sometimes depicted suckling a pair of crocodiles at her breasts or as crocodile-headed. Besides crocodiles, Neith is associated with the click beetle (Agrypnus notodonta), with the Nile perch, a fish venerated at Latopolis, and with the cow, although the latter seems to come about chiefly through her association with Mehet-Weret.
Neith is a principal figure in a cosmogony in which she is closely associated with Mehet-Weret and is the mother of Re. Neith’s function in this cosmogony seems to be to carry forward the creative impulse of Mehet-Weret into greater determinacy and articulation and to be the bearer of Mehet-Weret’s primordial authority in these latter stages of the cosmos; hence Neith is “regent of Mehet-Weret,” (Neith, p. 54) and “the cow Mehet-Weret is there [Saïs] as Neith,” (55). For her own part, however, Neith personifies the creative potency of the primordial waters, not as a passive substrate but as the very agent of the emergence of the cosmos, in particular through an identification between the flow of the primordial waters and the flow of time. A hymn from Esna states that Neith fashions the world “in her form of Goddess who reaches to the limits of the universe, in her material form of the liquid surface, in her name of unlimited duration,” (Esna, vol. 5, p. 111); “the extension of the water which makes eternity [heh],” “the stream which fashions everlastingness [djet],” (ibid., p. 114 n. i). Neith’s independence and autonomy are emphasized in her demiurgic activity. Thus it is often said that Neith is both feminine and masculine – “two thirds masculine, one third feminine,” (Esna, vol. 5, p. 110) – both mother and father, “who inaugurated birth when birth had not yet been,” (Lichtheim, vol. 3, p. 38), having “appeared from herself,” (Esna, vol. 5, p. 253). The primordial register in which Neith’s cosmogonic activity occurs can be seen from the fact that, in the version from Esna, Neith brings forth both Re, the principle of cosmic order, and Apophis, the principle of entropy.
Every deity whom the Egyptians regard under the aspect of a demiurge fulfills this function in a distinctive manner; Neith’s creative activity seems to consist especially in separating the elements of the cosmos out from their initial state of fluid confusion. In the primordial waters, Neith “separates islands from shores,” (Neith, p. 62). The Gods acclaim her for having “separated for us the bright dawn from the night, made for us a ground upon which we may take support, separated for us night from day,” (Esna, vol. 5, p. 257); she also distinguishes the units of time (Neith, p. 62) and is said to perform her work of cosmogenesis in eight hours which pass “in the space of an instant,” (Esna, vol. 5, p. 259), through four speeches or formulae (akhu) which at once embody the early stages of the creation and from which can be unfolded the future course of events (ibid., pp. 259-261). The potency of Neith’s creative intelligence and spoken word is emphasized: “All that her heart conceived was realized immediately,” (Esna, vol. 5, p. 256); “She created the thirty Gods by pronouncing their names, one by one,” (257). Neith’s demiurgic activity is sometimes expressed in terms of another activity with which she is associated, namely weaving. Thus she is “the Goddess who divided the comb of her loom [alternately, ‘the threads of her weft’] among the five who inhabit the heaven and the earth,” (Esna, vol. 5, p. 111). Neith’s association with the primordial waters as well as with the complex formulae of creation allows her sphere of activity to encompass the production of perfumes and pharmacological mixtures such as the “two kinds of stimulating drugs” mentioned in an inscription from Medamoud (Neith, doc. 224).
In the Conflict of Horus and Seth, when the sovereignty of the cosmos is to be decided between Horus and Seth, the assembled Gods summon Banebdjedet as judge, who advises that a letter be sent to Neith and that the Gods abide by her decision. Thoth drafts the letter, to “Neith the Great, the divine mother, who shone on the first face, who is alive, hale, and young,” (Lichtheim, vol. 2, p. 215). Neith responds, in her own letter, that the office of Osiris should be given to his son Horus, and that Seth should receive in compensation Anat and Astarte as wives. The assembled Gods agree with Neith’s decision, although they are unable to implement it straightaway. Significant in this myth is the exalted status Neith is accorded by the assembled Gods, and also her distance from them, which is signified by the deferred manner in which she is selected to judge the dispute, and especially by the necessity of a letter. The myth thus illustrates an important aspect of Egyptian religious thought, namely the hierarchical structure of the pantheon, with powers distributed on several relatively autonomous planes. This relative autonomy is also demonstrated by the impossibility of simply putting Neith’s judgment into effect without further ado. This aspect of Egyptian religion is balanced by the possibility of recentering the pantheon at any time around any deity who is selected as the object of worship.
Neith not only establishes the cosmic order but fights in its defense, combating its enemies on every level, on behalf of Re, of Osiris, of Horus, and of the pharaoh. In the Pyramid Texts Neith is already one of a quartet of Goddesses, the others being Isis, Nephthys, and Serket, who are “protectors of the throne,” (PT utterance 362) that is, guardians of the sarcophagus and the chests containing the vital organs of the deceased. These Goddesses are thus the counterparts in some sense of the four sons of Horus, a relationship which becomes systematized over time. Neith’s most distinctive role in the service of Osiris is as provider of the linen for the bandages in which he is wrapped and of the oils with which he is anointed: “You are mistress of the oil of unction as well as of the fabric,” (Esna, vol. 5, p. 111). The fabric, in particular, is itself understood as a kind of protection; in charge of it may be Neith’s children, the Sobek twins (Neith, p. 73). Neith is accorded her own Ennead – or pantheon – of Gods, consisting of Khnum, Nebtu, Menhyt, Heka, Tutu, Sobek, Osiris, Isis, and either Thoth or Re (Neith, p. 143f). She is also closely associated with the hemesut (hemsut, hemuset) [ḥmwst], a plural entity usually written with the same determiner as Neith herself. The hemesut are associated with sustenance and virtue through a connection to the formative moments of the cosmos. The hemesut are similar in many respects to the ka, and perhaps represent a parallel tradition (ibid., pp. 145ff), but are apparently envisioned literally as standing underneath one, as in PT utterance 273, where they are under the deceased king’s feet. In this connection it is significant that in CT spell 407 Neith is asked to come under one’s feet. The hemesut seem therefore to embody the primordial land which arose in the midst of the waters of the abyss due to Neith’s activity (Neith, p. 147f). Possession of the hemesut therefore seems to express a connection to this pre-cosmic territoriality.
Hendrickx, Stan. 1996. “Two Protodynastic Objects in Brussels and the Origin of the Bilobate Cult-Sign of Neith.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 82, pp. 23-42.
Sauneron, Serge. 1959-75. Esna. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
el-Sayed, Ramadan. 1982. La déesse Neith de Saïs. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.