Nephthys, the sister of Isis and Possessor of Life in the Night-Barque

Please 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 inscriptions to the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri, Edward has gathered together more interesting details about Isis’ mysterious sister than anyone else I’ve seen. And he gives citations, too. Wow.

Once you read the article, I think you’ll agree that there is much more to Nephthys than we might believe at first glance. She is not merely a dim shadow of Isis as She sometimes seems to be in the myths. Instead, She is the complement of Isis, and thus the Goddesses are often referred to in the dual: the Two Kites, the Two Ladies, the Two Women, the Two Goddesses of the Hall of Truth (the Ma’eti), the Two Long-Haired Ones, the Two Uraeus Serpents, the Two Spirits, the Two Nurses, the Two Weavers, the Two Feathers, the Two Birds, the Two Cows, the Two Divine Mothers, the Two Eyes of God, the Two Wise Ones, the Two Weepers, the Two Great-Great Ones, the Two Uniters, and the Twins.

Together, Isis and Nephthys encompass All That Is. Egyptian dualism saw the world as a balance between pairs of great contending, although ultimately balanced, forces. This idea was formed and reinforced by the reality of the Two Lands: Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt; by the east-west course of the Sun so important to Egyptian religion; by the north-south flow of the Nile that ruled their lives; by the red land-black land split between the parched desert and the fertile land watered by the Nile; by the division of Heaven and Earth; and by a physical-spiritual conception of the universe. Pairs of Deities could symbolize all of these vital dualities; Horus-Set and Isis-Nephthys are among the most prominent pairings.

Marvel comic's version of Nephthys, an interesting and rather lovely portrayal

We can see the complementary relationship between the Two Goddesses in the meaning and hieroglyphs of Their names as well. As we discussed a few posts ago, the simplest meaning of Isis’ name is Throne and the simplest writing of Her name is just the hieroglyph throne, though most often Her name also includes the loaf, which is the t, and the determinative for Goddess.

Nephthys’ name, in Egyptian Nebet-Hwt, is the neb bowl sitting atop the symbol for house, temple, chamber, sanctuary, tomb, palace and other enclosed places. Her name means Lady, Mistress, or Possessor (Nebet) of the Temple (Hwt). So just as iset is about location, the hwt in Nephthys’ name is similar. It is also the same word as in Hathor’s name: Hwt-Hor, the “House of Horus.” In some myths, Hathor is the mother of Horus, so Her womb could be considered His house. On the other hand, since Horus is a falcon Deity, His home may be considered to be the sky for Hathor is indeed a heavenly Goddess. If the hwt in Nephthys’ name may also be interpreted as “the heavens”, then like Her sister, Nephthys too, is a cosmic Goddess.

And just as iset is a word for throne, so hwt is a type of throne, the block-shaped throne with the low backrest on which the Deities are often seated. Like the Hwt hieroglyph in Nephthys’ name, the hwt throne has a rectangular design, perhaps a door (?), in one corner. Since house, temple, shrine, and tomb were all related concepts in ancient Egypt, we can say that Nephthys, like Her twin Isis, is one of the Great Goddesses Who is the Container of Being—the Sacred Place, the Life-Giving Womb, and the Enclosing Tomb.

This essential unity of the Two Sisters is also expressed in the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri by the name Isenephthys or Isis-Nephthys. A similar name is found in a third century CE magical papyrus that speaks of Osiris “when he fell in love with his own sister Senephthys.” Senephthys is simply a shortened form of the name of the dual and complementary Goddess, Isis-Nephthys or Isenephthys.