You, My Goddess, are a true and deep Mystery.
There is just so dang much information about You…NOT…out there.
So, here’s where I am right now: I just bought a copy of the most extensive treatment of the Goddess available, Jessica Levai’s 2003 dissertation about Her (more than 200 pages) and devoured it in about a day. And although Levai does a good job of surveying what is available, the problem is that there’s just not that much available. I was disappointed to find that there was not much new to me, and certainly not much that really grabbed me by the guts or made me say, “Ah, YES, Nephthys.”
But I am stubborn. And I am now on Nephthys Quest.
As some of you may know, I have an at-this-point-small relationship with Nephthys. Initially, it was because when you have a relationship with Isis, you can’t help but also find Her sister. But a while ago, Little Sister started bringing Herself to my attention. That’s when I wrote those first posts about Her. Then She went very quiet; I believe waiting for me to be ready. Now She’s getting loud again and my stubbornness gene has kicked in (see above) and I guess I’m ready. Or ready enough.
So let’s get started and perhaps we will discover just a little of the Sacred Mystery of Nebet Hwt—Nephthys, as Her name came down to us in Greek.
The Name of Nephthys
Most often, those exploring the Goddess start with Her name; which indeed makes sense. We should be able to find something ancient and original in the name by which She was known for thousands of years. Yet many Egyptologists agree that they don’t know—exactly—what it means. Nebet Hwt is usually translated as Lady or Mistress of the House or Temple, making Her name more properly an epithet. (But then, many Deity names are like that. Epithets are what human beings use to try to describe some aspect of the Fullness of the Deity.)
Yet “temple” and “house” are not the only meanings of hwt and its full meaning is where the small-m-mystery lies. Just as the broader meaning of Iset’s name is not simply “throne,” but location—place; even the first place (see that discussion here)—so hwt is a temple, a royal palace, a mortuary temple, an embalming chamber, a tomb, possibly a type of throne, or even an administrative district (yeah, I know).
Hwt can also be understood as the sky, as in the name of Hathor, Hwt-Hor (“House of Horus”) where the house under discussion is the sky abode of the Falcon God Horus, which is Hathor, the Goddess Sky. Interpreting hwt this way, Nephthys, too, may be seen as a Sky Goddess, which doesn’t seem too far off the mark. For Nephthys, like Her sister, is a Bird Goddess and often appears as a black kite, kestral, or a bird-winged woman. Yet looking through the hieroglyphic dictionary for all instances of hwt, I see many more hwts that are specifically sacred places, like temples and shrines, than any of these other meanings. So for now at least, I’m going to be satisfied with Isis the Throne and Nephthys the Temple.
Indeed, we might find a Divine and Living Throne within a Divine and Living Temple. And so I have elsewhere called Isis the Point and Nephthys the Circle. By being the Circle, Nephthys is the power of delimitation. She creates boundaries and She IS the boundary, thus She is the Lady of the Limit. You can read my speculations about Her name and that whole thing here. And while setting limits might make Her seem rather Saturnine at first glance, all is not as it seems and we must also know that Nephthys is also the Lady of Festivals, Joy, and Divine Drunkenness.
Speaking of Epithets…
If Nephthys’ name itself is an epithet, perhaps we can look to other Nephthian epithets that can give us information about Her nature as perceived by the ancient Egyptians. Just as Isis is many-named, so is Nephthys. We find the usual slew of epithets that relate to a place (Lady of this-or-that shrine, city, or other place) or to Her relationship with other Deities (Sister of Isis, Daughter of Nuet). She is Beautiful, Shining, Brilliant. In common with other Goddesses, She is also Lady of Heaven, Lady of Life, Great Goddess, and Mistress of the Gods. Like Isis, She is Sister of the God (Osiris) and Great of Magic.
But I’m looking for more unusual ones, things that make Her different. And, happily, they are to be found. For instance, there are a number of epithets that relate to Her wisdom and helping nature. She is called Acute of Counsel, the Wise, with Excellent Advice and With Reasonable Plans. She is Great of Plans Who Judges the Words and She is Potent of Deeds. She is the Judge, She is the one Who Determines the Decrees, and One Does What She Has Commanded. Her connection with Seshat gives Her additional epithets of precision and discernment.
On the other hand, She is fierce, fiery, and protective. She is the Valiant, the Strong-Armed. She protects the Deities, the king, and—perhaps we should have expected this given Her name—the temples. Often, Her aggressive protection comes in the form of flame for She, like Isis, is a flame-spitting Uraeus Serpent Goddess. She sends Her flame out at enemies and yet Her flame can protect, too, by encircling Osiris. (Just as we might cast a protective Circle, encircling or tying a knot around something was a common Egyptian magical practice.) A favorite epithet of some of Nephthys’ modern devotees is Lady Whose Glance Causes Terror which surely must go in tandem with She Who Weakens Set in Her Anger. (More on Nephthys and Set another time.)
Now here’s an interesting one: Nephthys is She Who Predicts Events. So Nephthys is an Oracular Goddess. I will try to track down more about that and let you know if I find anything.
And, of course, there are epithets that relate to Nephthys’ darker and mysterious side. Like most all the Egyptian Deities, She is associated with death and resurrection. She is the one Whose Head is Hidden or Who Hides Herself. She is called Darkness and Shroud and She is the Lady of the Night Barque traveling through the Otherworld.
But there are some that strike me as sadder, sweeter, and that may make Her quite sympathetic to the trials and tribulations we human beings endure. She is called Sad at Heart, Powerful of Heart, Who Hears Everything, Whose Heart is Painful. She is also Kind, Kindly of Heart, and Lady of Kindness. She is the one with an Admirable Heart, and She is—perhaps as a result—the one With Great Popularity.
She also has many epithets that call Her extraordinarily beautiful.
I think this is enough for today. Next time, we’ll look at Isis and Nephthys as sisters and as opposites. I have some rather specific thoughts about that.