Not too terribly long ago, when you looked up “Isis” just about anywhere, She was defined as an Egyptian Fertility Goddess and perhaps as “the ideal mother.” But that is only part of Her story.
Today, I am happy to find Her most often named first as the Goddess of Magic, followed by (Her many) other aspects. For it is Isis’ command of the primordial power of heka—magic—that exemplifies Her Divine creative power.
Today, when we look up “Nephthys,” we most often find Her defined as the Goddess of Death, Darkness, and, often, Protection. But that is only part of Her story.
In Egyptian myth, as you know, Isis and Nephthys are Divine Sisters. The Egyptian world was big on duality: the Two Lands, the Two Riverbanks, the Two Crowns, Kemet/Deshret (Black Land/Red Land), Order/Chaos (Ma’et/Isfet), Night/Day, Osiris or Horus/Set…and Isis/Nephthys.
It’s easy to consider duality as opposition, for instance, as it is in Ma’et/Isfet or Day/Night. And indeed we can find such oppositions in ancient Egyptian texts when it comes to Isis and Nephthys. Usually, Isis is the Bright Sister and Nephthys is the Dark. The Pyramid and Coffin Texts provide us with examples. One of the most explicit is Pyramid Text 222 where the deceased is urged to descend into the darkness of the Otherworld with the Night-barque and Nephthys, while they ascend with Isis in the Day-barque. Isis guides and sheds light on the hidden paths of the Otherworld, but the Coffin Texts tell us that Nephthys speaks and they are obscured: “Hidden are the ways for those who pass by; light is perished and darkness comes into being, so says Nephthys.” While Isis summons the Barque of the Day, Nephthys is “a possessor of life in the Night-barque.”
Nephthys can be paired with a God of dark moods and dark reputation—Set, the temperamental opposite of Isis’ benevolent husband, Osiris. A God of chaos, confusion, violence, and storm, Set is the adversary of Osiris and Horus, Who are Lords of Ma’et and are both associated with the life-giving light and order of the sun. Furthermore, the two Goddesses continue Their light-and-dark theme with the children They bear to the same God. Osiris fathered the bright God Horus with Isis while with Nephthys (if Plutarch is recording a genuine tradition), He fathered the dark God Anubis.
So, does that settle it? Isis is sweetness and light while Nephthys is obfuscation and dark?
Nah, of course not. Those of you who have been reading along know that Isis has Her own darknesses and Nephthys, as we saw last time, is also the Lady of Joy.
Most often, Isis and Nephthys are two Goddesses operating in tandem.
They are the Two Ladies, the Two Women, the Two Goddesses of the Hall of Truth, 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 Companions, the Two Women, the Two Wise Ones, the Two Weepers, the Two Shining Ones, the Two Singers, the Two Great, Great Ones, the Two Uniters, and…deep breath after all that…the Twins.
When They are doubled in these ways, Isis is dominant in the pairing. She is the Greater Whatever, while Nephthys is the Lesser Whatever. They are literally designated by those terms—greater/lesser (which can also be read as big/little)—in some texts. This always seemed a bit odd to me since the Goddesses are doing the same thing when They are called by these twinned epithets. And gosh, isn’t it a tad disrespectful to be calling one of these Very Great Goddesses the lesser anything?
Yet I wonder if it might not be simply a reflection of Their familial relationship. In myth, Isis was born a day before Nephthys. She’s the Big Sis. Born of Nuet the following day, Nephthys is the Little Sis. And indeed, Nephthys was specifically understood as being the younger one. Her epithets include Young Girl, Young Lioness, and Young One. The Greeks called Her Neotera, the Younger One. What’s more, in Egyptian tradition, the term wer (masc) or weret (fem)—great—could indeed mean big or prominent, but it could also mean elder. Hor Wer is the Elder Horus, distinguished from Hor-pa-khred, Horus the Child.
Two Sides of One Goddess?
Another way we can sometimes think of the Two Sisters is as two sides of one Goddess. We’ve talked about the fluidity of the ancient Egyptian conception of the Divine, where Deities can flow together and apart to form composite Forms as needed…or one Deity could be the ba or soul of another. Depending on your conception of the Divine universe, you may find this helpful or not so much. My own conception is decidedly on the fluid side and I find myself drawn to these malleable expressions of the Divine world.
And so, at times, I do find the idea of Isis-Nephthys useful in helping me think about the nature and relationship of the Two Goddesses. Yet, perhaps because of Their consistent pairing throughout Egyptian history, we don’t often find this combined Goddess in purely Egyptian sources. I know of nothing we have that says Nephthys is the ba of Isis or vice versa. (Doesn’t mean it isn’t out there; if you know of anything like that, oh please do let me know!)
However, in the Greek Magical Papyri (aka the PGM), we have two instances of a name that Preisendanz, one of the early papyri researchers, takes to be this combined Goddess. In one text, the name is Esenepthys, and in the other it is Senephthys. To me, it seems clear that these names do combine Isis and Nephthys. The first one uses an initial E, as Isis’ name in Greek was often spelled, and the second one simply drops the initial letter, which can easily happen in a tradition where one is copying and re-copying these texts; scribal error is not uncommon in the papyri. The second name, by the way, is part of a so-called love spell and refers to Osiris “when he fell in love with his own sister Senephthys.” As far back as we have records, it is true that both sisters love Him, both sisters seek Him, both sisters mourn Him…and together They are called the Two Widows.
At times, I do find it useful to think of a Great Isenephthys Who encompasses the Two Sisters. She seems somehow more ancient to me: She is THE Bird Goddess, the Bird of Prey Goddess Who brings Life and Death and Life. I will admit, this Form of the Goddess is not one I have much worked with, though now my interest is piqued to more deeply discover Her.
But Great Isenephthys will have to wait a bit. I am on Nephthys Quest now…and it is time to talk with the Goddess Herself.