Goddesses of Ancient Egypt
Neith is generally regarded as the quintessential war-goddess and huntress deity of the Egyptians since the ancient predynastic period. However, she is a far more complex goddess than is generally known, and of whom ancient texts only hint of her true nature. In her usual representations, she is portrayed as a fierce deity, a human female wearing the Red Crown, occasionally holding or using the bow and arrow, in others a harpoon. In fact, the hieroglyphs of her name are usually followed by a determinative containing the archery elements, with the "shield" symbol of the name being explained as either double bows (facing one another), intersected by two arrows (usually lashed to the bows), or by other imagery associated with her worship Emblems of Neith in serekh of a queen.
As a deity, Neith is normally shown carrying the wAs (was) scepter (symbol of rule and power) and the anH (ankh) (symbol of life). She is also called such cosmic epithets as the "Cow of Heaven," a sky-goddess similar to Nut and as the Great Flood, Mehetweret (MHt wr.t), who gives birth to the sun daily . In these forms, she is associated with creation of both the primeval time and daily "re-creation." As protectress of the Royal House, she is represented as a uraeus, and functions with the fiery fury of the sun, not unlike the Eye facets of Hathor, discussed earlier .
el-Sayed, Neith, II, Doc. 322 and 424
Neith is one of the most ancient deities associated with ancient Egyptian culture. Flinders Petrie noted the earliest depictions of her standards were known in predynastic periods, as can be seen from a representation of a barque bearing her crossed arrow standards in the Predynastic Period (Fig. 1, left) . Her first anthropomorphic representations occur in the early dynastic period, can be seen in this representation from the diorite vase of King Ny-Netjer of the Second Dynasty (Fig. 2, right), found in the Step Pyramid of Djoser (Third Dynasty) as Saqqara. That her worship predominated the early dynastic periods is shown by a preponderance of theophoric names (personal names which incorporate the name of a deity) within which Neith appears as an element . Predominance of Neith’s name in nearly forty percent of early dynastic names, and particularly in the names of four royal women of the First Dynasty, only emphasizes the importance of this goddess in relation to the early society of Egypt, with special emphasis upon the Royal House .
Name of Queen Mer-Neith,
"Beloved of Neith"
First Dynasty, Abydos
el-Sayed, Neith, II, Doc. 108
In the very early periods of Egyptian history, the main iconographic representations of this goddess appear to have been limited to her hunting and war characteristics, although there is no Egyptian mythological reference to support the concept this was her primary function as a deity. It has been suggested the hunt/war features of Neith’s imagery may indicate her origin from Libya, located west and southwest of Egypt, where she was goddess of the combative peoples there . Predynastic Stela, Neith II, Doc. 81
It has been theorized Neith's primary cult point in the Old Kingdom was established in Saïs (modern Sa el-Hagar) by Hor-Aha of the First Dynasty, in an effort to placate the residents of Lower Egypt by the ruler of the unified country. It appears from textual/iconographic evidence she was something of a national goddess for Old Kingdom Egypt, with her own sanctuary in Memphis indicated the political high regard held for her, where she was known as "North of her Wall," as counterpoise to Ptah’s "South of his Wall" epithet . While Neith is generally regarded as a deity of Lower Egypt, her worship was not consistently located in that region. Her cult reached its height in Saïs and apparently in Memphis in the Old Kingdom, and remained important, though to a lesser extent, in the Middle and New Kingdom. However, the cult regained political and religious prominence during the 26th Dynasties when worship at Saïs flourished again, as well as at Esna in Upper Egypt.
An analysis of her attributes shows she was a goddess with many roles. From predynastic and early dynasty periods, she was referred to as "Opener of the Ways" (wp wA.wt) which may have referred not only to her leadership in hunting and war, but also as a psychopomp in cosmic and underworld pathways . The main imagery of Neith as wp wA.wt was as deity of the unseen and limitless sky, as opposed to Nut and Hathor, who represented the manifested night and day skies, respectively. As the "Opener of the Sun’s paths in all her stations" refers to how the sun is reborn (due to seasonal changes) at various points in the sky, beyond this world, of which only a glimpse is revealed prior to dawn and after sunset. It is at these changing points that Neith reigns as a form of sky goddess, where the sun rises and sets daily, or at its ‘first appearance’ to the sky above and below . It is at these points, beyond the sky that is seen, that her true power as deity who creates life is manifested .
Causing matter to exist and to live is the primary nature in Neith’s primeval role in creation. That she does so without assistance of other deities is attested to her from the Pyramid Texts to the end of ancient Egyptian culture . Of all Egyptian gods and goddesses, Neith is often referred to in Egyptian texts as the "eldest," and even as the "first" deity. She is reputed, especially in the Late Period, to be the great creator of the world, and is often called by some scholars the equivalent of the creator gods such as Atum and Ptah . As in the case of these primeval gods (though generally referred to as male), Neith is described in texts as either undifferentiated in gender or possessing both genders . As such, Neith should not be seen as a "original mother goddess" figure, as indicated in some references, but as an androgynous deity who creates the world from self-generation . However, unlike these gods who act after "emerging" from the void, the texts from all periods of Egyptian history indicate she is, in fact, representation of the first conscious Act of Creation from the Void, who takes the inert potential of Nun and cause creation to begin.
Lana Troy, in her Patterns of Queenship: in ancient Egyptian myth and history, indicates the weapons of Neith may be interpreted as symbolic examples of the goddess’ androgynous nature and her mode of creation. Though represented as female, her standard of crossed arrows indicates her masculine nature as well, which Troy argues is present in the Egyptian language itself:
"…it will be noted that the masculine function was related to the rays of the moon. The Egyptian word for rays is stwt (WB IV, 331). The association between the rays and male sexuality is notable in the relationship between the terms stwt and sti ‘to eject,’ ‘to impregnate,’ and styt ‘semen’ (WB IV, 326 ff. Cf. and Faulkner 1962, 253). The verb from which these terms derive can also mean ‘to shoot’ particularly in reference to the bow and arrow (WB IV, 326)…
As a female deity and personification of the primeval waters, Neith encompasses masculine elements which enable her to function as a creator. She is a feminine version of Ptah-Nun . Her feminine nature is complemented with masculine attributes symbolized with her association with the bow and arrow. In the same manner, her personification as the primeval waters is Mehetweret [MHt wr.t], the Great Flood, conceptualized as streaming water, related to another use of the verb sti, meaning ‘to pour’."  (emphasis mine)
Rather than a feminine counterpart of Nun, as has been theorized,
Neith is the active element that causes
creation, utilizing her powers as air and light, permeating the
inert and void qualities of Nun 
in an androgynous fashion to make living, formed matter .
Matter exists as experienced by human beings as the known universe,
including this temporal world, and the gods. However, Neith herself,
as well as Nun, exist in a place beyond what is known by the gods
themselves. These two deities exist only in Duat .
Therefore, Neith’s act of creation is to take inert (the
potentiality existing in Nun), and through air and light, cause
these qualities to develop (xpr,
xprw), or "come into being." She floats upon
the waters of Nun and is, in parse representation of her function
as creator, the first primordial mound .
Her first act of creation is of Atum, the first "whole
one," and that being is the first completed act of creation.
From this completed creation comes all other creation, as defined
in texts from the Pyramid Texts through the Papyrus Bremner-Rhind
Neith is also a goddess designated as a protectress of the living and the dead. Her insignia of shield and crossed arrows is seen in the representational standards of the Hmswt, the female counterpart to the Ka (kA). Like the kA, the Hmswt guided in the formative phase in the development of a human being before birth, although there is no mention of this aspect to a human being after birth . One of the four tutelary goddesses of the dead (along with Isis, Nephthys, and Selket), Neith’s functions in the rebirth of the deceased after death is attested to from the Pyramid Texts  through the Books of the Dead through the end of Egyptian culture. It is in the funerary mode that Neith is depicted at her most fierce, shooting arrows at the evil spirits that would attack the deceased, either in the tomb or during the passage through the underworld .
Figures (top) Neith with Selket and Isis, respectively
attacking the deceased.
El-Sayed, Neith, II, Doc. 346,434 and 679a
In summary, Neith should be seen as an example of the entire Egyptian theological and cosmogonical systems personified in one deity. As one of the oldest deities of the Egyptians, the full range of her attributes and meaning in Egyptian religion has only begun to be fully explored. She encompasses the creative powers of the "first time," the period of creation that was the goal of the Egyptian culture in its daily ethical and religious life to cultivate and maintain. That her act of creation becomes many deities which make up the Egyptian pantheon, emerging from Atum, reflects Hornung’s theory in which all divinity comes from Unity (via the Potential and the Act), making Neith a deity of the First Principle .
2. Ludwig Keimer
(ASAE, 31:151 (1931)) suggested the "shield"
of Neith is, in fact, the two hindquarters of the beetle particular
to Neith (Agrypnus notodonta LATR), or "click beetle."
The luminous features of some insects in the family Elateridae
may have become associated in religious terms with Neith as an
"opener of the way" (discussed within this article),
and may be the basis of the "Festival of Lights" associated
with this goddess, as mentioned in late Greek sources. Its reproductive
cycle, which includes burial of its larvae within the earth, only
to emerge as full adults, can also find similarities within the
creation and funereal mythology surrounding this goddess.
3. Robert Schlichting, "Neith," Lexikon der Ägyptologie, (LÄ IV), (Harrasowitz, Wiesbaden, 1982), p. 393-394.
4. For the fiery Eye characteristics of these ancient goddesses, see: Katherine Griffis-Greenberg, "Hathor: Part I, Symbol of Attraction and Power," InScription: A Journal of Ancient Egypt, Vol. 1/1, January, 1998.
7. For a full discussion of the predominance of the goddess during the early and very late dynastic periods, see Ramadan el-Sayed, La Déese Neith de Saïs: Importance et rayonnement de son cult, (IFAO, Cairo, 1982). Peter Kaplony, Die Inschriften der ägyptischen Frühzeit (Wiesbaden, 1963) is considered the standard reference for study of predynastic names.
8. For arguments concerning the connections of Libya and Egypt, with particular emphasis upon Neith, see, Oric Bates, The Eastern Libyans, (Frank Cass, London, 1914), pp. 205 ff.; Kees and Blissing, Re-Heligtum, II (Plate 7, figure 17) and III, Plate 9, where Neith and Libya figure prominently in the Sed festivals of Nuserre and Djoser, and A. R. David, The Ancient Egyptians: Religious Beliefs and Practices, (London, 1982), p. 145.
10. References to Neith as the "Opener of Paths" occurs in Dynasties 4 through 6, and is seen in the titularies of women serving as priestesses of the goddess. Such epithets include: "Priestess of Neith who opens all the (path)ways," "Priestess of Neith who opens the good pathways," "Priestess of Neith who opens the way in all her places." (Ramadan el-Sayed, La Déese Neith de Saïs, I, pp. 67-69). el-Sayed hypothesizes perhaps Neith should be seen as a feminine doublet of Wepwawet, the ancient jackal-god of Upper Egypt, who was associated with both royalty in victory and as a psychopomp for the dead. For more information on Wepwawet, as a deity and the characteristics as an epithet, see Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, George Hart, (Routledge, London), 1996.
11. George St. Clair, Creation Records, (London, 1898), pp. 177-178. St. Clair holds Neith is shown at times as a goddess with a line of stars across her back (as opposed to Nut’s representations with stars across the belly) [See Doc. 644, above, in text], and maintains this indicates the ancient goddess represents the full ecliptic circle around the sky (above and below), and is seen iconographically in texts as both the regular and the inverted determinative for the heavenly vault, indicating the cosmos below the horizon. St. Clair maintains it is this realm Neith personifies, for she is the complete sky which surrounds the upper (Nut) and lower (Nunet?) sky, and which exists beyond the horizon, and thereby beyond the skies themselves. Neith, then, is that portion of the cosmos which is not seen, and in which the sun is reborn daily, below the horizon (for the statement assigned to Neith is "I come at dawn and at sunset daily").
This theory may be borne out with the actual position of the stars of the ancient Egyptian sky. Karine Gadre, an archaeoastronomer from Revel, France has indicated the following:
"The period of invisibility of the decanal stars listed on the sarcophagus dating from the First Intermediate Period, and on the ceiling or on the walls of tombs and temples dating from the New Kingdom, is close to 70 days. That means that such stars should belong to a belt (the decanal belt, as defined by Neugebauer and Parker), situated south of the ecliptic.
Some of these stars also belong to the Milky Way, which, in fact, is a view of our own galaxy. Here periodically occurs the birth of new stars, the death of old ones. Its white color is due to the presence of these molecular clouds whose collapse give birth to stars, and to the presence of numerous stars as well.
The Milky Way intersects the ecliptic line in two points, the two equinoctial points. The stars situated close to one or the other positions occupied by the sun, on spring or autumn equinoxes, therefore belong to this intersection, to this specific region. Under the reign of the Egyptian pharaohs, the constellations of Taurus and Scorpius were occupied by the sun, on spring and autumn equinoxes respectively. The stars belonging to the constellations of Taurus and Scorpius therefore belonged to the Milky Way, too.
As long as the sun is situated 18 degrees below the terrestrial horizon, the sky is completely dark : you can see each one of the celestial object shining in the nightly sky. But when the height of the sun below the horizon becomes superior to -18°, some light begins to invade the nightly sky. The dark sky then gives way to the twilight sky. That is what we have called the astronomical twilight. Some of the celestial objects (the less brilliant ones) situated above the eastern horizon become unseen. As the sun moves towards the surface of the eastern horizon, more and more celestial objects become unseen from earth : the less brilliant ones first, then even the more brilliant ones like Sirius and the planets of the solar system disappear in the twilight sky. Between full darkness and full daylight, three phases follow one another :
1. -18° < h < -12° : astronomical twilight
2. -12° < h < -6° : nautical twilight
3. -6° < h < 0° : civil twilight
where h is the height of the sun below the terrestrial horizon.
During the first phase, which occurs between 1h30 and 1h before the sunrise, most of the celestial objects remain visible from earth. During the second phase (between 1h and 0h30 before sunrise) are only visible, from earth, the brightest objects. During the third phase, no star is visible; only some of the planets of our solar system can still be seen, close to the western horizon, like Venus or Jupiter."
(Karine Gadre, private communication, October 12, 1998; see also Mlle. Gadre’s website on Ancient Egyptian Astronomy at http://perso.wanadoo.fr/karine.gadre for further information about "zodiacal light" InScription readers may be interested in her most recent publication, La Signification Astronomique des Pyramides d’Égypte).
For a contra opinion, James Allen in his Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts, (Van Siclen, San Antonio, 1995), p. 4, believes this inverted "heavenly vault" glyph to merely represent the feminine counterpart of Nun (Nunet), although in the Pyramid Texts (166c, 207b, 446a, and 1691b), the name given for the entity is nnt, and which is alternately rendered with a and a . However, see Allen’s note as to this contradiction in Note 21, below.
12. In the Pyramid Texts, Neith is paired with Selket as braces for the sky, which places these two deities as the two supports for the heavens (see PT 1040a-d, following J. Gwyn Griffths, The Conflict of Horus and Seth, (London, 1961) p. 1). This ties in with the vignette in the Contendings of Seth and Horus when Neith is asked by the gods, as the most ancient of goddesses, to decide who should rule. In her message of reply, Neith selects Horus, and says she will "cause the sky to crash to the earth" if he is not selected.
13. Neith is said to have been "born the first, in the time when as yet there had been no birth." (Creation Records, p. 176). As a maternal figure (beyond being the birth-mother of the sun-god Ra) Neith is associated with Sobek as her son (as far back as the Pyramid Texts), but no male deity is consistently identified with her as a consort. Later triad associations made with her have little or no religious or mythological supporting references, appearing to have been made by political or regional associations only. This seems to support the contention Neith is an androgynous being, capable of giving birth without a partner and/or creation without sexual imagery, as seen in the myths of Atum and other creator gods.
14. Ramadan el-Sayed, in La Déese Neith de Saïs, I, notes the association of Neith as a creatress with Mehetweret, the Celestial Cow called "The Great Flood," is mentioned within both the Pyramid and Coffin Texts (p. 52).
15. Erik Hornung notes in the Eleventh Hour, Neith’s name appears written with a phallus. Das Amduat, Teil I: Text (Äg. Abh., Band 7, Wiesbaden) 1963, 188, No. 800. See also Ramadan el-Sayed, La Déese Neith de Saïs, I, pp. 16 and 58-60 for both hieroglyphic rendering and discussion of the bisexual nature of Neith as creator/creatress deity, and Lexikon der Ägyptologie (LÄ II) under "Götter, androgyne," (Wolfhart Westendorf, Harassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1977), p. 634-635. Troy in Patterns of Queenship (cited below) notes this masculine aspect of the goddess is shown symbolically and textually from the earliest of times.
16. Hollis, op cit., makes an interesting point that the self-generating qualities of the click beetle is the rationale for its association with Neith. She further indicates Neith’s eclipse in prominence during the Dynasties 2, 3 and 4 is directly proportionate to the rise of the supremacy of Re (and by extension, the emphasis in royal titulary on the "Son of Re" name), and the substitution of Hathor as Mother and Daughter of Re (usurping Neith’s titles in this area), as well as becoming the wife of Re. As a parallel development, the scarab beetle (scarabaeus sacra), also a "self-regenerating" insect as the click beetle, rises to prominence during this same period and assumes the click beetle’s symbolism with "parthenogenic" self-generation.
17. In reference to Neith’s function as creator with both male and female characteristics, Peter Kaplony has said in the Lexikon der Ägyptologie: "Die Deutung von Neith als Njt "Verneinung" ist sekundär. Neith ist die weibliche Entrsprechung zu Nw(w), dem Gott der Urflut (>Nun and Naunet). (Citing Sethe, Amun, § 139)." LÄ II, (Harassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1977), p. 1118.
20. That Neith creates without the active participation of Nun, only utilizing the deity’s inert matter, is attested to by the epithet of Neith as "the mother, of whom no one is master." (St. Clair, Creation Records, p. 179).
(found above and to the right of Nut):
How the upper side of this sky exists is in uniform darkness,
the southern, northern, western and eastern limits of which are unknown,
these having been fixed in the Waters, in inertness.
There is no light of the Ram there: he does not appear there –
(a place) whose south, north, west and east is unknown by the gods or akhs
There is no brightness there.
And as for every place void of sky and void of land, that is the entire Duat.
(James Allen translation)
Duat (dwAt) has been interpreted as either a negative void or the active form of creation, for both Nun and Neith exist in the Duat, according to this author. Duat exists "inside" the sky (Nut), and the sun goes into the Duat at sunset. Allen admits in Genesis in Egypt that the powers of creation exist in Duat and appear to be independent of the goddess Nut, citing the Pyramid Texts 1527a:
The sky has conceived him,
The Duat has given him birth.*
Allen concludes: "…This ambiguity [there being a Duat above and below] is probably no more than a reflection of the fact that the Duat, though part of the world, is inaccessible to the living, outside the realm of normal human experience…Together, sky, land and Duat comprise the world of the ancient Egyptians - kind of "bubble"** of air and light within the otherwise unbroken infinity of dark waters…" (p. 7)
*Compare the aforementioned imagery of pre-dawn creation by Neith in R.O. Faulkner’s translation, "…the dawn has borne him…" (The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Oxford, 1969).
** What Allen calls a "bubble" corresponds to St. Clair’s description of Neith as the vaulted sky above and below ( and ), with the earth in between. Allen refers to this phenomena as a ‘box’ (op. cit., p. 66, N. 41), while this author believes St. Clair’s description of the "ecliptic circle" of air and light is more likely, drawing upon Egyptian uterine parallels in mythology (such as Nunet forming the boundaries of Nun; see Troy, op. cit., Fig. 1, p. 17), as well as other ANE mythological parallels (such as Tiamat in Babylonian mythology) [right]. Ramadan el-Sayed, in La Déese Neith de Saïs I notes that the post-pharaonic Egyptian author, Horapollo, states in his Hieroglyhica Neith is the "superior sky, the most pure, and Mut is the inferior sky." ("…passage faisant penser à la philosophie obscure pour nous d'Horapollon selon lequel Neith était considérée comme le ciel supérieur, le plus pur, et Mout le ciel inférieur." p. 70).
22. In The God Ptah, Maj. Sandman-Holmberg, notes in Memphis there existed the epithet for a deity called xnt-Tnn.t, "he who is at the head of The elevated place," referring to the Memphite primeval mound (Tnn.t). Sandman-Holmberg notes the epithet exists both independently in the First Intermediate Period, and as an epithet for Neith as the "mistress of The elevated place." Once again, this may refer to the goddess as the feminine deity of Memphis, as other deities are worshipped in the location in Memphis referred to as Tnn.t. Later the epithet comes to refer to Ptah, in his mode as the "head of the Kingdom of Death" in the New Kingdom. (The God Ptah, M. Sandman-Holmberg, Lund., 1946), p. 218.
Recitation of the Lord of the Limit, which he spoke after he developed:
For my part, the fact is that I developed as Developer.
When I developed, development developed.
All development developed after I developed,
developments becoming many in emerging from my mouth*,
without the sky having developed,
without the earth having developed,
without the ground or snakes having been created in that place
It was out of the Waters, out of inertness, that I became tied together in them,
Without having found a place in which I could stand.
I became effective in my heart, I surveyed with my face.**
*Allen argues all creation begins from Atum as the primordial Monad, the first created being. Yet, by the reading of this text, its review of Atum’s first actions, it seems a "creator" has spoken the development of Atum himself, for Atum speaks that he/she has not yet become "effective" (self-realized, or akh, using Allen’s argument) at this point of his/her ‘development.’ This author argues that the act of development, by conscious thought, "…development…emerging from [the] mouth…", is the sign of Neith as creator rather than from the self-described passive Atum prior to his action ("having found a place in which I could stand…") and self-realization as he "became effective" (as denoted by **). See also the Cenotaph of Seti I, where the act of creation of the sun is referred to as "becoming effective again," and the "place of becoming effective" for this existent deity is that portion of the sky (the Akhet) where Neith recreates the Sun daily (Genesis in Egypt, p. 6,and Note 19, supra.)
From this, and from the later epithets and self-attributes assigned to Neith as a creator ("I am that which is, which shall be, and which has been. None ever uplifted my garment.*** The fruit which I brought forth was the sun." Proclus, In Timaeum, I, 30), one can see that Neith’s mysterious and indefinite quality as a creator is similar to that of the Deity in Genesis 1: 6-7, and in the attributes of the Logos of John.
*** Alternately translated as "None ever uplifted my veil." This matches Plutarch’s account of Neith’s attributes (De Iside and Osiride, § 10), and is the source of the association with Athena, with whom Neith was identified by the Greeks, also a "veiled" goddess.
24. Lana Troy has argued from the representation of the Hmswt in the scene from the Holy Wedding at Deir el-Bahri the kA and Hmswt represent the androgynous nature of the creative force, noting in this scene the usual colors for male and female are reversed, and the uterine imagery (of enclosing upraised arms) is associated with the (male-represented) kA and the phallic imagery (of crossed arrows) is associated with the Hmswt. (Patterns of Queenship, p. 19).
I have gone up in Pe to the gods of Pe.
I am girded as Horus, I am adorned as the Two Enneads,*
I appear as King, I am on high as Wepwawet,
I have assumed the White Crown and the Green Crown, **
My mace is in my hand, my sceptre is in my fist.
My mother is Isis, my nurse is Nephthys,
She who suckled me is the Sx.At-hr cow,
Neith is behind me, and Selket is before me.
*This may refer to the Great and Lesser Enneads, or the two Enneads of Egypt. For more information on the Enneads as dualities, and as personifications, see: Lana Troy, "The Ennead: The Collective as Goddess," The Religion of the Egyptians: Cognitive Structures and Popular Expressions, Boreas 20, Acta Univ., Uppsala, 1989, pp. 59-69.
** For a discussion on the Green Crown in reference to the Crown of Lower Egypt, see Gustave Lefebvre, "Rouge and Nuances Voisines," JEA 35:73.
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