Nephthys, the goddess of death


Would you like to know more about Nephthys, the protective goddess of the dead in Egyptian mythology? Understand her role in the murder of Osiris in the Egyptian "myth of Osiris"?

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Passionate about the legends of ancient Egypt, our team has prepared an article about the myths and legends around Nephthys.

Nephthys (or Nephtys), wife of Set, lover of Osiris, mother of Anubis, and sister of Isis, is an inescapable goddess of Egyptian mythology. Her key role in the myth of Osiris places her among the most important goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon.

In this article, you will discover:

  • The usefulness of Nephthys in Egyptian Mythology
  • Her role in the myth of Osiris
  • The cults dedicated to him in ancient Egypt

The story of the goddess Nephthys will soon have no more secrets for you.

1) Nephthys in ancient Egypt

In the time of ancient Egypt, Nephthys (or Nephtys) was a goddess known to all. Nephthys played a crucial role for the Egyptians because of her usefulness and her importance in the "cycle of life and death."

A) The Egyptian protective goddess of the dead

In Egyptian mythology, Nephthys is the guarantor of the protection of the dead. She is responsible for guarding the sarcophagi and the hearts of the dead. She is always accompanied in her mission by Hapi, the god who protects the lungs of the dead.

Nephthys was important in ancient Egypt because the state of preservation of the hearts and lungs of the recent dead was very significant for the family of the latter.

Indeed, if these organs were well preserved from time, it was commonly known that this would give more time to the souls of the dead to find the pleasant paradise of the god Osiris in the heavens of Egypt.

NephthysNephthys, represented here with a Was scepter (the scepter of the god Set), a falcon (the symbol of the god Horus), and her magic wings. As a great-granddaughter of the god of the Sun Ra, Nephthys also carries a solar disc on her head.

2) The myth of Osiris

Nephthys is part of the holy Ennead, a group of gods who appeared in the founding myth of the polytheistic Egyptian religion: the "myth of Osiris."

In the Ennead, we find the nine following gods: Ra (the creator Sun god), Shu (the god of air), Tefnut (the goddess of humidity), Geb (the god of the Earth), Nut (the goddess of the Milky Way), Osiris, Set, Isis and Nephthys.

A) The wife of Set

Before starting to talk to you about the role of Nephthys in the myth of Osiris, it seems that a brief contextualization is necessary.

The first Egyptian god to appear is Ra, the god of the Sun. He is at the origin of all the gods by the creation of the first two gods Nut (the goddess of heaven) and Geb (the god of earth).

From their union, Nut and Geb gave birth to two daughters, Isis and Nephthys, and two sons, Osiris and Set. Nephthys took her brother Set as his husband, while Osiris married Isis.

The Osirian myth rests largely on the fraternal jealousy of Set towards Osiris. The various documentations dating from ancient Egypt draw a very laudatory portrait of Osiris in comparison to his brother. Indeed, while Set represents the concept of evil, Osiris will represent the concepts of good and success.

Two events in particular fuelled this jealousy:

- Firstly, bewitched by the presence of Osiris, Nephthys disguised herself as Isis in order to charm him and have a child with him. From this adultery was born Anubis, illegitimate son of Osiris and Nephthys. The latter, fearing the anger of her husband Set, abandoned her child in the desert. It was finally Isis, afflicted by the unfortunate fate of the newborn, who found him and brought him up as her own child.

- According to his myth, Osiris is a profoundly just and wise person. His father decided to appoint him as successor to the throne of Egypt at the expense of his older brother, Set. Osiris therefore came to power as the first Egyptian pharaoh. In Egyptian ancient texts, Osiris is represented as a benevolent king who succeeds in everything he undertakes.

These two events arouse in Set a deep feeling of jealousy, which leads him to think of killing his brother.

This premeditated murder was perfectly orchestrated. At a banquet, Set promised to offer a priceless sarcophagus to the person who would be most comfortable in it. Cut to the size of Osiris, the latter was the only one who could fit inside it.

As soon as Osiris was inside, Set closed the lid of the coffin and threw it into the sea, causing his brother to drown. After an attempt by Isis to bring Osiris back to life, Set cut his brother's body into fourteen separate pieces and scattered them throughout the kingdom. Set then seized power and thus became the second Egyptian pharaoh.

However, accompanied by Nephthys and Anubis, Isis went in search of the pieces of her husband's body and made every effort to find them. They succeeded in gathering all the pieces of Osiris and putting them together. Using their powers of gods, Isis and Nephthys brought Osiris back to life.

Yet, Isis, Nephthys, and Anubis finally realize that a piece of the body of Osiris was missing. As a result, Osiris can no longer be the pharaoh of the living. Osiris thus becomes the king of the dead and leaves Egypt to begin his reign in the Duat, the Egyptian underworld.

Despite everything, this story does not end there, because the son of Osiris and Isis, the god Horus, will seek to avenge his father and recover power.

B) Set and Horus

Being the son of Osiris, Horus considers himself the legitimate heir to the throne of Egypt. Yet, his uncle Set does not agree and wishes to keep his throne.

They therefore asked the opinion of a divine jury composed of Ra (the god of the Sun), Thoth (the god of wisdom) and Shu (the deity of the air). This divine council is undecided and some more violent clashes between Set and Horus became inevitable. Thus, the two protagonists will face each other in different trials to decide between them.

However, the trials to decide between the two gods only end in draws. Yet, in the end, it was Horus who won the approval of the council of gods thanks to the help of his father, Osiris, who swung the verdict of the jurors in his favor. Indeed, for Osiris, Set had no right to reign because he came to power by committing fratricide, which deprived him of all legitimacy.

Thus, the story has a happy ending: Horus became king of Egypt and later married the goddess of beauty and love, Hathor. Set, no longer possessing the immunity conferred by his status as king of Egypt, was banished to the desert, his original kingdom.

Horus versus SethHorus finally triumphed over the evil husband of Nephthys, which in turn allowed him to accede to the throne of Egypt.

3) The symbol of the Egyptian goddess

We will now see how Nephthys is represented in ancient Egypt and the different cults attributed to her.

A) Egyptian symbols

The representations of Nephthys are multiple. The most common one represents Nephthys as a winged woman wearing two hieroglyphs meaning her name.

Under this representation, her large, dark wings recall her function as the transporter of the dead's souls to the Duat, the kingdom of Osiris.

Nephthys was also frequently depicted with a hawk's head or a kite's head (two sacred Egyptian animals whose both shrill cries recall the laments usually offered to the dead by the mourners of the family of the deceased).

MilanThe kite is one of the symbols associated with the goddess Nephthys. It is a hunting bird of prey of the raptor family, just like the falcon (the latter being however a sacred bird more attached to the god Horus and to the god Ra than to Nephthys).

Numerous representations of Nephthys were found on the sarcophagi at the level of the mummy's head they have contained. These representations were made to ask the protective goddess of the dead to watch over the deceased.

B) The cult of Nephthys

The Egyptians associated Nephthys very much with his sister Isis, both protectors of the dead. Nephthys and Isis were considered by ancient Egyptians as the only being able to guarantee a safe journey to the souls willing to reach the paradise of the god Osiris, the Duat.

The main sanctuary of Nephthys was in Heliopolis, located in the Nile Delta in Lower Egypt. She was also worshiped at the temple of Edfu where festivals were specially organized in her honor (even if this temple is also very dedicated to the falcon god Horus).

The pharaoh Ramses II was particularly attached to the attributes of Set and a temple of Nephthys was built in the city of Sepermeru, located close to the modern site of Deshasheh.

To the north of Sepermeru, is the city of Heracleopolis. The cult of Nephthys was very present in this city and archaeologists have found a 4 meters high statue of the goddess which is now exhibited in the Louvre museum, in Paris.

An Egyptian protective goddess

As you have seen, Nephthys is a goddess with many facets: guardian of Egyptian sarcophagi, symbol of death and night, and important actor in the myth of Osiris. All these elements make her a key figure in Egyptian mythology.

Thanks to this article, the secrets of the protective goddess of the dead no longer hold any mystery for you!

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