Nephthys, Egyptian Goddess of the Night and Protectress of the Dead

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AI image of Egyptian goddess, Nephthys.

Nephthys, Egyptian Goddess of the Night and Protectress of the Dead

Perhaps one of the most mysterious and elusive deities of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, Nephthys was known as the shadowy goddess of the night, of death and decay. She was the dark sister of Isis, wife of Seth, mother to Anubis, and a member of the Great Ennead of nine, the first gods, those who reigned supreme. Like many goddesses, she was of otherworldly beauty, often displayed with majestic wings, symbolizing her relationship to the hawk or kite and her protective nature.

Her true name was Nebthwt, represented in the crown she wore atop her head, the house and basket. These hieroglyphic symbols translate to “Lady of the House,” or more appropriately, “Lady of the Temple.” As such, her image can be found at sacred sites, carved into the pylons that protect the inner sanctum. She was the protector of the body as well, portrayed along with her sister in tombs and on sarcophagi. Together, they were often depicted as guardians of the head and feet, standing at either end of a funerary bier. As complimentary opposites, they both ensured the dead would be mourned and their afterlife successful.

A Captivating Family Drama

As a fourth-generation goddess, Nephthys was born from the sky, Nut, and the earth, Geb. Alongside her were Osiris, Seth, Isis, and the elder Horus. Osiris ruled over Egypt with his wife, Isis, and in perfect opposition, Seth wed Nephthys. Though, it was not an ideal marriage. After all, Seth was the god of chaos and storms, whose thoughtless actions cause irreparable damage. Presumably, their marriage was never consummated, as Plutarch refers to the wife of Typhon (Seth) as, “an imitation of a woman,” barren and unfertile like the desert.

A painted shroud showing Nephthys. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A painted shroud showing Nephthys. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Keith Schengili-Roberts / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Nevertheless, Nephthys managed to find warmth and adoration with her sister, Isis, and Osiris. The three lived together, having an extraordinarily close bond. However, that bond would eventually be tested when Nephthys acted out of foolish desire. As the story goes, she had gotten Osiris drunk and seduced him. Given that the sisters had a striking resemblance, his intoxicated state led him to believe he was sleeping with his wife. Isis was devastated, and to make matters worse, Nephthys became pregnant.

The pregnancy was hidden from Seth, and for good reason. When time came to give birth, Nephthys, out of shame and fear, sadly abandoned her baby boy. Luckily, Isis stumbled upon him while intuitively following the guidance of jackals and other wild dogs. Saving him from an untimely demise, she became his caregiver, raising him as her own. He would later become the god of the dead, Anubis. Nephthys repaid her sister for her generosity by nursing baby Horus, son of Isis and god of kings.

To add more melodramatics, Seth and Osiris were perpetually at odds. Seth, in all his spite and envy, tricked Osiris into a box, which he then locked and tossed into the Nile, leaving Osiris for dead. Isis retrieved his body and asked Nephthys to guard it while she gathered the supplies needed for resurrection. Despite all her efforts, she inevitably failed in protecting Osiris. Seth ripped his lifeless body apart, scattering his remains across Egypt. Going against her estranged husband, Nephthys vowed to do everything within her power for the ones she truly loved. Never did she falter as she helped Isis find Osiris and bring him back; but the damage was done, Osiris ended up ruling the underworld. His son, Horus, would then rule the living, not without a fight from Seth, of course.

Image of Osiris from the Tomb of Nefertari.

Image of Osiris from the Tomb of Nefertari. ( mursal / Public Domain)

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