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Nephthys – Ancient Egyptian Goddess of Death, Darkness, and Strength

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

Nephthys is one of the Egyptian goddesses of the great Ennead of Heliopolis, a group of nine ancient Egyptian deities principally worshipped by the priests of that city located where the Nile valley opens into the Nile delta.

As is the case with most ancient Egyptian gods, Nephthys' role grew and changed over the centuries. While the goddess was never as important as her sister Isis, of whom she was considered a dark mirror image, Nephthys was an extremely important goddess throughout the history of ancient Egypt.

Nephthys is the guardian goddess of the spaces "in-between", especially night, darkness, and dangerous frontier spaces, such as the edge of the eastern desert. She also has power at the edge between life and death. The goddess played an important role in the resurrection of Osiris and acted as a protector during the journey to the afterlife. The Egyptian goddess could also be an intermediary between the living and the dead.

Like her sister Isis, Nephthys is a powerful worker of magic and a benevolent protector. As well as being called on by mortals for protection, she protects the barge of the sun god Atum-Ra from Apophis with her brother-husband Set. In this way, the goddess ensured that light returned to the world of the ancient Egyptians each day.

Image of Nephthys with outstretched wings from Egyptian wall painting
Image of Nephthys with outstretched wings from Egyptian wall painting

Nephthys - Goddess of Ancient Egypt

Nephthys is one of the oldest and most important deities in ancient Egypt. While modern scholars initially believed that she had no independent temples, it has now been shown that the goddess had myriad cult centers around the country dating from as early as the predynastic period (6000-3150 BC) to as late as the Ptolemaic period (323-30 BC).

Nephthys seems to have been of great importance and widely worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. But today the goddess is overshadowed by her sister Isis, who was imported into ancient Greece and then Rome, while Nephthys did not enjoy popularity outside the Nile valley.

The goddess' main cult centers were at Heliopolis, Senu, Hebet, Per-Met, Re-Nefert, Hek-Sekem, Punodjem, Supermeru, and Herakleopolis.

The goddess' cult at Punodjem was so popular that one of her priests complained about his heavy workload. Her cult center at Herakleopolis became the site for an important festival to rejuvenate the life force of the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Under Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC), during New Kingdom Egypt, Nephthys was so popular that she had an independent temple in the holy precinct at Supermeru. The goddess also often appears in texts without reference to the other Egyptian deities with which she was associated.

Along with Ptah-Tanen, Nephthys was often used to represent Lower Egypt, while her sister Isis and the god Khnum represented Upper Egypt.

Nephthys - Goddess of the Ennead

Nephthys is a member of the Ennead of Heliopolis, which links her to many other important ancient Egyptian deities, and also places her within one of the Egyptian creation myths. The ancient Egyptians believed in different creation myths supported by different cult centers. The other most popular creation myths belong to the centers at Hermopolis and Memphis.

Major Cult Centers of Ancient Egypt

While people in different parts of Egypt worshipped different gods, as individual cities rose in political importance, their gods also rose in importance.

Heliopolis, the home of the Ennead, was an important religious center from the pre-dynastic period and thrived during the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom.

Hermopolis, where Thoth was the main deity, was also a major religious center from the Old Kingdom and rose to prominence several times until the Roman period.

Thebes, near the border with Nubia and the eastern desert rather than near the Delta, was often the capital of unified Egypt from the First Intermediate Period through to the Third Intermediate Period. There Amun reigned supreme.

Memphis was important from the Early Dynastic Period onwards but was particularly prominent during Late Period Egypt. Ptah was the patron deity of Memphis.

When the Macedonians took control of Egypt, they made their capital at Alexandria. There they principally worshipped Serapis, a synchronistic deity derived from Osiris and the Apis bull, and which also took on various Greek attributes.

Map of ancient Egypt's major cult centers
Map of ancient Egypt's major cult centers

Heliopolis Creation Myth

According to the Heliopolis Egyptian mythology, in the beginning, there was nothing. But soon a primordial mound known as the ben-ben emerged from the chaos, and the god Atum (or Atum-Ra) was standing upon it. The god soon became lonely in the isolated nothingness and so mated with his own shadow to produce two children Shu, god of the air, and Tefnut, goddess of moisture.

But Atum's children did not hang around to keep their father company. Instead, they went off to try and do their own creating, without much success. Atum soon missed them and removed one of his eyes and sent it into the world to find them. Shu and Tefnut did return with the eye. Atum cried in such happiness that when his tears fell on ben-ben, mankind was created.

These fragile creatures had nowhere to live, so Shu and Tefnut mated and created Geb, god of the earth, and Nut, goddess of the sky. This brother and sister soon fell deeply in love and became inseparable. This angered Atum for some reason and he separated the two, never allowing them to touch again. But the goddess Nut was already pregnant and gave birth to five children: Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus the Elder.

According to the Egyptian priests at Heliopolis, Atum placed Osiris, along with his sister-consort Isis, in charge of the realm of reality. Together they taught mankind how to live and care for themselves, creating an Egyptian society that prospered and flourished.

Drawing of the Ennead of Heliopolis
Drawing of the Ennead of Heliopolis

Death and Resurrection of Osiris

There are various versions of what happens next in the myth, but they agree that Set soon grew jealous of the position of his brother Osiris and coveted it for himself. According to some versions of Egyptian mythology, Set convinced his sister-wife Nephthys to seduce Osiris. For this purpose, the goddess used her magic to take on the appearance and scent of her sister and lured him into her bed chamber. When he left the next morning, Osiris left behind a flower that he wore in his hair, providing evidence of his "betrayal".

Set then tricked his older brother by creating a beautiful coffin-shaped casket that was richly decorated and perfectly sized for Osiris. At a party, he said that he would give the casket to whomever it fit best. When Osiris entered to check the measurement, Set killed Osiris, slammed the casket shut, and threw his body into the Nile river.

Set assumed Osiris' position as absolute monarch of the realm of reality with Nephthys as his consort.

Isis went in search of the body of her husband and eventually found it. She confided in her sister Nephthys where she had hidden the body. Set suspected that Isis would do this, and convinced Nephthys to tell him where Osiris' body was. He then found the body, chopped it up, and hid the pieces all over Egypt.

Regretting her role in this, Nephthys then helped Isis retrieve the body parts and reconstruct the body of Osiris. She then helped Isis conduct the required magical rituals to bring Osiris back to life.

But as Osiris had already passed, he was restored to a kind of half-life, which is why he appears with green skin. The sisters had to create the afterlife for Osiris to dwell in. This also became an afterlife for the Egyptian people.

But Isis was also able to mate with Osiris and produce a son (Horus). He eventually challenged his uncle Set and the pair engaged in a series of challenges to be judged by the other gods to determine who should rule Egypt. It took 80 years, but Horus was eventually declared the winner.

Set was given domain over the desert as compensation.

Isis and Nephthys as vultures attending Osiris
Isis and Nephthys as vultures attending Osiris

Nephthys - Goddess of the In-Between

According to Egyptian mythology, when Horus gained dominion over the mortal realm, Set was given dominion over the chaotic deserts. Nephthys had to occupy the space between the two. The goddess was an advisor and wet nurse for her nephew Horus, but also remained the consort of Set. This placed her in the liminal space between order and chaos.

The goddess is also considered a darker mirror image of her sister Isis, who represents light and order, and as such is linked with darkness, shadows, and dangerous places.

The goddess is associated with the sunset when brightness fades into shadows and had the power to illuminate that which is hidden when the moon reigns. Prayers for protection were often made to her at sunset.

During the night, alongside her consort Set, the goddess protects the barge of the sun god Ra from the serpent god Apophis, ensuring that the sun survives the night to light the world again.

Rituals for Nephthys are often best conducted at sunset when the goddess becomes dominant over other deities in her pantheon. They can be conducted in “between” places such as gateways. Rituals can be conducted during the Full Moon to reveal things that are hidden, while other rituals can be conducted during the New Moon for internal journeys of self-discovery.

Drawing imagining a winged Nephthys under the full moon
Drawing imagining a winged Nephthys under the full moon

Nephthys - Protector of Atum-Ra

While Nephthys plays an important role in the myth of Osiris, she was an important goddess before this myth became popular across ancient Egypt.

During the Old Kingdom (2613-2181 BC), the ancient Egyptians believed that Nephthys and her brother-husband Set protected the barge of the sun god Atum-Ra from the serpent god Apophis, who attacks it each night at sunset. Thus, she and Set, later set as villains (although Nephthys redeems herself) were heroes in this story from Egyptian mythology.

The role of protecting the sun barge was so important that during the late Egyptian period, Nephthys was joined on the barge by several other goddesses in this role.

Nephthys - Funerary Goddess

In the story of Osiris, while Nephthys is initially a bit of a villain, she eventually redeems herself by helping Isis restore Osiris. As a result of this, the goddess became a funerary deity alongside Isis and Osiris.

The role of these deities was always important because the Egyptians believed that the Pharaoh had to be properly embalmed to pass into the next life. But they became even more popular at the end of the Old Kingdom and the start of the First Intermediate Period when it was believed that all Egyptian men and women could pass into the afterlife with the proper funerary rituals.

Nephthys played an important role in the embalming process, particularly in the removal and preservation of the organs. She is one of four goddesses depicted in the tomb of Tutankhamun to protect his canopic jars along with Isis, Selket, and Neith. The linen used to embalm the dead was known as the "tresses of Nephthys".

But Nephthys' role in the myth does not end with the resurrection of Osiris. She also acts as a milk nurse to the young Osiris. In some stories, Nephthys is also the mother of the funerary god Anubis, but in others, she is barren, and therefore completely dedicated to her nephew. The goddess' supposed barrenness is also why Nephthys was associated with vultures, as the ancient Egyptians believed that they could not give birth.

Through this life-giving milk, Nephthys nourished Horus. Since the Pharaoh is the human embodiment of Horus, the goddess therefore also nourishes the Pharaoh, making her an important patron of the Egyptian royal family. This associates her with the complete lifecycle. The goddess nourishes new life with her milk and accompanies a person as they transition from this life to the next.

Nephthys can be approached to provide nourishment and strength to face life’s challenges. Beer can be drunk as a representation of the strengthening force of the goddess. The Egyptians often prayed to Nephthys to ensure plentiful beer supplies and protect against hangovers.

Do you know Nephthys Stout from the Pyramid Brewing Company?

Isis and Nephthys supporting the Pharaoh represented as Osiris
Isis and Nephthys supporting the Pharaoh represented as Osiris

Nephthys - Friend of the Dead

As beliefs around the afterlife expanded in popular Egyptian culture, Nephthys' role was expanded. She was seen as the goddess who accompanied a person on their journey into the afterlife, as they had to pass a series of challenges to have their heart weighted and be accepted on the other side. The ancient Egyptian believed that those who did not pass judgment were devoured by a demon and became nothing.

The Egyptians believed that Nephthys used her powerful magic to protect the recently dead as they passed upon this journey. The goddess could also pass messages from these recently deceased to loved ones left behind in the world of the living.

The widespread adoption of funerary religious ceremonies in Egypt is reflected by the Berlin Papyrus 3008, which belonged to a middle-class Egyptian woman called Tentruty who lived during Late Period Egypt.

The papyrus is a personal copy of the Book of the Dead written in Hieratic Egyptian script, which was a cursive form of writing used day-to-day in ancient Egypt. It records the Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys to ensure the resurrection of Osiris. Professional mourners in ancient Egypt were often known as the "hawks of Nephthys".

In the text, Nephthys is described as the eternal bodyguard of Osiris, pointing to her role as the protector of those in the afterlife.

The papyrus states that the rituals should be conducted in a secluded place where no outsiders can see or hear what is happening. It requires the presence of two women and mandates that they hold vessels of water in one hand and loaves of bread in the other.

Isis and Nephthys as priestesses
Isis and Nephthys as priestesses

Nephthys - Protective Goddess

Nephthys was a protector of the dead, a protector of Atum-Ra, and was also called on for protection by the living. For this reason, she was known by the Egyptians as the "helpful goddess". Perhaps the goddess was willing to be of aid in a continued effort to make up for her role in the death of Osiris.

Many amulets in the shape of the likeness of Nephthys survive in the Egyptian archaeological record, and the goddess is summoned to provide aid by many Egyptians using magical papyri.

While Nephthys is benevolent, she is also ferocious. The goddess is capable of incinerating enemies with her fiery breath, and she is one of the few beings that causes demons to tremble with fear. Her magic has the power to help an individual navigate this life, and the next.

Nephthys is often represented with falcon wings outstretched in protection. This is a powerful symbol to incorporate into altars honoring the goddess.

Nephthys - Lady of the Temple

While Nephthys is the name most used for the goddess today, it is the Latin version of the ancient Egyptian language name Nebet-hut. Her name means “Lady of the Temple”, and she was often associated with temple rites and the role of the priestess.

She represents the pylons that guard the gateways of temples in ancient Egypt, as she is also the goddess of thresholds and passageways. The goddess often appears with a pylon on her head, and the hieroglyphs for her name, a combination of the symbol for sacred temple enclosures, hwt, and the symbol for nb “mistress”. You can see her name in Egyptian hieroglyphic writing below.

Nephthys behind Anubis with her heiroglyph cartouche
Nephthys behind Anubis with her heiroglyph cartouche

During certain rituals, Egyptian priestesses would assume the roles of Nephthys and Isis, the divine priestesses. The priests of Egypt called on the two goddesses to sanctify spaces at the start of their rituals.

Those looking for an equivalent goddess to Nephthys in ancient Greece could choose Hestia, as she presided over all sacrifices. She is also a virgin and could create fire. Nephthys was also described as being able to breathe fire. The Greeks and Romans often gave the foreign gods that they encountered Greek forms or Roman names to integrate them into their polytheistic pantheons.

Nephthys is often worshipped by practitioners pursuing the calling of the priestess and looking to feel and discover their own rituals. She can be invoked on the altar with a small statuette of a pillar or with her hieroglyphs.

Ancient statuette of Nephthys
Ancient statuette of Nephthys

Nephthys the Witch

The goddess' association with ritual magic, the formidable magical prowess that she displays, plus her association with dark and dangerous places, mean that she is often associated with witchcraft by modern pagans and sought out as a teacher of the art.

While Isis represents the formal magic of the established order in Egypt, Nephthys works on the fringes, like the hedge witch. Like many witches, the goddess is often sidelined and her importance overlooked, but she is both important and powerful.

Her association with the night in Egyptian mythology means that she has a strong link with the moon and its cycles and can be a companion in nighttime rituals. Connections with the goddess may be especially potent during the new moon when we plant our intentions.

Nephthys is associated with the sign of Virgo, which is an Earth sign, but the goddess is also associated with the element of Air.

Magic and Witchcraft in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians are also known to have practiced witchcraft. Initially, priests were the only respected magical practitioners in ancient Egypt. They worked on behalf of the Pharaohs to ensure their health and protect the country from problems such as plagues. But by the time of New Kingdom Egypt, private witches and magicians were also common.

Witches and magicians worked magic by linking themselves to a certai

n god or goddess. This granted these human beings power usually reserved for the divine. This manifested in a variety of practices including spell casting, amulets, alchemy, astrology, astronomy, and the creation of herbal medicines.

Written spells were considered the most powerful since the Egyptian people were broadly literate and these spells could be consulted and passed on to others. This is why we see copies of the Book of the Dead written in the common script.

Egyptian magic practitioners used wands to help them summon a god, goddess, or other magical being and focus their power. These were often made of ivory and were thought to take on the energy of whatever touched them, and so should never be touched by the ill.

Nephthys and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was created in the 19th century by modern magical practitioners. They draw many of their beliefs and ritual magic practices from ancient Egyptian traditions.

Within this ritual magic tradition, Nephthys represents power in the form of an Imperatrix. The goddess' colors are red and green and she bears a red phoenix wand or a red sword. Members of the Order would adopt the forms of various Egyptian deities, especially those of the Ennead of Heliopolis, during their grading ceremonies.

In the Archangel Oracle Tarot and the Anubus Tarot, inspired by the gods of ancient Egypt, Nephthys serves as the High Priestess in the Major Arcana.

She is described as a hidden or veiled goddess who serves as the intermediary between different worlds. She is highly intuitive and often brings realizations in dreams, flashes, and visions. She is considered a virgin, despite being the mother of Anubis.

When the goddess appears in a reading it is a sign to trust your intuition and your subconscious mind. She can shine a light on dark problems and challenges.

Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys - Full Text Translation

Text translated from Berlin Papyrus 3008, from ancient Egypt in the Ptolemaic period.

Recitation of blessings made by the Two Sisters in the house of Osiris-Khentamenti, the great god, lord of Abydos, in the fourth month of Inundation, day 25, when the same is done in every place of Osiris, at every feast of his:

To bless his ba [soul], steady his body, exalt his ka [astral self], give breath to the nose of him who lacks breath.

To soothe the heart of Isis and Nephthys, place Horus on his father's throne, and give life-stability-dominion to the Osiris Tentruty, born of Tekhao, called Persis, the justified.

It benefits the doer as well as the gods. Recitation:

Isis speaks, she says:

Come to your house, come to your house!

You of On, come to your house,

Your foes are not!

O good musician, come to your house!

Behold me, I am your beloved sister,

You shall not part from me!

O good youth, come to your house!

Long, long have I not seen you.

My heart mourns for you, my eyes seek you,

I search for you to see you!

Come to your beloved, come to your beloved!

Wennefer, justified, come to your sister!

Come to your wife, come to your wife,

Weary-hearted, come to your house-mistress!

I am your sister by your mother,

You shall not leave me!

Gods and men look for you,

Weep for you together.

While I can see you I call to you

Weeping to the height of heaven!

But you do not hear my voice,

Though I am your sister whom you loved on earth,

You loved none but me, the sister, the sister.

Nephthys speaks, she says:

O good King, come to your house!

Please your heart, all your foes are not!

Your Two Sisters beside you guard your bier,

Call for you in tears!

Turn around on your bier!

See the women, speak to us!

King, our Lord, drive all pain from our hearts.

Your court of gods and men beholds you,

Show them your face, King our Lord!

Our faces live by seeing your face!

Let your face not shun our faces!

Our hearts are glad to see you, King.

Our hearts are happy to see you!

I am Nephthys, your beloved sister!

Your foe is fallen, he shall not be!

I am with you, your body-guard,

For all eternity.

Isis speaks, she says:

Ho, you of On, you rise for us daily in heaven!

We cease not to see your rays!

Thoth, your guard, raises your ba,

In the day-bark in this your name of "Moon".

I have come to see your beauty in the Horus-Eye

In your name of "Lord-of the sixth-day-feast".

Your courtiers beside you shall not leave you,

You conquered heaven by your majesty's might,

In this your name of "Lord-of-the-fifteenth-day-feast".

You rise for us like Ra every day,

You shine for us like Atum,

Gods and men live by your sight.

As you rise for us you light the Two Lands,

Lightland is filled with your presence;

Gods and men look to you,

No evil befalls them when you shine.

As you cross the sky your foes are not,

I am your guard every day!

You come to us as child in moon and sun,

We cease not to behold you!

Your sacred image, Orion in heaven,

Rises and sets every day;

I am Sothis who follows him,

I will not depart from him!

The noble image issued from you

Nourishes gods and men,

Reptiles and herds live by it.

You flow from your cavern for us in your time,

Pouring out water to your ba,

Making offerings to your ka,

To nourish gods and men alike.

Ho, my Lord! There is no god like you!

Heaven has your ba, earth your form,

Netherworld is filled with your secrets,

Your wife is your guard,

Your son Horus rules the land!

Nephthys speaks, she says:

O, good king, come to your house!

Wennefer, justified, come to Djedet,

O lusty bull, come to Anpet!

O lover of women, come to Hat-mehyt,

Come to Djedet, the place your ba loves!

The ba's of your fathers are your companions,

Your young son Horus, the sisters' child, is before you;

I am the light that guards you every day,

I will not leave you ever!

O you of On, come to Sais,

"Saite" is your name;

Come to Sais to see your mother Neith,

Good child, you shall not part from her.

Come to her breasts that overflow,

Good brother, you shall not part from her!

O my son, come to Sais!

Osiris Tentruty, called Nyny, born of Persis, justified.

Come to Sais, your city!

Your place is the Palace,

You shall rest forever beside your mother!

She protects your body, repels your foes,

She will guard your body forever!

O good King, come to your house,

Lord of Sais, come to Sais!

Isis speaks, she says:

Come to your house, come to your house,

Good King, come to your house!

Come, see your son Horus

As King of gods and men!

He has conquered towns and nomes

By the greatness of his glory!

Heaven and earth are in awe of him,

The Bow-land is in dread of him.

Your court of gods and men is his

In the Two lands, in doing your rites;

Your Two Sisters beside you libate to your ka,

Your son Horus presents you offerings

Of bread, beer, oxen, and fowl.

Thoth recites your liturgy,

And calls you with his spells;

The Sons of Horus guard your body,

And daily bless your ka.

Your son Horus, champion of your name and your shrine,

Makes oblations to your ka;

The gods, with water-jars in their hands,

Pour water to your ka.

Come to your courtiers, King our Lord!

Do not part from them!

Lo, He Comes!

Some Other Important Egyptian Deities

  • Amun - creator god and patron of Thebes

  • Anubis - god of the dead and the underworld

  • Aten - sun disk god associated with monotheistic Atenism

  • Atum - creator god of the Ennead of Heliopolis

  • Bastet - protector goddess associated with cats

  • Geb - earth god

  • Hapi - god of the Nile flood

  • Hathor - goddess of sexuality and motherhood

  • Horus - sky god of kingship

  • Isis - goddess of motherhood, protection, funerary rites, and magic

  • Khephri - solar god and creator deity

  • Khnum - ram god and patron of Elephantine

  • Khonsu - moon god

  • Maat - goddess of truth, justice, and order

  • Mut - consort of Amun, goddess of Thebes

  • Neith - creator and hunter goddess

  • Nut - goddess of the sky

  • Osiris - god of the underworld

  • Ptah - creator god, craftsman, and patron of Memphis

  • Ra - sun god

  • Sekhmet - lion-headed goddess, consort of Ptah

  • Set - god of violence, chaos, and the desert

  • Shu - god of wind and air

  • Sobek - crocodile god

  • Tefnut - goddess of moisture

  • Thoth - god of the moon, writing, and scribes patron of Hermopolis

  • Wadjet - cobra goddess

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