Neith, the patron goddess of Sais, and also one of the three main gods of Esna, is one of the earliest gods to have a centre of worship in Egypt. The fierce warrior goddess also had a softer side, however, and her influence extended far and wide.
There are clear attestations for worship of Neith at least as far back as the 1st Dynasty in her cult centre, Sais. However, her origins extend back into the Pre-Dynastic period, and may be the same archaic warrior goddess that gave rise to Tanit, Astarte and, less certainly, the Greek goddess Pallas-Athene, who possibly reached the Greek world via early trade with Crete. The Ptolemaic rulers lost no time in associating Neith with the patron goddess of Athens, noticing the similarities between the two.
Appearances and Associations
Because of her prominence since such early times, Neith has a wealth of associations, though her appearance is consistent.
During the New Kingdom Egypt was a cosmopolitan civilisation, with foreigners present at several sites, whom brought with them their local huntress/warrior goddess from the Levant, Ankt. She became assimilated into the Egyptian pantheon, merging with Neith, with whom she shared not only a similar (though more limited) role, but also the distinctive clutch of arrows as part of her symbolism.
In addition, Neith was also associated with the Four Sons of Horus (particularly Dua’Mutef), as the defender of the canopic chest, and had numerous other associations with the Osirian afterlife.
At Esna, where she was revered as part of a triad along with Khnum and Hak (their child). She was also associated with water through her name (nt being one term for water) and so became regarded as the personification of the primordial waters of chaos. This led to her being regarded as the mothers of both Ra and also of Sobek (as Sobek is often associated with the crocodile, this is a logical development), whilst
apep is also associated with her, it being stated he was created from her saliva.
It is probably as a result of this watery association that the Nile Perch fish also came to be associated her at this site, where it was held that she travelled downriver from the city with the fish to found the city of Sais.
Neith is most commonly depicted as an anthropomorphic female with either a shield and two crossed arrows, or the shuttle of a loom. She is also very occasionally depicted as a cow, usually when in her mother role, being described as the “Great Cow” or “Cow who gave birth to Ra”. She is also occasionally depicted as a lioness, doubtless due to her roles as huntress and warrior.
Roles and Prominence
Neith always played a prominent role in Egyptian religion, being one of the most prominent deities in the Early Dynastic period in Lower Egypt, around her home city of Sais. However, even before this, in the Pre-Dynastic era it appears that she played a prominent role as a goddess of hunting and warfare, and this aspect of her nature is very clear from her earliest appearances in Pharaonic culture, her shield and arrows emblem becoming the standard flag, as it were, for Sais throughout Egyptian history. It is within this city that her main temple was located, named the “House of the Bee”. The name eventually found it’s way, through Neith’s prominence as one of the tutelary goddesses of Lower Egypt, into the very heart of Egyptian culture as the “He of the Sedge and Bee” royal title. Her role as a patron goddess, and her association with the crown of Lower Egypt, is noted as far back as the Old Kingdom, being mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, along with her afterlife roles in assisting Nephthys and Isis in protecting Osiris, using her role as the inventor of weaving to provide the burial shroud and mummy wrappings for the dead god.
Her role in protecting the east side of the canopic chest and the Sons of Horus (particularly Dua’Mutef) can also be found in these texts. Another of her afterlife roles, being involved in the judging of the dead, is mentioned in the Coffin Texts, dating to the First Intermediate Period.
She is also mentioned as accompanying the deceased Pharaoh and Ra on the solar barque as it passes through the underworld, described in the texts The Book of Amduat.
Quite how she came to be so prominent in Upper Egypt is not quite clear, though it certainly benefited Neithh, however, who now ultimately gained the status of a creatrix, being described in Esna Temple as the mother of Ra and mother of all the gods, who spat at Nun.
Also in the Old Kingdom she was associated (loosely) as the wife of Set, though in the Contendings of Horus and Set she is noted as taking the side of Horus. From the Old Kingdom onward, she was also seen as the wife as Sobek, as well as his mother.
Always highly prominent, Neith featured quite prominently in royal names, any several queens were associated with her, including and queen of the Old Kingdom, Mery-Niet, father of Den, and possibly first female Pharaoh.
In the New Kingdom at Deir El Bahri, Neith is shown with Serket and Amun in the divine parentage scene of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple.
Neith’s prominence was boosted further still with the arrival of the particularly highly cultured Pharaoh’s of the 26th Dynasty, who themselves hailed from Sais. According to Herodotus, the lantern festival, held in her honour, was a major national celebration in the Late Period. Although the site of Sais has been largely destroyed, there is little doubt that the already quite prominent temple of Neith there would have been greatly embellished.
- Nurse Of The Crocodile
- The Cow Who Gave Birth To Ra
- The Great Cow
- Mother Of The Gods
- Opener Of The Ways
Neith’s cult continued to flourish well into the Ptolemaic era, during which time the Greeks associated her with Pallas-Athene, with whom she shares many characteristics. She plays a prominent role in the Roman era temple at Esna, which was one of the last major new temples constructed within Egypt, indicating that her cult remained prominent until the Roman era. Whether or not the surviving Egyptian tradition of the Fanus is a distant descendant of Neith’s lantern festival is uncertain. However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility, for the festival was recorded as a long established custom amongst the local population prior to arrival of Islam in Egypt.
- Gardiner, A (1957), Egyptian Grammar (3rd edition), Griffith Institute, Oxford
- Rollin, C (1844), The Ancient History: Containing the History of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Medes, Lydians, Carthaginians, Persians, Macedonians, the Seleucidae in Syria, and Parthians, Robert Carter, New York
- Wilkinson, R (2000), The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London
- Wilkinson, R (2003), The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London