Nekhbet, the patron goddess of Upper Egypt in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon, and protector of the Pharaoh, is perhaps one of the most instantly recognizable of all the gods, and her image has become almost a trademark for Egyptian culture, and the imagery associated with her has inspired the symbolism of state power ever since.
Nekhbet can be clearly traced back to the pre-dynastic period as the chief deity of Nekheb, an Upper Egyptian city whose site today is known as Elkab. Although the city itself was the relatively unimportant, though extremely ancient, regional capital of Ten, the third Upper Egyptian sepat/nome. It was located directly across the river from its twin city, Nekhen, a city that is likewise extremely ancient and was a Pre-Dynastic capital city of Upper Egypt that retained an important position throughout much of Egyptian history. Nekhbet’s status in this (then royal) city at such an early date led to her rise to lasting prominence and veneration.
Appearances and Associations
Nekhbet is almost most often portrayed as a vulture (specifically Vultur Auricularis) and is particularly distinctive, leading to her imagery to become synonymous with Ancient Egyptian culture, being seen in this guise on the ceilings of almost all Egyptian temples. She is often depicted holding the Sn (shen) hieroglyph in her claws, often along with other symbols of royalty. She is also sometimes depicted wearing an atef crown, particularly (though not exclusively) when pictured as an anthropomorphic female, when she also carries a staff displaying the Nile Lily, symbolic of Upper Egypt.
Occasionally she is seen in the form of her Lower Egyptian counterpart, Wadjet, as a serpent, though this is usually only with both deities are present and may be used symbolically or metaphorically for the unity of the two lands. Again, as a serpent she usually is depicted with her crown and Sn glyph, to differentiate her from Wadjet herself.
Associations and Prominence
Nekhbet was a high-profile goddess in the Per-dynastic and throughout the Pharoanic era. She is represented in almost every Egyptian temple, as well as having a very extensive cult centre of her own in Nekheb, which saw several temples and chapels dedicated to her from the Pre/Early-Dynastic era onwards right through to the Roman period.
Her main associations are as a protectress of the Pharaoh and as a patron goddess of Upper Egypt, a counterpart of Wadjet who was her dualistic counterpart, fulfilling the same role but representing Lower Egypt. As such for a long time she was very much a “God of Kings” of more significance to state religion and the ruler than to the common people. Even as far back as the Pyramid Texts, however, the maternal protective nature of Nekhbet is stressed, where she is described as a white cow (and occasionally depicted as such), which led to her entering common religion as a protective goddess of moherhood, and to her appearing in many personal amulets, both royal (some incredibly elaborate and significant) and personal. From this role it is only natural that she also came to be associated with child birth, further enhancing her standing in common religion.
It is unknown when Nekhbet lost her state role, though it certainly continued beyond the end of the Pharoanic era and well into Greco-Roman times. The Romans continued to endow Nekhbet’s cult, complete with a new temple, as the city of Nekheb continued to flourish, known in Latin as Lucinae Civitas. It is possible, therefore, that official reverence of Nekhbet continued up until the adoption of Christianity by the Roman empire, though it is likely her prominence dropped dramatically once official Pharaonic coronations ceased, at the end of the Ptolemaic era.
- Faulkner, R O (1969), The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Oxford University Press, Oxford
- Shaw, I et al. (2000), Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, Oxford
- 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