At the time of the Fifth Dynasty Pyramid Texts, Nephthys appears as a goddess of the Heliopolitan Ennead. She is the sister of Isis and companion of the war-like deity, Set. As sister of Isis and especially Osiris, Nephthys is a protective goddess who symbolizes the death experience, just as Isis represented the (re-)birth experience.
"Ascend and descend; descend with Nephthys, sink into darkness with the Night-bark. Ascend and descend; ascend with Isis, rise with the Day-bark."
Pyramid Text Utterance 222 line 210.
In the funerary role, Nephthys often was depicted as a bird of prey called a kite, or as a woman with falcon wings, usually outstretched as a symbol of protection. Nephthys's association with the kite or the Egyptian hawk (and its piercing, mournful cries) evidently reminded the ancients of the lamentations usually offered for the dead by wailing women. In this capacity, it is easy to see how Nephthys could be associated with death and putrefaction in the Pyramid Texts. She was, almost without fail, depicted as crowned by the hieroglyphics signifying her name, which were a combination of signs for the sacred temple enclosure (hwt), along with the sign for neb, or mistress (Lady), on top of the enclosure sign.
Nephthys was clearly viewed as a morbid-but-crucial force of heavenly transition, i.e., the Pharaoh becomes strong for his journey to the afterlife through the intervention of Isis and Nephthys. The same divine power could be applied later to all of the dead, who were advised to consider Nephthys a necessary companion. According to the Pyramid Texts, Nephthys, along with Isis, was a force before whom demons trembled in fear, and whose magical spells were necessary for navigating the various levels of Duat, as the region of the afterlife was termed.
It should here be noted that Nephthys was not necessarily viewed as the polar opposite of Isis, but rather as a different reflection of the same reality: eternal life in transition. Thus, Nephthys was also seen in the Pyramid Texts as a supportive cosmic force occupying the night-bark on the journey of Ra, the majestic sun god, particularly when he entered Duat at the transitional time of dusk, or twilight. Isis was Ra's companion at the coming of dawn.
Nephthys and Set
Though it commonly has been assumed that Nepthys was married to Set, recent Egyptological research has called this into question. Levai notes that while Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride mentions the deity's marriage, there is very little specifically linking Nephthys and Set in the original early Egyptian sources. She argues that the later evidence suggests that:
while Nephthys’s marriage to Set was a part of Egyptian mythology, it was not a part of the myth of the murder and resurrection of Osiris. She was not paired with Seth the villain, but with Seth’s other aspect, the benevolent figure who was the killer of Apophis. This was the aspect of Set worshiped in the western oases during the Roman period, where he is depicted with Nephthys as co-ruler.
The Saving Sister of Osiris
Nephthys plays an important role in the Osirian myth-cycle.
It is Nephthys who assists Isis in gathering and mourning the dismembered portions of the body of Osiris, after his murder by the envious Set. Nephthys also serves as the nursemaid and watchful guardian of the infant Horus. The Pyramid Texts refer to Isis as the "birth-mother" and to Nephthys as the "nursing-mother" of Horus. Nephthys was attested as one of the four "Great Chiefs" ruling in the Osirian cult-center of Busiris, in the Delta (cf. The Book of the Dead, Theban Recension) and she appears to have occupied an honorary position at the holy city of Abydos. No cult is attested for her there, though she certainly figured as a goddess of great importance in the annual rites conducted, wherein two chosen females or priestesses played the roles of Isis and Nephthys and performed the elaborate 'Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys'. There, at Abydos, Nephthys joined Isis as a mourner in the shrine known as the Osireion (cf.Byron Esely Shafer, Dieter Arnold, Temples in Ancient Egypt, p. 112, 2005). These "Festival Songs of Isis and Nephthys" were ritual elements of many such Osirian rites in major ancient Egyptian cult-centers.
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