Neith – ‘The Great Mother’ and ‘Ruler of Arrows’


Figure 1: Bronze Figure of Neith EA11011 Late Period https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA11011

This week I am exploring the goddess Neith. I first became interested in this goddess at university when I got to pick a topic for an assignment on ancient Egypt mythology. Over my years studying I found that I enjoyed researching topics around gender, coffins and mythology just to name a few. It should then not be a surprise that as a young undergrad my mind went to the goddess Neith. Some of her titles included ‘mistress of the bows’ and ‘Ruler of the arrows.’ How could I not choose her? She brought immediately ideas of the Amazons, Boudica and other powerful women to mind.

Neith is considered one of the oldest deities of the ancient Egyptian pantheon and so there are a lot of facets to her mythology, iconography and worship. Her character is complex like the mythology that surrounds her. Although we do not have early examples of these myths she is still one of the most powerful deities whose roles encompasses aspects of life and death[1]. (Figure 1)

Iconography – From Click Beetle to Crown

Neith is often depicted as a woman wearing a tight dress and the red crown of Lower Egypt, reflecting her connection to the area, more specifically the city of Sais where her cult centre lay. However, given how old of a deity she is. She could at first have been depicted as an inanimate fetish made from a flag pole lashed to which was a pair of arrows (Figure 2).  

Figure 2: The temple of Neith from a Tag of Horus Aha from Abydos the fetish of Neith is circled.
Hendrickx, Stan. “Two Protodynastic Objects in Brussels and the Origin of the Bilobate Cult-Sign of Neith.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 82 (1996): 23-42. Accessed May 14, 2021. doi:10.2307/3822112. Page 31
Figure 3: Line Drawing of Gold capsule in the shape of a beetle with the fetish of Neith circled.
Hendrickx, Stan. “Two Protodynastic Objects in Brussels and the Origin of the Bilobate Cult-Sign of Neith.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 82 (1996): 23-42. Accessed May 14, 2021. doi:10.2307/3822112. Page 33

From the Early Dynastic period her symbol may have been a click beetle and later then reinterpreted to be two arrows crossed on a shield[2]. The click beetle is usually found near water. Given that Neith is linked to the creation of the world as they emerged from the waters of Nun which preceded and the creation deity Mehet-Weret whose titles included the great flood[3]. A connection to these watery beetles doesn’t seem to far fetched.  A gold foil click beetle, inlaid with Neith’s emblems was found in a first dynasty burial at Nag – el Deir (Figure 3/4). Given the shape of the click beetle some have theorized that is where the shield comes in to Neith’s iconography. However, Egyptian archers typical where not depicted with shields and so the rounded shape of the beetle is thought to be where the shield comes from alongside later connections made by Herodotus to the goddess Athena who wielded a sheild[4]

Figure 4: Beaded collar from the tomb of Impy at Giza G 2381 A the edge trimmed with golden click beatles. https://collections.mfa.org/objects/140709 Museum of Fine Art Boston 13.3086

With the introduction of the shield and arrows Neith’s status as a warrior is affixed. Although she is frequently depicted as carrying only the ‘was’ sceptre of power, the ‘ankh’ symbol of life and one of the hieroglyphs used to spell her name above her head[5].  In her role as mistress of the bows she is seen with the addition of set of arrows, a bow and sometimes a harpoon[6]. The addition of the red crown of Lower Egypt then came in the 5th Dynasty when she is depicted wearing it at the Temple of Userkaf at Aburgurob. (Figure 5/6)  

Figure 5 (Left) and 6 (Right( Neith in her different regalia
Figure 5) Neith in the tomb of Nefertari the , beetle, shield-like hieroglyph of her name above her head https://ancientegyptianfacts.com/neith-the-goddess-of-lower-egypt.html/image-of-neith-in-the-tomb-of-nefertiti
Figure 6) Neith as Mistress of Bows. Holding a set of bow and arrows ‘Was’ sceptre and the ankh http://www.kemet.org/taxonomy/term/100

Worship – The power of five

As I have said already there are a few different sides to Neith you can see that in just her iconography alone. But, now I am going to explore those sides a little bit more.

Neith – The eldest mother if the gods , who illuminated the first face’

At her cult centre in Sais Neith is rereferred to as the ‘Great Mother’. Her temple was one of ancient Egypt’s most famous buildings, although little of it still stands. Sais or Sa el –Hagar is located in the north of the country in the eastern part of the delta. It was said in that after she created the world Neith moved north and settled in Sais.  In this role as a creator she is said to have emerge out of the fertile primordial waters and given birth to Ra, the sun god, before childbirth was even a concept[7]. During the New Kingdom in the Contending’s of Horus and Seth she is considered again to have created man, being referred to as ‘The eldest mother of the gods, who illuminated the first face’[8]. In the Roman Times it was said that Neith also created Re and the sun god’s archenemy Apophis. Saying that Neith spat into the primeval waters and that it transformed into the chaos monster that was Apophis who nightly challenged the rule of the Sun god[9]. Others also say she created snakes and crocodiles in the same manner.

Figure 7: Amulet of Neith as Mother of Crocodiles British Museum EA7102 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA71026

Neith – ‘The Great Mother ‘

Naturally Neith’s connection to creation and motherhood share some similarities. With her being considered the creator of the world she is therefore naturally cast as the archetypal mother figure. Alongside being considered the mother of men she was also considered the mother of crocodiles and the crocodile god Sobek. At the site of Esna, she is given the title ‘the nurse of crocodiles’ and amulets have been found showing her suckling two large crocodiles one on each breast (Figure 7)[10].  I have got to say that the image of a women suckling two crocodile might be one of the stranger things I have seen from ancient Egypt.

Although there is a difference when it comes to Neith as a mother figure. Unlike most other goddess in the Egyptian pantheon, she does not appear to be consistently partnered with a male god. In this respect she may have been considered a more neutral deity not unlike Anat and or Athena[11]. Anat being the chief West Semitic goddess of love and war, the sister and helpmate of the god Baal[12].   

Funerary – One of the Protectors  

From the Old Kingdom Neith was associated with funerary beliefs. In the Pyramid Text spell 606 Neith is described as protecting the body of Osiris alongside Isis, Nephthys and Serket eventually this role shifting to all dead. These four goddesses wear also each assigned a side of the coffins, cardinal direction and the responsibility of protecting the four canopic jars / respective guardians known as the Four Sons of Horus[13].  Neith was given the east and the son Duamutef Jackal headed protector of the stomach. These four female goddesses can be seen often in a protective manner arms out stretched on boxes and shrines that held the canopic jars. (Figure 8).  Neith was also believed to be the inventor of weaving then naturally becoming associated with mummy bandages and shrouds[14].  Some also suggest that one of the hieroglyphs often seen above Neith’s head used to spell her name is not a stylized beetle or shield and arrows but a weaving shuttle. With her being such an old deity I would argue yes to all of them given how many roles she played.

Figure 8: The wooden shrine of King Tutankhamun that surrounds his canopic jars showing Neith on the right. https://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/41747225442/in/photostream/

Warrior  – Mistress of the Bows

This aspect of Neith has been overstated in some older studies of Egyptian mythology and to be honest the idea of a female goddess wielding a bow and arrow is probably what started my interest in her as an undergrad. However, it is undeniable that Neith is always associated with weaponry, hunting or warfare given that amongst her many titles she holds ‘Mistress of the Bows’ and Ruler of Arrows’ amongst them[15].  These titles and her warrior like status was established early in Egyptian history. By the time of the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2613 BCE) her names include “Neith Fights”, “Neith is Victorious” and, by the time of the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE), she was considered a wise veteran and the dependable mediator of the gods and between the gods and humanity[16]. Alongside this Old Kingdom depictions also represent Neith as one of the fierce manifestations of the Eye of Ra. A divine eye who was the personification of goddesses. In different contexts the eye could represent different goddesses, the Eye of Ra is regarded as Ra’s daughter and protector her fiery glance destroying whilst her tears created life[17].

Goddess of Lower Egypt

Early on Neith is portrayed wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt (Figure 1) and so it no surprise that she has strong connection the region some saying she is a manifestation of the region. Widespread worship of Neith dropped after her initial favour but she continued to play vital role in the cosmos nonetheless. She gained prominence once more under the kings of the 26th Dynasty who made Sais their capital city- Sais being the centre of her cult. Due to this a conscious effort was made to expand, rejuvenate and embellish the temple of Neith at Sais. Her temple became one of the most important cult centres of its time, and according to later sources the secret of how the soul communicated with the gods was etched onto the walls of the temple’s sanctuary[18]. It is said the Neith’s temple was a site to behold with a sacred lake that held great festivals. Herodotus stating festival goers burned a multitude of lights in the open air all night at that time, a great sceptical . The 26th dynasty kings felt such a connection to this monument that they were entombed underneath it, unfortunately little of this temple survives.

Neith’s worship runs the gamete of ancient Egyptian civilisation from the Early Dynastic period to the Greco-Roman period when she become associated with the goddess Athena. For me she is interesting because there are some many different facets to her. Mother, Creator, Warrior and protector and who doesn’t like a multifaceted being. I hope your enjoyed this weeks topic what should I look at next ?

References


[1] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 156/7

[2] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 170

[3] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 157

[4]  Stan Hendrickx Two Protodynastic Objects in Brussels and the Origin of the Bilobate Cult-Sign of NeithThe Journal of Egyptian Archaeology Vol. 82 (1996), pp. 23-42 Page 35

[5] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 158

[6] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 158

[7] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 170

[8] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 157

[9] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 170

[10] Andrews, C., 1998. Amulets of ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press. Page 23

[11] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 157

[12] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Anath Acessed 13.05.2021

[13] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 157

[14] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 157

[15] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 157

[16] Mark, Joshua J.. “Neith.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified September 14, 2016. https://www.worldhistory.org/Neith/.

[17] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 128/129

[18] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 34

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