The Kites of Nephthys

Inspired by last week’s object that I added to my cabinet of curiosities on Instagram I thought I would explore the Kites of Nephthys and the role that these women played in the funeral processions of both gods and mortals. In order to figure out where these individual roles come from, we have to take a quick look at the legend of Osiris.   

The Legend of Osiris

Figure 1: Wooden statue of a mourning Isis.
Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités égyptiennes, N 4130 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010013463https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

This myth is potentially one of the most important to the ancient Egyptians. The origin of Osiris is unclear starting as a local god of Busiris, in Lower Egypt, representing a personification of ‘chthonic’ (underworld) fertility[1]. But by about 2400 BCE, Osiris played a double role: God of fertility and the embodiment of the dead and resurrected king. These dual roles in turn combined with the Egyptian concept of divine kingship: in death the king became Osiris, God of the underworld; and the dead king’s son, the living king, was identified with Horus[2]. The legend of Osiris involves a few different characters; mainly Osiris, his brother Seth, Osiris’s sister wife Isis, their sister Isis and finally his son Horus.

Seth coveted the crown of Egypt and so hatched a plan to dethrone his brother. According to the version of the myth given by Plutarch Osiris was slain or drowned by Seth who then tore him into 14 pieces which he dispersed at different points throughout Egypt. After an extensive search by Isis and Nephthys the different pieces of Osiris body where buried, except the phallus, Isis through her great magical ability gave new life to Osiris, who remained in the underworld as ruler and judge[3]. His son Horus then went on to successfully fight against Seth, avenging his father and becoming the new king of Egypt. The trails and tribulations of this fight between nephew and uncle is elaborated through a text known as the contending of Horus and Seth. 

So how does this myth relate to the Kites of Nephthys?

Divine Mourners – Isis and Nephthys  

Figure 2: Nephthys (L) and Isis (R) in a protective embrace . Tomb of Nefertari Taylor, J., 2010. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. London: The British Museum Press. Page 22

Osiris constituted the role model of every deceased person and there for it is not surprising to find in a funerary context such as on the tomb walls or later coffins representations of the sisters in divine grief over his death[4]. Divine mourning in this case is predominately undertaken by the two goddesses Isis and Nephthys positioned at the head and foot of the mummy in positions of mourning. The pair of goddesses where usually shown in one of a few gestures of mourning. There are two that appear consistently. The default position of mourning is one of both hands raised palms turned towards their faces[5](Figure 1). The other gesture signifies a protective embrace one hand raised, the other lowered, identical to the gesture performed by the goddesses when show with wings and as kites (Figure 2).  These gestures then become recognisable. Middle Kingdom model boats often show two women impersonating Isis and Nephthys as the bier of the deceased posed in these gestures (Figure 3). Which is what inspired my even writing about them this week.  

Figure 3: Wooden model of a funeral barge with the Kites of Nephthys protecting the deceased. British Museum EA9524
https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA9524

The Kites of Nephthys stand vigil

This is the exact model boat the inspired me this week. The two women on stood at the head and foot of the mummy can be said to be two professional mourners impersonating the goddesses. Ancient Egyptian art ,and models like this one, often show two professional mourners at both ends of the deceased in the procession to the tomb with the women identified with the goddesses Isis and Nephthys[6]. These women are referred to as ‘The Kites of Nephthys’.

According to the legend of Osiris Isis adopted the form of a kite in order for her to give her husband back the breath and his virility[7]. The two goddesses then were said to take the forms of kites and kept a long vigil over the mummy of Osiris to protect him from the attacks of Seth[8](Figure 4). With the grow in popularity of the Osiris myth all the people of Egypt then became associated with Osiris and those who could afford it had themselves and member of their family buried at Abydos[9]

Figure 4: Nephthys and Isis stand vigil in kite form Tomb of Nefertari Valley of the Queens Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson.  Page 159

Singing seemed to also seemed to be part of these women’s roles in the funeral. The song of Isis and Nephthys is a manuscript of ‘songs’ to be recited or sung (given that the text say that they played a tambour) by these Kites of Nephthys during the festivities of Osiris especially during their mourning for the dead Osiris[10].

But in order to be a Kite of Nephthys there appears to be a list of requirements. These included the removal of body hair, to have not given birth, their head hair bound with a band/ cloth or shaven completely and finally their names as Isis and Nephthys are inscribed on their shoulder so that they could be identified[11]. A full translation of the songs of Isis Nephthys was completed by Faulkner in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology Vol.22 with the manuscript being held at the British Museum (EA10188.1-7)(Figure 5). Another related text called the Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys has been found and on Berlin Papyrus 3008 although this particular version dates to the Ptolemaic Period 323-30 BCE the origins are much older[12]. This text is not a song but a poem where the two goddess-sisters call the soul of Osiris to re-join the living and tales the form of call and response liturgy with the dual entreaties of the sisters echoing each other in their attempts to symbolically revive the god[13]. In the end Osiris returns to life as the poem end with the line “Lo! He comes!” although recited to Osiris it became a regular part of funeral serviced when it was intended to wat the dead to the afterlife. The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys could be recited at the funerals of eithers sex by the Kites of Nephthys. With the women, sometimes shown wearing black robes, and encouraging mourners to grieve openly at the funeral by their emotional rendition of the poem.

Figure 5: The first verses of the Song of Isis and Nephthys. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA10188-1

The mourning rituals of the ancient Egyptians are so multifaceted that there is more I could say but I hope you enjoyed looking at this particular part of the mourning rites and how two women played such a pivotal role.  

References


[1] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Osiris-Egyptian-god

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Osiris-Egyptian-god

[3] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Osiris-Egyptian-god

[4] Kucharek, A., 2008. MOURNING AND LAMENTATION ON COFFINS, in ANCIENT EGYPTIAN COFFINS, Taylor/Vandenbeusch (eds.), pp.77-115. Page 77

[5] Kucharek, A., 2008. MOURNING AND LAMENTATION ON COFFINS, in ANCIENT EGYPTIAN COFFINS, Taylor/Vandenbeusch (eds.), pp.77-115. Page 79

[6] http://www.mariarosavaldesogo.com/requirements-professional-mourners-ancient-egypt/

[7] http://www.mariarosavaldesogo.com/requirements-professional-mourners-ancient-egypt/

[8] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 171

[9] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/878/the-lamentations-of-isis-and-nephthys/

[10] http://www.mariarosavaldesogo.com/requirements-professional-mourners-ancient-egypt/

[11] http://www.mariarosavaldesogo.com/requirements-professional-mourners-ancient-egypt/

[12] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/878/the-lamentations-of-isis-and-nephthys/

[13] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/878/the-lamentations-of-isis-and-nephthys/

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