If you ask someone to name an Egyptian goddess, you’ll get a variety of answers: maybe Isis, maybe Sekhmet (my personal favourite), maybe Hathor, maybe Bast (for the cat lovers out there). There are a lot to choose from, after all. However, I think it’s unlikely that the average person on the Clapham omnibus will answer “Neith”. But she’s attested through more of Egyptian history than the others I mention, and at various times rather more important too!
This may be understandable – she doesn’t seem to have any good surviving stories. I’d hoped to write a Neith story article to go with this one, but she only shows up as a bit part in stories with narrative. The closest we get is The Contendings of Horus and Seth: a Ramesside period text which has the Universal God trying to make a judgement between Horus and Seth as to who should be Osiris’s successor. Horus is in the right, and wins every challenge or contest, but the judge would prefer Seth to get the office. Neith is written to for her opinion, which boils down to “Give Horus the job, compensate Seth with wealth & marriage, do what I tell you or I’ll bring the sky crashing down!”. The gods ignore this; the books I read make no mention of her response but the sky does still seem to be up where it should be. That’s not really Neith’s story, though, she’s just another instance among many demonstrating that Horus is in the right. Neith does have a family, but that isn’t a story either – the Egyptians liked to group their deities into families, and temples are often dedicated to the god X, his consort Y and their child Z. Neith is a bit unusual here in that whilst she is often said to be the mother of Sobek, her consort isn’t entirely clear (although he may be Seth, at some times & places).
So, no stories, but there is plenty of evidence for her cult throughout Ancient Egyptian history. She is an important goddess in the Early Dynastic Period, with solid evidence going back to the 1st Dynasty and enough hints to let Egyptologists extrapolate back into the Predynastic Period and earlier. She’s closely associated with royalty during those periods, royal women in particular have names that reference Neith. For instance Neithhotep (“Neith is satisfied”) is the wife of the king who is credited with unifying Egypt (Narmer). Neith’s cult waxes and wanes through the centuries, but even into the Roman period she is still an important deity. There are texts at the (relatively late) temple of Khnum at Esna which retrofit her as an Upper Egyptian creator goddess who only moves to the Lower Egyptian town of Sais after she’s done with creating the gods.
Neith is normally shown in human form from the Old Kingdom onward, and wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt from the 5th Dynasty. She may also be shown in reliefs with a crown of two stylised bows and her earliest symbol was two crossed arrows. To this were later added two click beetles (Agrypnus notodonta) facing each other across the arrows to make a symbol that’s referred to as the “bilobate sign”. This rather odd sounding name is really a cover-up for the fact that for a long time Egyptologists couldn’t identify the parts of the symbol. It seems that even the Egyptians forgot the original meaning over their history and the symbol morphed into an oval with crossed arrows which was then identified as a shield with crossed arrows. Some of the books I read while writing this article said it was a shield or a bow, but “Dawn of Egyptian Art” (ed. Diana Craig Patch) was firm that it has now been convincingly argued that the two lobes are click beetles. These beetles do show up in other contexts associated with Neith, including on a model shrine that dates back to the Predynastic Period. She does have some anthropomorphic representations during later periods, including as a cow (in her creator role) and a serpent (in her protective role).
This is the point in the article at which I should say something like “Neith was the goddess of X”, but it’s not that simple. She may have no stories, but she has several different associations and roles. I’ve touched on two of them already – the first of these is that she’s a goddess of hunting and warfare, hence the weapons for her earliest iconography. And she is strongly associated with Lower Egypt, not only the town of Sais but also she is the protector goddess of the Red Crown. This is also an aggressive role judging by a reference in the Pyramid Texts to “May the terror of you come into being … like the Neith Crown which is on the King of Lower Egypt”. Another pair of overlapping roles is that she is a creator goddess and a mother goddess. The first references to these roles come relatively late in the timeline for Neith – the Pharaoh Amenhotep II claims that he is “one who was moulded by Neith”. She also comes to be associated with the waters of Nun that preceded creation and with the process of creation itself. And she is also a funerary goddess – as early as the Pyramid Texts she is one of the goddesses associated with the Sons of Horus. As their role evolves into protectors of the deceased’s internal organs the goddesses take on the role of protectors of the protectors. In this role Neith is the protector of Duamutef who is the guardian of the stomach.
A difficult goddess to pin down across this gulf in time and distance in culture from the Ancient Egyptians. But even to them she was a mystery, Joyce Tyldesley quotes an inscription on a statue of Neith in Sais that rather aptly reads: “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my robe no mortal has yet uncovered”.
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines)
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” ed. Diana Craig Patch
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson