Neith – Origins, Family, Meaning, Symbols & Powers
Neith is a goddess in Egyptian mythology. She was known as the goddess of war and a very terrifying goddess so to speak. As goddess of life and creation, Neith is believed to have created everything that is in the universe.
Commonly seen as one of the earliest ancient Egyptian deities, Neith was also linked to rivers, weaving, wisdom, motherhood, childbirth, hunting, and fate. Owing to this, she was considered one of the most important deities of the Predynastic Period of ancient Egypt.
Her symbols were the ankh (Egyptian symbol of life), the loom, crossed arrows, bow, and a shield. In the mythology, she was seen as the mother of the crocodile god of the Nile, Sobek, and Re (Ra). Neith’s consorts were either Set (the god of storms and chaos) or Khnum (the god of the source of the Nile).
The article below contains everything you need to know about Neith in ancient Egyptian mythology:
Myth about Neith, the Patroness of the city of Sais and Egyptian goddess of creation and war
Goddess of: creation, war, rivers, the cosmos, mothers, childbirth, rivers, and hunting
Symbol: Spider, loom, Deshret (Red Crown of Lower Egypt), ankh symbol, bow and crossed arrows
Epithets: “she is the terrifying one”, “Cow of Heaven”, “Virgin Mother Goddess”, “Protectress of the Royal House”, “Great Mother Goddess” and “Opener of the Ways”, “Opener of the good pathways”, “Opener of the Sun’s Paths in all her stations”
Other names: Neit, Nit, Net
Worship place and cults: Sais, Memphis, Esna
Most revered for: being the first and prime creator of the world; goddess of war
Ritual/festival: Feast of Lamps
Greek equivalent: Athena
Roman equivalent: Diana
Origins, Meaning and EpithetsThe worship of Neith dates back to Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods of ancient Egypt. Some accounts have even claimed that due to her hunting and war characteristics, her worship likely came from regions in Libya. Regardless of how ancient she was, her worship continued right up until the Greco-Roman era.
As a creator goddess, Neith was believed to be an extremely powerful goddess, who sometimes inspired terror in her believers. Owing to this, her name often translated into “the terrifying one”.
Another interpretation of her name has been given as the “Cow of Heaven”. This epithet of hers is almost similar to the goddess Nut, the sky mother goddess in ancient Egyptian pantheon. It was believed that Neith give birth to the sun (Ra) on a daily basis. In this role of hers, similarities can also be drawn with the Egyptian goddess Mehet-Weret (Great Flood), the goddess who birthed the sun daily.
Some texts describe Neith as the goddess who invented birth, and that she was the first deity to appear out of the primordial waters of Nu. She would then go on to give birth to Ra. It is for this reason why she was usually described as the “Great Cow who gave birth to Ra” or the “Great goddess who gave birth to the gods”.
Other common epithets of Neith include “Virgin Mother Goddess”, “Protectress of the Royal House”, “Great Mother Goddess” and “Opener of the Ways”. Her role as the protector of the royal house often led many to depict her with the uraeus [the Royal Egyptian cobra] – the symbol of royalty, power and rule and divine authority.
Neith as the creator goddess
Ancient Egyptians believed that in the beginning, when the world/universe was just made up of the primordial waters of Nu, Neith emerged and asexually gave birth to Atum (Ra) who would go on to create everything in the universe. In this role of hers, she earned the title, “Great Mother Goddess”. This made many of her worshippers see her the same light as Ptah, another Egyptian god of creation.
In other cases, it was believed that she created the universe by weaving the things that her heart conceived on her magical loom. Her association with the sun god Ra implied that she reweaved the world on a daily basis by bringing forth the sun every morning.
Being a creator goddess, Neith was a very important deity in Egyptian society, especially during the early dynastic period. She had a very thriving cult in Sais. The cult was established by Hor-Aha, a king from the First Dynasty.
Also, images of her have been found in the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. The pyramid, which is considered the first pyramid in Egypt, is a funerary monument built to house the remains of King Djoser of Third Dynasty.
As stated in the introduction, Neith was revered by ancient Egypt as a reliable protector of the people, both in the land of the living and the land of the dead. She was prayed to unleash her arrows into the enemies of the dead. For this role of hers, she was described as the “Opener of the Ways”, as she helped keep the dead safe in the underworld.
The above explains why she appears in the tomb of Tutankhamun as one of the four goddesses [the other goddesses were Isis, Nephthys, and Serket] tasked to protect the canopic jars of the boy-king. Those canopic jars, which are shaped in the images of the Four Sons of Horus, housed the internal organs of the dead. Neith’s task was to protect the canopic jar [Duamutef] that housed the stomach of the dead.
Another possible explanation for her association with the stomach/abdomen stems from her role as a war goddess. With the abdomen being one of the most vulnerable parts of the body during battle, it makes quite a lot of sense for the war goddess to be associated with the protection of that body part.
As the creator goddess, Neith’s name has sometimes been associated with the root word for “weave”. This means that she was not created and hence had no parents.
In order to keep up with the principle of balance and harmony (i.e. the principle of Ma’at) in the universe, Egyptians believed that Neith gave birth to both the sun god Ra and the mighty serpent Apophis (also known as Apep). Those two children of Neith are destined to fight each other for dominance (for an eternity). Ra is the bringer of light, order and life; while Apophis is the bringer of chaos and darkness. According to some accounts, the spittle from Neith is what created the mighty serpent Apophis (or Apep).
Her association with rivers, particularly the Nile River, resulted in her becoming either the mother or the consort of the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek. In some ancient texts and paintings, she was portrayed nursing a baby crocodile. For this role of hers, she earned the epithet “Nurse of Crocodiles”.
In some cases, her consort was rather Khnum, the god of the source of the Nile. Her association with a god like Khnum further strengthens her dominion over the Nile River.
Symbols and popular depictions of Neith
Some of the major symbols of the goddess Neith are the two crossed arrows and a shield. Thus she is often depicted as a young woman wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt, which is also known as the Deshret. And typical of many Egyptian deities, Neith can be seen holding the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, and the was scepter, Egyptian symbol of power and royalty. In other cases, she is depicted holding crossed arrows and a bow, a reflection of her role as a goddess of hunting.
In some other depiction, she has a bow case on her head, instead of the usual crown frequently associated with other Egyptian deities.
Importance and Powers
During the Early Dynastic Period and Predynastic Eras, it was commonly believed that the goddess Neith was the sole and prime creator of the universe. Ancient Egyptians believed that the universe as we see it exists and functions because of Neith.
In addition to the above, Neith was revered as the goddess of war, wisdom, water, hunting, mothers and childbirth.
It was often the case that ancient Egyptians preferred using symbols and euphemisms when talking about Neith. This was because of how complex her nature was, making her a much feared deity during the Early Dynastic Period. As a war deity, Neith was not the type of deity to be messed with. In common depictions of her, she cast a very fierce look. It was also believed that she was in charge of forging the weapons used by Egyptian warriors.
Worship places and cult centers
In the southern city of Latopolis, Neith was revered as one of the three very important deities of the city. Her worship was very prominent in Lower Egypt throughout the early dynasties of Egypt. Similarly, Neith had a very prominent cult following and worshippers in the Egyptian town of Sais, located in the Western Nile Delta. This happened between the 24th Dynasty (c. 732-720 BCE) and 26th Dynasty (c. 664-525 BCE), when Sais was a very important place in not just Lower Egypt, but all of Egypt. Neith was declared the patron goddess of Sais.
The above is not to say that Neith was not popular in other parts of Egypt. In Esna (in Upper Egypt), Neith was very much revered as the protector of the land of Egypt. It was believed that her protection even extended to the dead in the underworld.
Neith and Set
Some accounts describe her as the consort of Set, the Egyptian god of chaos and storms. However, it is interesting to note that when it was time to select between Set and Horus, Neith chose Horus as the legitimate ruler of the land of Egypt. In the story of The Contendings of Horus and Set, Neith even threatened to make the sky crash to earth if Horus was not crowned king of Egypt. By settling the dispute between Set and Horus, Neith came to be associated with wisdom.
Read More: 10 Greatest Goddesses of Ancient Egypt
Other interesting facts about Neith
Without a shred of doubt, Neith was the most popular goddess in the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 BCE – c. 2181 BCE) of ancient Egypt. She was proclaimed by some rulers of that era as the national goddess for the Old Kingdom.
Other symbols of Neith include Deshret (Red Crown of Lower Egypt), the ankh symbol, bow and crossed arrows.
Originally, Neith’s two crossed arrows were interpreted as a click beetle. It was stands to reason that because click beetles were often found close to a water body, Neith, who by the way was a water deity, would be associated with those insects.
Although Neith’s worship spanned throughout ancient Egypt’s history, many of her features and roles were taken up by goddesses such as Isis and Hathor. In spite of this, she still remained very relevant across Egypt.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the people of Egypt honored Neith during a festival called Feast of Lamps. The festival required patrons to light up fire all throughout the night.
Examples of some famous ancient Egyptians that named themselves after the goddess Neith include Neithhotep [First known queen of Egypt], Queen Regent Merneith, and Neith, wife of Pepi II.
Neith’s association with war came around the Early Dynastic Period (32nd century BCE to the 27th century BCE).
Ancient Greeks, including Herodotus, Plato, and Diodorus Siculus, identified Neith with the Greek goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, Athena.