In ancient Alexandria, every year a great festival, called the Feast of Lamps, was held for Neith, the primordial Goddess of Lower Egypt. Herodotus tells us that the celebrants burned uncountable numbers of candles and lamps in an outdoor feast that lasted all night. This year that date fell on Wednesday (the 30th), but the Temple celebrated it on Friday, yesterday. Besides myself, four other people were in attendance. Information about Neith, and the ritual itself, is below.
Neith, mother of Sobek, is a complex Goddess. Neith (also Nit, Neet, and Neit) is attested to even before the First Dynasty. She is the patron Goddess of Sais, whose ancient Egyptian name was Zau. Her city is located in the Western Nile Delta.
She is also one of the three Deities of the southern Egyptian city Ta-senet, or Iunyt, now known as Esna (this is its Arabic name. The Greeks called it Latopolis or Polis Laton). In Esna it was believed that Neith created the entire world.
Neith is a Goddess of war and weaving, a huntress and a Creatrix. She is usually shown wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt, or with Her personal symbol atop Her head. The symbol has more than one explanation. It is usually said to be two arrows crossed over a shield, but has also been interpreted as a weaving shuttle. Her symbol is also used to designate Her sacred city of Sais. She is often shown clutching a bow and arrows as well.
As War-Goddess, She was said to make the weapons of warriors, and when they died She guarded their bodies until they could be buried. Furthermore She is said to weave the bandages and shrouds worn by the dead. As weaving Goddess She protected women and the home, and so many royal women named themselves after Neith. Although addressed as female, She was considered androgynous; in fact, it was often said that She is 2/3 masculine and 1/3 feminine. To emphasize this dual gender, She was often drawn with am erect phallus. Sometimes She was shown with the head of a lion, or a snake. The picture below shows Her with three heads; a lion, a human woman, and a snake, as well as depicting the aforementioned phallus.
She is associated with the primordial waters of creation, and in fact Her name might even mean “water”. Her name in Egyptian, Nit, is close to the word for the red crown of Lower Egypt – nt. Her name is also linked to the word for “weave” – ntt, which is also the word for “being2”. The Egyptians surely understood and read into this, as they has a great love of puns and word plays, and much can be lost in the translation. As mother of Sobek, and in some cases of the entire crocodile species, She is called “Nurse of Crocodiles” and pictured nursing a baby crocodile. She was not just connected to the primordial waters of Nun, that murky watery mass at creation that the Greeks would have called Khaos, but its personification. Since Ra arose from the waters of Nun at the birth of the world, Neith came to be considered His mother. She was sometimes called “the Great Cow Who Gave Birth To Ra”, which is strange, because She was almost never depicted as a cow. The poet Proclus (412–485 AD) wrote that the adyton (inner chamber of the Temple) of the temple of Neith at Sais carried the following inscription: I am all things that are, that will be, and that have been, and no mortal hath ever Me unveiled. The fruit which I brought forth was the sun3. Sadly, nothing of this Temple remains today.
Perhaps because She was considered to have been around since the dawn of time, She was also considered to be very wise. When there was conflict among the Gods, They came before Neith to arbitrate the dispute. It was to Her that the Gods came for advice when Horus and Seth were contending for kingship.
The people at Elephantine said Neith was the wife of Khnum, the ram-headed Deity Who creates men and women on His potter’s-wheel. But most often She is considered to have no husband, as a Virgin Mother Goddess. Pharaoh Nectanebo II of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty claimed Her as his Mother, and so She became a State Deity.
Her association with primordial water naturally led to be associated with the (unknown) source of the Nile River. They associated Her specifically with the Nile Perch, a massive freshwater fish that can grow more than six feet long and weigh up to 440 pounds4. Although most of the fish are caught before they have a chance to get that big.
The Egyptians themselves in Sais asserted that Neith and Athena were the same Goddess. This is even mentioned in the Socratic dialogue Timaeus, written by Plato, quoted here:
In the Egyptian Delta, at the head of which the river Nile divides, there is a certain district which is called the district of Sais, and the great city of the district is also called Sais, and is the city from which King Amasis came. The citizens have a deity for their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athene; they are great lovers of the Athenians, and say that they are in some way related to them. — Plato Timaeus 21e
Plato also describes a Festival of Athene in Libya. This was probably actually a festival of Neith:
Next to the Makhlyes are the Auseans; these and the Makhlyes, separated by the Triton, live on the shores of Lake Tritonis. The Makhlyes wear their hair long behind, the Auseans in front. They celebrate a yearly festival of Athena, where their maidens are separated into two bands and fight each other with stones and sticks, thus, they say, honoring in the way of their ancestors that native goddess whom we call Athena. Maidens who die of their wounds are called false virgins. Before the girls are set fighting, the whole people choose the fairest maid, and arm her with a Korinthian helmet and Greek panoply, to be then mounted on a chariot and drawn all along the lake shore. With what armor they equipped their maidens before Greeks came to live near them, I cannot say; but I suppose the armor was Egyptian; for I maintain that the Greeks took their shield and helmet from Egypt. As for Athena, they say that she was daughter of Poseidon and Lake Tritonis, and that, being for some reason angry at her father, she gave herself to Zeus, who made her his own daughter. Such is their tale. The intercourse of men and women there is promiscuous; they do not cohabit but have intercourse like cattle. When a woman’s child is well grown, the men assemble within three months and the child is adjudged to be that man’s whom it is most like. – 4.180
Modern Ritual for the Festival of Neith
This ritual is based on Sannion’s Greco-Egyptian Offertory Rite, with my own hymns to Neith added.
Cleansing the Sacred Space
Carrying the khernips, the Priest/ess walks around the ritual area, sprinkling everything with the water. Recite the following as you make your circuit:
“You are washed clean by the life-giving waters of the Nile! You are pure! No man has set foot on you, for you are the primordial mound rising from the broad depths of the Ocean at the First Time. You are pure!”
Take up the aparkhai and proceed to the shrine. Scatter the aparkhai and say:
“To the givers of life, life!”
Lighting the incense/oil
“May this scent of Your sacred lotus be pleasing to you, Neith, as the scent of You is pleasing to me. At Your appearance the world is filled with Your fragrance; it precedes You, intoxicating all who smell it, filling them with joy and a longing for You. The scent of You is in this incense: You are near! You are near!”
Taking the Ankh
Take up the ankh. Hold it aloft for a moment, then touch it to your lips in a reverent kiss. Now turn to the four cardinal directions, pausing for a moment at each, before turning back to the shrine. Touch each of the items on the shrine with the ankh, including the veiled image of the deity. Then place the ankh upon the shrine itself. Do this in complete silence, mindful of the mystery.
Light the candle or lamp and say the following as you place it before the veiled image:
“Chaos is overthrown; the doors are opened wide and Your presence fills the earth with its light and warmth. Let this light serve as a reminder of You in the dark, Neith; let this beacon guide You from the shining heights down to the home I have made for You here.”
Lift your hands up in a receptive posture and speak words to the following effect:
“O Neith, the sound of Your name is pleasing to all who hear it; Your power is respected throughout all lands; even the Gods themselves gather to praise Your form in the morning! You are the one whose soul is mighty in Sais; You are the one whose fame will never depart from eternal Alexandria; You are the one whose manifestations are beautiful in South Bend (name whatever city you are in).”
A Hymn for Neith
I sing this song of praise
First in Creation
Primordial water-born Lady
Whom none could imitate
Defender of our homeland
Master of arrows and spears
May She protect us always.
Born of primordial waters,
You birthed primal Sobek
Lord of Crocodiles
He of gleaming teeth
And brightened eye
Who banishes demons and fears
Teaching us to confront the primal dark within us
And to tame our ferocious fears
It is from You that the Crocodile learned his art.
For You are Mistress of all forms of Wisdom
From the murkiest depths of primal nature
To the loftiest ideals of white-robed philosophers
Teacher of our ways
Imparting our culture to our little ones
Even the Gods themselves
Bring You Their problems to solve
So great is Your wisdom.
All pay homage to you, wise Creatrix.
Weaving reality into existence
Weaving wisdom-stories into myth
Weaving webs of human connectedness
Lady of all the arts of mankind.
Appearance of the Goddess
“O Neith, as You have heard my prayers and answered them in the past, hearken to me now! Come in peace, O Neith! Send forth Your spirit that it might mingle with Your cult image and receive the host of pleasing offerings that I have brought for You!”
Pause for a moment, letting your mind be flooded with images of the god. Then lift the veil or unlock the doors of the naos and shout with joy:
“The God has appeared! Welcome in peace, O Neith, You who make the world peaceful in Your coming!”
Preist/ess bows before the image of Neith.
Offering of libations and food
Priest/ess pours out the libation of wine/beer:
“As You have filled my heart with joyousness, O Neith, may this wine/beer bring You abundant pleasure.”
Priest/ess places the food on the plate before the image:
“As Your blessings are manifold, O Neith, may this food find favor with You.”
Priest/ess pours out the libation of clear water.
“As You have given comfort to the ancestors, O Neith, may this cool water be a soothing balm for you.”
“May this feast nourish Your soul, Neith, as Your blessings have nourished my body.”
Touch each of the offerings and libation-bowls with the ankh and then transfer it to the image of the god.
3Proclus (1820). The Commentaries of Proclus on the Timaeus of Plato, in Five Books. trans. Thomas Taylor. A.J. Valpy. p. 82. http://books.google.com/books?&pg=PA82&id=Qh9dAAAAMAAJ&ots=0h_azc_OV5#PPA82.
4Kaufman, Les. “Catastrophic Change in Species-Rich Freshwater Ecosystems.” Bioscience Vol. 42, No. 11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1312084