The complementary and central roles of Isis, and her sister, Nephthys, in the mortuary cult of New Kingdom Egypt is communicated by the frequency with which their images and iconography appear in the decoration program of the royal tombs of The Valley of the Kings. Tomb depictions of Isis and Nephthys are virtually interchangeable; the paired goddesses are most easily differentiated by the hieroglyphic symbols for their names which crown their heads, which translate to “throne” [Isis] and “that which rules inside the house” [Nephthys]. The two goddesses are paired together functionally in the funeral rites as dual protectors of the mummy, and they also figure symbolically as a complementary pair because of their intertwined roles in the resurrection myth of Osiris. According to Osirian myth, Nephthys assists Isis in gathering the dismembered body parts of Osiris and lamenting his murder by her brother-husband, Seth. Versions of the myth have Isis and Nephthys arriving at the scene as birds, which explains their frequent depiction in tomb paintings as winged birds of prey, or kites, as displayed in the tomb paintings of Sety I in the Valley of the Kings.
In the Osirian myth, wings were an important feature of Isis that became attributed to Nephthys in later periods. In the resurrection narrative, Isis “originated coolness with her wings and wind with her feathers” resuscitating Osiris with this mythical gesture (Bleeker, 8). Both deities figure centrally in the Pyramid Texts and the Book of the Dead, whose magical intervention was necessary for preparation and navigation through the levels of the underworld, and as such their images are elemental to decorative motifs in a mortuary context. Both women also reflect a maternal role, and the pyramid texts refer to Isis as the “birth mother” and Nephthys as the “nursing mother” of Horus (Dillare, 38). The central function of Isis and Nephthys as wailing women in the Egyptian mortuary cult is revealed through a ubiquitous image of the pair mourning at the head and foot of Osiris’s funeral bier that circulates within mortuary contexts. Two women mourners in the funeral procession occupy a fixed place at either end of the coffin, and act as human representatives of Isis and Nephthys to parallel the mythical lamentation for the dead king (Bleeker, 2). The Osirian cult at Abydos also featured a lamentation ceremony in which two designated female mourners “their arms covered with the written names of Isis and Nephthys (Bleeker, 3)” perform a ritual for the glorification of Osiris, or, as C.J. Bleeker writes in his discussion of Isis and Nephthys as archetypal female mourners, a “mythical lamentation that is supposed to work his salvation (Bleeker, 5)”.
The duality that is axomatic of their representations in both text, mortuary art and cult performance reflects the cognitive schema which informed ancient Egyptian conceptions of religiosity, death and the after life. Bleeker writes that just as Seth and Osiris are often called the “two comrades”, so Isis and Nephthys are referred to as simply the “two women” (Bleeker,11).
The parallel relationship between the two sets of siblings is connected to a larger significance of the dual number in Ancient Egyptian religion (Bleeker, 11). The relationship between the sisters is not one of violent struggle and eventual reconciliation, as with Seth, Osiris and Horus, but for the ancient Egyptian, who, as Bleeker writes, “was inclined to think in terms of twofoldness, the lamentation for the dead apparently received its full sonority only when the first cry of distress found its response in a second one (Bleeker, 11)”. Bleeker’s interpretation is problematic in that he uses representations of Isis and Nephthys in mortuary contexts and emphasizes their complimentary duality in order to make totalizing assumptions about ancient Egyptian cognitive schema. He also notes that his interpretation is derived from Plutarch’s rendering of the myth, which offers a complete but late period and inevitably Hellenized version of the Egyptian gods that obscures the original myth and its meaning (Bleeker, 6).
The dualism of the two goddesses is also reflected spatially within the tomb context. Alongside other mortuary gods such as Anubis, The sisters are commonly depicted as winged figures on opposite sides of the exterior surface of coffins, as featured on the sarcophagus box of Dynasty 18 pharaoh Horemheb and at the head and foot ends of the coffin of Thutmes IV, also of the 18thDynasty. In his discussion of the symbolic location and alignment of New Kingdom tomb decoration, Richard H. Wilkinson defines the terms for spatial symbolism, stating that it may be manifested in…both the actual location of an object or structure in a significant area…and… the positioning of an object or structure, or individual elements within it, relative to some other feature, area or direction (Wilkinson, 79)”.
It is within this criterion that the symbolism aspects of the location of Isis and Nephthys images in New Kingdom tombs can be analyzed. Wilkinson states that the two goddesses are shown from the tomb of Sety I on flanking the entrance passages, with a winged image of Isis on the left, or south side mirrored by an identical image of Nephthys on the right, or north side (Wilkinson, 84). This particular spatial planning of images, with one goddess occupying one side of a coffin or wall space and the other displayed on the opposite side creates a mirroring effect, in which the two figures are identical inversions of one another. The symbolism of location of images within the tomb space provides another interpretive angle thorough which to assess the mortuary significance of Isis and Nephthys, particularly their supposed functional and mythical dualism within the funerary context.
Bleeker, C.J. “Isis and Nephthys as Wailing Women.” Numen 5.1 (1958): 1-17. JSTOR. Web.
All images: “Theban Mapping Project.” www.thebanmappingproject.com
Wilkinson, Richard H. “Symbolic Location and Alignment in New Kingdom Royal Tombs and Their Decoration.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 31 (1994): 79-86. Jstor. Web.
Plutarch, and J. Gwyn Griffiths. Plutarch’s De Iside Et Osiride;. Cardiff: University of Wales P., 1970.
El-Shahawy, Abeer. The Funerary Art of Ancient Egypt: Abridge to the Realm of the Hereafter. Dar Al-Mushaf, 2005.
Dillaire, Claudia R. Egyptian Revenge Spells: Ancient Rituals for Modern Payback. Berkeley, CA: Crossing, 2009. 30-45.