In Egyptian mythology, Neith (also known as Nit, Net, and Neit) was an early goddess in the Egyptian pantheon. She was the patron deity of Sais, where her cult was centered in the Western Nile Delta of Egypt and attested as early as the First Dynasty.. The Ancient Egyptian name of this city was Zau.
Neith also was one of the three tutelary deities of the ancient Egyptian southern city of Ta-senet or Iunyt now known as Esna (Arabic: إسنا), Greek: Λατόπολις (Latopolis), or πόλις Λάτων (Polis Laton), or Λάττων (Laton); Latin: Lato), which is located on the west bank of the River Nile, some 55 km south of Luxor, in the modern Qena Governorate.
It is thought that Neith may correspond to the goddess Tanit (Ta-Nit), worshipped in north Africa by the early Berber culture (existing from the beginnings of written records) and through the first Punic culture originating from the founding of Carthage by Dido. Ta-nit, meaning in Egyptian the land of Nit, also was a heavenly goddess of war, a virginal mother goddess and nurse, and, less specifically, a symbol of fertility. Her symbol is remarkably similar to the Egyptian ankh and her shrine, excavated at Sarepta in southern Phoenicia, revealed an inscription that related her securely to the Phoenician goddess Astarte (Ishtar). Several of the major Greek goddesses also were identified with Tanit by the syncretic, interpretatio graeca, which recognized as Greek deities in foreign guise the deities of most of the surrounding non-Hellene cultures. A Hellenistic royal family ruled over Egypt for three centuries, a period called the Ptolemaic dynasty until the Roman conquest in 30 A.D.
Neith was a goddess of war and of hunting and had as her symbol, two crossed arrows over a shield. Her symbol also identified the city of Sais. This symbol was displayed on top of her head in Egyptian art. In her form as a goddess of war, she was said to make the weapons of warriors and to guard their bodies when they died.
Her name also may be interpreted as meaning, water. In time, this meaning led to her being considered as the personification of the primordial waters of creation. She is identified as a great mother goddess in this role as a creator.
Neith's symbol and part of her hieroglyph also bore a resemblance to a loom, and so later in the history of Egyptian myths, she also became goddess of weaving, and gained this version of her name, Neith, which means weaver. At this time her role as a creator changed from being water-based to that of the deity who wove all of the world and existence into being on her loom.
As a goddess of weaving and the domestic arts she was a protector of women and a guardian of marriage, so royal woman often named themselves after Neith, in her honour. Since she also was goddess of war, and thus had an additional association with death, it was said that she wove the bandages and shrouds worn by the mummified dead as a gift to them, and thus she began to be viewed as a protector of one of the Four sons of Horus, specifically, of Duamutef, the deification of the canopic jar storing the stomach, since the abdomen (often mistakenly associated as the stomach) was the most vulnerable portion of the body and a prime target during battle. It was said that she shot arrows at any evil spirits who attacked the canopic jar she protected.
In the late pantheon of the Ogdoad myths, she became identified as the mother of Ra and Apep. When she was identified as a water goddess, she was also viewed as the mother of Sobek, the crocodile. It was this association with water, i.e. the Nile, that led to her sometimes being considered the wife of Khnum, and associated with the source of the River Nile. She was associated with the Nile Perch as well as the goddess of the triad in that cult center.
As the goddess of creation and weaving, she was said to reweave the world on her loom daily.
The Greek historian, Herodotus (c. 484-425 BC), noted that the Egyptian citizens of Sais in Egypt worshipped Neith and that they identified her with Athena. Plato, in his Timaeus, a Socratic dialogue written circa 360 B.C., stated that Neith was the Greek goddess 'Athene' by another name, although historically they do not share the same origins. In the mid-twentieth century work, The Greek Myths (8.a ff.), Robert Graves expressed the suspicion that the worship of Neith was imported from near Lake Triton in Libya into Crete and then into Greece as the warrior goddess Athena at a very early date, perhaps as early as 3,500 BC.
In much later times, her association with war and death, led to her being identified with Nephthys (and Anouke or Ankt). Nephthys became part of the Ennead pantheon, and thus considered a wife of Set. Despite this, it was said that she interceded in the kingly war between Horus and Set, over the Egyptian throne, recommending that Horus rule.
This "kingly war" may be a mythical change brought about by the resolution of two widely-separated events involving foreign rulers who invaded Egypt. First the hated Hyksos imposed dominance of the deity Set upon the vanquished Egyptians until eventually, they could drive them out and regain native control over the country. The disruption of the traditional Egyptian culture is called the Second Intermediate Period and included the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth dynasties. This took so long, until the eighteenth dynasty, that the foreign preference for the deity had become entrenched in some areas—although losing the prominent status established by the foreigners—once they were gone. Later, when the Greek Ptolemaic rule began over Egypt, they attempted to merge Egyptian deities with similar ones in their own pantheon rather than imposing new deities. This gave the Egyptians the opportunity to have Horus return to the role that Set had overtaken as the symbol for the pharaoh in important myths. Neith, sometimes described as his mother and always associated with the protection of the pharaoh, was assigned the choice in the late myth that restored the role of Horus.
Anouke, a goddess from Asia Minor was worshiped by immigrants to ancient Egypt. This war goddess was shown wearing a curved and feathered crown and carrying a spear, or bow and arrows. Within Egypt, she was later assimilated and identified as Neith, who by that time had developed her aspects as a war goddess.
In art, Neith sometimes appears as a woman with a weavers’ shuttle atop her head, holding a bow and arrows in her hands. At other times she is depicted as a woman with the head of a lioness, as a snake, or as a cow.
Sometimes Neith was pictured as a woman nursing a baby crocodile, and she was titled "Nurse of Crocodiles". As the personification of the concept of the primordial waters of creation in the Ogdoad theology, she had no gender. As mother of Ra, she was sometimes described as the "Great Cow who gave birth to Ra".
A great festival, called the Feast of Lamps, was held annually in her honor and, according to Herodotus, her devotees burned a multitude of lights in the open air all night during the celebration.