Athene and Neith: A comparison
According to the Greco-Roman historian and philosopher Plutarch of Chaironeia, the goddess Neith – whom he identified with his own Athene – was a primordial creatrix and one of the oldest divinities known to man. In her temple at Sais, he records, there can be found the following inscription above her monumental cult-statue: “I am all that has been and is and will be; no mortal has ever lifted my mantle.”
Plutarch, as is so often the case, was faithfully preserving authentic Egyptian traditions when he wrote this. At the very least Neith’s worship stretches back to protodynastic times where she appears to have been the primary goddess around which gathered loose tribal federations that would one day become the Lower Egyptian Kingdom. She was a potent and cunning goddess of warfare and hunting as evidenced by her earliest emblem, a pair of crossed arrows mounted on a pillar. She was honored with epithets such as “Mistress of the Bow,” “Bringer of Victory,” “Fierce and Vanquishing Eye of Re,” and “Opener of the Way” when she led the king in processions and during his military and hunting expeditions. Indeed her ferocity and power was invoked in a passage from the Pyramid Texts that runs, “May the terror of you come into being like the crown of Neith which is upon the King of Lower Egypt.” (724) With the unification of Egypt Neith’s political preeminence waned somewhat, especially during the Middle and New Kingdoms though that changed in the 7th century BCE with the rise of the Saite Dynasty who once again made her a supreme national deity. Her fortunes fluctuated during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, though she always remained a locally important goddess in the Delta region on up to the Christianization of the country. Part of the appeal of her cult for the Greek and Roman settlers in Egypt lay in her early identification with the goddess Athene. Plato speaks of it as a commonplace and indeed obvious fact and makes much of the strong ties between Athens and Sais in his legend of the destruction of Atlantis. Herodotos goes so far as to argue that the conventional Homeric account of the goddess Athene’s birth from the head of Zeus was a lie – she was actually an Egyptian goddess who sprang up on the shores of Lake Triton in Libya and he records the military dances with clashing weapons conducted by the warrior-women of the area who were especially dedicated to her.
It is easily understood why the ancients so closely identified these two. Not only were they both intelligent, independent martial goddesses invoked for their ability to bring victory in battle and protect their favored cities, but they also had a good deal else in common.
Both of them were virgin goddesses who demonstrated conventionally masculine traits. (Admittedly more so in the case of Neith who is described as “two thirds male and one third female.”)
Both of them were credited with inventing the loom and presided over weaving, handicrafts, pottery and assorted other domestic arts.
Both were hailed for their wisdom and sage counsel – compare Athene’s mentoring of Odysseus with what is said of Neith in the Merenptah Stele and the Contendings of Horus and Seth.
Athene was the patron of scientists and physical philosophers while Neith oversaw medicine and magic.
Both were concerned with dispensing justice and maintaining order.
Both were associated with serpents.
Both promoted vegetative fertility – Athene through her gift of the olive tree and the dew-producing rites of the Arrephoria, Neith through the important role she played in the annual flooding of the Nile.
And both adopted sons – Erichthonios in the case of Athene, Sobek for Neith.
One could extend these parallels on seemingly indefinitely – which is amusing because as a semi-hard polytheist I am not entirely convinced of their identity. Even so, it’s certainly understandable why the ancients saw them in this light, and it wasn’t just the intellectual elites like Plato, Herodotos, Plutarch, Proclus and Horapollon who did so. We have plenty of documentary evidence from the common people and native priestly establishment attesting this syncretism such as mention of a festival for Athene in the official temple calendar at Sais or a theophoric name that reads Nit in Egyptian but Athene when translated into Greek. And what’s really interesting is that this syncretism didn’t end there. Apparently in the Delta there used to be a Coptic church of the Virgin Mary built on the ruins of a Greco-Egyptian chapel of Athene which itself supplanted a much earlier structure dedicated to Neith. Sometimes the more things change the more they remain the same. Nor is this the only way these goddesses have survived in the popular imagination. There is also the Jewish legend of Asenath, daughter of Potiphera the High Priest of Heliopolis, a young virgin who spurned her numerous suitors preferring to spend time at the loom or tending her idols, until she met the patriarch Joseph. This legend, which was written down in the second century of the common era in the style of a Greek Romance, was immensely popular during the Medieval period, inspiring many pilgrims to come visit marvelous Egypt. Perhaps they felt the pull of the goddesses whose names are reflected in Asenath’s theophoric.