Neith and the Two Biblical Deborahs: One and the Same
Presented at the annual meeting of the American Research Center in
Egypt, Atlanta 1995
The bible makes reference to two separate women named Deborah. One
was the nurse to Abrahams son Isaac and the other was, in the
much later period of the Judges, a military leader referred to as
a mother in Israel. Both seem to have mythic images and
both are identified with a particular Tree of Weeping.
The Egyptian goddess Neith has a reputation as both a military
figure and as a mother goddess and nurse, characteristics that caused
the Greeks to identify her with the goddess Athena. In Hebrew,
Deborah means Bee and that symbol is closely identified
with Neith. A Temple to Neith was called House of the Bee,
and the Bee was the symbol of kingship in Lower Egypt.
In this paper I will argue that both Deborahs were mythological
figures based on Hebrew recollections of the goddess Neith, the
goddess who ruled in the area of Egypt where Israel dwelled in
earlier times. In support of this argument I will draw upon some
materials in Plutarchs account of the Osiris myth, which
suggests that Neith may have been associated with a Tree of Weeping.
I will also make other mythological comparisons between Neith and the
Prior to the onset of the Hebrew monarchy, the Old Testament tells of
two woman named Deborah, one a nurse, the other a warrior/judge.
Although chronologically separated by several centuries, the two
Deborahs appear to be related, not only by name but apparently by a
tree known as the tree of weeping. The tree reference,
however, is somewhat ambiguous.
The first Deborah, the nurse, is buried beneath a tree known as
either the tree of weeping or the Oak of
Weeping. The second Deborah, the warrior/judge, is introduced
to us as sitting beneath The Palm of Deborah. The
ambiguity comes from the fact that the phrase Oak of
Weeping uses the Hebrew word allon, one of several
possible words for oak, but which is often used to refer
to any large or important tree of any species. In both instances, the
tree is located in the religiously important city of Bethel, leading
many commentators to suggest that both trees are one and the same. We
will return to the image of a Tree of Weeping further
below, when we consider a portion of the Osiris cycle.
The name Deborah, in Hebrew, means bee. In Lower Egypt,
the bee was the symbol of kingship. Also, the Goddess Neith, one of
the more important deities in Lower Egypt, had a temple known as
the House of the Bee. That Neith, a goddess who has a
dual nature as both nurturer and warrior, is symbolically connected
to the bee, suggested to me the possibility that this goddess might
be mythologically related to the two Deborahs, each representing a
different aspect of Neiths character. I thought, therefore, it
might be interesting to see if there were any other literary or
symbolic connections between Neith and the two Deborahs. The
examination revealed numerous pieces of evidence suggesting that such
a connection existed.
Let us begin with the two Deborahs. About Deborah the Nurse there is
very little information. Strangely, all we know about her comes from
her obituary. We are told only that she died, she was the nurse of
Rebekah, that she was buried beneath an oak in Beth-El, and that the
oak was named Allon-bachuth, which means tree of weeping.
(G:35:8). Why the tree was so named is not stated. There is no
previous mention of her existence prior to this death notice,
suggesting that portions of her story were omitted in transmission.
The second Deborah, the warrior/judge, is one of those rarest of
historical characters, a woman of such charismatic presence that she
served as both the spiritual and military leader of a nation. The
bible provides two different accounts of her story, a prose version
in Judges 4 and a poetic version in Judges 5. Most biblical scholars
consider the poetic version to be much older than the prose. In fact,
they consider the poetic version to be one of the oldest original
texts in the bible, perhaps contemporary with the twelfth century
events that it describes.
In both versions there is a powerful Canaanite king named Jabin,
whose army is led by a general named Sisera; Deborah promotes a
rebellion against this king and is aided by a Hebrew general named
Barak; Barak defeats Siseras army and Sisera flees from the
field, seeking hospitality in the tent of Heber the Kenite, a neutral
in the dispute; but while in the tent, Hebers wife, Jael,
sympathizing with the Hebrews, strikes Sisera dead.
There are some differences between the two, however. In the prose
version, Barak is hesitant about taking on the battle, and says to
Deborah, If thou wilt go with me, then I will go. If thou wilt
not go with me, then I will not go. Deborah agrees to accompany
him, but prophesies that despite his journey, he will not achieve
glory for his victory. Instead, she predicts that Sisera will be
killed by a woman. Deborah leaves with Barak, and then disappears
from the story. Barak administers a defeat to Siseras army and
Sisera flees, winding up in Jaels tent where she drives a tent
peg through his skull while he sleeps.
In the poetic version there is no hesitation on Baraks part or
prophesy about his achievements. Instead, Deborah calls out a roll of
the tribes, praising those who heeded her battle cry and condemning
those who held back. This recitation of a tribal roll call involving
all of Israel is absent in the prose version, which talks only of the
tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon, Naphtali being the territory from
which Jabin ruled. In the poetic version, Sisera is struck through
the head while sitting and eating.
Another difference between the two versions is one of style. The
prose version comes across as a simple story about battling kings and
generals. The poetic version, however, seems to have echoes of an
earlier cosmological battle.
In the course of the poem, Deborah sings The inhabitants of the
villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose,
that I arose a mother in Israel. Then she says They chose
new gods; then was war in the gates: Later we are told,
They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought
The identification of Deborah as a mother in Israel is
somewhat ambiguous. The text never refers to any of her children. The
only two persons with whom she is associated are her husband,
Lapidoth, and Barak. Does the reference to a mother in
Israel describe her role as an actual parent or is it a
throwback to her image as a mother goddess? We will return to this
question after we consider the nature of Neith.
Neith was one of Egypts oldest and most important deities. She
was most prominent in the delta region of Sais, and her cult goes
back to predynastic times. Her name appears as an element in the name
of Queen Neithotep, who was married to either Narmer or Hor-Aha the
founders of the first dynasty. The marriage of an Upper Egyptian
warrior-king to a queen named after a prominent Lower Egyptian deity
suggests to some scholars that the unification of Egypt may have
begun with a military venture but ended with a diplomatic marriage.
Neith was mostly noted as a fierce warrior who had a strong domestic
side to her. Although her symbol was a pair of crossed arrows over a
shield, she was also identified as the patroness of weaving and as a
mortuary goddess. Together with Isis, Nephthys, and Selket, she
watched over Osiriss bier. As patroness of weaving, the mummy
shrouds and bandages used to wrap the deceased were thought of as her
gift, permitting the deceased to partake of her divine power.
More important though, among some Egyptians she was identified as
both the author of Creation and/or as the consort of the author of
Creation. In the temple at Esna, she is described as Father of
the fathers, mother of the mothers, a phrase that is intended
to identify her with the process of Creation. Since the god Khnum is
also associated at the Esna temple with the process of Creation, it
is apparent that she and Khnum shared a joint role in the process,
making her a mother goddess in the fullest sense of that term.
Her role as both mother goddess and warrior is most evident from the
Hymn to Neith preserved at the Esna temple, where she is quoted as saying:
An august god will come into being today. When he opens his
eyes, light will come into being; when he closes them, darkness will
come into being. People will come into being from the tears of his
eye, gods from the spittle of his lips. I will strengthen him by my
strength, I will make him effective by my efficacy, I will, make him
vigorous by my vigor. His children will rebel against him, but they
will be beaten on his behalf and struck down on his behalf, for he is
my son issued from my body, and he will be king of this land forever.
I will protect him with my arms . . .. I am going to tell you his
name: It will be Khepri in the morning and Atum in the evening; and
he will be the radiating god in his rising forever, in his name of
Re, every day.
Compare elements of this hymn with the Song of Deborah.
1. Deborah and Neith both talk about their role as a mother;
2. Deborah and Neith each talk about how their actions led to an
increase in population;
3. In both stories we find a rebellion of new gods battling against heaven;
4. In both stories, the mother, in her role as mother, promise to
intervene in the fighting;
5. In both stories, the mother fights on the side of the chief deity;
6. In both stories there is talk about the enemy being struck down; and
7. In both stories the side representing the chief deity wins.
Additionally, we note that in the prose version, Barak is made
effective by Deborahs participation, and, in the Hymn to Neith,
Re was made effective and vigorous by the actions of the goddess.
One difference between the two stories is that the Neith is
identified as the mother of the chief deity, but the child of Deborah
is not named. This is not surprising given the monotheistic nature of
Hebrew religion. Permitting a character to have too close a
resemblance to the chief Egyptian deity would be highly offensive.
Although we dont know the name of Deborahs child, we do
know the names of the only two persons with a close relation to her.
Her husbands name, Lapidoth, translates as torches.
Baraks name means lightening. Both of these names
are interesting in connection with the iconography of Neith.
One of the features of Neith worship, according to Herodotus, was a
great festival known as the Feast of Lamps, during which her devotees
all through the night kept numerous lights burning. So we have Neith,
who is worshipped at the House of the Bee with a festival of torches,
and Deborah, the Bee who is married to
torches. A coincidence? Perhaps, but certainly very
suggestive of a close mythological relationship.
Neith and Deborah also have a connection as Judges. In the New
Kingdom story known as the Contendings of Horus and Set,
Neith appears twice in a judiciary role. In this story, Set and Horus
sue for the right to succeed Osiris as king of Egypt. Early in the
story we are told that the struggle has been going on for eighty
years but the dispute was unresolved. The gods then implored Thoth to
send a letter to Neith, asking for guidance on how to resolve the
dispute. Neith replied that the office should go to Horus, and then
adds that if the gods dont award judgment to Horus, I
shall become so furious that the sky will touch the ground.
This threat sounds very much like a description of lightening, an
interesting phrase considering that Deborahs general, the
enforcer of her will, is named lightening. Later in the
story of the Contendings, Neith is once again called upon
to make a decision.
From the above, we can see a number of points of comparison between
Neith and Deborah the warrior/judge. Not only were there thematic
similarities between the Hymn to Neith and the Song of Deborah, we
find both are judges, both are associated with the bee, and both have
an important connection to torches and perhaps lightening. All of
these connections, however, apply primarily to Neith and Deborah the
warrior/judge. What about Neith and Deborah the Nurse?
We noted earlier that the two Deborahs appear to be symbolically
linked together by the tree of weeping. Although there is
some ambiguity in this identification, I believe that a portion of
the Osiris myth provides some evidence of a connection between the
tree of weeping, the two Deborahs and Neith.
We have no full Egyptian version of the Osiris myth, only bits and
pieces from inscriptions and paintings. Our chief source for the full
story is the Greek writer Plutarch, but his version suffers from a
number of problems. It is a very late version that may have evolved
from the original, and he succumbs to the Greek practice of
interpolating Greek names and beliefs for elements in the Egyptian story.
Without going into full detail, suffice it to say that in
Plutarchs account, Set trapped Osiris in a chest and floated it
out to sea. The chest somehow wound up in Byblos and lodged in the
branches of a Tamarisk bush, which shot up in a very short time to
become a large and beautiful tree that completely enveloped the
chest. The king, amazed at the giant size, cut it down and used the
portion containing the chest as a pillar to support the roof of his house.
The king and queen of Byblos are identified as Melkart and Astarte,
both of whom are actually chief deities of Byblos. However, Plutarch
indicates that some say the queen was named Athena, not Astarte. Now,
due to Plutarchs substitution of Greek god names for foreign
god names, we can not be sure which goddess was the true queen. It
might have been some other Canaanite deity, such as Anath, but, we
must recall that the Greeks identified Athena with Neith. Also, we
cant be sure that in the original version of this story, the
king and queen werent located in the Egyptian delta rather than Byblos.
Nevertheless, returning to the story, Isis learns of her
husbands location and sets out after him. She takes a job as
nurse to the queen and cares for her child. Each night she would put
the child into a fire to burn away his mortal parts, and she would
transform herself into a swallow and hover around the pillar,
bemoaning her sad fate. Iconographically, we have a nurse weeping by
a tree, a tree of weeping if you will. However, the nurse
is Isis, and the queen, who may be Neith, is the mother, a case of
role reversal that makes true identification with Deborah a bit troublesome.
In this regard, however, I want to take note of another Greek myth,
written down much earlier than Plutarchs account, the myth of
Io. As you may recall, Io was Zeuss lover and he transformed
her into a cow to protect her from Hera, his wife. But Hera
wasnt fooled and sent a gadfly to torment the cow. The cow
tried to escape and eventually wound up in Egypt. Subsequently, she
has a son but the son is kidnapped to Byblos where, according to
Apollodorus, the wife of the king of Byblos was nursing her
son. Apollodorus also adds that the Greeks identified Io with Isis.
Note that in this story, which appears to draw upon some of the same
story elements as in Plutarchs account of Isiss trip to
Byblos, it is the queen of Byblos who is the nurse, not the Isis
character, and it is Isiss son that is being nursed, not the queens.
Resuming Plutarchs account, the queen discovered what Isis was
doing with her child, but not realizing that the procedure was
intended to confer immortality, she cried out and prevented the
immortality from taking hold. Isis asked for the pillar, and cut out
the chest. She took the remaining stump, wrapped it in linen, and
poured perfume over it. She then gave it to the queen and it was
subsequently worshipped as an icon of Isis.
The appearance of the queen alongside Isis as she watches over the
chest of Osiris, reminds us that Neith, in her mortuary aspect, also
stood by Isis as she watched over the bier of Osiris. Furthermore,
Neith was associated with the linen wrappings on the mummy during the
funerary process, and in the story, the queen winds up holding the
linen wrapped tree stump.
In attempting to connect Deborah the nurse with Neith, we showed some
similarities in story elements between the Plutarch account and the
biblical obituary. However, in the Plutarch version, it is Isis, not
Neith, who is depicted as the nurse, a case of role reversal. We also
noted that in the myth of Io, though, it is the queen who is the
nurse. This problem with role reversal, may have to do with
Neiths connection to the bee, the symbol of kingship in Lower
Egypt. As the symbol of kingship she appears alongside the king in
her symbolic royal role rather than in her nurturing role.
Perhaps the most important icon linking Neith to Deborah the nurse is
the Tree of Weeping. The bible omits the explanation for
that name, but in the Plutarch story we see the sad nature of the
tree. It has encased the body of Isiss husband within. The need
to eliminate from the bible any clear connections between biblical
characters and important Egyptian deities may account for why
Deborahs story has been so truncated.
The abbreviation of the story of Deborah the Nurse to just a death
notice certainly hampers us in our effort to develop this
Deborahs true identity. Nevertheless, her name and association
with the tree of weeping forges a good iconographic
connection to Deborah the judge, for whom there appears to be
substantial evidence for a link to Neith.
In conclusion, I would say that there is strong evidence that the
Song of Deborah drew heavily upon the iconography of the
Egyptian goddess Neith. The evidence is less strong but certainly
suggestive that the story of Deborah the nurse drew heavily upon the
story of Isiss search for Osiris, but that Neiths
association with the bee as a symbol of kingship led to a role
reversal between her and Isis, and confused the story in
transmission. The symbol of the bee and the link to a tree of
weeping seems to be the common thread that binds the two
Deborahs to each other and to Neith.