Egypt: Nehebkau, the God who Joined the Ka to the Body, God of Protection and Magic

Nehebkau, the God who Joined the Ka to the Body,
God of Protection and Magic

by Caroline Seawright

nhhbcross determinativekaw ka with appendage determinative

Nehebkau (Nehebu-Kau, Nehebkhau), 'He Who Unites the Kas', was a benevolent snake god who the Egyptians believed was one of the original primeval gods. He was linked to the sun god, swimming around in the primeval waters before creation, then bound to the sun god when time began. He was a god of protection who protected the pharaoh and all Egyptians, both in life and in the afterlife.

Homage to thee, Netethib, daughter of these four gods who are in the Great House. Even when the command of Unas goes not forth, uncover yourselves in order that Unas may see you as Horus seeth Isis, as Nehebkau seeth Serqet, as Sobek seeth Nit, and as Set seeth Netethib.

-- Pyramid Text of Unas

He was depicted in the form of a snake with arms and legs, occasionally with wings. He is sometimes shown holding containers of food in his hands, in offering to the deceased. Less often, he is shown as a two headed snake, with a head at each end of the reptilian body.

His name comes from the ancient Egyptian word for 'yoke together' or 'unite', nhb nhhbcross determinative, with the word for the plural of a part of the spirit, the ka kaw. His name means that he is the one that brings together the ka - the double of a person, an animal, a plant, a body of water or even a stone - and unites the double with the physical body that the ka would reside in, be it an animate or inanimate object.

Homage to you, O ye gods, who are masters of [your] beards, and who are holy by reason of your scepters. Speak ye for me words of good import to Ra, and make ye me to have favor in the sight of Nehebkau.

-- The Chapter of Not Letting the Heart of Nun, Whose Word is Truth, be Driven Away from Him in Khert-Neter, The Book of the Dead

In life, Nehebkau was invoked by the people to protect them from and cure them of venomous bites. The Egyptians believed that he swallowed seven (a magical number) cobras, using them for his magical power. It was thought that he was one of the gods who announced the new pharaoh to the gods, at the beginning of his rule. He was at one point a rather fierce and aggressive deity, and the god Atem had to press his nail into Nehebkau's spine, so he could control the snake god. He could not be overcome with magic, fire or water.

The Form of a Winged Snake

After death, it was Nehebkau who protected and fed the pharaoh, offering food and water to the other justified dead. The drink was known as the 'Milk of Light', magical liquid that would heal the deceased had they been bitten by a poisonous animal. He was one of the forty two gods in the Halls of Ma'at, who helped to judge over the deceased.

O Nehebkau who comes from the city:
I have not sought to make myself unduly distinguished.

-- The Negative Confessions, The Book of the Dead

One tradition states that he is the son of the scorpion goddess Serqet, and another says that he is the son of the earth god Geb and Renenutet, the goddess who gave the rn - the true name - to each child at birth. He was a form of the sun god while he lived in the waters of Nun, before creation. He swam in the water in the form of a snake with the other primeval gods, living in chaos.

Snake Form, with Human Legs

Among the greatest of the festivals ... were those in honor of Nehebkau which, according to Dr. Brugsch, were celebrate on of Tybi [the fifth month], that is to say, nine days after the 'Festival of Ploughing the Earth'.

-- The Gods of the Egyptians, E. A. Wallis Budge

Nehebkau did not have a priesthood, but many people invoked him in magical spells to gain his protection and cures against snakebites. He was a snake god of protection, who was called on when the people needed him. He was, they believed, one of the original gods of Egypt, only turned from chaos by the sun god. He was a benevolent god, a god of magic who bound the ka with the physical form, and who judged them in the afterlife. Although he did not have a cult following of his own, he was a god who they invoked in magical spells, both in life and in the land of the dead.


Last Updated: June 11th, 2011