Ancient Egypt was divided into two parts: 1) the black lands which compromised the fertile valley of the Nile where almost every Egyptian lived and; 2) the red lands–the burning deserts on both sides of the Nile which were virtually uninhabited but which provided gold, copper, stone, and other precious raw materials vital to Egypt’s interest. The red lands were divided into the Arabian Desert which stretched away east of the Nile to the Red Sea and the Libyan Desert which lay westward and into the trackless Sahara. The black lands were also divided in two: Lower Egypt consisted of the lush green swamps of the Delta in the north (this territory runs from the 30th parallel to the Mediterranean); Upper Egypt, stretched from Lower Egypt up through the Nile valley into the higher altitudes (hence the name) and terminated at the southern cataracts where the lands of Nubia began.
This is important background information for today’s post which concerns the cobra goddess Wadjet and tomorrow’s post about the three crowns of Egypt. As you may recall from previous posts about the rainbow serpent and Nuwa, I have an abiding affection for snake gods. Egypt actually had several snake deities but the most important was Wadjet, the ancient cobra goddess who served as protector and patron deity of Lower Egypt. Originally Wadjet was a local deity of Per-Wadjet, a venerable city on the Sebennytic arm of the Nile (one of several branches which the Nile takes through the Delta). Per-Wadjet developed from a truly ancient pre-dynastic city of Deb (which in turn came from a Paleolithic settlement over ten thousand years old) and was the sight of a famous oracle renowned throughout Lower Egypt. The Greeks later christened the city as “Buto” and it has been surmised that Wadjet’s oracle may have played some role in the Greek worship of serpent oracles.
When Menes (whom modern scholars increasingly identify as Narmer, the catfish king) united Upper Egypt with Lower Egypt to become the first pharaoh, the culture of the Lower Egypt was largely subsumed, but Wadjet’s role expanded greatly. Wadjet came to represent all of Lower Egypt. In such a guise she was one of the deities who protected the monarchy and the pharaoh. The symbol of Wadjet was the uraeus, the stylized upright spitting cobra which Pharaohs wore on their brow. But despite her royal trappings, Wadjet also remained the goddess of women in childbirth, who were under her direct protection.
Wadjet literally means “the papyrus colored one” or “the green one” which was an appropriate designation for the goddess of the Nile Delta. Our picture of ancient Egypt is often built around the desert, but the Nile Delta is a wet region today and it was even more so during the age of the pharaohs. Great shallow wetlands were filled with papyrus and reeds, which in turn hosted countless fish and waterfowl. Crocodiles and hippos flourished there in ancient times (as did poisonous snakes). As with most Egyptian deities, Wadjet’s form was depicted in many different ways: sometimes she was a cobra or a snake with a woman’s torso. Other times she appeared as a woman with a snake’s head, a two-headed snake, or a woman wearing the uraeus. Wadjet was associated with the Milky Way–the primal serpent. In later dynasties she was elided with sundry other gods and goddesses most notably the goddess Bast. Wadjet-Bast was a very fearsome deity combining the attributes of a lion and a cobra!
Wadjet was not merely a deity of this world. The ancient Egyptians were profoundly interested in their place in the afterlife and Wadjet was of critical importance there. To quote webcalf.com, “In the Book of the Dead, Wadjet protects the souls of the deceased by destroying their enemies in the Underworld.” An ancient myth about Wadjet shows her foremost as a divine protector. Her sacred city Per Wadjet was the location where Isis gave birth to Horus. Set, the evil god of the red desert sought to destroy mother and child, but Wadjet wove stalks of papyrus into a screen and hid the pair beneath this blind deep in her marshes.
Wadjet had a twin sister, the vulture goddess Nekhbet who was the protector and patron of Upper Egypt and was shown as a white vulture. White vultures were symbolic of purity because ancient Egyptians (incorrectly) believed they were all female and reproduced without males. Nekbeht is a fascinating figure in her own right (but I am writing about snake gods—you can go start your own vulture god blog). The two sister goddesses were symbolic of all of Egypt and they frequently appear together and were worshiped as the “two ladies.” Additionally Wadjet was goddess of the red crown of Lower Egypt and Nekhbet was the goddess of the white crown, but that is a subject for tomorrow.