Neith and the Acacia Tree

Acacia trees in Morocco. Photo L. Mahin.


Our tree goddess this week is the goddess Neith (Neit), and her tree is the acacia. The acacia is a small scrawny tree with tiny leaves and pronounced thorns. It has a long fibrous seedpod that is attractive to animals and is often used as fodder for cattle. There are over a thousand trees with the common name acacia, and they grow all over the world in arid climates. One species in northern Africa, probably the tree of Neith, is the Vachellia nilotica, also called the Egyptian thorn or the gum arabic tree. The ancient Egyptians used the very hard wood of this acacia for making tools. The sap, called gum arabic in its powdered form, was used for incense, perfume, cosmetics, glue, pigment binder, and embalming. Gum arabic from a related acacia native to sub Sahara Africa is still used for a variety of commercial purposes, especially the manufacture of candy.

Probably the most important quality of the acacia is its globular, fragrant yellow flowers, which draw quantities of bees. Honey has been a vital food going back to the hunter/gatherer tribes of Paleolithic times. When Egypt adopted a grain-based diet, honey remained important not only as a food of pleasure but as a catalyst in bread rising and fermentation. In the complex Egyptian economy that nonetheless had not developed a metal currency, honey was a medium for paying taxes. Not only was it valuable, but it kept well. Honey was a staple food offering to the gods.

Parakeet feeding on acacia pod. Hyderbad, India. Photo J.M. Garg.



The symbol for Neith is the bee, and the bee hieroglyph can mean Neith, Lower (northern) Egypt, or the ruler of Lower Egypt, depending on the context. Neith is the oldest of the Egyptian gods, the mother of all the gods. It was she who emerged first from the amorphous primeval waters, and she who created the first mound of earth to rest upon. The round yellow flowers on her sacred tree reflect her position as mother of the sun, as does the sun-loving bee. Like many sun goddesses, she is the goddess of weaving, which is why the Greeks associated her with Athena. Neith gave the Egyptians the bandages used to wrap the deceased, and gum from her tree was the adhesive holding the bandages. Acacia resin was one of many substances used as an embalming preservative.

Aegis of Neith. 600 BCE. Photo Rama.

Unlike many creator gods, Neith did not create the world and retreat, but could be relied upon for continued gifts and sustenance. The gods drew on her wisdom in times of crisis, appealing to her for counsel through written messages, which Neith responded to with letters of her own.

In historical times Neith gained prominence as her city Sais rose in influence during the seventh century BCE, but Neith was probably worshiped in Lower Egypt long before dynasties or agriculture, when people still hunted for food. The crossed arrows on her crown probably originated as a hunting emblem, and may also relate to the defensive stinger of the bee and the defensive thorns on the acacia.

Primarily Neith is a goddess of sustenance, engaged in the perpetual creation of life. Out of just one tree she created incense, perfume, wood for implements, seedpods for cattle, pigment binder for ink and paint, materials for embalming and food for bees, not to mention welcome shade in a hot dry climate.


Sources

Barrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The mythology and beliefs of ancient Egypt. London: Diamond Books, 1996.

Clark, R.T. Rundle. Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt. London: Thames and Hudson, 1959.

Acacia flowers. Photo Phillipe Birnbaum.



Jay, Lisa and Nessi Domizlaff. Ancient Egyptian Art: The Relationships Among Binders, Pigments and Surfaces, 2005.

Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol. 11, No. 2. REVIEW ON THE MATERIALS USED DURING MUMMIFICATION PROCESSES IN ANCIENT EGYPT, 2011.

Wilson, Hilary. Egyptian Food and Drink. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Egyptology, 2001.

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