The Greek writer Plutarch, who tells us of this inscription, further tells us that the statue was that of Isis, although the centre is now known to have been dedicated to a more ancient goddess known as Neith. The goddess Neith had associations with weaving and the loom, and this powerful creator goddess was said to have used her loom to weave the world into existence. The power of Neith was therefore not so much that she could create, but that she could create without the need of a god. Neith was complete unto herself.
It was Neith who gave birth to the life-giving sun, Ra the great, who went on to create all things in the world. Ra is so powerful, so glorious, that even now we know that we cannot look directly at his face for too long without risking damage to our eyesight. But what of Neith? The mysterious inscription tells us that no mere human has raised her veil. Is the inscription a warning? Would the sight of the face of this goddess be too overwhelming for us to bear?
This idea is echoed in the Greek myth of Semele, the mortal woman who begged mighty Zeus to reveal his face to her. The god obliged, and Semele was struck dead on the spot. But is this idea what is also intended for Neith? The fact that feminine Neith is a goddess, not a god, seems somehow to alter the picture. In the nineteenth century Neith became a favoured subject for artists who, surrounded by the growing advances of the time in science, interpreted the subject of lifting the veil of Neith as uncovering the secrets of the natural world. In this interpretation, each new discovery of science was lifting the veil of Neith just that little bit farther. It is science that is raising the veil of the goddess! But is it?
Gnosticism, which itself is steeped in such mystic ideas, suggests that there are two different kinds of mysteries: there is the kind of mystery that might not be known to us now, but will in time come to be known. But there is also a more powerful kind of mystery: the kind that by its very nature is mysterious, that always will remain an unknown. The inscription on the statue of Neith clearly tells us that the goddess is eternal, that she is beyond time. She is “all that has been, all that is and all that will be.” These are things that no mortal can know. We cannot know of things which are yet to come. We cannot raise the veil of the future.
The veil of wise Neith remains lowered. Her features always will be hidden from us, and for that we should be grateful. In refusing to lift her veil the goddess has given us a precious gift. We cannot know what is to come, and so we must learn to live in trust.
Sculpture Le Souvenir by Marius Jean Antonin Mercié, 1885, detail