In ancient Egypt the goddess Nut was known as mother sky. Her body was both the day and the night sky, and the sun god traveled across and through her eternally. Each night at sunset Nut ate the sun, only to give birth to him the next morning. The lifeblood shed by the sun when the goddess consumed him in the evening gave the sky its red color at sunset, while the birth blood that flowed from Nut when she bore the sun again next morning gave the sunrise a similar hue.
The ancient Egyptians had many creation myths, and in almost all of them the sky goddess Nut was one of the primordial deities. Many ancient cultures conceived of the sky as something solid, a firmament that arched over the (flat) earth. For the ancient Egyptians, Nut's body was this firmament. She was the starry sky and the eternal mother of the sun, and she played an important role in keeping the cosmos organized. Her connection with the stars linked her to the organization of the day and night into hours, the calculation of the year, and the progression of the seasons.
In the Egyptian creation stories the universe began as a watery chaos known as Nun. From this arose a creator, identified in ancient Egyptian theology with a number of gods. This deity established the world as the Egyptians knew it, creating the sky and the earth and other elements, as well as humans and animals. Afterward, although the creator deity had organized things to some extent, chaos still existed. One of Nut's major functions was to keep the world of gods and mortals from contact with each other, otherwise it was thought that anarchy would reign.
According to the oldest preserved creation myth, which appears in the Pyramid Texts (about 2400 BCE), the creator god was Atum. The Pyramid Texts were collections of spells that were written on the walls of entrances to tombs—later these spells were written on papyrus and known as Books of the Dead. In the beginning the creator was alone in a watery chaos. Atum then brought forth from himself two other deities: Shu, god of air and sunshine, and Tefnut, goddess of moisture. These two elemental gods produced Nut, goddess of the sky, and her husband and brother, Geb, the earth god. Nut and Geb in turn had four children: Isis, Osiris, Seth, and Nepthys. Those four deities were the core of the ancient Egyptian mythic system, which was used as a model for the kingship, the cycles of nature, and the death and rebirth of human beings.
Egyptian mythology, like Greek and Roman mythology, often offered many versions of the same events. Thus although Nut was always seen as the mate of Geb and mother of Isis, Osiris, Seth, and Nepthys, she was also described as both "mother of all the gods" and "mother of the sun god."
Different versions of events developed because myths evolved over 3,000 years, and because priests of various deities desired to make their own local god or goddess more prominent and important. This desire also led priests to identify one god with another and merge their personalities. For example, since Re was probably the most prominent and ancient god of the pantheon, Horus merged with him to become Re-horakhty, while Amun absorbed many of Re's characteristics to become Amun-Re.
Nut appears in three main forms: as the personification of the sky, as one of the judges of the dead, and as the heavenly cow. The most common of these forms is a naked woman whose star-studded body was depicted stretched across the ceilings of temples and royal tombs, and even inside sarcophagi (stone coffins). In the royal tombs of the 19th and 20th Egyptian dynasties (about 1200 to 1000 BCE), Nut's image is doubled to show that she is both the day and the night sky.
Except for the stars that are scattered across her body, in this form the goddess had no crowns or other insignia. The stars and her position, outstretched across the lid or ceiling, were sufficient to identify her—there was never any other deity who filled this role.
Illustrations from Books of the Dead also depict Nut's husband, Geb. He is shown lying prone, or raised on one elbow, beneath his wife. The couple are separated by their father, Shu, who stands between them holding up the body of the goddess. Sometimes their mother, Tefnut, is also shown standing upon the body of Geb.
In this form Nut was not only the vehicle for the sun's daily rebirth, and for the rebirth of Osiris and his representative the king, but also eventually for all Egyptians. In Books of the Dead her belly is described as a "secret cavern" through which the sun passes at night. Few intact royal burials have been found, but probably most New Kingdom (c. 1540–c. 1075 BCE) pharaohs were buried inside two or more mummy-shaped coffins of rich materials, contained within a rectangular sarcophagus. On the inside lid of a number of these royal sarcophagi, Nut was depicted outstretched above the king.
In some of these images Nut was shown holding her breast. The milk of various goddesses was necessary to assist the king at crucial stages in his life: for example, at birth, at his coronation, and on his journey into the afterlife. According to ancient Egyptian hymns and prayers, Nut offered this milk to the king so that he would be restored to youth when he had (symbolically) passed through her body to be reborn. Royal tombs in ancient Egypt were intended to mirror the sun's journey to rebirth. Because he was believed to be son of the sun god, the pharaoh was also entitled to immortality via the goddess's body. Thus, the tomb, sarcophagus, and coffins themselves might also be seen as representations of Nut.
While the image of Nut as the personification of sky was the most easily recognizable and popular one, she also appeared in other forms. In copies of the Book of the Dead made for wealthy, nonroyal individuals, Nut might also have appeared as one of the judges of the dead. After death, human beings were called to the underworld to have their hearts weighed against a feather symbolizing cosmic order (Maat). Osiris presided over this ceremony, and Thoth, god of wisdom, history, and writing, kept a record of the results. Twelve other gods and goddesses formed a jury. Among them were Geb, Tefnut, Shu, and Nut.
Nut was also visualized as the heavenly cow. As with the most common of her human forms, this image of Nut depicted her body covered with stars. As the heavenly cow, Nut could do many of the things her human form could also do. For example, she could give milk, which helped restore the deceased king or sun god, and give birth.
Egyptian cattle, including cows, were all horned, and the horns of the heavenly cow caught the sun at sunset and held him as he began his nighttime journey. The idea that the sky deity was a horned cow probably derived from the similarity in shape of the curved horns of the heavenly cow and the valleys in the cliffs along the Nile. All along the river the habitable land is bracketed by cliffs. These cliffs are broken up by wadis, the valleys left by rivers that flowed many thousands of years ago. Often, as the sun in Egypt rises or sets, it appears on the horizon framed by the rock walls of a wadi.
In her cow form Nut could be compared to other deities who could take bovine shape, and eventually she was identified with more than one of them. For example, one version of the Book of the Dead makes reference to a seemingly unnamed cow goddess who emerged from the primordial waters to initiate the creation of the organized universe of gods and humans. She is sometimes known to scholars as the "great swimmer."
Another cow goddess was Hesat. Some myths say that she gave birth to the king in the form of a calf. She has been described as a milk goddess, although her udders apparently produced a heavenly liquid more like beer. She was worshiped because this liquid could quench the thirst of all humankind.
The most important of the other cow deities, however, was Hathor. As a sky goddess and a mother goddess, she was always one of the most important of the Egyptian pantheon, and she was one of the goddesses who eventually absorbed Nut's personality and duties. Although she often appeared as a beautiful woman, she could be shown with cow ears or even entirely in the form of a cow.
Hathor was also lady of the southern sycamore, a tree that had great symbolic value in ancient Egypt. Its wood was often used to make coffins, and thus many funerary goddesses, including Isis and Nut, were also identified as ladies of the sycamore. As lady of the sycamore a goddess would be depicted as a sycamore tree with arms emerging from it, or as a woman emerging from the top of the tree.
Nut is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, the slightly later Coffin Texts, and the Books of the Dead, and she is widely represented on tomb ceilings, coffins, and sarcophagi. However, for a goddess of such antiquity and importance there are surprisingly few references to her in Egyptian myths. Unlike most other Egyptian gods and goddesses of creation, Nut had no special city or cult center. The reason for this may have been because, in many cultures, deities associated with the underworld, and thus with the earth, did not have formal temples. However, in some temples built by the Greek and Roman rulers of Egypt, there are chapels to Nut. Unfortunately, these chapels cannot tell us much about the way Nut was originally worshiped, since by the time the Romans ruled Egypt, Nut had been absorbed by other goddesses, such as Hathor.
See also: ATUM; BOOK OF THE DEAD; CREATION MYTHS; EGYPT; GEB; HORUS; ISIS; NEPTHYS; OSIRIS; RE; SETH.
- The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. .
- The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003. .
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