Nut – Mistress of the Heavens

Figure 1: Pectoral of the Sky Goddess Nut, with her name circled. From the Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62), Valley of the Kings, West Thebes. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 61944
https://old.egypt-museum.com/post/638403734538518528/pectoral-of-sky-goddess-nut

This week I decided to explore an ancient Egyptian goddess who played a pivotal role in Egyptian mythology and the cosmos at large. This goddess is the goddess Nut. The goddess Nut, pronounced Nout, is the personification of the night sky and the heavens above.

Like many ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses there are a few ways that they can be depicted. In anthropomorphic form Nut is identifiable by the circular ‘nw’ pot that often appears above her head, sometimes with the addition of the sky sign, both used in the writing of her name[1](Figure 1).  More often than not is she is shown in profile as a nude woman bending over the earth god Geb, her arms and legs placed at the cardinal points (Figure 2). Later in the Ramesside period stars were added to her dress when she was in anthropomorphic form. This is thought to reflect the idea that Nut corresponded to the Milky Way which formed a large band of stars across the nights sky.

Figure 2: The Coffin of Nespawershefyt showing Nut being held aloft by Shu above a reclining Geb. Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge E.1.1822 https://egyptiancoffins.org/coffins/nespawershefyt/decoding

Vault of the Stars – Nuts Role in the Cosmos and Myth

Mistress of the Heavens, Vault of the Stars, Heavenly Cow and Mother of the Great Sky. I think we can agree those are some pretty impressive titles to hold and for Nut these are only a few that she held, some of these titles even today have not been translated yet and understood fully.   

Mistress of the Heavens

Figure 3 The Gods and Goddesses making the Ennead of Heliopolis . Authors own image

For the ancient Egyptians Nut was the personification of the night sky/ the heavens above and formed part of the Great Ennead of Heliopolis (Figure 3). An ennead is a term used to describe a group of nine gods, with the group at Heliopolis believed to be one of the earliest and most significant[2]. For Nut the group was formed of her parents (Shu and Tefnut), her brother/husband (Geb) and their children (Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys).

She played an important cosmogonic role, for alongside being the mother of the great sky whose laughter was the thunder and whose tears where the rain she was believed to swallow the sun and other heavenly bodies in the evening and give birth to them again at sunrise[3].  Her blood said to give the sunrise its colour. As a result, one of the titles associated with Nut was being the ‘female pig who eats her piglets’, but this isn’t viewed in a negative manner[4].  Amulets of Nut in sow form with piglets around her appeared during the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1070–664 B.C.) and wear intended to imbue the wearer with her fertility[5](Figure 4). But I digress from her role in mythology with that snippet.

Figure 4 – Blue glazed composition amulet depicting Nut as a sow with her young. British Museum EA64609 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA64609

Within the Pyramids Texts and earlier Nut and Geb are said to have embraced so fervently that there was no room between them for anything to exists, their father Shu then lifted her to sperate the pair allowing her to give birth[6]. (Figure 2)

Within the Coffin Texts she is described as the ‘mother of the five epagomenal days’. The five epagomenal days in the year of the Egyptian calendar were extra days added on to the Egyptian calendar in an attempt to line up with the astronomical year.[7] This was because the Egyptian year had 12 months of thirty days, resulting in a five-day short fall. Plutarch later tried to explain these days through his interpretation of myth using Greek counterparts. Describing that fearing the usurpation of his own position, the sun god (Helios) placed a curse on the sky goddess (Rhea) stopping her from giving birth on any day of the 360-day year[8]. The god Thoth (Hermes) then came to her aide however. Thoth gambled with Iah, the moon god, for five days’ worth of moonlight winning the gamble he divided Iah’s moonlight into five days of sunlight which were not part of the year as decreed by Ra[9]. Thus, enabling the goddess to give birth.

Figure 5: Nut as the Heavenly Cow, stars on her belly and being supported by Shu and Heh gods. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/sky.htm

The Heavenly Cow

In other mythology histories their seems to be no permanent separation until the creator sun god Ra decided he wishes to leave earth after a rebellion by humanity[10]. In order to do so Nut takes the from of a cow, a new guise as ‘The Heavenly Cow’ (Figure 5), placing Ra in between her horns and carrying him to the heavens. This myth give rise to goddesses often being show with cow horns with a sun disc set within (Figure 6).  

Figure 6: Isis in the Tomb of Horemheb with cow horns and a sun disc on her head. https://www.osirisnet.net/tombes/pharaons/horemheb/e_horemheb_pharaon_01.htm

Nut in a Funerary Context –  ‘O my mother Nut’

Alongside being responsible for giving birth to the Sun every morning Nut also played a role in ancient Egyptian funerary beliefs. She is associated with the concept of resurrection with the living believing that once dead they become the stars in the body of the goddess[11]. In the Pyramid Texts Nut is mentioned almost 100 times forming a central role in the resurrection of the dead king. Phrases within the text refer to her ‘enfolding the body of the king’ and the king asking ‘ O my mother Nut , spread yourself over me so that I may be placed amongst the imperishable stars and never die[12].

Figure 7:
Nut inside the coffin of Peftjauneith
RMO Leiden, 26thdynasy 664-525bc)https://www.flickr.com/photos/koopmanrob/3977549159/in/pool-831028@N23

This imaginary and early mentions of the sarcophagus as Mwt (meaning mother). Gives rise to Nut being associated with the lid of the coffin. From the New Kingdom (1550-1069) onwards she is regularly painted on the under side of the lid of coffins and sarcophagi, arching her body over the deceased[13](Figure 7). The dead person was then both returned to the body of the mother re-enacting the journey of the sun god and protected by her. Nut is often shown on the outside of the coffin lids in addition to this with her wings outstretched in a protective manner (Figure 8 Milwaukie).  

Figure 8: Coffin of Pedusiri, the goddess Nut with outstretched wings, Late dynastic or early Greco-Roman period, circa 500 – 25 B.C.E. Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsinhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nut_(goddess)#/media/File:NutMAM.jpg

Also during the New Kingdom, post the Amarna period. A new collection of funerary books of the afterlife emerged. These books were referred to as the Books of the Sky one of these books being the Book of Nut[14]. Beginning with Ramesses VI these two books were placed in royal tombs or next to each other on the tomb ceilings. They depicted a double representation of Nut back-to-back and generally emphasized cosmogony and the topography of the sky something that has its beginnings in the Book of the Heavenly Cow (some say an earlier verision of these books)[15]. Like the placing of Nut on coffins these ceilings functioned to protect the deceased and aid in their later rebirth. On the ceiling of the burial chamber of Ramesses VI in the Valley of the King Nut is a fine example – shown in two colossal profile images painted back-to-back Nut is shown representing both the day and night sky (Figure 9). I have seen this tomb in person and the vaulted ceiling and massive size really makes and impact. There also happen to be a few online models of this tomb which I will put down in the references. In addition to being painted on the ceilings Nut  also features in the Book of the Dead and further tomb decorations.  She is shown in a paradise garden as the goddesses of the sycamore -fig tree, in this role she nourished and refreshed the newly deceased with food and water for their journey through the underworld[16].  

With that I conclude this week’s blog all about the Goddess Nut. Like with anything I write on this blog there is always more to say but, if you are curious like me, I am sure you will enjoy finding out more on your own.

Figure 9: Nut as the night sky from the tomb of Ramesses VI
https://thebanmappingproject.com/tombs/kv-09-rameses-v-and-rameses-vi

References


[1] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 162

[2] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 108

[3] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 161

[4] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 160/161

[5] Andrews, C., 1998. Amulets of ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press. Page 35

[6] Egyptian Mythology- a guide to the Gods and Goddesses and traditions of Ancient Egypt Page 174

[7] http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/glossary.aspx?id=148 Accessed 15/04/2021

[8] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 161

[9] Mark, Joshua J.. “Thoth.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified July 26, 2016. https://www.worldhistory.org/Thoth

[10] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 174

[11] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 161

[12] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 231

[13] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 231

[14] http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/sky.htm Accessed 15/04/2021

[15] http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/sky.htm Accessed 15/04/2021

[16] Pinch, G., 2004. Egyptian mythology A guide to the Gods and Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press. Page 174/5

Online 3D Models – Tomb of Ramesses VI

The Theban Mapping Project

https://thebanmappingproject.com/tombs/kv-09-rameses-v-and-rameses-vi

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