Nut – The Galactic Goddess of Ancient Egypt
by Lesley Jackson
The image of Nut is very familiar for those who love Ancient Egyptian art. Her starry body arches over the earth and depicts the heavens in many beautiful astronomical ceilings in tombs and temples. She gave birth to Horus the Elder, Osiris, Seth, Isis and Nephthys and each morning births the Sun God Ra but she has little interaction with her offspring. Nut has no dedicated temples and apparently no followers yet she is an essential component of funerary tradition and is one of the most helpful of the afterlife Goddesses where she frequently appears in the guise of a Tree Goddess. These seemingly disconnected facts prompts the question why? What lies behind all this?
Nut’s name derives from the Egyptian word for water, nw, and her symbol is the water pot. In a wet climate the link between sky and water is obvious but the water element of Nut is actually derived from the Egyptian’s understanding of the cosmos. The watery nun existed before creation and the universe is a bubble of order and life floating in these chaotic and dangerous waters. Nut holds back the waters of the nun, enclosing the created world in a protective embrace. She is like an invisible force-field through which the blue waters of the nun can be seen during the day. Space and water are her two key attributes and these explain the key aspects of her character.
“Hail, O Nut, far-striding goddess who strews the greenstone, malachite and turquoise of the stars.” My connection to Nut is as a Celestial Goddess and I often think about her when watching astronomy programmes. Unlike most other cultures the Egyptians held the sky to be a Goddess and the earth to be a God, which does make more sense when the sky is viewed as birthing the deities and the stars. The Egyptian word for sky is a feminine noun while that for earth is a masculine one.
The clear skies over the Egyptian desert and a life lived mostly outside resulted in a strong stellar influence on Egyptian religion, especially in the Pre-dynastic and early Old Kingdom. It is believed that the concept of Nut was suggested by the Milky Way. The Milky Way is the outer arm of our galaxy and when seen in ideal conditions can be interpreted as a woman wearing a gossamer dress stretching across the sky. From the northern hemisphere there is a bifurcation forming the legs (in the constellation of Cygnus) and a swelling forming the head (in the Gemini region). Sadly I have only seen this in photographs and star charts but sometimes the figure of Nut can clearly be seen. The myths tell us how Nut swallows Ra at dusk and gives birth to him in the dawn. It is thought that this myth originally described an annual occurrence based on observable astronomical events. During the Pharaonic Period, at the spring equinox the head of Nut was in the position of the setting sun. Nine months later, at the winter solstice, the sun rose in the constellation of Cygnus, appearing between the legs of Nut.
Life needs space to exist in. The God Shu separated Nut from her lover, the Earth God Geb, because they lay in such a close embrace that there was no room for anything else. But life at all levels also needs to be contained so that its components can work as a single entity – from the membrane of a cell up to an entire ecosystem. Nut provides both of these aspects: she is space and the container of that space. Nut encloses what is vital for life on the planet, its atmosphere. Shu, the God of Air and Sunlight, is depicted below her. Through the earth’s magnetic shield she protects our atmosphere from being stripped away by the solar wind and all life from harmful cosmic radiation.
Nut was originally a Creator Goddess, the all-embracing feminine power which emerged from the nun. Her aspects of water and space form the watery womb in which all life is created. She is the Mother of the Gods and the Mother of the Stars. I like to think of her birthing stars in the vast stellar nurseries of remote nebulae. Nut alone is enduring and holds within herself all of her transient children; the sun and stars as well as all living things. With the increasing power of kings and priests Nut, like all Goddesses, was demoted, becoming the granddaughter of a male Creator. The sky became the realm over which the sun ruled rather than the realm where the sun was born. One myth tells how Ra was furious when she became pregnant and forbade her to give birth on any day of the year. He was jealous of her ability to create life without him. Only with the assistance of the Wisdom God Thoth was she able to give birth, during the days of out of time which he created for her.
Nut as the Sky Goddess can appear vast and impersonal but at death an individual’s entire world collapses into a single point and Nut becomes a very personal Goddess. Nut is the provider of eternal life and in her celestial body the deceased are reborn. “Spread yourself over me, may you place me among the imperishable stars which are in you, as I shall not die.” Nut is a very important deity in the Pyramid Texts, she appears over 100 times, and takes a central role in the resurrection of the king. After the Old Kingdom, funerary texts become more democratic, offering everyone (if they could afford it) the chance of rebirth and Nut became the mother of all the deceased. Like Ra, the deceased are taken into her body at death where they are resurrected. In the afterlife Nut has two main aspects; as the life giving Tree Goddess and as a Protective Goddess embracing the coffin and sarcophagus.
Her embrace of the earth is replicated at a very intimate level around the deceased. Some texts even refer to her as “in your name of coffin”. Nut is painted on both the inside and outside of coffins and on tomb ceilings as a winged Goddess; her wings emphasise her protective aspect. “The embrace of your mother Nut will enfold you.” As the coffin Nut represents the space which is a safe haven for the corpse and the space where the deceased are transformed. Like a cauldron of regeneration Nut’s womb-like space brings about rebirth. Nut is also referred to as a light bringer, appropriately enough for a Cosmic Goddess. She “chases away the shadows and makes the light shine everywhere”. She gives birth to the light giving stars, including our own sun, and also transforms the deceased, taking them out of the darkness of death into the light of eternal life within her body.
From the New Kingdom onwards Nut is depicted as a Tree Goddess in her funerary aspect. This is not an obvious association for a Sky Goddess but it is something she shares with Hathor who was, amongst many other thing, a Sky Goddess with a strong funerary aspect. Hathor, as the Goddess of the West, was conflated with Nut in later periods and they take on similar roles. Nut is mainly depicted as a sycamore, this is not the European sycamore but the sycamore fig (Ficus sycamorus). Why did Nut become a Tree Goddess and why was a sycamore tree chosen? There is an obvious visual connection between the trunk of a tree and a coffin and a tree grew around the corpse of Osiris to protect him. The deceased’s transformation within Nut as the coffin parallels on a personal level Ra’s transformation as he journeys through Nut’s celestial body. In the wooden coffin the deceased returns to the womb of the Mother Tree. The preservation of the body was an essential component in the Egyptian understanding of rebirth but not everyone would have been able to afford a secure tomb. Nut the Sycamore assures the families that she “conceals the corpses of the ones who own no tomb”. A heavily canopied tree will surround someone standing beneath it, forming an enclosed space. For the Egyptians, though, a tree had much more symbolism than this. The earliest depiction of the Tree Goddess is as the double sycamore of the horizon. The horizon is immediately connected to Nut as this is where she takes the setting sun within her and births him at dawn. It is the threshold between life, death and rebirth and the transitional zone between light and darkness.
The sycamore tree provides the deceased with shelter, air, food and water. “O You Sycamore of Nut, give me the water and air in you.”The sycamore provided food, in the form of figs, and as they grew near water were considered to provide water. Their roots were believed to grow into the nun, allowing them to draw up its life-giving water. Under their canopy the air was cooler and thus fresher and so the tree was associated with air. To survive in the afterlife the deceased needed all of these provisions. In an inscription from an 18th dynasty tomb Nut the Sycamore says “may you be cool under my branches… may you live through my bread and drink from my beer… your mother shall provide you with life as she places you in the inner of her body”. In some ways Nut can be seen as the all-encompassing World Tree. One depiction of her is as a large tree with human-headed ba-birds, representing souls, flying around and perching in her branches. There is nothing to suggest that Nut is a Tree Goddess in terms of being a presiding deity of trees, forests or nature. I suspect that she has a Tree Goddess aspect because the sycamore tree forms an excellent metaphor for her funerary role as well as encompassing her two primary aspects of space and water.
Why wasn’t Nut worshiped in everyday life? I believe there are three main reasons for this. Nut as the night sky might be awe inspiring but as such she can appear very remote from the concerns of daily life. The known universe is far larger for us than it was for the Egyptians and for many the larger it gets the more remote and incomprehensible it appears. Secondly, although Nut is important in the myths there is little in them that can be reinterpreted on a human level as there is in the myths about deities such as Isis and Osiris. Finally, Nut is very much a Funerary Goddess. Would this have dissuaded people from worshiping her? You will meet the afterlife deities soon enough, why call to them and risk shortening your life? They knew that Nut never demanded worship as a prerequisite for helping the deceased, unlike the jealous Sky Gods of the patriarchal religions. Perhaps the Egyptians felt no compulsion to set up temples to her as they saw and acknowledged her regularly in the night sky.
Was Nut the original Great Mother Goddess for the Egyptians? I think that she might have been before she was fragmented into a multitude of deities, particularly if we look backwards from her role and that of Hathor and the Celestial Cow. Such speculation must wait for another time. Normally the earth is considered a representation of the Great Mother but, taking the larger picture into account, the Great Mother must contain the rest of the universe as the earth is not the only planet and very probably not the only one with life. Life is generated within Nut and it returns into her at death to be reborn. Personally I think of Nut as our Great Cosmic Mother, encompassing the entire universe to the limits of light rather than just our earth. No matter how incomprehensibly large the universe becomes Nut is still our Mother, she is just infinitely more than we can ever grasp at. “I shall not be far away from you, ever.”
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 Billing N, (2002), The Goddess of Life in Text and Iconography, p 249
 Billing N, (2002), The Goddess of Life in Text and Iconography, p 249