Nut – The Galactic Goddess of Ancient Egypt

by Lesley Jackson

A 3,000 year-old vignette from the Djedkhonsuiefankh funerary papyrus on display in the Cairo Egyptian Museum (Wikimedia Commons). Click to see a larger image

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. Continue reading "Nut – The Galactic Goddess of Ancient Egypt"

Cobra Goddesses

By Lesley Jackson

Stele representing the cobra-goddess (upper tier) and snakes (lower tier). Department of Egyptian antiquities, LouvreBeing a contrary child I always liked snakes and was later delighted to discover that they had a very close relationship to the Goddess. I could never understand why snakes were considered evil when other deadly creatures were viewed as merely dangerous. This link to the Goddess subsequently explained it. The ability of the snake to shed its skin symbolises rebirth and cyclical time and links it to the ever-changing phases of the moon and so to women through their menstrual cycle. The snake is also a symbol of infinity, portrayed by the tail-eating Ouroborus. The symbolism of snakes is, appropriately enough, endless and far too vast a topic to dwell upon in one article so I will confine myself to three Egyptian Snake Goddesses.

Snakes were widespread and common in Egypt and there are numerous spells to prevent and cure snakebite. Despite this the Egyptians never viewed the snake as intrinsically evil just because it was potentially deadly. This is in contrast to most other cultures who saw a logical progression from dangerous to evil and as evil meant ‘anti-men’ the snake could then be vilified along with the Goddess it portrayed. Symbolism aside snakes did perform one very useful role for an agricultural people. They preyed on vermin, such as sparrows and rodents, which ransacked the food stores and spread disease. There were many snake deities in Egypt and the Snake Gods range from benevolent, though dangerous, to the ultimate evil. Not so the Snake Goddesses, they were all good though not necessarily safe. The Snake Goddesses are all portrayed as cobras; indeed the determinative (a symbol used to clarify the meaning of a word but which is not pronounced) for ‘Goddess’ is a rearing cobra. Why the cobra is considered feminine is not clear. Certainly the rearing cobra with an erect hood is very impressive. Maybe the hood gives the cobra curves that are more suggestive of a woman compared to the straighter, more phallic form of other snakes. Continue reading "Cobra Goddesses"

Serket, the Goddess who understands Poisons

by Lesley Jackson

Serket image by Jeff Dahl
Serket image by Jeff Dahl

We are accustomed to lovely and inspiring creatures associated with the Goddess; from the elegant ferocity of the lioness of Sekhmet to the gentler cat of Bastet, or even the endlessly hypnotic snakes of the Cobra Goddesses. Given the variety of animals that the Ancient Egyptians encountered it is surprising that they should associate a scorpion with a Goddess, particularly a largely benevolent one.

The Scorpion Goddess Serket (Selkis or Selket) is first attested to in the 1st Dynasty so she will have been a Pre-dynastic Goddess (before 3,100 BCE). Serket can be depicted either as a woman with a scorpion on her head or as a scorpion with a woman's head and torso. Her name Serket Hetyt means "she who causes the throat to breathe".1 A Goddess responsible for the divine breath of life or a euphemism referring obliquely to the effect that scorpion venom has on its victim's breathing.

Scorpions were very common in Ancient Egypt and they have a unique and distinct appearance. Scorpion stings were a common, but none the less distressing, hazard. Attendance registers from Deir el-Medina contain many occurrences of men missing work because of scorpion stings. The potency of the venom varies and some species are relatively harmless. The symptoms are burning pain followed by shortness of breath but for the young, elderly and weak the poison could be fatal. It is because of the latter symptom that Serket was thought to control breathing. Female scorpions are larger than the male and so have more venom. Was this why they were associated with a Goddess rather than a God, or was it pure misogyny?

Why was the scorpion associated with the divine anyway? It could have been regarded as a demon, perhaps such a powerful entity needed placating not demonising. One reason might be that the agent which inflicted the damage was the one best able to remove it, or at least reduce its impact. To the ordinary Egyptian, at the base of a rigid social hierarchy, there was a direct correlation between rank and power. In an absolute monarchy their king was almost godlike in his power over the life and death of his subjects. Any creature, such as the scorpion, with the ability to kill appeared to have an equivalent divine power. Continue reading "Serket, the Goddess who understands Poisons"

Nephthys – Silent Goddess of the Shadows

Nephthys by Jeff Dahlby Lesley Jackson

Take any book of Ancient Egypt and look for Nephthys in the index, more likely than not it will read ‘see Isis and Nephthys’. Why isn’t Nephthys viewed as a goddess in her own right? She doesn’t appear to have been worshiped on her own and there is no evidence for any cult centre or temples dedicated to her.

At first glance Nephthys can appear as a passive victim and, dare I say, a bit too quiet and uninteresting. Does Nephthys personify the perpetually unappreciated or is she merely a shadow side of her globally recognised, illustrious sister Isis? Certainly she is seldom portrayed on her own and is usually mentioned in the same breath as Isis. They are referred to in terms such as the Twin Sisters and the Two Kites and are depicted as physically identical twins, distinguishable only by their headdress. A longer second glance is required to discern the essence of Nephthys.

Continue reading "Nephthys – Silent Goddess of the Shadows"

Elusive Egyptian Goddesses: Seshat the Lady of Numbers

by Lesley Jackson

"Seshat", by Jeff DahlThe Ancient Egyptians, wise people, had goddesses aplenty but the fame of a few, such as Isis and Hathor, has overshadowed and absorbed many others. Like women, goddesses have not escaped being stereotyped but not all will fit the maiden-mother-crone model nor are they all earth focused. One of these is the scribal goddess Seshat.

The literal translation of her name is ‘female scribe’. Many of her epithets reflect this aspect of her, such as “lady of writing, the chief of the library”.1  Seshat is often considered the consort of Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing, or merely his female equivalent. Seshat frequently merits no more than a brief entry in the dictionaries of Egyptian deities. Many seem to pass her by, assuming her to be merely a cut-down, female version of the God of the Scribes and a very minor goddess long since eclipsed by her more glamorous, all-encompassing sisters; a footnote amongst the Egyptian goddesses.  Sometimes the footnotes are worth following up though and I have discovered that there is much more to Our Lady of Writing than appears at first sight. Continue reading "Elusive Egyptian Goddesses: Seshat the Lady of Numbers"

Cosmic Harmony and the Balance of Love

by Lesley Jackson

From many wonderful paintings, the Egyptian Goddess Ma’at, the Goddess of truth, justice and cosmic order, calls to us from the deep past. Represented in numerous paintings as a tall, young woman, Ma’at is instantly recognisable by the tall ostrich feather that she wears in her headband. This is her feather of truth, against which all of our hearts will be weighed in the Hall of Judgement

Continue reading "Cosmic Harmony and the Balance of Love"