Myth Monday: Nut the Sky Mother (Egyptian Myth)
By Kara Newcastle
There are a lot of nice things you can use to describe your mother, but the title of “She Who Bore the Gods”? That’s a tough one to top. “Mistress of All.” That’s another good one. Try them out on your mom, and if she looks at you funny, just tell her that the titles come from Nut, the mother of the gods of ancient Egypt.
Nut (possibly pronounced “Nu-uit”—nobody really knows how the ancient Egyptians pronounced their words) was represented in different ways, each one representing a certain aspect of her character or power. As the Heavenly Cow, Nut was portrayed as a giant cow with one eye being the sun and other the moon, striding over the earth, sheltering all beneath her body. Similarly, Nut could be portrayed as a sow with suckling piglets (representing stars) beneath her.
Nut was also occasionally portrayed as a huge sycamore tree with the sun at the top and with limbs … although, when I say “limbs” I mean literal human arms poking out of the tree trunk, with one arm holding a tray of food and the other arm beckoning people to help themselves. The towering presence of the tree, the comfort it gives (in the form of shade from the sun) and nourishment (food like tree-grown fruit and nuts) it provides are all reminiscent of the love and comfort a mother would give a child.
Additionally, when portrayed as a human woman, Nut was depicted with a pot balanced on her head. In ancient Egypt, pots were metaphors for wombs, and, as the mother of the gods, portraying Nut with a pot makes sense (also, the Egyptian word for “water pot” was “nw,” where we get Nut’s name as well as her hieroglyph.) She was often depicted with outspread wings as well, showing her hovering above her children.
However, if you’ve ever seen a picture of Nut anywhere, it’s most likely the goddess in her sky mother role; a giant, blue-skinned, star-spangled woman standing on her hands and feet over a prone man, her feet and hands in the cardinal direction points.
You’re probably extremely confused by this image, so let’s get into the background of the myth, shall we? For starters, Nut was the daughter of the primordial god Shu (air) and the goddess Tefnut (moisture.) Her brother was Geb the earth god—that’s the guy lying under her in the pictures (Egyptian mythology is unique in the fact that it is one of the few religions that depict the earth deity as male and sky deity as female, when most others have the reverse. You’ll see why in a minute.) Almost soon as Nut and Geb were born they fell madly in love with each other, married, and created many of the famous gods you’ve heard of.
As always, there are some variations of how Nut gave birth to her divine children; most stories say that Nut and Geb spent so much time making love that Nut never had a chance to give birth, so her children were all trapped inside her womb. The unborn gods cried out to their grandfather Shu for help, so Shu forcibly separated the pair by pushing Geb down with his feet and lifting Nut high up over his head, forcing the Earth and Sky into their proper places. Another story says that Shu was just plain jealous of how much sex Geb and Nut were having, so he separated the two. Even so, Nut was pregnant, and she gave birth to the stars and planets, which all hover close to her. After the sun sets, Nut descends so she may lie with Geb; when she leaves her place above, that’s when night falls.
But the third version is my favorite for the cleverness of it.
As the story goes, the first child Nut gave birth to was the sun god Ra, and he was made to be the king of Egypt and the gods. It was revealed that Nut would give birth to more gods and, not wanting to share his power, Ra cursed Nut, saying that she would never be allowed to give birth during any time of the year. The new gods were trapped inside Nut’s womb.
In desperation, Nut called upon Thoth, the ibis-headed god of wisdom, and asked him to find a way to help her give birth. Thoth mused over the problem: Nut was cursed to never give birth during the year. The year at that time had only 360 days in it.
Therefore, they needed to create some new days.
During this time, there was no night, because Khonsu the moon god shone as brightly as the sun. Thoth invited Khonsu to a gambling game and convince Khonsu that every time he lost to Thoth, the moon god would have to surrender some of his light. Not realizing he was being played, Khonsu agreed. Thoth rigged the game so that Khonsu lost over and over again, giving up so much of his light that Thoth now had enough light to create five extra days (and that’s why the moon doesn’t shine as brightly as the sun and we have night.)
Thoth created the five extra days of the year, and for each day he created, Nut was able to give birth to another god or goddess, beginning with Osiris the fertility god, Isis the goddess of magic, god of war Horus the Elder (later identified as Osiris and Isis’s son Horus), Nephthys the goddess of water and finally Set, the god of evil. When Ra discovered that he had been outwitted, he furiously ordered his grandfather Shu to hold Nut and Geb apart from each other, so that no more new gods may be created.
Remember how I said that Egyptians were unusual in the fact that they made their sky deity female rather than male? There’s actually an interesting reason for that; the ancient Egyptians believed that Nut gave birth to the sun god Ra in the east every morning. He began his journey over Egypt as a youth, reached adulthood at noon, and by the time the sun was setting, he was an old man nearing his death. Nut’s mouth was in the west, and as Ra descended she swallowed him. He traveled through her body at night and was reborn the next day.
Ra’s rebirth also marks Nut as a guardian of the dead; as Ra spirit return to her, so did all spirits of all living things. She waits in the afterlife to welcome back the spirits she had given birth to, as all life comes from her and returns to her as well, earning her another title, “She Who Holds One Thousand Souls.” She was shown as one of the divine judges in the afterlife, welcoming all the souls who passed the tests to their new home and giving them refreshments. The inside of many sarcophagi lids have paintings of Nut, featuring her hovering protectively over the dead person within. She was also frequently painted in huge murals on the ceilings of tombs. In addition, according to the Osiris myth, after he was butchered by his evil brother Set, the reassembled Osiris climbed an immense ladder up to the sky, so that he may rejoin his mother Nut in the afterlife. Ladders were frequently placed in tombs so that the dead soul could climb up to meet Nut, and images of ladders were used to identify her.
Nut was worshipped mainly at Heliopolis, and while she was a popular goddess and had shrines and sacred sycamore trees that represented her, there were no known temples dedicated solely to her. In Memphis she was worshiped as a healer at the House of Nut, and she was praised extensively at the city of Dendera, where she was said to have given birth to Isis. Because of her role in creating the constellations, Nut was featured heavily in the text The Fundamentals of the Course of the Stars, an Egyptian book of astronomical studies (constellations, planetary travel, moon phases, etc.) with the first version written around 2,000 BC. The book has since been renamed as The Book of Nut.