(Nu) Nun personifies the oceanic abyss that pre-exists the emergence of the cosmos and which continues to exist outside its limits. The Egyptians conceived the heavens as a fluid expanse surrounding the earth and its atmosphere, on whose surface or ‘belly’ the heavenly bodies travel like ships or rest like islands. Nun is the bottomless depths of the heavenly ocean, beyond the waters in which the stars actually travel. The earth and sky came into being by separating out from this abyss, which persists as the remainder, so to speak, of this formative activity by the primordial Gods. While the divinities of sky and earth, Nut and Geb respectively, are not to be confused with sky and earth themselves, the Egyptians having distinct words for these which were not the names of deities, Nun is at once a God and the limitless abyss itself, a sort of reservoir of latent potential and inert or inactive forms. It is therefore convenient at times to speak of ‘the’ Nun, rather than Nun, and in such cases to refer to the Nun as ‘it’ rather than ‘he’.
The nature of the abyss lying at the ‘upper side’ of the sky is described as dark and inert, without limits and as that into which the Gods and spirits do not penetrate. However, Nun is also conceived, in the Book of the Celestial Cow, as a God with whom Re at least is able to consult about the problem posed by the rebellious humans, who separate themselves from the natural order represented by Re’s sovereignty, thus in some sense evoking the formlessness embodied by Nun. In seeking Nun’s counsel, Re addresses Nun as “Eldest God, in whom I myself came into being,” subtly raising the question of whether Nun is the source of Re’s sovereignty or only the occasion of it. Re’s legitimacy has been undermined by humanity’s rebellion, but Nun makes no claim upon the sovereignty based upon his own seniority: “My son Re, God greater than he who created thee, older than he who made thee, be seated on thy throne!” (Piankoff, 27). Nun is thus a force cooperative in the cosmogonic work of Re, as symbolized in images of the boat of Re being lifted up by the arms of Nun. A pre-cosmic force, Nun is nevertheless not an anti-cosmic force, like Apophis. In CT spell 75, Shu similarly asserts himself relative to Nun; speaking of his “creation from the Nun,” Shu states that “Nun saw me when I came into being, and I know his name, I know the place where I came into being, but he did not see me come into being with his own sight, for I came into being from the flesh of the self-created God,” meaning Atum. Nun is here clearly less an independent center of awareness than a place, contrasted in this respect with Atum.
Nun is often simply a synonym for the heavens, or for waters in general. His association with wine, however, implies reference not only to liquids but also to oblivion, and sleepers are also thought to enter the Nun (Hornung, pp. 180, 183). Nun is potentiality, and by virtue of that, participates in nonbeing to a degree. It is for this reason, possibly, that Osiris is referred to as the “heir of Nun” (BD spell 181; “for whom Nun has poured his libation” (185A); BD spell 144, “for entering unto Osiris,” requests the “doorkeepers of the horizon” to “Make way [for the deceased] … for he is Nun”), for as the God who dies, Osiris is able to partake of a portion of Nun’s legacy that the other Gods cannot. Hence Osiris and Atum occupy the Nun together when all else has returned “into the flood, as it was aforetime” (BD spell 175). Osiris and Atum take the form in the Nun of snakes “which men know not and Gods see not.” The Nun is already in the Pyramid Texts both a place from which dangerous serpents emerge (PT utterance 233) and, as a deity, a means of repulsing them (“… crawl away because of Nun!” (utterance 729)). Nun protects the four Goddesses (Isis, Nephthys, Neith and Serket) who in turn protect the “throne” (i.e., the sarcophagus and the canopic chests); CT spell 820, for “having power over water,” affirms that “the protection of Nun is about me just as the protection of Nun was about the egg from which I issued.” Mortals, by nature of their very mortality, have perhaps a special bond with Nun: “My aged father Nun … has established my paternal inheritance yonder” (BD spell 57). PT utterance 576 asks Nun to “raise the King’s arm to the sky that he may support the earth which he has given to you.” The deceased king has perhaps given the earth to Nun in the sense that he has brought his own ‘world’ with him into death.
Nun and his consort Naunet feature along with their fellow Hehu, Amun and Amaunet, in PT utterance 301, in which these pre-cosmic Gods are said to “protect the Gods with your shadow.” References to Nun, therefore, when they do not simply designate a place, invoke him as what one might term the beneficent side of nonbeing. The Nun was “before the sky existed, before earth existed, before men existed, before the Gods were born, before death existed” (PT utterance 571; cf. also Hornung, p. 175 n. 125). And yet this was when the deceased king “was fashioned by Nun at his left hand when he [the king] was a child who had no wisdom; he [Nun] has saved the King from inimical Gods, and he will not give the King over to inimical Gods” (PT utterance 607) because Nun is prior to the conflict inherent in the evolved cosmos. But there always remains an ambivalence to any contact with the Nun because of the element of nonbeing inherent in its nature.
The question of the relative priority of Nun and Re seems to have been a matter for reflection among Egyptian theologians. The Book of the Celestial Cow is careful to have Re say that he came to be ‘in’ Nun, referring to the abyss as a medium rather than a progenitor. Nun is sometimes called ‘father of the Gods’, but this does not imply that the other Gods are not self-generated – in fact, any given God is typically and in general regarded as self-generating. Questions of priority can emerge in specific contexts, however. Hence the statement in BD spell 17, “I am the great God who came into being of himself,” is glossed by one ancient commentator as “He is water, he is Nun, the father of the Gods,” while another commentator simply glosses “He is Re.” The operator in CT spell 307, identifying his/her soul with “Re who issued from the Nun in this my name of Khepri,” that is, ‘transformer’, is empowered to affirm “I am the Soul who created the Nun.” In CT spell 76, however, Atum “creates the names” of the eight ‘Chaos-Gods’ or Hehu (i.e., brings them forth) in “speaking with” Nun, and in spell 78 the Hehu are those “whom Nun begot,” and in spell 79 their names are created by “the flesh of Atum in accordance with the word of Nun,” and are to be made (if the unusual tense can be trusted here) “according to the pattern of the word of Nun and Atum” (alternately, “of Nun and Re”). In such texts it seems that Nun is, at minimum, a sort of material constraint upon the creative process, if not an active partner in it (which would seem to be something of a contradiction in terms) with the cosmogonic Gods.
There are some texts in which Nun speaks in the first person. In CT spell 444, the ‘inertness’ of Nun is an advantage, hence the operator’s identification with him: “I am Nun, I was inert when the Two Lands were complete, but I was not gripped and my magic was not attacked … I controlled my appearing.” This spell is one of a series in which the operator, in a move which overturns certain of our expectations concerning the Egyptian attitude toward death, affirms the body’s dissolution: “I am a pure one who has demolished his body” (441; var. “his portal” (440); “his castle” (443)). In CT spell 714, the operator states “I am Nun, the Sole One who has no equal … I brought my body into being through my power; I am one who made myself, and I formed myself at my will according to my desire. What went forth from me was under my supervision.” Identifying with Nun’s negativity in relation to the entire cosmos – “everything in the hand of Nun” (CT spell 316) – allows the operator to emancipate him/herself from any particular cosmic conditions. Nun embodies in this sense not an absolute nonbeing but a kind of simplicity that is pure potentiality: “I am Nun, Lord of darkness; I have come that I may have power over the path, and he who has two faces is afraid of me” (cp. BD spell 7, “for getting past the dangerous vertebra of Apophis”: “I am the one-faced one who presides over the Nun, and my protection consists of the Gods, the lords of eternity.”).