(Nuit, Nuet) Goddess of the upper sky, especially the night sky dappled with stars, Nut occupies a position in the Egyptian pantheon linking the Gods who are conceived as being active in the most primordial phases of the emergence of the cosmos with those whose sphere of activity lies closer to human experience. As such, Nut has an extraordinary density of ‘familial’ ties to other Gods, ties present already in the earliest Egyptian religious literature, the Pyramid Texts, in which Nut is already the daughter of Shu and Tefnut, granddaughter of Atum, husband of Geb, and mother of Isis and Osiris, Seth and Nephthys. On a parallel track, however, so to speak, Nut has also an intense dyadic relationship with Re, to whom she gives birth every day and who returns to her embrace every evening, vanishing from human eyes. From this perspective, in which Re occupies the central role, Nut’s only other significant bond is with Nun, the Abyss (see, e.g., BD spell 15A1: “thy father is Nun, thy mother is Nut”). Nun is conceived as an infinite expanse of water enclosing a bubble, so to speak, in which is suspended the organized cosmos, while Nut is the surface of this bubble, a membrane separating the cosmos from the abyss. Nut’s name may be related to that of Nun (also spelled ‘Nu’), in which case it might mean ‘She who dwells in the Abyss’.
Nut is usually depicted anthropomorphically with her body covered in stars, arched over the earth with her fingers touching the western horizon and her toes the eastern, but also as a cow with her front hooves in the west and hind hooves in the east. In either case, her four limbs are meant to be at the cardinal points as the pillars of the sky, although this is difficult to show clearly within the conventions of Egyptian art. When depicted anthropomorphically, her consort Geb may lie beneath her, his erect phallus reaching up toward her, while Shu holds her aloft and separates them. When she is depicted as a cow, the eight Hehu, the Gods of the precosmic formlessness (the Hermopolitan Ogdoad), may be shown assisting Shu by supporting her legs and hence fortifying the cosmos. When Nut is depicted anthropomorphically, the setting sun may be poised at her lips, to embark on its night journey by entering her mouth, traveling through her body to emerge from her womb at dawn, whereas bovine depictions of Nut do not seem to concern this cycle as such but are more astronomical in character. Nut’s sexual and procreative aspect are more closely linked to her role in the resurrection, for she also personifies the coffin or sarcophagus, and is depicted on the lids of sarcophagi. In the “Songs of Isis and Nephthys,” for example, Osiris is urged to “Come thou to thy mother Nut that she may spread herself over thee … that she may guard thy flesh from all evil … that she may drive off all evil which appertains to thy flesh, the loneliness being broken as though it had never been,” (“The Bremner-Rhind Papyrus—I,” p. 125 [6, 9]); and later, that “Thy mother Nut … builds thee up with the life of her body. Be thou a soul, a soul! Be thou stable, stable! Mayest thou have a soul, O male, lord of women,” (ibid., p. 131 [15, 8]) where the latter phrase emphasizes phallic potency as a symbol of the integrity of the body and the identity.
The sun travels daily along Nut’s body, passing into her mouth at dusk, in its symbolic death, its light reborn as the stars during its journey through the netherworld; this process is equivalent to that by which the deceased is transfigured to become an akh, a spirit or ‘glorious one’ (see, for instance, PT utterances 431 and 513). The actual stars, however, “travel outside Nut in the night when they shine and are seen; it is within her that they travel in the day when they do not shine and are not seen,” (P. Carlsberg I, Part II. IV, 35-VII, 27/Neugebauer and Parker vol I., p. 67). The moment of being swallowed by Nut is treated somewhat more obliquely when the cosmic cycle is interpreted in terms of human mortality, as in PT utterance 563, in which the deceased states “It is I who am the seed of the God which is in you.” In this respect the identification between the deceased and the sun is not total: the deceased “rests alive in the west, among the followers of Re who present the road to the light,” (PT utterance 603; trans. Piankoff); elsewhere it is said “Ascend to your mother Nut; she will take your hand and give you a road to the horizon, to the place where Re is,” (utterance 422). PT utterance 697 says that “Nut has laid her hands on you, O King, she whose hair is long and whose breasts hang down; she carries you for herself to the sky.” Once born from the vulva of Nut, the sun and the deceased alike are purified by passing through a marshy transitional space of lakes, pools and rushes before reaching the doors of the horizon; this is the twilight before the dawn. Sometimes the day journey of the sun is represented by Nun, the precosmic watery abyss, lifting the solar vessel towards the zenith of the sky, up to Nut.
Nut plays an especially active role in the Pyramid Texts. In PT utterance 6, one of a series of utterances spoken by Nut to charge the sarcophagus as the locus of resurrection, she affirms that she has given to the deceased king “the two horizons that he may have power in them as Horakhty,” that is, ‘Horus-of-the-[two]-horizons’. In this identification with the elder Horus, the deceased stands apart from Osiris; hence in PT utterance 245, Nut tells the deceased king to “look down upon Osiris when he governs the spirits, for you stand far off from him,”—i.e., in the sky—”you are not among them and you shall not be among them.” The complex relationship between Nut, Re and the deceased king emerges in utterance 479, which asks Re to “make the womb of Nut pregnant with the seed of the spirit which is in her.” This ‘spirit’ can only be the king, for in utterance 431, Nut, who is here referred to as “the daughter, mighty in her mother [Tefnut], who [Nut] appeared as a bee,” is asked to “make the King a spirit within yourself, for he has not died.” Re’s daily cycle in relation to Nut, impregnating her and being born from her every day, is thus utilized as the engine powering the resurrection of the deceased. In this sense, the account closely resembles that in afterlife literature such as the Amduat book, in which the climax of Re’s nocturnal journey is the rendezvous with Osiris. Similarly, the deceased king affirms in PT utterance 563 that “pressure is in your womb, O Nut, through the seed of the God which is in you; it is I who am the seed of the God which is in you.” The resurrection of the deceased king is thus fit into the cosmic cycle of relations between Re and Nut. Hence even in assimilation to Re, the deceased king is identified with Osiris, son of Geb: “sit on this throne of Re … because you are Re who came forth from Nut who bears Re daily, and you are born daily like Re; take possession of the heritage of your father Geb,” (PT utterance 606). For purposes of resurrection, the deceased must simultaneously be identified with Osiris and with Re. Hence the complex statement in BD spell 180 that “I am one who enters when he sets into the netherworld and comes forth when he sets from Nut.” The contrasting identifications of the deceased with Osiris and with Re find equilibrium in the identification with Horus; hence the parallel assurances of PT utterance 609 that “your mother Nut has borne you in the West” and “your mother Isis has borne you in Chemmis [Akhmim].” Horus resolves the tension, so to speak, between Osiris and Re, individual mortality and cosmic cyclicality.
Nut is also closely associated with the sycamore and tamarisk trees. The tree of Nut is a place in which cosmic emergence and individual resurrection come together. CT spell 682 says of the deceased that “his mother Nut bore him in the Field of Tamarisk which protected the God in the nest,” obviously referring to a myth about the birth of the sun, while BD spell 59, “for breathing air and having water available in the God’s domain,” appeals to the sycamore of Nut to “give me water and the breath that is in thee. It is I who occupy this seat in the midst of Hermopolis,”—where the eight Hehu presided at the hatching of the cosmic egg. The shade of this tree is evoked in BD spell 152, which asks the sycamore of Nut to “give cool water to Osiris N. [the deceased] while he sits under thy branches, which give the north wind to the Weary-hearted One [Osiris] in that seat forever.” The tree is also, however, a source of warmth, in a different sense, because its wood is the revivifying coffin: “O thou sycamore of Nut which refreshes the presider over the westerners,”—Osiris as lord of the land of the dead—”and extends its arms to his members, behold, he is warm.”
Nut represents a critical juncture in the emergence of the cosmos, for the world of the ‘children of Nut’, dominated by the conflict over the Osirian succession, is far different from all that came before. On one side of the membrane formed by Nut is the cosmos, bustling with activity, generation and strife, on the other side the abyss, formless and unknowable. Hence in CT spell 624, the operator affirms that “I do not know the emerging earth or Nun,” because one must be on one side or the other of the membrane Nut represents. Correspondingly, in BD spell 50, the operator affirms “I did not see truth before the divine images of the Gods were fashioned. I am he who is; I am heir of the great Gods.” The complementary nature of Nut and Nun in this regard can be seen in the statements in CT spell 640 that “the knot is tied behind me by Nun” and in BD spell 50 that “a knot was tied around me by Nut, who saw its first instance.”
Nut is sometimes depicted, mostly in amulets, as a sow with piglets. In a text from the ceiling of the sarcophagus chamber of Seti I, it is said that Nut is called “Sow who eats her piglets,” referring to the stars. In this text, Geb quarrels with Nut because she eats their children, but is reassured by Shu that “they [the stars] shall live, and they shall go forth from the place under her hind part in the east every day [i.e., at sunset], as she gives birth to Re daily,” (Neugebauer vol. I, 67f). A class of objects commonly taken to be merely decorative has been argued (Kozloff 1992, 331-333) to depict Nut, namely the so-called ‘cosmetic spoons’ which depict a nude swimming girl holding before her certain objects such as a lotus, a goose or a duck. In these objects can be discerned a depiction of Nut swimming in the watery abyss, holding up the sun or the cosmos itself (the lotus), or the earth (the goose, symbol of her lover Geb), or mortal being (the duck being the sign for sa, ‘son’, here referring to Osiris, son of Nut and the divine embodiment of mortality).
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Buhl, Marie-Louise. 1947. “The Goddesses of the Egyptian Tree Cult.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies Vol. 6, No. 2: 80-97.
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Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]
Kozloff, Arielle P., and Betsy M. Bryan with Lawrence M. Berman. 1992. Egypt’s Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and his World. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art.
Neugebauer, Otto, and Richard A. Parker. 1960-9. Egyptian Astronomical Texts. Providence: Brown University Press.
Piankoff, Alexander. 1934. “The Sky-Goddess Nut and the Night Journey of the Sun.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 20: 57-61.