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Egyptian Goddess

Nut

Nut was the powerful Egyptian goddess of the sky. The mother of a generation of Egyptian deities, including Osiris and Isis, her body supported Ra, the sun, and kept the crushing waters of Nun from drowning the earth.

By Evan Meehan5 min read • Last updated on Nov. 19th, 2021
  • Nut was married to her brother Geb, the god of the earth, and together they were the parents of an entire generation of powerful Egyptian deities.

  • Ra wanted Nut for himself, and when he found she was sleeping with Geb, he cursed her so that she couldn’t bear children on any day of the existing year.

  • One of Nut’s myths tells of how, in order to help support the sun god Ra, the goddess Nun transformed her into a cow to better hold him up.

Daughter of Tefnut and Shu, and granddaughter of Ra himself, Nut was the Egyptian goddess of the sky. In a reversal of mythological gendering tropes, her husband Geb was the god of the earth.

Nut was tremendously important to the ancient Egyptians, as she used her body to keep Nun’s crushing waters away from the earth’s surface.

faience of winged Egyptian goddess

This ceramic piece (c. 1295–712 BCE) may depict the winged goddess Nut. The outstretched wings are common characteristics of the goddess, as are the solar disk and horns. The small holes were likely incorporated so that the piece could be sewn or beaded to a mummy's wrappings.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

#Etymology

The name "Nut" (nwt) was derived from the Egyptian word nw, meaning water. The symbol for her name—a water pot—was usually positioned atop her head.1

#Attributes

Nut was often depicted as a nude woman arching across the sky, with her hands at one horizon and her feet at the other. Her body was often covered in markings representing stars, and she was sometimes depicted with wings.2

Evidence suggests that Nut was originally the goddess of the night sky, and may have represented the Milky Way.3 Over time, however, she took on a more general role and became associated with all skies, regardless of the time of day.

#Family

Nut was part of the third generation of Egyptian gods. Her parents were Shu and Tefnut, offspring of the creator god Ra.

Greenfield Papyrus showing Geb below Nut

This scene from the Greenfield Papyrus depicts Nut arching over several figures, including her father Shu, who holds her aloft with raised arms. 

The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

As was common amongst the Egyptian gods, Nut married her brother, Geb. They had a number of children together, including OsirisHorus the ElderSetIsis, and Nephthys.4

It should be noted that Horus was an additional child found only in Greek sources; Egyptian sources attributed only four children to Nut.

#Family Tree

#Mythology

Nut’s significance was hard to overstate. Not only did she conceive the final four members of the Great Ennead, but she kept the waters of Nun from drowning the world.

An Ennead was a group of nine gods in Egyptian mythology. Known as the Great Ennead, the Ennead of Heliopolis included the first nine gods: Atum-Ra, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys.

Despite her somewhat tumultuous relationship with Ra, Nut assisted him with his ascension into the sky.

#The Separation of Earth and Sky

When Nut and Geb were born, they held each other so tightly that Nut could not give birth to any children. Their father Shu eventually forced them apart to allow the next generation of gods to be born; some sources suggest he did so out of jealousy.5

Nut carved on sarcophagus lid of the Vizier Sisebek

On this carved sarcophagus (c. 600 BCE), Nut can be identified by the glyph above her head that bears the water-pot symbolizing her name.

John Keogh / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Following this separation, Nut finally bore the children she had already conceived. In ancient Egyptian cosmology, this myth explained the space between the earth and the sky.

#The Nature of the Sky

For the Egyptians, Nut literally held the sky in place. Nut herself was held aloft by Shu, who was assisted by 8 heh-gods—two for each of Nut’s limbs.

Nut used her body to prevent the inert, primordial waters of Nun from crashing down to earth. These waters explained why the sky was blue, and why Ra’s solar boat could sail upon it.6

#Overcoming Ra’s Curse

According to the Greek historian Plutarch, Ra expected Nut to be his wife. When he learned that she and Geb were sleeping with one another, however, he cursed her “that she should not give birth to a child in any month or year.”7

Thoth was quite enamored with Nut, and quickly came up with a solution: he challenged the moon to a game of draughts (checkers) and placed wagers throughout their match. When Thoth’s winnings eventually added up, the moon gave him 1/70th of her illumination as payment. Thoth used this surplus light to create five additional days at the end of the Egyptian year.8

These five days—referred to as epagomenal days—were not a part of any month and as such, Ra’s curse did not apply to them. This loophole allowed Nut to bear her children at last.

#Helping Ra Ascend Into the Sky

There came a time when Ra decided to abdicate his throne and ascend into the sky. Old and feeble as he was, however, the sun god required some assistance. Nut was surprised when Nun directed her to let Ra sit on her back, for the sun god was too large a burden for her to bear.

Upon explaining her concerns to Nun, Nut found herself transformed into a cow. In this new form granted by the primordial waters, Nut was able to support Ra with ease.9

sarcophagus cover of Djedhor showing the goddess Nut raising the sun

This engraving on the sarcophagus of Djedhor (378-341 BCE) features Nut lifting the sun into the sky.

Franz Vanderwalle / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

#The Book of Nut

Until recently, The Book of Nut was the name given to a collection of astronomical texts dating back to the 12th Dynasty (1991–1802 BCE). The collection’s name stemmed from several copies of the text bearing the classic image of Nut spanning the sky.

In 2007, Alexandra von Lieven discovered the original title in a fragmentary text not previously considered part of The Book of Nut. The title, snč šm.t n.t sb3.w, translates as The Fundamentals of the Course of the Stars.10

#References

Notes

  1. Pinch, Handbook, 174.

  2. Pinch, 174.

  3. Wilkinson, Complete Gods, 162.

  4. Pinch, 135.

  5. Shaw, Egyptian Myths, 39.

  6. Shaw, 116.

  7. Plutarch, Moralia, 12.

  8. Plutarch, 12; Armour, 9; Shaw, 40.

  9. Shaw, 60.

  10. Imhausen and Pommerening, Writings of Early Scholars, **139.

Bibliography

  1. Armour, Robert A. Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2001.

  2. Imhausen, Annette, and Tanja Pommerening. Writings of Early Scholars in the Ancient Near East, Egypt, Rome, and Greece: Translating Ancient Scientific Texts. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010.

  3. Pinch, Geraldine. Handbook of Egyptian Mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2002.

  4. Plutarch. Moralia. Translated by F.C. Babbitt. 1936. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Isis_and_Osiris*/home.html.

  5. Shaw, Garry J. The Egyptian Myths. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 2014.

  6. Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.



Citation

Meehan, Evan. “Nut.” Mythopedia, November 19, 2021. https://mythopedia.com/topics/nut

About the Author

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Evan Meehan

Writer and Historian

Evan Meehan is a writer, researcher, and historian with an M.A. in History from Georgia State University

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