Who was the Goddess Nut in Egyptian Mythology?
Ancient Egyptians held the belief that the universe was abound with many gods. Those gods were what kept chaos from enveloping the entire world. Additionally, those gods played vital roles in the day-to-day lives of ancient Egyptians. One of such important ancient Egyptian god was the goddess Nut – goddess of the sky and cosmos. Nut was the daughter of Shu and Tefnut. Revered as the goddess of mothers, Nut was also the queen consort/brother of Geb, the earth god. It was believed that Nut on a daily basis swallowed the sun (Ra) and later gave birth to Ra in the morning.
In the article below, we take an in-depth look at the birth story, symbols and appearance, and powers of Nut, the ancient Egyptian goddess of the cosmos and sky.
Nut’s birth story and meaning
Along with her brother (and later husband) Geb, Nut was generally regarded as one of the first gods in the Egyptian pantheon and creation story. Her grandfather was the creator god, Atum-Ra (also known as the sun god Ra). Nut’s parents were Shu (wind/air) and Tefnut (moisture).
Nut’s only sibling was Geb, the Earth and vegetation god. As it was common in ancient Egyptian religion, gods often married from within their family. Hence, Geb took Nut as his wife. Together, they gave birth to four very important deities – Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.
Nut belongs to a group of gods called the “Nine Gods” (also known as the “Ennead”). Those nine gods – Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys – were highly revered in ancient Egypt.
Nut’s family tree
How Nut defied the creator god Ra
Afraid that his offsprings would one day usurp him from his throne, the creator god Ra issued a decree preventing his granddaughter from giving birth on any day in the year. Ancient Egyptians believed that the year back then had only 360 days.
Bent on giving birth, Nut sought the wise counsel of Thoth, the god of wisdom, hieroglyphics and knowledge. The two deities connived to bypass Ra’s decree. Thoth made a proposition to Khonsu, the god of the Moon who was also the keeper of days. Thoth gambled with Khonsu, where for every game lost, Khonsu was to create one additional day. Ultimately Thoth was able to secure five days from Khonsu. Nut was finally able to give birth to her five children (Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys, and Horus the Elder) on those five extra days won by the god Thoth.
Obviously, Nut’s defiance did not go unpunished when Ra found out. Ra sent his son Shu (the god of air) to create an atmosphere that separated Geb and Nut forever. Consumed by sadness and longing for his wife Nut, Geb is believed to have permanently lain beneath Nut (the sky), waiting patiently for the day he would be reunited with Nut.
Depictions and Symbols
Ancient Egyptians often depicted Nut with a pot for a crown. The round shape of the pot most likely symbolizes the uterus. This assertion fits perfectly with her other trait as the goddess of mothers. Perhaps it was in this pot that Nut stored the sun (Ra); and come morning, Nut blessed the people of ancient Egypt by ‘giving birth’ to the sun again. And so the cycle of death (dusk) and rebirth (sunrise) continued.
Another common depiction of Nut saw her portrayed as a cow. For many ancient civilizations, the cow was a sacred animal, an absolutely vital component of their societies, giving the people not just food but also a hand on their farms. Therefore, it was not surprising that Nut – the goddess of mothers – was depicted as a cow in ancient Egypt. The goddess was seen as the benefactor of the land; she was the one who nourished everyone in kingdom. It was even believed that Nut suckled the pharaohs of Egypt.
In many ancient Egyptian paintings, Nut’s body was used to symbolize the sky or the stars. Like a mother protects her children, Nut was depicted nude arching over the entire world or cosmos.
Other important symbols of hers were the sycamore tree and a ladder (maqet). Ancient Egyptians believed Osiris used Nut’s ladder to ascend to the cosmos (i.e. afterlife) after his resurrection.
Epithets of Nut
Owing to her importance in the Egyptian pantheon, Nut earned a number of epithets. For example, she was often called “She Who Bore the Gods”. This epithet is in reference to the five major gods (Osiris and co.) she gave birth to. Other important titles of Nut were: She who Protects, Coverer of the Sky, Mistress of All, and She Who Holds a Thousand souls.
How important was Nut in Ancient Egypt
First of all, Nut was revered as one of the Ennead of the Heliopolis (i.e. the nine gods). And owing to her marriage to Geb, Nut was considered the queen consort of the land of Egypt – Mistress of All.
Nut protected everything and everyone below the sky. Her protection even stretched into the afterlife. She was seen as the deity that brought order to the cosmos. This earned her the epithet, “She Who Protects”.
Secondly, Nut’s realm in the sky served as the home of the moon and the sun. According to one account, the Egyptians believed that Ra (or the sun) made his way across the sun every day and ultimately got swallowed up by Nut. Come dawn, Nut would open up the sky and allow the sun to be reborn. Thus, Nut was revered as “The Deity Who Holds a Thousand souls”. Ancient Egyptians also believed that inclusive of those souls Nut held where the souls of the dead.
As a result of her association with birth and rebirth, the goddess Nut was believed to be the one who protected and nourished Osiris during his journey into the afterlife.
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Other Interesting Myths about the goddess Nut
- In some periods of ancient Egypt, Nut was considered the nighttime sky goddess.
- After Nut and Geb got separated by Shu (i.e. on the orders of Ra), Geb is believed to have cried for eons of years. It was from Geb’s tears the earth’s oceans emerged.
- Astronomers in ancient Egypt generally considered Nut as the patron goddess of astronomy. There was even a book called The Fundamentals of the Course of the Stars (also known as The Book of Nut). Some historians have stated that the book was written around 2,000 BCE. If their assertions are true, then the book could hold the record of being one of the oldest astronomy books from the ancient world. The book is filled with several stories about the cycles of the various heavenly bodies. It contains many stories about Nut, as well several other star deities in Egyptian mythology.