The sky goddess Nut was probably one of the oldest deities in the Egyptian pantheon. She was incorporated into the Heliopolitan Ennead in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, the earliest surviving corpus of religious texts. In this source she is a central figure as the grand-daughter of the creator god Atum, the daughter of Shu and Tefnut (air and moisture), the sister and wife of Geb (earth), the mother of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys, and the grandmother of Horus. In Spell 548 of the Pyramid Texts, Nut the Great is described as a long-horned celestial cow who suckles the king and takes him to herself in the sky. This imagery recurs much later in the shrines of Tutankhamun (r. 1355–1346 BCE), where it is greatly elaborated, and again in the Ptolemaic period (305–31 BCE) in association with the goddess Hathor at her temple in Dendera.

In the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts there are series of Nut spells. On the sarcophagus of Teti (first king of the sixth dynasty, ruled c.2374–2354) there are a number of recitations by Nut (Spells 1 ff.), and in the later sixth dynasty pyramids there are a number of addresses (Spells 427 ff.) asking the sky goddess to conceal her son Osiris from Seth, to take possession of the earth, and to install every god who has a bark as an imperishable star in the starry sky—that is, in Nut herself.

In the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts, Spell 77 describes Nut as “she who bore the gods,” and Spell 864 calls her “mother of the gods.” She enfolds and protects the sun god Re, as well as re-creating him daily. Although she is given the epithet “Mother of Seth” numerous times in the Ramessid story of the Contendings of Horus and Seth, her role as mother of Osiris, and by extension of Horus, is much more significant in the New Kingdom.

Unlike many other great deities, Nut had no particular cult center. This situation may have resulted from her originally chthonic rather than anthropomorphic nature. In spite of the fact that in some texts of all periods she is associated with the cow goddess, she was also depicted very early in the history of the pantheon as a human female figure whose nude body arched over the earth, sustained the stars, gave birth to the sun every day, and swallowed it at dusk so that it could pass through her body. In Spell 306 of the Coffin Texts, Nut performs the same remaking for the deceased, identified with Re. This re-birth of the sun god, together with the resurrection of her son, Osiris, gave her a very important role in the two major Egyptian cults centered on the afterlife. Coffins and burial chambers of tombs are both personified as Nut, who is frequently depicted on their lids and ceilings, for example, in the beautiful representation found in the tomb of Sety I in the Valley of the Kings.

In the Ptolemaic temples at the great cult sites of Edfu and Esna, there are separate chapels to Nut near their main sanctuaries, which depict her body bent around the chapel ceilings. At Dendera, the ceiling of the first hypostyle hall prominently features the goddess Nut in what must be one of the largest representations of any deity in Egypt.

Bibliography

  • Hollis, Susan T. “Women of Ancient Egypt and the Sky Goddess Nut.” Journal of American Folklore 100 (1987), 497.
  • Hollis, Susan T. “Five Egyptian Goddesses in the Third Millennium B.C.” KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt 5.4 (1994), 48–49.
  • Hornung, Erik. The Valley of the Kings: Horizon of Eternity. Translated by David Warburton. New York, 1990.
  • Lesko, Barbara S. The Great Goddesses of Egypt (forthcoming).
  • Thompson, Stephen E. “A Study of the Pyramid Texts Occurring on Middle Kingdom Saqqara Coffins.” M. A. thesis, Brown University, 1986.

Leonard H. Lesko