Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
The goddess Nut was the daughter of Shu and Tefnut, the wife of Geb, and the mother of Osiris and Isis, Set and Nephthys. She personified the sky and the vault of heaven. A good many other goddesses probably became absorbed in her from time to time. She is, however, the personification of the day sky, a certain Naut representing the sky of night, but this distinction was an early one. She was indeed the counterpart of Nu, and represented the great watery[Pg 173] abyss, out of which all things originally came, so that Nut, the spouse of Nu, and Nut, the spouse of Geb, are one and the same being. She is usually represented as a woman carrying upon her head a vase of water, which plainly indicates her character. Sometimes she wears the horns and disk of Hathor, but she has many other guises as the great mother of the gods.
Her most general appearance, however, is that of a woman resting on hands and feet, her body forming an arch, thus representing the sky. Her limbs typified the four pillars on which the sky was supposed to rest. She was supposed originally to be reclining on Geb, the earth, when Shu raised her from this position. This myth is a very common one among the aborigines of America, but in an inverted sense, as it is usually the sky which takes the place of the original father, and the earth that of the great mother. These are usually separated by the creative deity, just as were Geb and Nut, and the allegory represents the separation of the earth from the waters which were above it, and the creation of the world.
According to another myth Nut gave birth daily to the sun-god, who passed across her body, which represented the sky. In a variant account he is represented as travelling across her back. The limbs and body of the goddess are bespangled with stars. In another pictorial description of Nut we see a second female figure drawn inside the first, and within that again the body of a man, the last two conforming to the semicircular shape of the sky-goddess. This is explained as meaning that the two women personify the day and night skies, but it does not account for the male body, which may represent the Duat. Again we read that Nut was transformed into a great cow, and she is frequently represented in this form. The deceased are[Pg 174] described in the Book of the Dead as relying on her for fresh air in the underworld, over the waters of which she was supposed to have dominion. She possessed a sacred tree, the sycamore, which was situated at Heliopolis, at the foot of which the serpent Apep was slain by the great cat Ra. The branches of this tree were regarded as a place of refuge for the weary dead in noonday during the summer, and in its shade they were refreshed by the food on which the goddess herself lived.
It was asserted by the priests of Denderah that Nut had her origin in their city, and that there she became the mother of Isis. Her five children, Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys, were born on the five epagomenal days of the year—that is, the five days over the three hundred and sixty. As in Mexico, certain of these were regarded as unlucky. Nut plays a prominent part in the underworld, and the dead are careful to retain her good offices, probably in order that they may have plenty of air. Indeed, her favour renewed their bodies and they were enabled to rise and journey with the sun-god each day, even as did Ra, the son of Nut. A portrait of the goddess was often painted on the cover of the coffin as a mark of her protection, and this was rarely omitted in the Egyptian burial ceremonies.