The Mythology of Nut, Mother of Gods
One of the oldest goddesses in Egyptian mythology is Nut, the goddess of the sky ( nut means ‘sky’ in the ancient Egyptian language). It was believed that that the sky is, in fact, a star-covered nude woman arched over the earth in a plank or perhaps down-dog position. Some of her titles include Mistress of All, She Who Holds a Thousand Souls, and She Who Protects.
According to the Egyptian creation myth, Atum (the creator) created himself out of the chaotic primordial waters of Nun. By creating himself, Atum created being. As he emerged from Nun, he brought with him a hill to stand upon. From that vantage point, Atum made the god of air, Shu, and the goddess of moisture, Tefnut. These two united to create the earth, Geb, and the sky, Nut. Both Geb and Nut are traditionally depicted without clothes on and it was believed that they were having intercourse continually with Nut lying on top of Geb. Eventually, they had to be separated by air but before that Nut gave birth to four gods: Osiris (initially the ruler of the gods and then the lord of the underworld), Isis (goddess of nature and magic), Set (god of warfare and destruction), and Nephthys (goddess of water and funeral rites). Some legends tell of a fifth god, Arueris, who is generally seen as an Egyptian counterpart to the Greek Apollo.
The goddess Nut depicted in the Temple of Hathor at Dendera ( CC by SA 4.0 / Hamerani )
The birth of Nut’s children did not transpire without a hitch for their coming into existence greatly angered Ra, the sun god. Some accounts say that Ra is Nut’s grandfather. Others say that “Nut gives birth to the sun-god daily and he passes over her body until he reaches her mouth at sunset. He then passed into her mouth and through her body and is reborn the next morning. Another myth described the sun as sailing up her legs and back in the Atet (Matet) boat until noon when he entered the Sektet boat and continued his travels until sunset” (Egyptian Myths, 2014). In any event, Ra did not want four new gods to come into the world and compete with him for Nut’s attention. Thus, Ra declared, “Nut shall not give birth any day of the year.” At this point in time in the early history of the world, the year was 360 days long.
Nun, god of the waters of chaos, lifts the barque of the sun god Ra (represented by both the scarab and the sun disk) into the sky at the beginning of time ( public domain )
Frustrated, Nut spoke to the god of wisdom, Thoth, in order to devise a plan so that she could give birth to her children. Thoth agreed to help the goddess of the sky. He called to Khonsu, the god of the moon, and challenged him to a game of chance. Khonsu could not resist the challenge, even when Thoth warned him that if he lost, Thoth would get to take part of Khonsu’s moonlight. In those days, the light of the moon rivaled even the light of Ra, the sun. Yet after several games of chance, Khonsu lost so much of his moonlight to Thoth that he became the dimmer orb in the sky. Meanwhile, Thoth used the moonlight to create four (or possibly five) extra days so that Nut could have her children. When Ra found out the trick Nut had pulled, he was so angry that he separated her from her husband-lover Geb for all eternity by ordering their father, Shu god of the air, to stand forever between the two.
Due to her supposed role in the regeneration of the sun each day, Nut came to be considered a protector of souls as they entered the afterlife. She was a friend to the dead, a mother-like guardian, who would help the souls leave the underworld and join her in the stars. For this reason, the inside lids of many sarcophagi are painted with images of Nut. A prayer often written on ancient tombs reads “O my Mother Nut, stretch Yourself over me, that I may be placed among the imperishable stars which are in You, and that I may not die.”
Mummy coffin of Pedusiri, depicting the goddess Nut with outstreched wings, Egyptian late dynastic or early Greco-Roman period, circa 500 - 25 B.C.E. Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin ( public domain )
Another feature of ancient tombs is a ladder or a depiction of a ladder. This tradition stems from the popular myth about Osiris returning from the dead. It is believed that once upon a time, Set killed his brother Osiris and tore his body into 14 pieces, which he then scattered about the earth. Osiris’ loving wife, Isis, gathered up those pieces and put Osiris back together. Osiris then climbed up a ladder to the heavens in order to be protected by his mother, Nut, from the wrath of Set. Nut then helped Osiris to become Lord of the Underworld.