From A Handbook of Egyptian Mythology by Geraldine Pinch
Nut was the sky goddess who was the daughter of the air god Shu and his sister, Tefnut. Nut was the consort of her brother, the earth god Geb, and the mother of several important deities including Osiris, Isis, and Seth. As the sky, Nut was shown either as a giant nude woman arched above the earth or as a giant cow with starry markings. Her name probably derives from an Ancient Egyptian word for water (nw) and her symbol was a water pot.
Several myths deal with the separation of sky and earth. The first, which seems to be as old as the Pyramid Texts, relates how Nut and Geb embraced each other so fervently that there was no room between them for anything to exist. Either at the command of the creator or because he was jealous, Shu separated his children and held Nut and Geb permanently apart (see Figure 42). Nut could then give birth to the children she had already conceived.
In the Coffin Texts, Nut is described as the “mother of the five epagomenal days.” A late explanation of this statement is found in Plutarch’s book on Egyptian religion. It tells how Nut (whom Plutarch calls Rhea) was pregnant, but the sun god put a curse on her so that she could not give birth on any day of the year. The god Hermes (Thoth) played a board game with the moon and won enough light to make five extra days on which Nut’s children could be born.
The five children were Osiris, Horus the Elder, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys. In other accounts of mythical history, there seems no permanent separation until the creator sun god Ra decides to leave the earth after a rebellion by humanity.
Nut takes the form of a cow to carry Ra up into the heavens, a myth encapsulated in the image of a sun disk between cow’s horns that became the insignia of several goddesses. When she was holding the sun god high above the earth, Nut’s “limbs began to shake,” so the eight Heh gods were created to support her.
Nut was particularly associated with the night sky, and some scholars have identified her with the Milky Way. In the Pyramid Texts, it is Nut who draws the dead king up to the heavens to live again as a star. The sky was often thought of as a watery region in which the stars and planets might swim like fish or sail in boats.
In the day, the sun god sailed along the “sea below the belly of Nut.” Each evening, the sun god was swallowed by Nut and passed through a perilous inner sky inside her. At dawn, Nut gave birth to the sun, her blood turning the sky red. At the same time she would be swallowing the moon and the stars to give birth to them again at dusk. This violent imagery may have given rise to a reinterpretation of Nut’s character as “the sow who eats her own piglets.” From the New Kingdom onward, the solar cycle was depicted in royal tombs and in temple halls with giant figures of Nut stretching across the ceilings.
In funerary religion Nut was regarded as one of the most helpful goddesses. She was sometimes carved or painted on the underside of coffin lids, so that she could embrace the deceased for all eternity. In the Book of the Dead and in decorated tombs she was shown in a paradise garden as the goddess of the sycamore-fig tree. In this role, Nut gave water and food to refresh the newly dead and strengthen them for their journey through the underworld.
See also Cattle; Geb; Hippopotamus Goddesses; Mehet-Weret; Ra; Shu and Tefnut
References and further reading:
B. S. Lesko. “The Sky Goddess Nut.” In The Great Goddesses of Egypt. Norman, OK: 1999, 22–44. R. A. Wells. “The Mythology of Nut and the Birth of Ra.” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 19 (1992): 305–322. Primary sources: PT 588, 606, 697; CT 76, 80; BD 59, 152; BOD; BON; BofNut; I&O 12