Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Nut: Whence the Star Goddess?
This is part of a presentation I did in conjunction with Tim Hartridge at the Australian Wiccan Conference 2007. I did Part 1 Nut: Whence the Star Goddess? and Tim did Part 2 Nuit's Veil: An archetype of a witches’ coven.
Nut Presentation - Australian Wiccan Conference 2007.
Almost two thousand years after the closure of the Egyptian temples by the Roman Empire, an English magician receives a communiqué from an ancient Egyptian goddess, Nut (Nuit). The goddess asks him to help her unveil herself, to become in effect, her prophet. The magician – Aleister Crowley – does this by publishing “The Book of the Law”, the first chapter of which contains the voice of Nuit. Who exactly is this goddess, and how did she come to be speaking to Aleister Crowley?
Goddess of the Milky Way
Nut is the ancient Egyptian goddess of the Milky Way, in fact she is the Milky Way.
So, what is the Milky Way? If it is clear tonight we will see it above us – it always looks so great in the country. The Milky Way is an enormous spiral galaxy containing, at one edge, our solar system. We’re not even in a particularly important place within this galaxy – if you think centrality is important. When we look at the Milky Way above us, we’re looking through the flat disk of the galaxy. When we look away from the Milky Way we’re looking into the rest of Space. It can give you a wonderful sense of vertigo!
As the personification of the heavens, Nut is usually represented in profile as a woman arched over like a bridge, whose hands and feet touch the earth. She is often accompanied by her partner, the earth god Geb, depicted beneath her, and sometimes the air god Shu is shown between them, separating Nut and Geb. Nut is primarily depicted in anthropomorphic form, she can also be shown as a cow – Hathor the goddess of love was also depicted as a cow – and as a pig, sometimes with piglets.
According to the Heliopolitan creation myth (different districts had different creation myths – this one is from Heliopolis) Nut is the daughter of Shu and Tefnut, who are in turn the children of the primeval god, Atum.
Atum – the self-engendered one – arose at the beginning of time and created the first gods by masturbating (sometimes his hand is personified as a goddess). These were Shu (god of air) and Tefnut (goddess of moisture). Shu and Tefnut then become the parents of Nut (sky) and Geb (earth).
In many pantheons, sky deities are male while earth deities are female. The apparent reversal of this symbolism in the Egyptian pantheon may be connected with the fact that in Egypt, the regular source of water (associated with fertilizing semen) was the Nile – which came from the earth – rather than as rain from the sky. For time to begin, sky and earth needed to be separated and this is shown by Shu raising Nut up away from Geb.
Nut and Geb are the parents of Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nepthys. And Osiris and Isis are the parents Horus. Osiris is the god of order, fertility and lush vegetation, he represents deceased Pharaoh and is also god of the underworld (underworld gods are often providers of food). Isis is a mother goddess, a magician and the personification of king’s throne. Their son Horus represents the living king. Set is the god of the desert, chaos, foreigners, and is the usurper of the throne. Nepthys is a funerary goddess.
Celestial Nut, mother of Sun and Pharaoh
The Egyptians believed that the earth was a flat plate and that the sky was a vast body of water. The name “Nut” may mean “the watery one”, although this does not mean that she rained, the idea is more like a Great Lake or Sea. The movement of the sun across this water was understood as a voyage by boat.
As well as being the mother of Osiris, Isis, Set and Nepthys, Nut also was the mother of the stars and sun which she gave birth to daily. The sun, Re, is often depicted in astronomical ceilings being swallowed by Nut in the evening, traversing through her body at night, and being born again at dawn. It was understood that Nut’s head lay in the West where the sun set, and her vagina in the East where he rose. The image of Nut swallowing the sun and stars led her to be identified with the Great Sow who eats her piglets.
It was the sun’s capacity for rebirth that the Pharaoh sought to identify with after death, hence the image of the sun travelling though the body of Nut appears in royal tombs. Later on it also appears on coffin lids. Nut’s depiction on the coffin lids emphasises her role as the coffin, she literally embraces the deceased - originally only the king, but later on anyone who could afford a coffin.
Goddess of the Dead
Before being depicted on coffins, Nut was an important deity in the Pyramid Texts in which she appears almost 100 times. The Pyramid Texts, written on the walls of the pyramids, instructed the Pharaoh how to behave, and advised him on what he would encounter, in the afterlife. Originally the instructions in the Pyramid Texts were only for the Pharaoh. Nut played a central role in them regarding his resurrection. She was known as his “mother Nut in her name of “sarcophagus”… in her name of “Coffin” and… in her name of “tomb”.
As the afterlife became more inclusive the Pyramid Texts evolved into the Coffin Texts. These contained similar instructions but were written on coffins, so what was originally an exclusive relationship between Nut and the Pharaoh now incorporated the non-royal elite as well. Eventually the Coffin Texts became The Book of Going Forth By Day, or as we know it, The Book of the Dead, written on papyrus.
When depicted on coffins, Nut was represented frontally on the underside of the lid, often showing the solar disk in the process of being swallowed or reborn. Sometimes she was also depicted on the sides and inside the coffin. When the lid was placed over the deceased a kind of union was achieved. The coffin symbolically became the body of the goddess from whom the deceased would be reborn.
Lady of the Sycamore
This connection with the wood of coffins may have been what led Nut to be identified with the divine sycamore tree who nourishes the deceased in the afterworld. In the private tombs of Thebes and in images in the Book of the Dead, Nut is depicted as a goddess rising from the trunk of this divine tree, offering life-sustaining water and nourishment. She is the Tree of Life.
Why a sycamore tree? Egypt was not famous for its trees, although it did have them of course. In the oases the weary traveller arriving from the desert would come across the sycamore – actually a sycamore fig – from which he could obtain fruit, as well as water from the spring which bathed its roots. In chapter 59 of the Book of the Dead it says “Hail thou sycamore of Nut, give thou to me of the water and of the air which are in thee”. The accompanying image shows the deceased kneeling at a pool in the midst of which a sycamore is growing. The goddess extends her arms toward him, with a tray of food in one hand and a jar of water in another.
The ancient Egyptian cult of Nut appears to have been relatively modest, with evidence of few, if any, sanctuaries or priests. However she is known to have received food offerings as a mortuary goddess and been presented the sacred menat necklace in a ritual scene. The minimality of her cult should not be construed as signifying her lack of importance however: her roles of mother goddess, mortuary goddess, sky goddess, and orderer of the day and night each constitute significant functions. While she did not have huge temples, her place in popular religion is evident from the many sow amulets that have been excavated.
New Aeon Nut / Nuit
How did this sky and funerary goddess - who did not have huge temples, cult or priesthood - come to be important today? Why Nut? ... Why Egypt?
To answer this question we need to fast forward from ancient Egypt to England and the year 1888 when three prominent Freemasons – William Wynn Westcott, Samuel Liddell Macgregor Mathers and Dr. W.R. Woodman chartered the Isis-Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This was an exclusive magical order incorporating, among other things, explicit Egyptian components.
Again, why Egypt? It was a sign of the times. After the French and British campaigns in Egypt of 1798-1801, the Napoleonic investigations of Egyptian architecture were published in 1802 and again in 1828. Subsequently, enthusiasm for all things Egyptian became widespread in 19th century taste, particularly in France and Britain, but also in Spain, North and South America, South Africa, and Australia. It was during this century that Egyptology evolved into a professional discipline. [Interestingly, one of the major figures in modern Witchcraft - Margaret Murray, author of The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches – was a professional Egyptologist, being in fact an assistant to Professor Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, the “Father of Egyptology”.]
The general enthusiasm for Egypt in the 19th century ensured a continuous passion for Egyptian design in the decorative arts and architecture and, if the Golden Dawn is anything to go by, spirituality. Macgregor Mathers is known to have said “I have clothed myself with hieroglyphics as with a garment.”
Aleister Crowley was initiated into the Golden Dawn on the 26th of November 1898 when it was under the leadership of Florence Farr. It may have been while under her influence that he became aware of the importance in ceremonial magic of Egypt, as she had a particular interest in it. Farr had formed a separate group within the Golden Dawn called the “Sphere” which had a specific Egyptian focus – although Crowley was not a member of this group. Farr obtained inspiration for the direction of the group from an “Egyptian Adept”, Nem-Kheft-Ka, possibly a priestess of the temple of Amon at Thebes, who she was in communication with through her coffin in the British Museum. As we will soon see, Egyptian antiquities in a museum context - albeit a different museum - will be significant for Crowley as well.
In 1904, Crowley and his new wife Rose Kelly were honeymooning in Egypt. Although Rose was not trained in magick and did not really know anything about it, Crowley continued his regular magickal practices. On March 16th he performed the “Preliminary Invocation” or “Bornless Ritual” intending to entertain Rose by showing her the Sylphs (Air Elementals). Rose did not see any Sylphs but began behaving strangely, telling Crowley “They’re waiting for you”. He didn’t know what she was talking about and did not pay much attention.
The next day, 17th of March, they both successfully invoked the Egyptian god of writing and magic, Thoth. Rose was still saying weird things. This time she told Crowley “It was all about the child” and “all Osiris”.
On the 18th March, Rose claimed that the god Horus was waiting for Crowley at the Boulak Museum - in Cairo. They went to the museum and after walking straight past several images of Horus, which seemed to confirm to Crowley that she did not know what she was talking about, Rose singled out a funerary stela depicting Horus that had the catalogue number 666. Crowley very much identified with the Biblical “Beast of Revelations” so this number was significant for him. This stela was later to be known as The Stele of Revealing.
Between March 23 and April 7 Crowley had the hieroglyphs on the stela translated into French by a museum assistant and then made a versified English version of them. He subsequently composed several Horus invocations in order to directly encounter and explore the deity and find out what, if anything, he wanted. This is known as the Cairo Working.
The culmination of the Cairo Working came on April 8, 9, and 10 of 1904. Following Rose’s instructions, Crowley entered his temple space at noon each day and wrote down what he heard for an hour. He received a direct voice dictation from an intelligence that described itself as “the minister of Hoor-paar-kraat” (or Harpocrates, the Greek name of Horus the child) named Aiwaz or Aiwass. This dictation forms what is known as The Book of the Law (Liber AL vel Legis sub figura CCXX).
The Book of the Law consists of three chapters. The first is devoted to the goddess Nut, now called Nuit (French for “Night”). Subsequent chapters concern Nuit’s male complement, Hadit (possibly derived from a form of Horus called Behdet), and their “child” Ra-Hoor-Khuit (Re-and-Horus-of-the-Two-Horizons). This god is actually two god-forms – the active Ra-Hoor-Khuit, and the passive, Hoor-paar-kraat.
Nuit describes herself as “Infinite Space and the Infinite Stars thereof” – like her ancient Egyptian counterpart. In the second chapter she is described as “the circumference” while Hadit, her male complement, is the “centre” - the point within the circle. Nuit’s sign is a five-pointed star with a red circle in the middle of it, symbolising Hadit, “the flame that burns in the heart of every man and the core of every star”. Ra-Hoor-Khuit is the synthesis of Nuit and Hadit and – if we look at the ancient Egyptian Horus - the deified living Pharaoh. Ra-Hoor-Khuit is actually quite warlike. I interpret this as the energy needed to go through life.
Although this explains how Nuit reappeared as an important goddess today, it does not explain why it happened - or why it happened to Aleister Crowley. Was he just the best self-publiciser of all the Golden Dawn? Crowley interpreted the reception of the Book of the Law as the “Equinox of the Gods” – a cosmic changeover time in the divine “rulership” or “influence” of the planet from the dying-and-reborn god of the Aeon of Osiris to the Crowned and Conquering Child of the Aeon of Horus. Is that what it was… or is? There are many who would say yes.