Nuit and the Duat is not the name of my occult rock band…yet.
I was struck by a comment during Gordon’s Rune Soup Podcast interview of Austin Coppock last week (right around the 58 minute mark), viz., that the Egyptian goddess Nuit is an underworld goddess. (“She sleeps underground,” quoth Gordon. Do listen to the podcast for the full context; the part referencing Nuit is just a couple of minutes if that.) I found this idea very intriguing; I never thought of Nuit in quite those terms. Nuit is most familiar as a sky goddess, yet as Gordon said (paraphrased), if you dig for the underworld you eventually dig your way to the stars. That brought me back to something that really fascinates me, the Egyptian concept of the Duat. So I pondered a bit on the relationship of Nuit and the Duat…
First I should clarify that the words “underworld” and “Otherworld” are how we render in English the Egyptian word/concept Duat. As I described in my post on Egyptian dreamworking, the word Duat is written with a hieroglyph of a five-pointed star within a circle. Star glyphs show up in words related to literal stars, as well as time (morning, hour, month), priesthood, worship, teaching, and a verb that literally means “to awake in the morning” but seems to be used to describe what we call in English a “dream”. Gordon may have much more to say about this when his book Star.Ships comes out (any day now!), but while I’m no expert on ancient Egypt, it seems clear to me that the word “underworld” doesn’t even come close to approximating what Egyptians meant by Duat. We have to work with what we’ve got, though, knowing much is lost in translation.
In a recent post I talked about chthonic Hermes, which means “Hermes of the Earth”, but by extension Hermes of (what we would call) the Underworld; which shows us that for the Greeks, the world of the dead was in/of the earth, so “of the earth” became a poetic metaphor for “of the (realm of the) dead”. Similarly, the existence of the English word “under-world” tells us that the notion of a world of the dead beneath that of the living (though perhaps not in/of the earth per se) also had currency within the Germanic-speaking world. But we have to get out of that headspace to even attempt to grasp the Egyptian concept of Duat. When Gordon says that Nuit is an “underworld goddess”, this should not be understood as meaning that her realm was in the earth. The Duat as a place is inseparable from the Duat as a state and as a time, and specifically, cyclical time. I believe this cyclicity is represented in the hieroglyph. I’d be lying if I said I could even close to wrap my head around this.
In Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred (highly recommended), Jeremy Naydler explains the mythic becoming-manifest of the universe. I am probably doing violence to the Egyptians’ beautiful and sophisticated ontology in my effort to summarize, but in the Heliopolitan cosmology as my puny brain understands it, Atum, all-that-is, the Monad, sort of self-coalesces out of the formless void that is Nun, symbolized as water. In this act of coalescence Atum is Kheprer, the act/process of becoming; Atum is the all and the eternal act of creating the all. Atum is the emergence of form from the formless and light from the darkness. As light, Atum is Ra. So Atum is Nun coalesced, and Kheprer and Ra, as well as, of course, Atum, because everything is Atum. Atum creates, by spitting or masturbating, Shu (air, space, atmosphere) and Tefnut (moisture), the first dyad or polarity. Through the sexual union of Shu and Tefnut, Nuit (sky) and Geb (earth) are born. However, Nuit and Geb came into existence as an undivided being, symbolized as two lovers in coitus. Shu separates them, air intervening between earth and sky, and the world and the gods become manifest/differentiated. There’s a repeated motif of one becoming two becoming one becoming two, until finally, with the separation of Nuit and Geb, all the myriad things come into being. You can see what I think is an echo of this cosmology in the Tree of Life (with Atum as Keter, and both Shu and Geb as Chokhmah, perhaps, and Tefnut and Nuit as Binah, etc.–you can map the same deities onto the Tree in different places maybe, and vice versa, but I need to think more on this); it is embedded very deeply within the ontology of the Western Magical Tradition.
Although our human brains and the constraints of language require us to describe this cosmology as a sequence, it is in fact eternal. As you can see from Egyptian paintings, all the generations of gods always-already coexist. As Naydler makes clear, earthly cycles–such as that of the sun rising and setting every day–were essentially seen as symbolic of, or analogues for, divine realities not constrained by time or linearity. Our reality is merely a reenactment. So the rising and setting of the sun is effectively a reification of the eternal becoming and totality of existence.
Where does the sun go when not visible above the horizon? It goes to the Duat, returning to (rejoining? re-becoming?) its non-physically-manifest essence. Naydler writes (pp. 24-26):
“…within Nut’s body is a region that is entirely invisible, entirely beyond the range of sense perception. When the sun enters this region it can no longer be seen, for it has entered a world that exists purely internally. Here there is no ‘external space’ in which it becomes manifest….[The Dwat] is less an Underworld than an innerworld; it is a deeply interior world. If we think of Nut, the goddess of the sky, symbolizing the spiritual order of being, then in passing from the stars that cover her flesh to the invisible interior of her body, we enter into this spiritual order that the visible stars merely gesture toward.
“…Though the Dwat may be conceived of as a kind of place, it is in reality less a place than a ‘condition of being’ that things have when they pass out of physical existence, and before they pass back again into physical existence. So it is where the dead go, and equally where the living come from. Just as the sun, when it rises in the east, is in fact born from the womb of the great goddess, so too are all creatures the children of her womb, the Dwat. All things that come into being in the manifest world come from the Dwat. That is where they preexist, before they are born into the light of day, and that is where they return having relinquished their physical forms.”
So if the visible portion of the solar cycle corresponds to the act of creation (Kheprer-Ra), at night it returns to a state of not-yet-become; there is thus an analogical relationship between the Duat and Nun, the unmanifest, though they are not the same thing any more than the sun is the same thing as the totality of existence. This cyclicity is further emphasized by the fact that the ruler of the Duat is Nuit’s son Osiris, who (in Naydler’s words) “governs the cycles of generation and destruction, of coming into being and passing away to which all creatures are subject.”
Why was the Duat understood to be/represented as within the body of Nuit, rather than within the body of Geb, or Shu, or Tefnut? Perhaps Gordon will give us his take on that in Star.Ships, but since it hasn’t come out yet, I shall speculate: The earth has its own cycles, of course, but it doesn’t participate in the cycle that unfolds in the sky every day. Each day, the sun runs its course from east to west and then the sky becomes dark and the stars become visible; by contrast, the earth remains relatively static. The solar cycle thus has an obvious symbolic correlation to the life cycles of mortal beings being born, living, dying. Nuit only becomes visible when the sun has “died”, so it makes all kinds of sense that the “place” you go when your physical manifestation dies, and the place from which new life emerges (like the rising sun), is mapped onto Nuit. But it must always be understood that this mapping was analogic. In the New Kingdom Book of Gates, the Duat is shown in the middle of Nun (there’s the resonance with Nun again). The text states, “Osiris encircles the Duat.” Osiris, whose body literally forms a circle, is depicted holding Nuit, who in turn holds up the sun (Ra) (this image can be found on Page 26 of Temple of the Cosmos). In this image, then, Osiris is the “veil”, the border of the Duat and thus the state (and act?) of transformation between physical and non-physical or inner and outer existence. And we see that Nuit is outside of this, in the manifest/visible world, as dependent on the Duat for her manifestation as is everything else in the universe. While the Duat is, in some sense, in her, it is also original to her.
I begin to get a sense of Egyptian ontology as a sort of pulse, an ebb and flow, of emanation/exteriorization/concretization. I can visualize it, but as yet I can’t find the words to describe it. At first I was ready to respectfully disagree with Gordon about Nuit “sleeping underground,” but in the metaphorical sense of the word–something secret or hidden–it is perfect.
I suspect those of us who speak Indo-European languages have difficulty getting into anything remotely like Egyptian headspace because we are heirs to a very different Eurasian ontology/cosmology, hinted at in our vocabularies, in which the dead are below us and the gods are above us in “heaven” or an “upper world”. This spatial relationship is so fossilized in our languages that trying to talk outside of it is, to borrow Alan Watts’ phrase, rather like trying to bite your own teeth. So on the one hand, you have this Egyptian cosmology at the foundation of and ubiquitous within the WMT, but on the other, it remains damnably hard to grasp intellectually.
And maybe that’s for the best, as it forces us to experience it rather than abstracting it. It is a microcosm of the larger truth that these things can’t be accurately described in any language. Our words are just approximations of the reality, just as for the Egyptians, the world of sensory perceptions was a vague approximation of divine, cosmic realities.