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The Egyptian Universe

IN THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM of the City of New York, rests the grey diorite sarcophagus of Uresh-Nofer, one time priest of the "watery" goddess Mut, in Egypt. On the upper half of the sarcophagus lid is engraved the figure of the Sky goddess Nut "bending over the Earth," a marvellous picture of the Egyptian Universe.

"The Sky Goddess Nut bending over the Earth," and the succeeding Plate, "The Goddess Nut represented Double," bring up so clearly the first of the major traditional catastrophes of the Earth, that it would be timely just now to consider them briefly. There have been five, one so dimly related that it shall be left till the last. But there are four great timeless traditions of great disasters. The first is the violent separation of Earth from Heaven. The second is the appalling Earth-Moon catastrophe. The third is the Deluge, and the fourth is the sinking of Atlantis. Or, it may be, the third in point of "time" is the sinking of Atlantis, and the fourth is the Deluge. Or, again, it may be that these two catastrophes, though individual,

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were coincident with each other. Tradition however is, happily, not logic, and so, even in a disorderly order, we may take up the outstanding afflictions of the planet we call Earth.

First, then, the violent separation of Earth from Heaven, which these Egyptian world-pictures illustrate so beautifully.

Nut was goddess of the starry sky. Sometimes she is represented as powdered with stars; sometimes, as here, with but a line of them along her spine; once at least, on the sarcophagus lid of Uresh-Nofer, with the three discs or spheres of universal significance--body, spirit, soul--connected by eight stars and by six. Sometimes the band of stars was accompanied by a band of water flowing over her spine--the celestial Nile, as the Egyptians called the mysterious heavenly waters that covered the world. Sometimes the path of the celestial Nile is called the path of the Milky Way; and often the path of the Milky Way is called the path of souls." Through her husband, Seb, she gave birth to the Sun, which was ever after re-born each morning: daily it made its journey from east to west beneath her body until, sinking below the western horizon, it passed into the mouth of Nut, traversed her body during the night, to be born again at dawn. Nut also gave birth to the Moon, which came forth from her breasts as milk. And to countless other heavenly bodies as well whose genealogy would take us too far.

This is the story of Nut or Heaven and of Seb or Earth.

In the beginning--that stirless rest in which all myths of the original Creation begin--Heaven and Earth were


PLATE IX THE SKY GODDESS NUT BENDING OVER THE EARTH<br> <i>From the Sarcophagus of Uresh-Nofer, Priest of the Goddess Mut</i> (XXX<i>th dynasty</i>, <i>378-341 B.C.</i>)<br> (In the Metropolitan Museum of the City of New York)
Click to enlarge

From the Sarcophagus of Uresh-Nofer, Priest of the Goddess Mut (XXXth dynasty, 378-341 B.C.)
(In the Metropolitan Museum of the City of New York)


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together, wedded gods, from whom was to spring all that has been, is, and shall ever be. Time was not yet, sings one of the old world-hymns, nor Universal Mind, nor Thought, nor Word. Bliss was not. Misery was not. Darkness alone filled the boundless All, for Father-Mother-Son were once more one, and the Son had not yet awakened for the new Wheel and his new Pilgrimage. The Universe was still concealed in the Divine Thought and the Divine Bosom.

But the day of Creation came, and a new god, Shu, god of Air or of Sunlight, sprang out of the primordial waters. He slipped between the two, and tearing Nut with force from the body of Seb her husband, raised her to the sky. Her star-spangled body marked the extent of the firmament; and her hands and feet hanging down were the four pillars of the firmament and the four quarters of the Earth. There ever since she has remained, bending over the Earth, eternally watching the Earth and the children of Earth.

Of Seb the Earth it is related that he did not endure the violent separation from Nut without a struggle. He sought to rise, that he might fight and overcome the newly created god. But as he struggled, just roused from deep dreamless sleep, he was arrested and held in the curious position he has ever since maintained (Plate X, B), without power to change it. He has been veiled each spring with plants and herbs and grasses; and winter has wrapped him in ice an now; while along his back has passed the endless panorama of the generations of animals and men. Through him is given to them all they have; he gives and

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they ungratefully take, never asking if he has a need they might supply, a sorrow they might soothe. Often he sleeps, and, sleeping, dreams of Nut, forgetting for a time his grief and pain; forgetting for a time that between him and his mate, forever separating them, stands Shu, god of Air or of Sunlight. But he may never again sink into dreamless sleep; sooner or later the circle of his dreams rounds on itself, and he is roused by pain to his state of suffering again. This is why Earth eternally questions Heaven until, wearied with waiting for answers that never come, he sinks again into slumber. Some say that Heaven answers Earth when he dreams, but because the path of his dreaming is a circle, he has forgotten most of Heaven's answers when he awakes.

And some have quite another story of Seb the Earth; namely, that Seb is concealed under the form of a colossal gander, whose mate laid the Sun Egg, and perhaps still lays it every day. Or again there is another story of Shu, which is that as the divine Son, he had later in his turn begotten Seb and Nut, the two deities he had separated.

Such then is the first catastrophe--every religion has recognised it; that the Earth is cut off, disinherited, a troubled, troublesome, perturbed, perturbating, turbulent, storm-swept, dream-sodden, staggering, breathless, complaining planet; and that all of its children have inherited its qualities.

Next: Earth-Moon Catastrophe