Nut Makes a Deal by Anna Marie Laforest
Scarab beetles have a long tradition of handing down stories, and my family is no exception, so I am happy to tell you what I know about the goddess Nut. Her story begins before the arrival of Human Beings along the Nile.
It was a time when sacred geometry was just beginning to be put in place, before harmonic ratios, a time when the gods were not sure how to steward the earth, and the only living things here were my ancestors the scarabs and their neighbors the jerboas, who are mice with long legs and lunar eyes. Oh, and a few nocturnal sand cats who eat snakes, but they mostly stayed in hiding from the rest of us.
We scarabs were golden-green, we shone against the pure yellow sand and fleeting Nile mud, under the hot rays of the Sun god Ra. And Ra was fascinated with us, watching endlessly as our elders rolled their dung balls along, our newborns emerging from the little ball chambers just the elders died, thus seeming to be souls arising from the dead.
Ra never caught on that we lay our eggs in those earth balls, and that our babies grow past their pupa stage by eating the dung and transforming into hardy little beetle selves. The ancient people, when they arrived, also saw us as a symbol for resurrection, and they copied our pupas by wrapping their dead into pulp linen and setting them in underground chambers, in the belief that they too would come to life again.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The ancient people weren’t here yet, and the point is that Ra loved us, and shone on our hard green bodies, giving us our wonderful golden glow.
Now, Nut’s mother was not really a goddess but a wispy personification of moisture in our arid land, and so, after laboring to give birth to Nut, she simply evaporated.
But our heroine grew up lively and strong. Her skin was dark blue, and she sparkled like the stars as she danced and played with us. She was gentle and never tried to squash us or pick at us. Neither did she torture the jerboas or put them into toy prisons, as some of the boy-gods did. We let her play tiddly-winks with us - sometimes we would scamper further than she flipped us - how we would laugh then! One day our laughing drew a sand cat out of hiding who ran around us in circles, squealing. Such fun we had!
Nut was a very tall girl, and she loved to stretch. Her favorite game was to anchor her toes and fingers in the mud on either side of the skinny Nile and elongate herself into a bridge over it. The jerboas would pick two of the sparse reeds on the shore, chew at the bottom and fell them into the river. A scarab captain would hop on to each and there would be a race to see who floated faster under the bridge. We would all race to the other side of Nut, and cheer both reed-captains on.
As Nut got older, she grew even taller and stronger, and she could stretch for a mile, then two miles, and then more. We noticed that her dark blue bridge-body, like a canopy, started to block out Ra’s sun-rays, and that under her shadow her stars became very bright and gave us a fine silver glow, cooling our hard bodies a little.
This gave Ra an idea, and when Nut became an adult, he asked her if she would we willing to stretch up and be the night sky. Ra said he was getting tired of having to shine all day and all night. This suited Nut, but before saying yes, she generously asked us if we scarabs would mind.
“It suits us, dear Nut,” we said. “We and the jerboas will not have to dig so far underground in order to cool off. And I’m sure we will find a new game to play with you.”
So Nut stretched herself over Geb, the Earth god, in a wide arc, her tip-toes in his West, and her finger-tips in his East. She stretched herself quite high into the skies so that Ra could shine under her during the day, and at night she came down quite close to Geb, and everything turned from sun-gold to star-silver.
From her daytime height in the skies, Nut could see Geb in his entirety; he was a globe of continents in wild chaos, oceans untamed, and tides at odds with one another. Here was a boiling green and there was a fleeting blue and over there were black and red mountains heavy with iron, in desperate need of vegetation and little goats. With Geb came a longing which she had not experienced as a child, and which awakened all the moisture her evaporated mother had bestowed on her.
So Nut and Geb, sky and earth, became lovers. Soon their hugs lasted for days, and after a while Nut stopped stretching, and did not make an arc in the sky, but stayed where she was, flat as a pancake on top of Geb all day and all night. This caused perpetual night over the earth. And that, of course, made Ra, the Sun god, rage.
“Why are you complaining, Ra? I thought you said you were tired of ruling,” said Nut. “And when I lie with the Earth I feel I can remember my mother.”
“Leave ‘feelings’ to the Moon,” said Ra. “I just wanted to downshift to, say, half-time. Human Beings will be arriving soon, and they will need my sunlight. Plus, I’d like to try some trees and new plants.”
“Wait, that’s my call,” said Geb the Earth god. “People, trees, and plants don’t come till I say so.” Locked in embrace, Geb found it hard to think of anyone besides himself.
Ra, Nut and Geb had this kind of argument every night for seven years, and finally Nut began to tire of Geb’s tight embrace. Everything was so dry. She wanted to bring beauty and fertility to the earth. She wanted daughters. She wanted a way out that wasn’t simply bending to the will of either Geb or Ra.
Now I have to backtrack a little in my story to tell you that a good part of the imbalance on earth was actually due to the warrior Moon god. Inundated with ever-changing moods since he had gone to live there, this god had never learned how to use refined emotions like romance and true love. He stowed these emotions in a cave where he could ignore them, and instead spent most of his time throwing tantrums and stomping craters on to the Moon’s surface with his large boots.
What a desert-like pantheon these gods make, thought Nut. I need to bring more goddesses into the realm. Oh, mother, she prayed, I must somehow have daughters and not expire from it, as you did.
“Scarabs,” she called to us. “You who lay many eggs under my silver glow, can you understand my plea?”
“Yes,” we said. “We do. Look for a big white bird to come.”
“What is a bird,” Nut asked.
“You will know when you see him,” we said.
Now as playful as we were with the goddess Nut, we had always had a very serious relationship with another god, the god of Magic, Thoth, and we knew it was time to call on him. We marched in a double line to the left bank of the Nile and gathered ourselves up into a green-gold spiral and called in our high, thready voices to summon him.
Thoth has the head of a white ibis, which is a bird with a long beak to poke into the mud for food, though Thoth uses his to draw hieroglyphs in the sand. He also has long skinny legs like an ibis, but doesn’t like anyone to say so. He was anxious for the Human Beings to arrive so that he could teach them how to write and record their histories. He himself had been recording the lives of the gods, and we speculated that he might be very interested in changing the outcome of Nut’s story, especially if it would speed up the arrival of humans.
Just as we were thinking we could no longer sustain our high spiraling song, Thoth appeared on the bank of the Nile.
“Nice summoning song, guys.”
“You taught us well.”
“What do you need?”
“We want to help our beautiful friend and night goddess, Nut.”
“I have heard of her beauty. But it is awfully dark out all the time now, so I haven’t seen her around.”
“That’s just it.” And we told Thoth how Ra, the Sun, wanted to raise Nut back into the skies so he could shine again, and how Geb was holding on to her in his embrace and how Nut wanted daughters but was ambivalent about what to do because the god of the Moon was hoarding all the true emotions.
“If anyone can clear up this mess, you can.”
At that time Thoth was a young smart-aleck, but he was charming and could bargain with any god he wanted, and was often successful without resorting to his magic spells.
“Well, we could all do with getting the Sun back,” he said, “especially so that the Human Beings will come. Tell you what, if Nut is as beautiful as everyone says, then you can count on me.”
The scarabs raised themselves back into a green spiral and chided him in high voices for his shallowness and told him that, whatever he did, he must not harm their dear friend Nut.
“You yourselves said we must ensure she has daughters,” he called back, and flew off toward the Moon, as the Moon is a good place to begin in a lover’s bargain. Some of us asked if we could go along with him to the Moon, and Thoth said yes, as long as we didn’t mind becoming his weapon for a few moments. Every male scarab volunteered, and he chose a handful of the strongest.
As we expected, as soon as the warrior Moon god saw him, he pulled his sword from his boots and welcomed Thoth with a wave of steel. Thoth threw a handful of scarabs into the god’s face, to confuse him, then ran to the cave of finer emotions and opened it.
What we didn’t expect was that, instead of being angry, the Moon god sat down, pulled off his boots, which were caked with crater mud, and roared with laughter.
He invited Thoth to have a drink from his moon lake. He asked him if he knew any other games he could teach him.
The young gods cavorted around the moon for several hours testing strategies and skill. When they were physically exhausted, they stretched out onto the dusty moon surface on their stomachs and elbows and settled down to play a game of checkers. They used our scarabs’ hard bodies as game pieces, Thoth first making us take an oath of impartiality. Then he taught the moon god how to bet.
Thoth lost on purpose for a while, handing over a shell necklace and a pot of ink, but then he tricked the moon god into betting some light. The Moon lost a little bit of light with each game, but the ruler god found he could not stop betting, and Thoth secured the lost light in the pockets of his deep blue robes.
A few nights later, Nut caught sight of a white bird, its long beak probing the mud near the Nile for food, or so she thought, as it was Thoth returning the volunteer soldier scarabs to us. When Nut caught sight of Thoth, he disappeared in a flash so radiant and quick that it outshone all of her stars. Of course she had to find out what kind of magic had caused that flash.
The next night the white ibis greeted her, and began to turn every color of the rainbow, until he settled on dark blue. His feathers sent bright sparks high into the air, like the fireworks of China.
“Who are you?” asked Nut. “And how do you make yourself sparkle so?”
“I am the god who reflects the other gods to themselves,” Thoth said. “I also solve arguments.”
Nut was flattered that a magician god had gone to such pains to imitate her sparkling stars. Now he turned himself out of the ibis-shape and into his true god form. Our goddess was thrilled by his male beauty, and she blushed and was silent, lest she stammer.
He too, was taken aback at her beauty, now that he was so close to her. The fact that all romantic and true love emotions had been freed from the Moon god’s cave may also account for a feeling that was new to him, washing over him.
Thoth started with the flirting repartee he was so good at, but he soon became more serious. Nut told him her sorrow over her evaporated mother, and her dream of bearing more goddesses. Thoth told her his dream of teaching mortals how to write. He told her how beautiful he thought she was. He told her again.
The longer they talked, the brighter Nut’s night stars glowed. My ancestors say the shine on their scarab backs that night was incandescent.
“Perhaps we might make a deal,” said Thoth.
“Perhaps,” said Nut.
“Then you’d better start exercising your fingers and toes.”
Thoth had a plan. First, he went to see Ra, and advised him to make a boat.
“Why do I need a boat? What I need is the goddess of Night to raise herself back into the skies, so I can shine again during the day.”
“That’s right,” said Thoth, “and this will indeed happen soon. But you need a boat in order to get back from the West each night in order to rise in the East each morning. What are you going to do, walk? I don’t think so.”
“There’s no need to be rude, young man. I could walk, if need be.”
“Night after night? No, you’d better have a boat. Rowing across Nut’s back, along the dew, will be easiest, I think. And you can sleep while you row.”
“You might be right. I’ll have one made for me right away.”
“Good. The scarabs and the jerboas will help you get rolling.”
For weeks we advised Ra on his boat-building, the jerboas finding him the strongest mud and reeds, we making the strongest dung paste ever known, to hold it all together. Finally it was ready. Then -
“Nut, can you please lift my boat up to the heavens on your back?” said Ra, nicely.
“Perhaps,” she said, waiting for her signal from Thoth.
“Now!” whispered an invisible Thoth into Nut’s ear. “And pay no attention to any cursing.”
Nut had exercised her leg and stomach muscles too, and she was ready to stand tall. Ra quickly sailed onto her back in his boat. Nut stretched her legs and her back, higher and higher up into the skies, with the scarabs running up and down her fingers and arms helping her stretch, until finally her tip-toes were in the west and her finger-tips in the east once again.
Geb, the Earth god, was inconsolable, but he could not move because Nut’s fingers and toes pinned him in the cardinal directions. She felt pity for him, though, and shouted down, “Geb, be of cheer, for I am pregnant with your four children! We will be the parents of the new gods!”
At this, Ra felt his power endangered. “No! I forbid it. Nut, I curse you -- you shall not have children! Not on any day of the year!”
But before she could cry out, or collapse back down to the earth with grief, Thoth became visible in all his magnetic glory and said,
“Don’t worry, Nut. I have this.”
And Thoth pulled the moonlight out of his deep pockets and created five extra days, so that Nut could have her children on days not cursed by Ra. This changed the number of days on the calendar to 365 instead of the 360 there had been. The added days caused a recalibration of the tides; the Nile started flooding each year, making the surrounding land fertile, and Thoth, of course, took credit for it all.
Nut had a child on each of the five extra days of the year. Geb was somewhat appeased because his children - Osiris, Seth, Nephythys (the river Goddess) and Horus the Elder - spent more time roaming his Earth than any of the older gods had.
Nut’s most beloved daughter, Isis, was born on day 5, and all the jerboas ran wild with delight. We loved little Isis, of course, and we had been expecting her ever since the night Thoth fell in love. She grew up to become the new ruler of the Moon, and in time bestowed full lunar emotionality onto the newly arrived Human Beings, where it belonged.
Meanwhile Geb envied Thoth’s annual flooding of the Nile, and, while he could not stop the Human Beings from coming to its fertile shores, he did continue to withhold permission for trees and new plants to come into the sands of his desert.
Some mythologists say that Ra was swallowed up by Nut each evening and birthed again by her each morning, but we scarabs know that Nut would never have allowed such wear and tear on her slim dark blue body. Still others say that Ra crawled his way across the night in imitation of the way we scarabs roll our dirt balls into new life. My ancestors would have been honored to have Ra participate in scarab resurrection symbols, but of course, we know better because we helped build Ra’s boat.
Many times we were called upon to help push it out of the mud where it would stick during the flood season. Imagine the glow of a million green-gold Scarab bodies reflecting the Sun as Ra sits in a boat being rolled free by us. This is an image sacred to my family, but I realize it may be tangential to the story I was asked to tell you, about Nut.
The places where Nut’s blue fingers and toes pressed into Geb became great veins of lapis lazuli, the Egyptian gemstone that is deep blue with pyrite inclusions that streak like stars. In the Nile region, many sacred scarabs were carved out of lapis lazuli, including those that Alexander the Great brought to Europe.