Astronomy

The Milky Way’s Role in Ancient Egyptian Mythology

Look through the names and origins of the constellations and you will soon realise that many cultures had a hand in their conceptualisation. Among them are the Egyptians who were fantastic astronomers. The movement of the sky played a vital role in ancient Egypt including the development of the 365 day year and the 24 hour day. Like many other cultures they say the Sun, Moon and planets as gods. Surprisingly though, the bright Milky Way seems not to have played a vital role. Some new research suggests that this may not be the case and it may have been a manifestation of the sky goddess Nut! 

It’s a fairly well accepted theory that the pyramids of Egypt were constructed in some way as a representation of or tribute to the sky. The Sun god Ra was often depicted sailing the Sun across the sky in a boat but the Milky Way was never seemed to be a big part, other than perhaps some consideration that the river Nile could represent it. 

Nile River, Lake Nasser and the Red Sea, Egypt

Back in the days of ancient Egypt, light pollution really wasn’t a thing. The Milky Way would have been far more prominent than for many stargazers today. A recent study by astrophysicists at the University of Portsmouth suggest that a lesser heard god by the name of Nut had something to do with it. 

Hunt through Egyptian artwork and you will often see a star-filled woman arched over another person. The woman is Nut, the goddess of the sky and the other figure represents her brother, the god of Earth, Geb. Nut has a very specific job though, she protects the Earth from being flooded from waters of the void! Presumably this would be the void of space but of course back then we didn’t have such a great understanding of the cosmos. She also swallowed the Sun as it sets, giving birth to it again in the morning. 

Thankfully the Egyptians were fabulous at recording things and so there have been plenty of Egyptian texts to refer to. Running simulations from the evidence in the documents, the team (led by Dr Or Graur Associate Professor in Astrophysics) suggest that the Milky Way represented Nut’s outstretched arms in the winter and her backbone in the summer. This suggestion aligns with the broad patterns in the Milky Way. 

The arch of the Milky Way seen over Bisei Town in Japan. It prides itself on its dark skies, but faces scattered light pollution from other nearby municipalities. Courtesy DarkSky.Org.

Dr Graur went on to explain that their results revealed that Nut had far more of a functional role too. She was involved in the transition of deceased souls to the afterlife and had a connection with annual bird migrations. This is in line with many cultures like those in North and Central America believing the Milky Way was a road used by spirits or those in Finland and the Baltics who believed it was a path for birds. 

Source : The hidden role of the Milky Way in ancient Egyptian mythology

Mark Thompson

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