The Ancient Egyptians May Have Seen the Milky Way as a Celestial Deity

The Ancient Egyptians May Have Seen the Milky Way as a Celestial Deity


The massive galaxy that houses our star system, along with hundreds of billions of other stars, appears as a shimmery splotch stretching across our night skies on clear, moonless nights. For an ancient people who were rather obsessed with the cosmos, looking up at the Milky Way may have symbolized a goddess that hangs over the Earth and assists the dead on their journey to the afterlife.

A new study published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage explores the Milky Way’s role in ancient Egyptian culture, linking our home galaxy to Nut, the goddess of the sky.

The ancient Egyptians were pioneers in the field of astronomy; they observed stars, constellations, other planets, tracked the movement of the Sun and the Moon, and created the concept of a 365-day year and a 24-hour day. Astronomy was weaved into their everyday life through agriculture, and also used to build the foundations of the pyramids of Giza. In doing so, they believed that they were bringing some form of divine energy to Earth.

In ancient Egyptian religion, the goddess Nut represented the sky, stars, and the universe as a whole. She was often depicted as a woman with stars all over her body as she arches over her brother, the Earth god Geb.

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The new study explores the idea that the sky goddess was a celestial manifestation of the Milky Way. “I chanced upon the sky-goddess Nut when I was writing a book on galaxies and looking into the mythology of the Milky Way,” Or Graur, University of Portsmouth astrophysicist, and lead author of the new study, said in a statement. “I decided to combine both astronomy and Egyptology to do a double analysis—astronomical and cross-cultural—of the sky-goddess Nut, and whether she really could be linked to the Milky Way.”

Graur referred to ancient Egyptian texts, including the Book of Nut, which was originally titled Fundamentals of the Course of the Stars. The text focuses on the movements of the Moon, Sun, planets, and the cycles of the stars. He also used simulations to model what the Milky Way would have looked like from different locations in Egypt 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, as well as how its appearance would change as it rose and set throughout the night, and from one season to the other.

In the Book of Nut, Nut’s head and rear are equated with the western and eastern horizons while her arms are described as lying at an angle to her body, with her right arm in the northwest and her left arm in the southeast. Through the simulated model of the ancient Egyptian view of the galaxy, this specific orientation is how the Milky Way would have appeared in the winter sky.

The goddess Nut also helped the dead transition to the afterlife, reaching out her arms to lead them up to the sky where they would reside eternally in what the ancient Egyptians referred to as the imperishable stars, or a group of stars in the northern sky that never seemed to set and were therefore symbolic of the afterlife. This idea of the Milky Way as a transition between this life and the afterlife is common among other cultures in Africa.

The study is not meant to be entirely conclusive, but offers a glimpse into how ancient people interpreted the celestial objects dotted across the night skies. I, for one, have always wondered what my ancestors may have thought of when looking up at the skies thousands of years ago, and how much astronomy helped shape our ancient culture.

“My research shows how combining disciplines can offer new insights into ancient beliefs, and it highlights how astronomy connects humanity across cultures, geography, and time,” Graur said. “This paper is an exciting start to a larger project to catalogue and study the multicultural mythology of the Milky Way.”

More: See This Year’s Best Photos of the Milky Way


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