Egypt: The Books of the Sky (Heavens)

The Books of the Sky

by Roland Mastaff

After the death of Akhenaten, signaling the end of the Amarna Period, we find a new set of Books related to the afterlife. These books centered around Nut, who swallows the sun god in the evening, only to give birth to him in the morning. During the day the sun god passes visibly along her body, but during the night, he travels through her body back to the place where he will rise once more.

Beginning with Ramesses IV, two of the Books of the Sky were usually placed next to each other on the ceilings of royal tombs. They depicted a double representation of Nut, back to back. The the focus is on the sun god, other heavenly bodies are also included. Generally speaking, the books emphasize cosmography and the topography of the sky, a topic which had its beginnings in the Book of the Heavenly Cow, though the astronomical ceilings found in the tombs of Seti I (KV17) through Ramesses III (KV11) can also be viewed as precursors to the Books of the Sky (heavens). These books are generally considered to consist of the Book of Nut, the Book of the Day and the Book of the Night.

The Book of Nut

We have actually very few example of the Book of Nut. We find examples in the cenotaph of Seti I at Abydos and in the tomb of Ramesses IV, though the latter is abbreviated. The only other evidence of this book is a commentary written in the Roman Period, and an incomplete version in the tomb of Mutirdis (TT410) dating from the 26th Dynasty. The longer appended text that accompanies the captions was reproduced in the Papyrus Carlsberg in Demotic script.

It was Jean-Francois Champollion and Hippolito Rosellini who published the earliest drawing of the representation of the sky goddess. These, and some investigation that followed, were all from the version found in the tomb (KV2) of Ramesses IV, for the Osireion in Abydos had not been discovered at that point. The commentary from the Roman period was published by H. O. Lange and Otto Neugebauer in 1940.

The book itself is pictorial in nature, and resembles to some degree the Book of the Heavenly Cow. There are brief captions that seem to be overwhelmed by the huge image of the sky. Nut is shown as a woman supported by the God Shu who holds her body aloft. Interestingly, in the tomb of Seti I, she is oriented correctly for the swallowing and birth of the sun, but not in the tomb of Ramesses IV. Other motifs within the scene include several sun disks, a winged scarab in front of the knees of the goddess, a vulture atop the heraldic plant of Upper Egypt behind her legs, and nest of migratory birds next to her arms. The captions on the scene are also accompanied by a longer appended text.

The book is intended to provide both a topography of the sky and an understanding of the sun's daily course. The brief captions augment this understanding and are distributed over the entire scene, describing its details as well as the actions of the sun god, the decans and other divine beings.

O. Neugebauer set out and coded the various captions within the depiction. For example, Text L provides a definition of the "far regions of the sky", that are in the primeval darkness and waters, not touched by the sun. They have no boundaries or cardinal directions. A list of decans that may originate in the Middle Kingdom are provided in Texts S through X. These captions tell us the decans work and their periodic invisibility, including their transit through the meridian. The text labeled Dd through Ff explain migratory birds and their nests.

In the cenotaph of Seti I at Abydos, we find a text reporting a quarrel between Geb and Nut because she is swallowing their children, the stars. The dispute is settled by their father, Shu, who advises that the Nut give birth to the stars each time so they might live.

The Book of the Day

The Book of the Day, though found in the royal necropolis at Tanis, along with excerpts from the tomb of Osorkon II and a nearly complete version in the tomb of Shoshenq III, is also depicted within the tomb of Ramesses VI. The latest version of the book we have is from the private tomb of Ramose (TT132) that dates from the 25th Dynasty. Otherwise, only brief components of the text regarding the hours of the day have been discovered on sarcophagi and papyri of the Late Period. Also related are the hymns to the hours of the day in the pronaos of the Edfu Temple.

Champoliion originally copied versions of the book from the sarcophagus chamber and corridors of the tomb of Ramesses VI, but they received little attention. In 1942, Alexandre Piankoff published and edition of the book but without regard to the Tanis versions.

The scene and captions of this book are arranged under the figure of the sky goddess Nut, with her arms and legs spread out. All of the figures within the scene face the head of Nut, and so the end of the book. Arranged horizontally into five registers, the text follows the course of the twelve hours of the day. This arrangement, however, makes it unclear where one hour ends and the next begins. A prologue and concluding representation stand out from the main text. It should also be noted that the Book of the Day and the Book of the Night may have been intended as a single entity, but they are only shown together in the tomb of Ramesses VI.

The Book of the Day is notable because, unlike most of the funerary text, it is focused on the journey of the sun god during the day, rather than his nocturnal voyage through the underworld. Hence, the sun god appears with a falcon's head rather than his ram-headed nighttime image. Yet underworld motifs such as the repulsing of Apophis and the Field of Reeds occur in the middle of the composition. Mostly, this book is concerned with the enumeration of deities, with little descriptive text.

The Beginning of the Book of the Day

Book of the Day showing Apophis

Book of the Day showing the Field of Reeds

Book of the Day showing the Last Hour

Conclusion of the Book of the Day

The Book of the Night

The first version of the Book of the Night that we know of comes from the Osireion at Abydos, and only extends to the ninth hour of the night. There was a copy in the tomb (KV8) of Merneptah on the ceiling of the antechamber, but it is mostly gone now. Ramesses IV included this book next to the Book of Nut on the ceiling of his sarcophagus chamber, though only as far as the fourth hour. However, the tomb (KV9) of Ramesses VI gives us two complete copies, one on the west side of the ceiling of the sarcophagus chamber while the second version is spread out through earlier chambers Both versions are complemented by representations of the Book of the Day. We also find scenes from the book in the tomb of Ramesses IX

In all of these instances, the book is depicted on the ceiling of the New Kingdom tombs, though at Tanis, they shifted to the walls. Osorkon II combined it with the Book of the Day, while Shoshenq III followed Seti I's version.

During the Late Period, we also find extracts from the book in several tombs, including TT33, 132 and 410, along with fragments from the Nilometer at Roda. Even as late as the 30th Dynasty we may also note examples on sarcophagi, where they are combined with hours from the Amduat. There are also text from the second hour of the night found in the solar sanctuaries of Deir el-Bahri, Medinet Habu and Karnak.

Again, Champollion provided the initial copies of the versions found in the tomb of Ramesses VI, and later Eugene Lefebure added the Ramesses IV version in 1889. Edouard Naville discovered the version of the Book of the Night in the cenotaph of Seti I at Abydos in 1914, which was published by Henri Frankfort in 1933. Alexandre Piankoff also published the Book of the Night in 1942, but again did not take into account the versions found in the Tanis tombs. That version was replaced by one written by Gilles Roulin.

The Book of the Night is divided into twelve sections separated from each other by vertical line of text designated as "gates". Unlike the Book of Gates, these precede the hours of the night to which they belong. The arms and legs of Nut represent the first and last gate, though the first hour is not presented. For each hour there is an introductory text which provides the most important details, though the remaining captions are brief.

The book is arranged in three registers that are staggered into five to seven registers due to space considerations. The sun barque travelers through the center register. Within this boat, the sun god, who is in his shrine, is surrounded by the coils of the Mehen-serpent while another serpent protects him. The crew of his boat features Sia at the prow as the spokesman of the god, Hu at the stern, Ma'at, and in the version at Abydos, the king. Within the upper registers are various deities while the lower register features various groups of deceased people, including the blessed and the damned. In front of the boat is a large group of towmen, sometimes as many as thirty, called the Unwearing Ones, who are led by the king. There is no descriptive text like that found in he Books of the Netherworld, and generally, the registers are not divided into scenes. At the end, a summary of the entire course of the sun is provided.

There must obviously be many similarities between this book and other Books of the Netherworld. Interestingly, however, the sun's enemy Apophis does not appear in this book at all though he appears in the Neitherworld books. Instead, the repelling of Seth is mentioned several times. This book complements the Book of the Day, beginning at the point where the sun god is swallowed by Nut and ending when she gives birth to him in the morning as a scarab. The sun god take the form of the Ram-headed nocturnal god, and is designated as flesh.

Sia takes an important role in this book, appearing as the spokesman of the sun god. The sun god has his own escort in the middle register of each hour, in place of the hour goddesses who accompany him in the Amduat and the Book of Gates.

Only in the Seti I version are remains of an introductory text. Here, the sun god provides us with an explanation of the goal of his journey through the underworld, which has to do with judging the damned and caring for the blessed. The primeval darkness is mentioned as a border area.

As in the Amduat and the Book of Gates, the first hour is seen as interstitial, and thus is not presented. The book begins with the second hour, where in the upper register depicts both individual and groups of deities. These include the deities of the four cardinal points, the bas of Buto and Hierakonpolis, and the two Enneads, which stand for the all divine beings.

In the upper register of the seventh hour, general forms also appear that represent existence and nonexistence. To their opposite are all of the deceased in the lower register, appearing as transfigured ones (akhu), mummies and the "dead", who are damned.

Missing is the union of Re and Osiris, found in other funerary text, though the representation of bas and corpses in the lower register of the sixth hour indicates the longed for union in the depths of night, with which the regeneration in the seventh hour is connected. Here, the critical moment requires the overcoming of various enemies. In the lower register of the seventh hour, another motif that first appears in the Book of Gates (13th scene) takes form. here, Horus looks upon both foreigners (shown as Asiatics, Libyans, Medja bedouins and Nubians) and Egyptians (shown as dwellers in the fertile land and the desert). The foreigners are depicted as bound enemies. The speech of the sun god also includes motifs from the 21st scene of the Book of Gates.

On the lower register of the eighth hour we find an enthroned Osiris, with Horus and the other gods connected with him in attendance. He is shown in victory over enemies, though only in Late Period representations are they directly addressed as Seth. Here, the groups of the blessed and damned are turned to Osiris is prayer, and their depiction continues into the ninth hour, when they are addressed by Sia. He dictates their fate in the afterlife and their attachment to Osiris, but in the tenth hour, only the blessed appear in the lower register.

The towmen preceding the solar barque are joined by four jackals designated "Western bas" in the twelfth and last hour. Here, the deities, including Osiris, in the lower register pray before the concluding representation which summarizes the entire course of the sun. The sun god, with the help of the primeval gods, is transformed into a scarab and a child. In the backdrop are the two boats of his daytime and nighttime passage, together with Isis and Nephthys who were later depicted in the prow of the barques, keeping the sun in motion between them. The text here refers to the total course of the sun god in the three cosmic realms consisting of the netherworld (Duat), the primeval waters (Nun) and the sky (Nut).

At the end is a description of the "Western bas". who tow the sun god into the sky.

1st and 2nd Hour of the Book of the Night

3rd Hour of the Book of the Night

4th Hour of the Book of the Night

5th Hour of the Book of the Night

Left: 6th Hour of the Book of the Night; Right: 7th Hour of the Book of the Night

8th Hour of the Book of the Night

9th Hour of the Book of the Night

10th Hour of the Book of the Night

11th Hour of the Book of the Night

12th Hour of the Book of the Night

Conclusion of the Book of the Night


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, The Hornung, Erik 1999 Cornell University Press ISBN 0-8014-3515-3
Gods of the Egyptians, The (Studies in Egyptian Mythology) Budge, E. A. Wallis 1969 Dover Publications, Inc. ISBN 486-22056-7
Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt, The West, John Anthony 1995 Theosophical Publishing House, the ISBN 0-8356-0724-0
Valley of the Kings Weeks, Kent R. 2001 Friedman/Fairfax ISBN 1-5866-3295-7