Isis is the goddess of motherhood, marriage, fertility, magic, and medicine in the religion of ancient Egypt. She is also known as Eset (or Aset) as well as many other names, and her titles include Queen of Heaven, Maker of the Sunrise, and Queen of the Gods. Syncretism (the blending of ideas) has always been a component of Egyptian faith, and so at times Isis also takes on the warrior attributes of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet (The Powerful One) as well as the goddess Hathor’s domain of sex, love, music, dance, and joy. Isis was the goddess of childbirth and harvest. She was the goddess of light, but also a goddess that helped guide spirits through the afterlife and the underworld. Her animal symbols included the scorpion, the snake, the cow, the dove and swallow, hawk and vulture; and her star was Sept, which marked the Nile’s flooding at Egyptian New Year.
It is no wonder that Isis such a powerful and multifaceted goddess: her father was the god of earth, and her mother was the goddess of the sky. But Isis was not always the important figure she would become. She was at first a fairly obscure goddess associated with the dead. Despite her rising prevalence after 2350 B.C. (when she first appeared in the Pyramid Texts), she did not have her own major temple until nearly 350 B.C. In some ways, Egyptians build this gradual ascendency of Isis into the myths themselves. When we first meet Isis, she is the wife of Osiris. She is the Egyptian model wife, who supports her husband and spends her time teaching mortal women to weave, cook, and brew beer. But when her beloved husband is trapped in a lead coffin and flung into the river by his evil brother, Set (or Seth), Isis leaves behind the common activities of her station to find him and rescue him. She succeeds, but Set is not so easily undone. Set attacks Osiris and cuts him to pieces. He scatters these pieces all over the world. Again, Isis searches for him. She finds thirteen of the fourteen pieces and binds them together. She replaces the fourteenth piece, which includes Osiris’s genitals, with wax (some scripts say gold). Using all of her gifts of medicine and magic, Isis resurrects Osiris – but only for one night. Osiris cannot live in this world but must reign in the underworld. From the night they spent together, Isis bore the god Horus, the falcon-headed sky god. After Horus and the other gods defeated Set, Horus rules this world as Osiris rules the world of the dead. There are many layers of meaning in this story (probably much more than are apparent to us as modern people), but one of them is the heroic character of Isis. Isis was content to fulfill her quieter, behind the scenes roles before Osiris was in danger, but once she was needed to save her loved ones, not even death itself would stop her.
In her quest to not only protect her son Horus from those who would harm him but also to help him become the god that he was meant to be, Isis proves herself a cunning strategist. The great sun god Ra has grown old (Ra was thought to grow old each evening before being reborn in the morning, or this may reveal a change in perspective over the thousands of years of Egyptian faith) but is still immensely powerful and still holds dominion over all the gods. Isis forms a living serpent out of the old god’s drooling saliva. Ra – who hates snakes anyway – is bitten immediately. Ra pleads with Isis to protect him from the serpent and to save him from the terrible pain of the venom. As Isis heals him, though, she is able to explore his mind and discover his secret name – the key to his power. So Isis is able to use this secret name to force Ra to abdicate his throne so that Horus can become king of the gods, and she transfers some of Ra’s power to her son.
Besides being very brave, tenacious, cunning, and having the highest skill in magic, Isis is portrayed in the previous story as being compassionate. When Horus goes to battle with Set, Isis cannot bear to harm him even after all the ill he has done her. Other stories show Isis’s compassion as well. For example, once while fleeing Set’s wrath she asked a rich woman for shelter. The rich woman refused the disguised goddess, but a poor woman had pity on her and gave Isis shelter. When the scorpion gods found out how their beloved Isis had been treated, they burned the rich woman’s house and stung her son to death. When Isis heard what had befallen the woman who had treated her so badly, the goddess went to her and restored her son to life. The Book of the Dead describes Isis as knowing (i.e., caring for and hearing) orphans and widows, seeking justice for the poor and sheltering the weak. We can begin to see why women and men in Egypt (and later, throughout the ancient world) felt that not only was Isis worthy of worship but that she was also a goddess they could approach and trust.
As the wife of the god of the dead, the mother of the god of the living, the protector of the meek, and the healer of the sick, Isis continued to grow in veneration and influence over the millennia that Egypt flourished. Her resurrection of Osiris was seen as the essence of the mummification rituals – probably the most famous aspect of ancient Egyptian religion – and as mother and king-maker to Horus, she became intricately connected to Egyptian kingship and succession. She is often depicted with a crown shaped as an empty throne. Isis is also one of the chief judges of the dead. With so many attributes and associations, Isis is sometimes referred to as the “Goddess of Ten Thousand Names.”
As an independent power and empire, Egypt lasted an almost-unimaginably long time. Egypt’s strength did fade, however, and the rich land of the Nile came under the sway of Alexander the Great’s Greek-Macedonians and later the Romans. The Greeks and Romans instantly fell in love with Isis, too, and as Rome’s influence spread from Britain to Asia, so did she. The worship of Isis in the Roman world gradually became somewhat different in character than it had been in Egypt, as the goddess became syncretized with other goddesses and interpreted by very different cultures. By the height of her Roman popularity (around the second century A.D.), Isis was the center of a mystery cult. This is to say that she was worshiped in secrecy (not because of persecution – though at times there was some of that, but to keep the mysteries of her faith pure from the uninitiated) in temples and chapels called Iseum. Because of this secrecy, most of the details of Isis’s Romanized rituals are not available to us. The clues that we do have seem conflicting – for example, early emperors like Augustus considered the cult to be unseemly in its sexuality, while later figures, like the Christian Saint Ambrose, commend the worshipers of Isis for their discipline and chastity. Most experts think that the members of Isis’s cult practiced fasting and periods of sexual abstinence followed by rituals consistent with Isis’s role in the female creative essence. One thing that we do know about Isis’s mystery cult is that (like several others) it was a setting where individuals in the very stratified Roman society could find equality and sisterhood, if only for a while. The cult of Isis had male and female priests. Slaves and free people alike found a spiritual home there. These were some of the features that drew people to early Christianity as well, during the same period, and many experts see the influence of the cult of Isis on Christianity. This influence includes mother and child iconography, some of the veneration of Mary still seen in Catholicism, and perhaps some of the inspiration for the abbeys and nunneries of late antiquity/the middle ages.
Isis has been worshipped as a goddess and revered as an archetype for more than 4500 years. She represents love, hope, devotion, compassion, and steadfastness, but also creativity, power, mystery, and skill. She remains a powerful symbol of many things ranging from medicine to spiritual enlightenment. Even those who do not believe in her as the Egyptians did can still easily appreciate what she represents and respect her as an idea that has shown such longevity and influence in human culture.
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including The Songs of Slaves: A Novel of the Fall of Rome.
Isis and Nephthys standing over the deceased during embalming. A winged Isis appears at top. ShillukinUSA - Own work. Anubis, Isis, Nephthys in the Theban Tomb 335 (Nakhtamun), from the reign of Ramesses II
Isis holds the pharaoh, Seti I, in her lap. Olaf Tausch - Own work. Relief der Göttin Isis mit Sethos I. im Totentempel Sethos I. in Abydos, Ägypten
Isis nursing Horus. Anonymous (Egypt) - Walters Art Museum
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