A Goddess of enormous popularity within Egypt, Isis is also alone among the Gods of Egypt in having achieved widespread international popularity in antiquity, her worship extending to the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire and even beyond. The name Isis comes from an Egyptian word meaning ‘throne’, and she is characteristically depicted as a woman bearing the sign of a throne on her head. In later times, however, it is very common for her to bear the solar disk with cow’s horns and uraeus cobra, a crown classically belonging to Hathor, but which becomes as characteristic of Isis as the crown which is peculiar to her. (Strictly speaking, Hathor’s crown associates Isis with the wider defense of the cosmic order (Re), beyond her strict focus on the defense of the mortal (Osiris).) Also typical of Isis, although not restricted to her, is the vulture headdress which belongs strictly speaking to Nekhbet, but which is appropriate to any Goddess strongly linked to Upper Egypt. Her own avian identification, however, is with the black kite or kestrel, in which form she may be depicted. She is also frequently depicted in human form but for a pair of outstretched wings extending along the line of her arms. Isis is associated as well with the scorpion; a group of seven of them, who are even individually named, escort her and Horusin a spell to treat a scorpion’s sting (no. 90 in Borghouts). Among the most popular amulets in Egypt was the tyet, which is associated with Isis. The amulet, sometimes known as the ‘Isis knot’, has the form of a vaguely human-shaped knot and is colored red or carved from a red stone to embody the power of her menstrual blood, as we read in BD spell 156, which charges the amulet with the words, “Thou hast thy blood, Isis; thou hast thy power, Isis; thou hast thy magic, Isis.” In Graeco-Roman statuary, Isiac priestesses are depicted with a knot of this shape in their robes.’
Mythically, Isis is the daughter of Nut and Geb, the sister and wife of Osiris, and the mother of Horus. Her other siblings are Seth and Nephthys. Isis has a depth of familial connections unrivalled in the Egyptian pantheon, even after one takes into account that we tend to see her family through the lens of Plutarch’s highly narrativized treatment, which is distinctly un-Egyptian in that respect. Her roles as wife, as mother, as sister, come through strongly in the primary texts, and thus Isis stands at the juncture of nearly all the relationships which defined Egyptian society; only her own parentage is largely undeveloped. She is the paradigmatic mother whose child, Horus, represents the pharaoh, but also the success of right and legitimacy over brute strength. She is the paradigmatic wife, whose husband is also her brother, evoking the Egyptian custom of spouses addressing each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. But her bond with Osiris is about far more than kinship. Since every mortal being is Osiris, Isis is the deity who more than any other represents the power to transcend mortality through love and wisdom, as represented by her successful conception of Horus by Osiris after Osiris’ death. Isis and Nephthys are sisters inseparable in adversity, and Isis even seems to share a sibling bond with Seth, the murderer of her husband. In the narrative of the conflict of Horus and Seth (9; trans. Lichtheim vol. 2, p. 219), when Horus and Seth are battling in the form of hippopotamuses, Isis calls back the harpoon she has cast at Seth after his appeal: “Do you love the stranger more than your maternal brother Seth?”. While these familial ties are illustrative of the basic values which Egyptians expected to be embodied in these institutions, all of them are multivalent symbols allowing of interpretations having nothing to do with the familial sphere. So too, the image of extraordinary initiative and agency which Isis presents must be assessed, not only for what it says about the image of women in Egyptian culture, but also for what it tells us about Egyptian ideas concerning all of the spheres in which Isis is active.
To delimit her spheres of activity is not easy, insofar as her steadily growing popularity through the course of Egyptian history means that in the last analysis, nothing falls outside her scope – Isis becomes the ubiquitous Goddess. However, the principal elements in her character are evident virtually from the beginning, namely conjugal and maternal love on the one hand and wisdom on the other, her wisdom expressing itself especially in the practice of magic, but also in a very human cleverness. It is the universal applicability of these skills which provides the possibility for the devotee to appeal to Isis for assistance in any sphere of life. The key moments in the body of symbol and myth identified with Isis are what one might call her passion, that is, her mourning for Osiris and her quest to recover his body, culminating in her magical conception of Horus; the perilous infancy of Horus, which provides the setting for many of the magical spells in which she is the protagonist; and her advocacy on her son’s behalf, which belongs both to the effort to vindicate Osiris as well as to a broader cosmogonic project in which Isis, like all of the other Gods, participates.
In this project she does not always act purely on behalf of Osiris and Horus, as can be seen when she stands side by side with Seth to defend the boat of Re against the attacks of Apophis. The project to which Isis lends her abilities begins with her great-grandfather Atum, although it is questionable whether the Egyptians ever intended the family tree of the Gods to be thought of in such literal fashion. The idea of the Ennead (or Nine Gods) of Heliopolis as an integral divine group, however, was clearly defined from early times. Within this divine organization, Atum stands at one extreme and Horus at the other, the continuum between them linking the human social order to the most primordial forces in the universe. Isis, as the link between the last two members of this chain, stands in some respects closer to humans and their concerns than to certain of her fellow Gods. Hence she sometimes seems to act according to different rules than the others, most notably in a myth which comes down to us in the form of another spell to treat a scorpion’s sting (no. 84 in Borghouts). In this spell, Isis crafts a serpent to poison Re and thus force him to tell Isis his secret name, so that she may undo the poison – not, indeed, as a matter of blackmail but of magical necessity: “A man lives when one recites in his name,” (p. 53). This means, however, that a balance of power in the cosmos shifts decisively, and shifts in the direction of humanity. Re in some sense delivers over his individuality in this act. In the afterlife literature, to be able to keep one’s name secret is a symbol of the integrity of one’s person; it is to be able to retain one’s individuality. Hence in CT spell 759 the operator says “It is I who see your births, but you do not see my birth. I am one whose name is secret, who is in the boundary of the Gods.” To retain one’s ‘name’ secret is the same as to reserve the power to survey others objectively, to see their births, but not to be entirely an object to them, for they do not see one’s birth. To be invested with this power is to possess some degree of autonomy even from the Gods, hence to be at their boundary. The access by Isis to this most powerful formula in the cosmos is illicit not because it is going to be exercised by her – the spell says of Isis that “[t]here was nothing she was ignorant of in heaven or on the earth – like Re, who takes care of the needs of the earth,” thus explicitly comparing her to Re and rendering her worthy of exercising the power granted by knowing his secret name – but because it is going to be exercised by humans through her, as the context of the spell makes abundantly clear. In this sense it is a Promethean act, albeit one for which Isis suffers no consequences. Similarly, in the narrative of the conflict of Horus and Seth (5; p. 216 in Lichtheim, vol. 2), Isis shows that she considers herself to be bound, at most, by the letter, and not the spirit, of the decrees of the other Gods. This is not a matter of a clash of personalities, but of the inevitable distance between divine commandments whose scope of application extends to the whole of nature and the equally divine power of human intelligence and ingenuity which possesses the power to stand apart from these enough to question them. This is illicit from one viewpoint, but from another it is the culmination of the efforts of all the Gods toward the evolution of the cosmos.
In a certain sense, the difference of Isis from the ‘elder’ Gods (albeit temporality has no actual sense here) is given by the fact that she loves Osiris, who is both a God and mortal, in the sense that he undergoes an involuntary transformation and transposition into an utterly different mode of existence. Isis is therefore tied to a realm in which what passes away is irreducibly important, despite the fact that it has, in some sense, been doomed by the very structure of the cosmos. Isis is essentially transgressive in this sense. To recover the body of Osiris, Isis, alone among the Gods of Egypt, leaves the very borders of Egypt – albeit in a myth recounted by Plutarch and hence possibly late (Isis and Osiris 357ff) – retrieving it from distant Byblos, symbolizing the international spread of her cult, which began even prior to the conquests of Alexander the Great through the composition in Greek of ‘aretalogies’ of Isis, short texts written in the first person in which Isis enumerates her attributes and, in effect, advertises herself for the benefit of prospective devotees. Further testimony to the popularity of her cult outside of Egypt is her prominence in the romances of the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, most notably the Metamorphosis or Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius. The effort to retrieve and to reconstitute the dismembered Osiris, like all mythic action, is ongoing, if the itinerant Goddess of the myth be seen as the driving force behind the diffusion of her image and cult.
What Isis accomplishes can be discerned in a short spell from the Coffin Texts (760). Here Horus is said to be the lord of the solar boat, and to have “inherited the sky”. The boat itself is said here to have been brought into being by the word of Isis herself. It is a matter here not of a primary, but of a secondary creation; hence Horus “has become the repetition of the Lord of All since he entered into it [the boat],” so that “it is this Horus son of Isis who presides over all the skies and their Gods who are in them,” (trans. mod.). The ultimate significance of all this, however, is stated by what comes next: “As for any spirit who knows the name of the Shining Sun, he knows his own name.” That is to say, by passing the sovereignty on to Horus, the child of mortality itself, Isis has secured the cosmic sovereignty for each and every individual: her power is their power.
Appearance: A beautiful woman in magnificent clothing, sometimes shown wearing the sun disk. She has almost no variant forms.
Description: Isis may be the oldest deity in Egypt, and certainly the oldest to survive the ages in much the same form. She may also be the most important, for although the other gods were worshipped widely, Isis was worshipped almost universally by all Egyptians. The major goddess of the Egyptian pantheon, she had many of the same attributes of other mother-goddesses found all over the world. She was revered as the great protector, prayed to for guidance, and beseeched for peace in the world. Temples to Isis are found everywhere in Egypt, some of them quite ancient, and many houses had shrines to her devotion. Her worship was taken up by the Greeks and the Romans, and indeed, Isis followers are still found today.
She was the daughter of Nut and Geb, the sister to Osiris, Set, and Nephthys, and the mother of Horus. In earlier times she was not only the wife to Osiris, but his female counterpart, equal in all ways and powers. In the Legend of Osiris it is she who travels the world to find all the pieces of his body and it is she who brings him back to life with the aid of Thoth. But that is not the only time she is associated with Thoth. Together they taught man the secrets of magic, medicine, and agriculture. Her power is spoken of much in the ancient stories, and she may have been even more powerful than Ra and Osiris. She did after all trick Ra’s secret name out of him to gain his power. Yet she is never shown as selfish or cruel, except to those who would harm those she loves. Power and compassion, crafty but merciful, Isis represents all the qualities of women.
Worship: Worshipped widely not only throughout Egypt but also much of the known world.
Isis or in original more likely Aset was a goddess in Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, whose worship spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. She was worshiped as the ideal mother and wife as well as the matron of nature and magic. She was the friend of slaves, sinners, artisans, the downtrodden, as well as listening to the prayers of the wealthy, maidens, aristocrats and rulers. Isis is the goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility.
The goddess Isis (the mother of Horus) was the first daughter of Geb, god of the Earth, and Nut, the goddess of the Overarching Sky, and was born on the fourth intercalary day. At some time Isis and Hathor had the same headdress. In later myths about Isis, she had a brother, Osiris, who became her husband, and she then was said to have conceived Horus. Isis was instrumental in the resurrection of Osiris when he was murdered by Set. Her magical skills restored his body to life after she gathered the body parts that had been strewn about the earth by Set. This myth became very important in later Egyptian religious beliefs.
Isis is also known as the goddess of simplicity, protector of the dead and goddess of children from whom all beginnings arose. In later myths, the Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile River flooded every year because of her tears of sorrow for her dead husband, Osiris. This occurrence of his death and rebirth was relived each year through rituals. The worship of Isis eventually spread throughout the Greco-Roman world, continuing until the suppression of paganism in the Christian era.
Origin of the name
The pronunciation for this deity is a mispronunciation of the Greek name which itself changed the original Egyptian name spelling by the addition of a last “-s” because of the grammatical requirements of Greek endings.
The Egyptian name was recorded as ỉs.t or ȝs.t and meant “(She of the) Throne.” The true Egyptian pronunciation remains uncertain, however, because their writing system usually did not feature vowels. Based on recent studies which present us with approximations based on contemporary languages and Coptic evidence, the reconstructed pronunciation of her name is *Usat [*ˈʔyː.səʔ]. Osiris’s name—that is, *Usir ‘Osiris’ (ws-ỉr) also starts with the throne glyph ʔs (“-s”). The name survived in Coptic dialects as Ēse or Ēsi, as well as in compound words surviving in names of later people such as “Har-si-Ese”, literally, “Horus, son of Isis”.
For convenience, Egyptologists arbitrarily choose to pronounce her name as “ee-set”. Sometimes they may also say “ee-sa” because the final “t” in her name was a feminine suffix, which is known to have been dropped in speech during the last stages of the Egyptian language.
Literally, her name means “she of the throne”. Her original headdress was a throne. As the personification of the throne, she was an important representation of the pharaoh’s power, as the pharaoh was depicted as her child, who sat on the throne she provided. Her cult was popular throughout Egypt, but the most important sanctuaries were at Giza and at Behbeit El-Hagar in the Nile delta, which was in Lower Egypt.
Her origins are uncertain, but are believed to have come from the Nile Delta. Like other Egyptian deities she did have a centralized Cult of Isis (New cults) in the Hellenistic Civilization. First mentions of Isis date back to the Fifth dynasty of Egypt which is when the first literary inscriptions are found, but her cult became prominent late in Egyptian history, when it began to absorb the cults of many other goddesses with strong cult centers. This is when the cult of Osiris arose and she became such an important figure in those beliefs. Her cult eventually spread outside Egypt.
During the formative centuries of Christianity, the religion of Isis drew converts from every corner of the Roman Empire. In Italy itself, the Egyptian faith was a dominant force. At Pompeii, archaeological evidence reveals that Isis played a major role. In Rome, temples were built and obelisks erected in her honour. In Greece, traditional centres of worship in Delos, Delphi, and Eleusis were taken over by followers of Isis, and this occurred in northern Greece and Athens as well. Harbours of Isis were to be found on the Arabian Sea and the Black Sea. Inscriptions show followers in Gaul, Spain, Pannonia, Germany, Arabia, Asia Minor, Portugal and many shrines even in Britain.
Most Egyptian deities first appeared as very local cults and throughout their history retained those local centres of worship, with most major cities and towns widely known as the home of these deities. Isis originally was an independent and popular deity established in predynastic times, prior to 3100 B.C., at Sebennytos in the northern delta.
Eventually temples to Isis began to spread outside of Egypt. In many locations, particularly Byblos, her cult took over that of worship to the Semitic goddess Astarte, apparently due to the similarity of names and associations. During the Hellenic era, due to her attributes as a protector and mother, as well as a lusty aspect gained when she absorbed some aspects of Hathor, she became the patron goddess of sailors, who spread her worship with the trading ships circulating the Mediterranean Sea.
Likewise, the Arabian goddess Al-Ozza or Al-Uzza العُزّى (al ȝozza), whose name is close to that of Isis, is believed to be a manifestation of her. This, however, is thought to be based on the similarity in the name.
Throughout the Graeco-Roman world, Isis became one of the most significant of the mystery religions, and many classical writers refer to her temples, cults, and rites.
Temples to Isis were built in Iraq, Greece and Rome, with a well preserved example discovered in Pompeii. On the Greek island of Delos a Doric Temple of Isis was built on a high over-looking hill at the beginning of the Roman period to venerate the familiar trinity of Isis, the Alexandrian Serapis and Harpocrates. The creation of this temple is significant as Delos is particularly known as the birthplace of the Greek gods Artemis and Apollo who’ve had temples of their own on the island long before the temple to Isis was built. At Philae her worship persisted until the sixth century, long after the rise of Christianity and the subsequent suppression of paganism. The cult of Isis and Osiris continued up until the 6th century AD on the island of Philae in Upper Nile. The Theodosian decree (in about 380 AD) to destroy all pagan temples was not enforced there until the time of Justinian. This toleration was due to an old treaty made between the Blemyes-Nobadae and Diocletian. Every year they visited Elaphantine and at certain intervals took the image of Isis up river to the land of the Blemyes for oracular purposes before returning it. Justinian sent Narses to destroy the sanctuaries, with the priests being arrested and the divine images taken to Constantinople. Philae was the last of the ancient Egyptian temples to be closed.
Little information on Egyptian rituals for Isis survives, however, it is clear there were both priests and priestesses officiating at her cult rituals throughout its entire history. By the Greco-Roman era, many of them were healers, and were said to have many other special powers, including dream interpretation and the ability to control the weather, which they did by braiding or not combing their hair. The latter was believed because the Egyptians considered knots to have magical powers.
Because of this association between knots and magical power, a symbol of Isis was the tiet or tyet (meaning welfare/life), also called the Knot of Isis, Buckle of Isis, or the Blood of Isis, which is shown to the right. In many respects the tyet resembles an ankh, except that its arms point downward, and when used as such, seems to represent the idea of eternal life or resurrection. The meaning of Blood of Isis is more obscure, but the tyet often was used as a funerary amulet made of red wood, stone, or glass, so this may simply have been a description of the appearance of the materials used.
The star, Spica, (sometimes called Lute Bearer), and the constellation which roughly corresponds to the modern Virgo, appeared in the sky above the horizon at a time of year associated with the harvest of wheat and grain, and thus became associated with fertility deities, such as Hathor. Isis would come to be connected with them through her later conflation with Hathor.
Isis also assimilated Sopdet, the personification of the star Sirius, since Sopdet, rising just before the flooding of the Nile, was seen as a bringer of fertility, and so had been identified with Hathor as well. Sopdet retained an element of distinct identity, however, as Sirius was quite visibly a star and not living in the underworld— which might have conflicted with Isis’ representation as the wife of Osiris, who was the ruler of the underworld.
Probably due to assimilation with the goddesses Aphrodite and Venus, during the Roman period, the rose was used in her worship. The demand for roses throughout the empire turned rose production into an important industry.
In art, originally Isis was pictured as a woman wearing a long sheath dress and crowned with the hieroglyphic sign for a throne. Sometimes she was depicted as holding a lotus, or, as a Sycamore tree. One pharaoh, Thutmose III, was depicted in his tomb as nursing from a sycamore tree that had a breast.
After she assimilated many of the roles of Hathor, Isis’s headdress is replaced with that of Hathor: the horns of a cow on her head, with the solar disk between them. Sometimes she also was represented as a cow, or a cow’s head. Usually, however, she was depicted with her young child, Horus (the pharaoh), with a crown, and a vulture. Occasionally she was represented as a kite flying above the body of Osiris or with the dead Osiris across her lap as she worked her magic to bring him back to life.
Most often Isis is seen holding only the generic ankh sign and a simple staff, but in late images she is seen sometimes with items usually associated only with Hathor, the sacred sistrum rattle and the fertility-bearing menat necklace. In The Book of Coming Forth By Day Isis is depicted standing on the prow of the Solar Bark with her arms outstretched.
The star Sept (Sirius) is associated with Isis. The appearance of the star signified the advent of a new year and Isis was likewise considered the goddess of rebirth and reincarnation, and as a protector of the dead. The Book of the Dead outlines a particular ritual that would protect the dead, enabling travel anywhere in the underworld, and most of the titles Isis holds signify her as the goddess of protection of the dead.
Isis in literature
Plutarch, a Greek scholar who lived from 46 A.D. to 120 A.D., wrote Isis and Osiris, which is considered a main source about the very late myths about Isis. In it he writes of Isis, describing her as: ” a goddess exceptionally wise and a lover of wisdom, to whom, Fas her name at least seems to indicate, knowledge and understanding are in the highest degree appropriate..” and that the statue of Athena (Plutarch says ‘whom they believe to be Isis’ in Sais carried the inscription “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my robe no mortal has yet uncovered.” At Sais, however, the patron goddess of its ancient cult was Neith, many of whose traits had begun to be attributed to Isis during the Greek occupation. In The Golden Ass the Roman writer Apuleius later gives us his understanding of Isis in the second century. The following paragraph is particularly significant:
“You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen of the ocean, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are, my nod governs the shining heights of Heavens, the wholesome sea breezes. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names … some know me as Juno, some as Bellona … the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship call me by my true name…Queen Isis.”
When seen as the deification of the wife of the pharaoh in later myths, the prominent role of Isis was as the assistant to the deceased pharaoh. Thus she gained a funerary association, her name appearing over eighty times in the Pyramid Texts, and she was said to be the mother of the four deities who protected the canopic jars—more specifically, Isis was viewed as protector of the liver-jar-deity, Imsety. This association with the pharaoh’s wife also brought the idea that Isis was considered the spouse of Horus (once seen as her child), who was protector, and later the deification of the pharaoh. By the Middle Kingdom, the 11th through 14th dynasties between 2040 and 1640 B.C., as the funeral texts began to be used by more members of Egyptian society, other than the royal family, her role also grows to protect the nobles and even the commoners.
By the New Kingdom, the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties between 1570 and 1070 B.C., Isis gained prominence as the mother and protector of the pharaoh. During this period, she is said to breastfeed the pharaoh and often is depicted doing so.
The role of her name and her throne-crown is uncertain. Some early Egyptologists believed that being the throne-mother was Isis’s original function, however, a more modern view states that aspects of that role came later by association. In many African tribes, the throne is known as the mother of the king, and that concept fits well with either theory, possibly giving insight into the thinking of ancient Egyptians.
Sister-wife to Osiris
In the Old Kingdom, the 3rd Dynasty through to the 6th Dynasty dated between 2,686 to 2,134 B.C., the pantheons of individual Egyptian cities varied by region. During the 5th dynasty, Isis became one of the Ennead of the city of Heliopolis. She was believed to be a daughter of Nut and Geb, and sister to Osiris, Nephthys, and Set. The two sisters, Isis and Nephthys, often were depicted on coffins, with wings outstretched, as protectors against evil. As a funerary deity, she was associated with Osiris, lord of the underworld (Duat), and was considered his wife.
A later mythology (ultimately a result of the replacement of another deity, Anubis, of the underworld when the cult of Osiris gained more authority), tells us of the birth of Anubis. The tale describes how Nephthys was denied a child by Set and disguised herself as the much more attractive Isis to seduce him. The plot failed, but Osiris now found Nephthys very attractive, as he thought she was Isis. They coupled, resulting in the birth of Anubis. Alternatively, Nephthys had intentionally assumed the form of Isis in order to trick Osiris into fathering her son. In fear of Set’s retribution upon them, Nephthys persuaded Isis to adopt Anubis, so that Set would not find out and kill the child. The tale describes both why Anubis is seen as an underworld deity (he becomes a son of Osiris), and why he could not inherit Osiris’s position (he was not a legitimate heir in this new birth scenario), neatly preserving Osiris’s position as lord of the underworld. It should be remembered, however, that this new myth was only a later creation of the Osirian cult who wanted to depict Set in an evil position, as the enemy of Osiris.
In another Osirian myth, Set had a banquet for Osiris in which he brought in a beautiful box and said that whoever could fit in the box perfectly would get to keep it. Set had measured Osiris in his sleep and made sure that he was the only one who could fit the box. Several tried to see whether they fit. Once it was Osiris’s turn to see if he could fit in the box, Set closed the lid on him so that the box was now a coffin for Osiris. Set flung the box in the Nile so that it would drift far away. Isis went looking for the box so that Osiris could have a proper burial. She found the box in a tree in Byblos, a city along the Phoenician coast, and brought it back to Egypt, hiding it in a swamp. But Set went hunting that night and found the box. Enraged, Set chopped Osiris’s body into fourteen pieces and scattered them all over Egypt to ensure that Isis could never find Osiris again for a proper burial. Isis and her sister Nephthys went looking for these pieces, but could only find thirteen of the fourteen. Fish had swallowed the last piece, his phallus, so Isis made him a new one with magic, putting his body back together after which they conceived Horus. The number of pieces is described on temple walls variously as fourteen and sixteen, and occasionally forty-two, one for each nome or district.
Assimilation of Hathor
When the cult of Ra rose to prominence he became associated with the similar deity, Horus. For some time, Isis intermittently had been paired as the wife of Ra. Since she was the mother of Horus, he then became the child of Ra as well. A merging of the two male deities resulted in Ra-Horakhty. Hathor had been paired with Ra as well in some regions and when Isis began to be paired with Ra, soon Hathor and Isis began to be merged in some regions also as, Isis-Hathor. Another variant occurred in the Ennead, with Isis as a child of Atum-Ra, making her become the child of Hathor since Hathor had become paired with Ra. This also led to the merger of Hathor and Isis frequently, because of common characteristics.
Mother of Horus
By merging with Hathor, Isis became the mother of Horus, rather than his wife, and thus, when beliefs of Ra absorbed Atum into Atum-Ra, it also had to be taken into account that Isis was one of the Ennead, as the wife of Osiris. It had to be explained how Osiris, however, who (as lord of the dead) being dead, could be considered a father to Horus, who was not considered dead. This conflict in themes led to the evolution of the idea that Osiris needed to be resurrected, and therefore, to the Legend of Osiris and Isis, of which Plutarch’s Greek description written in the first century A.D., De Iside et Osiride, contains the most extensive account known today.
Yet another set of late myths detail the adventures of Isis after the birth of Osiris’s posthumous son, Horus. Isis was said to have given birth to Horus at Khemmis, thought to be located on the Nile Delta. Many dangers faced Horus after birth, and Isis fled with the newborn to escape the wrath of Set, the murderer of her husband. In one instance, Isis heals Horus from a lethal scorpion sting; she also performs other miracles in relation to the cippi, or the plaques of Horus. Isis protected and raised Horus until he was old enough to face Set, and subsequently, became the pharaoh of Egypt.
In order to resurrect Osiris for the purpose of having the child Horus, it was necessary for Isis to “learn” magic (which long had been her domain before the cult of Ra arose), and so it was said that Isis tricked Ra (i.e. Amun-Ra/Atum-Ra) into telling her his “secret name,” by causing a snake to bite him, for which only Isis had the cure. The names of deities were secret and not divulged to any but the religious leaders. Knowing the secret name of a deity enabled one to have power of the deity. That he would use his “secret name” to “survive” implies that the serpent had to be a more powerful deity than Ra. The oldest deity known in Egypt was Wadjet, the Egyptian cobra, whose cult never was eclipsed in Ancient Egyptian religion. As a deity from the same region, she would have been a benevolent resource for Isis. The use of secret names became central in late Egyptian magic spells, and Isis often is implored to “use the true name of Ra” in the performance of rituals. By the late Egyptian historical period, after the occupations by the Greeks and the Romans, Isis became the most important and most powerful deity of the Egyptian pantheon because of her magical skills. Magic is central to the entire mythology of Isis, arguably more so than any other Egyptian deity.
Prior to this late change in the nature of Egyptian religion, the rule of Ma’at had governed the correct actions for most of the thousands of years of Egyptian religion, with little need for magic. Thoth had been the deity who resorted to magic when it was needed. The goddess which held the quadruple roles of healer, protector of the canopic jars, protector of marriage, and goddess of magic previously had been Serket. She then became considered an aspect of Isis. Thus it is not surprising that Isis had a central role in Egyptian magic spells and ritual, especially those of protection and healing. In many spells, she also is completely merged even with Horus, where invocations of Isis are supposed to involve Horus’s powers automatically as well. In Egyptian history the image of a wounded Horus became a standard feature of Isis’s healing spells, which typically invoked the curative powers of the milk of Isis. (Silverman, Ancient Egypt, 135)
Assimilation of Mut
Mut, a primal deity called, mother, was originally a title of the primordial waters of the cosmos, the mother from which the cosmos emerged. When the pairing of the deities began, Mut became a consort of Amun, who already had been assigned a quite different wife. After the authority of Thebes had risen during the eighteenth dynasty, and made Amun into a much more significant god, the cult later waned, and Amun was assimilated into Ra.
In consequence, Amun’s consort, Mut, by then a depicted as a doting, adoptive mother—who by this point had absorbed other goddesses herself—also was assimilated into Ra’s wife, Isis-Hathor as Mut-Isis-Nekhbet. On occasion, Mut’s infertility was taken into consideration, and so Horus, who was too significant to ignore, had to be explained by saying that Isis became pregnant by magic when she transformed herself into a kite and flew over the dead body of Osiris.
Later myths became quite convoluted. Mut’s consort was Amun, who had by this time become identified with Min as Amun-Min (also known by his epithet – Kamutef). Since Mut had become part of Isis, it was natural to try to make Amun, part of Osiris, the husband of Isis, but this was not easily reconcilable, because Amun-Min was a fertility god and Osiris was the god of the dead. Consequently they remained regarded as separate, and Isis sometimes was said to be the lover of Min. Subsequently, as at this stage Amun-Min was considered an aspect of Ra (Amun-Ra). He was also considered an aspect of Horus, since Horus was identified as Ra, and thus Isis’s son, was on rare occasions said to be Min instead, which neatly avoided confusion over Horus’s status as being both the husband and son of Isis.
Following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great the worship of Isis spread throughout the Graeco-Roman world. Tacitus writes that after Julius Caesar’s assassination, a temple in honour of Isis had been decreed; Augustus suspended this, and tried to turn Romans back to the Roman deities who were closely associated with the state. Eventually the Roman emperor Caligula abandoned the Augustan wariness toward what was described as oriental cults, and it was in his reign that the Isiac festival was established in Rome. According to Josephus, Caligula donned female garb and took part in the mysteries he instituted, and in the Hellenistic age Isis acquired a “new rank as a leading goddess of the Mediterranean world.” Vespasian, along with Titus, practised incubation in the Roman Iseum. Domitian built another Iseum along with a Serapeum. Trajan appears before Isis and Horus, presenting them with votive offerings of wine, in a bas-relief on his triumphal arch in Rome. Hadrian decorated his villa at Tibur with Isiac scenes. Galerius regarded Isis as his protectress.
Roman perspectives on cults were syncretic, seeing in new deities, merely local aspects of a familiar one. For many Romans, Egyptian Isis was an aspect of Phrygian Cybele, whose orgiastic rites were long-naturalized at Rome, indeed, she was known as Isis of Ten Thousand Names.
Among these names of Roman Isis, Queen of Heaven is outstanding for its long and continuous history. Herodotus identified Isis with the Greek and Roman goddesses of agriculture, Demeter and Ceres.
In later years, Isis also had temples throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. An alabaster statue of Isis from the 3rd century BC, found in Ohrid, in the Republic of Macedonia, is depicted on the obverse of the Macedonian 10 denars banknote, issued in 1996.
The male first name “Isidore” (also “Isador”), means in Greek “Gift of Isis” (similar to “Theodore”, “God’s Gift”). The name, which became common in Roman times, survived the suppression of the Isis worship and remains popular up to the present – being among others the name of several Christian saints.
In the Book of the Dead Isis was described as:
- She who gives birth to heaven and earth,
- She who knows the orphan,
- She who knows the widow spider,
- She who seeks justice for the poor people,
- She who seeks shelter for the weak people
- She who seeks the righteousness in her people
Some of Isis’s many other titles were:
- Queen of Heaven,
- Mother of the Gods,
- The One Who is All,
- Lady of Green Crops,
- The Brilliant One in the Sky,
- Star of the Sea,
- Great Lady of Magic,
- Mistress of the House of Life,
- She Who Knows How To Make Right Use of the Heart,
- Light-Giver of Heaven,
- Lady of the Words of Power,
- Moon Shining Over the Sea.