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Isis

the most important goddess of the ancient Egyptians

Isis

Mythology

Isis was the first daughter of Geb (God of the Earth) and Nut (Goddess of the Sky), and was born on the first day between the first years of creation. She was the sister of Osiris, Set, and Nephthys. On these "facts" virtually every myth surrounding Isis agrees, but the myths differ on whether she was a mortal who became a goddess or one of the original immortal gods and goddesses. There are also a great variety of stories concerning Isis the woman/goddess, her relationship to the other gods and goddesses, her relationship with mortals, her "responsibilities," etc., with the two below being the most important (and consistent).

Ra, the God of the Sun, originally had the greatest power. But Ra was uncaring, and the people of the world suffered greatly during his reign. Isis tricked him by mixing some of his saliva with mud to create a poisonous snake that bit him, causing him great suffering which she then offered to cure. He eventually agreed. Isis informed Ra that, for the cure to work, she would have to speak his secret name (which was the source of his power over life and death). Reluctantly, he whispered it to her. When Isis uttered his secret name while performing her magic, Ra was healed. But the goddess Isis then possessed his powers of life and death, and quickly became the most powerful of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, using her great powers to the benefit of the people. Unlike most other Egyptian gods and goddesses, Isis spent time among her people, teaching women how to grind corn and make bread, spin flax and weave cloth, and how to tame men enough to live with them. She also taught her people the skills of reading and agriculture and was worshipped as the goddess of medicine and wisdom.

Isis was the Goddess of the Earth in ancient Egypt and loved her brother Osiris. When they married, Osiris became the first King of Earth. Their brother Set, immensely jealous of their powers, murdered Osiris so he could usurp the throne. Set did this by tricking Osiris into stepping into a beautiful box made of cedar, ebony and ivory that he had ordered built to fit only Osiris. Set then sealed it up to become a coffin and threw it into the river. The river carried the box out to sea; it washed up in another country, resting in the upper boughs of a tamarisk tree when the waters receded. As time passed, the branches covered the box, encapsulating the god in his coffin in the trunk of the tree. In a state of inconsolable grief, Isis tore her robes to shreds and cut off her beautiful black hair. When she finally regained her emotional balance, Isis set out to search for the body of her beloved Osiris so that she might bury him properly. The search took Isis to Phoenicia where she met Queen Astarte. Astarte didn't recognize the goddess and hired her as a nursemaid to the infant prince. Fond of the young boy, Isis decided to bestow immortality on him. As she was holding the royal infant over the fire as part of the ritual, the Queen entered the room. Seeing her son smoldering in the middle of the fire, Astarte instinctively (but naively) grabbed the child out of the flames, undoing the magic of Isis that would have made her son a god. When the Queen demanded an explanation, Isis revealed her identity and told Astarte of her quest to recover her husband's body. As she listened to the story, Astarte realized that the body was hidden in the fragrant tree in the center of the palace and told Isis where to find it. Sheltering his broken body in her arms, the goddess Isis carried the body of Osiris back to Egypt for proper burial. There she hid it in the swamps on the delta of the Nile river. Unfortunately, Set came across the box one night when he was out hunting. Infuriated by this turn of events and determined not to be outdone, he murdered Osiris once again, this time hacking his body into 14 pieces and throwing them in different directions knowing that they would be eaten by the crocodiles. Isis searched and searched, accompanied by seven scorpions who assisted and protected her. Each time she found new pieces she rejoined them to re-form his body. But Isis could only recover thirteen of the pieces. The fourteenth, his penis, had been swallowed by a crab, so she fashioned one from gold and wax. Then, inventing the rites of embalming and speaking some words of magic, Isis brought her husband back to life. Magically, Isis then conceived a child with Osiris, and gave birth to Horus, who later became the Sun God. Assured that having the infant would now relieve Isis' grief, Osiris was free to descend to become the King of the Underworld, ruling over the dead and the sleeping. His spirit, however, frequently returned to be with Isis and the young Horus who both remained under his watchful and loving eye.

Depictions

Typically Isis' name in hieroglyphics includes the symbol for "throne" as the first character, and the symbol for "goddess" as the last one. The semicircle in between is a "loaf" symbol, which is pronounced like a letter "t". Sometimes the name is abbreviated to just the throne itself.

'Aset' as written in Egyptian hieroglyphics
'Aset' as written in Egyptian hieroglyphics

When represented as a woman, Isis was almost always shown with the hieroglyphic sign of the throne on her head, either sitting on a throne alone or holding the child Horus, or kneeling before a coffin. Occasionally she was shown with a cow's head.

Isis was often depicted in art nursing the infant Horus. With the advent of Christianity, many of the chapels of Isis were converted to churches, and images of Isis with her baby were reinterpreted to refer to the Virgin Mary holding Jesus.

Isis nursing Horus
Isis nursing Horus

Because of her role in bringing Osiris back to life, she often appears in funerary scenes, either leading the deceased toward the afterlife or standing behind Osiris to greet the deceased.

Isis leading Nefertari toward the afterlife
Isis leading Nefertari toward the afterlife

Her role as a guide to the Underworld was often portrayed as Isis with winged arms outstretched in a protective position (as seen in the image at the top of the page). The image of the wings of Isis was incorporated into the Egyptian throne on which the pharaohs would sit, the wings of Isis protecting them. It should be noted here that Isis was one of the very few Egyptian gods/goddesses to ever be depicted with wings.

History of Worship

Isis was one of the oldest gods/goddesses of ancient Egypt, but the exact origins of her worship are unknown. It is believed that it originated as a fetish in the Delta area of Lower Egypt around Busiris, the location of the oldest known cult center to Osiris. The first known shrine to her was built by Nectanebo II in the Third Dynasty (360-342 B.C.), and she eventually came to be worshipped in every temple. Worship to her also spread throughout the Greco-Roman world, and cults dedicated to her lasted well into the sixth century A.D.

Some early Christians called themselves Pastophori, meaning "shepherds or servants of Isis," which may be where the word "pastors" originated. The ancient images of Isis nursing the infant Horus inspired the style of portraits of mother and child for centuries, including those of the "Madonna and Child" found in religious art.

Festivities surrounding the annual flooding of the Nile, originally known as "The Night of the Tear-Drop" in remembrance of the extent of Isis's lamentation of the death of Osiris, her tears so plentiful they caused the Nile to overflow, is now celebrated annually by Egyptian Muslims and  is called "The Night of the Drop."

SOURCES
Ancient Egypt Online
http://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/isis.html
EgyptArt
http://www.egyptartsite.com/isis.html
Goddess Gift
http://www.goddessgift.com/goddess-myths/egyptian_goddess_isis.htm

SEE ALSO
Horus

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This page was last updated on February 13, 2017.