The Egyptian Goddess Isis
The Egyptian Goddess Isis, whose Egyptian name is Aset, was endowed with what the ancient Egyptians honored most in feminine presence. She was a perfect wife – loving, loyal and supportive – and a dedicated mother – protective and nurturing.
Because of these soft qualities, she was prayed to as a friend by the less fortunate, such as slaves, as well as by “sinners”. She was also supportive of the noblemen, the wealthy and the royalty. She was everyman’s ally…
As the goddess of magic, she used her craft and link to nature to help others as well as her own loved ones, even if in sometimes underhanded ways.
And sadly, she sometimes caused harm accidentally to those who tried to help her.
Magic and witchcraft were seen by the ancient Egyptians as deeply powerful forces that could as easily be used to harm as to heal, and Isis was a renowned sorceress. She was able to bring back to life her murdered and dismembered husband, Osiris, along with the help of other deities. And for this act, she was honored as the great healer and goddess of rebirth and reincarnation.
Protectress of the Dead
An important role of the goddess Isis was that of protector of the dead. She was prayed to for aid with the long journey of the souls through duat. She guided the solar barque that traveled through the skies, up out of duat.
She is one of the guardians of the Canopic Jars that contained the internal organs of the deceased – along with her sister Nephthys, and the goddesses Neith and Serket. She protected the jar containing the liver.
She was associated with the kite-hawk that was seen flying over dead bodies – and the ancient Egyptians saw it as a form of protection of the dead.
In the Hall of Judgment, Isis stood with Nephthys behind her husband Osiris, god of the underworld.
The Great Love Affair
The myth of Isis and Osiris is possibly the greatest love stories of antiquity. Plutarch wrote a large volume about this myth. It’s one of those epic tales full of obstacles and drama. You probably know of it already, but it goes like this…
Osiris, the brother and husband of the Egyptian goddess Isis, was set to inherit the world and be the king of men. When he was alive, he ruled Egypt in his human form and was thought of as a great and kind ruler. He was loved by mortals as well as gods… except one… his younger brother.
Seth was not pleased by this and began to feel a great envy inside.
At one point, Osiris left Egypt to spread civilization to other lands, and Isis was left in charge of ruling the country, with the god Thoth as her assistant. She managed well and the time came for her husband’s return – but neither of them had any idea that there was a plot against the returning king.
Seth had gathered other conspirators and awaited the return of the king. They greeted him and joined the great feast in his honor. It was thought to be a happy day of celebrations, but Seth had another plan in mind.
In the middle of the feasting and merriment, he tricked our Osiris into lying down inside a beautiful wooden box that was strangely shaped to fit his measurements exactly.
It was presented as part of a game, where others would try to fit inside but would inevitably fail. Little did Osiris know that it was a trap, and when he was inside of it, perfectly fitted, his enemies locked him in and threw the chest into the Nile. He suffocated…
After hearing of this murder, Nephthys ran to her sister’s aid and confessed that she, too, had loved Osiris. She had even had an affair with him… she asked for forgiveness, and together, the sisters mourned their loss deeply. The Songs of Lamentation sung by these two goddesses were sacred chants of mourning and loss, full of beauty and sorrow.
Eventually, Isis, with the aid of many other deities including Nephthys and Thoth, managed to track the body of Osiris and bring him back to life. Sadly, no magic was strong enough to bring him back to the throne, and he descended into duat becoming god of the underworld.
Poetically enough, in his one day of resurrection in the world, he and Isis managed to conceive their son Horus whom would go on to battle Seth for the kingdom.
Mother of Horus and Anubis
While on the search for the dismembered Osiris, Nephthys made a startling confession to her sister about her affair with him. She had borne him a son whom she quickly abandoned out of fear.
Isis forgave her sister, and set out to find this lost child along with her dead husband. Once found, she adopted the boy and he became her loyal watchdog, Anubis.
The biological son of Isis and Osiris, Horus, would not only become the avenger of his father, but would go on one day to take up the throne of Egypt, and eventually replace Ra as the sun.
The pharaohs of Egypt were thought of as the personification of Horus on earth, and as such were also thought of as the children of Isis. For this reason, her symbol is the throne that she wears on top of her head, and her name means throne as well.
This belief was not always consistent, however, as during the Old Kingdom Isis was actually considered the wife of Horus, and thus the wife and aid of the pharaoh himself. The maternal roles appear much more strongly during the New Kingdom, when she became the wife of Osiris and their myth of great love began to emerge.
Forms and Symbols of the Egyptian Goddess Isis
The Egyptian goddess Isis was commonly depicted as a beautiful woman with wings. When she was shown without wings, she would hold a lotus flower or an ankh in one hand and a staff in the other…
When her link with the goddess Hathor became pronounced, their depictions became quite similar and Isis was sometimes shown wearing the headdress of Hathor – the cow’s horns. She was also sometimes shown as a cow, or as a woman’s with a cow’s head. Later periods show her holding the sistrum and wearing the menat necklace, things that were unique to the goddess Hathor.
Another of her most recognizable forms was as a mother holding her child, Horus as the pharaoh, and wearing a vulture headdress.
And finally, she was sometimes shown simply as a sycamore tree, sometimes nursing pharaohs from a breast the protruded from it.
One of her symbols was the tyet, which is described as either the Knot of Isis or the Blood of Isis. It is similar in appearance to the ankh symbol with the difference being the two protruding arms would be pointing downwards rather than outwards. This symbol is thought to represent rebirth and eternal life.
Queen of Heaven
In Egypt itself, the Egyptian goddess Isis was worshiped by one and all, loved and honored throughout the land. Her cult center in Philae has one of the most delicately beautiful temple complexes, and it was the last of the ancient Egyptian temples to be closed. But what is striking is that she garnered followers from all over the ancient world.
Although Isis is a very old Egyptian goddess, her worship strengthened in later antiquity and it eventually became the most wide-spread of all the gods and goddesses of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. It spread throughout the Mediterranean, including Spain, Gaul and Arabia… and extensively in Greece and Rome. In fact, her worship spread as far as Britain and Germany.
Eventually becoming a matron of sailors who would pray to her for safe and lucky voyages, harbors all over the Mediterranean honored her…
The other interesting thing about her worship was the fact that an entire religion was based upon her, and during the Roman Empire, it had converts from many cultures. In Pompeii, the cult of Isis was quite large. In Greece she had many centers of worship too.
She was loved and associated with many Greek and Roman goddesses, assimilating some of their qualities into her being, and expanding her cult even further.
Alexander the Great helped promulgate her worship further, and the Emperor Caligula dedicated an entire festival in her honor, in which he would dress up and take part. The worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis in Rome eventually earned her the title of Queen of Heaven, among others.
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