In ancient Egypt, Isis was the much-loved goddess of fertility, motherhood, marriage, medicine and magic. Myths and legends abounded in the ancient world about Isis and have come down to us today through Egyptian literature. The ancient Egyptian scribes adopted multiple titles and names for this popular goddess. Worship of the Isis cult spread across Egypt and ultimately through into areas of Europe. The remains of many temples dedicated in her honour are evidence of this extended popularity.
Over time, Isis’ popularity was so great that almost all the Egyptian gods came to be seen as attributes of Isis. Isis, her husband Osiris and son Horus eventually usurped the Theban Triad of Mut, Khons and Amon in Egyptian religious worship. This divine trio had previously been Egypt’s most powerful divine trio.
Facts About Isis
- Isis was the goddess of fertility, motherhood, marriage, medicine and magic
- Her name is derived from the Egyptian Eset, which means “the seat”
- Isis other titles include Mut-Netjer or “Mother of the Gods” and Weret-Kekau or “the Great Magic”
- She was also Osiris’ wife and Horus’ mother
- Ancient Egyptians revered her as a motherhood role model
- Isis’ cult had its origins in Egypt’s Nile Delta
- Isis personified the ancient Egyptian concept of ma’at or harmony and balance
- Her main symbols associated were the sistrum, a scorpion, a kite and Osiris’ empty throne
- Two of Isis’ main Egyptian temples were located at Behbeit el-Hagar and at Philae
- The Isis cult eventually spread throughout ancient Rome and Greece
- Isis depiction as a divine mother may have been an inspiration for the early Christian concept of the Virgin Mary
Egyptologists and theologians came to label Isis, Osiris and Horus the Abydos Triad. The broad stretches of the Nile Delta were the birthplace of the Isis cult. The Behbeit El-Hagar shrine emerged as her most important sanctuary although Isis worship eventually spread throughout all of Egypt’s provinces.
Unusually, both women and men were allowed to serve Isis as her priests. As with other deities of the time in Egypt, her temple served as her temporal home on earth and rituals worshipping her were conducted both inside its precincts and outside. The temple housed her sacred statue. Inside the inner sanctum of the temple, Isis’ priestesses and priests zealously cared for her image.
Ancient Egyptians visited Isis’ temple to make offerings and supplications to her. However, only except the high priestess or priest had access to the inner sanctuary, where the statue of the goddess resided.
Isis Main Temples
Two of the key Egyptian temples dedicated to Isis were located at Behbeit el-Hagar and on the island of Philae. The Thirtieth Dynasty kings were devoted worshippers of Isis and they are thought to have commissioned this temple. Construction began at Behbeit el Hagar’s during Egypt’s Late Dynastic Period and it remained in use right past the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.
Construction of the Philae temple complex started during the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty. It remained a secondary temple until Greco-Roman times. It was relocated during the building of the Aswan Dam.
What’s In a Name?
Isis’ name is derived from the Egyptian Eset, which translates as “the seat.” This is a reference to both her stability and that of Egypt’s throne as Isis was considered to be the mother of every pharaoh due to the pharaoh’s close association with her son Horus.
Isis’ name has also been interpreted to mean the Queen of the Throne. Depictions of Isis’ original headdress showed the empty throne of Osiris, Isis’ murdered husband.
The primary symbols associated with Isis are the sistrum, a scorpion, which kept her safe when she was in hiding from Osiris’ murderer, the kite a type of falcon whose shape she assumed to return Osiris to life and Osiris’ empty throne.
Isis was regularly shown as a protectress, a wife and mother who was both giving and selfless and was seen to place the well-being and interests of others ahead of her own. Isis’ other titles include Mut-Netjer or “Mother of the Gods” and Weret-Kekau or “the Great Magic” an allusion to her perceived power. Isis also came to be known by numerous other names depending on the role her supplicants were invoking. As the goddess responsible for the annual Nile floods, Isis was Sati or Ankhet when she was the goddess tasked with creating and preserving life.
The Isis cult was noticeable for spreading throughout Egypt and into some areas of Europe. Worshippers honoured Isis as an idealised representation of a fertile mother figure. Naturally, women formed a larger portion of her cult’s followers. Isis is frequently depicted as nursing the pharaoh or Horus. Theologians speculate some attributes of Isis as a divine mother could have been a source of inspiration for early Christian doctrinal treatment of the Virgin Mary. Many of her followers believed her priests had the power to cure illnesses. Festivals celebrating Isis and her four siblings took place towards the end of the year and were held over five successive days.
According to ancient Egyptian myths, Isis entered the world after its creation. In one popular origin myth, once the universe only consisted of swirling chaotic darkness and waters. A primordial mound or ben-ben arose from the ocean bearing the god Atum at its centre. Atum looked upon on the eddying nothingness and understood the nature of loneliness. He coupled with his shadow and gave birth to the god of the air, Shu and the goddess of moisture Tefnut. These two divine beings then abandoned their father on the ben-ben and departed to fashion their world.
Atum was worried over for his children’s safety and longed for their company. He plucked out an eye and dispatched it to search for them. Eventually, Tefnut and Shu returned with Atum’s eye, having failed to fashion their world. Atum wept with happiness at his children’s return. Men and women emerged from the ben-ben’s fertile soil, as his tears hit it.
Atum’s fragile new creations lacked a place to live, so Shu and Tefnut coupled, producing the earth, Geb and the sky, Nut. These two entities became love struck. Being brother and sister, Atum disapproved of their relationship and separated the lovers for all eternity.
Already pregnant, Nut bore five children: Isis, Osiris, Nephthys, Horus the Elder and Set. To these five divine beings fell the burden of managing the daily affairs of all humans on earth. From these five gods and goddesses, Egypt’s rich panoply of gods was born.
Isis And Ma’at
The ancient Egyptians believed the gods needed them to embrace the concept of ma’at or harmony and balance in living their lives. By observing ma’at in living their lives, their earthly existence would be tranquil. Similarly in the afterlife, they would be richly rewarded, during the ritual Weighing of the Heart Ceremony, when one’s heart would be judged to be lighter than the feather of truth, thus granting admittance to the Field of Reeds and eternal paradise.
Isis was the very personification ma’at in many of the stories recounting her actions. One popular Isis story is the myth of Isis and the Seven Scorpions. As a baby, Horus was concealing from Set in the Nile marshes by Isis. Seven scorpions became her companions. Occasionally Isis ventured out in the evenings to find food. The scorpions formed a guard around her.
Isis would conceal her identity whenever she left the swamp, adopting a disguise as a poor old woman begging for alms. One night, as Isis and her entourage entered a town, an enormously wealthy noblewoman spied them through her window. She shut and locked her door.
The seven scorpions were infuriated by this insult to Isis. They schemed to exact revenge on the noblewoman for treating Isis shabbily. Six of the scorpions gifted Tefen the most powerful one amongst them with their poison. He drew their combined poison into his stinger.
As he waited for an opportunity to strike, a young peasant woman offered Isis and her scorpion entourage a simple meal and a place in her home that night. As Isis the young woman was sharing a meal, Tefen crept out and snuck under the noblewoman’s front door. Inside he stung the noblewoman’s young son. The boy collapsed and his mother unable to revive him ran outside begging for help. Her calls reached Isis.
Despite the noblewoman shabby treatment of her, Isis forgave her. Isis gathered the child up and called each of the scorpions by its secret name, counteracting the power of their poison. Reciting a powerful magical spell, Isis drove the poison from the child. Grateful and full of remorseful for her earlier actions, the noblewoman offered Isis and the peasant woman all her wealth.
How Was Isis Depicted?
Surviving inscriptions of Isis depict her in both goddess and human female forms. As a goddess, Isis wears her vulture headdress. This has a semblance to a plump bird lying on its stomach on top of Isis’ head. The bird’s wings hang down on each side of her head while its head gazes forward above Isis’ forehead.
Isis is dressed in a formal floor-length gown and wears a jewelled collar. In her hands, Isis holds an ankh and a papyrus sceptre.
Some depictions of Isis show her wearing a crown in place of her headdress. One crown is shown with cow horns surrounding a sun disc. Another version of her crown substitutes ram’s horns under the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, cementing the association of Isis with Osiris. The images depicting Isis as a human woman show her with a uraeus symbol in her headdress and wearing simpler clothes.
Reflecting On The Past
From her obscure origins, Isis gradually grew in importance until the deity became one of ancient Egypt’s most popular goddesses. Her cult subsequently expanded through ancient Greece and the Roman Empire resulting in Isis being once worshipped from Afghanistan to England.
Header image courtesy: Ägyptischer Maler um 1360 v. Chr. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons