|Isis (Greek corruption; the Egyptian
is Aset) was originally a goddess
from Nubia, and was adopted into Egyptian
belief very early. Her name literally
means (female) of throne, i.e. Queen
of the throne, although the hieroglyph
used originally meant (female) of
flesh, i.e. mortal, and she may simply
have represented deified, real, queens.
When deified, symbolic of the queen,
it was sometimes said that she was
the daughter of Tawaret,
the goddess of royal birth.
A hymn about Isis from the 14th century BC says:
In the beginning there was Isis: Oldest of the Old, She
was the Goddess from whom all Becoming of the House of Life,
Mistress of the Word of God. She was the Unique. In all Her
great and wonderful works She was a wiser magician and more
excellent than any other God.
As the deification of the wife of the pharaoh, Isis protected
the dead body of the Pharaoh, since this was seen as an intrinsic
part of her job as royal protector. Thus she gained a funerary
association, and was said to be the mother of the four gods
who protected the canopic jars. More specifically, Isis was
viewed as protector of the god Imsety.
This association with the Pharaoh's wife also brought the
idea that Isis was considered the spouse of Horus, who was
protector, and later the deification, of the Pharaoh himself.
Consequently, on occasion, her mother was said to be Hathor,
the mother of Horus.
In another area of Egypt, when the pantheon was formalised,
Isis became one of the Ennead of
Heliopolis, as a daughter of Nuit and
Geb, and sister to Osiris,
Nephthys, and Set.
As a funerary deity, she was associated with Osiris,
god of the underworld (Aaru), and thus
was considered his wife, whereas Nephthys was the wife of Set.
Isis and Nephthys were often depicted on coffins, with wings
outstretched, as protectors against evil.
A later legend, ultimately a result of the replacement of
another god of the underworld when the cult of Osiris
gained more authority, tells of the birth of Anubis.
The tale describes how Nephthys
became sexually frustrated with Set,
who was gay (and already had a male lover - Shu),
and so disguised herself as the much more attractive Isis
to try to seduce him. The ploy failed, but Osiris
now found Nephthys very attractive,
as he thought she was Isis. They coupled, resulting in the
birth of Anubis. In fear of Set's
anger, Nephthys persuaded Isis
to adopt Anubis, so that Set
would not find out. The tale describes both why Anubis
is seen as an underworld deity (he is a son of Osiris),
and why he couldn't inherit Osiris'
position (he was not a legitimate heir), neatly preserving
Osiris' position as lord of the underworld.
Assimilation of Hathor
Beliefs about Ra himself had been hovering around the identification
of Ra, a sun god, with Horus, another sun god (as the compound
Ra-Herakhty), and so for some time, Isis had intermittently
been considered the wife of Ra, since she was the wife of
Horus. Consequently, since there was not anything logically
troubling by identifying Isis as Ra's wife, Hathor unlike
identifying Ra as his own son, she and Hathor became considered
the same deity, Isis-Hathor. Sometimes the alternative consideration
arose, that Isis, in the Ennead, was a child of Atum-Ra, and
so should have been a child of Ra's wife, Hathor, although
this was less favoured as Isis had enough in common with Hathor
to be considered one and the same.
It was this merger with Hathor that proved to be the most
significant event in the history of Egyptian mythology. 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. However, it
had to be explained how Osiris, who as god of the dead, was
dead, could be considered a father to Horus who was very much
not considered dead. This lead to the evolution of the idea
that Osiris needed to be resurrected, and so to the Legend
of Osiris and Isis, a myth so significant that everything
else paled in comparison.
In order to resurrect Osiris for the purpose of having the
child Horus, it was necessary for Isis to learn magic, and
so it was that Isis tricked Ra (i.e. Amun-Ra/Atum-Ra) into
telling her his "secret name", by getting a snake
to bite and poison him, so that he would use his "secret
name" to survive. In consequence, as well as the attributes
of motherhood and fertility originating in Hathor, Isis became
a goddess of magic.
The priestesses of Isis were healers and midwives, and were
said to have many special powers, including dream interpretation
and the ability to control the weather by braiding or combing
their hair, the latter of which was because the ancient Egyptians
considered knots to have magical power. Serket
became considered an aspect of the more significant goddess
Isis, because she was also seen as curer of poisoned scorpion
stings (and so a healer, and thus patron also of magicians),
and because she was also one of the four goddesses protecting
the gods who watched the canopic jars, like Isis, and was
also a protector of marriage.
Because of the association between knots and magical power,
a symbol of Isis was the tiet/tyet (meaning
welfare/life), also called the Knot of
Isis, Buckle of Isis, or the Blood of
Isis. The tiet in many respects resembles
an ankh, except that its arms curve down,
and in all these cases seems to represent
the idea of eternal life/resurrection.
The meaning of Blood of Isis is more obscured,
but the tyet was often used as a funerary
amulet made of red wood, stone, or glass,
so this may have simply been a description
of its appearance.
||Assimilation of Mut
After the authority of Thebes had
risen, and made Amun
into a much more significant god,
it later waned, and Amun
was assimilated into Ra.
In consequence, Amun's
consort, Mut, the doting, infertile,
and implicitly virginal, mother, who
by this point had absorbed other goddesses
herself, was assimilated into Ra's
as Mut-Isis-Nekhbet. On occasion,
Mut's infertility and implicit virginity,
was taken into consideration, and
who was too significant to ignore,
had to be explained by saying that
Isis became pregnant with magic, when
she transformed herself into a kite
and flew over Osiris'
Mut's husband 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 separately, and Isis was sometimes 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' son was on rare occasions said to be Min instead,
which neatly avoided having confusion over Horus's status
as was held at being the husband and son of Isis.
The star Spica (sometimes called Lute Bearer), and the constellation
which roughly corresponded to the modern Virgo, appeared at
a time of year associated with the harvest of wheat and grain,
and thus with fertility gods and goddesses. Consequently they
were associated with Hathor, and
hence with Isis. Isis also assimilated Sopdet, the personification
of 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.
Sopdet still retained an element of distinct identity, however,
as Sirius was quite visibly a star and not living in the underworld.
In art, originally Isis was pictured as a woman wearing a
headdress in the shape of a throne, sometimes holding a lotus,
as a sycamore tree. After her assimilation of Hathor, Isis
was often symbolised by a cow, or a cow's head, or, in the
most common form, a woman with the horns of a cow on her head,
with the sun disc (of Horus) between them. Usually, she was
depicted with her son, the great god Horus, with a crown and
a vulture, and sometimes as a kite flying above Osiris's body.
In the Book of the Dead
Isis was described as She who gives birth to heaven and earth,
knows the orphan, knows the widow, seeks justice for the poor,
and shelter for the weak. Some of Isis' 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, and Moon Shining Over
In late times, due to her name, and her associations, she
was often confused with the unconnected Semitic goddess Astarte.
Also, during the period of Greek dominance, due to her attributes
as a protector, and mother, and the lusty aspect originally
from Hathor, she was made the patron goddess of sailors.
Isis outside Egypt
The cult of Isis rose to prominence in the Hellenistic world,
beginning in the last centuries BC, until it was eventually
banned by the Christians in the 6th century. Despite the Isis
mystery cult's growing popularity, there is evidence to suggest
that the Isis mysteries were not altogether welcomed by the
ruling classes in Rome. Her rites were considered by the princeps
Augustus to be "pornographic" and capable of destroying
the Roman moral fibre.
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 gods who
were closely associated with the state. Eventually the Roman
emperor Gaius Caesar abandoned the Augustan wariness towards
Oriental cults, and it was in his reign that the Isiac festival
was established in Rome. According to Josephus, Gaius himself
donned female garb and took part in the mysteries he instituted,
and Isis acquired in the Hellenistic age a "new rank
as a leading goddess of the Mediterranean world."
Roman perspectives on cult were syncretic, seeing in a new
deity 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. In the Golden Ass (1st century),
Apuleius' goddess Isis is identified with Cybele:
Behold, Lucius, I have arrived. Thy weeping
and prayers have moved me to succour thee.
I am she that is the natural mother of
all things, the Mistress and Governess
of all the Elements, the initial Progenitrix
of all things, the Chief of powers divine,
Queen of Heaven, the First of the Gods
celestial, the light of the Goddesses.
At my will, the planets of the air, the
wholesome winds of the Seas, and the silences
of hell are disposed; my name, my divinity
is adored throughout all the world in
various manners, in various customs and
in many names, for the Phrygians call
me the Mother of the Gods. 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 Yorùbá
mythology, Isis became Yemaya. In later
years, Isis also had temples throughout
Europe, Africa, and Asia, and as far away
as the British Isles, where there was
a temple to Isis on the River Thames by
|Some scholars argue that aspects
of Isis worship have influenced the
practices of some Christians in regards
to the Virgin Mary, and especially
her relationship with her son, Horus.
There is a strong resemblance to the
depiction of the seated Isis holding
or suckling the child Horus
and the seated Mary and the baby Jesus.
It has been suggested by these scholars
that the reason Isis worship abruptly
ends, despite the vast number of its
adherents, is due to her having been
identified as Mary, and her temples
having been merely renamed in consequence.
If this is true then Isis is still
worshipped today, and has been for
at least 5000 years, and if it is
not, then there has still been a recent
revival of explicitly Isis based worship,
among neopagans and feminists who
are attracted by the matriarchal notions
of goddess worship.
and Goddesses Menu
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