Isis: The Egyptian Goddess of Magic and Healing, the First Resurrector of Souls
In this article, we will talk about Isis, goddess of healing and magic.
We will be discussing who she is in Egyptian mythology and her role in the Osirian resurrection myth. Continue reading.
Who Is Isis in Egyptian Mythology?
The Egyptian god Isis was one of the primary gods of ancient Egypt and is considered the most popular goddess of the pantheon. Isis was believed to have greater magical power than any of the other Egyptian deities, was believed to help the dead move on through the underworld, and was revered as the divine mother that protected the royal family.
Isis’ power was invoked in healing rituals throughout the entire Mediterranean world, and the goddess was believed to rule over the sky and earth. By the beginning of the Common Era, Isis had been integrated into the Roman pantheon of gods, and evidence exists of her worship at the far reaches of the Roman Empire, including what is now Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, and Morocco.
Being part of the Great Ennead of Heliopolis, Isis was worshipped as one of the first nine gods of creation and the daughter of Nut and Geb. Isis was the sister of Osiris, Nephthys, Set, and Horus the Elder. Isis and Osiris were the parents of Horus the Younger, and Isis was considered the guardian of Osiris’ son, Anubis.
Throughout Egypt’s middle and later history, Isis and Ra were intimately linked as well, with Ra usually referenced as the great-grandfather of the goddess, while a few myths name her as the wife and sister of Ra.
Adherents believed that because of her strong magic, Isis knew the secret name of Ra, giving the god’s power to her. This enabled the goddess to assume Ra’s former place as the central deity of the worship of ancient Egypt during Egypt’s later period.
During Egypt’s late period, Isis was worshipped alongside Osiris and Horus the Younger as one of Egypt’s Great triads, eventually supplanted as the Hellenistic Triad of Isis, Serapis, and Harpocrates.
– Earliest Worship
The first reference to Isis as a goddess comes from the Pyramid Texts of Egypt’s Old Kingdom period (2650 – 2150 B.C.), considered the oldest religious writings in known human history. The Pyramid Texts formed the primary funerary literature of Egypt and were inscribed on the tombs, sarcophagi, and walls of the Saqqara pyramids.
In the Pyramid Texts of Saqqara, Isis played a central role in the Osirian Resurrection Myth, which would become the cornerstone of Egyptian religious life.
In the Osirian Resurrection Myth made popular by the Ennead cult of Heliopolis, Osiris, brother and husband of Isis, is murdered and dismembered by their jealous brother Set. Through the powerful use of her magic, Isis resurrected the dead god, who then became the god of the afterlife.
In the myth, Isis also becomes the guardian of Anubis and the mother of Horus the Younger, who eventually restored the throne of the living to its rightful place. Thus, Isis became the divine protector of the pharaonic line, as the pharaoh was the living embodiment of her son, Horus.
– Worship of Isis Spreads
Worshipped as a matronly god of healing, funerary rituals, and magic through much of the Old and Middle Kingdom periods of Egypt, by the New Kingdom period (1550 – 1050 B.C.), the worship of Isis expanded greatly. During this time, Isis assimilated many of the traits of other female goddesses, including the ancient goddess Hathor, and became venerated as queen of the gods.
By 1000 B.C., worship of Isis and Osiris expanded outside of the Egyptian empire, while within Egypt, temples dedicated to Isis became the norm. At the first cataract of the Nile (the traditional border between the Nubian kingdom of Kush and Egypt), a large temple to Isis and Osiris was built on the island of Pilak (Philae).
Believed to be the burial site of Osiris, Pilak became home to the Cult of Isis. Considered a holy site by the Egyptians, Nubians, Greeks, and Romans, only priests and high functionaries were allowed to live upon the island, thus nicknaming the grand temple there “The Unapproachable.” By this time, Isis was considered the protector of Egypt and Nubia and even determined the days and paths of every human’s life.
During the Ptolemaic Dynasties (323 – 30 B.C.), worship of Isis exploded throughout the Mediterranean world, with Isis taking on many of the traits of Greek goddesses. At the insistence of Ptolemy I Soter, the first Greek pharaoh of Egypt, Isis was worshipped alongside the god Serapis, with Serapis often replacing Osiris outside of Egypt.
During this period, Isis was credited with traits such as the goddess of marriage and the home and protection of travelers and ships at sea. After Rome began its occupation of Egypt in 30 B.C., the cults of Isis spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire, a sign of the goddess’s massive popularity and adaptation to multiple belief systems, as the goddess came to embody femininity and womanhood.
With the rise of Christianity in the 3rd century, the worship of Isis began a slow decline. However, unlike other gods and goddesses of the ancient Egyptian religion, belief in Isis flourished even after governmental decrees attempted to eliminate her worship. While the worship of other ancient Egyptian deities ended in A.D.
380 with the signed decree of Emperors Valentinian II and Theodosius I, making Christianity the only legal religion in the Roman Empire and outlawing all pagan rituals, formal worship of Isis persisted for 200 more years.
In A.D. 537, Isis’ temple at Philae was finally shuttered with the military backing of Emperor Justinian I, and most of its temples were demolished or converted to churches. It is this date which most Egyptologists consider the end of the ancient Egyptian faith.
However, evidence suggests that many of Isis’ attributes and qualities were absorbed into early Christian iconography and artistic representation, particularly regarding Jesus Christ’s mother, Mary.
How Isis Was Depicted in Artwork and Literature
As Isis came to be considered the greatest goddess of ancient Egypt, whose worship extended to the far reaches of the Roman Empire, her appearance took on many forms.
As Egyptologist Robert Steven Bianchi wrote, “Isis could represent anything to anyone and could be represented in any way imaginable.”
– Ancient Egypt – Old and Middle Kingdom
The first representations of Isis were rather simple, with funerary reliefs depicting her in mourning with her twin sister Nephthys. In these representations at Saqqara, Isis is seen as a human woman with her arm flung across her face, holding Osiris upon his throne and protecting him from the god Set.
In these depictions, Isis is seen with the recognizable wings of a hawk or falcon, as Isis and Nephthys were believed to transform into the animals when searching for the body parts of Osiris. Egyptians also believed that the cry of a hawk was symbolic of the cry of a wailing woman in mourning, and funerary priestesses of Isis and Nephthys would come to be known as “Hawks.”
The first portrayals of Isis show her in human form with a simple dress with a staff in one hand and the key of life (ankh) in the other. During the Old and Middle Kingdom period, the crown of Isis was a basic headdress with the symbol of the throne.
In animal form, Isis was depicted as a hawk and as a cow, as the cow was believed to represent Isis in her motherly form as protector of Anubis and mother to Horus the Younger.
As Isis came to be regarded as the divine mother, comparisons with the cow grew stronger, as the bull symbolized kingship. The Apis bull, in particular, was believed to embody courage, strength, and virility and came to be regarded as sacred. When pictured with the Apis bull, Isis was depicted as a large sow.
Other known forms of Isis during the Old and Middle Kingdoms were as a scorpion, a tamarisk tree, a woman combined with a tree, or a woman greeting souls into the afterlife.
– Ancient Egypt – New Kingdom
During the New Kingdom period, depictions of Isis became much more complex, lending credence to her spreading influence and soon-to-be dominant role in Egyptian society.
As it was common practice for the deities of ancient Egypt to take on the attributes of earlier gods, as the worship of Isis spread from the Ennead cults of Heliopolis and to the corners of the Egyptian empire, Isis began to take on the forms of a vast number of local goddesses.
The biggest shift in Isis’ appearance came when the goddess took on the attributes of Hathor. As Hathor was a state-sponsored goddess that had herself enjoyed cult worship spanning thousands of years, the Cult of Isis exploded throughout the empire, with Isis now representing such aspects as love, beauty, dancing, music, fertility, pleasure, and as the protective deity of Egypt (the Eye of Ra). Depictions of Isis moved beyond funerary reliefs and placed her images in temples across Egypt.
During the New Kingdom, it became commonplace for Isis to be represented carrying Hathor’s sistrum rattle in her hands (symbolizing religious rituals and ecstatic trances). The crown of Isis changed as well, with Isis being seen wearing Hathor’s cow horn headdress enclosing the sun, called the Radiant Crown. This crown symbolized the divine power of rulership and divinity, elevating her role in the Egyptian pantheon of gods.
Other common depictions of Isis at this time were wearing the Radiant Crown with a throne on top of it or with a vulture-shaped crown encircled by a cobra (called a Uraeus – symbolizing royalty, deity, divine authority, and sovereignty).
First observed in First Dynasty tombs in the New Kingdom period, the ancient symbol of the “tyet” came to symbolize the goddess. Also called the “Girdle of Isis,” the tyet appeared as an ankh with its cross sides folded down and symbolized protection and life believed to link Isis with the sacred feminine aspect. Some scholars believed that it was sometimes used as a bandage to absorb period blood.
It became common practice for the dead to be buried with tyet amulets, with the amulet placed upon the upper chest. Most tyets were made from red jasper or glass, while others were made of green faience, representing resurrection power.
The Book of the Dead stated that during burial, the tyet was to be placed at the neck and the magic words to be spoken were “the magic of Isis will be the protection of the dead” and the tyet “will drive away whoever would commit a crime against him.”
– Ancient Egypt – Ptolemaic Dynasties and Roman Occupation
Due to the Hellenistic influence of Greek culture, Isis took on a more Greek appearance during the Ptolemaic dynasties. As Isis began taking on the attributes of Greek deities, she was sometimes depicted in the nude, typically wearing complex headdresses, or exposing her genitals, thus linking her with the Greek temple fertility cults of Aphrodite. She was also commonly depicted with the lower body of a snake, associating her with agricultural gods.
– Outside of Egypt – Ptolemaic Dynasties and Roman Occupation
Most artwork and iconography outside of Egypt had Isis taking on the forms and aspects of local deities. In depictions discovered in Britain and Germany, forms of Isis had the complexion of the local population instead of that of the Mediterranean. In Morocco, idols have been discovered featuring the goddess with a darker complexion.
Images of Isis have been uncovered outside of Egypt with her wearing her Radiant Crown, although the size of the crown has been reduced in size to resemble a crescent moon more than the sun disk of Egypt. Images in France have been discovered with Isis wearing a crown of flowers, grain, and leaves.
One of the most common images of Isis believed to have been spread by sailors throughout the Mediterranean is of Isis with corkscrew hair tied in knots covering her breasts. This representation is believed to be one of the earliest symbols of the mermaid as protector of ships.
In more ornate depictions of Isis in this regard, the goddess was pictured with the sistrum or Uraeus crown or with a situla (used in the Isis cult for pouring out milk or water during the ceremony).
Other common depictions of Isis that have been discovered outside of Egypt are Isis holding a rudder (symbolizing her control of the fate of mankind), holding a horn of plenty (abundance), a nursing mother to local king and queens, and as resting her feet upon globes (representing control of the world).
The Names of Isis and the Meanings Behind Them
Isis is the Greek form of the name “As-et,” which had morphed over many years from the Egyptian ꜣst, which then became “Ese,” “Wusa” in Nubian Meroitic, and then the Greek Ἶσις (Isis). Other spellings were Ast, Iset, and Uset.
Several scholars argue that Isis’ name meant “seat” or “throne,” as the Egyptian name for throne was “st.” Also, the hieroglyphic form of Isis uses the sign for throne in her name, as the goddess wore the sign for throne upon her head. As Isis was considered the mother of Horus, she, therefore, bore the power to make a man a king, thus making man a living god. Others suggest her name meant “female of flesh” or “knowledge.”
As Isis became the most powerful and popular goddess of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, her list of titles became quite lengthy. Some of her more well-known names were:
- She Who Gives Birth to Heaven and Earth, Knows the Orphan, Knows the Widow, Seeks Justice for the Poor, and Shelter for the Weak
- Mother of Gods
- Great Lady of Magic
- Mother of Lights
- Moon Shining Over the Sea
- She Who Knows How To Make Right Use of the Heart
- Lady of All
- Queen of the Heavens
- Brilliant One in the Sky
- Mistress of the House of Lights
- Lady of Green Crops
- Star of the Sea
- The One Who Is All
- Light Giver of Heaven
- Lady of the Words of Power
The Story of Isis
As Isis was the most popular god of ancient Egypt, innumerable myths and legends exist of the goddess’ various traits and attributes.
However, the most well-known myth of Isis comes undoubtedly from the Osirian Resurrection story. Scholars argue that the Osirian Resurrection Myth best encapsulates the worthy attributes of the goddess that personified the Egyptian ideal of the sacred feminine for almost 3,000 years.
– The Birth of Isis and the Beginning of the Osirian Resurrection Myth
The most common creation story of ancient Egypt came from the Ennead cult of Heliopolis. As the Ennead cult became a major state-sponsored religion of ancient Egypt, the Ennead creation myth remained one of the most popular stories of ancient Egypt from the Old Kingdom period through the Ptolemaic Dynasty before being supplanted by the creation stories of Greece.
Before the Earth was formed, there were only the dark waters of chaos. Out of the waters rose the god Ra, self-generated from nothing. Looking upon the darkness, Ra realized he was alone and desired companionship.
Through the act of self-pleasure, Ra created the gods Shu and Tefnut. Upon birth, Shu and Tefnut became captivated with exploring the dark waters of chaos and disappeared. After not returning, Ra began to despair for his children and sent a flaming eye to find them. Upon their discovery, Ra cried tears of joy, which fell upon the ground at his feet and became the first humans.
To create a world for Ra’s many new creations, Shu and Tefnut procreated and made Geb, the god of the earth, and Nut, the goddess of the sky. Yet Geb and Nut were infatuated with each other and could not stop mating over and over, crashing the earth and sky together, making the world too unliveable for creation.
In frustration, Ra set pillars at the corners of the world to keep Geb and Nut away from each other. With the earth now safe, humanity began to spread throughout the world. Nut, however, found herself pregnant with Geb’s children and soon produced five gods: Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus the Elder.
Osiris, the firstborn, was known for his fairness and righteousness. Ra named Osiris as the god of the living, and Osiris took Isis to be his wife. The gods saw humanity and took compassion on them, as they seemed uncivilized and uncultured. Isis and Osiris gave humanity religious instruction, taught agriculture, and established culture and law.
The cosmos thrived under the rule of Osiris and Isis, with men and women considered equal. The earth was balanced, and plants and wildlife thrived. Worship of Osiris and Isis was widespread, and the gods lavished blessing upon blessing upon creation.
– The Death of Osiris
While Egypt thrived under the rule of Osiris and Isis, their younger brother Set grew envious. He wanted the attention given to Osiris, and he desired the power that Isis and Osiris held over Egypt. Set took Nephthys to be his wife, but Nephthys herself was envious of Isis.
Nephthys longed for the attention that Osiris lavished upon Isis. She desired to receive the affection from her husband that Isis received from hers. Continually ignored by Set, Nephthys (being the twin of Isis) took on the scent and taste of Isis to receive the affections of Isis’ husband.
Osiris, unaware that it was Nephthys, took the goddess to bed. After leaving her side, the god unwittingly left behind a flower that he wore in his hair, which would begin a terrible chain of events.
As Nephthys lay asleep in bed, Set came upon her and discovered the flower of Osiris. Believing his brother had seduced his wife, Set flew into a rage and began to hatch an evil plan. Set created a wooden box to the exact specifications of Osiris’ body and threw a large party, inviting all the gods of Egypt.
After offering drugged wine to all of his guests, Set brought out the wooden box. As his brothers and sisters wondered over the craftsmanship of the box, Set offered the box as a prize to whichever god could best fit inside it and placed the box in a separate room.
Every god of Egypt went and laid in the box while Set looked on as a judge, asking that Osiris as the guest of honor be last. When it was his turn, Osiris entered the dark room and laid in the box under Set’s gaze. As soon as Osiris crossed his arms, the priests of Set slammed the lid close and nailed it shut. Set then had them throw the box into the Nile River to whisk it out to sea.
After many weeks, the ornate box made its way to the rivers of Phoenicia. The coffin bearing the god’s body lodged in a tamarisk tree, and the tree grew around it. The king of Byblos happened upon the tree one day and wondered at it, as it had a pleasant feeling and sweet aroma.
Astarte, the king’s wife, desired to have the tree carved into a beautiful pillar and sit in the middle of their court. The king ordered the tamarisk tree to be cut down, carved, and brought to their throne room. Inside the tree, the corpse of Osiris remained.
– Isis Discovers the Corpse of Osiris
With Osiris gone, Set assumed the throne of the living, but the balance of the cosmos had been destroyed. Set ruled as a tyrant, and because of his harshness, crops began to wither. The Nile ceased its annual flooding, and the desert began to reclaim the Nile’s once verdant lands.
Since her husband’s disappearance, Isis had not ceased searching every corner of the earth. After hearing of a mysterious tree in Phoenicia that had a sweet aroma and wonderful soothing presence, Isis set out to search for it, flying as a hawk and scanning the ground.
Finally coming to the area she had heard rumors of, she took the form of an old woman and began to investigate along the riverbank. Searching the shore, she finally came to where a great tree had recently been hewn down. She could sense the lingering presence of her dead husband. Wailing in grief and despair, she collapsed upon the ground, believing all hope to be lost.
A group of royal handmaidens, who were bathing in the river, heard the cries of the old woman and came to comfort her. They told Isis that the hewn-down tree now stood as a great pillar in the nearby palace and that it was a wonder to behold. Asking to see the pillar, she went with the handmaidens to the palace and was allowed into the court.
Isis knew immediately that the body of her husband lay inside the tree. But not wishing to dishonor the king and queen of Byblos by just taking the tree, Isis asked to serve the royal family as a nursemaid to their young princes.
Over time, Isis grew to feel affection for the youngest prince. Wishing for him never to taste death, she used strong magic to make the child immortal. Every night after he fed, she would dip him in an immortal fire to burn his mortal portions away. One night, the queen happened upon Isis dipping the child in the sacred blue flames.
Not knowing the loving intent of the old crone, the queen screamed in fear. Isis then revealed herself in her goddess form, further terrifying the royal family, with them begging for forgiveness. Isis asked only to take the pillar with her upon leaving, which the family gave freely.
– Set’s Desecration of Osiris
Away from Byblos, Isis removed the corpse of her husband from the tree. Isis knew that if Set discovered Osiris, he would be furious. She hid the body in the swampy marshes of the Nile Delta, away from the eyes of the palace. Nephthys, feeling sorry to be the cause of so much pain and suffering, offered to guard the body while Isis searched for herbs to use in a magic potion to resurrect Osiris.
Set, however, had heard that Isis had returned with the body of the dead king. Knowing that Isis had powerful magic, he feared that she could return the god to life, so he set about searching for his dead brother.
Happening upon Nephthys in the marshes of the Nile, Set forced his wife to reveal the location of the dead god. Finding the body hidden in the reeds, he furiously hacked the body into 26 pieces and scattered them throughout the land and into the Nile.
Nephthys sought out her sister and told Isis how she again failed her. Instead of falling into despair, Isis immediately took the form of a hawk and began to search high and low for her husband’s desecrated corpse.
Soon, Isis and Nephthys had discovered 25 of the pieces of Osiris. However, 1 piece would never be reclaimed. Set had thrown Osiris’ penis into the Nile, where it was consumed by the oxyrhynchus fish. Because Osiris would never be whole, Isis could resurrect his soul but could never return the god to the land of the living. Isis cursed the fish, and it would never be eaten in Egypt ever again.
Gathering the pieces of Osiris’ body and wrapping them in linen, Isis and Nephthys sought the help of Anubis and began the work of raising Osiris from the dead.
– The Resurrection of Osiris and the Birth of Horus
Anubis was the child of the fated union between Nephthys and Osiris. Knowing that Set would murder Anubis if he found that he was the child of Osiris, Nephthys had hidden her pregnancy from Set and had given the boy to Isis to raise. Isis, loving her husband and sister, protected Anubis as her own son. The god wielded incredible powers over embalming and mummification.
Nephthys and Isis used powerful magic such as incantations and rituals, reciting prayers and lamentations to urge Osiris spirit to return from the land of the dead. Nearby scribes wrote their rituals down and combined them into what would become known as “The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys,” which became a central component of the Book of the Dead. Through their combined goddess powers, Osiris’ spirit returned to his body, and the god woke from the dead.
As Osiris’ body was not completely whole, the gods knew that his time in the land of the living would be brief. Without delay, Isis transformed into a hawk and flew around the god, drawing his semen to the surface of his body and taking it into her own. Osiris descended into the realm of the dead to become the god of the underworld, and Isis found herself pregnant with Horus.
Keeping her pregnancy secret, Isis brought forth her son. As the mother of Horus, Isis hid her son from Set’s knowledge. Nephthys helped as well, now honor-bound to Isis and keeping her secret. When Horus came of age, Isis instructed her son on the plight of his father and taught Horus how to be a just king.
– The Contendings of Horus and Set
When the time came, Horus challenged Set for the right to rule the land of the living. For 80 years, Horus and Set battled across Egypt in what would become known as “The Contendings of Horus and Set.” Over the years and their many battles, Horus defeated Set every time, even taking his testicles. However, Ra would not yet acknowledge Horus as the winner, as Set would not admit his shame for how he murdered his brother and took the throne.
Knowing Set would never willingly admit his devious misdeeds, Isis knew she would have to trick the god. Taking the form of an old woman, she lay upon the steps of Set’s temple. Seeing the old woman in distress, he asked her why she cried.
In disguise, Isis told Set that a shameful man had deceived and murdered her husband and taken control of his fields and now was trying to kill her only son. Set was infuriated and said a curse and shame should be on such a man and that he would find the man who was terrorizing her and put to death. With that, Isis removed her disguise, and Set saw that Ra was looking on.
Set now shamed, Ra took control of Egypt away from the murderous god and gave it to Horus. Set was banished from Egypt and cursed to wander the deserts. Horus was named king of kings and god of the living. Isis took her place as Queen of the Living, standing behind her son as his forever guardian and watching over the people of Egypt.
Isis, Goddess of Magic and Mother of All
Isis was one of the primary gods of ancient Egypt and was the most popular goddess of the pantheon. Believed to have greater magical power than any of the other Egyptian deities, Isis was revered as the divine mother that protected the royal family and the people of Egypt.
Popular throughout the Mediterranean world, evidence exists of her worship at the far reaches of the Roman Empire, including what is now Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, and Morocco.
Here’s a summary of what we’ve discussed:
- Worshipped as a matronly god of healing, funerary rituals, and magic through much of the Old and Middle Kingdom periods of Egypt, Isis assimilated many of the traits of other female goddesses, including the ancient goddess Hathor, and became venerated as queen of the gods
- Depictions of Isis varied greatly over Egypt’s history, reflecting aspects of the cultures in which she was worshipped
- Scholars believe that Isis’ name meant “throne” while others argue that it meant “female of flesh” or “knowledge.” Due to her popularity, Isis has more official titles than any other Egyptian goddess
- The most popular story of Isis concerns her resurrection of Osiris, known as the Osirian Resurrection Myth, the most popular story of ancient Egypt and the oldest known religious writing in world history
Isis was the most popular goddess in ancient Egyptian history. Her worship endured past the introduction of Christianity and only came to an end with the forced occupation of her cults and temples at Philae in A.D. 537. Yet even now, 1,500 years after her formal worship ended, the ancient goddess of the Nile is still alive—for her name, story, and iconography still endures.