Isis was a major goddess in ancient Egyptian religion whose worship spread throughout the Greco-Roman world.
Isis was first mentioned in the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BCE) as one of the main characters of the Osiris myth, in which she resurrects her slain husband, the divine king Osiris, and produces and protects his heir, Horus.
She was believed to help the dead enter the afterlife as she had helped Osiris, and she was considered the divine mother of the pharaoh, who was likened to Horus.
Her maternal aid was invoked in healing spells to benefit ordinary people. Originally, she played a limited role in royal rituals and temple rites, although she was more prominent in funerary practices and magical texts. She was usually portrayed in art as a human woman wearing a throne-like hieroglyph on her head.
During the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BCE), as she took on traits that originally belonged to Hathor, the preeminent goddess of earlier times, Isis came to be portrayed wearing Hathor’s headdress: a sun disk between the horns of a cow.
In the first millennium BCE, Osiris and Isis became the most widely worshipped of Egyptian deities, and Isis absorbed traits from many other goddesses.
Rulers in Egypt and its neighbor to the south, Nubia, began to build temples dedicated primarily to Isis, and her temple at Philae was a religious center for Egyptians and Nubians alike.
Isis’s reputed magical power was greater than that of all other gods, and she was said to protect the kingdom from its enemies, govern the skies and the natural world, and have power over fate itself.
In the Hellenistic period (323–30 BCE), when Egypt was ruled and settled by Greeks, Isis came to be worshipped by Greeks and Egyptians, along with a new god, Serapis.
Their worship diffused into the wider Mediterranean world. Isis’s Greek devotees ascribed to her traits taken from Greek deities, such as the invention of marriage and the protection of ships at sea, and she retained strong links with Egypt and other Egyptian deities who were popular in the Hellenistic world, such as Osiris and Harpocrates.
As Hellenistic culture was absorbed by Rome in the first century BCE, the cult of Isis became a part of Roman religion.
Her devotees were a small proportion of the Roman Empire’s population but were found all across its territory. Her following developed distinctive festivals such as the Navigium Isidis, as well as initiation ceremonies resembling those of other Greco-Roman mystery cults. Some of her devotees said she encompassed all feminine divine powers in the world.
The worship of Isis was ended by the rise of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. Her worship may have influenced Christian beliefs and practices such as the veneration of Mary, but the evidence for this influence is ambiguous and often controversial.
Isis continues to appear in Western culture, particularly in esotericism and modern paganism, often as a personification of nature or the feminine aspect of divinity.
The cycle of myth surrounding Osiris’s death and resurrection was first recorded in the Pyramid Texts and grew into the most elaborate and influential of all Egyptian myths.
Isis plays a more active role in this myth that the other protagonists, so as it developed in literature from the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BCE) to the Ptolemaic Period (305–30 BCE), she became the most complex literary character of all Egyptian deities.
At the same time, she absorbed characteristics from many other goddesses, broadening her significance well beyond the Osiris myth.
Wife and mourner
Isis is part of the Ennead of Heliopolis, a family of nine gods descended from the creator god, Atum or Ra. She and her siblings—Osiris, Set, and Nephthys—are the last generation of the Ennead, born to Geb, the god of the earth, and Nut, goddess of the sky.
The creator god, the world’s original ruler, passes down his authority through the male generations of the Ennead so that Osiris becomes king. Isis, who is Osiris’s wife as well as his sister, is his queen.
Set kills Osiris and, in several versions of the story, dismembers his corpse. Isis and Nephthys, along with other deities such as Anubis, search for the pieces of their brother’s body and reassemble it.
Their efforts are the mythic prototype for mummification and other ancient Egyptian funerary practices. According to some texts, they must also protect Osiris’s body from further desecration by Set or his servants.
Isis is the epitome of a mourning widow. Her and Nephthys’s love and grief for their brother help restore him to life, as does Isis’s recitation of magical spells.
Funerary texts contain speeches by Isis in which she expresses her sorrow at Osiris’s death, her sexual desire for him, and even anger that he has left her.
All these emotions play a part in his revival, as they are meant to stir him into action. Finally, Isis restores breath and life to Osiris’s body and copulates with him, conceiving their son, Horus.
From this point, Osiris lives on only in the Duat, or underworld. But by producing a son and heir to avenge his death and carry out funerary rites for him, Isis has ensured that her husband will endure in the afterlife.
Isis’s role in afterlife beliefs was based on that in the myth. She helped to restore the souls of deceased humans to wholeness as she had done for Osiris.
Like other goddesses, such as Hathor, she also acted as a mother to the deceased, providing protection and nourishment. Thus, like Hathor, she sometimes took the form of Imentet, the goddess of the west, who welcomed the deceased soul into the afterlife as her child.
But for much of Egyptian history, male deities like Osiris were believed to provide the regenerative powers, including sexual potency, that were crucial for rebirth. Isis was thought to merely assist by stimulating this power. Feminine divine powers became more important in afterlife beliefs in the late New Kingdom.
Various Ptolemaic funerary texts emphasize that Isis took the active role in Horus’s conception by sexually stimulating her inert husband, some tomb decoration from the Roman period in Egypt depicts Isis in a central role in the afterlife, and a funerary text from that era suggests that women were thought able to join the retinue of Isis and Nephthys in the afterlife.
Isis is treated as the mother of Horus even in the earliest copies of the Pyramid Texts. Yet there are signs that Hathor was originally regarded as his mother, and other traditions make an elder form of Horus the son of Nut and a sibling of Isis and Osiris.
Isis may only have come to be Horus’s mother as the Osiris myth took shape during the Old Kingdom, but through her relationship with him, she came to be seen as the epitome of maternal devotion.
In the developed form of the myth, Isis gives birth to Horus, after a long pregnancy and difficult labor, in the papyrus thickets of the Nile Delta. As her child grows she must protect him from Set and many other hazards—snakes, scorpions, and simple illness.
In some texts, Isis travels among humans and must seek their help. According to one such story, seven minor scorpion deities travel with and guard her. They take revenge on a wealthy woman who has refused to help Isis by stinging the woman’s son, making it necessary for the goddess to heal the blameless child.
Isis’s reputation as a compassionate deity, willing to relieve human suffering, contributed greatly to her appeal.
Isis continues to assist her son when he challenges Set to claim the kingship that Set has usurped, although mother and son are sometimes portrayed in conflict, as when Horus beheads Isis and she replaces her original head with that of a cow—an origin myth for the cow-horn headdress that Isis wears.
Isis’s maternal aspect extended to other deities as well. The Coffin Texts from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BCE) say the Four Sons of Horus, funerary deities who were thought to protect the internal organs of the deceased, were the offspring of Isis and the elder form of Horus.
In the same era, Horus was syncretized with the fertility god Min, so Isis was regarded as Min’s mother. A form of Min known as Kamutef, “bull of his mother“, who represented the cyclical regeneration of the gods and of kingship, was said to impregnate his mother to engender himself.
Thus, Isis was also regarded as Min’s consort. The same ideology of kingship may lie behind a tradition, found in a few texts, that Horus raped Isis.
Amun, the foremost Egyptian deity during the Middle and New Kingdoms, also took on the role of Kamutef, and when he was in this form, Isis often acted as his consort.
Apis, a bull that was worshipped as a living god at Memphis, was said to be Isis’s son, fathered by a form of Osiris known as Osiris-Apis. The mother of each Apis bull was thus known as the “Isis cow“.
A story in the Westcar Papyrus from the Middle Kingdom includes Isis among a group of goddesses who serve as midwives during the delivery of three future kings. She serves a similar role in New Kingdom texts that describe the divinely ordained births of reigning pharaohs.
In the Westcar Papyrus, Isis calls out the names of the three children as they are born. Barbara S. Lesko sees this story as a sign that Isis had the power to predict or influence future events, like other deities who presided over birth, such as Shai and Renenutet.
Texts from much later times explicitly call Isis “mistress of life, ruler of fate and destiny” and indicate she has control over Shai and Renenutet, just as other great gods like Amun were said to do in earlier eras of Egyptian history. By governing these deities, Isis determined the length and quality of human lives.
Goddess of kingship and the protection of the kingdom
Horus was equated with each living pharaoh and Osiris with the pharaoh’s deceased predecessors. Isis was, therefore, the mythological mother and wife of kings.
In the Pyramid Texts, her primary importance to the king was as one of the deities who protected and assisted him in the afterlife. Her prominence in royal ideology grew in the New Kingdom.
Temple reliefs from that time on show the king nursing at Isis’s breast; her milk not only healed her child but symbolized his divine right to rule.
Royal ideology increasingly emphasized the importance of queens as earthly counterparts of the goddesses who served as wives to the pharaoh and mothers to his heirs.
Initially the most important of these goddesses was Hathor, a feminine counterpart of Ra and Horus, whose attributes in art were incorporated into queens’ crowns. But because of her own mythological links with queenship, Isis too was given the same titles and regalia as human queens.
Isis’s actions in protecting Osiris against Set became part of a larger, more warlike aspect of her character. New Kingdom funerary texts portray Isis in the barque of Ra as he sails through the underworld, acting as one of several deities who subdue Ra’s archenemy, Apep.
Kings also called upon her protective magical power against human enemies. In her Ptolemaic temple at Philae, which lay near the frontier with Nubian peoples who raided Egypt, she was described as the protectress of the entire nation, more effective in battle than “millions of soldiers“, supporting Ptolemaic kings and Roman emperors in their efforts to subdue Egypt’s enemies.
Goddess of magic and wisdom
Isis was also known for her magical power, which enabled her to revive Osiris and to protect and heal Horus, and for her cunning.
By virtue of her magical knowledge, she was said to be “more clever than a million gods“. In several episodes in the New Kingdom story “The Contendings of Horus and Set“, Isis uses these abilities to outmaneuver Set during his conflict with her son.
On one occasion, she transforms into a young woman who tells Set she is involved in an inheritance dispute similar to Set’s usurpation of Osiris’s crown. When Set calls this situation unjust, Isis taunts him, saying he has judged himself to be in the wrong. In later texts, she uses her powers of transformation to fight and destroy Set and his followers.
Many stories about Isis appear as historiolae, prologues to magical texts that describe mythic events related to the goal that the spell aims to accomplish.
In one spell, Isis creates a snake that bites Ra, who is older and greater than she is, and makes him ill with its venom. She offers to cure Ra if he will tell her his true, secret name—a piece of knowledge that carries with it incomparable power.
After much coercion, Ra tells her his name, which she passes on to Horus, bolstering his royal authority. The story may be meant as an origin story to explain why Isis’s magical ability surpasses that of other gods, but because she uses magic to subdue Ra, the story seems to treat her as having such abilities even before learning his name.
Many of the roles Isis acquired gave her an important position in the sky. Passages in the Pyramid Texts connect Isis closely with Sopdet, the goddess representing the star Sirius, whose relationship with her husband Sah—the constellation Orion—and their son Sopdu parallels Isis’s relations with Osiris and Horus.
Sirius’s heliacal rising, just before the start of the Nile flood, gave Sopdet a close connection with the flood and the resulting growth of plants. Partly because of her relationship with Sopdet, Isis was also linked with the flood, which was sometimes equated with the tears she shed for Osiris.
By Ptolemaic times she was connected with rain, which Egyptian texts call a “Nile in the sky“; with the sun as the protector of Ra’s barque; and with the moon, possibly because she was linked with the Greek lunar goddess Artemis by a shared connection with an Egyptian fertility goddess, Bastet.
In hymns inscribed at Philae she is called the “Lady of Heaven” whose dominion over the sky parallels Osiris’s rule over the Duat and Horus’s kingship on earth.
In Ptolemaic times Isis’s sphere of influence could include the entire cosmos. As the deity that protected Egypt and endorsed its king, she had power over all nations, and as the provider of rain, she enlivened the natural world.
The Philae hymn that initially calls her ruler of the sky goes on to expand her authority, so at its climax, her dominion encompasses the sky, earth, and Duat.
It says her power over nature nourishes humans, the blessed dead, and the gods. Other, Greek-language hymns from Ptolemaic Egypt call her “the beautiful essence of all the gods“.
In the course of Egyptian history, many deities, major and minor, had been described in similar grand terms. Amun was most commonly described this way in the New Kingdom, whereas in Roman Egypt such terms tended to be applied to Isis.
Such texts do not deny the existence of other gods but treat them as aspects of the supreme deity, a type of theology sometimes called “summodeism“.
In the Late, Ptolemaic, and Roman Periods, many temples contained a creation myth that adapted long-standing ideas about creation to give the primary roles to local deities.
At Philae, Isis is described as the creator in the same way that older texts speak of the work of the god Ptah, who was said to have designed the world with his intellect and sculpted it into being. Like him, Isis formed the cosmos “through what her heart conceived and her hands created“.
Like other gods throughout Egyptian history, Isis had many forms in her individual cult centers, and each cult center emphasized different aspects of her character.
Local Isis cults focused on the distinctive traits of their deity more than on her universality, whereas some Egyptian hymns to Isis treat other goddesses in cult centers from across Egypt and the Mediterranean as manifestations of her. A text in Isis’s temple at Dendera says:
“in each nome, it is she who is in every town, in every nome with her son Horus.”
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.