Isis, daughter of Nut and Geb, was one of the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses to make up the Great Ennead of Heliopolis.[1] She fell in love with her brother, Osiris, and wed him. Although she was a symbol of femininity, fertility, and motherhood, teaching women how to grind corn, flax, weave, and cure disease, she was not a subservient goddess. In fact Isis was infamous for her skills of magic and sorcery. She used her abilities to trick the sun god, Ra, into giving her his full name. In ancient Egyptian religion, knowing the true name of a god was to capture his or her power, and, in obtaining Ra’s secret name, Isis increased her powers in wizardry. [2]

One of the more famous stories of Isis is the birth of Horus. Without going into too much isis9h13w_statdetail as it should be reserved for a post specifically about Osiris, Seth and his brother Osiris had fought. Seth defeated his brother and sliced up his body into fourteen pieces, scattering them throughout the world. Isis, wife and sister of Osiris, gathered up his body parts and used her powers as a sorceress to breathe life into the god once more. It was only enough of the divine spark for Isis to lay with her lover a final time. Out of that communion, Isis became pregnant and bore a son, Horus. Who is known as the “son of god.”  By teaming up with the god of wisdom, Thoth, Isis was able to protect her son, Horus, from Seth until he reached adulthood and could claim vengeance.[3]

Egyptian gods and goddesses often portrayed different aspects of the human condition. With respect to Isis, she was not just a sorceress, crafty and powerful, but she was also feminine and a symbol of fertility by bearing the son of god, Horus.  She is often described as the “mother of the world” because so many statues depict Isis breastfeeding a young Horus.

Of all the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses, Isis was the most beloved throughout all of the kingdoms and even into the late Ptolemaic period through Roman times. Her association with motherhood and childbirth was universal and enduring. She was the isis-vultureepitome of the perfect wife, mourning the death of her husband Osiris. Yet, at the same time, she was the embodiment of a strong, independent woman, one who took over Osiris’ throne after his murder, protected their son, and claimed vengeance on behalf of her slain husband.[4] When she was at the height of her power and was watching Horus, the son, defeat the murderous Seth, Isis exhibited a most human emotion of compassion and forgiveness. She ordered Horus to not kill Seth. When she did, her son became so infuriated at her sympathy for the god who murdered his father (her brother/husband) that Horus cut off Isis’ head. Thoth, the god of magic and wisdom, upon seeing the slain Isis, transformed her head into that of a cow and reattached it to her body, giving her life again.[5] In all of these ways, because she was more than a goddess, but had human feelings, emotions, and reactions running through her mythologies, she was intimately relatable and familiar to ancient Egyptians, leading to her popularity with the common man. All women could imagine themselves as Isis – a lover, a mother, a warrior, and a sympathizer.

Isis is the only one out of all the ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses to be constantly depicted with wings. She resurrects Osiris by flapping her wings over his body and filling his lungs with the breath of life. With these references, some have postulated that Isis is a representation of the wind of heaven. Marking the spring and the flooding of the Nile, Isis’ star was that of Sept. [6]

The symbol of her name in Egyptian, Ast, is a seat or a throne. [7] Depending on the kingdom you are examining (pre-dynasty, Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, Late Kingdom) she could be wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, Hathor’s horns, or Ra’s sun-disc above her head. She almost always has a scepter in her hands.

We must also remember that the names we recognize as ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses are Greek versions of the true names. Isis was the Greek version of her name. Ancient Egyptians would have called her Ast or Aset.

Her sacred animal was often the scorpion and the cow.[8]

[1] Egyptian Mythology¸Goodenough, Simon, (1997), pg. 36

[2] Egyptian Mythology¸Goodenough, Simon, (1997), pg. 70

[3] Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt, Barnett, Mary, (1996) pg. 64-65

[4] The Gods of the Egyptians, Vol. 2, Budge, E.A. Wallis (1904) pg. 205-206

[5] The Gods of the Egyptians, Vol. 2, Budge, E.A. Wallis (1904) pg. 212

[6] Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends, Spence, Lewis (1915), pg. 66

[7] The Gods of the Egyptians, Vol. 2, Budge, E.A. Wallis (1904) pg. 200

[8] Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends, Spence, Lewis (1915), pg. 220

About Joshua G. Silverman

As a child, Joshua has always been an amateur historian, focusing on ancient Egypt, Greece, and Roman civilizations.

One Response to “Egyptian Gods and Goddesses – Isis, the Great Lady”

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