ISIS is one of the most important deities in the Egyptian pantheon. The hieroglyph for her name was the throne, and she was portrayed with a headdress in the shape of a throne. Scholars postulate that Isis was the personification of the throne or that her name means "the one who has ruling power." Jan Bergman concludes in "Isis" (1980, col. 188) that the explanation of her name points to a later priestly interpretation. The name Isis appears securely for the first time in the fifth dynasty (2465–2325 bce) and in the Pyramid Texts at the end of the Old Kingdom (2650–2152 bce). The first depiction of the goddess occurred almost a thousand years after the first textual mention in the eighteenth dynasty (1539–1295 bce).
In the Heliopolitan rendering of the nine premier Egyptian gods, Isis was the daughter of Geb and Nut (Earth and Sky). Osiris was her brother and husband, Horus their son. Seth and Nephthys, also offsprings of Geb and Nut, were Isis and Osiris's opponents. Seth killed his brother Osiris and dismembered him, and Isis searched for the scattered body parts across Egypt. She found all the parts except for the phallus. Isis then fashioned a replacement for the missing part and reassembled her brother-husband's body. With the help of Thoth, she revived Osiris for a short time. In this period of revival Isis conceived Horus, who became his father's avenger.
Being a mother herself, Isis helped women in childbirth. In the New Kingdom (1539–1069 bce), Isis was depicted as midwife. Greco-Roman renderings of Isis show her with a knot on the front of her dress. This knot indicated life and protected pregnant women as well as their babies. The goddess was also a healer. When a scorpion stung and killed her son Horus, Isis revived him. In another myth Isis fashioned a snake that bit the supreme god Re. As Re lay dying, Isis promised to heal him if he gave up his secret name and thus world dominion. Re refused at first, but in the end he gave Isis what she sought. In another succession myth, Horus raped and decapitated his mother, the latter as punishment for Isis's disloyalty when she did not allow the destruction of her brother Seth. The Greek writers Diodorus Siculus (1.13–27) and Plutarch (De Iside et Osiride, 12–19) provide the most continuous myths surrounding Isis. Various aretologies emphasize her henotheistic, singular divine force of creation; she was the goddess with a thousand names (myrionyma ).
Isis was linked to the goddess Hathor. She wore Hathor's headdress, the cow horns. In his "Isis," Bergman points to another connection with Hathor (Bergman, 1980, col. 189f.). After Horus decapitated his mother, she received a cow head as replacement. Like the cow horns and cow head, Isis acquired the uraeus snake from Hathor. In addition, Isis was equated with Selket and appropriated that goddess's animal form, the scorpion. Isis was also linked to the female hippopotamus, a white sow, and a lion. Bergman notes that the goddess appears as a water- and food-providing tree goddess. In the celestial sphere Isis was connected with Sothis or Sirius, the Dog Star (Canis Major). She was the bringer of the Nile's annual flooding (Bergman, 1980, col. 192), which was essential for Egypt's agriculture. Isis's manifestations are manifold due to syncretism, an inbuilt fluidity that allowed gods to merge with each other. Depictions of Isis from Egyptian to Greco-Roman times show this confluence of representative elements most succinctly. Isis was not only myrionyma in name but also in terms of her iconographic signifiers.
Dissemination of the Cult
Greeks, who had economic links with Egypt since the seventh century bce, knew of Egyptian deities. They explained these deities by way of analogies. In this way Isis was equated with Demeter (Herodotos, Histories, 2.42ff.). The Ptolemaic period, however, ushered in a more intensive propagation of the cult of Isis outside Egypt. In this era, as in Roman times, the most important temple structure of Isis was on the island of Philae in southern (Upper) Egypt. Alexander's successor, Ptolemy I Soter, chose Sarapis as his dynasty's guardian deity. This god then became Isis's Hellenized consort.
An inscription from Pireus (Vidman, 1969, inscription no. 1), the port city of Athens, dated to 333 bce suggests that cult adherents were first Egyptians who had economic ties with Athens. By the end of the third century bce Athenian citizens held the various priesthoods. On Delos, the most important location for the westward dissemination of the cult, Egyptians held the priesthoods initially, followed by Delians and then Athenians. Françoise Dunand demonstrates in Le culte d'Isis dans le bassin oriental de la Méditerranée (1973) that, in all of Greece, Isis had the lowest impact on the Peloponnese. Michel Malaise shows in "La diffusion des cultes égyptiens dans les provinces européennes de l'Empire romain" (1984) that merchants were the most important propagators of the cult. When Archelaos, a general of Mithridates VI, the king of Pontos, captured the island of Delos in 88 bce, Italian merchants returning to Italy brought with them the goddess Isis and intensified the goddess's presence where she was already known before this time.
Isis, for example, was established before 88 bce in the port cities of Pompeii, Puteoli, and Ostia. The temple of Isis in Pompeii was built toward the end of the second century bce, the temple of the Alexandrian gods in Puteoli dates to approximately 105 bce. However, it seems that, in the wake of the forceful return of Italian merchants from Delos, Isis made her way to Rome. The second century ce author Apuleius states in his Metamorphoses, also known as The Golden Ass (11.30), that the first association of Isiac priests (collegium pastophorum, college of carriers of sacred objects) in Rome was founded at the time of the dictator Sulla (82–79 bce). An inscription, unfortunately now lost, established a strong connection between Delos and Rome (Vidman, 1969, inscription no. 377). In "Iside Capitolina, Clodio e i mercanti di schiavi" (1984) Filippo Coarelli convincingly dates the inscription to 90–60 bce and points to families of slave traders as a decisive link between the Aegean island and the capital. Ladislav Vidman suggests in Isis und Sarapis bei den Griechen und Römern (1970) that the Late Republican period was favorable to the Egyptian cult. Subsequent research showed that it was not unbridled passions of the simple and disfranchised that brought about this acceptance. Egyptian scenes and representations of Isis's headdress, rattles (sistra ), Egyptian snakes (uraei), obelisks, and lotus flowers were components of an artistic repertoire. Control marks on coins were not expressions of a social revolution but an artistic realization of a Late Republican cultural reality.
The reactions against the cult in 58, 53, and 48 bce were of a political nature (Tertullian, Ad Nationes, 1.10; Dio Cassius, 40.47 and 42.26). The Roman Senate found itself stripped of its political power and, as a consequence, dictated these expulsions of the cult of Isis. Expulsion as well as acceptance and subsequent introduction of a foreign cult into Rome's religious system were privileges of the Senate. These actions demonstrated, confirmed, and secured the Senate's political authority. Isis, however, did not disappear from Rome. Far from it, the triumvirate in charge of restoring the Republic voted in favor of a temple of Isis in 43 bce (Cassius Dio, 47.15.4). Two later regulations (28 and 21 bce; Cassius Dio, 53.2.4 and 54.6.6) curtailing the cult within the city of Rome were intended by Augustus to demonstrate his resolve vis-à-vis the traditional code of behavior (the mos maiorum ) and the traditional, Greco-Roman gods.
In 19 ce Tiberius ordered the removal of Jews and Isis worshipers from Rome (Tacitus, Annals, 2.85.5; Josephus, Antiquities, 18.72; Suetonius, Life of Tiberius, 36.1). It has been suggested that the emperor intended to cleanse the capital of foreign cults, especially those perceived as undermining Roman morality, but is seems more likely that the reason was political. Germanicus, Tiberius's designated successor, had traveled to Egypt and, in a public relations stunt, opened the granaries. Unfortunately, this gesture of generosity led subsequently to famine in Rome (Tacitus, Annals, 2.67). Germanicus also visited Memphis without imperial permission. The priests of Memphis, the guardians of the living and dead Apis bulls, made and unmade pharaohs, even if only symbolically at this time (Maystre, 1992).
In the Roman construct of reality, politics and religion were intertwined; hence Rome's success was thought dependent on the gods and the gods favored a people who worshiped them properly and in a timely fashion. Whenever a political crisis occurred that undermined Rome's social order, the problem was thought to lie in the religious sphere; that is, it was believed that the gods had turned away from the Romans, who had failed in their ritual performance. Isis was Alexandria's most powerful god, and the city had the largest number of Jewish inhabitants in the Roman Empire. The expulsion of Jews and Isis worshipers from Rome demonstrated the emperor's political power and symbolized the reestablishment of traditional order.
With the consolidation of the new political order (the principate, which began with the emperor Augustus [r. 27 bce–14 ce]) and the integration of Egypt as a province of the Roman Empire, Isis and her cult could no longer be thought illegal. The cult was officially recognized at the end of Caligula's reign or at the beginning of Claudius's. The first to establish this time period was Georg Wissowa in Religion and Kultus der Römer (1971), and Anthony Barrett in Caligula (1989, pp. 220f.) further developed the argument. The connection with the imperial house (the domus Augusta ) occurred during the reign of Vespasian (69–79 ce). Vespasian had been proclaimed emperor by his troops while he was in Alexandria. Upon his return to Rome, he and his son Titus stayed in the temple of Isis in the Field of Mars, the Iseum Campense, the night before their triumphal procession into Rome (Josephus, Jewish Wars, 7.123f.). Domitian, Vespasian's youngest son, renovated many temples of Isis during his reign (81–96 ce). After Vespasian's acclamation in Alexandria, the family had a connection to Isis, and their subsequent actions are demonstrations of piety toward the goddess.
There was an increasing interest in Egyptian and Egyptianizing objects at the time of the emperor Hadrian (114–141 ce), which had to do with the emperor's interest in Egypt. The city of Alexandria possessed the most important libraries of antiquity. Hadrian was a philhellene (a lover of Greek culture), and the Alexandrian libraries were the guardians of Greek literature and culture. It also happened that Hadrian's beloved Antinous had drowned in the Nile while visiting Egypt with the emperor. The death of a friend and accessibility to a cherished cultural heritage made Egypt so prominent in Hadrian's life that it brought about a new artistic movement. Even Hadrian's villa outside Rome featured an Egypt-inspired area.
Inscriptions asking for the well-being (salus ) of the imperial household (domus Augusta ) in the name of Isis's Hellenistic consort Sarapis appear predominantly in the period after Emperor Marcus Aurelius's victory over the Quadi, a Germanic people. István Tóth established in "Marcus Aurelius' Miracle of the Rain and the Egyptian Cults in the Danube Region" (1976) that the dedicators of these inscriptions were the emperor's generals. As the Quadi were close to victory on a blazing hot day, Arnouphis, a hierogrammateus (cultic scribe) and member of Marcus Aurelius's entourage, induced rain and alleviated the Roman legions' debilitating thirst. The Romans thus gained the advantage over their adversaries (Cassius Dio, 71.8). Isis and her consort Sarapis were now fully accepted guarantors of the Empire's well-being. Ultimately, at the time of the Severi (193–235 ce), the Roman dynastic ideology corresponded to the pharaonic-Ptolemaic one. Like Vespasian more than a century earlier, the legions of the East had made Septimius Severus, the founder of the dynasty, emperor.
Two major festivals in honor of Isis are known: the public launching of the ship of Isis—the navigium Isidis, or ploiaphesia —which was celebrated on March 5 (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 11.8–17), and the finding of Osiris—the inventio or heuresis Osiridis —from October 28 to November 3. A cult association had five antistites (priests or carriers of sacred objects), pastophori or hierophoroi, who in the cult hierarchy were below a sacerdos, priest. These five carried various insignia during a procession (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 11.10). A sacerdos (man or woman) held his or her position for a year, sometimes for life. The lower priesthoods and cult positions were most often held for life. Inscriptions name guardians of temples (neokoroi or zakoroi), who may have helped during sacrifices. In the West the pastophori were equated with hierophoroi (both carriers of sacred objects) or hagiophoroi (carriers of the sacred) during imperial times. Greeks living in Egypt translated the title of the highest priest in the cult as prophetes (prophet). Outside Egypt, however, a prophetes is best thought of as pastophorus. In the Egyptian system the dresser (stolistes ) held the second highest position after the prophets. Documentation, however, records dressers of statues only in Athens in the second and third century ce.
In the West there is only one inscription of a dresser, an ornatrix fani (Vidman, 1969, inscription no. 731). Scribes (scriba, grammateus, or hierogrammateus ) (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 11.17), follow the dressers in the Egyptian priestly hierarchy. They are, however, like astrologers (horoskopoi or horologoi) and singers (hymnodoi), not documented outside Egypt. Therapeutai or cultores were cult adherents without rank and function. The official heading the ploiaphesia in March, the nauarchus, trierarchos, hieronautes, or naubates, is only known through inscriptions from Rome's imperial period. He or she was not a priest but a lay member of the cult association. In general, one notes that priests and lay cult functionaries could have the same designation. In addition, not every dedicator of an inscription was a cult initiate. Most of the personal inscriptions were put up in fulfillment of a vow (ex-voto), and most of the official ones (pro salute imperatoris, for the well-being of the emperor) were political in nature.
In Roman times, temples of Isis (Isea ) were most often found outside the religious border of a city (the pomerium) and in an aqueous area in the vicinity of a river, an important water source, a marsh, or a port. Unlike Greco-Roman temples, Isea were not oriented toward public spaces. Even the innermost part of a temple of Isis, the cella (naos ), opened only inward. The doors of the temple were opened and closed in connection with a morning and an afternoon ceremony. Sacrifice was given during these ceremonies. Although Plutarch mentions sacrifice of a white and a saffron-colored rooster to Osiris (Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 61; see Griffiths, 1970, p. 518) and red cattle to Seth (Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 31; Griffiths, 1970, pp. 414–415), his treatise does not reveal what kind of sacrifice Isis received. Apuleius, in his Metamorphoses (11.21ff.), indicates that there were three initiation rituals. Whether this was indeed true is not known with certainty. As was the case with other mystery cults, the preparations of an initiate included abstinence and purification. The initiate (mystes ) experienced death and through it achieved new life. In contrast to public cults, social standing did not translate to a comparable position in the hierarchy of this mystery cult. The origins of the Isiac mysteries are not easily discerned, but it seems that there was an Egyptian element (Bianchi, 1980; Griffiths, 1970, pp. 390–392; Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 27; Junge, 1979; and Kákosy, 1999). The premier temple of Isis, the Iseum on Philae, closed its doors forever during the reign of Justinian I (527–561 ce).
Barrett, Anthony A. Caligula. London, 1989.
Bergman, Jan. Ich bin Isis: Studien zum memphitischen Hintergrund der griechischen Isisaretologien. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Historia Religionum, 3. Uppsala, 1968.
Bergman, Jan. "Isis." In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, edited by Wolfgang Helck and Eberhard Otto, vol. 3, pp. 186–203. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1980.
Bianchi, Ugo. "Iside dea misterica: Quando?" In Perennitas: Studi in onore di Angelo Brelich, pp. 9–36. Rome, 1980.
Coarelli, Filippo. "Iside Capitolina, Clodio e i mercanti di schiavi." In Alessandria e il mondo ellenistico-romano: Studi in onore di Achille Adriani, edited by Nicola Bonacasa and Antonino Di Vita, vol. 3, pp. 461–475. Studi e materiali, Istituto di Archeologia Università di Palermo, 6. Rome, 1984.
Dio Cassius. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. Cambridge, Mass., 1961–1969.
Diodorus Siculus. Works. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Cambridge, Mass., 1946.
Dunand, Françoise. Le culte d'Isis dans le bassin oriental de la Méditerranée. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'Empire romain, 26. Leiden, Netherlands, 1973.
Floriani Squarciapino, Maria. I culti orientali ad Ostia. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'Empire romain, 3. Leiden, Netherlands, 1962.
Griffiths, J. Gwyn, ed. and trans. Plutarch's "De Iside et Osiride." Cardiff, Wales 1970. Includes commentary.
Griffiths, J. Gwyn, ed. and trans. The Isis-Book (Metamorphoses, Book XI) Apuleius of Madauros. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'Empire romain, 39. Leiden, Netherlands, 1975.
Herodotos. Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. New York, 1998.
Josephus, Flavius. The Jewish War. Translated by H. St. J. Thackeray. Cambridge, Mass., 1997.
Junge, Friedrich. "Isis und die ägyptischen Mysterien." In Aspekte der spätägyptischen Religion, pp. 93–115. Göttinger Orientforschungen, Reihe 4, Ägypten, vol. 9. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1979.
Kákosy, László. "Mysteries in the Isiac Religion." Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 39 (1999): 159–163.
Lembke, Katja. Das Iseum Campense in Rom: Studie über den Isiskult unter Domitian. Heidelberg, Germany, 1994.
Malaise, Michel. "La diffusion des cultes égyptiens dans les provinces européennes de l'Empire romain." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, vol. 2, 17.3, pp. 1615–1691. Berlin and New York, 1984.
Maystre, Charles. Les grands prêtres de Ptah de Memphis. Freiburg and Göttingen, Germany, 1992.
Merkelbach, Reinhold. Isis regina, Zeus Sarapis. Stuttgart, 1995.
Roullet, Anne. The Egyptian and Egyptianizing Monuments of Imperial Rome. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'Empire romain, 20. Leiden, Netherlands, 1972.
Suetonius. Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. New York, 2001.
Takács, Sarolta A. Isis and Sarapis in the Roman World. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 124. Leiden, Netherlands, 1995.
Taylor, Lily Ross. The Cults of Ostia. Bryn Mawr, Pa., 1912. Reprint, Chicago, 1976.
Tertullian. Ad Nationes. In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4., edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1969.
Tóth, István. "Marcus Aurelius' Miracle of the Rain and the Egyptian Cults in the Danube Region." Studia Aegyptiaca 2 (1976): 101–113.
Totti, Maria. Ausgewählte Texte der Isis- und Sarapis-Religion. Hildesheim, Germany.
Tran, Vincent Tam Tinh. Essai sur le culte d'Isis à Pompéi. Paris, 1964.
Tran, Vincent Tam Tinh. Le culte des divinités orientales en Campanie en dehors de Pompéi, de Stabies et d'Herculanum. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'Empire romain, 27. Leiden, Netherlands, 1972.
Turcan, Robert. "Isis of the Many Names; or, Our Lady of the Waves." In The Cults of the Roman Empire, edited by Robert Turcan, translated by Antonia Nevill, pp. 75–129. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1996. French edition, Cultes orientaux dans le monde romain, Paris, 1989.
Vidman, Ladislav. Isis und Sarapis bei den Griechen und Römern. Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten, 29. Berlin, 1970.
Vidman, Ladislav, comp. Sylloge inscriptionum religionis Isiacae et Sarapiacae (SIRIS). Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten, 28. Berlin, 1969.
Wild, Robert A. Water in the Cultic Worship of Isis and Sarapis. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'Empire romain, 87. Leiden, Netherlands, 1981.
Wissowa, Georg. Religion and Kultus der Römer. Munich, 1971.
Sarolta A. TakÁcs (2005)
The ancient Egyptian goddess Isis, originally a mortuary deity, and once widely venerated in the Near East, in the Greco-Roman world, still fills a role for a limited number of devotees and worshippers in the early twenty-first century as a representative of feminine power, devotion, magic, fertility, and renewal. Through the millennia, the focus of her activities has grown and changed as she accrued new roles and appeared in different places, eventually evolving such that worshippers honored and some still honor her as a universal—in some senses, the universal—deity, the mother of all.
ISIS IN ANCIENT EGYPT
When first encountered in the religious texts of the later Old Kingdom, around 2350–2200 bce, Isis and her sister Nephthys sought, found, lamented, and nurtured the deceased king Osiris, actually Isis's brother and spouse. The two sisters appeared as kites, that is, birds which eat carrion eaters, and as carrion eaters do in nature, they found the deceased and incorporated him or her into new life. These sisters continued to act as mortuary deities throughout Egyptian history, serving as mourners, as have women in many times and cultures.
Contemporaneously, Isis also appears as the mother of Horus, the living king and successor to her husband-brother Osiris, the resurrected king and underworld judge, a role that lent her increasing importance as time passed. The mythology surrounding this triad of deities saw Horus conceived posthumously by Isis who "played the part of a man" (Griffiths 1960, p. 60) and "raised the weary one's [Osiris's] inertness" (Lichtheim 1976, p. 83) by "acting like a man" so the deceased Osiris could engender an heir. Indeed some of the iconography, particularly from the later periods, shows Isis in the form of a bird, hovering above the ithyphallic Osiris lying on a bier. In this way she ensured the continuation of the kingship, thus living up to her name aset, throne. In other depictions, she appears as the ideal royal mother, seen in various sculptures nursing her son Horus.
As time passed, Isis assumed a greater and greater role related to kingship. By the last half of the second millennium bce, she began to take on the roles and symbols of Hathor, an earlier cosmic and royal goddess whose name means "House of Hathor" and who was the mother of Horus the elder. Isis, on the other hand, was mother of Horus, the son of Osiris. In doing so, as Isis assumed the various Hathoric attributes, such as the latter's headdress of cow's horns with a sun disk set between them and worship with the sistrum. Contemporaneous narratives such as the "Memphite Theology," "The Secret Name of Re," and "The Contendings of Horus and Seth" illustrate her various roles and activities. The full myth of Isis and Osiris, although with evidence of intrusive Greek materials, appears in Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride, dating to around 120 ce.
ISIS IN THE GRECO-ROMAN PERIOD
Worship of Isis expanded enormously with the rise of the Greeks and the spread of their influence, particularly through the conquests of Alexander the Great (356–323 bce) in the fourth century bce. By the seventh century bce, Isis had already begun to receive a cult in Byblos, a town on the north Syrian coast where Hathor had held sway as the Mistress of Byblos for the previous two millennia. In the succeeding centuries, most especially with the rise of Rome and its conquests, Isis gained many cult places outside Egypt, including locations in the eastern Mediterranean, the Italian and Iberian peninsulas, and, with Roman conquests, even in the British Isles and northwest Europe. In the Roman world in particular, she assumed the role of savior deity, and she began to be known as the universal mother and mother of all, sub-suming, in time, most of the functions of goddesses from the cultures of the times.
In Egypt itself, following the death of Alexander in 323 bce and the rise of the Ptolemaic rulers, Isis continued to gain prominence. Notably, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 283–246 bce) built a temple for her on the island of Philae in the Upper (Southern) Egyptian area of Elephantine where he depicted his queen, Arsinoe II, as divinized and identified with Isis. The hymns in this temple present the goddess in all her forms—those characteristic of her in Egyptian history and those now related to her more universal aspects, showing her roles as bellicose goddess, maker of kings, nurturer, and mistress of magic. From this late period also derive the Isis are-talogies, narratives of miraculous deeds, along with various cultic hymns which also detail her many roles. Finally Book XI of Apuleius's Metamorphoses (commonly known as the Golden Ass) tells of the protagonist's priestly initiation into Isis's service. At the same time, the literature in Egypt itself, notably the "Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys" and the "Songs of Isis and Nephthys," continued to hymn Isis in tandem with her sister in their traditional roles respective to the deceased.
ISIS IN THE COMMON ERA AND IN MODERN WORSHIP
Worship of Isis continued openly into the sixth century ce, when its threat to Christianity led to the cessation of public worship, though it appears to have continued in secret, according to the Ammonite family in Cairo. This family, headed by Her Grace Sekhmet Montu and including her husband Ptah Hotep and their son Neb Heru, the latter understood to be the incarnation of the ancient royal god Horus, traces its lineage back to Isis herself. Also claiming a lineage from Isis is the Fellowship of Isis based at Clonegal Castle in County Carlow, Ireland, where Olivia Robertson (b. 1917), arch priestess and hierophant of Isis, oversees worship and cultic practices related to the goddess. In addition, one finds various other groups and individuals around the world who engage in worship and rituals honoring Isis—clearly responding to, often openly, the patriarchal religions of the modern world. Various prayers and notes of celebrations appear readily available on the Internet, and one can only imagine other New Age activity that does not make the public sphere. Finally much of Isis's imagery continues to appear in the iconography related to the Virgin Mary and her son. Thus Isis, initially one of a family of deities four and half millennia ago, has developed and continues to play a major role for many supplicants in today's world.
Cott, Jonathan. 1994. Isis and Osiris: Exploring the Goddess Myth. New York: Doubleday.
Egan, Rory B. 1990. "Isis: Goddess of the Oikoumene." In Goddesses in Religions and Modern Debate, ed. Larry W. Hurtado. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.
Griffiths, J. Gwyn. 1960. The Conflict of Horus and Seth, a Study in Ancient Mythology from Egyptian and Classical Sources. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press.
Griffiths, J. Gwyn, ed., trans., and author of commentary. 1970. Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press.
Witt, R. E. 1997. Isis in the Ancient World. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Susan Tower Hollis
Ancient Egyptian writings and mythology
Daughter of Geb and Nut
The great mother goddess of ancient Egypt, Isis was the sister and wife of the god Osiris (pronounced oh-SYE-ris). Together these two deities played a major role in many stories in Egyptian mythology , particularly in myths about rebirth. The worship of Isis became very popular in Egypt and eventually spread to other parts of the Mediterranean world, including ancient Greece and Rome.
According to Egyptian mythology, Isis was the daughter of the earth god Geb (pronounced GEB) and the sky goddess Nut (pronounced NOOT). Her sister and brothers were Nephthys (pronounced NEF-this), Set (pronounced SET), and Osiris. These six deities—Geb, Nut, Isis, Osiris, Set, and Nephthys—belonged to an important group of nine Egyptian gods called the Great Ennead (pronounced EN-ee-ad) of Heliopolis (pronounced hee-lee-OP-uh-luhs).
One famous myth about Isis tells how she discovered the secret name of the sun god Ra and increased her power. According to the story, Isis found Ra asleep one day, snoring loudly and saliva dripping from his mouth. She collected the saliva and mixed it with earth to form a poisonous serpent. Then she placed the serpent on a path that Ra took every day.
When Ra awoke and started on his way, the serpent bit him, causing terrible pain. He called to the other gods for help, but all were helpless except Isis, who promised to cure him if he revealed his secret name. At first Ra refused, but eventually the pain became unbearable. He told Isis the name, and she gained new powers. This story was associated with a major aspect of Isis's character: her skill in magical arts.
One of the most important myths associated with Isis was the story of Osiris's death and resurrection (rebirth). According to this tale, the god Set became jealous of his brother Osiris, who ruled as king of Egypt. One day Set tricked Osiris and sealed him inside a box. Set then placed the box adrift on the Nile River, which carried it to the distant land of Byblos (pronounced BIB-luhs).
Isis searched for and found the box and then brought it back to Egypt, where she concealed it. However, Set discovered the hiding place and cut Osiris's body into many pieces and scattered them throughout Egypt. After recovering the pieces, Isis used her magical powers to restore life to Osiris, who then went to live in the underworld or land of the dead.
Sometime before this happened, Osiris and Isis had had a son named Horus. Isis kept the child hidden from Set so that he could grow up and avenge his father's death. She protected Horus against all dangers, even restoring him to life once after he was bitten by a scorpion. When Horus became a young man, he fought his uncle Set. But Isis took pity on Set and allowed him to escape. Angry at his mother, Horus cut off her head. Thoth (pronounced TOHT), the god of magic and wisdom, changed the severed head into a cow's head and reattached it to Isis's body. Some ancient statues and paintings of the goddess show her with a cow's head, and she is often linked to the goddess Hathor (pronounced HATH-or). Eventually, Isis went to live with Osiris in the underworld.
Isis in Context
The ancient Egyptians regarded Isis as a perfect mother, and she was worshipped as a protector goddess because of the way she sheltered Horus from danger. In the roles of mother and magician, she also cured the sick and restored the dead to life. As the mother of Horus, who took his father's place on the throne of Egypt, Isis also was thought to play a key role in the succession of Egyptian kings.
Many temples were built in honor of Isis, and her popularity extended to the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. These other cultures are an important source of information about Isis and her myths. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Isis, like other Egyptian deities, fell out of favor with the Christians that dominated Europe.
The story of Isis and Osiris is one of many myths of death and rebirth from around the world. The Near Eastern myth of the death of Tammuz, as well as the ancient Greek myths about Persephone (pronounced per-SEF-uh-nee) and Adonis , tell similar stories of those who dwell part of the time in the underworld and part of the time in the land of the living.
Key Themes and Symbols
For the ancient Egyptians, Isis was a symbol of motherhood and protection. She also represented the special nature of rulers, who often believed themselves to be directly related to the goddess. The cow, an animal commonly associated with Isis, was considered to be a symbol of life since it provided milk, just like a human mother.
Isis in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
In the past century or so, renewed interest in Egyptian culture has led to a new popularity for Isis in Western culture. The television series The Secrets of Isis (1975) starred Joanna Cameron as an archaeologist who discovers an amulet that transforms her into the goddess and grants her supernatural powers. Isis has also appeared in comic book series from several publishers—most notably Marvel Comics, where the character remained at least somewhat similar to her Egyptian roots. Recent years have seen a renewed interest in ancient Egyptian beliefs, especially in Isis, among those seeking alternative spiritual studies and practices. The goddess even continues to be worshipped by members of the Fellowship of Isis, a modern religious group.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The Sisters of Isis series by Lynne Ewing is about a group of three high school girls—Sudi, Meri, and Delila—who discover that they are the descendants of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. The three girls must learn to use their magical powers to stop the evil Cult of Anubis , while at the same time trying to carry on normal teenage lives. The first book, Sisters of Isis: The Summoning (2007) focuses on Sudi's discovery of her true identity and powers. Ewing has also written two other popular series of novels, Daughters of the Moon and Sons of the Dark.
The great mother goddess of ancient Egypt, Isis was the sister and wife of the god Osiris*. Together these two deities played a major role in many stories in Egyptian mythology, particularly in myths about rebirth and resurrection. The cult of Isis became very popular in Egypt and eventually spread to other parts of the Mediterranean world, including ancient Greece and Rome.
deity god or goddess
resurrection coming to life again; rising from the dead
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
According to Egyptian mythology, Isis was the daughter of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. Her sister and brothers were Nephthys, Set, and Osiris. These six deities—Geb, Nut, Isis, Osiris, Set, and Nephthys—belonged to an important group of nine Egyptian gods called the Great Ennead of Heliopolis.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
One famous myth about Isis tells how she discovered the secret name of the sun god Ra and increased her power. According to the story, Isis found Ra asleep one day, snoring loudly and saliva dripping from his mouth. She collected the saliva and mixed it with earth to form a poisonous serpent. Then she placed the serpent on a path that Ra took every day.
When Ra awoke and started on his way, the serpent bit him, causing terrible pain. He called to the other gods for help, but all were helpless except Isis, who promised to cure him if he revealed his secret name. At first Ra refused, but eventually the pain became unbearable. He told Isis the name, and she gained new powers. This story was associated with a major aspect of Isis's character, her skill in magical arts.
One of the most important myths associated with Isis was the story of Osiris's death and resurrection. According to this tale, the god Set became jealous of his brother Osiris, who ruled as king of Egypt. One day Set tricked Osiris and sealed him inside a box. Set then placed the box adrift on the Nile River, which carried it to the distant land of Byblos.
Isis searched for and found the box and then brought it back to Egypt, where she concealed it. However, Set discovered the hiding place and cut Osiris's body into many pieces and scattered them throughout Egypt. After recovering the pieces, Isis used her magical powers to restore life to Osiris, who then went to live in the underworld.
underworld land of the dead
Sometime before this happened, Osiris and Isis had had a son named Horus. Isis kept the child hidden from Set so that he could grow up and avenge his father's death. She protected Horus against all dangers, even restoring him to life once after he was bitten by a scorpion. When Horus became a young man, he fought his uncle Set. But Isis took pity on Set and allowed him to escape. Angry at his mother, Horus cut off her head. Thoth, the god of magic and wisdom, changed the severed head into a cow's head and reattached it to Isis's body. Some ancient statues and paintings of the goddess show her with a cow's head, and she is often linked to the goddess Hathor. Eventually, Isis went to live with Osiris in the underworld.
The ancient Egyptians regarded Isis as a perfect mother, and she was worshiped as a protector goddess because of the way she sheltered Horus from danger. In the roles of mother and magician, she also cured the sick and restored the dead to life. As the mother of Horus, who took his father's place on the throne of Egypt, Isis also was thought to play a key role in the succession of Egyptian kings.
See also Afterlife; Egyptian Mythology; Horus; Osiris; RΑ (RE); Set; Underworld.
Isis (in Egyptian religion)
Isis (ī´sĬs), nature goddess whose worship, originating in ancient Egypt, gradually extended throughout the lands of the Mediterranean world during the Hellenistic period and became one of the chief religions of the Roman Empire. The worship of Isis, combined with that of her brother and husband Osiris and their son Horus, was enormously resistant to the influence of early Christian teachings, and her mysteries, celebrating the death and resurrection of Osiris, were performed as late as the 6th cent. AD The functions of many goddesses were attributed to her, so that eventually she became the prototype of the beneficent mother goddess, the bringer of fertility and consolation to all. She was the daughter of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb. Her symbol was a throne and later the cow, and she was frequently represented with a cow's head or cow's horns. During the Hellenistic period, her image outside Egypt became increasingly Hellenic, with ideal features and locks framing her face. Isis was also a goddess of magic, and legends tell of her ability to counteract evil by casting spells.
See R. E. Witt, Isis in the Greco-Roman World (1981).
ISIS , Egptian deity, at whose instigation, it was said, the Jews were forced to leave Egypt. Cheremon, the enemy of the Jews, asserted that the goddess Isis had appeared to the Egyptian king Amenophis, and had censured him because her sanctuary had been destroyed; whereupon the priest Phritibantes told the king that the terrible vision would not recur if he would purge Egypt of the "foul people." Then the departure of the Jews from Egypt took place (Jos., Apion i, 32). Tacitus has a different version, according to which the Jews were natives of Egypt, and had emigrated during the reign of Isis (Hist. v, 2–5). In the Epistle of Jeremiah (30–40) either the cult of Isis or that of Cybele is described. The violation of the chaste Paulina in the Temple of Isis at Rome was one of the reasons for the expulsion of the Jews from that city by Tiberius (Jos., Ant. xviii, 3:4). After the destruction of Jerusalem, Vespasian and Titus celebrated their triumph in the Temple of Isis at Rome (Jos., Wars vii, 5:4).