The goddess Isis: “The Great Lady of the underworld”

Painting of ISIS in the Tomb of Seti I, Valley of the Kings

The goddess Isis originates from and was highly worshipped in Ancient Egypt. Her power was so vast she took on the roles of other goddesses and deities that had gone before her. Her reach was so wide she was a deity to several countries and cultures including the Greeks and Romans. The first mention of Isis in written form dates to around 2400 BC in which she is continually referred to in association with the throne. Some Egyptians believe Isis was a protector of the throne whilst others believe she is the mother of the king. During the Old Kingdom period, lasting from 2575 BC to 2150 BC, the name Isis appeared just under a hundred times in funeral texts dedicated to deceased pharaohs. This led many to describe her as a protector of God as pharaohs were seen as the living embodiment of deities. There is no doubting the importance of Isis to large amounts of people but there is much confusion as to her exact role in said peoples lives.

The Osiris myth

The first mention of Isis was as the main protagonist in the Osiris myth, known to many as the most influential Egyptian myth ever. The story states that Isis, goddess of the Earth, fell in love with her brother Osiris. They married, with Osiris becoming King of the Earth. This enraged their brother Set who devised a plan to take over the throne Osiris now occupied. Set was a god associated with horrific events, his image described with words such as turmoil, storm, and rage. Set used this rage alongside cunning to lure Osiris into a divine looking wooden box created to fit him perfectly. Osiris stepped into the box and Set wasted no time closing the lid and sealing it tight, making a coffin, before throwing it into the river Nile. The box, containing Osiris, drifted out to sea, settling on the shores of another country. Isis was heartbroken and showed her emotions to the masses, cutting off her hair and ‘wailing like the wind’.

Finally coming to her senses, Isis decided the best port of call would be to embark on a quest to find the coffin so to bury Osiris properly. The quest took Isis far and wide, the goddess eventually striding into Phoenicia, a Semitic peoples residing in what is now Lebanon, north Israel, and south Syria. In Phoenicia the goddess came across Queen Astarte, the daughter of the sky known in Egypt ass the Queen of Byblos, who did not recognise Isis due to her appearance. Their meeting, as documented by Shahrukh Husain in her 2008 book Stories from ancient civilizations: Egyptgoes as follows: “‘Who are you, sad lady?’ the Queen asked, stepping out of the chariot. ‘I am a stranger in search of my husband’ Isis replied, ‘but I do not know who can help me.’ ‘Come with me’, said Astarte, ‘you can live in the palace and work for me while you look.’

Isis found herself working as a nanny to the young prince of Byblos. The goddess naturally became fond of the child and decided to make him immortal. She transformed into a bird and began to create flames, circling the child. At this moment Queen Astarte walked into the room and was shocked, grabbing her son and shouting at Isis whom she had employed. Isis then revealed who she truly was and both Queen and King begged for her mercy. Isis had spotted part of a tree in the hall of their building with the scent of her husband thus asked for this as a gift for forgiving them. The goddess cut open the tree and found the coffin which had floated away. She opened the coffin and cradled the body of her husband who uttered the wise words, “My grandfather, is the sun and Shu, my father, holds up the skies. Now, as the kings before me, it is my turn to serve the universe.”

Osiris, left, and Isis, right.

Isis ensured that Osiris would be returned to Egypt and buried properly but Set had other ideas. Isis had hid the body near the Nile and Set stumbled across it one evening, full of fury. There could only be one ‘winner’ and Set wanted to guarantee his victory, slicing up the body of Osiris into fourteen pieces and scattering them about in all different directions knowing that crocodiles would soon dispose of his mess. The myth then states that Isis rediscovered thirteen of the pieces of her husband. Unable to find his penis, which had been consumed by fish, she created one of her own from gold and wax and attached it to him. Isis then performed the first embalmment, singing songs to her husband to revive him.

Isis quickly conceived a child with Osiris, Horus the sun God, before Isis was relieved from her harsh feelings of grief. Seeing his wife relieved, Osiris was free to leave this world to become ruler of the dead. Laurie Sue Brockway, in her 2008 book The Goddess Pages: A Divine Guide to Finding Love and Happinesssays of this ending that “To the human consciousness, it would appear that Isis is separated from her beloved by the veil between the two worlds. But in truth, he is just a shout away.” The myth has many variations and adaptations with some saying Isis turned into a bird, fanning her husband back to life with broad wings, others say she took the form of a kite, flying around her husband and drawing him into her body in order to conceive Horus.

Temples and rituals

With so many cultures and nations venerating Isis it was no wonder she was known by many different titles and in countless different roles. Known as Isis of ten thousand names, the goddess’ legend spread across the ancient world. Most Egyptian deities were started in local cults but Isis soon spread out from hers, based near the Nile, and commanded the attention of the entire region. During Greek and Roman invasions she became hugely important with the Osiris myth lodged in the heads of most living there. It was said at the time that the Nile flooded every year due to the tears of mourning from Isis after losing her husband.

Continued worship of Isis spread across the world as the myths surrounding her were spruced up and her powers magnified. With so many cultures, names, and roles, Isis began to ‘absorb traits’ from previous goddesses. The passionate worship of Isis from Egyptian, Roman, and Greek cultures saw temples constructed in far away places and rituals carried out religiously. The meteoric rise of Christianity, however, put a stop to the adoration of Isis who was ‘replaced’ by Christian traditions. R. E. Witt, in Isis in the ancient world published in 1971, states that “To arrange a happy marriage between Greek and Egyptian mythology was harder. There were so many difficulties because of the partners’ different upbringing and it always remained a patched-up union. Paganism had so many ill-assorted denizens in its pantheon that not even Isis with all her majestic arts could cure this chronic ailment. Some of the ablest minds in later antiquity turned to the healing monotheism of Judaeo-Christianity just because it swept clean away the heterogeneous crowd of Olympus and the Nile, over whom Isis panthea had come to preside, and looked simply at the eternal problem of theism: the relation between God and Man.” It is perhaps controversially said that Isis inspired the worship of Mary in Christianity but it is not known if this is true.

An ancient artefact found on the site of Behbeit el-Hagar

Isis inspired the construction of temples and rituals designed to worship her, her son Horus, and her husband Osiris. Behbeit el-Hagar is the first known temple dedicated to Isis, the now archaeological site located near the eastern section of the Nile. The construction of both Behbeit el-Hagar and the Philae temple was around the year 400 BC. The Philae temple was, aptly, built on the Island of Philae. It is said that the Philae temple was the last site used to worship Isis and was the location for the last written Egyptian hieroglyph. Philae was closed down around the year 500 due to Christian rule and relocated centuries later in the 1960s by UNESCO to save it from drowning after the development of the Aswan dam.

Temples of Isis were found in Greece, Rome, India, and throughout other Asian and African countries, but the best preserved location can be found on the site of Pompeii. The Isis temple of Pompeii was one of the first sites uncovered during the excavation of Pompeii in the 1760s and researchers found many similarities between said temple and features found in the traditional Pompeian dining room, suggesting Isis was hugely important in day to day life.

Not much is known about the rituals or worship surrounding the goddess Isis but it is said that priests in Isis temples shaved their heads and wore linen garments, this is possibly linked to the appearance of the grieving Isis having lost Osiris. Worshippers did not exclusively devote themselves to the cult of Isis but many still felt passionately about her. The temples these people visited had complex layouts with various rooms required and a statue of Isis in a ‘secluded sanctuary’. This statue was clothed every morning with worshippers observing, praying, and singing, during the ritual. Worshippers and priests also focused their attention on a container of water said to be from the Nile floods, of which Isis’ tears were the proposed catalyst.

Two holidays were on the calendar of the cult, the first being Navigium Isidis which celebrated Isis and her relationship with water. During the colourful procession a model ship would be marched from the local Isis temple to the nearest mass body of water. The other holiday was named Isia in which Isis’ quest to find the body of Osiris is acted out followed by joyous scenes when the story inevitably concludes.

Titles and symbols

As mentioned earlier Isis is often referred to as Isis of ten thousand names. Some of these tags include the protector of women, the goddess of fertility, the queen of all gods, and the great lady of the underworld. More traditional alternatives included Khut, Tcheft, Ankhet, and Satis; these were all associated with certain roles and powers. As well as many names Isis also had many symbols associated with her including knots, vultures, scorpions, and stars. She is sometimes pictured wearing two crowns to represent herself and Osiris, sometimes pictured wearing a bird headdress or with wings to resemble part of the Osiris myth, she was sometimes represented in the form of a tree in a symbol suggesting that she provided for everyone, and often displayed with a throne nearby as she was the protector of the throne and the maker of kings.

Isis pictured with broad wings and a throne on her head.
The new 2018 Macedonian ten denar note with the torso of Isis and a peacock design.

Isis is represented in the hieroglyphics pictured above but also in other ways to this day such as on the Macedonian ten denar banknote also seen above. The torso of the goddess Isis can be seen on the note printed in 1996 alongside a peacock, introduced in 2018. In Ancient Egypt the peacock is associated with Ra, the sun god. Ra was seen as the creator of everything and his power controlled and knew no bounds; he began to use it to destroy. It is said that Isis formed a snake out of dust and spit that bit Ra and poisoned him. Only Isis, the divine  healer, could help him but she only would if he told her his ‘secret name’ which he used to control said power. As Elizabeth McCabe puts it in her 2008 book An Examination of the Isis Cult with Preliminary Exploration into New Testament Studies“Ra finally tells Isis, “I will allow myself to be searched through by Isis, and will let my name come out from my body and pass into her body.” The deceptive plan of Isis proves profitable as she learns and obtains that which she originally desired: the secret name of Ra.” Isis then became equal in power to Ra, a myth depicted still in modern Macedonian money.

Further information and links

Here is a short video clip with precise information about Isis including picture evidence.

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