Isis is the most powerful of all the ancient Egyptian goddesses. Her primary role is that of a great magician with an unparalleled mastery of the magickal arts. She’s known as an enchantress and speaker of spells who has dominion over the healing arts.
Overview and History
The cult of Isis has been the longest-lasting and most widespread of all goddess cults. Her power stretches across vast deserts, oases, and through the sands of time. She’s woven her magick through various civilizations for millennia through acts of healing, regeneration, transformation, grief, motherhood, and divine love.
The diverse goddess Isis imparted valuable knowledge to ancient Egypt, or Kemet, such as healing practices, medicine, and the institution of marriage. Her name was invoked when curing the sick, particularly children’s ailments.
The unmatched mystique and intrigue surrounding Isis make her one of the most well-known goddesses in history. The earliest mentions of her come from a distinct group of writings known as the Pyramid Texts between 2350 and 2100 B.C.E.
Her stories also come from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (written on the pyramids’ walls), which were meant to assist people as they transitioned and moved through the underworld.
Amongst scholars, there’s speculation that ancient myths are original stories involving real and extraordinary people who were apotheosized and became gods.
It’s important to note that the name Isis, as the goddess is most commonly known, is her Greek name. Her Egyptian name is Aset (or Eset). She became known as Isis when the Greeks and Romans adopted her into their pantheon of gods after Alexander the Great’s conquest of ancient Egypt. However, for this article, she’ll be referred to as Isis.
Isis was born of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, who embody “As Above, So Below.” They begot four children; two daughters, Isis and Nephthys, and two sons, Osiris and Set.
The two daughters married their brothers, as it was standard practice for pharaohs to marry their sisters, cousins, and nieces during this period. Osiris was the oldest and became the king of Egypt, with Isis as his wife and queen. They had a son, Horus, who is often depicted at Isis’s breast in hieroglyphs.
The Murder and Resurrection of Osiris
The love story between Isis and her brother-consort, Osiris, is one of ancient Egyptian mythology’s most influential, compelling, and elaborate tales. It’s a story of love, family, loyalty, sibling betrayal, and life after death.
During the reign of Isis and Osiris, Egypt was prosperous and peaceful. The royal couple was known for “civilizing” Egypt. Isis taught the people how to weave, bake bread, and brew beer. She was regarded as a queen goddess who embodied divine feminine aspects.
The king and queen were well-loved and revered by the land’s inhabitants, who rejoiced at having a strong and moral king who taught agriculture and commanded the respect of those who lived on earth and the gods who dwelled in the netherworld.
However, their brother Set—God of chaos and destruction—was not respected. He became resentful and jealous of the power his brother Osiris possessed (a repeated theme in world mythology, the Cain and Abel story, only much older).
In an angry rage, Set murdered Osiris, dismembered him, and scattered his body parts throughout Egypt. With Osiris gone, although by murder, Set became the king, with his sister Nephthys as his wife.
With the death of Osiris, Isis became inconsolable, as it is said that Isis and Osiris loved each other profoundly from the time they were in the womb. Nephthys observed her sister fall into deep despair and felt sorry for her. She decided to help Isis.
Out of their love for their brother, the two sisters set out to find Osiris’s severed body pieces. They found every part of him except his penis, which had been eaten by a fish in the Nile.
With her magical powers, Isis resurrected Osiris by breathing the breath of life into him long enough to stimulate his power of creation. The two were temporarily united, and Isis became pregnant with Horus, the rightful heir to the throne would later avenge his father’s death and become king of Egypt. (The revival of Osiris became the paradigm for the subsequent Egyptian mummification process and funerary practices.)
After his last encounter with Isis in the physical world, Osiris descended into the underworld and became the lord of that realm. For her role in the resurrection of her husband, Isis became known as a protector of the dead.
Isis’s Integration Into Greco-Roman Religion
Following the Alexander the Great conquest, when Egypt was under Hellenistic rule from 323-30 B.C.E., the Greeks integrated the golden-winged goddess Aset into their pantheon of gods and religious systems. Consequently, she went through a metamorphosis and became Isis.
Her popularity during the height of Greco-Roman times transcended borders. She was favored as a multi-faceted goddess. Her reach was broad, and her cult grew exponentially (395-332 BCE was the height of her cult influence).
In her new form as a Greco-European goddess, Isis’s image began to lead new Eurocentric narratives of history, and her image had an enduring influence in the Mediterranean.
The infusion of Aset into Greco-Roman culture was a testament to North Africa’s wide and influential reach to ancient Mediterranean religions. However, it’s essential to maintain Aset’s North African Kemetic origins and her cultural heritage.
Isis and the Seven Scorpions
Isis is known for her affiliation with scorpions through the poignant story of her going into hiding after giving birth to Horus to protect him from Set, who had murdered Osiris and also wanted to kill Horus.
A mother dressed in rags emerged from the Nile carrying her infant son. Seven sacred scorpions accompanied her. The goddess of venomous creatures, Serket, had sent her fiercest servants to protect Isis and Horus.
The disguised Isis went to the village to beg for food and find a place to dwell. She appealed to a wealthy woman who lived on the river bank with her young child. But the mistress denied Isis shelter and sent her and her unusual companions away at once.
Isis approached a young poorer woman with meager accommodations but who immediately created a safe space and prepared food for the mother and child.
The scorpions, offended at how the first woman had treated their queen, devised a revengeful plan that night. They poured all their venom into the most powerful among them, Tefen, who journeyed out into the night, crawled into the child’s resting place and stung him.
The infant’s mother wept in terror as she ran out into the night to find help for her child. When Isis heard and saw this, she realized what her scorpions had done. She came to the child’s aid, cradling him and using a magickal incantation to save him:
“O poison of Tefen, come out of him and fall upon the ground! Poison of Befen, advance not, poison him no longer, come out of him and fall upon the ground! For I am Isis, the Great Enchantress, the Speaker of Spells. Fall down, O poison of Mestet! Hasten not, poison of Mestetef! Rise not, poison of Petet and Thetet! Approach not, poison of Matat!”
She invoked the scorpions’ names and neutralized their powers. The child’s mother repented when she realized how poorly she had treated the queen. She lamented her callousness and offered all her wealth to Isis in gratitude.
(Note how disguise plays a significant role in ancient myths.)
Isis is recognizable by various memorable features, including a disk crown with horns on the sides, her white sheath dress, and her iconic falcon (or kite) wings. Accounts vary, but these wings represent female birds of prey that, according to Barabara Lesko, cry in a way that’s “reminiscent of the cries of distraught women” (Lesko 163).
Therefore, these wings represent strength, mourning, and the resurrection powers that Isis possesses. The following are symbols and associations of the goddess Isis:
- Wearing a white sheath dress
- Adorned with royal robes
- Bull horns with a disk
- A vulture headdress
- The Cobra
- Sycamore trees
- The blue lotus and roses
- With Horus at her breast
- The Dog Star, Sothis
- Goddesses Hathor, Bastet, and Nut
As a wife, queen, grieving mother, and healer, the mythic narratives of Isis have earned her a favorable status from her followers for 7,000 years. She’s a relatable figure who represents the divine feminine and is most commonly known for her loyal role as a wife and protective mother.
Although some would argue that the worship of Isis ended with the onset of Christianity in the 4th- 6th centuries C.E., her cult following is still very active today. The stories she’s associated with, such as disguising herself to save her child and the resurrection myth, continue to play out in all world religions and are considered to be the origin of these shared, cros-cultural myths.
*Lesko, Barbara. The Great Goddesses of Egypt. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1999.