In Egypt and Nubia
Name and origins
Whereas some Egyptian deities appeared in the late Predynastic Period (before c. 3100 BCE), neither Isis nor her husband Osiris were clearly mentioned before the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2494–2345 BCE). An inscription that may refer to Isis dates to the reign of Nyuserre Ini during that period, and she appears prominently in the Pyramid Texts, which began to be written down at the end of the dynasty and whose content may have developed much earlier. Several passages in the Pyramid Texts link Isis with the region of the Nile Delta near Behbeit el-Hagar and Sebennytos, and her cult may have originated there.[Note 1]
Many scholars have focused on Isis's name in trying to determine her origins. Her Egyptian name was ꜣst, which became ⲎⲤⲈ (Ēse) in the Coptic form of Egyptian, Wusa in the Meroitic language of Nubia, and Ἶσις (Isis; Ancient Greek: [îːsis]), on which her modern name is based, in Greek.[Note 2] The hieroglyphic writing of her name incorporates the sign for a throne, which Isis also wears on her head as a sign of her identity. The symbol serves as a phonogram, spelling the st sounds in her name, but it may have also represented a link with actual thrones. The Egyptian term for a throne was also st and may have shared a common etymology with Isis's name. Therefore, the Egyptologist Kurt Sethe suggested she was originally a personification of thrones. Henri Frankfort agreed, believing that the throne was considered the king's mother, and thus a goddess, because of its power to make a man into a king. Other scholars, such as Jürgen Osing and Klaus P. Kuhlmann, have disputed this interpretation, because of dissimilarities between Isis's name and the word for a throne or a lack of evidence that the throne was ever deified.
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 than 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
Sculpture of a woman, possibly Isis, in a pose of mourning; 15th or 14th century BCE
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, 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 nursing Horus
, seventh century BCE
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 a 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
Isis holds the pharaoh, Seti I
, in her lap, 13th century BCE
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 "
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."
In Egyptian art, Isis was most commonly depicted as a woman with the typical attributes of a goddess: a sheath dress, a staff of papyrus in one hand, and an ankh sign in the other. Her original headdress was the throne sign used in writing her name. She and Nephthys often appear together, particularly when mourning Osiris's death, supporting him on his throne, or protecting the sarcophagi of the dead. In these situations their arms are often flung across their faces, in a gesture of mourning, or outstretched around Osiris or the deceased as a sign of their protective role. In these circumstances they were often depicted as kites or women with the wings of kites. This form may be inspired by a similarity between the kites' calls and the cries of wailing women, or by a metaphor likening the kite's search for carrion to the goddesses' search for their dead brother. Isis sometimes appeared in other animal forms: as a sow, representing her maternal character; as a cow, particularly when linked with Apis; or as a scorpion. She also took the form of a tree or a woman emerging from a tree, sometimes offering food and water to deceased souls. This form alluded to the maternal nourishment she provided.
Beginning in the New Kingdom, thanks to the close links between Isis and Hathor, Isis took on the other goddess's attributes, such as a sistrum rattle and a headdress of cow horns enclosing a sun disk. Sometimes both her headdresses were combined, so the throne glyph sat atop the sun disk. In the same era, she began to wear the insignia of a human queen, such as a vulture-shaped crown on her head and the royal uraeus, or rearing cobra, on her brow. In Ptolemaic and Roman times, statues and figurines of Isis often showed her in a Greek sculptural style, with attributes taken from Egyptian and Greek tradition. Some of these images reflected her linkage with other goddesses in novel ways. Isis-Thermuthis, a combination of Isis and Renenutet who represented agricultural fertility, was depicted in this style as a woman with the lower body of a snake. Figurines of a woman wearing an elaborate headdress and exposing her genitals may represent Isis-Aphrodite.[Note 3]
The tyet symbol, a looped shape similar to the ankh, was seen as Isis's particular emblem at least as early as the New Kingdom, though it existed long before. It was often made of red jasper and likened to Isis's blood. Used as a funerary amulet, it was said to confer her protection on the wearer.
Isis with a combination of throne-glyph and cow horns, as well as a vulture headdress. Temple of Kalabsha, first century BCE or first century CE.
Winged Isis at the foot of the sarcophagus of Ramesses III, 12th century BCE
Isis, left, and Nephthys stand by as Anubis embalms the deceased, 13th century BCE. A winged Isis appears at top.
Figurine of Isis-Thermuthis, second century CE
Figurine possibly of Isis-Aphrodite, second or first century BCE
A tyet amulet, 15th or 14th century BCE
Relationship with royalty
Despite her significance in the Osiris myth, Isis was originally a minor deity in the ideology surrounding the living king. She played only a small role, for instance, in the Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus, the script for the coronation rituals performed for the accession of Senusret I in the Middle Kingdom. Her importance grew during the New Kingdom, when she was increasingly connected with Hathor and the human queen.
The early first millennium BCE saw an increased emphasis on the family triad of Osiris, Isis, and Horus and an explosive growth in Isis's popularity. In the fourth century BCE, Nectanebo I of the Thirtieth Dynasty claimed Isis as his patron deity, tying her still more closely to political power. The Kingdom of Kush, which ruled Nubia from the eighth century BCE to the fourth century CE, absorbed and adapted the Egyptian ideology surrounding kingship. It equated Isis with the kandake, the queen or queen mother of the Kushite king.
The Ptolemaic Greek kings, who ruled Egypt as pharaohs from 305 to 30 BCE, developed an ideology that linked them with both Egyptian and Greek gods, to strengthen their claim to the throne in the eyes of their Greek and Egyptian subjects. For centuries before, Greek colonists and visitors to Egypt had drawn parallels between Egyptian deities and their own, in a process known as interpretatio graeca. Herodotus, a Greek who wrote about Egypt in the fifth century BCE, likened Isis to Demeter, whose mythical search for her daughter Persephone resembled Isis's search for Osiris. Demeter was one of the few Greek deities to be widely adopted by Egyptians in Ptolemaic times, so the similarity between her and Isis provided a link between the two cultures. In other cases, Isis was linked with Aphrodite through the sexual aspects of her character. Building on these traditions, the first two Ptolemies promoted the cult of the new god Serapis, who combined aspects of Osiris and Apis with those of Greek gods like Zeus and Dionysus. Isis, portrayed in a Hellenized form, was regarded as the consort of Serapis as well as of Osiris. Ptolemy II and his sister and wife Arsinoe II developed a ruler cult around themselves, so that they were worshipped in the same temples as Serapis and Isis, and Arsinoe was likened to both Isis and Aphrodite. Some later Ptolemaic queens identified themselves still more closely with Isis. Cleopatra III, in the second century BCE, used Isis's name in place of her own in inscriptions, and Cleopatra VII, the last ruler of Egypt before it was annexed by Rome, used the epithet "the new Isis".
Temples and festivals
Down to the end of the New Kingdom, Isis's cult was closely tied to those of male deities such as Osiris, Min, or Amun. She was commonly worshipped alongside them as their mother or consort, and she was especially widely worshipped as the mother of various local forms of Horus. Nevertheless, she had her own independent priesthoods at some sites, and at least one temple of her own, at Osiris's cult center of Abydos, during the late New Kingdom.
The first known major temples to Isis were the Iseion at Behbeit el-Hagar in northern Egypt and Philae in the far south. Both began construction during the Thirtieth Dynasty and were completed or enlarged by Ptolemaic kings. Thanks to Isis's widespread fame, Philae drew pilgrims from across the Mediterranean. Many other temples of Isis sprang up in Ptolemaic times, ranging from Alexandria and Canopus on the Mediterranean coast to Egypt's frontier with Nubia. A series of temples of Isis stood in that region, stretching from Philae south to Maharraqa, and were sites of worship for both Egyptians and various Nubian peoples. The Nubians of Kush built their own temples to Isis at sites as far south as Wad ban Naqa, including one in their capital, Meroe.
The most frequent temple rite for any deity was the daily offering ritual, in which priests clothed the deity's cult image and offered it food. In Roman times, temples to Isis in Egypt could be built either in Egyptian style, in which the cult image was in a secluded sanctuary accessible only to priests, and in a Greco-Roman style in which devotees were allowed to see the cult image. Yet Greek and Egyptian culture were highly intermingled by this time, and there may have been no ethnic separation between Isis's worshippers. The same people may have prayed to Isis outside Egyptian-style temples and in front of her statue inside Greek-style temples.
Temples also celebrated many festivals in the course of the year, some nationwide and some very local. An elaborate series of rites were performed all across Egypt for Osiris during the month of Khoiak, and Isis and Nephthys were prominent in these rites at least as early as the New Kingdom. In Ptolemaic times, two women acted out the roles of Isis and Nephthys during Khoiak, singing or chanting in mourning for their dead brother. Their chants are preserved in the Festival Songs of Isis and Nephthys and
Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys.
Eventually, Isis developed her own festivals. In Roman times, Egyptians across the country celebrated her birthday, the Amesysia, by carrying the local cult statue of Isis through their fields, probably celebrating her powers of fertility. The priests at Philae held a festival every ten days when the cult statue of Isis visited the neighboring island of Bigeh, which was said to be Osiris's place of burial, and the priests performed funerary rites for him. The cult statue also visited the neighboring temples to the south, even during the last centuries of activity at Philae when those temples were run by Nubian peoples outside Roman rule.
Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, including Egypt, during the fourth and fifth centuries CE. Egyptian temple cults died out, gradually and at various times, from a combination of lack of funds and Christian hostility. Isis's temple at Philae, supported by its Nubian worshippers, still had an organized priesthood and regular festivals until at least the mid-fifth century CE, making it the last fully functioning temple in Egypt.[Note 4]
Isis, left, and Nephthys as kites
near the bier of a mummy
, 13th century BCE
In many spells in the Pyramid Texts Isis and Nephthys help the deceased pharaoh reach the afterlife. In the Coffin Texts from the Middle Kingdom, Isis appears still more frequently, though in these texts Osiris is credited with reviving the dead more often than she is. New Kingdom sources such as the Book of the Dead describe Isis as protecting deceased souls as they face the dangers in the Duat. They also describe Isis as a member of the divine councils that judge souls' moral righteousness before admitting them into the afterlife, and she appears in vignettes standing beside Osiris as he presides over this tribunal.
Isis and Nephthys took part in funeral ceremonies, where two wailing women, much like those in the festival at Abydos, mourned the deceased as the two goddesses mourned Osiris. Isis was frequently shown or alluded to in funerary equipment: on sarcophagi and canopic chests as one of the four goddesses who protected the Four Sons of Horus, in tomb art offering her enlivening milk to the dead, and in the tyet amulets that were often placed on mummies to ensure that Isis's power would shield them from harm. Late funerary texts prominently featured her mourning for Osiris, and one such text, one of the Books of Breathing, was said to have been written by her for Osiris's benefit. In Nubian funerary religion, Isis was regarded as more significant than her husband, because she was the active partner while he only passively received the offerings she made to sustain him in the afterlife.
Unlike many Egyptian deities, Isis was rarely addressed in prayers or invoked in personal names before the end of the New Kingdom. From the Late Period on, she became one of the deities most commonly mentioned in these sources, which often refer to her kindly character and her willingness to answer those who call upon her for help. Hundreds of thousands of amulets and votive statues of Isis nursing Horus were made during the first millennium BCE, and in Roman times she was among the deities most commonly represented in household religious art, such as figurines and panel paintings.
Isis was prominent in magical texts from the Middle Kingdom onward. The dangers Horus faces in childhood are a frequent theme in magical healing spells, in which Isis's efforts to heal him are extended to cure any patient. In many of these spells, Isis forces Ra to help Horus by declaring that she will stop the sun in its course through the sky unless her son is cured. Other spells equated pregnant women with Isis to ensure that they would deliver their children successfully.
Egyptian magic began to incorporate Christian concepts as Christianity was established in Egypt, but Egyptian and Greek gods continued to appear in spells long after their temple worship had ceased. Spells that may date to the sixth, seventh, or eighth centuries CE invoke the name of Isis alongside Christian figures.