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Isis (Greek version; Egyptian is Aset) is the goddess of magic, motherhood and fertility in ancient Egypt. She is a life-death-rebirth deity (see Legend of Osiris and Isis), as well as one of the Ennead. Later, she acquired the goddess Sopdet. She was a close companion of Arensnuphis.

A statue of Isis

To the ancient Egyptians, the constellation corresponding roughly to modern Virgo represented Isis. Her star Spica was sometimes called "Lute Bearer" and associated with wheat or corn.

Originally, she was a goddess of royalty (her hieroglyph includes the word for "throne"). Later, during the period of Greek dominance, she was the patron goddess of sailors.

Isis was the daughter of Nuit, goddess of the sky, and Seb, god of earth. She married Ausare (Osiris), her brother and the father of her son Hor (Horus). Osiris was murdered by Seth but she reassembled his body (leading to her association with the underworld and the funerary cult), impregnated herself with his body and gave birth to Horus in Khemnis , a swamp. In addition to Horus, Isis was the mother of Min (alternatively, they were lovers).

Isis, along with her sister Nephthys, can be seen on the sides of coffins in human form, their wings outstreched protecting the dead. The sisters also had magical powers; Isis in particular tricked Amun into telling her his secret name, so her magic powers were supreme. Isis helped her husband, killed by Seth, to come back to life and rule in the land of the dead.

Isis is often symbolised by a cow, or a cow's head or horns (illustrating a connection with Hathor). In art, she was depicted with her son, Horus, with a crown and a vulture, and sometimes as a kite flying above Osiris' body. Alternatively, Isis was identified as the scorpion goddess Serq or Selk.

The cult of Isis rose to prominence in the Hellenistic world beginning in the last centuries BC, until it was eventually banned by the Christians in the 6th century. Despite the Isis mystery cult's growing popularity, there is evidence to suggest that the Isis mysteries were not altogether welcomed by the ruling classes in Rome. Her rites were considered by the princeps Augustus to be "pornographic" and capable of destroying the Roman moral fibre.

Isis nursing Horus
Isis nursing Horus

Tacitus writes that after Julius Caesar's assassination, a temple in honour of Isis had been decreed; Augustus suspended this, and tried to turn Romans back to the Roman gods who were closely associated with the state. Eventually the Roman emperor Gaius abandoned the Augustan wariness towards Oriental cults, and it was in his reign that the Isiac festival was established in Rome. According to Josephus, Gaius himself donned female garb and took part in the mysteries he instituted, and Isis acquired in the Hellenistic age a "new rank as a leading goddess of the Mediterranean world."

Roman perspectives on cult were syncretic, seeing in a new deity merely local aspects of a familiar one. For many Romans, Egyptian Isis was an aspect of Phrygian Cybele, whose orgiastic rites were long naturalized at Rome. In the Golden Ass (1st century), Apuleius' goddess Isis is identified with Cybele:

Behold, Lucius, I have arrived. Thy weeping and prayers have moved me to succour thee. I am she that is the natural mother of all things, the Mistress and Governess of all the Elements, the initial Progenitrix of all things, the Chief of powers divine, Queen of Heaven, the First of the Gods celestial, the light of the Goddesses. At my will, the planets of the air, the wholesome winds of the Seas, and the silences of hell are disposed; my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in various manners, in various customs and in many names, for the Phrygians call me the Mother of the Gods.

Among these names of Roman Isis, "Queen of Heaven" is outstanding for its long and continuous history. Herodotus identified Isis with the Greek and Roman goddesses of agriculture, Demeter and Ceres. In Yorb mythology, Isis became Yemaya. Some scholars argue that aspects of Isis worship have influenced the practices of some Christians in regards to the Virgin Mary. There has recently been a revival of Isis worship among neopagans and feminists who are attracted by the matriarchal notions of goddess worship.

Isis was one of the earliest and most important goddesses in ancient Egypt. Some of Isis? many titles were ?Queen of Heaven,? ?Mother of the Gods,? ?The One Who is All,? ?Lady of Green Crops,? ?The Brilliant One in the Sky,? ?Star of the Sea,? ?Great Lady of Magic,? ?Mistress of the House of Life,? ?She Who Knows How To Make Right Use of the Heart,? ?Light-Giver of Heaven,? ?Lady of the Words of Power,? and ?Moon Shining Over the Sea.?

This great mother goddess was the patron of royalty, seafarers, magicians, the essence of womanly charms, and the essence of eternal love. Isis is credited with teaching the Egyptian people how to grind corn, spin flax, weave cloth, and cure disease. The patron of mothers and wives, Isis was much loved for her nurturing and forgiving attributes, and represented the mighty wife of the pharaoh. To the ancient Egyptians, she was all that a mother should be -loving, clever, loyal, and brave. Many statues and images show Isis holding the infant Horus on her lap, suckling the young god. To the Egyptians, she was the purest example of the loving wife and mother, and that was how they worshipped her -and loved her- the most.

Isis was pictured as a woman wearing a headdress in the shape of a throne, sometimes holding a lotus, as a sycamore tree, or as a woman with a pair of cow horns and the sun disk on her head. Sometimes Isis was pictured as a hawk, or as a woman with the wings of a hawk. As a winged goddess she may represent the wind. Hieroglyphic hymns describe Isis as ?she who made light with her feathers and wind with her wings.? Isis? winged form was often painted on coffins in order to catch the departing soul in her wings and shepherd it to a new life.

A hymn about Isis from the 14th century BC says, ?In the beginning there was Isis: Oldest of the Old, She was the Goddess from whom all Becoming Arose. She was the Great Lady, Mistress of the Two Lands of Egypt, Mistress of Shelter, Mistress of Heaven, Mistress of the House of Life, Mistress of the Word of God. She was the Unique. In all Her great and wonderful works She was a wiser magician and more excellent than any other God.? The priestesses of Isis were healers and midwives, and were said to have many special powers, including dream interpretation and the ability to control the weather by braiding or combing their hair (the ancient Egyptians considered knots to have magical power).

A symbol of Isis was the tiet or tyet, also called the ?Knot of Isis,? ?Buckle of Isis,? or the ?Blood of Isis.? The exact origin of this symbol is unknown. In many respects it resembles an ankh except that its arms curve down. Its meaning is also reminiscent of the ankh, it is often translated to mean ?welfare? or ?life.? It seems to be called "the Knot of Isis" because it resembles a knot used to secure the garments that the gods wore. The meaning of "the Blood of Isis" is more obscured, but it was often used as a funerary amulet made of red wood, stone, or glass. In all these cases it seems to represent the ideas of resurrection and eternal life.

In the Book of the Dead Isis was described as ?She who gives birth to heaven and earth, knows the orphan, knows the widow, seeks justice for the poor, and shelter for the weak.? Isis was thought to be the daughter of Geb and Nuit, the sister of Nephthys and Seth, the sister-wife of Osiris, the mother of Horus, the Apis bull, and Anupu (Anubis, who was adopted), and the protector of the god Imsety. Sometimes Isis was considered to be the mother of Bast and Min, and the daughter of Taweret or Hathor.

No other Egyptian deity has stood the test of time as well as Isis. Her cult was not extinguished with the other Egyptian gods, but was embraced by the Greeks and Romans (who called her ?Isis of Ten Thousand Names?), and her worship has even lasted into the present day. Isis also had temples throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, and as far away as the British Isles. There was even a temple to Isis on the River Thames in Southwark, London! The relationship between Isis and Horus may have influenced the Christian conception of the relationship between Mary and the infant Jesus Christ. There is a strong resemblance to the depiction of the seated Isis holding or suckling the child Horus and the seated Mary and the baby Jesus.

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Ancient worship

Modern worship

Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13