Egyptian Goddess Isis: Origin Story, Family, Powers & Role
Egyptian goddess Isis was a strong and influential deity whose worship stretched for over 5,000 years. She was revered for so many things, especially for her ability to bring out the best in people. As the goddess of life and magic, Isis used her magical power to resurrect Osiris (her husband) from the dead, thereby helping him become the god of the afterlife. She was also the mother of Horus, the falcon-headed god.
Ancient Egypt believed that Isis epitomized every positive feminine quality that there is. Her role as queen consort to Osiris and later Horus made her the greatest goddess in the Egyptian pantheon.
According to the myth, Isis was born to the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb. Her great grandfather was the creator god Ra (Atum/Atum-Ra). She had four siblings: Osiris, Set, Nephthys, and Horus the Elder.
Isis married her older brother Osiris, Egypt’s first divine king. As queen consort, it is believed that Isis was the one who introduced the institution of marriage to the Egyptians. She also taught them how to brew beer.
Isis and Osiris gave birth to a son called Horus, the falcon-headed god.
Her role in Osiris’s resurrection
During the reign of Osiris, it was believed that the land of Egypt was a very prosperous and peaceful place. Osiris and Isis introduced law and order (i.e. Ma’at’s law) to the Egyptians. However, lurking in the shadows was the god Set (Seth), Osiris’s younger brother. Set, the Egyptian deity of chaos and destruction, had grown very jealous of Osiris’s reign. Hence he plotted to usurp Osiris.
Set organized a lavish party for the Egyptian gods and goddesses. During the party, he tricked Osiris into entering a magical casket. Set then sealed the casket and threw it into the Nile River. With Osiris out of the way, Set went on to become the ruler of Egypt.
After months of searching, Isis eventually found her husband’s body in Byblos. She tried to hide it from Set; however, Set got wind of it and proceeded to cut Osiris body into 14 pieces. Once he was through with dismembering the body, he scattered the pieces across the earth. Isis again went on a search to retrieve the dismembered body parts of her husband. According to the myth, Isis found thirteen out of the fourteen pieces. The 14th piece, Osiris’s penis, was eaten by a fish.
Aided by deities such as Thoth, Anubis and Nephthys, Isis was able to put Osiris’s body back together. She then used her magic to resurrect Osiris. Shortly after, Osiris and Isis copulated and brought forth a son called Horus. Osiris then passed on to the land of the dead and became the lord of the afterlife.
Isis raised and protected her son Horus until the day that he avenged Osiris’ death and took back the throne of Egypt from his uncle Set. The mother and child fled to the Nile Delta marshlands, hiding from the god of chaos.
- The birth, death & Resurrection of Osiris
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Role in Ancient Egyptian Religion
Due to the longevity of her worship, many historians and Egyptologists have concluded that Isis was likely the most influential goddess in ancient Egyptian religion.
Over the centuries and millennia, she took on several roles, attributes and functions. What runs through her myth is the role she plays as a wife and a mother. She was venerated as the goddess of women and children. Her commitment to her family was what the Egyptians admired most about her. This was evident in the Osiris Myth, where she went to great lengths to find her husband’s dismembered body and then put him back together.
As a mother, she kept the young Horus safe from the evil gaze of Set, the goddess of chaos and destruction. This made her a good role model for ancient Egyptian women to aspire to.
Isis and Ra
Another important role of Isis came in the form of her healing functions. She was seen as the most powerful healer and magician in the world. It was believed that her magical spells were responsible for healing Ra, the supreme god in Egypt.
According to the myth, Isis combined her magical spells with the drool from an ageing and frail Ra. She then turned the concoction into a venomous snake, which later attacked Ra. Unable to find an antidote, Ra approached Isis for a cure. In exchange for the antidote, Isis demanded that Ra reveal to her his secret name. Isis would then pass on Ra’s secret name to Horus. This marked the transfer of power from a frail Ra to Horus.
Family tree of Egyptian goddess Isis
Powers and abilities
Isis was believed to have several powers, especially those in healing and protection. She was also the greatest sorcerer in the Egyptian pantheon. Her spells were potent enough to briefly bring Osiris back from the dead.
Other abilities of Isis included her vast knowledge. The Egyptians believed that she was the one who taught women how to grind wheat and weave cloth. She was also knowledgeable in curing and treating diseases.
Symbols and depictions
She is often physically depicted with a sun disk on her head. Some Egyptian artworks portray her as a winged goddess wearing beautiful royal robes. In most sculptures, Isis had a throne atop her head. This was in reference to her position as the queen consort of ancient Egypt.
In some cases, the horns of a cow were seen on her head, making cow horns an important symbol of hers. Other symbols of Isis are a scorpion, a vulture, and a bird.
Worship and Cult
In spite of her being one of the most important Egyptian deities, Isis did not initially have as many dedicated temples for her worship. She was often worshiped in temples of other gods and goddess. In many cases, she was worshiped along with deities such as Horus and Osiris.
During the reign of Pharaoh Nectanebo I (380-362 BCE), the cult of Isis was very pronounced. At Behbeit El-Hagar, in the Nile delta, a number of temples existed for the worship of Isis. Likewise, at Philae in Upper Egypt, Isis temples existed. Festivals of Isis typically occurred in spring and autumn.
Other Interesting Facts about the Goddess Isis and her worship
- Archaeologists believe that the worship of Isis might have lasted up until the 6th century AD, long after the rise of Christianity.
- The ancient Greeks associated Isis to Greek goddesses such as Demeter, Hera and Aphrodite. During the Graco-Roman era, she was often associated with sailors. She was venerated as “the Star of the Sea” and the protector of sailors and travelers. Owing to this, her worship spread far and wide to many places along the Mediterranean. It is also very much likely that her worship stretched all the way to England.
- Isis is actually Greek for the Egyptian word “Aset” or “Eset” (“ee-set”). Those Egyptian words translate into something like “Throne”.
- Isis and Osiris had a strong bond with each other. The Egyptians believed that the love the two deities had for each other started in the womb.
- She is part of nine Egyptian deities that belong to the Ennead of Heliopolis. The nine deities were believed to be the first descendants of the creator/sun god Ra (also Atum). The Ennead are: Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys, and Horus.
- As the mother of Horus, Isis was also considered the protector of Egyptian pharaohs. Many Egyptians believed that Horus was the first true pharaoh of Egypt. Owing to this, Isis’s strong links with kingship and royalty arose.
- During Graco-Roman era, her followers believed that she had the power to control fate and destiny. After Alexander the Great invaded Egypt and installed Ptolemy I Soter, Isis’s role enlarged to become the Queen of Heaven.
- To this day, many people continue to draw parallels between the manner in which Isis nursed baby Horus and the story of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus Christ in Christianity.