Isis as depicted on the walls of Nefertiri's tomb (late 18th century B.C.)


 Isis is the most important goddess in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon, though her origins, like those of Osiris, are lost in the mists of time. There is no mention of Isis before the 5th Dynasty (c. 2465 B.C.). The first time her name appears is in the ‘Pyramid Texts’ where she appears more than eighty times assisting the deceased pharaoh on his way to the ‘Field of Reeds’. Later on, Isis is seen as the protecting and nurturing mother not only to the pharaoh, but to all the deceased, noble and commoner as one. Her cult and worship swept over all of Egypt until at one point her importance overshadowed that of Osiris himself. Her worship was not limited only to Egypt but was also found in the Middle East and in Europe, there is even a temple of hers in England, and her cult was one of the last pagan worship to die out after Christianity swept across the Roman Empire (c. 6th century A.D.). Isis has several roles including that of a loving wife and sister, she is associated with the moon, and along with her sister Nephthys, Isis represents the archetypical image of the mourner, and she is the goddess most connected to magic. Isis is usually depicted as a human female wearing a long sheath dress wearing the hieroglyphic symbol for throne which represents her name. From the 18th Dynasty on (c. 16th century B.C.) Isis is shown wearing on her head the horns and the solar disk that were usually associated with the goddess Hathor. Isis is sometimes depicted holding the sistrum rattle (another Hathor attribute), but more often she is seen holding the ankh and the papyrus staff.  

Isis can be recognised by the hieroglyph of a throne on her head


According to Plutarch in his work De Iside et Osiride, Isis ruled alongside her husband/brother Osiris. She always suspected that Seth intended Osiris harm and when Osiris did not return from the banquet, she grew concerned. She put on her mourning clothes, cut her hair short, and left the palace in search of her husband. She wandered for a long time searching for his body because she wanted to bury him properly, as is appropriate for the king of Egypt. In another version Isis does not wander alone but with Anubis, the god of embalming, who is here described as the son of Osiris and Nephthys.  

 After a time, Isis discovered that the chest containing Osiris’s body washed up near Gebal and that he is now being used as a pillar in the palace of the king. So, off went Isis to Gebal. She reached the shores of Phoenicia, where she sat, waiting. After a time, the women of the palace came to bathe in the sea and they noticed her sitting there. She came out to them and taught them how to braid their hair (something that apparently women did not know before). Intrigued by this stranger, the women took her back with them to the palace where the queen of Gabel charged her with taking care of her children. Isis then took the queen’s sickly son and cured him by letting him suck on her finger, and at night-time, when no one was looking, Isis took to puting the baby into the fire, whilst at the same time she transformed into a swallow and circled the pillar, lamenting. One night, the queen heard the cries of Isis and saw her son in the fire. She panicked and started to shout at Isis who then transformed into her true form, as the goddess of Egypt. Isis then informed the queen that by taking her son out of the fire, she had deprived him of immortality (this story is very similar to the story of the harvest goddess Demeter, mother of Persephone, Queen of Hades, in the Greek mythology). The king and queen of Gabel tried to appease Isis by giving her gifts, yet she wanted none, she demanded only the pillar that contained the body of Osiris. Isis took the chest and Osiris’s body back to Egypt where she opened it. She then used her magical powers in order to conceive a child, and to do so she transformed into a bird and flew over the body of Osiris until, somehow, she received his seed and became pregnant. After this, Isis placed the chest on the Nile and then ran away to the Delta to hide herself and her pregnancy from Seth.  

 One night, Seth was hunting near the Nile when he spotted the chest between the reeds. Recognising the chest, he pulled it out and opened it. Angry, he then cut Osiris’s body into fourteen pieces and threw them into the Nile for the crocodiles to consume. When Isis heard of this she set out on another journey to find the pieces of her husband, along with her sister Nephthys. There ae two versions to what happened next, the first tells that every time Isis found a piece she buried it on the spot, the second tells that Isis and Nephthys collected all the pieces (apart from his penis which Isis modeled a new one), and with the help of Anubis and Thoth, she put him back together creating the first mummy. Then, Isis used her magical powers to revive Osiris who then became the king of the Underworld where he is to live for all eternity. 


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Mummies « Orit Kaye's Blog

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