The Egyptian Goddess of Eternal Life: Isis
The Myth of Isis and Osiris
Isis, the Egyptian daughter of the sky and earth, was considered one of the most important goddesses, not only in her own culture, but in the Greco-Roman one as well. Her reputation for being the goddess of eternal life came from the magical power of her love, so powerful that she was able to bring her dead lover, Osiris, back to life.
Isis was the first daughter of Geb, god of the earth, and Nut, goddess of the sky. She married her brother Osiris, but unfortunately for her, Osiris was killed by her evil brother Set. This is where the mythology of Isis gets complicated. There are three different versions of how Set killed Osiris, depending on where they are written. But whatever methods or tricks Set used to kill his brother, poor Isis suffered and greatly mourned her lost love. Eventually she decided it was time to carry on with her life, and went in search of Osiris’s body.
She went first to Phoenicia, where she was not recognized by Queen Astarte, and was hired to be a nursemaid to her infant. One day while Isis was caring for the babe, she placed the child like a log in the fireplace, an act she knew was necessary to insure the child’s immortality. This terrified his mother, who snatched him from the fire when she discovered him there. Astarte did not understand that Isis was performing magic on the child. Astarte finally recognized who Isis was after this incident, and she explained that she was searching for her beloved’s body. Astarte then had a revelation, and told Isis that the lost body of Osiris was in the center of a tamarisk tree, in the center of her palace. Isis was led to the tree, and carried the tree with the corpse of Osiris all the way back to Egypt for burial.
Three Versions of the Isis Myth
In the second version of Set’s treachery against Osiris, he found Osiris’s body and dismembered it into fourteen pieces. It is unclear why Set hated Osiris so much. Now Isis had to search for him once again. She was able to use her magical skills to restore Osiris to life again, after gathering the body parts that Set had strewn about the earth. But although she was able to find most of his body, his phallus was missing, so Isis substituted one made of gold. Isis then put Osiris back together while speaking magical words. Osiris arose, and now he and Isis were able to conceive their son, the hawk headed god Horus.
There is yet another example of Set indirectly meddling in Isis and Osiris’s lives, which begins with Anubis, the god of the underworld. Nephthys wanted to have a child by Set, but he did not wish to cooperate. She disguised herself to look like Isis to seduce him, as Isis was more attractive. The plot failed, but now Osiris obviously found Nephthys very attractive, because he thought she was Isis. They had sex, resulting in the birth of Anubis, and so Nephthys was able to trick Osiris into fathering her son, since he thought she was Isis.
Afraid of Set’s retribution, Nephthys begged Isis to adopt Anubis, so that Set would not find out and kill the child. This tale describes both why Anubis is seen as an underworld deity, (he becomes a son of Osiris), and why he could not inherit Osiris’s position, (he was not a legitimate heir), in this new birth scenario, preserving Osiris’s position as lord of the underworld. This myth was a later creation of the Osirian cult, who wanted to depict Set in an evil position, as the enemy of Osiris (as if Set needed help in this area)!
Set Always Wants to Kill Osiris
The most familiar account of the Isis-Osiris story is from a Roman named Plutarch, written in the 1st century. In that version, Set held a banquet for Osiris, in which he brought in a beautiful box, and said that whoever could best fit into the box would get to keep it. Set previously measured Osiris in his sleep and made sure that the box was the perfect size for Osiris. Several men tried to see if they could fit. Once it was Osiris’s turn to see if he could fit in the box, Set closed the lid on him, so that the box now became a coffin for Osiris. Set flung the box in the Nile so that it would drift far away. Isis went looking for the box, so that Osiris could have a proper burial. She found the box in a city along the Phoenician coast, and brought it back to Egypt, hiding it in a swamp. Of course, Set went hunting that night and found the box. Enraged, Set chopped Osiris’s body into fourteen pieces and scattered them all over Egypt to ensure that Isis could never find Osiris again for a proper burial. Isis and her sister Nephthys went looking for these pieces, and as is known from the earlier version, found all of them except for the phallus, which she made of gold. So it will be left to the reader which version of the Isis and Osiris myth they prefer.
The Reputation of Isis Spreads to other Regions
Tales of Isis and her ability to bring Osiris back to life gradually became known throughout Greece and Rome, and her worship spread from the Nile Delta to civilizations all around the Mediterranean Sea. Isis was identified with lesser goddesses at first, but later revered as a universal goddess, possessing skills and traits of many combined goddesses. She was known as a wife and mother goddess, as well as a goddess of nature and magic. She was also known as a protector of the dead and as the goddess of children.
Isis also invented embalming, for which Egyptians are famous. Isis was known as the moon and mother of the sun, as a mourning wife, a loving sister, a knower of culture, and a giver of health. But because of the words of an African poet named Apuleius, she became the goddess of immortality. The poet’s words about Isis say in part, “When you have fulfilled your allotted span of life and descend to the underworld, there too, you shall see me, as you see me now, shining…and if you show yourself obedient to my divinity, you will know that I alone have permitted you to extend your life beyond the time allocated you by your destiny.” Isis overcame death to bring Osiris back to life, and could hold off death for her faithful followers too, because she was so powerful.
But even though she had all these titles and accolades, Isis wanted even more power, enough to be stronger than all of the gods. She hatched a plot to find a poisonous snake, and sent it to bite Ra, the highest god. He became very sick and weak from the snake bite, and called for Isis to perform her magic to cure him of the serpent’s attack. Cunning Isis declared she was powerless to purge such strong venom, unless she knew Ra’s secret name, the one which gave him his very essence and all his great power. Ra grew weaker and more desperate, until he finally had no choice but to whisper the word into Isis’s ear. She then cured Ra, but the price he paid gave Isis eternal power over him.
Isis and Osiris
What Can Be Learned From the Myth of Isis?
What can we learn today from the mythology of Isis? She lived through loss of a loved one, grieved, and became whole again. When people lose loved ones, health, wealth, and friends, the first emotion that is experienced is terrible grief, once the initial shock subsides. In today’s world we are often sheltered from the details of death, as loved ones are sick in hospitals, or cared for in hospices, when it is deemed they have little time to live. Sometimes this is necessary, as caregivers must work at their jobs, care for their own selves and other family members; and no one may be available to give the hours of loving care necessary to help a loved one die at home.
But this process distances us from death, and also from true healing too, as guilt feelings can arise when people cannot spare the time for whatever their reasons. We lose dreams, friendships, marriages, and children, also very painful to us. Then society expects our grief to be over in three days, expecting us to return to our duties and pretend nothing ever changed. But indeed, a great deal has changed, and a person’s whole world seems to have fallen apart. This impatience with grief and insensitivity to emotional loss is a terrible and disrespectful aspect of society in our time period.
After the first stage of grief, there comes a period of confusion and searching. This can be compared to when Isis went to find the body of Osiris. A huge part of our heart is missing, and something has to fill that hole, or that huge, aching pain needs to be relieved somehow. We wander about in a daze, trying to find comfort, to ease our suffering, to erase the pain. We may drink too much, or need a tranquilizer to try to keep those painful emotions at what feels like a safe distance. And we may be able to find an activity or place that helps us forget temporarily. But one should not jump into a new relationship or job, or anything that seems to fill that emptiness too quickly, because this confusion and searching feeling will come and go for a long time. Isis had to “lose” Osiris twice before she could finally “regain” him. The road to wholeness can be a long one, and it varies for each person.
Nothing Can Replace Someone Loved and Lost
One can only truly heal when it is accepted that nothing can ever really replace whatever was loved and lost. But new, interesting, surprising activities, and people in our lives can help us feel better again. Isis was able to create new life when she and Osiris conceived Horus. We have to create new lives for ourselves when difficult and unexpected changes happen, which challenge us in very personal ways. So when a loss happens, everyone must go through all the stages of grief at their own individual pace. The finding of new people and activities to fill the hours of our days is not an easy one, and the realization that they can never exactly replace the people we lost is not an easy one to accept.
The origins of the cult of Isis are not known, but Egyptologists think her role began as a “throne-mother,” as in African tribes, the throne is known as the mother of the king. In the Old Kingdom period, Isis was represented as the wife or assistant of a dead Pharaoh. This is how she became to be associated with funerals. The association of the Pharaoh’s wife is consistent with Isis’s role as the spouse of Horus, the god associated with the Pharaoh as his protector, then later the deification of the Pharaoh himself. Isis also represented the “four suns of Horus,” the four deities who protected the canopic jars, containing a royal person’s internal organs. By the Middle Kingdom period, funeral texts began to be used by members of Egyptian society other than just the royal families.
In the New Kingdom Period, the role of Isis as a mother deity replaced that of the spouse. She was seen as the mother of the pharaoh, and often depicted as breastfeeding the Pharaoh. When the cult of Ra rose to a higher status, with its center at Heliopolis, Ra was identified with the deity Horus. But Hathor had been paired with Ra in some regions, as mother of the god. Since Isis was paired with Horus, and Horus was identified with Ra, Isis began to be merged with Hathor as Isis-Hathor. This merge made it possible for Isis to be both the mother and wife of Horus. Eventually the mother role displaced the role of spouse. So Isis again became the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus/Ra. This led to the theme of the myth of Isis and Osiris.
Ankh, Symbol of Eternal Life
The Cult of Isis
The cult of Isis spread outside of Egypt in late antiquity, as did the cult of Osiris, during the Hellenistic period. Temples were built in other countries, but although they were devoted to Isis, other Mediterranean goddesses, such as Demeter, Astarte, and Aphrodite were identified with her as well. The cult of Isis became one of the most significant of the mystery religions throughout the Greco-Roman world, and many classical writers refer to her temples and rites. Because of her attributes as protector and mother, she became a patron goddess of sailors, who spread her worship through the ships circulating the Mediterranean Sea. In the beginning of Christianity, Isis drew converts from every corner of the Roman Empire, and archaeological evidence of obelisks and temples have been found even in Pompeii.
Isis is easy to locate in artwork, because she normally is pictured with large, outstretched wings. She was mostly thought of as a sky goddess, rather than an earth one. Her sacred bird was the wild goose, and the shape of his craning neck was often used for the prows of boats dedicated to Isis as queen of the sea. Isis is also often seen either carrying or wearing an oval shape that ends in a cross, called an ankh. The symbol or hieroglyph means “life.” The cult of Isis and Osiris continued until the 6th century CE, until pagan temples started to be destroyed and pagan priests arrested, though the divine images were taken to Constantinople. Many priests and priestesses were officials at Isis rituals throughout history. In the Greco-Roman era, many of them were considered healers, and thought to have special powers, such as dream interpretation, and the ability to control the weather by braiding their hair. This was believed because the Egyptians thought knots had magical powers.
Because of the association between knots and magical powers, symbols of Isis called tyets, or ankhs, came to represent the idea of eternal life or resurrection. The tyet resembles an ankh, except its arms point downward. The ankh was often used as a funerary ornament made of red wood, stone or glass. The star of Sirius is associated with Isis as well. The appearance of the star signified the beginning of a new year, and Isis was considered the goddess of Rebirth and Reincarnation. As a Protector of the Dead, The Egyptian Book of the Dead outlines particular rituals that would protect the dead, enabling travel anywhere in the Underworld, and most of the titles Isis holds signify her as the Goddess of Protection of the Dead. Isis had an important role in Egyptian spells and ritual, especially those of magic and healing. She is most often seen as holding an ankh and a simple staff. Part of an invocation devoted to Isis reads, “Cease your tears now, for I have come to help you. I looked down and saw the sorrows of your life. So dry your tears now. All things will soon change for you, as under my watchful light, your life is restored, renewed.”
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