Isis was a central deity of ancient Egypt whose influence has outlived the ancient Egyptian kingdom. She bears the name that is the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian word for “throne”. Isis was the daughter of the earth god Geb, and Nut, goddess of the sky. As well as being the sister of Set, she was also the sister-wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus, the falcon deity. Isis first appeared during the 5th dynasty, which dates to approximately 2465 BCE, however her prominence rose following her mention in the later Pyramid Texts. The stories of Isis led to her being viewed in the ancient world as the archetype of a good wife and mother. As a result, she was often seen as an inspiration for Egyptian women to model themselves upon.
Isis is mainly considered in the telling of the murder of Osiris by their brother Set in the Pyramid Texts. This story shows both his death and revival, along with the resulting struggle between Set and Horus for the throne of Egypt. Despite her relationship with Osiris, Isis was a deity in her own right and is likely to have originated before her husband. According to the myth that is retold by the Greek author Plutarch, Osiris was initially slain by Set. In his rage, Set then tore the body into multiple pieces and cast them across Egypt. On hearing of Osiris’ demise, Isis travelled Egypt to recover all 13 pieces of his body and reattach them. She was unable to find his penis, so a replacement phallus of gold was fashioned and attached. Once complete, new life was given to Osiris, establishing him as neither alive nor dead.
The story behind the creation of Horus is unusual, as it is said that Isis hovered over the golden phallus of Osiris in the form of a Kite. This hovering then resulted in the conception of the falcon deity. It is through this resurrection myth that Isis was said to have created the rights of embalming. This association led to her becoming closely linked to the funerary rights across Egypt. The brother-sister marriage union of Isis and Osiris was exceptionally important in ancient Egyptian culture as it was believed to be the model of a perfect marriage, which was then replicated by multiple royal dynasties.
Isis was also known for her connection to magic, an association which is seen explicitly through one of the battles between Set and Horus. In one myth, Set produced a scorpion in order to poison Horus and remove him from the throne. However, Isis averted his death through the use of magic, thus establishing her as having magical powers. These struggles continued between Set and Horus, with the latter eventually beheading his mother following her pity on Set after a disagreement. Horus cut off her her head, which was then transformed into a cow’s head before being reattached by Thoth. Her association to cows has meant Isis is occasionally conflated with the cow deity, Hathor. Isis was also said to have the magical ability to transform into any creature, as is seen by her Kite form in the Pyramid Texts. A further myth in connection to Isis involved the conjuring of a poisonous snake. She did this in order to bite and incapacitate the disguised solar deity Ra, where she refused to heal his wound until he confessed his identity. Isis was initially refused, but as Ra became weaker he conceded to her demands. Isis then healed his bite and returned him to full health, while retaining an element of power over him.
Images of Isis feature in several areas of Europe as well as large amounts of the East. This is due to her migration into the mythology of other cultures following the decline of the ancient Egyptian empire. One of these migrations was to the Roman Pantheon which then led to the transferral of her influence across Europe. Her role as the perfect wife and mother has also resulted in Isis being a major influence behind the Christian figure of the Virgin Mary.
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