Isis was one of the oldest and most important of ancient Egypt’s gods and goddesses. Her popularity reached as far as Europe during the time of the Roman Empire, and she is still worshiped by pagans today.
Not much archeological evidence exists to prove the existence of Isis before Egypt’s Late Kingdom. Her name appears for the first time in the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2498 – c. 2345 BC) in the sun temple of King Niuserre. The first temple dedicated specifically to her was only built in the Thirtieth Dynasty (380 – 343 BC) by King Nectanebo II.
What makes Isis so important is that, as a member of the Heliopolitan Ennead, she was closely associated with other prominent ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses. She was the daughter of Neb (earth) and NUT (sky), sister and wife of OSIRIS, sister of Set-Nephtys, and sister and wife of Horus.
Isis represented motherly virtues and was therefore the patron goddess of childbirth and motherhood. Common people related to her, but she was also associated with royalty (her name means “throne”).
As the wife of HORUS, the god of kings, Isis was represented as the deceased pharaoh’s wife during the Old Kingdom. Her name appears in the Pyramid Texts more than eighty times.
Some of the earliest art works of Isis show her wearing a long sheath dress with a throne headdress. In other depictions, she has the cow’s horns and sun disk of Hathor on her head.
One of the best known images of Isis is as the mother of Horus. She was often depicted with Horus the Child on her lap, supposedly nursing him. These images are said to have influenced early Christian artwork of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus.
The myth of Isis is one of the most popular in ancient Egyptian mythology. In it, Isis was a good queen to Osiris and an example to the women of Egypt. Set became jealous and killed Osiris by trapping him in a lead coated chest and throwing him into the Nile. Isis found Osiris after a long search, but Set hacked the body into pieces and scattered it all over Egypt. With the help of Nephtys, Isis put her husband’s body back together, except for his penis that remained missing. However, she became pregnant using her magical powers and gave birth to Horus nine months later.
Facts About Isis
- Isis’s principal aspect was that of magician. Her magical prowess was far stronger than that of any other god or goddess;
- It was believed that the annual flooding of the Nile was a result of the tears wept by Isis after Osiris was killed by Set;
- Isis was at one stage represented as the Four Sons of Horus. They were the four gods responsible for protecting the late pharaoh’s internal organs. Her role as protector grew over time to include not only the dead, but also living noblemen and the general population;
- The Book of the Dead describes Isis 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”;
- Due to her association with Horus, Isis also became the eye of RA when the two gods merged as Ra-Horakhty;
- Rumored to have magical powers, Isis’s priestesses and priests were midwives and healers. It was believed that they controlled the weather by braiding or not combing their hair. (Ancient Egyptians believed that knots had magical powers.);
- After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, Isis became known as the Queen of Heaven and was equated with Greek goddesses such as Aphrodite, Demeter, and Astarte;
- The worship of Isis spread throughout the Roman Empire during the first centuries of Christianity. This was evident in wall paintings and objects found at Pompeii, among other places;
- While Isis was mostly depicted as a woman with either a throne or cow’s horns and sun disc on her head, she was occasionally also presented as a winged goddess, sow, a bird, a cobra, or a scorpion. Sometimes she was even depicted as a kite hovering over the body of Osiris;
- Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is associated with Isis. Its appearance signaled the coming of a new year, with Isis likewise symbolizing rebirth.