Isis (also Eset or Aset) was a major goddess in ancient Egyptian (Kemetic) religion, who is part of the ‘Ennead of Heliopolis’, a family of nine deities said to have descended from the creator god, Ra, and whose worship―as supported by evidence―spread throughout ancient Greco-Roman world.
First mentioned in the Old Kingdom c. 2686-2181 BCE, as one of the main characters of the Osiris myth, she is stated to have resurrected her slain husband (or brother), the divine king Osiris (murdered by Set), and to have produced his heir, Horus―and offering him protection so he can be able to avenge Osiris’ death―after restoring life to Osiris’ body and copulating with him.
According to tradition, Isis was believed to help the dead enter the afterlife as she had helped Osiris and was invoked in healing spells meant to benefit ordinary people. She is also considered to be the mother of Horus―as supported even in the earliest copies of the Pyramid Texts―although there are signs that Hathor was earlier regarded as his mother.
Griffiths in his The Origins of Osiris and His Cult notes that the goddess may only have come to be Horus’s mother as the Osiris myth took shape during the Old Kingdom, but―as opined by Pinch in his Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt―through her relationship with him, she came to be seen as the epitome of maternal devotion.
As a goddess, Isis was generally portrayed as a human woman with a throne-like hieroglyph on her head, but took on traits originally belonging to Hector during the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BCE). Isis, with Osiris became the most widely worshipped deities in Egypt in the first millennium BCE, with Isis absorbing the traits from many other goddesses. During this period, temples dedicated primarily to Isis were built by rulers in Egypt and neighbouring Nubia.
A temple dedicated to her at Philae served as a religious centre both to the Egyptians and Nubians. She was reputed to possess magical powers greater than those of the other gods. Also, and she was said to protect the kingdom from its enemies, govern the skies and the natural world, and to have power over fate itself.
With the coming rule and settlement of Egypt by Greeks in the Hellenistic period (323–30 BCE), Isis―along with a new god, Serapis―was worshipped by Greeks and Egyptians. This new worship became circularised in the wider Mediterranean world. Her Greek devotees ascribed to her traits taken from Greek deities.
These included the invention of marriage and the protection of ships at sea, and she retained strong links with Egypt and other Egyptian deities who were popular in the Hellenistic world, such as Osiris and Harpocrates. With Rome’s rise to power and its absorption of Hellenistic culture in the first century BCE, the cult of Isis became a part of Roman religion. While her devotees represented a small proportion of the Roman Empire’s population, they were, however, found all across its territories.
With the rise of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries CE, the worship of Isis was brought to an end. However, it is believed that the cult of Isis influenced the new religion. It is reported that some customs from the worship of Isis may have been among the pagan religious practices that were incorporated into Christian traditions as the Roman Empire became Christianised. This position is shown and discussed in the works of Salzman, Michele Renee, Witt R. E., Bowden, Hugh, etc., and in Lisapo ya Kama’s ‘From Isis to Christ: An Essay on the True Origins of Christianity’.
Isis continues to appear in Western culture, particularly in modern paganism and esotericism, often as the feminine aspect of divinity, or the personification of nature.
SOURCES OF AUTHOR’S INFORMATION
Bowden, H. (2010). Mystery Cults of the Ancient World. Princeton University Press.
Griffiths, J. G. (1980). The Origins of Osiris and His Cult. Brill.
Pinch, G. (2004) Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (First edition 2002). Oxford University Press.
Witt, R. E. (1997). Isis in the Ancient World. Johns Hopkins University Press.