Isis was the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility and well as the goddess of motherhood, magic, death, healing, and rebirth.
Her name is the Greek form of an ancient Egyptian word for Throne. Her name has also been interpreted as Queen of the Throne, and her original headdress was the empty throne of her murdered husband Osiris.
Isis became one of the most important goddesses of ancient Egypt. Initially, however, she was an obscure goddess who lacked her own dedicated temples, but she grew in importance as the dynastic age progressed.
She became the Goddess of all the people of Egypt – male and female, alike.
As mourner, she was a principal deity in rites connected with the dead; as a magical healer, she cured the sick and brought the deceased to life; and as a mother, she was a role model for all women.
Isis had strong links with Egyptian kingship, and she was most often represented as a beautiful woman wearing a sheath dress and either the hieroglyphic sign of the throne or a solar disk and cow’s horns on her head. Occasionally she was represented as a scorpion, a bird, a sow, or a cow. There are no references to Isis before the 5th dynasty (2465–2325 BCE), but she is mentioned many times in the Pyramid Texts (c. 2350–c. 2100 BCE), in which she offers assistance to the dead king. Later, as ideas of the afterlife became more democratic, Isis was able to extend her help to all dead Egyptians.
She is regularly portrayed as the selfless, giving, mother, wife, and protectress, who places others’ interests and well-being ahead of her own. She was also known as Weret-Kekau (“the Great Magic”) for her power and Mut-Netjer, “Mother of the Gods” but was known by many names depending on which role she was fulfilling at the moment. As the goddess who brought the yearly inundation of the Nile which fertilized the land she was Sati, for example, and as the goddess who created and preserved life she was Ankhet, and so on.
In time, she became so popular that all gods were considered mere aspects of Isis and she was the only Egyptian deity worshiped by everyone in the country. She and her husband and son replaced the Theban Triad of Amon, Mut, and Khons, who had been the most popular trinity of gods in Egypt. Osiris, Isis, and Horus are referred to as the Abydos Triad. Her cult began in the Nile Delta and her most important sanctuary was there at the shrine of Behbeit El-Hagar, but worship of Isis eventually spread to all parts of Egypt.
Beyond this, however, little is known of the details of the rituals surrounding her worship. Like the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Cult of Isis grew into a Mystery Religion promising the secrets of life and death to initiates, who were then sworn to secrecy. It is known that the cult promised eternal life to those who were admitted to its secrets. The people who worshiped her throughout Egypt may or may not have been full initiates into her cult and, either way, left no record of how the goddess was honored.
In mythology, Isis was born after the creation of the world. According to the most popular version of the myth, there was once only swirling chaotic waters and darkness in the universe until, one day, a mound rose from the seas with the god Atum standing upon it. Atum gazed out on the eternal nothingness and recognized he was lonely, and so mated with his own shadow to give birth to Shu (god of the air) and Tefnut (goddess of moisture). These two deities then left their father alone on the primordial mound (known as the ben-ben) and went off to create the world.
Atum, alone on the hill in the midst of chaos, longed for his children and worried over their safety, and so he removed his eye and sent it out in search of them. This eye would later become one of the most iconic of all Egyptian images: the all-seeing eye (known as the Udjat eye, or Eye of Ra). Shu and Tefnut returned with the eye, having failed to create the world, and Atum was so happy to see them, he began to cry. As his tears fell on the fertile earth of the ben-ben, men and women sprang up.
These new fragile beings had nowhere to live, however, and so Shu and Tefnut mated and gave birth to Geb (the earth) and Nut (the sky). These two quickly fell in love and became inseparable; a situation Atum found intolerable as they were brother and sister. He pushed Nut high above Geb and fastened her there so the two lovers would be able to see each other but never touch again. Nut, however, was already pregnant by Geb and soon gave birth to five children: Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus (known as Horus the Elder). These five gods were given the task of managing the realm of human affairs on the earth and, from them, came all the other gods of Egypt.
Osiris married Isis and, as the firstborn, assumed rule as Lord of the Earth, with Isis as his queen and consort. The royal couple took their responsibilities so seriously that soon the humans had a paradise to live in with cool, rushing streams, plenty to eat, and a perfect climate. There was no injustice in the land, all women and men were equal, and everyone was at peace. Set was jealous of his brother’s power and prestige, however, and so conceived a plan to get rid of him. He had a beautiful coffin made to Osiris’ exact height, and then, threw a grand party where he presented this box and told the guests that whichever of them fit in it most perfectly could have it as a gift. When Osiris lay down in the coffin, Set slammed the lid on, fastened it shut, and threw it into the Nile, where it was carried away toward the sea.
Isis was distraught when she found her husband was missing and went searching for him all through Egypt without success. Osiris, meanwhile, had traveled out to sea, and eventually, his coffin became lodged in a great tamarisk tree growing near Byblos in Phoenicia. The tree grew quickly around the coffin until it completely contained it. The king of Byblos, Malcander, came to the shore with his wife Astarte and admired the tree and the sweet scent which seemed to emanate from it. He ordered the tree cut down and brought to his palace as an ornamental pillar for the court, and there Osiris remained, trapped inside the coffin within the pillar until he died.
Isis had meanwhile left Egypt in search of her husband and eventually came to Byblos, where she sat down by the shore and cried for her missing husband. The maidens who attended Astarte came to the shore to bathe, and Isis taught them how to care for their hair and plait it. When they returned to the palace, Astarte admired their new hair styles and the beautiful scent which seemed to float around them. She asked how they had thought of plaiting their hair, and the maidens told her of the mysterious woman by the shore of the sea. Astarte sent for Isis, who was disguised as an older woman, and asked her to tend to her children at court. Isis became particularly fond of the younger child, Dictys, and thought to make him immortal by burning away his mortal weakness in a holy fire.
When Astarte entered the room one night and found her nursemaid placing her son in the fire, she screamed, and Isis, startled, assumed her true form as the glorious goddess (these details share in the Greek myth of Demeter at the court of Eleusis). Astarte and Malcander were terrified they would be killed and offered her any gifts she wanted. She requested only the pillar – which he swiftly granted to her. The image of this pillar containing the dead god who would return to life was represented later throughout Egyptian culture by the Djed symbol (a column with a broad base crossed by four parallel lines), which regularly appears in Egyptian iconography and architecture and stands for stability.
After leaving the court, Isis cut Osiris from the tree and carried his body back to Egypt where she hid him from Set in the swampy region of the Nile Delta. She left him to go gather herbs to make a potion to return him to life, leaving her sister Nephthys to guard the body. While she was gone, Set learned of his brother’s return and went out to find his body. He managed to get Nephthys to tell him where it was, and when he found it, he hacked it into pieces and scattered it across the land and into the Nile. When Isis returned, she was horrified but quickly composed herself and went to work finding the pieces of her murdered husband. With Nephthys’ help, she recovered all of the body parts except the penis, which had been thrown into the Nile and eaten by a fish.
Isis still was able to revive Osiris and, once he was alive, she assumed the form of a kite and flew around him, drew the seed from his body into her own, and became pregnant with a son, Horus (thereby becoming a virgin mother). Even though Osiris now lived, he was incomplete and could no longer rule the land of the living. He withdrew into the afterlife where he became Lord and Judge of the Dead. Isis, fearing what Set might do to her son, hid Horus among the swamps of Egypt until he was grown. At that point, Horus emerged as a mighty warrior and battled Set for control of the world. In some versions of the story, Set is killed but, in most, he is defeated and driven from the land. The chaos Set had unleashed on the world was conquered by Horus, who restored order, and then ruled with his mother and Nephthys as consorts.