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Isis was the goddess of fertility.
Isis was a Goddess in Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, whose worship spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. Isis was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife, matron of nature and magic; friend of slaves, sinners, artisans, the downtrodden, as well as listening to the prayers of the wealthy, maidens, aristocrats and rulers. Isis is the Goddess of motherhood and fertility.
Shortly after 2,500 B.C., during the fifth dynasty, the first written records concerning the worship of Isis appear. The Romans would spread her worship to the farthest reaches of their empire through cultural contact with the Egyptians, and particularly after Egypt was annexed to the Roman state in 30 B.C. This followed the invasion of Egypt by Alexander the Great and a Greek occupation for three hundred years beginning in 330 B.C. Although by differing degrees, the Greeks and the Romans adopted deities from the Egyptian pantheon and often interpreted some of their own gods as having a parallel with some of the Egyptian deities. This had the effect of giving Roman and Greek deities an earlier history-and could serve to imply a longer history for themselves. Many of the Egyptian deities were merged and renamed with those of the Greeks and Romans, but a few remained relatively unchanged. Isis, as the protector of all Egypt, would retain her unique Egyptian nature while also being worshipped in other cultures.
The goddess Isis (the mother of Horus) was the first daughter of Geb, god of the Earth, and Nut, the goddess of the Overarching Sky, and was born on the fourth intercalary day. At some time Isis absorbed some characteristics of Hathor a powerful deity. He represented the pharaohs and provided them with protection. In later myths about Isis, she had a brother, Osiris, who became her husband, and she then was said to have conceived Horus. Isis was instrumental in the resurrection of Osiris when he was murdered by Seth. Her magical skills restored his body to life after she gathered the body parts that had been strewn about the earth by Seth. This myth became very important in later Egyptian religious beliefs.
Isis is also known as the goddess of simplicity, from whom all beginnings arose, and was the Lady of bread, of beer, and of green fields. In later myths, Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile River flooded every year because of her tears of sorrow for her dead husband, Osiris. This occurrence of his death and rebirth was relived each year through rituals. The worship of Isis eventually spread throughout the Greco-Roman world, continuing until the suppression of paganism in the Christian era.
The pronunciation for this deity is a mispronunciation of the Greek name which itself changed the original Egyptian name spelling by the addition of a last "-s" because of the grammatical requirements of Greek endings.
The Egyptian name was recorded as "(She of the) Throne." The true Egyptian pronunciation remains uncertain, however, because their writing system usually did not feature vowels. Based on recent studies which present us with approximations based on contemporary languages and Coptic evidence, the reconstructed, correct pronunciation of her name is thought to be ("-uesat"). (Osiris's name-that is, Usir or Wsir-also starts with the throne glyph ("-s").) Later, the name survived into Coptic dialects as Ese or Esi, as well as in compound words surviving in names of later people such as "Har-si-Ese", literally, "Horus, son of Isis".
For convenience, Egyptologists arbitrarily choose to pronounce her name as "ee-set". Sometimes they may also say "ee-sa" because the final "t" in her name was a feminine suffix, which is known to have been dropped in speech during the last stages of the Egyptian language.
Literally, her name means "she of the throne". Her original headdress was a throne. As the personification of the throne, she was an important representation of the pharaoh's power, as the pharaoh was depicted as her child, who sat on the throne she provided. Her cult was popular throughout Egypt, but the most important sanctuaries were at Giza and at Behbeit El-Hagar in the Nile delta, which was in Lower Egypt.
Origins of Isis.
Her origins are uncertain, but are believed to have come from the Nile Delta. Unlike other Egyptian deities, however, she did not have a centralized cult at any point throughout her worship. This may be because of the late ascendancy of her cult to prominence. First mentions of Isis date back to the Fifth dynasty of Egypt which is when the first literary inscriptions are found, but her cult became prominent late in Egyptian history, when it began to absorb the cults of many other goddesses with strong cult centers. This is when the cult of Osiris arose and she became such an important figure in those beliefs. Her cult eventually spread outside Egypt.
During the formative centuries of Christianity, the religion of Isis drew converts from every corner of the Roman Empire. In Italy itself, the Egyptian faith was a dominant force. At Pompeii, archaeological evidence reveals that Isis played a major role. In Rome, temples were built and obelisks erected in her honour. In Greece, traditional centres of worship in Delos, Delphi, and Eleusis were taken over by followers of Isis, and this occurred in northern Greece and Athens as well. Harbours of Isis were to be found on the Arabian Sea and the Black Sea. Inscriptions show followers in Gaul, Spain, Pannonia, Germany, Arabia, Asia Minor, Portugal, Ireland, and many shrines even in Britain
Temples of Isis.
Most Egyptian deities first appeared as very local cults and throughout their history retained those local centres of worship, with most major cities and towns widely known as the home of these deities. Isis originally was an independent and popular deity established in predynastic times, prior to 3100 B.C., at Sebennytos in the northern delta.
Eventually temples to Isis began to spread outside of Egypt. In many locations, particularly Byblos, her cult took over that of worship to the Semitic goddess Astarte, apparently due to the similarity of names and associations. During the Hellenic era, due to her attributes as a protector and mother, as well as a lusty aspect gained when she absorbed some aspects of Hathor, she became the patron goddess of sailors, who spread her worship with the trading ships circulating the Mediterranean Sea.
Likewise, the Arabian goddess Al-Ozza or Al-Uzza, whose name is close to that of Isis, is believed to be a manifestation of her. This, however, is thought to be based on the similarity in the name.
Throughout the Graeco-Roman world, Isis became one of the most significant of the mystery religions, and many classical writers refer to her temples, cults, and rites.
Temples to Isis were built in Iraq, Greece, Rome, and Pompeii. At Philae her worship persisted until the sixth century, long after the rise of Christianity and the subsequent suppression of paganism. The cult of Isis and Osiris continued up until the 6th century AD on the island of Philae in Upper Nile. The Theodosian decree (in about 380 AD) to destroy all pagan temples and force worshipers to accept Christianity was not enforced there until the time of Justinian. This toleration was due to an old treaty made between the Blemyes-Nobadae and Diocletian. Every year they visited Elaphantine and at certain intervals took the image of Isis up river to the land of the Blemyes for oracular purposes before returning it. Justinian sent Narses to destroy the sanctuaries, with the priests being arrested and the divine images taken to Constantinople. Philae was the last of the ancient Egyptian temples to be closed.
Priesthood of Isis.
Little information on Egyptian rituals for Isis survives, however, it is clear there were both priests and priestesses officiating at her cult rituals throughout its entire history. By the Greco-Roman era, many of them were healers, and were said to have many other special powers, including dream interpretation and the ability to control the weather, which they did by braiding or not combing their hair. The latter was believed because the Egyptians considered knots to have magical powers.
Iconography: Associations with Isis.
Because of this association between knots and magical power, a symbol of Isis was the tiet or tyet (meaning welfare/life), also called the Knot of Isis, Buckle of Isis, or the Blood of Isis, which is shown to the right. In many respects the tyet resembles an ankh, except that its arms point downward, and when used as such, seems to represent the idea of eternal life or resurrection. The meaning of Blood of Isis is more obscure, but the tyet often was used as a funerary amulet made of red wood, stone, or glass, so this may simply have been a description of the appearance of the materials used.
The star, Spica, (sometimes called Lute Bearer), and the constellation which roughly corresponds to the modern Virgo, appeared in the sky above the horizon at a time of year associated with the harvest of wheat and grain, and thus became associated with fertility deities, such as Hathor. Isis would come to be connected with them through her later conflation with Hathor.
Isis also assimilated Sopdet, the personification of the star Sirius, since Sopdet, rising just before the flooding of the Nile, was seen as a bringer of fertility, and so had been identified with Hathor as well. Sopdet retained an element of distinct identity, however, as Sirius was quite visibly a star and not living in the underworld- which might have conflicted with Isis' representation as the wife of Osiris,who was the ruler of the underworld.
Probably due to assimilation with the goddesses Aphrodite and Venus, during the Roman period, the rose was used in her worship. The demand for roses throughout the empire turned rose production into an important industry.
Depictions of Isis.
In art, originally Isis was pictured as a woman wearing a long sheath dress and crowned with the hieroglyphic sign for a throne. Sometimes she was depicted as holding a lotus, or, as a Sycamore tree. One pharaoh, Hatshepsut, was depicted in her tomb as nursing from a sycamore tree that had a breast.
After her assimilation of many of the roles of Hathor, Isis's headdress is replaced with that of Hathor: the horns of a cow on her head, with the solar disk between them. Sometimes she also was represented as a cow, or a cow's head. Usually, however, she was depicted with her young child, Horus (the pharaoh), with a crown, and a vulture. Occasionally she was represented as a kite flying above the body of Osiris or with the dead Osiris across her lap as she worked her magic to bring him back to life.
Most often Isis is seen holding only the generic ankh sign and a simple staff, but in late images she is seen sometimes with items usually associated only with Hathor, the sacred sistrum rattle and the fertility-bearing menat necklace. In The Book of Coming Forth By Day Isis is depicted standing on the prow of the Solar Bark with her arms outstretched.
The star Sept (Sirius) is associated with Isis. The appearance of the star signified the advent of a new year and Isis was likewise considered the goddess of rebirth and reincarnation, and as a protector of the dead. The Book of the Dead outlines a particular ritual 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 in literature.
Plutarch, a Greek scholar who lived from 46 C.E. to 120 C.E. wrote, Isis and Osiris, which is considered a main source about the very late myths about Isis. In it he writes of Isis: "she is both wise, and a lover of wisdom; as her name appears to denote that, more than any other, knowing and knowledge belong to her." and that the shrine of Isis in Sais carried the inscription "I am all that hath been, and is, and shall be; and my veil no mortal has hitherto raised." At Sais, however, the patron goddess of its ancient cult was Neith, many of whose traits had begun to be attributed to Isis during the Greek occupation. In The Golden Ass the Roman writer Apuleius later gives us his understanding of Isis in the second century. The following paragraph is particularly significant:
Mythology of Isis.
When seen as the deification of the wife of the pharaoh in later myths, the prominent role of Isis was as the assistant to the deceased pharaoh. Thus she gained a funerary association, her name appearing over eighty times in the Pyramid Texts, and she was said to be the mother of the four deities who protected the canopic jars-more specifically, Isis was viewed as protector of the liver-jar-deity, Imsety. This association with the pharaoh's wife also brought the idea that Isis was considered the spouse of Horus (once seen as her child), who was protector, and later the deification of the pharaoh. By the Middle Kingdom, the eleventh through fifteen dynasties between 2040 and 1640 B.C., as the funeral texts began to be used by more members of the Egyptian society, other than the royal family, her role also grows to protect the nobles and even the commoners.
By the New Kingdom, the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth dynasties between 1570 and 1070 B.C., Isis gained prominence as the mother and protector of the pharaoh. During this period, she is said to breastfeed the pharaoh and often is depicted doing so.
The role of her name and her throne-crown is uncertain. Some early Egyptologists believed that being the throne-mother was Isis's original function, however, a more modern view states that aspects of that role came later by association. In many African tribes, the throne is known as the mother of the king, and that concept fits well with either theory, possibly giving insight into the thinking of boston.
Isis: Sister-wife to Osiris.
In the Old Kingdom, the third through sixth dynasties dated between 2,686 to 2,134 B.C., the pantheons of individual Egyptian cities varied by region. During the fifth dynasty, Isis became one of the Ennead of the city of Heliopolis. She was believed to be a daughter of Nut and Geb, and sister to Osiris, Nephthys, and Seth. The two sisters, Isis and Nephthys, often were depicted on coffins, with wings outstretched, as protectors against evil. As a funerary deity, she was associated with Osiris, lord of the underworld (Duat), and was considered his wife.
A later legend (ultimately a result of the replacement of another deity, Anubis, of the underworld when the cult of Osiris gained more authority), tells of the birth of Anubis. The tale describes how Nephthys became sexually frustrated with Seth and disguised herself as the much more attractive Isis to seduce him. The plot failed, but Osiris now found Nephthys very attractive, as he thought she was Isis. They coupled, resulting in the "birth" of Anubis. In fear of Seth's anger, Nephthys persuaded Isis to adopt Anubis, so that Seth would not find out. The 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), neatly preserving Osiris's position as lord of the underworld. It should be remembered, however, that this new myth was only a later creation of the Osirian cult who wanted to depict Seth in an evil position, as the enemy of Osiris
In another Osirian myth, Seth had a banquet for Osiris in which he brought in a beautiful box and said that whoever could fit in the box perfectly would get to keep it. Seth had measured Osiris in his sleep and made sure that he was the only one who could fit the box. Several tried to see whether they fit. Once it was Osiris's turn to see if he could fit in the box, Seth closed the lid on him so that the box was now a coffin for Osiris. Seth flung the box in the Nile so that it would float far away. Isis went looking for the box so that Osiris could have a proper burial. She found the box in a tree in Byblos, and brought it back to Egypt, hiding it in a swamp. Seth went hunting that night and found the box. To assure that Isis could never find Osiris again for a proper burial, Seth chopped Osiris's body into fourteen pieces and scattered them all over Egypt. Isis and her sister Nephthys went looking for these pieces, but could only find thirteen of the fourteen. Fish had swallowed the last piece, his penis, so Isis fashioned one out of gold. Isis used her magic to put Osiris's body back together and managed to bring him back to life, after which they conceived Horus (another earlier deity).
Isis assimilation of Hathor.
When the cult of Ra rose to prominence he became associated with the similar deity, Horus. For some time, Isis intermittently had been paired as the wife of Ra. Since she was the mother of Horus, he then became the child of Ra as well. A merging of the two male deities resulted in Ra-Horakhty. Hathor had been paired with Ra as well in some regions and when Isis began to be paired with Ra, soon Hathor and Isis began to be merged in some regions also as, Isis-Hathor. Another variant occurred in the Ennead, with Isis as a child of Atum-Ra, making her become the child of Hathor since Hathor had become paired with Ra. This also led to the merger of Hathor and Isis frequently, because of common characteristics.
Isis mother of Horus.
By merging with Hathor, Isis became the mother of Horus, rather than his wife, and thus, when beliefs of Ra absorbed Atum into Atum-Ra, it also had to be taken into account that Isis was one of the Ennead, as the wife of Osiris. It had to be explained how Osiris, however, who (as lord of the dead) being dead, could be considered a father to Horus, who was not considered dead. This conflict in themes led to the evolution of the idea that Osiris needed to be resurrected, and therefore, to the Legend of Osiris and Isis, of which Plutarch's Greek description written in the first century A.D., De Iside et Osiride, contains the most extensive account known today.
Yet another set of late myths detail the adventures of Isis after the birth of Osiris's posthumous son, Horus. Isis was said to have given birth to Horus at Khemmis, thought to be located on the Nile Delta. Many dangers faced Horus after birth, and Isis fled with the newborn to escape the wrath of Set, the murderer of her husband. In one instance, Isis heals Horus from a lethal scorpion sting; she also performs other miracles in relation to the cippi, or the plaques of Horus. Isis protected and raised Horus until he was old enough to face Set, and subsequently, became the pharaoh of Egypt.
In order to resurrect Osiris for the purpose of having the child Horus, it was necessary for Isis to "learn" magic (which long had been her domain before the cult of Ra arose), and so it was said that Isis tricked Ra (i.e. Amun-Ra/Atum-Ra) into telling her his "secret name," by causing a snake to bite him, for which only Isis had the cure. The names of deities were secret and not divulged to any but the religious leaders. Knowing the secret name of deity enabled one to have power of the deity. That he would use his "secret name" to "survive" implies that the serpent had to be a more powerful deity than Ra. The oldest deity known in Egypt was Wadjet, the Egyptian cobra, whose cult never was eclipsed in Ancient Egyptian religion. As a deity from the same region, she would have been a benevolent resource for Isis. The use of secret names became central in late Egyptian magic spells, and Isis often is implored to "use the true name of Ra" in the performance of rituals. By the late Egyptian historical period, after the occupations by the Greeks and the Romans, Isis became the most important and most powerful deity of the Egyptian pantheon because of her magical skills. Magic is central to the entire mythology of Isis, arguably more so than any other Egyptian deity.
Prior to this late change in the nature of Egyptian religion, the rule of Ma'at had governed the correct actions for most of the thousands of years of Egyptian religion, with little need for magic. Thoth had been the deity who resorted to magic when it was needed. The goddess which held the quadruple roles of healer, protector of the canopic jars, protector of marriage, and goddess of magic previously had been Serket. She then became considered an aspect of Isis. Thus it is not surprising that Isis had a central role in Egyptian magic spells and ritual, especially those of protection and healing. In many spells, she also is completely merged even with Horus, where invocations of Isis are supposed to involve Horus's powers automatically as well.
Isis assimilation of Mut.
Mut, a primal deity called, mother, was originally a title of the primordial waters of the cosmos, the mother from which the cosmos emerged. When the pairing of the deities began, Mut became a consort of Amun, who already had been assigned a quite different wife. After the authority of Thebes had risen during the eighteenth dynasty, and made Amun into a much more significant god, the cult later waned, and Amun was assimilated into Ra.
In consequence, Amun's consort, Mut, by then a depicted as a doting, adoptive mother-who by this point had absorbed other goddesses herself-also was assimilated into Ra's wife, Isis-Hathor as Mut-Isis-Nekhbet. On occasion, Mut's infertility was taken into consideration, and so Horus, who was too significant to ignore, had to be explained by saying that Isis became pregnant by magic when she transformed herself into a kite and flew over the dead body of Osiris.
Later myths became quite convoluted. Mut's consort was Amun, who had by this time become identified with Min as Amun-Min (also known by his epithet - Kamutef). Since Mut had become part of Isis, it was natural to try to make Amun, part of Osiris, the husband of Isis, but this was not easily reconcilable, because Amun-Min was a fertility god and Osiris was the god of the dead. Consequently they remained regarded as separate, and Isis sometimes was said to be the lover of Min. Subsequently, as at this stage Amun-Min was considered an aspect of Ra (Amun-Ra). He was also considered an aspect of Horus, since Horus was identified as Ra, and thus Isis's son, was on rare occasions said to be Min instead, which neatly avoided confusion over Horus's status as being both the husband and son of Isis.
Isis outside of Egypt.
Following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander of Macedon the worship of Isis spread throughout the Graeco-Roman world. Tacitus writes that after Julius Caesar's assassination, a temple in honour of Isis had been decreed; Augustus suspended this, and tried to turn Romans back to the Roman deities who were closely associated with the state. Eventually the Roman emperor Caligula abandoned the Augustan wariness toward what was described as oriental cults, and it was in his reign that the Isiac festival was established in Rome. According to Josephus, Caligula donned female garb and took part in the mysteries he instituted, and in the Hellenistic age Isis acquired a "new rank as a leading goddess of the Mediterranean world." Vespasian, along with Titus, practised incubation in the Roman Iseum. Domitian built another Iseum along with a Serapeum. Trajan appears before Isis and Horus, presenting them with votive offerings of wine, in a bas-relief on his triumphal arch in Rome. Hadrian decorated his villa at Tibur with Isiac scenes. Galerius regarded Isis as his protectress.
Roman perspectives on cults were syncretic, seeing in new deities, merely local aspects of a familiar one. For many Romans, Egyptian Isis was an aspect of Phrygian Cybele, whose orgiastic rites were long-naturalized at Rome, indeed, she was known as Isis of Ten Thousand Names.
Among these names of Roman Isis, Queen of Heaven is outstanding for its long and continuous history. Herodotus identified Isis with the Greek and Roman goddesses of agriculture, Demeter and Ceres.
In later years, Isis also had temples throughout Europe, Britain, Africa and Asia. An alabester statue of Isis from the 3rd century BC, found in Ohrid, in the Republic of Macedonia, is depicted on the obverse of the Macedonian 10 denars banknote, issued in 1996.
The male first name "Isidore" (also "Isador"), means in Greek "Gift of Isis" (similar to "Theodore", "God's Gift"). The name, which became common in Roman times, survived the supression of the Isis worship and remains popular up to the present - being among others the name of several Christian saints.
Isis parallels in Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
Scholars have made comparisons with Isis worship in late Roman times and the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After the Christian religion gained popularity and started dispersing into Europe and then throughout Rome, the Christians converted an Isis shrine in Egypt into one for Mary and in other ways "deliberately took images from the pagan world".
Historian Will Durant wrote that "Early Christians sometimes worshipped before the statues of Isis suckling the infant Horus, seeing in them another form of the ancient and noble myth by which woman (i.e., the female principle), creating all things, becomes at last the Mother of God." Though the Virgin Mary is not worshipped (she is venerated) in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, her role as a merciful mother figure has parallels with the figure of Isis.
This is the result of early Christian exposure to Egyptian art. In a survey of "twenty leading Egyptologists" by Dr. W. Ward Gasque, a Christian scholar, found that all who responsed recognised "that the image of the baby Horus and Isis has influenced the Christian iconography of Madonna and Child" but that there were no other similarities, eg no evidence that Horus was born of a virgin, had twelve followers, etc...
Isis is worshipped in modern times, commonly within the context of neo-pagan spiritual movements. Organizations such as the Fellowship of Isis promote the spreading of Goddess worship and attract members from the wider Wiccan, Qabalah, Rosicrucianism, Celtic Mysteries, Zen, Sufi, and Tao paths.
Titles of Isis. In the Book of the Dead Isis was described as:
Some of Isis's many other titles were:
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