- Pronunciation: EE-sihs
- Origin: Egypt
- Role: Goddess
- Symbols: Thet, Sept
- Husband: Osiris
- Siblings: Osiris, Set, Nepthys
- Other Names: Aust, Esu, Hesat
Who Is Isis?
Isis was an important Egyptian goddess but her temples and following eventually spread past Egypt and into several parts of Europe. She was the goddess of motherhood, medicine, marriage, fertility, and magic. There are many names for the goddess but her importance and demeanor remain the same.
Isis’ origins are a bit unclear. It is thought that she may have originated in the Sinai but other historians think it is more likely that she began as a fetish in lower Egypt. But her cult wasn’t limited to a single area as she was worshipped in temples all over.
She has often been called the “Goddess with Ten Thousand Names” and although it’s not quite that many, her names are numerous, depending on where in the world she was worshipped. Some of her other names include Hesat, Urethekau, Aust and Esu. In Egypt, she was associated with Hathor and Sekhmet while in Greece, she was closely associated with Persephone and Athena.
Legends and Stories
Even though Isis usually remained in the background, there is one main myth that gives insight into who she was as a goddess, wife, and mother.
Flooding of the Nile
A favorite myth about Isis says that her tears are the reason for the Nile River flooding every year. Set, Isis’ brother, was jealous of Osiris, Isis’ husband. He was so jealous that the planned on killing him. One day, Osiris was scheduled to return from a long journey. Set organized a party to welcome him back. In the middle of the banquet area, Set had left a chest that was beautifully decorated.
Set had developed a game surrounding the chest. He told all the guests to take turned lying down in it and whoever fit perfectly inside would be allowed to keep the chest. All the guests tried but no one fit to Set’s liking. He finally convinced Osiris to try and when he climbed inside, Set demanded all the guests leave and he slammed down the lid, turning the chest into a coffin. He threw it into the Nile river.
The coffin floated down the river and eventually reached Bilbos. It landed near a water spring and became caught in the roots of a large tree. The tree grew around the coffin and completely covered it. The King of Bilbos noticed how beautiful the tree was and demanded that it be placed in the middle of his palace so that he could see it every day.
While all of this was taking place, Isis was searching for her missing husband. She discovered the location of the coffin and devised a plan to be allowed into the palace. She disguised herself as an old woman and waited by the stream used by the Queen’s maids to wash. They took pity on the old woman and brought her to the palace for food and shelter. She thanked them by braiding their hair.
The Queen noticed the new hairstyles and asked her maids about them. The maids told her about the old woman they had saved. The Queen happened to be pregnant and when it was time to give birth, the maids immediately thought of the old woman and decided she would be able to assist.
Isis said she would help but only if she could stay with the baby alone during the night. The Queen agreed but the maids noticed the noise of a bird at night. They told the Queen, who decided to investigate. She saw her baby lying on a bed of red hot coals with a swallow flying overhead. The Queen snatched up the baby and ran.
Isis, who had taken the form of a swallow, immediately transformed herself into her goddess form and told the Queen she was a fool, as she was burning away the baby’s mortality. She then met with the King and told both him and the Queen why she was really there. She was allowed to take the coffin with her husband’s body. She took it back to Egypt and hid it in the swamp.
Isis’ father was Geb, the god of the earth, and her mother was Nut, the god of the sky. She was married to her brother, Osiris, the god of the dead and resurrection. She had one other brother, Set, and a sister named Nepthys. She had many children, including Horus, Anubis, Mesthi, Hapi, and Tuamutef. The only one she had with Osiris was Horus while the others were fathered by Osiris, birthed by Nepthys, and adopted by Isis.
Artistic representations show Isis as a human woman with the elegance and mythological essence of a goddess. She is usually shown with a vulture headdress which looks like a bird on its stomach. The bird’s head falls just over Isis’ forehead and the wings hang down on each side. She is usually wearing a long gown that touches the floor and a traditional Egyptian jeweled collar. In many depictions, she is holding a papyrus scepter in one hand and an ankh in the other. She is also shown with wings down the entire length of both arms.
If Isis isn’t shown with a headdress, she is wearing a crown. There are two different types of crowns. One has the horns of a ram while the other crown has horns surrounding a sun disc, which is the more popular of the two.
There are many symbols associated with Isis. The thet, or the buckle or knot of the goddess, represents the female reproductive organs. It was usually made of a red substance to give it further meaning. The thet essentially represents life.
The sept is another symbol of Isis. It is a star that was used to mark the beginning of a new year. Animals that represented Isis include the cow, snake, and scorpion. There are also several birds associated with her, including the swallow, hawk, and dove.