Isis (Greek corruption; the Egyptian is Aset) was originally a goddess from Nubia, and was adopted into Egyptian belief very early. Her name literally means (female) of throne, i.e. Queen of the throne, although the hieroglyph used originally meant (female) of flesh, i.e. mortal, and she may simply have represented deified, real, queens. When deified, symbolic of the queen, it was sometimes said that she was the daughter of Tawaret, the goddess of royal birth.
A hymn about Isis from the 14th century BC says:
In the beginning there was Isis: Oldest of the Old, She was the Goddess from whom all Becoming of the House of Life, Mistress of the Word of God. She was the Unique. In all Her great and wonderful works She was a wiser magician and more excellent than any other God.
As the deification of the wife of the pharaoh, Isis protected the dead body of the Pharaoh, since this was seen as an intrinsic part of her job as royal protector. Thus she gained a funerary association, and was said to be the mother of the four gods who protected the canopic jars. More specifically, Isis was viewed as protector of the god Imsety. This association with the Pharaoh's wife also brought the idea that Isis was considered the spouse of Horus, who was protector, and later the deification, of the Pharaoh himself. Consequently, on occasion, her mother was said to be Hathor, the mother of Horus.
In another area of Egypt, when the pantheon was formalised, Isis became one of the Ennead of Heliopolis, as a daughter of Nuit and Geb, and sister to Osiris, Nephthys, and Set. As a funerary deity, she was associated with Osiris, god of the underworld (Aaru), and thus was considered his wife, whereas Nephthys was the wife of Set. Isis and Nephthys were often depicted on coffins, with wings outstretched, as protectors against evil.
A later legend, ultimately a result of the replacement of another god 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 Set, who was gay (and already had a male lover - Shu), and so disguised herself as the much more attractive Isis to try to seduce him. The ploy 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 Set's anger, Nephthys persuaded Isis to adopt Anubis, so that Set would not find out. The tale describes both why Anubis is seen as an underworld deity (he is a son of Osiris), and why he couldn't inherit Osiris' position (he was not a legitimate heir), neatly preserving Osiris' position as lord of the underworld.
Assimilation of Hathor
Beliefs about Ra himself had been hovering around the identification of Ra, a sun god, with Horus, another sun god (as the compound Ra-Herakhty), and so for some time, Isis had intermittently been considered the wife of Ra, since she was the wife of Horus. Consequently, since there was not anything logically troubling by identifying Isis as Ra's wife, Hathor unlike identifying Ra as his own son, she and Hathor became considered the same deity, Isis-Hathor. Sometimes the alternative consideration arose, that Isis, in the Ennead, was a child of Atum-Ra, and so should have been a child of Ra's wife, Hathor, although this was less favoured as Isis had enough in common with Hathor to be considered one and the same.
It was this merger with Hathor that proved to be the most significant event in the history of Egyptian mythology. 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. However, it had to be explained how Osiris, who as god of the dead, was dead, could be considered a father to Horus who was very much not considered dead. This lead to the evolution of the idea that Osiris needed to be resurrected, and so to the Legend of Osiris and Isis, a myth so significant that everything else paled in comparison.
In order to resurrect Osiris for the purpose of having the child Horus, it was necessary for Isis to learn magic, and so it was that Isis tricked Ra (i.e. Amun-Ra/Atum-Ra) into telling her his "secret name", by getting a snake to bite and poison him, so that he would use his "secret name" to survive. In consequence, as well as the attributes of motherhood and fertility originating in Hathor, Isis became a goddess of magic.
The priestesses of Isis were healers and midwives, and were said to have many special powers, including dream interpretation and the ability to control the weather by braiding or combing their hair, the latter of which was because the ancient Egyptians considered knots to have magical power. Serket became considered an aspect of the more significant goddess Isis, because she was also seen as curer of poisoned scorpion stings (and so a healer, and thus patron also of magicians), and because she was also one of the four goddesses protecting the gods who watched the canopic jars, like Isis, and was also a protector of marriage.
Because of the association between knots and magical power, a symbol of Isis was the tiet/tyet (meaning welfare/life), also called the Knot of Isis, Buckle of Isis, or the Blood of Isis. The tiet in many respects resembles an ankh, except that its arms curve down, and in all these cases seems to represent the idea of eternal life/resurrection. The meaning of Blood of Isis is more obscured, but the tyet was often used as a funerary amulet made of red wood, stone, or glass, so this may have simply been a description of its appearance.
Assimilation of Mut
After the authority of Thebes had risen, and made Amun into a much more significant god, it later waned, and Amun was assimilated into Ra. In consequence, Amun's consort, Mut, the doting, infertile, and implicitly virginal, mother, who by this point had absorbed other goddesses herself, was assimilated into Ra's wife, Isis-Hathor, as Mut-Isis-Nekhbet. On occasion, Mut's infertility and implicit virginity, was taken into consideration, and so Horus, who was too significant to ignore, had to be explained by saying that Isis became pregnant with magic, when she transformed herself into a kite and flew over Osiris' dead body.
The star Spica (sometimes called Lute Bearer), and the constellation which roughly corresponded to the modern Virgo, appeared at a time of year associated with the harvest of wheat and grain, and thus with fertility gods and goddesses. Consequently they were associated with Hathor, and hence with Isis. Isis also assimilated Sopdet, the personification of 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. Sopdet still retained an element of distinct identity, however, as Sirius was quite visibly a star and not living in the underworld.
In art, originally Isis was pictured as a woman wearing a headdress in the shape of a throne, sometimes holding a lotus, as a sycamore tree. After her assimilation of Hathor, Isis was often symbolised by a cow, or a cow's head, or, in the most common form, a woman with the horns of a cow on her head, with the sun disc (of Horus) between them. Usually, she was depicted with her son, the great god Horus, with a crown and a vulture, and sometimes as a kite flying above Osiris's body.
In the Book of the Dead Isis was described 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. Some of Isis' many other titles were Queen of Heaven, Mother of the Gods, The One Who is All, Lady of Green Crops, The Brilliant One in the Sky, Star of the Sea, Great Lady of Magic, Mistress of the House of Life, She Who Knows How To Make Right Use of the Heart, Light-Giver of Heaven, Lady of the Words of Power, and Moon Shining Over the Sea.
In late times, due to her name, and her associations, she was often confused with the unconnected Semitic goddess Astarte. Also, during the period of Greek dominance, due to her attributes as a protector, and mother, and the lusty aspect originally from Hathor, she was made the patron goddess of sailors.
Isis outside Egypt
The cult of Isis rose to prominence in the Hellenistic world, beginning in the last centuries BC, until it was eventually banned by the Christians in the 6th century. Despite the Isis mystery cult's growing popularity, there is evidence to suggest that the Isis mysteries were not altogether welcomed by the ruling classes in Rome. Her rites were considered by the princeps Augustus to be "pornographic" and capable of destroying the Roman moral fibre.
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 gods who were closely associated with the state. Eventually the Roman emperor Gaius Caesar abandoned the Augustan wariness towards Oriental cults, and it was in his reign that the Isiac festival was established in Rome. According to Josephus, Gaius himself donned female garb and took part in the mysteries he instituted, and Isis acquired in the Hellenistic age a "new rank as a leading goddess of the Mediterranean world."
Roman perspectives on cult were syncretic, seeing in a new deity 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. In the Golden Ass (1st century), Apuleius' goddess Isis is identified with Cybele:
Behold, Lucius, I have arrived. Thy weeping and prayers have moved me to succour thee. I am she that is the natural mother of all things, the Mistress and Governess of all the Elements, the initial Progenitrix of all things, the Chief of powers divine, Queen of Heaven, the First of the Gods celestial, the light of the Goddesses. At my will, the planets of the air, the wholesome winds of the Seas, and the silences of hell are disposed; my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in various manners, in various customs and in many names, for the Phrygians call me the Mother of the Gods.
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 Yorùbá mythology, Isis became Yemaya. In later years, Isis also had temples throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, and as far away as the British Isles, where there was a temple to Isis on the River Thames by Southwark.
Some scholars argue that aspects of Isis worship have influenced the practices of some Christians in regards to the Virgin Mary, and especially her relationship with her son, Horus. There is a strong resemblance to the depiction of the seated Isis holding or suckling the child Horus and the seated Mary and the baby Jesus. It has been suggested by these scholars that the reason Isis worship abruptly ends, despite the vast number of its adherents, is due to her having been identified as Mary, and her temples having been merely renamed in consequence. If this is true then Isis is still worshipped today, and has been for at least 5000 years, and if it is not, then there has still been a recent revival of explicitly Isis based worship, among neopagans and feminists who are attracted by the matriarchal notions of goddess worship.
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