The concept of a maternal figure keeping watch over heroes and mortals alike is common in countless pantheons.
Take, for example, Rhea, the mother of the Olympians in Greek mythology. She acts as an ignition switch for an entirely new pantheon of Greek gods, which is one that eventually overthrows the old Titans. This forever immortalized her crucial role in countless myths and tales.
Cybele, the Anatolian mother goddess, is yet another example of the importance of having a maternal figure in any mythology. After all, a mother does whatever it takes to protect her children and cement their legacy forever in the pages of time.
For the ancient Egyptians, it was none other than the goddess Isis, one of the most significant and beloved Egyptian deities deeply etched within the country’s history and mythology.
What Was Isis The Goddess Of?
In the Egyptian pantheon, Isis was perhaps one of the most revered and beloved deities.
Also known as Aset, she was an ancient goddess that secured a guaranteed pathway to the afterlife for souls after death. She stood remarkably out from other deities.
Since Isis aided and mourned for her husband Osiris (the god of the afterlife), even in his death, she is also connected with the peace that reigns within the afterlife.
As the mother of Horus, the Egyptian god of the sky, her importance as a divine mother doesn’t go unnoticed. Her name appeared in healing charms and was invoked by the people of ancient Egypt whenever her blessings were required.
Due to this, Isis became the beacon of protection for the Egyptian gods and the people. This solidified her role as a universal goddess who held dominion over multiple aspects of life rather than just one.
This also included healing, magic and fertility.
Because this enchanting goddess was an OG ancient Egyptian deity, you can bet your brains that she was a superstar in Egyptian iconography.
She often appeared as a winged goddess in a human form, wearing an empty throne over her head. The hieroglyph with which the empty throne was drawn was also used to write her name.
When she feels like it, Isis wears a sheath dress and wields a staff to flex her superiority over the people of ancient Egypt. Isis wearing a golden dress to match her outstretched wings is also a common sight.
The sky goddess also wears a vulture headdress, sometimes adorned with other hieroglyphs, cow horns, and celestial spheres. This headdress was a heraldic symbol of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love and beauty. Still, it later came to be associated with Isis during the New Kingdom period.
Overall, Isis was portrayed as a young woman with wings wearing a crown that changed from time to time depending on what she was associated with.
Symbols of Isis
As a significant deity in Egyptian mythology, Isis’ symbols stretched far and wide due to her connection with many things at once.
To start off, kites and falcons were considered symbols of Isis because they were a massive part of her journey to revive Osiris (more on that later).
In fact, she actually had turned into a kite to unlock fast travel and complete her quests as soon as possible. Kites symbolized protection and freedom in Egypt, both of which were flagship attributes of Isis.
To emphasize her motherly nature, heifers in Egypt were also used to symbolize Isis. When connected with Apis, the Egyptian god of fertility, cows being illustrated as her willpower was also quite common.
Due to the vitalizing effects of trees and their importance in nature, Isis and her characteristics were also symbolized through them.
One thing that must be mentioned is the Tyet symbol. It is to Isis what the swoosh is to Nike. Similar in appearance to the Ankh, the Tyet came to be the hallmark of the ancient Egyptian goddess, especially when it came to funerary rites.
Meet the Family
Now onto the fun part.
To really understand how important Isis was in the pages of Egyptian mythology, we must look at her family line.
Isis’ parents were none other than Geb, the Egyptian god of earth, and the sky goddess Nut. She was, quite literally, the child of the earth and the sky; let that sink in for a moment.
However, she was not the only one.
Her siblings were Osiris, Set (the god of chaos), Nephthys (the goddess of air), and Horus the Elder (not to be confused with Isis’s son Horus the Younger).
This lovely family also followed Targaryen-esque customs, just like Greek mythology, and kept their divine bloodline pure by choosing consorts between themselves.
Isis’ consort, at first, was Osiris, with whom she had the most history. Later, she was depicted coupling with Min, the Egyptian god of erect penises (quite literally). Other texts also wed her with Horus the Elder.
As for Isis’ children, her son was Horus the Younger, who would soon become the dashing dynamite of Egyptian mythology. In some tales, Min is also described as Isis’ son. In others, Bastet, the ancient goddess of cats and feminine affairs, is also said to be the offspring of Isis and Ra, the supreme deity of the sun.
The Many Roles of Isis
Like Juno from Roman mythology, Isis was a goddess who came to be associated with countless affairs of the state.
As her roles couldn’t be converged into one specific thing, her universality was well highlighted by the inclusion of her many different tales across the pages of Egyptian religion.
It’d be unjust to her if we didn’t check some of them out.
Isis, as the Goddess of Protection
Thanks to the Osiris myth, Isis was considered the goddess of protection. After Set dismembered Osiris and threw away the pieces of his body across the many nomes of Egypt, it was Isis who took on the daunting task of finding all of them.
Her crucial role in resurrecting Osiris was highlighted in ancient temple despatches and the Pyramid Texts, as she was the primary deity who aided and consistently protected him in the afterlife.
Paired with the birth of her son and Isis nursing Horus, she was considered the goddess of protection. She was also invoked by kings in Pharaonic Egypt to aid them in battle.
Isis, as the Goddess of Wisdom
Isis was thought to be highly intellectual simply because she navigated through whatever hurdle she faced with cunning and mindfulness.
This is displayed in her encounter with Horus, where she swindles the power of immortality using her wits. She also played a vital mental game against Set, which eventually caused his downfall in the long run.
When her wisdom and magical abilities are combined, Isis is a goddess to be reckoned with, as “her cleverness would then surpass the wits of a million gods.”
Zeus would’ve definitely tried to seduce her.
Her wisdom and magical prowess were well respected by the other gods and the people of ancient Egypt.
Isis, as the Mother Goddess
Her son, Horus’s birth, highlights a significant attribute that makes Isis what she is at her very core: a mother.
Isis nursing Horus to become an adult god that could challenge Set is a well-known myth in Egyptian culture. The tale of Horus suckling Isis’ milk helped him grow not only in size but also in the pages of Egyptian mythology.
Moreover, it helped establish a divine connection between the two; the relationship of a mother to his son and vice versa.
This maternal connection is further amplified when Isis helps Horus tackle Set when he finally grows up and succeeds.
This entire myth shares a strange parallel to Greek mythology, where Rhea gives birth to Zeus secretly. When he grows up, she helps him rebel against Cronus, the Titan god of chaos, and eventually overthrow him.
As such, the concept of Isis being a mother-like goddess is revered. Undoubtedly, the time she spent caring for Horus underscores her role more than anything else in the ancient Egyptian religion.
Isis, as the Goddess of the Cosmos
Besides being the divine mother and the safe haven of the afterlife, Isis took care of everything that resided above the ground.
You see, Isis wasn’t one of those meager deities that only tended to dead Egyptians when they passed. She was in charge of every single aspect of their life. That included their consciousness and the very reality that they were living in.
During the Ptolemaic period, Isis’ commanding aura stretched to the heavens and beyond. Just as her powers expanded across Egypt, they also grew across the cosmos.
Isis was in charge of the fabric of reality itself, hand in hand with her son Horus. This is highlighted in a text in her temple at Dendera, where it is mentioned that she resides everywhere at once with her son, giving rise to her celestial omnipotence.
This universal aspect of her is underscored mainly in older texts of ancient Egypt, where her position was contended only by Ptah, the god of creation.
Isis, as the Mourning Goddess
Ever since Isis lost her brother-husband Osiris, she has been depicted as a woman yearning for the company of her lost love.
As a result, she was associated with widows and all those who mourned for their lost ones. Moreover, she reigned within the pathways to the afterlife to ensure the transition was as peaceful and smooth as possible for the ones due to cross.
For many, Isis became the beacon of the afterlife, providing nourishment and blessings to the dead. The reason behind her doing this graceful act can be traced back to her mourning for Osiris after he slipped away to the Duat (underworld) when he finally died.
A beautiful analogy relates her mourning to the birth of the Nile delta. Here, her tears for Osiris eventually form the river Nile which helps Egypt flourish as a civilization in the first place.
In many ancient Egyptian images and classical sculptures, Isis is also represented as a woman in the pose of mourning.
Isis Goddess and Ra
There is no shortage of myths where Isis’ bulging brain and clever cerebellum are highlighted. In one such story, Isis goes head-to-head with none other than the sun god himself, Ra.
He was basically the Helios of Egyptian mythology.
Ra might have had the head of a falcon, but his brains stretched far beyond human comprehension, given how he was literally the big boss of all Egyptian deities.
The story of Isis and Ra begins with a game of power. Isis intended to learn Ra’s true name as it would bestow her with the gift of immortality. Driven by the thirst for this divine power, Isis hatched a plan to make the sun god spit out his name.
Ra and His Spittle
When Ra had dropped a blob of his spittle on the ground by mistake, Isis scooped it up, knowing the only thing that could ever harm him was a part of himself. Isis conjured a snake out of his spittle and placed it on the path to Ra’s palace.
The poor sun god was eventually bitten by the snake. To his surprise, its poison was actually proving to be lethal. Ra fell to his knees and shouted for the other gods to come to his aid.
And guess who answered?
Goddess Isis came running to Ra with a fake look of pretense plastered on her face. She whipped up an Oscar-winning performance and stated that her healing spells would only work if she uttered Ra’s actual name.
Ra hesitated at first and showered her with fake names hoping one of them would do the trick. However, Isis saw right through it and stood firm by her need to know Ra’s actual name.
Then it finally happened.
Ra Spills His True Name to Isis
Ra pulled Isis close and whispered to her ears the actual name his celestial mother had given him upon his birth. Satisfied with the answer, Isis commanded the poison to come out of Ra, which it eventually did.
Knowing Ra’s true name had gifted Isis the power of immortality. With it, the goddess Isis further solidified her position as one of the most powerful and cunning ancient Egyptian deities.
Isis Goddess and the Seven Scorpions
One myth that highlights the nourishing and motherly nature of Isis revolves around the time of her quest to protect Horus from Set’s nefarious advances.
You see, she had gone into hiding with the infant Horus still in her arms. Her search for solitude led her to a small village where she wandered for hours with the only creatures to keep her company: 7 giant scorpions.
The scorpions were dispatched to her by none other than Serket, the ancient Egyptian goddess of venom and stings, to ensure her defense in case she was ambushed by any of Set’s forces.
Isis and the Rich Woman
One day, Isis arrived starving at a palace owned by a rich woman. When Isis requested shelter, however, the woman denied it and sent her off when she saw the scorpions flanking her.
Isis peacefully retreated and soon found herself in the abode of a peasant who was happy to provide her with a humble meal and a bed of straw.
You know who wasn’t happy, though?
The seven scorpions.
They were furious at the rich woman for denying their goddess, Isis, shelter and food. Together, they hatched a plan to bring her down. The scorpions distilled their poisons together and passed the mixture onto their leader, Tefen.
The Scorpions’ Revenge and Isis’ Rescue
Later that night, Tefen injected the deadly mixture into the veins of the rich woman’s child as they very much intended to kill him as revenge. However, once Isis caught hold of the child’s deathly screams and his mother’s cries, she ran out of the peasant’s house and traveled to the palace.
Realizing what had happened, the goddess took the child in her arms and started reciting her healing spells. One by one, the poisons of each scorpion started pouring out of the child, to his mother’s delight.
The child lived that night. When everyone in the village realized that the woman with scorpions was actually Isis, they began to seek her forgiveness. They offered her whatever compensation they could muster.
Isis left the village with a smile and Horus in her arms.
Since that day, the people of ancient Egypt learned to treat scorpion bites with poultices and mutter their gratitude to goddess Isis whenever their victims had healed.
The Osiris Myth
The most famous myth that the goddess Isis is part of in the ancient world is where the god Osiris is brutally murdered by his brother Set and is subsequently brought back to life.
The myth of Osiris is pretty significant in Egyptian mythology, and Isis’ role in it is definitely the most crucial.
Isis and Osiris
You see, Isis and Osiris were the Romeo and Juliet of their time.
The love between the two deities was so strong that it drove Isis to the brink of insanity when it was lost because of a tyrant.
To really understand how far Isis went because of Osiris, we must look at their story.
Set Traps Osiris
One day, Set, the ancient Egyptian god of war and chaos, called a huge party inviting all the gods in the pantheon.
Little did everyone know that this party was a delicate plan hatched by him to trap Osiris (the beloved god-king of ancient Egypt at the time) and remove him from his throne so he could sit on it.
Once all the gods had arrived, Set told everyone to take a seat because he had a challenge he wanted them to try out. He brought out a beautiful stone box and announced that it would be gifted to anyone who could fit inside it perfectly.
And the plot twist was that the box was tailored to fit only Osiris and no one else. So no matter how hard anyone else tried, none of them couldn’t fit inside it.
Except, of course, Osiris.
Once Osiris had set foot inside the box, Set closed it and imbued it with deep magic so he wouldn’t be able to get out. The nefarious god threw the box away to a downstream river and sat on the throne that was once owned by Osiris, announcing himself as king to the rest of ancient Egypt.
Nephthys and Isis
Set ruled Egypt with his sister Nephthys as his consort.
However, he hadn’t taken into account that Osiris’ lover, Isis, was still alive and kicking.
Isis decided to find Osiris and seek vengeance against Set, come hell or high water. But first, she would need help. It came in the form of Nephthys as she felt a wave of sympathy toward her sister.
Nephthys promised that she would help Isis in her quest to find Osiris. Together, they set off behind Set’s back to track the stone box the dead king was trapped in
The ancient Egyptians believed that they did this by turning into a kite and a hawk, respectively, so they could travel far and wide quickly.
And so both Isis and Nephthys flew as a dynamic kite hawk duo.
Osiris’ stone box eventually ended up in the kingdom of Byblos, where it had rooted itself in the river’s shores.
Due to the magic imbued by Set, a sycamore tree had grown around the box, which caused it to have a divine buff. The Byblos villagers thought that the tree’s lumber would grant them some super quick blessings.
So they decided to cut the tree down and reap the benefits.
When Isis and Nephthys eventually caught wind of this, they changed back to their usual forms and warned the villagers to stay back. The sisters procured Osiris’ corpse and secured a safe place by the river for him while they attempted to work their magic.
Set Finds It All Out
Isis mourned at the sight of the dead king.
In fact, this very accumulation of emotions led her to work her deepest magic to revive her beloved husband. Isis and Nephthys searched far and wide across Egypt, seeking other Egyptian gods’ help to glean any general information about the resurrection.
When they finally stuffed their pages with enough incantations, Isis and Nephthys returned to where they hid the body.
Guess what they found?
Osiris’ body had seemingly disappeared, and there had to be only one explanation: Set had figured out their little game.
Turns out, Set snatched Osiris’ body, dismembered it into fourteen parts, and hid it inside fourteen nomes or provinces of Egypt so the sisters could never find it.
This was precisely when Isis leaned against a tree and started crying. From her tears, the river Nile began to take shape, which then fertilized the lands of Egypt. Bet you didn’t see that origin story coming.
The Resurrection of Osiris
Refusing to stop at this final stage, Isis and Nephthys put their work gloves on. The kite hawk duo started traveling again across the ancient Egyptian skies and nomes.
One by one, they found all of Osiris’ body parts but soon ran into a hurdle that plunged them into a pool of worries; they could not find his penis.
Turns out, Set had pulled out the poor man’s populator and fed it to a catfish at the bottom of the Nile.
Unable to track down the catfish, Isis decided to make do with what she had. She and Nephthys glued Osiris’ body together with magic and recited the incantations that would eventually resurrect him.
Happy to reunite with her lover again, Isis takes it one step further and performs the necessary rites on him so his soul would be at peace in the afterlife.
Considering her task to be completed, Nephthys left Isis alone with her newly revived.
One thing Isis had missed during Osiris’ absence was her throbbing sexual desire for him.
Since Osiris had returned, it had grown on her again. More importantly, the couple needed a child to carry on their legacy and seek vengeance against Set, who was still on the throne. However, there was one tiny problem: he was missing his most important asset, his penis.
But that proved no problem for Isis as she utilized her powers again and crafted a magical phallus for Osiris according to her will. Bet she enjoyed that one.
The two of them coupled that night, and Isis was blessed with Horus.
Isis gave birth to Horus in the swamps of the Nile, far away from the watchful leer of Set. Once Horus was born, the goddess Isis bid her farewell to Osiris.
With his funeral completed and the final farewell from Isis, Osiris passed away from the world of the living to the afterlife. Here, he ruled over the dead and breathed eternal life into the ones that had passed away.
Isis and Horus
The story of Isis and Horus begins here.
With Osiris’ departure, the need for vengeance against Set amplified tenfold. As a result, Isis had to take care of Horus in every possible way.
As the years passed, Isis defended Horus from every potential hazard: scorpions, storms, illnesses, and, most importantly, Set’s forces. Isis’ journey of protecting Horus significantly underscores her commanding role as a mother and her incredibly compassionate nature.
All of these traits were much welcome and revered by countless followers of the ancient Egyptian goddess.
When Horus became an adult, he (alongside Isis) decided to travel to Set’s palace and settle everything once and for all.
Horus and Isis challenged Set’s legitimacy as the rightful king of all of Egypt. This sparked some controversy amongst the gods who were watching.
After all, Set was the supreme ruler of Egypt for many years. And his claim was being challenged by two deities that were missing for a considerable chunk of ancient Egyptian history.
To make things fairer, the gods insisted that Set accept the challenge but hold a contest, hoping it would eventually decide which god actually deserved the throne.
Set happily accepted this as he was confident he would completely demolish the newcomer and make an imposing statement.
Isis Sets Set Free
A lot of grueling matches followed where Set emerged victorious primarily due to him cheating through it all.
However, in one match, Isis set up a trap to aid Horus. The king pleaded for forgiveness when the trap worked its magic and urged Isis to let him go.
Basically, he gaslit her into giving him a second chance by probably mentioning her husband and how much he regretted butchering him.
Unfortunately, Isis gave in to it. Being a compassionate and kind goddess, she spared Set and let him go. Little did she know that this would give rise to a new drama, courtesy of her son.
The Beheading of Isis
Safe to say, Horus was mad when he found out what his mother had done.
In fact, he was so mad that he decided to do a complete U-turn and attack Isis instead of Set. With his adolescent hormones raging, Horus captured Isis and attempted to behead her. He succeeded, but only for a while.
Remember when Isis tricked Ra into giving her the power of immortality?
This came in handy when Horus decided to cut her head off.
Because of her immortality, she lived even when her head rolled down to the floor. In some texts, it was here that Isis fashioned herself a cow-horn headdress and wore it for the rest of her life.
When Horus finally realizes his crime, he asks for Isis’ forgiveness. He returned to dealing with Set, his actual enemy.
The other Egyptian gods finally decided to hold one final match to determine the victor. It happened to be a boat race. However, Set would get the upper hand here as he had the power to decide what the boats would be made with.
The gods gave him this advantage because of Horus’s recent tantrum and his disrespect towards Isis. Horus had no choice but to accept it. After a small trick, Horus emerged victorious, and Isis stood firm by his side. At the same time, Set slithered like a defeated snake on the ground below.
To confirm Horus’ victory, the gods wrote to Osiris and asked him if it was a fair one from his perspective. The god of the afterlife declared Horus the true king of Egypt as he had earned the title without murdering anyone, whereas Set had simply swindled it with bloodshed.
The Crowning of Horus
The gods happily accepted Osiris’ response and exiled Set from Egypt.
The much anticipated moment had finally arrived as the son, and his proud mother climbed up the stairs of the grand palace in their divine empire.
From this point forward, Isis ruled beside Horus with a smile on her face. Knowing Osiris’ untimely murder was finally avenged, she was confident that her love was smiling in the afterlife.
Life was good.
Worship of Isis
Her association with resurrection, the parenting of Horus, and the afterlife meant that many would worship Isis for many years to come.
Alongside Osiris and the sky goddess Nut, Isis was also part of the Ennead Heliopolis, a group of nine celestial deities spearheaded by Ra.
These deities were especially revered by the people. Since Isis was a massive part of it, her worship was undoubtedly widespread.
Some of Isis’ major temples were the Iseion at Behbeit el-Hagar and Philae in Egypt. Though only windswept sandstone blocks remain today, clues tracing back to the cult of Isis remain evident.
One thing is for sure: Isis was worshipped in some form all around the Mediterranean. From Ptolemaic Egypt to the Roman empire, her visage and impact are pretty apparent in their records.
Festivals for Isis
During the Roman period, the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis was honored by the Egyptians by pulling statuettes of her through crop fields to earn her favor toward a bountiful harvest.
Chants were also created in honor of her. They were recorded in a work of ancient Egyptian literature whose author remains unknown.
On top of this, the cult of Isis at Philae, Egypt, continued to hold festivals in her honor. This continued until at least the middle of the fifth century.
Isis and Funerary Rites
Since Isis was significantly connected to shepherding lost souls toward peace in the afterlife, mentions of her were common during funeral rites.
Isis’ name was invoked during the mummification process when casting charms so the dead could be well guided within the Duat, as highlighted in the Pyramid Texts.
The “Book of the Dead” also mentions Isis’s role in protecting the dead. Other texts in “Books of Breathing” were also said to be written by her to aid Osiris in the afterlife.
Isis’ symbol, the Tyet, would often be placed on the mummies as an amulet so the dead would be protected from all harm.
Legacy of Isis Goddess
Be it the middle kingdom or the new, Isis grew as a staple name when looking into Egyptian mythology.
One of her legacies is the “Gift of Isis,” where a papyrus mentions her generosity and honor towards women.
The papyrus states empowering women, courtesy of Isis, in many areas such as ancient real estate, medicine, and handling money.
The concept of a benevolent maternal figure like Isis has also leaked to other religions, such as Christianity. Here, she could’ve been one of the many goddesses that shaped the personality of the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The goddess graced the creative minds of many Hellenistic sculptors outside Egypt in the Greco-Roman world. This is evident as her images appear in masterfully detailed statues pre-Renaissance.
Isis is also found in popular culture, where Egyptian mythology or superhero stories are a focus.
Egyptian mythology and Isis are synonymous.
When you dive deep into the ancient tales of Egypt, the chances of coming across a mention of Isis first are way more than the mention of Pharaohs.
There’s probably more veneration of this profound goddess than a detailed history of Pharaohs. Let that sink in for a moment.
For Egypt, Isis or Aset is a lot more than just a goddess. She is a figure that shaped the very life and beliefs of their people in antiquity.
Though her worship might’ve died out, memories and mentions of her remain intact. In fact, it is bound to be like for a million more years to come.
Loving wife, mother, or divine goddess, Isis reigns supreme.