Isis, the Egyptian goddess

THE EGYPTIAN GODDESS OF MAGIC

You wish to know who was Isis, the goddess of magic, sister-wife of Osiris? Do you want to dive into the myth of Osiris in which Isis plays a key role?

You've come to the right place: passionate about the gods of ancient Egypt, we will be happy to tell you the beautiful story of the goddess of magic.

Isis is the sister of Osiris, Set and Nephthys. Having married Osiris, she will seek to resurrect him (after his assassination by Set), while protecting Horus, her son with the help of Thoth, Nephthys and Anubis.

In this article, you will discover:

  • The myth of the murder of Osiris, the brother and husband of Isis
  • How Isis protected her son Horus from the evil god, Set
  • The family tree of Isis containing all the members of her divine family
  • The attributes of Isis in ancient Egypt

At the end of this article, you will know all about the goddess of magic.

Let's start with a little presentation of Isis!

1) Stories of Egyptian mythology attached to Isis

Isis is the Egyptian goddess of magic, fertility, motherhood, healing and rebirth. Isis is a deity that became so popular in Egypt that her cult was also imported and partially adopted in Europe (especially in Greece and the Roman Empire). Born on the first day of the creation of the world, she is the first daughter of Geb (the god of Earth) and Nut (the goddess of heaven).

She is the sister of Osiris (who later became her husband), Set and Nephthys. She is the mother of Horus, the falcon-headed god, the son she had with Osiris.

In the time of the pharaohs, Isis was known as Auset, Aset, and Eset, names that in ancient Egyptian meant "guardian of the throne. The name refers to her role in the abdication of the king of the gods Ra, the original supreme god, who was replaced by Horus.

papyrus decorated with hieroglyphs

A papyrus decorated with hieroglyphs from the Book of the Dead. From left to right: Isis, Ra, Horus, and Hathor (Horus' wife).

A) The myth of the birth of Horus

This story begins peacefully: Osiris, the perfect god reigns over Egypt alongside his sister-wife Isis. This majestic god brings peace and prosperity to Egypt as pharaoh. But all could not have gone so well. Set, the brother of Osiris, jealous of him, began to plot against Osiris.

At a large banquet in honor of Osiris, Set brought a large and splendid chest whose shape astonishingly replicated Osiris's morphology. Set claimed that he would offer this chest to anyone who could fit inside it. Since the chest was designed to fit Osiris' size exactly, all the guests obviously failed.

When it was Osiris' turn to try the chest, he was doubly surprised. First because he found it just about his size. Second, because Set nailed the chest as soon as Osiris was installed in it before throwing it into the Nile. As you can see, this chest was to become the first of Egypt's sarcophagi.

This sneaky action devastated Isis, who set out to find the sarcophagus of Osiris so that she could mourn him. She found it inlaid in the wood of a pillar in the palace of a king in a faraway land (the king was either Coptic Nubian or Hittite, depending on the version of the myth). Isis recovered the pillar (and thus the sarcophagus) by healing the king's son from a serious illness.

She will then bring the body of Osiris back to Egypt to give him a dignified burial. A fate then allowed Isis to give life to her husband during one single night, which allowed her to become pregnant with Horus (because in spite of all the evil existing in this world the force of life and that of the couple always triumph over darkness as our partner Insta-Couple will confirm it to us).

Set, finding the coffin, cut the body of Osiris into fourteen pieces in a burst of rage. Isis once again in search of the body of Osiris, attracted by her tears the wife of Set, Nephthys. Nephthys helped Isis find thirteen of the fourteen pieces, but a fish from the Nile ate and digested the last one morceau 🍖.

The fateful disappearance of this last piece was a shock to Isis, for without it, Osiris could no longer belong to the realm of the living. After mummification, the soul of Osiris joined the Tuat, the Egyptian world of the dead.

Isis, the Egyptian goddess of magic

Isis, the Egyptian goddess of magic

Following the departure of Osiris, Isis was kidnapped by Set who wanted her for his own but Thoth, a particularly sympathetic god, helped her to escape. Isis later became friends with seven scorpion goddesses (Maatet, Befen, Mestet, Mestetetef, Petet, Thetet, and Tefen) whom she helped cross a river by carrying them in her arms. The scorpion goddesses protecting her from Set, Isis traveled out of Egypt to be able to discreetly raise Horus far from the dangerous Set.

However, on the day of his birth, Horus screamed so loudly that Set quickly became aware of the existence of the son of Osiris and wanted to have him killed. At the same time, Tefen, the youngest of the Scorpion Goddesses who was jealous of Isis, who had become the center of interest of the brotherhood of Scorpion Goddesses instead, quarreled with her sisters and left her family.

Unable to approach Horus, who was still protected by the other Scorpion Goddesses, Set cast a terrible spell to force Tefen to return to Isis to murder the young Horus.

But Tefen, remembering the good times she had spent with Isis and her sister Scorpion Goddesses, would rather sting herself with her sting than kill the only son of the girl who had eventually become her new sister. Thus she ruined Set's terrible plans at the cost of her life.

B) The theft of the powers of the supreme god Ra

Another legend tells how Isis stole the almighty powers of Ra to give them to Horus. Isis stole some of her blood from Ra during his sleep and mixed it with earth to create a poisonous snake.

She then ordered the snake to make a counterpoison before biting Ra while he was still sleeping. Awakened by the immense pain, Ra killed the poor snake instantly. Isis then promised Ra to heal it if he gave it its magical name. A secret name that she could then potentially pronounce to give him orders. Ra, who was writhing in pain, yielded to blackmail.

With the name now known, Isis forced him to abdicate and made Horus, his beloved son, king of the gods.

C. The great family of Isis

To better visualize Isis' Egyptian gods family situation (sometimes complicated) here is her family tree. You will find below this tree an explanation of it!

pyramids cairo nubian akhenaton

The ancestors of Isis

  • Great-grandfather: Ra, original Sun god, creator of the universe
  • Grandfather: Shou, god of the air
  • Grandmother: Tefnut, Sun goddess, illuminating Upper and Lower Egypt
  • Father: Geb, god of the earth
  • Mother: Nut (or Nut), goddess of the sky

The brothers and sisters of Isis

  • Brother (and husband): Osiris, god of the dead and the resurrection
  • Brother: Set, god of evil and darkness
  • Sister: Nepthys, goddess of darkness, decay and death

The descendants of Isis

  • Son: Horus, god of heaven, god of royalty
  • Nephews: Anubis, god of embalming and death. Anubis is the son of Osiris and Nephthys (who disguised himself as Isis to seduce Osiris). Anubis was abandoned at his birth in the desert by Nephthys, who feared that Set would learn of this illegitimate union. Isis found him and raised him as her son

1) The attributes of Isis

A. The names of Isis

Isis is commonly referred to as the "Goddess of Ten Thousand Names".

Although this statement is exaggerated, it still carries many names (about 90 according to Egyptologists), of which the best known are Aset, Aust, Eenohebis, Eset, Esu, Hesat, Iahu, Unt, Urethekau, and Werethekau.

Isis also sometimes took the names and attributes of two Egyptian goddesses: Sekhmet (the lion-headed goddess) and Hathor (the goddess of love, beauty, and joy), depending on the era. Some Greek cities also worshipped Isis who replaced their goddesses Persephone (goddess of agriculture and wife of the god Hades) and Athena (the goddess of military strategy and artists).

And that's not all! Isis is also known under many different titles given to her for the roles she played, such as:

- Thenenet: goddess of the Tuat (the underworld, the world of the dead)

- Amusement: lady of the underworld who restores the bodies of the dead so that they may live eternally in abundance with Osiris in his celestial kingdom.

- Khut: bearer of the light of each new year

- Usert: Goddess of the Earth

- Ankhet: source of the fertility of the waters and the mineral wealth of the earth

- Kekhet: goddess of the fields and of all cultivated areas.

- Renenet: goddess of the harvest in the Nile valley

- Tcheft: goddess of food offered to the gods by the Egyptian pharaonic empire

B. The physical characteristics of Isis

The representations of Isis show her wearing a vulture's headdress. The vulture lies on its belly, while its head rests on Isis' forehead and its wings cover Isis' hair. Isis always wears a necklace decorated with luxurious jewels and is often endowed with long wings (magic wings that she uses to bring Osiris back to life). She is also often endowed with a scepter in the shape of an ânkh (symbol of life).

In her representations, Isis wears different crowns instead of her headdress. One of the crowns has horns surrounding a red Sun disk (lending Isis the powers of Tefnut, the Sun goddess). Another crown is a double crown with ram's horns (lending Isis the powers of Shu on the wind).

Isis, the Egyptian goddess of magic

It was the magical wings of Isis that gave Horus his falcon's head.

C. The temples of Isis in Egypt

Isis as Egypt's most famous goddess was entitled to two immense temples were at Behbeit el-Hagar and Philae (both measuring 500 meters wide by 400 meters long by 60 meters high). In short, a temple that was one of Egypt's great monuments alongside those at Luxor, Abu Simbel, Thebes, and Karnak.

Construction of Behbeit al-Hagar began in the late ancient Egyptian period, but was not completed until the middle of the Ptolemaic period (a construction period that lasted 300 years). Unfortunately, the temple is now completely demolished because of the ravages of time.

Temple of Isis at Philae

The Temple of Isis at Philae, in the land of Cleopatra and Cheops.

According to experts in Egyptology, Behbeit al-Hagar served as a model for the Temple of Isis at Philae in Upper Egypt. Egyptologists believe that construction of the temple on the island of Philae began during Dynasty 25 of Egyptian civilization. Construction was not completed until the Greco-Roman period (which is 450 years old!).

In its temples one can find many drawings and statues of Isis and her protective animals: cows, scorpions, snakes, doves, falcons, vultures, and owls.

Isis was allowed two temples dedicated solely to her, a rare occurrence for Egyptian deities (the great gods Sobek and Horus were allowed to share a single temple).

However, even without extensive Egyptological knowledge, it is easy to see why Isis fascinated the ancient Egyptians so much: the mysteries surrounding her and her proactive role in the myths of Osiris and Ra obviously puts her in the spotlight!


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