You wish to know who was Isis, the goddess of magic and the sister-wife of the pharaoh 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: fascinated about the gods of ancient Egypt, we will be happy to tell you the beautiful story of the goddess of magic.
Isis is the Egyptian goddess of magic. She 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 Egyptian 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 secrets and magic.
Let's start with a little presentation of Isis!
1) Isis in Egyptian mythology
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).
In Egyptian mythology, she is born on the first day of the creation of the world. Indeed, 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. Isis is the mother of Horus, the falcon-headed god (a son she had with Osiris).
In the time of the pharaohs, Isis was known as Auset, Aset, and Eset. All these names meant "guardian of the throne" in ancient Egyptian. These names refer to her role in the abdication of the king of the gods Ra, the original supreme god, who was replaced by Horus thanks to Isis.
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 Horus
This story begins peacefully: the perfect god-pharaoh Osiris reigns over Egypt alongside his sister-wife Isis. This majestic ruler brings peace and prosperity to Egypt. Yet, 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 surprisingly 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. Secondly, because Set nailed the chest as soon as Osiris was installed in it before throwing it into the Nile. This chest became the first of Egypt's sarcophagi with the death by drowning of Osiris.
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 spell then allowed Isis to give life to her husband during one single night, which allowed her to become pregnant with Horus.
Yet, during a coronation party, Set found the coffin of Osiris (hidden by Isis close to the Nile river). In a burst of rage, the new pharaoh of Egypt cut the body of Osiris into fourteen pieces. Once again in search of the body of Osiris, Isis attracted by her tears the wife of Set, Nephthys. Nephthys helped Isis find thirteen of the fourteen pieces. However, a large fish from the Nile ate and digested the last one piece.
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. As a consequence, after mummification, the soul of Osiris joined the Tuat, the Egyptian world of the dead.
Isis, the Egyptian goddess of magic.
Following the departure of Osiris, Isis was kidnapped by Set who wanted to make her his second wife. Yet, Thoth, a particularly sympathetic ibis-headed 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. In gratitude, the scorpion goddesses protecting her from Set. This allowed Isis to travel 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. To prevent Horus to claim one day the throne of his father, Set wanted to have the child killed. At the same time, Tefen, the youngest of the scorpion goddesses was jealous of Isis, who had become the center of interest of the sisterhood of scorpion goddesses in her place. Tefen quarreled with her sisters and left her family.
Unable to approach Horus, who was still protected by the other scorpion goddesses, Set cast a spell to force Tefen to return to Isis in order to murder discreetly the young Horus.
However, remembering the good times she had spent with Isis and her sister scorpion goddesses, Tefen preferred to sting herself with her scorpion stinger rather than kill the only son of the one who finally became her new sister. Thus, Tefen ruined Set's terrible plans at the cost of her life.
B) The myth of Ra
Another legend tells how Isis stole the almighty powers of Ra to give them to Horus. Isis stole some of his blood from Ra during his sleep. She then mixed it with earth of Egypt to create an extremely poisonous snake.
Isis ordered the snake to make a counterpoison before biting Ra while the latter was still sleeping. Awakened by an immense pain, Ra killed the poor snake instantly. Isis then promised Ra to heal it if he gave it its magical name. Indeed, every god possessed a secret name that anyone could potentially pronounce to give him orders. Ra, who was writhing in pain, gave in to the blackmail.
With the name now known, Isis forced Ra to abdicate and made Horus, her beloved son, the king of the gods.
C) The great family of Isis
To better visualize Isis' Egyptian gods family, here is her family tree. You will find below this tree an explanation of it!
The ancestors of Isis
- Great-grandfather: Ra, the father of all gods, the creator of the universe.
- Grandfather: Shu, the god of the air.
- Grandmother: Tefnut, the Sun goddess, illuminating Upper and Lower Egypt.
- Father: Geb, the god of the earth.
- Mother: Nut, the goddess of the sky.
The brothers and sisters of Isis
- Brother (and husband): Osiris, the god of the dead and of the resurrection.
- Brother: Set, the god of evil and darkness.
- Sister: Nephthys, the protective goddess of souls.
The descendants of Isis
- Son: Horus, the god of heaven, the god of pharaohs and of royalty.
- Nephew: Anubis, the god of embalming. Anubis is the son of Osiris and Nephthys (who disguised herself 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 Anubis 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, she still carries many names (about 90 according to Egyptologists, the historians of Egypt), of which the best known are Aset, Asarte, Aust, Eenohebis, Eset, Esu, Hesat, Iahu, Unt, Urethekau, and Werethekau.
Depending on Egyptians eras, 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). Some Greek cities also worshiped 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 titles given to her for the roles she played in Egyptian myths, such as:
- Thenenet: meaning "goddess of the Tuat" (the underworld, the world of the Egyptian dead).
- Amusement: meaning "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: meaning "bearer of the light of each new year."
- Usert: meaning "goddess of the earth."
- Ankhet: meaning "source of the fertility of the waters and of the mineral wealth of the earth."
- Kekhet: meaning "goddess of the fields and of all cultivated areas."
- Renenet: meaning "goddess of the harvest in the Nile valley."
- Tcheft: meaning "goddess of food offered to the gods by the Egyptian pharaonic empire."
B) The attributes of Isis
The majority of 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 ankh (the cross-shaped Egyptian symbol of life).
In her representations, Isis sometimes wears different crowns instead of her vulture's headdress. One of these crowns represents horns surrounding a red Sun disk (lending Isis the powers of Tefnut, the Sun goddess).
It was the magical wings of Isis that gave Horus his falcon's head.
C) The temples of Isis
Isis as Egypt's most famous goddess was entitled to two immense temples, at Behbeit El Hagar and Philae (both measuring 500 meters wide by 400 meters long by 60 meters high). In short, two temples that were some of Egypt's great monuments alongside those at Luxor, Abu Simbel, Thebes, and Karnak.
The construction of Behbeit El Hagar's temple began in the late ancient Egyptian period (1550 BC). This temple was not completed until the middle of the Ptolemaic period (in 1250 BC, in other words, a construction period that lasted 300 years). Unfortunately, the temple is now completely demolished because of the ravages of time.
The Temple of Isis at Philae, in the ancient Egypt of Cleopatra and Khufu.
According to experts in Egyptology, Behbeit El 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 25th pharaonic Dynasty of Egyptian civilization (750 BC). Construction was not completed until the Greco-Roman period (300 BC, meaning that the construction of the temple of Philae lasted 450 years!).
In the temples of Isis, one could 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 (with the exception of Isis, only the gods Ra and Horus were allowed to possess temples dedicated exclusively to them).
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 of the Egyptian pantheon.