What do ancient Egyptian temples, Athens, Rome, Paris, and London, have in common? They are all places where the goddess Isis was worshipped. A mother goddess beloved by the Egyptian people and an important Greek and Roman deity worshiped in Rome and all over the Roman world. This is the story of the goddess Isis.
We Shouldn’t Call Her Isis, But Aset
An awful name mix-up exists between an Egyptian goddess and a militant group committing crimes against humanity and cultural heritage destruction. One way to solve the confusion is to call Isis by her Egyptian name, Aset. Another is to contemplate how the ancient goddess symbolized multicultural tolerance.
A Major Goddess From The Origins Of The Ancient Egyptian Civilization
According to an ancient Egyptian myth, there was nothing but watery darkness at the beginning of time. Then, the sun appeared atop a mound rising from the waters. The sun god created the air Shu and moisture Tefnut. Both, in turn, engendered the sky Nut and the earth Geb. Out of Geb and Nut’s union were born the gods Osiris and Seth, and goddesses Isis and Nephthys.
Osiris and Isis had key roles in the ancient Egyptian belief system. Osiris as the promise of eternal life, having been killed and then resurrected by his sister-wife, Isis. Their son was the falcon god Horus, rightful King of Egypt. All Pharaohs were Horus in life and Osiris in the hereafter.
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Isis As The Throne Of Egypt
Sign of Isis’ prominent role for royal power, her hieroglyphic name is a throne. Every Pharaoh was her child. This divine trinity, Osiris, Isis, and Horus, legitimated the power of the person sitting on the throne of Egypt.
Helping to maintain a political system that lasted three millennia would already make her one of ancient Egypt’s most important divinities. But Isis’ role went much further than protecting kingship.
Isis Protective Role In The Afterlife
Isis was “Great of Magic,” with the power to bring the dead back to life. The Pyramid texts repeatedly mention her, like inside Unas pyramid, the King, now Osiris, directly addresses her.
Isis, this Osiris here is your brother, whom you have made revive and live:
he will live and this Unas will live, he will not die and this Unas will not die.
The Pyramid texts would evolve into the “Book of the Dead.” It is not a pessimist book, as dying is “the night of going forth to life,” where one awakens from death, alive. Its Egyptian title is instead “Book of Going Forth by Day.” It should be understood as a map to the great beyond, towards eternal life.
Isis shared her ability to overcome death with ordinary Egyptians. She mourned in the form of a kite, a bird whose shrill cry sounds like the piercing screams of a grieving mother. Then, she magically resurrected the dead. Here are the words one hoped to hear Isis say in the afterlife.
I have come that I may be your magical protection.
I give breath to your nose …
I have caused that you exist as a god …
I have provided you protection.
Illumined is your face with your beauty,
my lord, opened are your blind eyes forever.
The Mother Goddess Beloved By All Egyptians
Isis wasn’t a remote divinity accessible only to high priests. Having overcome tragedy, her husband’s death, and protecting her son alone made her a compassionate, humane deity. A maternal goddess, Isis was a reassuring figure, with the power to solve many life problems.
She would save a child bitten by a deadly snake, as she saved Horus. A spell against snake bites calls for her motherly protection.
I sat down and I wept. Isis, my mother, sat near me,
Saying to me ‘Do not weep, do not weep, my child’.
Another spell, in a medical papyrus, in the section “for the healing of all diseases”, states:
Oh Isis, you great enchantress, heal me, deliver me from all evil …
as you did deliver and release your son Horus!
From the average person to Pharaoh, Isis helped with fertility, childbirth, love, healing, travel, and in due course, eternal life. No wonder that Isis gave hope to millions of Egyptians.
Isis, The Goddess Of Many Names
Isis gained her astonishing magical powers from the sun god, tricking Ra into giving her his powers.
Now, Isis was a wise woman.
Her heart was more devious than millions among men;
she was more selective than millions among the gods.
There was nothing that she did not know in heaven or earth.
She was said to have ten thousand names. Among them were:
Mistress of heaven. Divine mother.
Queen of all gods, goddesses, and women.
The bestower of life. The Lady of bread.
The Lady of beer. The Lady of abundance.
The Lady of joy. The Lady of love.
Beautiful, mighty, and beloved One.
As ancient Egyptians could easily merge two gods into one, Isis gradually took on other goddesses’ attributes, particularly from Hathor. Originally, Isis only was associated to others in temples. Sign that her importance only grew, temples specifically dedicated to her were built in the Egyptian civilization’s late stages.
Alexander the Great’s conquest ushered seven centuries of Greek, then Roman rule over Egypt. Perplexed by the animal-human gods, both had no problem adopting a human, motherly figure. She could easily become Greek, as “Isis is known as Demeter in the Greek language.”
Cleopatra became “the New Isis.” As Egypt was becoming Roman, Isis became universal.
However many mortals live on the boundless earth,
They all pronounce your beautiful name,
much honored among all peoples,
In their own languages, and in their own native lands.
An Egyptian Goddess Worshipped From England To Afghanistan
From the 4th century BC, Isis was worshipped in Greece. By the Roman era, there was a sanctuary of Serapis in Athens and a small temple to Isis at the foot of the Acropolis.
In Rome, her cult was a ‘mystery religion.’ After episodes of repression and destruction, Isis and Serapis (Osiris-Apis) cults were protected by Emperors. By the 3rd century AD, there were several temples and sanctuaries to Isis and Serapis in Rome. A Roman didn’t need to travel to Egypt to see obelisks, pyramids, and Egyptian statues.
Towering above the city, the Serapeum was the most important Roman temple to Egyptian deities. And Rome was the largest center for Egyptian gods outside Egypt.
Isis’ festivals took place twice a year. Even Romans uninterested in her ate bread made with Egyptian grain, transported by the Isis, the imperial carrier boat.
In Paris, a temple of Isis was thought to be a potential source of Paris’ name, from the Latin ‘quasi par Isis’. It is said that a statue of Isis adorned a Parisian church until 1514. Inscriptions attest to the existence of an Isis temple in London. Isis still is today an alternative name for the river Thames.
Bronze figurines of Serapis and Harpocrates, Isis’ husband and son, were found as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Isis had become a multicultural deity, worshipped by Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, from slave to Emperor. The cult of Isis was the most widespread of the ancient world.
From Queen Of Egypt To Protector Of The Roman Empire
Roman Emperors were depicted as Pharaohs on Egyptian temple reliefs. Vespasian attended an important religious event in Egypt. Hadrian toured the country and admired its monuments.
One of Isis’ titles was Augusta, feminine of Augustus, Emperor. Commodus made Serapis and Isis “conservatori augusti,” meaning Emperor protectors. Both gods were also depicted on coins minted for the wishes made for the Emperor’s welfare.
After three millennia protecting Egypt’s throne, Isis, nursing Horus, wished Rome an “age of Good Fortune.” She was one of the deities safeguarding one of the largest Empires in history. It was to be the peak of Isis’ reign, before the fall.
End Of The Cult Of Isis
The temple of Isis at Philae, built during the era of Greek Pharaohs, is one of the best-preserved temples of Egypt. At the southern reaches of the Roman Empire, it saw the end of the old ‘pagan’ ancient Egyptian religion.
After 3,500 years of use, the last hieroglyphic inscription was etched on its walls in 394 AD. Three years earlier, it was made illegal to “go around the temples; [to] revere the shrines.” The very last words carved in hieroglyphs were that of the “Second Priest of Isis, for all time and eternity.”
The final record of the cult of Isis in Philae is a Greek inscription dated 456 AD. The temple was closed in 535 AD.
These barbarians retained the temples on Philae,
but the Emperor Justinian decided to destroy them.
Narses … destroyed the temples on the Emperor’s orders,
held the priests under guard, and sent the statues to Byzantium.
Fortunately, the survival of the temple of Isis proves that ‘destroyed’ was an exaggeration. The temple was instead converted into a church.
Historians debate if Isis nursing Horus influenced Mary and Jesus’ portrayal, as there was no Christian tradition of human or divine images. For a few centuries, both figures were worshipped in the same territories. Hence, Isis would have been the model for early Christians to depict Mary and Jesus.
The counterargument is that the similarities are coincidences, as there is nothing more universal than a mother nursing her child.
Goddess Isis And Religious Tolerance
Around 1,900 years ago, the philosopher Plutarch discussed Egyptian and Greek beliefs with “On Isis and Osiris.” About the Egyptians:
And there is nothing to fear if, in the first place,
they preserve for us our gods that are common to both peoples
and do not make them to belong to the Egyptians only …
they do not deny the great gods to the rest of mankind.
And the Greeks:
Nor do we think of the gods as different gods among different peoples,
nor as barbarian gods and Greek gods.
But, just as the sun and the moon
and the heavens and the earth and the sea are common to all,
[they] are called by different names by different peoples.
Survival Of Isis In The Modern World
Isis wasn’t forgotten, thanks to being part of the Greek and Roman culture rediscovered during the Renaissance. This is how Isis and Osiris are depicted on the ceiling of Pope Alexander VI’s private apartments. Then, following Champollion’s decipherment, the original Egyptian story could be read again.
Her popularity in the ancient world meant that people took the name Isidoros or Isidora, meaning ‘Gift of Isis’. As San Isidoro, towns’ names based on ‘Gift of Isis’ can be found from the US to Argentina and the Philippines. A species of deep-sea coral bears the name of Isis, goddess of the seas. Some of these corals are 4,000 years old.
Associated with the star Sirius, her name has been given to satellites and a crater of our moon. Farther away is another Isis crater on Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede.
Traces of the ancient goddess Isis are deeply embedded in society’s fabric and millions of people’s daily lives. Isis still is a female first name, sung by Bob Dylan. A colossal marble Isis is one of the ‘talking statues’ of Rome.
However hard one tries, it would be impossible to erase the ancient Egyptian goddess from five millennia of history. Isis’ legacy spread across the world, deep in the oceans, on the moon, and out in space.
Note on the ancient Egyptian monuments of Rome.
The Serapeum on the Quirinal was one of the largest temples of Rome. Its position, on top of one of Rome’s hills, put it on an equal footing with the temple of Jupiter, on the Capitol. It probably was inspired by the Serapeum of Alexandria.
Its columns are estimated to have been 21 meters (70 feet) high. For comparison, roughly twice the height of Athens’ Parthenon columns. A fragment of its cornice, in the garden of the Palazzo Colonna, weighs 100 tons. It is the largest fragment of ancient Rome.
Historians describe that Caracalla “brought the cult of Isis to Rome and built magnificent temples to this goddess everywhere, celebrating her rites with even greater reverence than they had ever been celebrated before.”
Note on ancient Egyptian gods figurines in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
A statuette of Harpocrates was found in Sirkap, Pakistan. It is today is the National Museum of Pakistan, inv. 8699. A small figure of Harpocrates was found in Uzbekistan, in the Farghana Valley. It is in the Institute of History, Uzbek Academy of Sciences, Tashkent.
Alexander the Great conquest went as far as Afghanistan. During the Roman era there was trade by sea between Roman Egypt and India, as described by Strabo. “As many as one hundred and twenty vessels were sailing from Myos Hormos to India.”
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