11 Things You Didn’t Know About Isis And Osiris

Isis and Osiris were two of the prominent deities of ancient Egypt. Take a look at how their worship and influence on culture and society has remained relevant into today.

Jun 28, 2020By Nicole B. Hansen, PhD & MA in Egyptology, BA Egyptology
isis and osiris
Statues of Isis and Osiris, 664-525 BC, Egyptian Museum, Cairo


Forget Romeo and Juliet, or even Caesar and Cleopatra. The first tragic love story in history is that of ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. Isis and Osiris were brother and sister, children of the Egyptian gods Geb who represented the earth and the goddess Nut who represented the sky. In addition, they were husband and wife. Learn about their lives and deaths, as well as their veneration in ancient Egypt and beyond until the present day.


Isis and Osiris: One Of The Earliest Romantic Tragedies in History

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Painted relief of Osiris and Isis in Temple of Seti I at Abydos


Although brother and sister, Isis and Osiris were married to one another. They were the Queen and King of ancient Egypt, respectively. Their other siblings, Seth and Nephthys, were also married to one another. Osiris and Seth had fallen out several times, although there are different versions as to what was behind it. One version says Osiris kicked Seth, while another says Osiris had an affair with Nephthys. Whatever the cause, Seth got his revenge by chopping up Osiris into 42 pieces and scattering them across the whole of Egypt. Seth then usurped the throne of Egypt for himself.


The childless Isis was distressed by the killing of her husband. Along with her sister Nephthys, she sought high and low for his body parts. She put them back together with the help of two Egyptian gods of the dead, Anubis and Thoth. They wrapped him up like a mummy. Then she conceived a son with the restored corpse, who she named Horus.


Isis and Osiris’ Son Horus Was Always in Danger

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Egyptian Magical stela or cippus of Horus, 332-280 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Isis hid in the papyrus thickets of Egypt’s Delta to give birth to him. She feared Seth would kill him to prevent him from ascending to his rightful place on Egypt’s throne. As an infant, noxious animals like snakes and scorpions presented a constant threat. Isis used magical spells to cure him of their poison.

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Motherhood was an important role for ancient Egyptian women. Real life children in ancient Egypt faced similar threats from snakes and scorpions. In order to cure or protect children from their poison, ancient mothers used small stelae known as Horus cippi. These artifacts depicted Horus the child holding and standing on dangerous animals. The spells inscribed on them invoke the story of Horus being stung by a scorpion. Mothers would pour water over these stelae while reciting the spells and use the water to heal their children.


Horus Avenged His Father’s Death 

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Horus spearing Seth in the form of a hippo accompanied by his mother Isis, Edfu Temple


Isis raised Horus with hatred towards his uncle Seth and knowledge that he was the rightful ruler of the land. As an adult, he took his case before the ennead, a tribunal of nine Egyptian gods. Both parties plead their case in front of these judges. They responded by setting a number of challenges for the two contenders, with Horus winning every challenge, sometimes by cheating. A papyrus from the 20th Dynasty tells the whole story, known as the “Contendings of Horus and Seth.”


The case lasted 80 years. For instance, Isis seduced Seth and managed to get him to acknowledge Horus’ right to the throne. During a competition to sail stone ships, Horus managed to win by plastering over wood to look like stone.


Everyone Became Osiris When They Died

The story of Isis and Osiris played an outsize role in royal funerary ritual. When a king died, he was equivocated with Osiris. Kings were buried in sarcophagi that took the same form as the dead and mummified Osiris. Not surprisingly, the living Horus was associated with the ruling king.


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Egyptian Corn Mummy, 305 BC-150 AD, The Brooklyn Museum 


The myth of Isis and Osiris was democratized at an early date in Egypt. Not only was the dead king associated with the god, but eventually all dead people were referred to with “Osiris” before their name, just as we would refer to someone as “the late so-and-so” in English. The name Osiris would appear on funerary monuments and artifacts before the name of the dead person.


Often the funerary goods in tombs would include a figure in the shape of Osiris. This was known as a “corn mummy” as it contains sprouted grains of wheat along with clay or sand and often was placed in its own miniature wooden sarcophagus.


Two Remaining Temples Of Isis And Osiris Were Underwater

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Osireion Temple at Abydos 


The Osireion at Abydos is a unique temple devoted to the god Osiris. It is located behind, and at a lower level than the Temple of Seti I at the site. While some people think this means that it was much older than Seti’s temple, it is more likely that the Egyptians built it that way because of Osiris’ associations with the underworld. The temple today is often full of water, due to the rise in water table in the area, not design.


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The Temple of Philae in Aswan, Egypt


Philae Temple is another gem of a temple. Located on an island to the south of Aswan, this temple is one of the most complete surviving temples, with almost the entire complex built under the Ptolemaic and Roman rulers of Egypt. The temple was a magnet for Isis followers from around the Roman Empire, who left graffiti of their visits. The temple had to be moved to a new island on higher ground as it was submerged by the building of the Aswan and High Dams in the 20th century.


The Egyptians Crafted Bronze Statues Of Isis And Osiris

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Egyptian Bronze Isis and child Horus, 680-40 BC, The Walters Art Museum and a Bronze Osiris, 1070-712 BC, Private Collection


The Egyptians made statues and statuettes out of metal from as early as the Old Kingdom. But due to decay and the reuse of metal, most metal statuettes date to the Late Period. In particular, bronze figurines of Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris are very common.


In these figurines of Isis and Osiris, Osiris is in the form of a mummy, dressed in a typical royal fashion, holding a crook and a flail. He wears a royal headdress known as an atef-crown. Isis, on the other hand, is depicted nursing her son Horus at her left breast while seated on her lap as one of her pre-eminent roles in ancient Egypt was as an ideal mother.


Worshippers of these deities would have purchased these bulk-manufactured figurines to present as votive offerings at temples throughout Egypt.


Isis’ Worship Was Widespread During Roman Rule

With the popularity of the Philae Temple among foreign visitors, the veneration of Isis spread throughout the Roman Empire and her followers built temples across Europe and Asia as far as Afghanistan. Her worship even reached England, where her followers built a temple in the heart of what is now London.


Early Christian Worship Of Egyptian Gods Wanted To Eliminate Isis

isis as arsinoe underwater excavation
Statue of Isis as Arsinoe II found during underwater excavations at Abu Qir (Menuthis)


For a period of time after the end of the pharaonic era, Egypt was populated by a mixture of Christians and pagans, all who worshipped different versions of Eyptian gods. One of the most popular pagan pilgrimage sites was the temple of Isis of Menuthis, located east of Alexandria. Many childless Egyptians would come to the temple to petition the goddess for a child and others came for cures from various illnesses.


In one case, the husband in a childless couple had sexual relations with the statue of Isis and then had relations with his wife. They allegedly conceived a child as a result.  Church authorities tried to discredit them by saying that the baby had been bought at the suggestion of one of the temple priests.


The Christian Church was only able to stamp out Isis’ worship at the site by transferring the relics of the Christian martyrs Cyrus and John to the site. The new shrine offered many of the same healing virtues of its predecessor.


Islamic Women Believed In The Healing Virtues Of Isis

isis nursing horus
Isis Nursing Horus, 4th century BC-3rd century AD, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan


While the Christians destroyed many of the statues of Isis that remained in their time, many of them were still standing long after Islam became the dominant religion in Egypt. According to the 14th-century Muslim jurist Ibn Taymiyya, women still flocked to these statues for their healing virtues. 


Women in his time used to visit and rub a statue of Isis nursing Horus in order to be cured of many ailments. A pregnant woman fearing a difficult delivery would rub the head of Horus. A nursing mother would rub its breast to increase her milk supply. A woman suffering from amenorrhea would rub the area under its knees. 


Modern Isis Worship

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Shrine of Kwan Yin; modern shrine of Isis decorated with Egyptian, Indian and Chinese knick knacks


While the worship of Osiris died out in the fifth century AD, Isis continues to be revered as a mother goddess. In 1976, Irishwoman Olivia Robertson founded the Fellowship of Isis. The organization respects other religious beliefs of its members but promotes love, beauty, and abundance, all qualities associated with the ancient Isis. The group has thousands of followers worldwide.


Isis and Osiris Have Nothing To Do With The Terrorist Group

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Relief of Ramses IIII and Isis in the tomb of Prince Amun-her-khepeshef, 12th century BC, Thebes


Isis’ reputation has taken a hit as the Islamic State group came to prominence in the early 2010s. Often translated as “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” and abbreviated as ISIS, news media began to pronounce the acronym like the goddess’ name. 


This caused many problems for businesses including nail salons, clothing stores, and pharmaceutical companies that had used the goddess’ name and likeness as part of their branding. They started receiving threats and even violent attacks from ignorant people who were not familiar with the goddess, and their stocks took a hit. Many changed their names. In addition, modern-day followers of Isis despaired at the fact that they had been unexpectedly transformed in the public’s eye from followers of an ancient goddess to a terrorist organization.


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By Nicole B. HansenPhD & MA in Egyptology, BA EgyptologyNicole B. Hansen received her PhD and MA in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and her BA in Egyptology from UC Berkeley. She worked for the Giza Plateau Mapping Project at the Giza Pyramids and for the Theban Mapping Project’s Cairo office. She taught courses on Egyptian art, language and culture at the University of Chicago, the American University in Cairo and Amideast. She has a special interest in the continuity of ancient Egyptian culture until the present day, animals, medicine, magic and culinary history and lives in a village in Luxor a short distance from the archaeological sites.