In Ancient Egypt, names were not merely for identification. They were part of the person and had power over them. This is why Isis needed to devise a convoluted plan in order to learn the true name of the sun-god, Ra. First, she collected the god’s saliva, then she made a venomous snake out of Ra’s spittle. And when the powerful god was bitten and poisoned, Isis told him that the only way she could save him was if he told her his real name. Even in his dire condition, Ra knew he had fallen in a trap. Did he reveal his true name giving Isis power over him, or did he choose to die an honorable death before yielding? Read on to find out.
The Story of Isis and the Secret Name of Ra
Egyptian myths are important not just because of the interesting stories they tell but also because of the information they provide about Egyptian thought and their way of life. In this sense, the story of Isis and the secret name of Ra is revealing of the importance of names for the Egyptians, the ways of healing, the use of magic, and more. It also teaches us that Egyptian gods were quite different from our own, in that they were not infallible. They could be cheated or deceived, they were affected by diseases and magic spells, and sometimes reacted to challenges in unintelligent ways. Still, they were revered in the entire country, some might say, precisely because they were flawed.
The tale of Isis and Ra is thought to have originated sometime during the New Kingdom. All the instances that have survived the passing of time come from the town of Deir el-Medina, during Dynasty XVIII, better known as the Thutmosid Dynasty because many of its pharaohs were named Thutmose. The narrative includes an incantation intended to fend off venomous animals or to protect against poisoning. Then the text goes on to explain the story that we are about to unfold here.
The Importance of Names in Ancient Egypt
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Names today are barely a means of identification. Some people may be proud of their names and some may hate them, but in general, not a lot of thought is put into their meaning. Such was not the case in ancient Egypt. There it was thought that a person’s name was inseparable from the person itself. That means, that someone’s name was that person, it constituted them and had power over what that person could and could not do. So, for example, someone whose name was “she who is beloved by Amun” was guaranteed to devote herself to the worship of Amun, over other gods.
One interesting historical example comes from Dynasty XX, when a conspiracy was schemed to assassinate king Ramesses III. As most of the conspirators came from the immediate circle of the king, historians have called it the Harem Conspiracy. Once they were apprehended and charged with the murder of their king, some of them were executed. But some others had their names changed. For instance, one Meryra, or “beloved by Ra”, was re-named Mesedura, which means “Ra hates him”. Today, this might be seen as a light punishment, but in Egypt, it was one of the worst things that could happen to a person. Not only it predisposed people against them while they were alive, but after they died, their new names would be inscribed on their tombs and on official records, where they would remain for all eternity.
Old Ra and the Snake
The text begins, as we have just stated, with a series of magical formulae. Then, it praises the wisdom and intelligence of Isis, the divine mother. Conversely, Ra is pictured as a decrepit old god who cannot hold his head straight and even drools unwillingly, leaving his spittle on the ground as he walks. The clever Isis, seeing this, collected the old god’s saliva and formed a snake with it. It is said in the texts that this snake could not freely move but was alive in every other sense. Isis placed the snake in a junction of the path where Ra would take his daily walk. As the old god approached, the snake bit him, and he fell, unable to move or talk for a while.
Eventually, Ra gathered the courage to speak. So he spoke to the other gods who had come to check on him, telling them that he had never experienced such pain, and that he did not know exactly what had happened to him, other than being struck by disease suddenly. This is why he did not know whom to ask for help nor what cure he needed. It was at this time that a familiar face emerged from among the other gods: it was Isis herself.
Isis, the Healer
Pretending to be surprised by the state of Ra, Isis asked the god to describe what his body was going through. After hearing the symptoms, she promptly suggested that it seemed to be the work of a venomous snake, to which Ra seemed to agree. Now, Isis was known in the ancient world (not only in Egypt) as an effective healer who used powerful magic to help the sick, and also women in labor. Isis told Ra that if it was indeed a serpent that had bit him, it would be fairly easy for her to make the poison leave his body with the use of her “effective words of power”. There was, however, a very small detail: she could only perform her magic on Ra if she knew his real name, a name so secret that Ra had never told anyone what it was.
The Many Names of Ra
Seeing himself in such a difficult position, unable to stand up, and undergoing tremendous pain, Ra agreed to tell her his name. He cleared his throat and started reciting:
I am the maker of heaven and earth, the binder of mountains,
creator of what exists upon it.
I am the maker of water, for the Great Ocean to take form,
the maker of the bull for the cow,
for their sexual movement to take place,
the maker of the secret heaven of the horizon,
the one who placed the souls of the gods within it.
I am he who opens his eyes and there is light,
who shuts his eyes and there is darkness,
he at whose command the Nile Flood strikes,
whose name the gods cannot know.
I am the maker of hours, for day to exist,
I am the cleaver of the year, who creates the seasons.
I am the maker of the fire of life,
to enable the work of the house to take place.
I am Khepri in the morning, Ra at noon, Atum who is in the dusk.
Isis listened to the dying god with interest, but even after such a speech, nothing changed. He was still lying on the ground, terminally ill. Isis explained to him that those were merely titles but not his real name. She still needed to hear him utter the true, secret name, a word no one had heard before and the key to gaining complete power over Ra.
Ra knew he had no choice but to yield and say his name. If he did, he would be willingly bestowing on Isis the power to do as she pleased with him. But if he did not say his name, he would surely die. He made the wiser choice, asked Isis to come closer, and muttered the secret words (they are so secret that no scribe could write them, so we have no way of knowing them today) into her ear.
Using the recently learned name, Isis commanded the poison to leave Ra’s body, with these words:
Fail, scorpion, go out from Ra,
eye of Horus, go out from the god,
Burning of the mouth,
I am the one who made you, I am the one who sent you,
Fall to ground, poison,
I have power, see the great god has raised up in his name.
Ra lives, the poison has died.
So-and-so born of so-and-so is alive, the poison has died.
Immediately, the strength came back to Ra’s body. He was able to move freely, stand up, and return to his throne. But he would never be the same. A part of him had died when he shared his most precious secret to save his life.
How Isis Got Ra to Tell Her His Name
Isis knew that, in order to gain power over Ra, the ruler of Egypt since time immemorial, she needed to learn his true name. That is why she devised the plan we just described, so that Ra would be put in a place where he had no choice but to reveal it. It was, after all, a matter of life and death. But once her plan was complete, she cured him, calling out the poison on account of her being its master. As she said, “I am the one who made you”. At that time, Ra learned that he was doomed. Isis had blackmailed him into telling her his real name, which was an important part of his persona. Now Isis had tremendous power over the king-god. The text never states exactly what happened after that, but it is clear that Isis intended to take Ra’s place as ruler of Egypt. After all, he was old, his powers had been waning for some time, and the young and clever Isis seemed like a much better choice for a ruler. Except, that is, for her questionable strategies.