Fantasy Reads – Reclaiming Isis

This week instead of the usual book recommendation I’m issuing a plea for everyone to remember the original meaning of the word Isis.  When you Google Isis now instead of finding articles about the Egyptian goddess Isis, or the stretch of the river Thames that shares her name, the top listings are all about the terrorist group that I shall refer to as IS (Islamic State – though they have precious little in common with the noble teachings of the Prophet). As an Egyptologist, it makes me very sad that a cowardly bunch of murderers are blackening the name of a goddess who stood for all that was best about Ancient Egyptian religion. Some organizations and companies which are called after the goddess or the river are even having to choose new names because of the negative publicity.  This is trivial compared to the massacres committed by IS, but while I’m powerless to do anything about the atrocities in Syria and Iraq, perhaps I can do something to reclaim the good name of Isis by describing her on Fantasy Reads.

I’m sure most of my readers know that the Ancient Egyptians worshipped a wide range of male and female deities. From the late 3rd millennium BCE onwards, Isis was one of their most important goddesses. She embodied the throne of the pharaohs and she was most often shown as a woman wearing a throne symbol on her head. In myth, she is one of the children of the Sky Goddess and the Earth God. She and her brother Osiris were said to have fallen in love while they were still in the womb (they do things differently in myths) and they were destined to rule Egypt together after the Sun God, Ra, went to live in the heavens. The reign of Isis and Osiris was a Golden Age for humanity but it was brought to an end by the chaos-god Seth, who was jealous of his brother Osiris. Seth brutally murdered Osiris, tore his body in pieces and scattered them where he hoped they would never be found. Isis was distraught but she managed to recover nearly all the pieces and to resurrect Osiris for just long enough for her to conceive a child by him. Then she hid in the marshes to give birth to her miraculous son, Horus. Seth, who had seized the throne of Egypt, attempted to poison young Horus but Isis persuaded the Sun God to heal her son. When Horus was old enough, he challenged Seth to a series of combats. Isis used cunning and magic to help her son defeat Seth. So Horus became the ruler of Egypt, and the prototype for all Egyptian pharaohs, while his father Osiris ruled the Underworld.

The Egyptians thought of Isis as the ideal wife and mother but her life was full of suffering and struggles. You can tell from the outline above that Isis didn’t take those sufferings meekly. She always fights back and she is the dominant partner in her relationships with her husband and son. In the story known as `The Secret Name of Ra’, Isis uses her great knowledge of magic to create a snake which poisons the Sun God. Then she tricks Ra into telling her his true name so that she can cure him. This sounds ruthless but in mythological terms farsighted Isis is doing the right thing. She is making sure that her future son will have the power contained in the true name of Ra to help him win the battle between Order and Chaos. According to Egyptian texts, Isis was `more clever than millions of men’ and a better guardian of Egypt than `millions of soldiers’. To look at it another way, she’s the archetype of everything that the men of IS don’t want women to be – well-educated, independent-minded and strong.

Isis was believed to use her powers to protect the helpless and this is shown in images of the goddess enfolding her husband with winged arms or holding her baby son on her lap. Her maternal tenderness was ultimately extended to all humanity and she was thought to help both the living and the dead. The Egyptians sometimes reimagined Isis as an ordinary women mourning her husband and struggling to support her child and avoid her abusive brother. Traditional laments that Isis and her sister were supposed to have sung for Osiris were recited at Egyptian funerals and stories about Isis and Horus were used as part of spells to cure sick children. By the end of the first millennium BCE, Isis was widely worshipped as the compassionate Queen of Heaven who offered a happy afterlife to people of all ranks and nationalities. Her beautiful temple on the island of Philae (yes, the comet-probe is named after it) continued to function long after Egypt became a Christian country.

If you want to find out more about Isis, look at `The Great Goddesses of Egypt’ by Barbara S.Lesko or `Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses and Traditions of Ancient Egypt’  by Geraldine Pinch (that’s me when I’m wearing my Egyptologist hat). Or you could try Plutarch’s `Of Isis and Osiris’, possibly the best book on mythology ever written, or even Robert Graves’ translation of `The Golden Ass’, a very naughty novel by Lucius Apuleius in which the cursed hero is eventually rescued by Isis. So, I hope that the next time you see the word Isis you will think of the goddess who grieved rather than a callous terrorist organization. Do start calling the terrorists IS or Isil instead and, as a tiny act of defiance, why not mention Isis the goddess, Isis the river, or even Isis the cute dog from `Downton Abbey,’ in whatever social media you use? As the Ancient Egyptians would say, thank you a million times.



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Geraldine Pinch