4. Isis “Goddess of Motherhood” was a major goddess in ancient Egyptian religion whose worship spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. Isis was first mentioned in the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 – c. 2181 BCE) as one of the main characters of the Osiris myth, in which she resurrects her slain brother and husband, the divine king Osiris, and produces and protects his heir, Horus. She was believed to help the dead enter the afterlife as she had helped Osiris, and she was considered the divine mother of the pharaoh, who was likened to Horus. Her maternal aid was invoked in healing spells to benefit ordinary people. Originally, she played a limited role in royal rituals and temple rites, although she was more prominent in funerary practices and magical texts. She was usually portrayed in art as a human woman wearing a throne-like hieroglyph on her head. During the New Kingdom (c. 1550 – c. 1070 BCE), as she took on traits that originally belonged to Hathor, the preeminent goddess of earlier times, Isis was portrayed wearing Hathor’s headdress: a sun disk between the horns of a cow.

Name and origin Whereas some Egyptian deities appeared in the late Predynastic Period (before c. 3100 BCE), neither Isis nor her husband Osiris were mentioned by name before the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2494–2345 BCE). An inscription that may refer to Isis dates to the reign of Nyuserre Ini during that period, and she appears prominently in the Pyramid Texts, which began to be written down at the end of the dynasty and whose content may have developed much earlier. Several passages in the Pyramid Texts link Isis with the region of the Nile Delta near Behbeit el-Hagar and Sebennytos, and her cult may have originated there. Many scholars have focused on Isis’s name in trying to determine her origins. Her Egyptian name was written as 𓊨𓏏𓆇𓁐 (ꜣst), the pronunciation of which changed over time: Rūsat > Rūsaʾ > ʾŪsaʾ > ʾĒsə, which became ⲎⲤⲈ (Ēse) in the Coptic form of Egyptian, Wusa in the Meroitic language of Nubia, and Ἶσις, on which her modern name is based, in Greek. The hieroglyphic writing of her name incorporates the sign for a throne, which Isis also wears on her head as a sign of her identity. The symbol serves as a phonogram, spelling the st sounds in her name, but it may have also represented a link with actual thrones. The Egyptian term for a throne was also st and may have shared a common etymology with Isis’s name. Therefore, the Egyptologist Kurt Sethe suggested she was originally a personification of thrones. Henri Frankfort agreed, believing that the throne was considered the king’s mother, and thus a goddess, because of its power to make a man into a king. Other scholars, such as Jürgen Osing and Klaus P. Kuhlmann, have disputed this interpretation, because of dissimilarities between Isis’s name and the word for a throne or a lack of evidence that the throne was ever deified.

Goddess of magic and wisdom Isis was also known for her magical power, which enabled her to revive Osiris and to protect and heal Horus, and for her cunning. By virtue of her magical knowledge, she was said to be “cleverer than a million gods”. In several episodes in the New Kingdom story “The Contendings of Horus and Set”, Isis uses these abilities to outmaneuver Set during his conflict with her son. On one occasion, she transforms into a young woman who tells Set she is involved in an inheritance dispute similar to Set’s usurpation of Osiris’s crown. When Set calls this situation unjust, Isis taunts him, saying he has judged himself to be in the wrong. In later texts, she uses her powers of transformation to fight and destroy Set and his followers. Many stories about Isis appear as historiolae, prologues to magical texts that describe mythic events related to the goal that the spell aims to accomplish. In one spell, Isis creates a snake that bites Ra, who is older and greater than she is, and makes him ill with its venom. She offers to cure Ra if he will tell her his true, secret name—a piece of knowledge that carries with it incomparable power. After much coercion, Ra tells her his name, which she passes on to Horus, bolstering his royal authority. The story may be meant as an origin story to explain why Isis’s magical ability surpasses that of other deities, but because she uses magic to subdue Ra, the story seems to treat her as having such abilities even before learning his name.