Isis is a mythical queen and funerary goddess of ancient Egypt. Most often, she is represented as a young woman wearing a throne or, like Hathor, a wig topped by a solar disk inserted between two cow horns.
The astute Isis is one of the deities of the Ennead of Heliopolis. She is the sister and wife of King Osiris, a generous being who placed his reign under the sign of cosmic harmony. This happy time suddenly ends with the assassination of Osiris during a plot organized by his brother Set, a violent and jealous god. Isis finds the body of Osiris and hides it in the swamps of Chemnis. During a hunting party, Set finds the corpse and, mad with anger, cuts it into several pieces. During a long quest, Isis, assisted by Nephthys, Thoth and Anubis, finds the disjointed limbs and reconstitutes the body of Osiris by mummifying him. After reviving Osiris, Isis makes him the eternal ruler of the Douat, a heavenly world populated by immortal spirits. To ensure his protection, she placed him under the attentive care of the canine god Anubis, her adopted son.
Isis in the form of a bird of prey unites with the mummy of her husband and conceives Horus. Brought up in the marshes of Chemnis and strengthened by the maternal milk of Isis, Horus reaches adulthood. During many decades Horus and Isis fight against Set supported by Ra who is not very willing towards Horus. After many adventures, Horus succeeds in being recognized as the legitimate successor of his father, thus becoming the model of the ideal pharaoh.
The cult of Isis appeared at the end of the Old Kingdom around the XXIVth century BC. At first confined to the funerary domain, Isis became, during the first millennium BC, a very popular goddess with universal power. The devotion of the Ptolemaic pharaohs endowed the goddess Isis with two grandiose places of worship; Isum in Lower Egypt and Philæ in Nubia. Between the end of the IVth century BC and the end of the IVth century AD, the cult of Isis spreads throughout the Mediterranean basin and a significant number of sanctuaries are built in Greece and Italy. In these new places, a syncretism takes place where the Egyptian rites dedicated to the goddess are adapted to the Greco-Roman religious thought. The iconography and the cult of Isis became Hellenized, and, by a connection with the quest for Persephone by Demeter (Mysteries of Eleusis), the Mysteries of Isis were created, organized in the form of an initiatory, progressive and secret ceremonial.
Faced with the rise of Christianity, the cult of Isis declined and then disappeared at the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries AD. However, the memory of Isis does not disappear because it is maintained by monastic and university scholasticism. The reading of hieroglyphs being lost, her image is however biased because it is only perceived through the filter of Greek and Latin authors of late antiquity. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, Isis became an object of curiosity on the part of lay scholars. This phenomenon became more pronounced during the Renaissance. Many humanists then integrated Isis into their studies by elaborating historicizing mythographies about her. The myth of Isis merges with that of the nymph Io transformed into a cow by Hera and the aspect of Isis is confused with that of Artemis multimammia of Ephesus. During the Age of Enlightenment, some Freemason philosophers in love with Egyptomania turned their attention to the Mysteries of Isis and tried to reinvent them within the framework of the rituals of their initiatory lodges. Artists and poets, for their part, have constantly speculated on the image of the veiled goddess and made Isis the symbol of the hidden laws of Nature.
Since the deciphering of the hieroglyphs and the establishment of Egyptological science in the 19th century, the purely Egyptian aspects of the goddess have been rediscovered and popularized by scholars among the general public. However, the personality of Isis has not been entirely rid of its esoteric aura, which has been elaborated for a long time since the 14th century by European alchemists and mystagogues. Isis thus remains the object of theological and hermetic reflections within confidential circles. Since the 1950s, especially in the United States, Isis has been particularly venerated by the Kemitist convents of Wicca, where a modern pagan cult is addressed to her as the great original goddess, maternal and lunar.
Isis is one of the most popular goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon. Nothing is known about her from the earliest times. She seems to appear at the end of the Old Kingdom around the XXIVth century BC. Cunning, great magician and exemplary wife, she revives Osiris, her beloved, after his murder and dismemberment; loving mother, she raises her son Horus and protects him from the assaults of Set. The cult of Isis was active throughout the history of ancient Egypt and only died out during the 5th and 6th centuries; the last bastion of the belief being the Nubian region around the temple of Philæ.
The theonym Isis is the transcription in Latin alphabet of the Hellenized form Ίσις from the ancient Egyptian Aset (Iset, Eset, Iouset, Ese). The theonym of Isis, like that of Osiris her husband, is based on the hieroglyph for “throne” (set in the Egyptian language). This seat is represented as being quite high, with a backrest and resting on a pedestal.
Compared to other deities, such as Neith or Anubis, Isis appears relatively late in Egyptian history, towards the end of the Old Kingdom, during the XXIVth century. As far as we know, the first certain mentions of the goddess appear in the texts of the pyramid of Uanas, a king of the Fifth Dynasty. At that time, the name of Isis is mostly written only with the symbol of the throne without any complementary phonetic sign. The Egyptologist Peter Kaplony has noted theophoric names based on the hieroglyph of the “throne” borne by notables and dated to the Archaic period (3000 to 2700 BC). It seems, however, that they cannot be attached to the goddess because in these instances they seem to refer only to the royal seat. The German Hermann Kees thought he could translate the name Hem-set appearing on a relief of the solar temple of king Niouserre (around 2389 BC) by “Servant of Isis”. Very quickly, his compatriot Hermann Junker rejected this translation, arguing that it could not be linked to the goddess, and translated it instead as “Servant of the Throne”.
Since the beginning of Egyptological science, scholars have tried to advance a reasoned explanation of the name of the goddess by establishing its etymology. The earliest analysis goes back to the German Kurt Sethe, professor at the University of Göttingen, who saw in the goddess a personification of the royal throne set. His main arguments are that the goddess is most often represented with the sign of the throne on her head and that a passage from the Pyramid Texts (chapter 511) seems to evoke this personification. In 1974, Jürgen Osing, professor at the Free University of Berlin, questioned this view and pointed out that in the text in question, Isis is probably not identified with the throne. Based on the phonetic form of the name Aset (common during the Middle Kingdom), the spelling Iouset (rare but attested under Ramses II), the Coptic derivative Mse, the Greek forms Isis and Meroitic Wosh Wosa, Jürgen Osing thinks that the theonym of the goddess is a feminine derivative of the Egyptian root as asi asou ouasi, the word as meaning “mesentery (fold of the peritoneum)”, ouas “to have power” and ouasi “to perish expire”. According to him, Isis expresses the concept of the lordly power and translates her name by “the one of the power Celle with the powerful influence”. This reflection did not meet with the approval of all specialists and opened the way to new studies. In 1978, Winfried Barta considered instead to rely on the root as “intestinal viscera” and to translate the name of Isis by “She who belongs to the womb”.
According to a study carried out in 1999 by the German Hartwig Altenmüller, professor in Hamburg, the names of Isis and Nephthys, Aset and Nebet-Hout in the Egyptian language, were originally simple epithets used to identify the two principal mourners assigned to protect the deceased. The epithet “Aset” was originally intended to designate the mourner assigned to the head of the deceased. The latter stood in front of the corpse during mummification, and then in front of the mummy when it was taken to the necropolis. It is likely that this ritual role originated in the funeral ceremonies of the first Egyptian rulers. In this context, the epithet “Aset” could mean “the one of the headrest”, the Egyptian term Aset being a deformation of the word ouresit “headrest bedside”. Her partner Nebet-Hout is assigned to the feet of the deceased. The meaning of her name is “Lady of the house”, the house in question being the place of mummification and not the royal palace as it is generally admitted by Egyptologists. It is likely that these two mourners, during their activities in the mummification room, intervened in a sacred drama performed during the ritual. It seems then that the mourners “Isis” are related to Hathor while the mourners “Nephthys” are assimilated to Neith, these two ancient goddesses having funerary characters attested as early as the First Dynasty. Each mourner must have been a priestess recruited from the priestly body of both deities. With the progress of mummification during the Fourth Dynasty and its diffusion among the notables, the epithets Aset and Nebet-Hut would have become autonomous during the Fifth Dynasty and, with the appearance of the god Osiris, would have been anthropomorphized and erected as goddesses in their own right.
In Egyptian art (wall paintings, statues and statuettes, bas-reliefs, amulets), Isis is mainly depicted as an anthropomorphic goddess, portrayed as a bare-chested woman wearing a long, tight-fitting dress with straps, with her head crowned by the hieroglyphic sign of the royal throne. Like other deities, Isis can hold in one hand the hieroglyphic Ânkh, symbol of the breath of life, and in the other hand the scepter Ouas, symbol of divine power. During the New Kingdom, after assimilation of the aspects of the goddess Hathor, the headdress of Isis was often replaced by that of Hathor, consisting of a crest representing a female vulture (symbol of maternal love), surmounted by two long bovid horns surrounding a solar disk (symbol of the birth of the creator god) with, in one hand, the sistrum and, around her neck, the heavy menat necklace.
The goddess can also take on animal forms. In the funerary context, Isis takes on the appearance of a kite, a medium-sized bird of prey flying near the mummy of Osiris. Images of Isis may also combine human and animal aspects, such as a woman with bird-winged arms or a woman with a cow”s head. In the Book of Gates, at the twelfth hour of the night, the goddess takes on the appearance of a terrible Uraeus serpent charged with defending the last portal to the afterlife. Elsewhere, in the Book of Amdouat, at the fifth hour, the head of Isis surmounts a hill sheltering the cave of Sokar where Ra regenerates near the mummy of Osiris.
The Tyet knot (Tit-knot or Isis knot) resembles the Ânkh knot except that its two side loops are not open but flattened and point downward like two arms brought to the side of the body. The Tyet is a funerary amulet considered sacred since the Old Kingdom. However, it did not become a symbol related to Isis and her menstrual blood until the New Kingdom. According to chapter 156 of the Book of the Dead, this symbol must be made of red jasper. The examples found during archaeological excavations show, however, that more often than not, the material was less noble, made of wood, stone or earthenware, but painted red (or red-brown) to recall the symbolism of Isis” blood. The amulet must be hung around the mummy”s neck on the day of burial thanks to a thread made of sycamore fiber, a shrub linked to the god Osiris. The purpose is to incite the goddess Isis and her son Horus to magically protect the mummified body by appealing to the maternal fidelity of the former and to the filial and vengeful fury of the latter:
“You have your blood, Isis; you have your magic power, Isis; you have your magic, the amulet that is the protection of this great god, which suppresses the one who causes him harm.”
– Excerpt from chap. 156 of the Book of the Dead. Translation by Paul Barguet
Unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians left behind very few fabulous stories set in an imaginary world populated by powerful deities. However, Egyptian texts, whether sacred, magical or profane, are full of allusions to the gods and their deeds. Thanks to the late Greco-Roman authors who visited Egypt and its temples, it is however possible to interweave the different sources and to restore a part of the Egyptian mythological thought, mainly centered on the figures of the solar god Ra and his descendants Osiris, Isis, Horus and Anubis.
In the thought of the Ancient Egyptians, the name of a god or a human being is intimately linked to the Ka and actively participates in the existence of its possessor. Also, all magical practices are based on the beneficial or malefic use of the name of the person targeted. In bewitchment rituals, the symbolic destruction of the name amounts to the destruction of the very soul and personality of its possessor, even if he is a god. A myth recorded on one of the magical Papyri of Turin, and translated for the first time in 1883 by the French Egyptologist Eugène Lefébure, exposes the most audacious and impertinent ruse of Isis. The victim is the solar god Ra, who is forced by her to reveal his secret name, the possession of this mysterious theonym allowing the goddess to benefit from his life-giving and creative powers. Thereafter, the goddess will use this magical power to give life to her husband Osiris and to heal her son Horus from the many wounds caused by his rival Set.
The action of the myth takes place in a distant time when the god Ra was still living on earth with the deities and the humans, who were then one and the same people. At that time, the solar god did not yet benefit from his nocturnal and underground stays in the Dudah, pledge of his perpetual morning rebirths. His body was weakening and the god was sinking into senility. One day, “the mouth of the old man collapsed and let his saliva flow to the ground. Discreetly, Isis recovered the trickle of saliva and with a little earth made a venomous snake. She placed the reptile near the royal palace and, during a walk, the solar god was severely bitten by the snake. Poisoned, weak and feverish, Ra did not know what to do. He asked the other deities to come to his aid. Isis appeared before her victim with an innocent and worried look: “What is it, my divine father? Has a serpent brought weakness into you? Has one of your children raised his head against you? If so, then I will destroy him by means of my effective sorcery, I will make sure that he is repelled from the sight of your rays!” Poor Ra explained his sufferings to the goddess, who immediately replied saying, “Tell me your name, father. A man lives when his name is recited! The sick man hastened to say his names and principal titles of glory, but was not restored. Then Isis said to Ra: “So your name was not among those you mentioned to me. You should pass it on to me so that the venom can go away! A man lives when his name is spoken! The poison was more and more painful, it became more powerful than the flame and the fire and the majesty of Ra said: Approach your ears, my daughter Isis. Let my name pass from my belly to your belly”.
The oldest continuous and complete account of the myth of Osiris is not found in an Egyptian document but in a Greek text, the moral treatise On Isis and Osiris written in the second century AD by Plutarch. According to this author, relatively well informed by Egyptian priests of his time, the god Osiris would have reigned as king over the Egyptian people and would have brought him the benefits of civilization. Osiris and Isis were in love with each other even before they were born. Already in the womb of their mother Nut, the couple loved each other tenderly. Plutarch reports that Osiris, Set, Isis and Nephthys were born respectively on the first, the third, the fourth and the fifth of the epagomenal days instituted at the dawn of time by Thoth; Horus the Elder, born on the second day, would be the child resulting from this intra-uterine relationship. One day, Isis learned that Osiris had had, by mistake, by taking her for Isis herself, a sexual relation with Nephthys his sister. The proof of this union was the discovery of a crown of melilot left by Osiris near Nephthys. Nephthys gave birth to Anubis but abandoned him on the day of his birth in fear of the fury of Set, her husband. Moved by Anubis” unfortunate fate, Isis adopted him and raised him as her own child. A magic formula, inscribed in a grimoire in Greek script found in the Theban region and dated to the beginning of the fourth century CE, exposes Isis”s dismay at Osiris”s betrayal:
“It is Isis who comes from the mountain at noon in summer, the virgin covered with dust; her eyes are full of tears, her heart is full of sorrow; her father, Toth, the great, comes to her and asks her: ”Why Isis my daughter, virgin covered with dust, are your eyes full of tears, and your heart full of sorrow, and the of your dress soiled? Enough tears!” She answered, “It is not up to me, O my father, O monkey Toth, O monkey Toth. I have been betrayed by my companion. I have discovered a secret: yes, Nephthys sleeps with Osiris My brother, the son of my own mother.” Then he answered her, “This is a betrayal of you, O my daughter Isis.” She said to him, “This is a betrayal to thee, O my father, ape Toth, ape Toth, my father, this is a pregnancy to me.”
– Magic Papyrus of Paris (extract), translation by Alain Verse.
One day, the god Set wanted to get rid of Osiris, of whom he was jealous after the story of his adultery with Nephthys. He had a chest built out of precious wood and declared during a banquet that he would offer it to the one whose body would fit exactly his dimensions. Osiris, who was very tall, sat in it, and immediately Set, helped by seventy-two accomplices, closed the heavy lid on him and sealed it with nails and molten lead. Then Seth and his accomplices carried the chest to the Tanitic branch of the Nile from where it drifted to the Mediterranean Sea. This event would have taken place on the 17th of the month of Athyr (November 19) in the twenty-eighth year of Osiris” reign.
The goddess Isis was informed of the murder while she was in the city of Coptos. She mourned and began to search for the body of the deceased. During this search, Isis learned from children that the chest of Osiris, carried by the currents, was located in Phoenicia, in Byblos, where it was embedded in the trunk of a giant tamarisk. Isis then left in a boat in search of her husband and arrived at Byblos. Having made herself known to King Malcandre, Isis had the trunk and the coffin given to her and returned to Egypt. There, she hid the body in the vicinity of Bouto in the marshes of the delta.
But, while hunting in the moonlight, Seth found the body, which he cut into fourteen pieces, which he scattered on all sides. Isis then climbed into her papyrus boat to search for the pieces of her beloved”s body through the labyrinth of the swamp. Each time she found a piece, she had a tomb built where priests were charged with honoring the memory of Osiris. The only part that could not be found, despite all the efforts of Isis, was the manly member because it had been eaten by fish. However, it had had time to give the river its fertilizing power.
Written in the region of Heliopolis during the reign of Psammetichus I, the Brooklyn Papyrus is a text that lists the Egyptian myths of the cities and regions of the Nile Delta. Several short entries relate the transportation of the shreds of Osiris” body. In one of them, the bull Mnevis carries on his back a package containing the liver, lungs, spleen and intestines of the murdered god. Another, unfortunately incomplete in places, gives us information about the transport of other relics to the necropolis of Kher-aha (Cairo). The package is placed on the back of a donkey and the journey is made under the supervision of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys:
“As for Sepa, he is Osiris; he is called the Lambeau. They put him on the back of a donkey, but he weakened under it and lay down on the ground. Then Isis and Nephthys placed some of the Divine Seed near his nose; he straightened up under him and started walking immediately. The gods gathered these flows of the divine relics of Osiris, Isis, Nephthys and Tefnut having found them in Letopolis, hidden in a bush, neither seen nor heard. They brought him to the cave situated in the cliff of Pi-Hapi. The women wrapped the scapula-mehaqet and the tibia and made a mummy called Osiris, placed on the back of a donkey. They made him ride on his back in charge. But he toppled over under him, falling to the ground. He weakened under him, his limbs being tired. Then Isis and Nephthys presented their seed to his nostrils; he sniffed their . He got up after having ejaculated. They put the relic-khem on his back, it is the name of the flagellum. He rolled in all directions on the ground; he fell under him, falling to the ground. Their thighs spread they had closed the hand on his mufle.”
– Brooklyn Papyrus 47.218.84, § 11. Translation by Dimitri Meeks
As early as the Pyramid Texts (XXIVth century) an allusion reports that Set, the assassin of Osiris, is condemned to carry on his back the remains of his victim and that he bends under the heavy load. The donkey is generally considered as a Sethian animal and, as such, sacrificed during celebrations in honor of Osiris (month of Khoiak in Edfu). In the episode related by the Brooklyn Papyrus, the animal is not presented as being cursed. When he fails under his burden, Isis and Nephthys take care of him. They make him regain his strength and sexual vigor by lifting their dress and showing their intimacy under his nostrils. In the first century, this reproductive ritual is evoked by Diodorus on the occasion of the investiture of the new bull Apis: “During the forty days indicated, the sacred bull is visible only to the women: they place themselves in front of him and uncover their genitals; at any other time, it is forbidden to them to show themselves in front of him”. (Historical Library, Book I, 85). The exhibition is not so much intended for the animal as for the soul of Osiris that it carries. Because of his murder, the god has fallen into languor and it is a question of awakening him by stimulating his sexual impulses. This call to life is probably inspired by the observation of animal behavior (equids, bovids, goats). When a female is in heat, she produces specific pheromones that the male detects by smelling the urine or the air (these odors can be transported several kilometers around) by rolling up his upper lip in order to use the vomeronasal organ located under the inner surface of the nose (flehmen attitude).
In ancient Egypt, the mourners, with their cries, their laments and their songs, set the rhythm of the transport of the body to its final resting place. This custom, instituted in honor of the deceased, is a practice that dates back to ancient times. Death is generally perceived as a merciless enemy that sows confusion and pain. It provokes, during funerals, long lamentations that are both sincere and overplayed, especially by professionals hired for the occasion.
In the Pyramid Texts, funerary writings intended for the monarchs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (around 2200 BC), the goddesses Isis and Nephthys most often form a pair. In many mentions, they find together the corpse of their brother Osiris, mourn him, take care of him, rejoice after his mummification, escort him to his tomb and welcome him in the Beyond:
“Formula to be recited – The two doors of the door of the sky are opened and the two doors of the celestial expanses are opened thanks to the compassion of the gods who are in Pepy because they came to Osiris Pepy because of the sound of Isis”s weeping, because of Nephthys”s cries and because of the lamentations of these two blessed ones for this Great ascended one in the Douat. (…) Your perfume is spread by Isis because Nephthys has purified you. These are the two sisters, great and imposing, who have gathered your flesh, who have reattached your limbs and who have made your two eyes appear in your head, the boat of the night and the boat of the day!”
– Excerpts from chapter 670 of the Pyramid Texts. Translation by Claude Carrier.
The lamentations of the two sisters are also staged during great religious festivities dedicated to the rebirth of Osiris. In the city of Abydos, the Mecca of Osirian belief, a sacred drama was held every year in the temple, featuring two young virgins charged with playing the roles of Isis and Nephthys. Between the 22nd and the 26th of the month of Khoiak (in November), the two actresses sang to the sound of the tambourine, accompanied by a priest. Most often, the representative of Isis sings alone but, very regularly, she sings a duet with Nephthys. The song is a long lament that evokes the sadness of separation, but it is also a call exhorting the absent god to return to the mourners:
“(In duet) You have forgotten the sorrow, thanks to us. We gather your limbs for you, in lamentation, seeking to protect your body… So come to us, so that we forget your adversary, Come to us in the form you had on earth. (…) (Isis) Ah! come to me! The sky is united to the earth, A shadow has come on the earth today, And the sky is stuck to the earth. Ah! come with me! (…) O lord of love, come to me (my) master, that I may see you today. My brother, come back, that we may see you again. (…) “
– Short extracts from the Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys. Translation by Claire Lalouette
From the texts of the pyramids of the Old Kingdom, it is formally attested that the falcon god Horus is the son of the couple Osiris and Isis. The conception of Horus is inscribed in an astral dimension, his father being compared to the constellation of Orion, Sah in Egyptian, that is to say “The Toe” or “The Pathfinder”, while his mother, the goddess Isis, is perceived as being the personification of the constellation of the Great Dog, Sopedet in Egyptian, “The Efficient”.
This birth is then reinterpreted and presented as a posthumous carnal union where Isis transformed into a djeryt bird (or “kite”, a species of medium-sized bird of prey) mates with the mummy of Osiris by landing on his phallus. This episode is represented for the first time in the New Kingdom in the funerary temple of king Seti I, at Abydos. This scene is then repeated until the Roman occupation of Egypt, for example in the Osirian chapel located on the roof of the temple of Hathor, in Denderah. In the Great Hymn to Osiris on the stele of Amenmes, dated to the eighteenth dynasty and preserved in the Louvre Museum, the goddess Isis is described as a woman whose two arms are like the wings of a bird. She flaps her wings and the light breeze produces a life-giving breath that makes Osiris” soul come alive; Osiris is invigorated and the couple conceives Horus, the rightful heir to the pharaonic office:
“Isis, the Efficient One, the protector of her brother, seeking him without weariness, wandering through this mourning country, does not rest until she has found him. Shading with her plumage, producing air with her two wings, making gestures of joy, she makes her brother approach, raising what was sagging, for He-whose-heart-is-failing; extracting his seed, creating an heir, she nurses the child in the solitude of an unknown place, enthrones him, her arm grown strong, in the Great Hall of Geb.”
– Extract from the Great Hymn to Osiris. Translation by A. Barucq and Fr. Daumas.
The Metternich Stele, dated to the reign of Nectanebo II and kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is an archaeological piece discovered in the precincts of the temple of Mnevis in Heliopolis. Its entire surface is covered with divine images and magical inscriptions intended to cure scorpion stings and snake bites. One of the formulas features a mythological episode told by the goddess Isis herself. The action takes place after the death of Osiris. Isis manages to escape from the house where Set had put her under house arrest. The god Thoth comes to meet her and advises her to hide with Horus so that he can have a chance to grow up and take the throne of Egypt. Isis travels through the country, escorted by seven dangerous scorpions:
“I set out in the evening, and the seven scorpions followed me to help me: Tefen and Befen were behind me, Mestet and Mestetef were beside me, Petet, Tsetet and Matet were clearing the way. I gave them very severe orders and my words, they answered them: Obey no one, honor nothing that is red, make no difference between the elevated and the simple, be humble at once! Beware of accompanying him who seeks me, until we have arrived at Persui, city of the two sisters, to the place where the delta marshes begin, to the end of the dry land!”
Isis arrives in front of a beautiful house. A noble lady comes to the door, but she closes the door to her frightened by the seven scorpions. Vexed, the seven scorpions get together and put their venom on Tefen”s stinger. A servant opened the door to let Isis in, but Tefen slipped into the house to the room of the lady”s son to sting him painfully. The poison was so strong that a fire broke out in the house. Miraculously, the rain began to fall and put out the fire. Seeing the despair of the noblewoman, the heart of Isis was moved to pity. The goddess laid her hands on the dying child and conjured up the poison:
“Poison of Tefen, come here and flow to the earth! Don”t go in and walk around! Poison of Befen, come here and flow to the earth! I am Isis, the goddess, the mistress of magical virtue, magician whose formulas are powerful. Every reptile that bites obeys me. Go down below, poison of Mestet! Do not hurry, poison of Mestetef! Do not go up, poison of Petet and Tsetet! Don”t move, poison of Matet! Fall down, mouth of the one who bites! Isis the great witch, standing at the head of the gods, to whom Geb gives his magic virtue to expel the poison, spoke. Do not have strength! Stop! Go back! Run back, poison, do not go up!”
After a few more magical words, the boy regained his health, the rain stopped and the fire went out. Sorry for having been sour, the noble lady embraced Isis and showered the goddess and the maid with beautiful gifts.
Since the beginnings of Egyptology, many stories about the childhood of Horus have been collected, most often on magical statues or in grimoires intended to ward off evil spirits responsible for terrible diseases. In the marshes of Chemnis located around the city of Bouto, Horus, hidden from the terrible Set and abandoned by his mother Isis who was busy finding means of subsistence, was the victim of scorpion stings, snake bites, fevers, diarrhea, mutilations, etc. These numerous misadventures make the little god the prototype of the frail, innocent and defenseless child. However, he also appears as a young being who manages to overcome each of his sufferings, the other deities always acting magically in his favor, Isis and Thoth in the first place.
A magic formula on the Metternich stele relates that one day the goddess Isis left the little Horus alone to go and beg for food from the inhabitants of Bouto. In the evening, she found her son inanimate and close to death. Desperate, Isis sought help from the Egyptians. Nobody managed to cure him but an old woman told her that it was not an attack of Set, but that her son had been stung by a scorpion. The complaints of Isis made Nephthys and Selkis run to her. The latter immediately advised the distressed mother to call upon Ra. Moved by the despair of Isis, the solar god stopped his race, stopped in the sky and sent Thoth near the young agonizing. After many incantatory words, Thoth succeeded in evacuating the poison of the body of Horus who at once returned to the life. Once this was done, Thoth ordered the inhabitants of Bouto to watch over the young god constantly in the absence of Isis. He then returned to Ra in the sky and announced to his master that the solar race could now continue normally.
The decapitation of Isis is a mythological episode attested as early as the Middle Kingdom by three allusions appearing in chapter 80 of the sarcophagi texts, a corpus of funerary texts used by the notables of Middle Egypt:
“N is Life that restored the heads, that restored the necks. It is N who makes the gullets live! I have restored Atum. I restored the head of Isis on her neck after I restored the spine of Chepri for her benefit.”
– Excerpt from chap. 80 of the sarcophagus texts, translation by Claude Carrier.
Later, from the New Kingdom onwards, the myth is exposed in real stories; the most famous is The Adventures of Horus and Set recorded on the Chester Beatty Papyrus 1. To find out who is the most suitable successor to Osiris, the vigorous Set challenges the young Horus. The two gods take on the appearance of hippopotamuses and then dive into the waters of the Nile to face each other in a duel to the death. If one of them emerges from the water before three full months, he is not worthy of the royal office. This confrontation is also recorded on the calendar of Cairo Papyrus no. 86637. According to the latter document, the confrontation took place on the twenty-sixth day of the first month of the season of Akhet (the first month of the Egyptian year) located at the beginning of the Nile flood around the months of July-August. The goddess Isis, remaining on the shore of the river, becomes afraid and fears for the life of her son Horus. Very quickly, she makes a magic harpoon that reaches its prey by itself:
“(…) They plunged, the two men. And Isis began to lament: “Set wants to kill Horus, my child. She brought a ball of thread. Then she made a rope, brought a copper rod, melted it into a weapon for the water, tied the rope to it and threw it into the water where Horus and Set had dived. But the metal bit the body of his son Horus. So Horus shouted: “To me, mother Isis, my mother, call your harpoon, untie it from me. I am Horus, son of Isis”. At these words, Isis shouted, and said to the harpoon that it is detached from him: “Understand that it is my son Horus, my child, this one”. And her harpoon broke away from him.
– The adventures of Horus and Seth (extract). Translation by Michèle Broze.
The decapitation of Isis by Horus, recorded in the papyrus of the Adventures of Horus and Seth, does not indicate how the goddess recovered her life nor how she found herself with a new head on her shoulders. In the second century AD, the Greek Plutarch, in his treatise On Isis and Osiris, mentions this episode in a disguised manner, warning the reader that the Egyptians were not averse to recounting mythical episodes involving the dismemberment of Horus and the decapitation of Isis:
“A great battle was fought; it lasted several days and ended with the victory of Horus. Typhon, garroted, was handed over to Isis. But the goddess did not make him perish; she untied him and gave him back his freedom. Horus became excessively indignant and, laying his hand on his mother, tore off the royal headband that she had on her head. Hermes then, to replace this headband, put a helmet with a cow”s head on her head.
– Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, extract from paragraph 19. Translation by Mario Meunier.
In the Greco-Roman period, these mythological data appear in a more explicit way in the Papyrus Jumilhac, a religious monograph devoted to the legends of Cynopolitania, an Egyptian region placed under the active protection of Anubis, the adopted son of Isis. Here, the myth mixes different traditions. The culprit of the decapitation is the falcon god Anty, assimilated to Horus and Anubis, while the victim is the goddess Hathor, assimilated to Isis and the cow Hesat. Anty having decapitated Hathor-Isis (Jumilhac IX, 1 and XII, 22) in the city of Atfieh (Aphroditopolis), the sun god Ra condemns him to death by flaying, the executioner being the god Thoth. But the cow Isis-Hesat, who in the meantime has found life again and moved by the sad fate of her assassin, revives Anty-Horus by placing his bones in his skin (like a nebula) and by sprinkling the whole with her maternal milk:
“Somebody came to commit, in the nome of Aphroditopolis, this crime, which took place in the temple of Hathor, lady of Mefkat. Ra and the Ennead, after having learned about it, felt, in the highest degree, anger and indignation. And Ra said to the Ennead: “As for his flesh and his skin, his mother created them with her milk; as for his bones, they exist thanks to the seed of his father. So let his skin and flesh be removed from him, his bones remaining in his possession. (…) Then he went towards the nome of Dunay, with the gods of his suite, Thoth being at their head, his skin being with him. The heart of Hésat was happy because of her. And she made her milk flow again for him, to renew his birth, and she made the milk rise to the end of her breasts, and she directed them to his skin, in that place, making the milk flow there. (…) was there in good health, his flesh having again become firm for him, and his form having again been given birth. His mother, Isis, looked upon him as a young child, after having renewed his birth in this nome (…) “.
– Extracts from the Papyrus Jumilhac (XII,22-XIII,10). Translation by Jacques Vandier.
Another passage in the Papyrus Jumilhac indicates that the goddess found life again in the city of Niout-net-ihet, that is to say the “City of the Cow”. Archaeology has not yet discovered this place, but it is probably located on an island that existed near Tehneh. The god Thoth cut the head of a cow and placed it on the decapitated body of Isis. After several incantations, the goddess began to live again:
“The goddess who is there is Isis, from the city of the cow (…) As for this city of the Cow which gave its name to this district, it is (an allusion) to the cow which was found by Thoth in this city. He had brought back its (= the head of the cow) head, which he had placed on the neck of this goddess, after a crime had come to be committed in the district of Aphroditopolis. But he (= Thoth) reunited it (= the head) with the neck, thanks to his glorifications.”
– Extracts from Papyrus Jumilhac (XXI,1-9). Translation by Jacques Vandier.
Places of worship
Throughout the history of ancient Egypt, the goddess Isis enjoyed many places of worship, large and small, scattered along the Nile Valley. The high places of belief were the temple in the city of Per-Hebyt (Behbeit el-Hagar in Arabic) and the temple on the island of Philæ. If the first one is only a ruin of scattered blocks, the second one has admirably resisted to time.
The oldest mention of a sanctuary dedicated to Isis goes back to the time of the Old Kingdom and is found in the pyramid texts according to which a temple would be found in the city of Netjerou in the 12th nome of Lower Egypt. It is probably the present locality of Behbeit el-Hagar located not far from Bousiris, a major city of the 9th nome dedicated to Osiris. During the Middle Kingdom, Behbeit el-Hagar is probably the main place of worship of Isis. Her cult is however also attested in the 13th nome where she is associated with the cat goddess Bastet. The priests of Heliopolis, the city of the solar god Atum-Ra, integrated her into their belief as early as the 5th Dynasty by making her one of the nine deities of the Ennead. At the same time, the presence of Isis is also attested in the 1st nome and more particularly in Memphis, the capital of the country. In Giza, from the XVIIIth dynasty, the chapel of the pyramid of Henoutsen, wife of Cheops, was modified and dedicated to “Isis, Mistress of the Pyramid”.
temple de Séthi Ier]] réserve à Isis l”une de ses sept chapelles intérieures. Dans le 6e nome, à Dendérah, Isis est assimilée à la sensuelle Hathor. Sous la domination romaine (règne d”Auguste), un petit sanctuaire à Isis est édifié pour commémorer sa naissance : le Mammisi ou Iséum de Dendérah. Dès l”Ancien Empire, Isis est aussi révérée dans les villes de Qûs et Coptos du 5e nome. À partir du Moyen Empire, son culte est aussi attesté à Nekhen (3e nome) et à Edfou (2e nome). Le temple le plus considérable se trouve dans le 1er nome, à Philæ actif à partir de la XXVIe dynastie. En amont de l”Égypte, en Nubie, la déesse Isis apparaît aux côtés d”autres divinités égyptiennes dans une série de temples édifiés le long du Nil ou creusés dans les falaises à partir du Nouvel Empire, à Debod, à Bouhen, à Abou Simbel, etc. Son culte est aussi adopté par les rois africains de Kerma et Méroé, indépendants après la XXVe dynastie.
In the north of Egypt, in the heart of the Nile delta, was the temple of Isis of the ancient Isiospolis, the “City of Isis”, located between the towns of Mansourah and Samanoud (Sebennytos). This city is now known as Behbeit el-Hagar (“Behbeit the Stones”). The town owes its Arabic name to the Egyptian toponym Per-Hebyt “the dwelling of the feast”, often abbreviated to Hebyt and attested since the reign of Amenhotep III (el-Hagar “the Stones” comes from the numerous and enormous blocks of grey and pink granite of Aswan which are piled up on the site and are the only remains of the collapsed temple. It is very likely that the temple was built with this material to link it to the Aswan cataract where Isis and Osiris were respectively venerated on the islands of Philæ and Biggeh.
(Geographic coordinates: 31° 01′ 40″ N, 31° 17′ 22″ E)
The temple of Isis at Behbeit el-Hagar, also known by its Latin name of Isum, is a late building constructed entirely of granite stone. This holy place no longer exists, but its remains are preserved on an archaeological site of nearly 7.6 hectares in area. According to the surveys of the French Egyptologist Christine Favard-Meeks, the dimensions of the temple were about 100 meters long and 60 meters wide. The sanctuary was preceded by a pronaos (none of them are still intact but their diameter can be estimated at 1.50 meters. It is also assumed that there was a monumental entrance pylon. The temple and its outbuildings (administration and warehouses) were enclosed in a vast enclosure. This wall was built in mud brick with corrugated courses typical of the reign of Nectanebo I. According to the royal cartouches engraved on the stone blocks, the temple was built during the fourth and third centuries B.C. by Nectanebo II, the last native ruler, and by the Lagid pharaohs Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III. The temple was reduced to ruins very early on, perhaps as a result of a devastating earthquake, for there is no further evidence of it after the reign of Ptolemy III. It is however likely that the collapsed temple continued to be visited by pilgrims and devotees after its destruction. One of its blocks was thus sent to Italy to serve as a relic in the temple of Isis built in the first century in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire.
Examination of the remains of the Iseum of Behbeit el-Hagar shows that local theology imagined Isis as a powerful primordial and universal deity equal in power to the creator god Atum. Isis is more particularly in charge of protecting and vivifying the mummy of her brother Osiris and, from there, all the deceased pharaohs. Osiris consequently occupies a place of choice in the temple. Several chapels are dedicated to him at the back of the temple, behind the holy of holies, as well as on the roof which could be reached thanks to a monumental staircase. Each Osirian chapel gave a cult to a particular form of the god; the one dedicated to “Osiris who wakes up well” condensed beliefs coming from all the Delta, the Egyptian religion being organized around local beliefs and mythical episodes with numerous variants.
In the south of Egypt, in Nubian territory, the ancient island of Philæ, 300 meters long and 135 meters wide, is now submerged under the waters of Lake Nasser. It was located five kilometers south of the city of Aswan and near the first cataract of the Nile where the course of the river is cluttered with islands and granite islets. The temple of Isis built in this place during the Lagid dynasty and during the Roman occupation almost disappeared permanently following the rise of the water caused by the construction of the ancient Aswan dam. Under the patronage of UNESCO, its monuments were moved in the 1960s-1970s, some 400 meters north of the original site, on the island of Aguilkia, seven meters higher.
(Geographic coordinates: 24° 01′ 18″ N, 32° 53′ 20″ E)
In all likelihood, the first religious building to have been constructed on Phileas dates back to Dynasty XXVI in the form of a small kiosk with eight columns, probably to commemorate in 595 BC a victory of King Psammetichus I over the Nubians. A quarter of a century later, King Ahmosis II had a small temple of Isis built on a small rocky knoll with three rooms in a row. During Dynasty 30, Nectanebo I built a kiosk with eighteen columns that was later moved to the south of the island during the reign of Ptolemy II. The construction of the present sanctuary of Isis began only at the beginning of the 3rd century under Ptolemy I at the back of the temple of Amasis which was later razed to make way for a pronaos of ten columns closed by a pylon. Ptolemy III continued the work by establishing a mammisi in front of the western tower of the pylon. This building is then enlarged under Ptolemy VIII. The period of construction of the entrance pylon in front of the mammisi is not known. However, it is accepted that the courtyard between the two pylons was closed off to the east under Ptolemy VIII by a colonnade that forms a portico for a building with four rooms. The Temple of Isis itself is surrounded by a series of other shrines: the Temple of Harendotes (Horus) to the west, the Temple of Imhotep (the architect of the First Pyramid) and the Temples of Mandulis and Arensnuphis (two Nubian gods) on the southern court, the Temple of Hathor and the Kiosk of Trajan to the east, and the Temple of Augustus to the north.
From the ten or so hymns engraved on the walls of the temple of Philæ, it appears that the local priests developed a theology specific to the place where Isis performs four major functions. The goddess is above all the protector of the corpse of her brother Osiris, who is supposed to rest in the Abaton, the pure and inaccessible place of the nearby island of Biggeh. Every ten days, the statue of Isis went out in procession from the temple carried by priests. She then went in a boat to the tomb of her husband to make a libation of milk and a smoking of incense. This ritual revived Osiris, allowed him to live in the afterlife and caused the annual flooding of the Nile. The second function makes Isis the mother of the falcon Horus who unites in her person the function of protector of the deceased king and the royal office of the reigning sovereign. The third role of the goddess is that of being the serpent Uraeus in charge of defending the solar god Ra against Apophis during his journey to the lower world. Put together, these three functions make Isis, fourthly, the benefactor goddess of Egypt, a deity with demiurgic powers and presiding over all the cities of the country.
In ancient Egypt, the first millennium BC was characterized by profound changes in the field of religious beliefs. One of the most important mutations, in germ since the New Kingdom, is the rise in power of the cult of Osiris and Isis during the Late Period and the Ptolemaic Period. Osiris becomes the tutelary figure of monarchic power and his myth is put forward by the pharaohs and their relatives to constitute a new royal ideology. The importance of the Osirian rites never ceases to grow, in particular those performed during the month of Khoiak (October-November). Each great sanctuary is endowed with an Osireion, that is to say a cult complex composed of chapels dedicated to the rebirth of Osiris, murdered and dismembered by Set. Every year the same rituals are repeated there, modelled on the magical and funerary gestures performed in the myth by Isis. By means of small sacred figurines, the priests symbolically reconstitute the body of the martyred god. Once this is done, the figurines are kept for twelve months and then buried in necropolises specially dedicated to this purpose. This regeneration is symbolically placed under the patronage of the pharaoh who, in the iconography, opens a procession of forty-two deities who rush towards Isis the grieving widow. Each deity symbolizes one of the forty-two nomes of the country and one of the forty-two shreds scattered by the murderer throughout Egypt. The annual recomposition of the body of Osiris by means of these figurines is thus set up as a process of political reunification accomplished by Pharaoh in a country beset by various difficulties (dynastic crises, foreign invasions, popular revolts).
During the rituals of Khoiak, Isis appears in the guise of the goddess Chentayt whose name means “She who suffers”, a designation of the grieving widow.During the New Kingdom, Chentayt is part of both the local pantheon of Abydos and Busiris, the two major cities of the Osiris cult. In the iconography, the goddess is thus split into a Chentayt of Abydos with the headdress of Isis (throne) and a Chentayt of Busiris with the headdress of Nephthys, sister of Isis. Later, Nephthys appears in the form of the goddess Merkhetes “She whose flame is painful” in order to give Isis-Chentayt a true female counterpart. The role of the two goddesses is defined by an inscription in the temple of Edfu, “his two sisters are with him (Osiris), they order his protection, it is Isis with Nephthys, it is Chentayt with Merkhetes who exalt the perfection of their brother.” The role of Chentayt is essential during the rituals of Khoiak because it appears that these religious mysteries take place in the Per-Chentayt or “Abode of Chentayt”. This name is used, among other things, to designate the Osirian chapels located on the roof terrace of the temples of Denderah and Philæ. There, the priests made the mummiform statuettes of Osiris. In a chapel at Denderah, Chentayt is shown kneeling before a scale in the presence of Khnum and Ptah, the primordial gods who fashioned the flesh of humans. She is about to weigh the ingredients brought by all the gods of the country. The statuette of the “vegetating Osiris” is made of a mixture of cereals (wheat or barley), earth and water. Chentayt is the one who “transubstantiates the wheat and rejuvenates her brother in the castle of gold”. Wheat and gold are in the Egyptian language two words with similar pronunciation (neb) and a poetic comparison was set up between the color of wheat and that of the precious metal considered as the skin of the divinities.
For more than seven centuries, between the end of the 4th century B.C. and the end of the 4th century A.D., the cults of Isis, of her god Sarapis (a Hellenized form of Osiris), of their son Harpocrates and of Anubis (the jackal god) spread out of Egypt all around the Mediterranean basin and even beyond, to Arabia, to the Kushan Empire (India), to Germania and to Britain. This religious phenomenon is one of the most remarkable of the Hellenistic and Roman eras. The goddess Isis is the central figure of this pantheon. Many Greek and Roman cities dedicated an official cult to her. In modern scientific literature, this diffusion of Egyptian belief is called “Egyptian cults”, “Alexandrian cults”, “Nilotic cults” or “Isiac cults”.
Specialists such as Laurent Bricault distinguish between the cults of Isis, which precede the spread of the cult of the goddess in the Ptolemaic period, and the isiac cults, which correspond to the new Egyptian-Hellenistic religion established by the Ptolemies under the auspices of the god Sarapis in Alexandria, and which will be enriched in its Mediterranean journey by the contributions of the Greco-Roman world.
From the end of the 4th century BC, the cult of the goddess Isis is attested on Greek soil. At first, the belief was spread by expatriate Egyptians, probably merchants, who wished to venerate, outside of Egypt, a deity that was dear to them. The earliest mention goes back to 333 BC in a decree which recalls that the Athenian assembly had granted Egyptians the right to build a temple of Isis in the port city of Piraeus. One of the first expatriate priests is a certain Ouaphrès (Ouahibparê) born in Bousiris in Lower Egypt and died about -250 in Démétrias in Magnesia. Another of these characters is the priest Apollônios of Memphis who founded, at the beginning of the IIIrd century, the cult of Sarapis and Isis on the holy island of Delos then reputed to be the birthplace of the god Apollo. Around the decades 230-220 of our era, Isis and Sarapis have temples in Attica (Piraeus, Athens, Rhamnonte), in Béotie (Orchomène, Chéronée), in Macédonia (Thessalonica), in Thrace (Perinth), in Carie (Halicarnasse, Kéramos, Stratonicée), in the islands of the Dodecanese, Cyclades, etc.
In the twentieth century, scholars have tried to explain the rapid spread of the cult of Isis in Greek lands. According to the Belgian Franz Cumont (1868-1947), this diffusion is the mark of an imperialist decision of the Lagid dynasty, opinion disputed in 1960 by the Englishman Peter Marshall Fraser for whom this phenomenon is perhaps caused by Greek mercenaries of the Lagid army returning from Egypt. Others like Richard Harder defended the idea of a propaganda orchestrated by the Egyptian clergy. It seems, however, that one cannot integrate the isiac diffusion in a coherent and homogeneous scheme. The foundation of places of worship is above all the work of individuals or groups of individuals wishing to practice their religion where they are. The beginnings of worship were generally modest and practiced in private homes. In a second time, with the increase of the number of the faithful and the recruitment near the well-to-do citizens, the Egyptian cults integrated politically into the life of the Greek cities. At first distrustful, the authorities then took in hand the organization of the cult to better control it, to build public sanctuaries and to pay the priests as in Delos, Athens, Priene or Rhodes. This official installation sometimes follows a request for authorization from the Greek gods. In the middle of the IIIrd century, the Istrians thus questioned the oracle of Apollo of Chalcedon about the advisability of introducing an official worship to Sarapis in their city.
The introduction of the cult of Isis or Sarapis in a Greek city can be specified thanks to written testimonies left by the devotees themselves. The Aretalogy of Isis is a text with proselytizing aspects known by numerous copies and variants. It is a long litany that lists the multiple powers of the goddess: sovereign, legislator, demiurge, etc. The original text seems to have been written in Egypt by priests from Memphis during the third century, perhaps to assert themselves as a faithful ally of the royal Lagid power installed in Alexandria in the face of the powerful Theban clergy, quick to insubordination and armed rebellion. It is not known, however, whether the Aretalogy is a propaganda text disseminated by an organized religious or political power or whether it is a very popular text among enthusiastic devotees:
From the end of the second century B.C., the cult of Isis spread widely in Italy and around the western Mediterranean. The introduction of the Egyptian belief in Italian lands probably begins in the regions of Campania and Rome thanks to rich Italian merchants driven from the island of Delos during the Mithridatic wars. Inland, Isis is also mentioned in Nursia and Tusculum. Very early, the goddess is also strongly implanted in Sicily, from the end of the IIIth century, thanks to the strong diplomatic relations maintained by the king Hiéron II with the lagides pharaohs. The diffusion of the belief is realized from big urban centers as Puteoli, Pompeii, Rome, Aquileia and Ostia. In this last city, the port built by the emperor Trajan attracted many Egyptian merchants and worshippers of the goddess. From the time of Augustus, in Industria in Liguria, the cult is introduced and maintained financially by two rich families (known in Delos before its plundering in the year -88), the Avilli and the Lollii. Under Tiberius and Hadrian, Industria is known for its Iséum and its factory of bronze objects of worship of Egyptian style. In the first century, in Pompeii, the isiacs seem to form a prosperous community. The earthquake that shook the city in 62 AD destroyed the temple of Isis. This one is however rebuilt by Numerus, a rich private individual. In exchange, the authorities accept his young son in the local senate. The new temple, destroyed in 79 by the eruption of Vesuvius, was rediscovered in 1764 during excavations.
From the first century B.C., the cult of Isis spread outside the Italian peninsula to the rest of Western Europe via the Alpine routes and to the East thanks to Egyptian and Syrian sailors and merchants. The cult was established in Rome despite the resistance of the Roman Senate and despite religious persecutions under the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. The officialization dates from the reign of Caligula who decided to build a temple of Isis on the Field of Mars. In Gaul, Germania and Brittany, the establishment of the cult of Isis was the consequence of Roman colonization and the penetration of the cult corresponded to the major trade routes, mainly the Rhone valley and to a lesser extent that of the Rhine. In the Danubian provinces (Dacia, Pannonia), the colonies where the Isiac temples were built were often also centers of imperial worship. In North Africa, the presence of the goddess remains modest and is confined along the coast in the region of Carthage. In Iberia, its presence is noticed in some river valleys (Guadiana and Douro). Towards the end of the reign of Commodus, Sarapis and Isis became the protectors of the Emperor and the Empire. In the second century, the Severan period marks the apogee of the cult of Isis in the ancient world. During the 3rd century, despite the clear progression of Christianity, the belief in Isis persisted. Until the end of the 4th century, the Roman aristocracy, which remained attached to the defense of paganism, maintained the cult of Isis despite the numerous polemical attacks of the Christian circles.
The chance of archaeological discoveries has not yet allowed the discovery of the remains of a sanctuary of Isis on French territory. The presence of her cult is however attested by numerous epigraphic sources (inscriptions on steles or statues). The Narbonne is the Gallic region that provides the greatest number of testimonies of this kind. The main sectors are the valley of the Garonne, the surroundings of Toulouse (Tolosa), Narbonne (Colonia Narbo Martius) and the valley of the Rhône from the delta to the cities of Lyon (Lugdunum) and Vienne (Colonia Julia Viennensis). The belief was probably introduced into Gaul through the coastal cities frequented by Greeks, Hellenized Orientals and Italics (Campanians) engaged in maritime trade. The presence of a temple of Isis is attested in Nîmes (Nemausus), a city founded by Augustus for military veterans returning from Egypt. This fact was commemorated by coins bearing a crocodile chained to a palm tree (this motif has appeared on the city”s coat of arms since 1535). Nîmes is also known for its brotherhood of Anubians dedicated to the cult of the jackal Anubis. The cities of Marseille (Massalia) and Arles (Arelate) also had temples of Isis. That of the city of Lyon (Lugdunum) was probably located on the hill of Fourvière where an inscription dedicated to Isis Augusta was discovered on a statue of Fortuna. From this city, the cult of Isis spread to the valleys of the Loire, the Allier and the Saône. Egyptian statuettes or statuettes in the Egyptian style were sporadically discovered throughout the Gallic territory. Such is the case in Strasbourg (Argentoratum). In this military city, the cult of Isis does not seem to have had a temple, unlike Mithra (Mithraeum de Koenigshoffen). In Paris, the evidence is just as meager and questionable. However, we can point to the discovery in August 1944 of Egyptian artifacts (fragments of ceramic statuettes, remains of papyrus from the Book of the Dead) in the remains of a building that could be interpreted as being a library depending on an Isiac sanctuary (Latin Quarter, not far from the Baths of Cluny).
The most frequent image in Greco-Roman sculpture represents Isis standing with the weight of her body on one leg, a brandished sistrum in her right hand and a situla (small vase with a handle) in her left hand. This mode of figuration seems to appear in the first century AD. Before that, in Hellenized circles, in the Egypt of the Ptolemies or in the new Greek territories acquired by the goddess, Isis was represented with a cornucopia in the left hand and a patère (flared drinking cup) in the right hand. This type must date back to the 3rd century BC and is found in Alexandria, Delos or engraved on oil lamps found in Pompeii. A second type shows the goddess holding a situla in her lowered left hand and an Uraeus (snake) in her right hand raised forward. Originating in Alexandria around the 2nd century, one type of statuary shows the goddess dressed in a thin tunic, the chiton, and a heavy fringed cloak, the himation, whose ends are tied between the breasts.
“First of all, her rich and long hair, slightly curled, and widely spread on her divine neck, floated with a soft abandon. A crown irregularly braided with various flowers encircled the top of her head. In its middle, above the forehead, a flattened disc in the shape of a mirror, or rather imitating the moon, cast a white glow. (…) But what dazzled my eyes most of all was an intense black coat, resplendent with a dark glow. It went all the way around the body, under the right arm and up to the left shoulder, from where its free end fell down in front of it in a knot, hung in tiered folds to the lower edge, and, finished with a row of bangs, floated gracefully.
– Appearance of Isis in a dream to Lucius. Apuleius, Metamorphoses (extracts from chap. XI), trans. by P. Valette.
Even though Isis was adopted by the Greco-Roman peoples, the goddess was still widely perceived as a foreign deity. Numerous epithets indicate her Egyptian origin: Isis Aegyptia (the Egyptian), Isis Taposirias after the ancient name of the coastal city of Abousir (located west of Alexandria), Isis Memphitis (Memphis), Isis Tachnèpsis (Mount Casion near Pelusa). The phenomena of the Interpretatio Graeca and syncretism have caused Isis to be assimilated or confused with Greek goddesses such as Aphrodite, Tyche, Demeter, Hygie. In Italy, the goddess took on the aspects of the goddess Fortuna worshipped in Preneste, a deity of agriculture, fertility and love. These numerous associations made Isis the goddess with ten thousand names Isis Myrionyma:
“Unique power, the whole world worships me in many forms, by diverse rites, under multiple names. The Phrygians, first-born of the men call me Mother of the gods, goddess of Pessinonte; the autochthonous Athenians, Minerva Cécropienne; the Cypriots bathed of the waves, Venus Paphienne; the Cretans carrying arrows, Diane Dictyme; the trilingual Sicilians, Proserpine Stygian; the inhabitants of ancient Eleusis, Ceres Actaean, some Juno, others Bellona, these Hecate, those Rhamnusie. But those whom the sun illuminates at its rise of its nascent rays, of its last rays when it leans towards the horizon, the people of the two Ethiopias, and the powerful Egyptians by their ancient knowledge honor me of the worship which is proper to me and call me by my true name, Isis queen.”
– Speech of Isis to Lucius, Apulée, Métamorphoses (extract from chap. XI), trans. by P. Valette.
In the second century, in his treatise On Osiris and Isis, the Greek Plutarch tried to give a philosophical explanation to the Egyptian myth. According to him, the Egyptian people are holders of a very ancient knowledge reserved for a small group of priests and initiates. This truth is hidden behind symbols and each pharaoh, at the time of his enthronement, is “initiated into this philosophy where so many things, under formulas and myths that wrapped the truth and the manifestation by transparency with an obscure appearance, were hidden”. To demonstrate this dissimulation, Plutarch puts forward three examples: the sphinxes, which suggest the presence in the temples of an enigmatic wisdom, the name of the god Amon which means “the hidden one” and an inscription engraved on a statue of Neith venerated in Saïs and assimilated to Athena and Isis:
“At Sais, the seated statue of Athena, whom they identify with Isis, bears this inscription: ”I am all that has been, that is and that will be, and my veil (peplos), no mortal has yet lifted.””
– Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 9. Translation by Pierre Hadot.
The inscription of Saïs is evoked, a second time, in the 5th century, by the Greek Proclus in his Commentary of the Timaeus of Plato, but under a different and more developed form:
“What is, what will be, what has been, I am. My robe (chitôn), no one has lifted it. The fruit that I have begotten is the sun.”
– Proclus, Commentary on Plato”s Timaeus, 21st. Translation by Pierre Hadot.
The expression “no mortal has ever lifted my veil” adopted by Plutarch is confusing. It is tempting to imagine a statue of Isis, her face hidden under a shawl that the initiate lifts like a bridegroom on the wedding day when his veiled wife presents herself to him, the unveiling signifying the discovery of the hidden mysteries. This interpretation is not very credible, as the Egyptians did not veil their goddesses. Plutarch speaks rather of a tunic, the peplos being a heavy woollen garment, while the lifting of the robe and the unveiling of the female sex of Isis (or of the goddesses identified with her) is a mythical and iconographic motif attested in Egypt.
The character of Io, a Greek priestess transformed into a heifer, was very quickly compared to Isis, the Egyptian goddess with bovine aspects. According to a Greek myth known at least since Aeschylus, Zeus noticed Io and the beautiful woman quickly became one of his many mistresses. Their relationship continued until Hera, Zeus” wife, almost caught them. Zeus managed to escape this situation by turning Io into a beautiful white heifer. However, Hera was not fooled and demanded that Zeus give it to her as a present. Hera entrusted the heifer to the custody of Argos, with a hundred eyes, so that he would keep it away from Zeus. Zeus then asked his son Hermes to kill Argos. This gesture accomplished, Hera took revenge by sending on Io a gadfly in charge of stinging her unceasingly. The latter, distraught and furious, fled and travelled through many countries. She swam across several European and Asian seas to finally arrive in Egypt where Zeus made her regain her human form. There she married King Telegonos and their descendants ruled the country.
From this story, the Latin authors multiplied the comparisons between Isis and Io, such as the writer Ovid who, in his Metamorphoses (IX, 686-694), designates Isis as being the daughter of Inachos, the river-god reputed to be the father of Io. In the 2nd century, Apollodorus the Mythographer summarizes the myth of Io in his work the Library (II, 7-9), by assimilating the Greek goddess to Isis:
“Io first reached the Ionian Gulf, so called because of her; then, after having traveled through Illyria and crossed the Haimos, she crossed the strait which was then called the Strait of Thrace and which is now called, because of her, the Bosphorus. She went to Scythia and to the country of the Cimmerians and, after wandering over vast stretches of land and swimming across vast stretches of sea, she arrived in Egypt. There, she found her primitive form and, on the banks of the river Nile, she gave birth to a son, Epaphos (the Attouché). Hera asked the Couretes to make the child disappear, which they did. Zeus, when he learns about it, kills the Couretes. Io, on her side, started to search for her son. She wandered all over Syria (it had been revealed to her that her son was there, fed by the wife of the king of Byblos) and, when she had found Epaphos, she returned to Egypt and married Telegonos, who was then ruling the Egyptians. She erected a statue of Demeter and the Egyptians called the goddess Isis. To Io also they gave the same name of Isis “
– Excerpt from the Library of Apollodorus, translated by J.-Cl. Carrière and B. Massonie.
Mysteries of Isis
The meeting of Greek and Egyptian cultures during the Ptolemaic period gave rise to the Mysteries of Isis, a cult of the goddess based on public festive events and more confidential ceremonies. The latter are only accessible to individuals who have undertaken a spiritual education inaugurated by an initiation into the myths and symbols of the belief in Isis, during nightly and secret trials held within the precincts of the Isiac temples.
Numerous Greco-Roman documents attest to the existence of festive days intended to give thanks to Isis. These dates recall the main mythical exploits of the goddess and structure the community life of her worshippers. Generally speaking, a festival begins with a procession intended to present the divine statues to the crowd. The event continues with prayers, libations and sacrifices, and ends with a banquet in the temple area. According to the Calendar of Philocalus, dated from the year 354, the isiac days are the Navigation of Isis (Isidis navigum) on March 5, the feasts of Pelusia (Pelusia) on March 20, the feast of Sarapis (Serapia) on April 25, the feast of the lamps (Lychnapsia) on August 12, the feasts of Isis (Isia) from October 28 to November 1, and the rejoicings (Hilaria) on November 3. The navigation of Isis celebrates the goddess as the protector of ships and navigators, on the occasion of the reopening of navigation at sea after the winter break. The writer Apuleius of Madaura left us a picturesque description of this event (Metamorphoses or Golden Ass, chapter XI). Another celebration linked to the sea is the festival of Sacrum Pharia (April), intended to protect the wheat convoys between Alexandria and Rome. The Serapea are agricultural festivals that correspond to Egyptian celebrations of 30 Pharmouti. It is probable that the Pelusia are related to the young god Harpocrates, son of Isis. In autumn, the week of Isia celebrates the passion of Osiris; it begins on October 28 with the death of the god and ends on November 3 with his resurrection. These days transpose to Greco-Roman lands the Egyptian celebrations of the month of Khoiak where, during secret and public rituals, officiants re-enacted the quest for Isis and reconstituted the body of Osiris in the form of figurines.
In the minds of many Greeks, the human being can escape death and survive the limits set by life and fate. This idea is fully lived and integrated in the Eleusis and Dionysian Mysteries. There, in a secret and initiatory ritual, the mystic becomes aware of the deep meaning of the myths and receives the comfort of spiritual happiness. Very few documents speak of the Mysteries of Isis, the initiates having the obligation of secrecy. The Aretalogy of Isis makes say to the goddess that she taught the initiations to the men, which implies that there had to exist, within the framework of her cult, the revelation of a hidden teaching to those who asked her for it. This revelation must surely have been accompanied by rites intended to test the determination, the abilities and the courage of the candidate, but also to integrate him into the small group of recipients of knowledge. A hymn from the first century B.C., unearthed at Maronea in Thrace, praises Isis for having “discovered with Hermes the writings, and among these, the sacred writings for the mystics, and the writings of a public nature for all. The existence of groups of initiates is very little attested except for a few allusions on funerary stelae of the first and second centuries unearthed in Bithynia, Rome and Brindisi.
According to a Greek tradition that goes back to the historian Herodotus, the Hellenic gods and their mystery cults have Egyptian origins (History, II, 49-50). This assertion has however no credible basis. On the other hand, Herodotus evokes these Egyptian ceremonials carried out in the honor of Osiris. He reports that on the sacred lake of the temple of Saïs, “representations of His passion, which the Egyptians call mysteries, are given at night. He brings this festival closer to the Eleusian mysteries of Demeter, but gives few details, preferring to keep a pious silence on these two rites (History, II, 170-171). In the current state of knowledge, it seems however that there did not exist in Egypt mysteries in the sense in which the Greeks understood it, namely rites of initiation to religious secrets. Herodotus” testimony refers rather to a theatrical staging of the main episodes of the Osirian myth, a sacred game in which the character of Isis held a great place. In the Egyptian case, the secrecy evoked by Herodotus is due to the silence to which the priests were bound concerning the murder of Osiris. The silence was also exercised about the holy relics deposited in the tombs founded by Isis during her quest for the scattered members.
If the mysteries of Isis do not derive from Egyptian traditions, then it is likely that the Mysteries of Demeter, celebrated at Eleusis, near Athens, are at the origin of this manifestation of isiac piety. It is known that since the 5th century, the two goddesses, Isis and Demeter, have been assimilated to each other in Greek thought. Herodotus thus affirms that “in the city of Bousiris in honor of Isis, there is a very important sanctuary of Isis; the city is located in the middle of the Egyptian Delta; Isis is that which in Greek language one calls Demeter” (History, II, 59). In the Ptolemaic period, the Egyptian priests of Fayum themselves popularized this connection to the attention of Greek colonists. In a hymn to Isis engraved in Greek characters on the temple of the village of Narmouthis, it is thus affirmed that the goddess is “Isis with the great name, most holy Deo”, the last theonym obviously referring to Demeter, the “Mother Earth”. The mysteries of Demeter and Persephone (her daughter) were perhaps celebrated in Egypt itself, a suburb of Alexandria having taken the name of Eleusis. In the 2nd century, a hymn extolling the virtues of Isis, the Aretalogy of Maroneus, clearly links the Egyptian goddess to the Athenian sanctuary of Eleusis:
“Egypt has pleased you as a place of residence; from Greece, you have honored Athens above all; it is there indeed that for the first time you revealed the fruits of the earth. Triptolemos, after having put under the yoke your sacred snakes, distributed, carried on his chariot, the seed to all the Greeks; this is why we have at heart to go to see, in Greece Athens, and in Athens Eleusis, by estimating that the city is the ornament of Europe, and that the sanctuary is the ornament of the city “.
– Arétalogie de Maronée (extract), trans. by Y. Grandjean.
The account of Apuleius of Madaure in book XI of the Metamorphoses is the only ancient source describing the course of the initiation into the Mysteries of Isis. The goddess does not occupy the central place there and serves rather as mediator. Lucius, the hero of the Apulean novel, after having seen the goddess in a dream, decides to undergo the initiation. It is described as a voluntary death and a salvation obtained by the divine grace. The mystic accomplishes a descent to the hells where he sees the sun shining in full night:
“I approached the limits of death; I trod the threshold of Proserpine, and I returned carried through the elements; in the middle of the night, I saw the sun shining with a sparkling light; I approached the gods below and the gods above, I saw them face to face and adored them closely. (…) When morning came, and all the rites were completed, I appeared, having on me twelve robes of consecration (…) In the very middle of the sacred dwelling, before the image of the goddess, a wooden platform had been erected, on which I was invited to climb. Standing and dressed in a fine linen cloth, but embroidered with bright colors, I attracted the eyes. (…) The initiates give to this clothing the name of Olympian dress. I held a lighted torch in my right hand, and my head was girded with a noble crown of palms, whose shining leaves projected forward like rays. Thus adorned in the image of the sun, I was exhibited like a statue and, curtains suddenly parting, there was a parade of passers-by eager to see me. I then celebrated the happy day of my birth to religious life with a festive meal and joyful banquets. (…) “
– Apuleius, Metamorphoses, Book XI (extracts). Translation by Paul Valette.
The initiate was led into the crypts of the temple suggesting the Douat, the kingdom of the Egyptian dead. In ancient Egypt, the deceased gained access to eternal life by being assimilated to Osiris. During the New Kingdom, the pharaohs had in their tombs a funerary literature reserved for them alone; the Books of the Underworld presented, hour by hour, the nocturnal journey of the solar bark. In the Mysteries of Isis, it seems that the initiate benefits from this secret voyage during his lifetime. In the middle of the night, he identifies himself with Osiris and is born in the morning as Ra, the regenerated sun. This mystical journey is placed under the protection of Isis. In exchange for this revelation, the initiate is bound by obligations of piety, purity and obedience. The ceremony opens him to a new life; his knowledge of the deep meaning of the myth allows him to participate, as a priest, in the cult of the goddess.
During the initiation of Lucius into the Mysteries of Isis (Metamorphoses, XI), Apuleius mentions the wearing of twelve tunic-stoles. These clothes evoke the twelve hours of the night and the twelve regions of the beyond crossed by Ra during his subterranean journey: “And on all the faces, I was decorated with figures of multicolored animals: here they were dragons of India, there these hyperborean griffins that another world generates, provided with wings like birds. The initiates give this garment the name of Olympian dress.
Other sources report the existence of heptastolos initiates wearing seven tunics in imitation of the goddess Isis. The seven clothes evoke the seven astrological planets (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) on which the goddess Isis exercises her divine power as queen of the sky regina caeli. According to Pseudo-Hippolytus of Rome in his work Against Heresies (3rd century), the Mysteries of Isis are for the Egyptians “sacred, august and impenetrable to anyone not initiated. Now these mysteries are not other than the removal of the shameful parts of Osiris and their research by Isis dressed in seven black robes. Osiris, they say, is water. Nature is clothed in seven ethereal robes – these are the seven planets, to which they give the allegorical name of ethereal robes. According to Plutarch, “the clothes of Isis are dyed with all sorts of variegated colors, because her power extends over matter, which receives all forms and undergoes all vicissitudes, since it is susceptible of becoming light, darkness, day, night, fire, water, life, death, beginning and end.
When Lucius receives in dream the visit of Isis this one does not wear the seven astrological dresses but a luminous tunic, symbol of the day and a black mantle symbol of the night sky: ” Her tunic, of changing color, woven of the finest linen, was alternately white like the day, yellow like the crocus flower, glowing like the flame. But what especially dazzled my eyes was a coat of intense black, resplendent with a dark glow. A linen tunic from the Roman period (3rd century), found in 1922 in a Saqqara tomb, is probably a garment worn during an initiation session. Each side is decorated with two scenes. In the front, the lower register shows a group of deities. Isis is shown in the center, kneeling in a thicket of papyrus. She is dressed in a long Egyptian robe dotted with stars. She holds a snake crowned with the atef in her hand and seems to be kissing it. This scene probably evokes the union of Isis and Osiris, the snake representing the husband of the goddess.
End of paganism
From the second century, Christian groups were active in Egypt. But until late in the third century, they were only a very small minority; the new religion struggled to spread outside the cities into the countryside. It is probable that, under the reign of the emperor Constantine I, the pagan religion preserves its numerical superiority. Christianity only began to show its power towards the end of the fourth century, encouraged by a very favourable imperial policy. Under Theodosius I, the destruction of the Serapium (temple of Sarapis) in Alexandria in 391 was the signal for the very hard confrontations which were to shake Egypt throughout the fifth century. After 450, the victory of Christianity was obvious. However, the situation remained confused, with many pagans converting to avoid persecution, while keeping the old Egyptian deities in their hearts. In 485-487 the temple of Isis in the village of Menouthis, located a few kilometers east of Alexandria, was still in full activity. During the fifth century, the goddess Isis remained popular in Upper Egypt where local pagans joined forces with Blemmyes (nomads) to plunder Christian monasteries located at the gates of the desert.
During the 4th and 5th centuries, on the island of Philæ, priests continued to practice the cult of Isis for the benefit of the Nubian and Blemmyes peoples. The practice managed to continue after 453 A.D. at the end of a political truce concluded between the Christian Byzantines and the pagan Nubians. According to the historian Procopius of Caesarea, these pagans were deprived of the temple of Philæ when the emperor Justinian decided to send an army under the command of the general Narses, around the years 535-537 :
“These barbarians had until me these sanctuaries of Philæ, but the Emperor Justinian decided to take them away. That is why Narses, a Persarmenian of origin (…), commander of the soldiers there, destroyed the sanctuaries by order of the Emperor, had the priests put under guard and sent the statues to Byzantium.”
– Procopius, Persian Wars, 1.19.36-37. Translation by A. Bernand.
According to the Egyptologist Jitse Dijkstra, Procopius” statement is obviously an exaggeration. The temple of Philæ is one of the best preserved in Egypt, it was not destroyed. At the most, the soldiers were requisitioned in order to hammer out some bas-reliefs representing the honored deities. It is highly doubtful that the cult of Isis was still flourishing in Philæ during the 530s. The epigraphic testimonies left by the pilgrims are still numerous in the 3rd century but begin to be exhausted in the 4th century. As for the last mentions, they do not go beyond the years 456-457 and were left only by isolated priests from the same sibling. Since the end of the fourth century, the island has been the seat of a bishopric. Between 525 and 577, its bishop was a certain Theodore who had a portrait of Saint Stephen placed in a temple converted into a Coptic church after the passage of the soldiers. In the following decades, the three Nubian kingdoms converted to Christianity, in the year 543 for Nobatia, in 550 for Makuria and around 570 for Alody.
From Isis to the Virgin Mary
During the first four centuries of the Christian era, the maternal figures of Isis, mother of Horus, and Mary, mother of Jesus, coexisted. Both in Egypt and around the Mediterranean Sea, the cult of Isis flourished until the 4th century and her figurations were widespread. The earliest known representation of the mother of Christ is a painting in the catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome that could be dated to the second century. The Virgin is seated and nursing her son, while a figure points to a star above her head. Christianity originated in the Jewish environment, where the prohibition of divine images was very strong, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any representation of the things that are in heaven above, or that are in the earth beneath, or that are in the water under the earth” (Exodus, 20, 4). The first Christian believers therefore did not have a monotheistic pictorial tradition. Consequently, it is quite possible that they drew on the polytheistic repertoire. However, the iconography of Isis very often shows the goddess sitting on a throne nursing the very young Horus. Borrowing from the Isiac cults is all the more likely since Greco-Roman culture offers no other model of a nursing goddess.
Despite the disappearance of the cult of Isis in Egypt and Europe, swept away by the belief in Jesus Christ, the Egyptian goddess remained in the memory of European scholars as an object of intellectual, artistic and scholarly curiosity. Between the end of the Middle Ages and the deciphering of the hieroglyphics in 1822, scholars have not ceased to investigate the phenomenon of the presence of Isis in Europe. Numerous historical and etymological theories have thus been elaborated. Held to be true in their time, most of these reflections have since been invalidated by modern science (Egyptology, archaeology, philology, etc.).
Late Middle Ages
In scholastic literature with its learned encyclopedias and grammatical collections, allusions to the Egyptian gods are numerous. The knowledge of the Egyptian language having been lost, their myths are however only perceived through the prism of late Latin authors and transformed into pious parables. The story of Isis-Io is thus regularly taken up and commented upon between the 5th and 13th centuries. In his Genealogy of the Gods and in his Ladies of Renom, the Tuscan Jean Boccace, is the first scholar to free himself from the prejudices of the Christian theology. With this author, Isis, Apis and ThotMercury are completely Greek. Identified with the goddess Io, Isis passes to be the daughter of Inachos, a tradition which he judges inaugurated by the Latin Ovid. Boccaccio interprets the wanderings of the heifer bitten by a horsefly in a double way. Drawing on Macrobius, he gives the legend a natural and physical explanation by saying that IsisIo is the Earth, JupiterZeus the Sun, JunoHera the Moon and the giant Argos the Reason. However, Boccaccio is also part of an evhemerist tradition and makes of these characters historical heroes. He places them in a human chronology by giving them Greek genealogical origins. Based on a passage from Clement of Alexandria, Boccaccio makes Isis the daughter of Prometheus. In this second interpretation, Isis is at war with Argos, the king of the Argians. The latter makes her his prisoner and Jupiter suggests to Mercury, son of Nilus, to assassinate the jailer. The assassination accomplished, Isis then fled in a boat which has for flag and sign a cow. She sails to Egypt where she marries King Apis. Boccaccio also notes a certain contradiction in the work of Eusebius of Caesarea (4th century). According to the latter, Io daughter of Inachos would be born either in the year 3397 of the world or in the year 3547, while Isis supposed to be the same person would be born only in the year 3783. In her new homeland, Isis teaches the Egyptians to write, to live together under the rule of law, teaches them agricultural work and to make bread. In gratitude, they raised her to the rank of goddess and instituted her cult:
“The majesty, the deity and excellence, after the death was so great and so renowned that the Romans, the lords of the whole world, made her build a very great temple to which they instituted to make to her sacrifice and great and solemn reverences according to what one was accustomed to do in egipte”.
– Boccaccio, Of clear and noble women, translation of 1401 by Laurent de Premierfait.
Around 1400, the French poetess Christine de Pisan, in her Epitre d”Othéa, uses the myth of Isis-Io to incite men to the Christian faith. The two goddesses are treated separately as two allegories, one relating to the Holy Scriptures, the other to the Conception of Christ. The transformation of Io into a cow and the invention of hieroglyphic writing once in Egypt must be understood metaphorically by the Christian as an incentive to enjoy reading the Gospels:
“She became a cow because if like the cow that gives milk which is sweet and nourishing, she gave by the letters that she found, sweet food to the understanding “
– Epistle of Othea, allegory XXIX.
Allegory XXV is based on the Greco-Roman tradition that makes Isis the incarnation of the fertile earth and the inventor of agriculture. The goddess is also the one who first sowed the wheat and who makes the trees bear fruit every year. This image of fertility should invite the Christian to cultivate in his mind the seeds of knowledge:
“All virtues enter and plants in you as Ysis does the plants and all the grains fructify; so doidbs you edify”.
– Epistle of Othea, allegory XXV
Christine de Pisan also inaugurates a new idea by making Isis the prefiguration of the Virgin Mary. The fertility of Isis who gives birth to plants is a metaphor for the conception of Jesus Christ:
“Where he says that to Isys who is plantureuse must resemble, can we hear the blessed conception of jesucrist by the holy hope in the blessed Virgin Mary mother of all grace (…) Which worthy conception must the good hope to have entered in itself and to hold firmly the worthy article as says holy James the great Who conceptus is of spiritu sancto natus es Maria virgine “.
– Epistle of Othea, allegory XXV.
At the beginning of the Renaissance, the lively interest of scholars in Egyptian mythology is most spectacularly manifested in the person of Giovanni Nanni, known as “Annius of Viterbo”, a true scholar and forger of genius. In 1498, he published a collection known in French under the title Antiquités d”Annius. In this commented anthology are gathered writings attributed to authors of the Antiquity, such as Bérose or Manéthon de Sebennytos. These texts are forgeries, probably fabricated by Annius himself, as they are obviously influenced by the works of John Boccaccio. The fact remains that Annius greatly influenced his contemporaries. By relying on Diodorus of Sicily more than on Ovid, his main contribution was to have split the myths of Isis and Io, which had been intimately unified in European thought until then, into two. According to his pseudo-Berossus, Annius elaborates a chronology in which the mythological characters are deified heroes (Book V, Babylonian Antiquities) and in which are summarized the outstanding events of the reigns of seventeen Babylonian kings. Annius inserts in this temporal framework the deeds of the Egyptian couple. Osiris would have been born of Rhea in the twentieth year of the reign of Nino, third king of Babylon. In the forty-third year, he would have been adopted by Dionysus the son of Ammon and enthroned king of Egypt. His sister and wife Isis would have been born in the first year of the reign of queen Semiramis and would have invented gardening and the cultivation of cereals under Zamea, fifth king of Babylon. Inspired by the peregrinations of Osiris narrated by Diodorus (Historical Library, Book I, 20), Annius relates a journey of Osiris and Isis in Europe. During this stay, the hero lingers more particularly in Italy where he is busy fighting against giants during ten long years. After the death of Osiris in Egypt, Isis returns to Italy where she continues her civilizing work (under the name of Ceres) and where, according to Annius, the goddess would have baked bread for the first time (in Viterbo). This statement is inspired by Pliny the Elder (Natural History, Book VII, chap. 57, 1) who reports that the goddess replaced acorns with cereals as food for humans in Attica and Sicily.
A close friend of Pope Alexander VI, the mythographer Giovanni Nanni influenced the artist Pinturicchio to paint the myth of Osiris on the ceiling of the Borgia Apartment in the Vatican Palace in Rome. This painted version breaks with the traditional version of Isis-Io mistress of Jupiter. It shows six successive episodes, the marriage of Isis and Osiris, the couple teaching agricultural skills, the murder of Osiris by Typhon and the Giants, Isis searching for the dismembered body of Osiris and his funeral, the appearance of the bull Apis in front of Osiris” tomb (imagined as a pyramidal goldsmith”s object), and the final triumph of Apis. The last scene shows a procession where the sacred ox is carried inside a portable tabernacle. This final episode is an invention of Giovanni Nanni intended to glorify Pope Alexander VI whose family emblem is the bull. The Borgia family would indeed have a fabulous origin and would descend in direct line from the Egyptian Hercules, son of Isis and Osiris.
During the Renaissance, European scholars rediscovered the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of philosophical texts based on the mystical and esoteric teachings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the “Threefold Great”. Behind this master is the famous Egyptian god Thoth, who was assimilated to the divine figures of Hermes and Mercury. Already in the medieval period, Christian clerics were intrigued by the scholar Trismegistus and tried to identify his personality. The question was then to know if he should be considered as an ancient god or only as a wise man who had perceived certain divine mysteries. One solution was to recognize him as a real man, a hero deified in the dark times of human history. Some saw in him the valiant Mercury that Jupiter sent to put to sleep and kill Argos, the jailer of Io-Isis. Influenced by the Aretalogies of Isis, in which the goddess is said to have been begotten by Hermes and that both invented writing, the characters of Isis and Trismegistus have been considered historical contemporaries of Moses, and even forerunners or rivals of this prophet, known and recognized as the inventor of the Jewish laws and as the precursor of Christianity.
“Also it is said that she found (which was much more marvelous in a woman) by means of the subtleties of her mind, certain figures and letters, not only suitable to speak to them, but, moreover, suitable to understand the sciences, showing them by which order they had to join them, and by which way to use them”.
– Boccaccio, The Ladies of Renown, invention of hieroglyphics and science by Isis.
From the late Middle Ages onwards, the goddess Isis experienced a new interest on the part of scholars thanks to the attentive study of ancient authors and also because of the numerous discoveries of Egyptian or Egyptian-like statues and figurines left by the followers of the ancient isiac cults. The Renaissance was a time when many scholars believed they could affirm the presence, just about everywhere, of ancient temples of Isis: in Paris, in Augsburg, in Soissons, in Tournai, etc. The progress of historical sciences, during the 19th century, has shown that most of these assertions were abusive and without real serious foundations.
Two Greco-Roman authors report the presence of the gods Osiris and Isis in Europe. According to Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian of the first century, the ancient Germans worshipped the Egyptian goddess:
“A part of the Suevi also sacrifices to Isis. I find neither the cause nor the origin of this foreign cult. Only the figure of a vessel, which is the symbol of it, announces that it came to them from beyond the sea. To imprison the gods in walls, or to represent them in human form, seems to the Germans too unworthy of celestial grandeur. They consecrate thick woods, dark forests; and, under the names of deities, their respect adores in these mysterious solitudes what their eyes do not see.”
– Tacitus, Mœurs des Allemains, chap. IX.
The presence of Osiris in Central Europe is attested by Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek historian of the first century, who reports a lapidary inscription supposedly engraved on a commemorative column at Nysa in Arabia:
“I have traversed the whole earth as far as the uninhabited places of the Indies and the regions inclined towards the Dipper, as far as the sources of the Ister, and from there in other lands as far as the Ocean.”
– Diodorus, Historical Library, Book I, chapter 27.
Like the Italians, German scholars also reflected on the myth of Isis and Osiris. Inspired by Tacitus and Diodorus, Johann Turmair published in 1554 in Ingolstadt a very detailed chronicle of the journey to Germany of the couple Oryz and Eysen (Osiris and Isis). Many details are drawn, without restraint or critical spirit, from the work of the Viterbo forger Giovanni Nanni, such as the mention of the warlike expedition of Osiris in Italy, his reign of ten years in this country, the return of Isis in Europe after the murder of her husband or the existence of an Osirian stele in Viterbo – in reality a crude forgery allegedly discovered by Nanni in his native city. The German mythographer places the Egyptian expedition towards the year 2200 of the world and presenting the couple as heroic humans deified after their death:
“King Apis or Oryz continued up the Danube to its sources, where he was admirably welcomed by our king Marsus, to whom he taught, together with his wife Eysen, the art of metal forging, agriculture, medicine, the virtues of herbs and the making of beer from barley. (…) (Eysen) lived about four hundred years. After the death of her husband, she went back to teach all peoples the knowledge she shared with her husband. She also came to King Schwab in Germany. There she taught, among other things, the baking of bread and the weaving of linen, and showed men the usefulness of wine and oil. She was also considered a benefactor and was recognized as the queen of the gods. Her image was painted in the shape of a boat to indicate that she came from foreign lands across the seas. Queen Frauw Eysen then went to Italy where she was called Ceres, Juno, regina dearum or queen of heaven.”
– Johann Turmair, Chronica (extracts), 1566, folio XXXIX verso.
If Johann Turmair places the journey of Isis under the reign of the mythical Marsus, fifth king of Germany, others like Konrad Peutinger, Andreas Althamer or Burckard Waldis, place this journey under the reign of his successor the famous king Gambrinus:
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, German humanists and historians were constantly interested in the figure of Isis, and commented on the quotations of Tacitus and Diodorus of Sicily, which affirm the presence of a cult of Isis in ancient Germania (see above). In 1506, Konrad Peutinger believed he could link the foundation of his city of Augsburg to the cult of Isis. Based on a 13th century chronicle that states that the Suevi worshipped the goddess Zisa (Cisa) before the arrival of the Romans and on Tacitus who claims that it was Isis, Peutinger writes “The temple that stood, as is believed, on the site where the town hall now stands, was dedicated not to Cisa but to Isis. Similarly, the mountain where the prison stands is not Cisen but Isenberg. According to Andreas Althamer, the town of Eisenach (Isenac) in Thuringia received its name from Isis because “the Suevi, who in ancient times worshipped Isis, lived on the Elbe not far from Isenac. The town of Eisleben (Islebia) in Saxony, home of Martin Luther, was also associated with this cult. The question soon arose as to whether these etymologies were really based on the name of Isis (called Eysen by Johann Turmair) or on the word “iron”, Eisen in German. The question was settled by Georg Fabricius, for whom only the uneducated could object to the mythological explanation; the Swabians had named the iron after the goddess to thank her for teaching them the art of forging metal. According to Sebastian Münster, King Dagobert had a castle built in Rouffach in Alsace and “which he called Isenbourg, that is to say, iron town, as it is a very safe fortress against enemies, while others say that because of the goddess Isis who found the wheat (because they believe she was once worshipped on this hillside for the fertility of it) the said castle must be called Isisbourg. Similar explanations are given for a considerable number of towns, villages, streams, rivers and other places, for example for Issenheim near Colmar or for the Isenberg, a mountain in the Swiss canton of Zurich, etc.
Several fabulous stories have been elaborated about the foundation of the city of Paris. According to Giovanni Nanni, the city was founded 900 years after the Flood (around 1440 B.C.) by Prince Paris, son of King Romus XVIII of the Gauls. The Italian humanist and poet Battista Mantovano alleges that the city originated with the Greek people of Parrasians who came to Gaul following the god Hercules. To these learned speculations of the Renaissance, precedes however an isiac thesis elaborated by the clerks of the royal abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. According to them, their abbey was founded in a place where a temple of Isis was located. The oldest known mention of this thesis is a note added to the chronicle De Gestis Francorum by the monk Aimoin (9th century). This addition is difficult to date, from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries or perhaps more precisely from the reign of Charles V; it states that :
“This Isis was formerly adored and venerated by the people of the city of Lutetia, now called Paris, in a place called Lutoticia, opposite the Mont de Mars. She can be seen there to this day and was worshipped and venerated by several pagan Frankish princes, Francion, Pharamond, Merovice, Childeric, until the time of Clovis, the first Christian. A temple was erected there in honor of Saint Stephen, the Holy Cross and Saint Vincent. Childebert, son of Clovis, king of the Franks, had founded it.”
The note mentions the presence of a statue of Isis in the abbey. This statement is not surprising in itself, because, until the 16th century, many religious buildings housed ancient statues: an Artemis multimammia in the church of Saint-Etienne in Lyon, a Hercules in the cathedral of Strasbourg, etc. According to the description of the writer and editor Gilles Corrozet, in his guide, Les Antiquitez et Singularitez de Paris: “She was thin, tall, straight, black for her antiquity, naked if not with some figure of linen piled around her limbs (…) she was removed by a monseigneur Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux and abbot of the said place, about the year 1514”. Accepting this testimony, it is very unlikely that this was really a representation of Isis: the nudity of the statue and the clothes at her feet are more reminiscent of a celibate Greco-Roman goddess of the Venus type; married goddesses such as Isis or Juno are not usually represented completely undressed.
Between the end of the Middle Ages and the middle of the 19th century, French and European scholars massively accepted and disseminated the idea that the foundation of the city of Paris was linked to the cult of the goddess Isis. From the legendary statue of Isis in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, an etymology was developed that made Paris the city located near the Isis of Saint-Germain; the Latin word for Parisis must have come from the expression Para Isis “which adjoins, which is near (the temple) of Isis”.
This explanation is however rivaled by an alternative etymology which presents the city of Melun as an ancient place dedicated to the goddess, under the name of Iséos: Parisis would then be quasi by Isis i.e. “similar to Iséos”, the cities of Paris and MelunIséos being both located on an island of the Seine, Paris around the Île de la Cité and Melun around the Île Saint-Etienne.
Under the First Empire, Letters Patent signed on January 20, 1811 by Napoleon I granted the municipality of Paris the possibility of acquiring a new coat of arms inspired by the cult of Isis. On the proposal of a commission of experts, the pre-revolutionary municipal coat of arms bearing the vessel of the Nautes (bargemen) corporation was reinterpreted as the symbol of the goddess Isis, perceived during the Greco-Roman era as the protector of sailors. The prow of the ship is surmounted by a figure of Isis seated on a throne (“proue isis” or “parisis”, Paris) inspired by the central motif of the isiac table of Turin. The coat of arms was abandoned in 1814 with the restoration of the monarchy.
From the 17th century onwards, Isis appears in the reflections and speculations of philosophers practicing alchemy. As a goddess symbolizing Nature and its mysteries, Isis became the “alchemical Mother” who presided over the Great Work and the transmutation of metals (physical plane) and souls (psychic plane). In 1672-73, in a chapter of the Bibliothèque des Philosophes chimiques published by William Salmon, Esprit Gobineau de Montluisant, a gentleman in Chartres, disserted on the hidden symbolism of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, on the isiac origins of the French capital and on the symbolism of the ancient statues of the goddess Isis. According to him, Isis and Osiris form an alchemical couple where the woman represents nature and wetness, while the man is the solar fire and natural heat.
“To explain the enigma in a single word, Isis represented the assembly of all the superior and inferior virtues in unity in a single essential and primordial subject. Finally, this idol was the image of all nature in short, the symbol of the epitome and thethelem of all. It was under this allegory that the philosophers had given their science to the nation and that they had depicted and matched nature itself or the raw material that contains it, as the mother of all that exists and that gives life to everything. This was the reason why they attributed so many wonders to nature in the person of the false deity of Isis.”
– Esprit Gobineau, Enigmas and physical hieroglyphs (extract).
On January 5, 1677, Jean-Baptiste Lully presented King Louis XIV with a lyrical tragedy entitled Isis, based on a libretto by Philippe Quinault. The story was inspired by the Greco-Roman myth of the nymph Io, mistress of Jupiter who became a goddess in Egypt under the name of Isis. This opera, also called the opera of the musicians, because of its particularly rich harmonic writing, is characterized by a triumphant prologue with trumpets, timpani and drums to celebrate the glory of Louis XIV after his victories in the Netherlands. One of the most remarkable passages is the chorus of the tremblers (Act IV, scene 1), which takes place in the coldest place in Scythia after Io has been sent there by a fury at the behest of Juno, the jealous wife of Jupiter. The opera ends in Egypt with Juno”s forgiveness of Io and her apotheosis, her transformation into an eternal deity and her acceptance among the gods of heaven as a goddess revered by the peoples of the Nile (Act V, scene 3):
In the Germanic countries, the name of Isis was mostly associated with the word Eisen-iron. However, its consonance with the word Eis-ice allowed the Swedish Olof Rudbeck, emblematic figure of the gothicist theories, to integrate the Egyptian goddess in his system aiming at making Scandinavia the cradle of the European civilization. Between 1679 and 1702, he published the four volumes of his Atlantica sive Manheim where, thinking to find links between the characters of the Nordic sagas with those of the Greek myths, he manages to locate the country of the Hyperboreans and the sunken continent of Atlantis, two fabulous countries, on the territory of current Sweden.
Based on a quotation from Plutarch, “They also think that Homer, like Thales, learned from the Egyptians to consider water as the principle and productive force of all beings. They affirm in fact, that the Ocean is Osiris and that Tethys considered as the goddess who nourishes and maintains all things, is Isis”, Rudbeck believes to detect a theological link between Tethys, the Greek emblem of the marine fecundity and Isis, the ice-Eis, the first solid substance of the universe, the earth and the life being stemmed from this primordial frozen water. Following the myth of the Greek nymph Io baptized Isis by the Egyptians, Rudbeck gives to the king Inachos, the father of Io, a Nordic origin, his name having to mean according to a Germanic etymology Jonchor or Jonätor (Land of the Cow) decomposed in Jon Jona (earth) and Kor (cow), Isis-Io having been transformed into cow in a certain region. The origins of the Egyptian goddess are thus entirely reversed. The cult of Isis does not come from the warm country of Africa but from the Great Snowy North and Io-Isis would have come down to Egypt, not from Greece but from Scandinavia.
Age of Enlightenment
Freemasonry, which appeared towards the end of the 16th century in Great Britain, was inspired above all by the myth of Hiram, the architect of Solomon”s temple, and by the texts of the Ancient Duties (the guilds of cathedral builders). However, towards the end of the 18th century, the myth of Isis and its mysteries became another fundamental aspect of this esoteric and elitist teaching. In 1783, the great English master George Smith saw in the couple of Osiris and Isis a mythical representation of the Supreme Being whose influence extends over nature through the two luminaries (Sun and Moon). In 1784, Count Cagliostro, a famous impostor, took advantage of the good society”s fascination with Antiquity and its myths to create the Mother Lodge of the Adaptation of Egyptian High Masonry in Paris, where he officiated as high priest in a temple of Isis. In 1812, during a philosophical convent, the Frenchman Alexandre Lenoir, medievalist and Freemason, considers ancient Egypt as the true source and inspiration of the Masonic tradition. This thesis is now denied by contemporary historians but continues to be maintained in some lodges, especially those that follow the rites of Memphis and Misraïm. At the time of his initiation, the new member learns that the Masons refer to themselves as “children of the Widow”. The Masonic institution is generally interpreted as the “Widow” of Hiram, a community made up of the spiritual sons and daughters of Hiram, the mythical founder who was murdered by three of his workers who were eager for his secrets. However, the Masonic “Widow” can also be seen as a reformulation of the myth of Osiris, murdered by Set, mourned and regenerated by Isis. By assimilating Hiram to Osiris, Masonry can then consider Isis as the personification of the lodge and Horus, son of Osiris as the first Freemason, the primordial initiate. The teaching being progressive, the initiate goes through a philosophical and ritual structure made up of multiple grades. In its most elaborate form, the Memphis-Misraim Rite has ninety-nine grades, the 76th being entitled “Patriarch of Isis”. In a ritual reworked in 1862 and reduced to one third, it is the 27th grade on an initiatory course that has thirty-three (Grand Egyptian Order of the Grand Orient of France).
In 18th century Europe, it is commonplace to consider Egypt as the land of secret teachings, religious mysteries and initiatory practices. This view is most perfectly reflected in the two-act opera The Magic Flute. This work was first performed in Vienna in 1791, the music is a composition by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the libretto is by Emanuel Schikaneder. Although the action is not explicitly set in Egypt, the use of the theme of the Mysteries of Isis is obvious (Act II). A so-called French version was given in Paris in 1801, under the title Les Mystères d”Isis. One of the sources of inspiration is the French novel Séthos, by Abbé Jean Terrasson, published in 1731 and translated into German in 1732 and 1777, which gives pride of place to descriptions of Egyptian initiation rites (or rather such as they were imagined at the time). The opera was probably also influenced by the Masonic activities of Mozart and Schikaneder, members of the Zur Wahren Eintracht Lodge founded in 1781 in Vienna. Between 1782 and 1786, the lodge was directed by Ignaz von Born, who was interested in studying mystery cults. The Magic Flute can therefore be considered as a Masonic opera describing a dual religion where divine secrets are reserved only for an elite of initiates, while the people are left in ignorance. Two powers oppose each other: on the one hand, darkness is embodied by the Queen of the Night, and on the other, light is personified in the guise of Sarastro, high priest of the Kingdom of the Sun and leader of the community of priests of Osiris and Isis. When Prince Tamino learns that his beloved Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, is being held prisoner by Sarastro, for her own good and not to harm her, the couple Tamino and Pamina decide to undergo the trials of initiation through the four elements. Sarastro and the choir of priests then intone a supplication to the Egyptian gods:
“Isis, Osiris, send down the spirit of your wisdom upon the young couple who yearn for the light of the temple. You who guide the steps of the pilgrim, arm them with courage in the trial and make the price of virtue shine in their eyes.”
– The Magic Flute, excerpts from the aria “O Isis und Osiris” (Act II).
Since antiquity, European thought has been crossed by the idea of Nature”s secret. This idea was first formulated in the aphorism: “Nature loves to hide” by Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher of the late 6th century BC. In art, this secret is frequently personified in the guise of the mysterious Isis who, according to Plutarch, does not allow herself to be revealed by mortals. Between the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the 19th century, Artemis and Isis are voluntarily confused to personify the generosity of Nature. This confusion makes thus say to Macrobius, in the IVth century, that “Isis is or the ground or the nature which is under the sun. This is why the whole body of the goddess is bristling with a multitude of breasts tightened one against the other, because the whole of the things is nourished by the ground or by the nature”. At the beginning of the XVIth century, the artists of the Renaissance appropriate this description, and, very often, the Nature (Isis) takes the features of Artemis multimammia “with the multiple breasts” represented as a crowned and veiled woman, the legs tightly sheathed and whose chest carries numerous breasts. With the development of scientific thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the human mind tries to penetrate the secrets of Nature and, metaphorically speaking, to lift the veil of Isis. Numerous scientific works, of botany or anatomy for example, were then adorned with a frontispiece showing the unveiling of Nature. Several types of representations exist. The most frequent is a reinterpretation of Artemis multimammia, depicted as a young living woman with several breasts, where the gesture of unveiling is amply emphasized. One of the oldest is in the treatise Anatome animalium, published in 1681 by the Dutchman Gerhard Blasius, where we see Science unveiling Nature. In 1687, in the Anatomia seu interiore rerum by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Isis unveils herself, but helped by the old man of Time before Philosophy and Scientific Research. In 1793, a Philosopher unveils Isis in the opening of the book De la Nature et de ses lois de François Peyrard. In 1899, the metaphor of the unveiling of Isis remains topical thanks to the sculptor Louis-Ernest Barrias, who endows the faculties of medicine of Paris and Bordeaux with a figuration where an Isis, carrying a scarab between her two breasts, unveils herself. The Parisian copy of this Nature unveiling itself before Science is now kept at the Musée d”Orsay.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the figure of Isis as the personification of Nature underwent a clear evolution and, from then on, the dangers of unveiling were put forward. Under the influence of Freemasonry, the ideals of the Enlightenment and philosophy spread throughout society. The Freemason movement, enamored of Egyptomania, proclaimed itself as the heir of the mystery cults of antiquity. In this context, the figure of Isis will gradually play a prominent role. In Vienna, in the Masonic Lodge Zur wahren Eintracht, a new interpretation of Isis-Nature was developed. In 1787, the philosopher Karl Leonhard Reinhold disserted on the Hebrew mysteries (Kabbalah) and followed in the footsteps of John Spencer and William Warburton, wanting to demonstrate that the Revelation of God to Moses was only a borrowing from the ancient wisdom of the Egyptians. He forcibly equates Isis” words “I am all that was, that is, and that will be” with the words Yahweh spoke to Moses at the Burning Bush episode “I am who I am (YHWH)” (Exodus 3:13-14). However, while Isis asserts that she is everything, namely “Nature”, Yahweh asserts that he is “He who exists”. By being compared to Yahweh, the goddess Isis-Nature becomes the supreme deity of Freemason circles. This pantheistic identification is also in line with the philosophers who claim to follow Baruch Spinoza, for whom God and Nature are other names for the Eternal Being (deus sive natura). Isis being God and Nature, the One and the All, God and the Cosmos, the goddess must inspire terror, respect and veneration in the philosopher. Surrounded by an aura of mystery and unspeakable, Isis cannot be reached by reasoning and the scientific path. The philosopher can only reach her by the contemplative way and only at the end of a long gradual initiatory path.
Influenced by Masonic thought, the French Revolutionaries attempted to restrict the influence of Christianity on society by, among other things, emphasizing the cult of the Supreme Being. On the Feast of Unity and Indivisibility of August 10, 1793, the goddess Isis-Nature, as a visible symbol of the Supreme Being, was the object of a symbolic ceremony. For the occasion, an imposing Fountain of Isis was built on the ruins of the Bastille. The goddess appeared as a statue sitting on a throne, flanked by two seated lions, spouting regenerative water from her breasts:
“The gathering will take place on the site of the Bastille. In the middle of its ruins, the fountain of Regeneration, represented by Nature, will rise. From its fertile teats, which it will press with its hands, will flow abundantly pure and salutary water, from which eighty-six commissioners of the primary assemblies will drink in turn, that is to say, one per department; the oldest of age will have preference; one and the same cup will serve for all.”
– Extract from the Decree ordering the festival
At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, Isis remained in the European imagination the veiled goddess, and the inscription of Saïs reported by Plutarch “I am all that is, that was and that will be, and no mortal has lifted my veil” was constantly taken up by poets; in particular by the German Romantics who asked themselves the question of whether or not the goddess should be revealed. For Goethe, the experimental sciences should not tear away by violent means the secrets from Isis-Nature. For him, only poets and artists are able to approach these secrets by emotional means. Nature stands before the eyes and only the human senses can glimpse her, Isis is without veil and shows herself to whoever wants to admire her. But Goethe, if he is opposed to scientific experiments like those that Isaac Newton led on the refraction of light, is also reticent in front of the symbolist approach of Georg Friedrich Creuzer, for whom myths necessarily have a hidden meaning.
In 1795, Friedrich von Schiller took up the theme of isiac initiation in his poem entitled The Veiled Image of Sais, in which the goddess shows herself to be terrifying for those who dare to approach her by forcing the steps of her mysteries. In this composition, the goddess represents the Truth about Nature, but also the Truth about Man. A young man enters the temple of the city of Sais to undertake an initiatory journey. One night, impatient and eager to get closer to the whole Truth, the young man lifts the veil of the goddess. Terror and fright seize him; he falls down inanimate, loses his joy of living and dies in the following days:
“Ask now what he saw. I do not know; the next day the priests found him pale and lifeless, lying at the feet of the statue of Isis. What he saw and experienced, his tongue never told. The gaiety of his life disappeared for ever. A deep sorrow led him promptly to the tomb, and when an importunate onlooker questioned him: “Woe,” he answered, “woe to him who arrives at the truth by a fault! It will never make him happy.
– Schiller, The veiled image of Saïs, extract.
For Victor Hugo, ancient Egypt is a civilization devoted to death and Isis is a black goddess, obscure, dangerous because linked to the underworld. In the poem Tristesse du philosophe, the goddess is a prostitute, a metaphor for the Catholic teaching system, which is subject to the orders of the tyrannical regime of Napoleon III:
“To say at the radiant threshold of the schools: Pay! As long as the taxman stretches before the dawn his canvas; As long as Isis lifts for money her veil, And for who has no gold, for the fatal poor, Will close it, “
– Sadness of the philosopher, extract
In 1854, in The End of Satan, Isis is a monstrous being linked to Lilith, a female demon of the Hebrew tradition and considered as the first wife of Adam before the creation of Eve. Through her, Evil is transmitted to the world and, without ceasing, she falls on humanity.
“The daughter of Satan, the great woman of Shadow, That Lilith whom they call Isis by the Nile.”
– The End of Satan, Le Gibet – Book Two, II. Jesus Christ, X. Lilith-Isis.
However, Hugo is also part of the literary tradition that makes Isis the luminous incarnation of the secrets of Nature, a power that collaborates in teaching and knowledge. To understand the Truth, to unveil the goddess, is like sensually undressing a woman:
“One day, in the Portico, someone asked: which goddess would you like to see naked? Plato answered : Venus. Socrates answered : Isis. Isis is the Truth. Isis is Reality. In the absolute, the real is identical to the ideal.
– The Workers of the Sea, 1866.
During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Isis proved to be very popular with a multitude of confidential circles practicing new syncretic religions. Some of them even reconstituted the cult of Isis by drawing more or less on the cult practices of the Ancient Egyptians revealed by the advances of Egyptological science. At the same time, Isis continues to fascinate artists such as sculptors, novelists and comic book writers.
Since the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script by Jean-François Champollion in 1822, the religious and funerary literature of ancient Egypt has been abundantly translated and published in modern languages (French, German, English, etc.). Writings such as the Pyramid Texts, the Sarcophagus Texts or the Book of the Dead are widely distributed to the general public thanks to complete or partial translations. Numerous popularized works report on the progress of Egyptological science and the theological vision of the Ancient Egyptians is amply exposed and commented in easily understandable reference works.
Despite this fact, many occult societies continue to speculate about alleged Egyptian “mysteries” and “secrets”. The founder of modern Theosophy, the Russian Helena Blavatsky, published in 1877 her major work Isis Unveiled, in which she tried to synthesize multiple ancient knowledge (Egypt, India, Tibet). But, in the end, this author”s vision of Isis was quite traditional and she made of the goddess a simple symbol of Nature. For the Austrian Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, the Isis of the Egyptians, the Mary of the Christians, the Shekhina of the Jewish kabbalists and the Sophia of the Gnostics are only different forms of the same sacred feminine. The English magician Aleister Crowley, first a member of the Isis-Urania temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, elaborated, after his exclusion, his own initiatory approach in which sexual magic has a large place. In her poem “The Song of Isis”, integrated in the play Tannhäuser devoted to the journey of the soul, the Egyptian goddess assimilates the eroticism and sensuality of the goddesses Hathor and Venus. This syncretic power is ambivalent, at once the bearer of life and death, of darkness and light.
Since the late 19th century, the English secret society of the Golden Dawn has worshipped Isis as a goddess of fertility, magic, motherhood and as a mythical incarnation of regeneration. Since the 1950s, Isis has been one of the major deities of Wicca (from the Old English: wiccacraeft, witchcraft) as a manifestation of the great Mother Goddess and the sacred feminine. This religious movement, founded by Gerald Gardner, has some 150,000 followers in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century. Wicca is linked to neopaganism from its origins and is inspired by Druidism, shamanism and Slavic, Germanic, Greco-Roman and Egyptian mythologies. Since the 1970s, Wicca has been augmented by the values of the Hippie counterculture, feminism, environmentalism and New Age. For the groups that are especially attached to ancient Egypt and Kemitism (reconstruction of Egyptian paganism), Isis is the symbol of feminine magical energy, of the night, of water, and her power manifests itself mainly in the phases of the Moon. Among the movements practicing Egyptian pseudo-rites, we can mention the Fellowship of Isis group, founded in 1976 by the high priestess Olivia Robertson, in Clonegal, Ireland. In 2002, the group claimed nearly 21,000 followers worldwide. One of the followers, Tamara Siuda, founded the Kemetic Orthodoxy in Chicago in 1988, which was registered in 1993 as a religious association in Illinois under the name House of Netjer.
Around 1893-1895, the post-impressionist artist Georges Lacombe, attached to the Nabis movement, carved a panel in red mahogany wood showing Isis. The artist makes no attempt to recall the pharaonic past of the goddess by using the aesthetic canons of Egyptian art or by following the orientalist style then in vogue in academic circles. The goddess is represented in the image of a naked female figure, with generous forms, standing and perched on a skull. The goddess personifies a benevolent and regenerative Nature as perceived in theosophical thought, an esoteric movement with multiple influences (ancient Egypt, India, alchemy) in which followers attempt to know the Divine and the mysteries of Truth. Influenced by this philosophy, the artist chose a symbolist mode of representation. The hair of Isis becomes the roots of the trees that crown her head while from her breasts, which she presses, gushes a river of perpetual milk. This flow, of a fiery red like flames of fire, is born from the five-petal flowers, symbols of life.
In 1920, Egyptian artist Mahmoud Mokhtar, then a sculpture student in Paris, won a prize for the first version of his work The Awakening of Egypt (in Arabic Nahdet Misr, in English Egypt”s Awakening or Egypt”s Renaissance). The composition was inspired by the first demonstrations in 1919 in favor of independence for the country then under British colonial protection. The sculpture represents two figures facing the same horizon. On the right, a reclining sphinx, its claws firmly planted in the ground, symbolizes the multi-millennial history of the Egyptian nation. On the left, a standing peasant woman lifting her veil is an implicit reference to the unveiling of Isis. The unveiling of the woman symbolizes the future and the modernization of the country turned towards the lights of science. After independence, a subscription was opened by the Egyptian nationalists for a monumental realization of the work in pink granite of Aswan. In 1928, the sculpture was completed and inaugurated in front of the railway station in Cairo. After the revolution of 1952, which led to the establishment of the republic, the work was moved to the end of the avenue leading to Cairo University.
Since 1939, a bronze statue of Isis has been installed in West Branch, a small community in Iowa, in front of the birthplace of Herbert Hoover, President of the United States of America between 1929 and 1933. The statue is the work of Belgian sculptor Auguste Puttemans, known for his involvement with the Freemasons. It was offered in 1922 by a Belgian committee of war victims to Herbert Hoover in gratitude for his humanitarian commitment during the First World War. Between 1922 and 1939, it was first installed on the campus of Stanford University in California. It found its final place in 1939 when the Hoover family estate became a memorial dedicated to the years of the presidency. The goddess is represented seated on a throne whose armrests are two falcons, reminders of the god Horus, whose mother she is. Isis is linked to the celestial sphere by a circular frieze, located between the four legs of the seat, which shows the astrological symbols of the zodiac. The feet of Isis are set on the symbol of the ram, an animal linked to Amun, the supreme god and creator of the universe (eternal cosmic power). The goddess is dressed in a Greek-style tunic adorned with stars, and her head wears the nemesis, the headdress of the pharaohs (earthly power). The face of Isis is veiled by a fringed shawl, allegories of the mysteries of Nature. The base of the throne bears the inscription in French: “Je suis ce qui a été, ce qui est et qui sera et nul mortel n”a encore levé le voile qui me couvre”. Isis holds in her left hand the Ânkh cross, the symbol of life, and the index finger is pointed downward (human sphere). Her right hand holds in front a perfume burner with three flames, symbols of the past, the present and the future (divine sphere).
In 1975, the goddess Isis became a character of the Marvel Comics (Thor magazine, no 240, October 1975) especially known for its famous Spider-Man, X-Men, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, etc. Wanting to reign without sharing on the celestial Heliopolis (located in another dimension), Set locks Isis, Osiris and Horus in a pyramid. But, by contacting Odin, king of the gods of Asgard, the captives manage to make the pyramid appear in the United States. The character of Isis has various superhuman abilities. She is able to lift about 25 tons, run and move at high speeds. She is not prone to fatigue and can work at full capacity for several days. Isis” body is very resistant to physical damage. Isis is fully capable of withstanding great impact forces, extreme temperatures and pressures, and can withstand the most powerful energy blasts without harm. Like all members of her race, Isis is able to heal very quickly or regenerate missing limbs or organs, which makes her effectively immortal: immune to aging, she has not aged since reaching adulthood and is immune to all known earthly diseases and infections.
In 2002, Darren G. Davis launched the adventures of a warrior Isis represented as a busty redhead, wearing a minimalist loincloth inspired by bikini suits and hiding little of her advantageous physique. Trapped for 5,000 years, Isis reappears in the 21st century in the city of Los Angeles. Not without difficulty, Isis must adapt to her new life and protect the world from the evil that threatens it. She quickly befriends police officer Scott Dean and his naturally jealous fiancée Crystal Van Howe. The policeman creates a new identity for her under the name Jessica Eisen to enable her to work in a museum exhibiting many ancient artifacts from around the world; Isis” specialty is, of course, Egyptian culture.
Isis is one of the many gods mentioned in the Asterix comic book series.
In 2003, the American writer Dan Brown develops in the novel The Da Vinci Code (86 million copies sold in 2010), the thesis of a 2,000-year-old secret hidden by the Catholic Church. Jesus would have been married to Mary Magdalene. After the crucifixion, she moved to the south of France to protect their daughter Sarah from Roman persecution. Since 1099, the members of the Priory of Sion, founded by Godfrey of Bouillon, are said to be in charge of protecting the descendants of Sarah, i.e. the Holy Grail or Real Blood. These initiates also keep alive the esoteric teaching of the cult of the Mother Goddess, of which Mary Magdalene would be an incarnation. The painter Leonardo da Vinci, in his time head of the priory, would have put in his paintings coded symbols of this secret. The goddess Isis, another incarnation of this Eternal Feminine, is mentioned here and there in the course of the plot. The painting Mona Lisa is said to be a representation of Isis. Mona Lisa is said to wear a pendant around her neck, only visible by X-ray, representing Isis (chapter 40). Moreover, the name Mona Lisa would be the anagram of Amon L”Isa, an expression that would reveal that the Egyptian god Amon has a female counterpart Isa, a pictographic variant of Isis (chapter 26). Dan Brown also cites the legend of the pseudo-statue of Isis in the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, destroyed in 1514 (chapter 19). However, for the purposes of the plot, the church where this statue was venerated is not the abbey but the parish church of Saint-Sulpice, which has the picturesque advantage of containing, since 1743, a gnomon whose shape is inspired by Egyptian obelisks. It should be noted that a small pseudo-scientific booklet written in 2011 by Thierry Gallier takes up the theme of the Egyptian inspiration of the Mona Lisa. The painting would tell by ingenious pictorial devices the myth of Isis and Osiris.
The goddess Isis is represented simply by her face, as it appears in the National Public Museum of Cherchell, on the banknote of a value of 1000 francs issued in Algeria in 1948.