October 2, 2012

Isis: Egyptian Goddess of Magic

Posted in Goddess Project, Goddess Things tagged , , at 3:36 am by Babs

Isis, the Egyptian goddess of rebirth remains one of the most familiar images of empowered and utter femininity.  The Goddess Isis was the first daughter of Geb, God of the Earth, and Nut, the Goddess of the Overarching Sky.  Isis was born on the first day between the first years of creation, and was adored by her human followers.

Unlike the other Egyptian goddesses, Isis spent time among her people, teaching women how to grind corn and make bread, spin flax, weave cloth and how to tame men enough to live with them (an art form on which many of us would welcome a refresher course!).  Isis taught her people the skills of reading and agriculture and was worshipped as the Goddess of medicine and wisdom.

More than any other of the ancient Egyptian goddesses, Isis embodied the characteristics of all the lesser goddesses that preceded her.  Isis became the model on which future generations of female deities in other cultures were to be based.  As the personification of the “complete female”, Isis was called “The One Who is All”, Isis Panthea (Isis the All Goddess), and the “Lady of Ten Thousand Names”.

The Goddess Isis, a moon goddess, gave birth to Horus the God of the Sun.  Together, Isis and Horus created and sustained all life and were the saviors of their people.  Isis became the most powerful fo the gods and goddesses in the ancient world.  Ra, the God of the Sun, originally had the greatest power.  But Ra was uncaring, and the people of the world suffered greatly during his reign.  Isis tricked him by mixing some of his saliva with mud to creat a poisonous snake that bit him causing him great suffering which she then offered to cure.  He eventually agreed.  She then informed Ra, that for the cure to work, she would have to speak his secret name (which was the source of his power over life and death).  Reluctantly, he whispered it to her.  When Isis uttered his secret name while performing her magic, Ra was healed.  But the Goddess then possessed his powers of life and death and quickly became the most powerful of the Egyptian gods and goddesses using her great powers to the benefit of the people.

Isis was called the Mother of Life but she was also known as the Crone of Death.  Her immense powers earned her the titles of “The Giver of Life” and “Goddess of Magic”.  Her best known story illustrates why she is simultaneously known as the creation goddess and a goddess of destruction.  She was the Goddess of the Earth in ancient Egypt and loved her brother Osiris.  When they married, Osiris became the first King of Earth.  Their brother Set, immensely jealous of their powers, murdered Osiris so he could usurp the throne.  Set did this by tricking Osiris into stepping into a beautiful box made of cedar, ebony, and ivory that he had ordered built to fit only Osiris.  Set then sealed it up to become a coffin and threw it into the river.  The river carried the box out to sea where it washed up in another country, resting in the upper boughs of a tamarisk tree where the waters receded.  As time passed, the branches covered the box, encapsulating the God in his coffin in the trunk of the tree.  In a state of inconsolable grief, Isis tore her robes to shreds and cut off her beautiful black hair.  When she finally regained her emotional balance, Isis set out to search for the body of her beloved Osiris so that she might bury him properly.

The search took Isis to Phoenicia where she met Queen Astarte.  Astarte didn’t recognize the goddess and hired her as a nursemaid to the infant prince.  Fond of the young boy, Isis decided to bestow immortality on him.  As she was holding the royal infant over the fire as part of the ritual, the Queen entered the room.  Seeing her son smoldering in the middle of the fire, Astarte instinctively (but naively) grabbed the child out of the flames, undoing the magic of Isis that would have made her son a god.  When the Queen demanded an explanation, Isis revealed her identity and told Astarte of her quest to recover her husband’s body.  As she listened to the story, Astarte realized that the body was hidden in the fragrant tree in the center of the palace and told Isis where to find it.

Sheltering his broken body in her arms, the Goddess Isis carried the body of Osiris back to Egypt for proper burial.  There she hid it in the swamps on the delta of the Nile River.  Unfortunately, Set came across the box one night when he was out hunting.  Infuriated by this turn of events, and determined not to be outdone, he murdered Osiris once again… this time hacking his body into 14 pieces and throwing them in different directions knowing that they would be eaten by the crocodiles.  The Goddess Isis searched and searched, accompanied by seven scorpions that assisted and protected her.  Each time she found new pieces she rejoined them to re-form his body.

But Isis could only recover thirteen of the pieces.  The fourteenth, his penis, had been swallowed by a crab, so she fashioned one from gold and wax.  Then inventing the rites of embalming, and speaking some words of magic, Isis brought her husband back to life.  Magically, Isis then conceived a child with Osiris, and gave birth to Horus, who later became the Sun God.  Assured that having the infant would now relieve Isis’ grief, Osiris was free to descend to become Kin of the Underworld, ruling over the dead and the sleeping.  His spirit, however, frequently returned to be with Isis and the young Horus who both remained under his watchful and loving eye.

There are many other variations of this myth… in some Isis found the body of Osiris in Byblos, fashioned his penis out of clay.  In others the Goddess consumed the dismembered parts she found and brought Osiris back to life, reincarnating him as her son Horus.  In one of the most beautiful renditions, Isis turns into a sparrow hawk and hovers over the body of Osiris, fanning life back into him with her long wings.  Regardless of the differences, each version speaks fo the power over life and death that the Goddess Isis symbolizes as well as the deep mysteries of the feminine ability to create and to bring life from that which is lifeless.

To this day the celebration of the flooding of the Nile each year is called “The Night of the Drop” by Muslims for it used to be named “The Night of the Tear Drop” a remembrance of the extent of Isis’ lamentation of the death of Osiris, her tears so plentiful they caused the Nile to overflow.

They Egyptian goddess Isis played an important role in the development of modern religions, although her influence has been largely forgotten.  She was worshipped throughout the Greco-Roman world.  During the fourth century when Christianity was making its foothold in the Roman Empire, her worshippers founded the first Madonna cults in order to keep her influence alive.  Some early Christians even called themselves Pastophori meaning the “pastors” originated.  The influence of Isis is still seen in the Christian icons of the faithful wife and loving mother.  Indeed, the ancient images of Isis nursing the infant Horus inspired the style of portraits of mother and child for centuries, included those of the “Madonna and Child” found in religious art.

The power of the Goddess Isis in the “public arena” was also profound.  Her role as a guid to the Underworld was often portrayed with winged arms outstretched in a protective position.  The image of the wings of Isis was incorporated into the Egyptian throne on which the Pharaohs would sit, the wings of Isis protecting them.

The ancient Egyptian Goddess Isis has many gifts to share with modern women.  Isis embodies the strengths of the feminine, the capacity to feel deeply about relationships, the act of creation, and the source of sustenance and protection.  At times Isis could be a clever trickster empowered by her feminine wiles rather than her logic or brute strength, but it is also the Goddess Isis who shows us how we can use our personal gifts to create the life we desire rather than simply opposing that which we do not like.  The myths of Isis and Osiris caution us about the need for occasional renewal and reconnection in our relationships.  Isis also reminds us to acknowledge and accept the depths of our emotions.

Isis as a Dark Goddess (author unknown)

“Isis” is the Latinized name of the Egyptian Goddess known as Eset or Ast or Aset (which is represented in hieroglyphs by the phonetic sign for “throne”), however, for the sake of convenience the name Isis will be used to refer to Her throughout this essay.  I thought it would be worthy to note that I, myself, am not a devotee of Isis (I am more drawn to Her more enigmatic sister, Nephthys, and Her nephew, Anubis), but I have completed research on Isis in Egyptian mythology.  This essay is intended to draw attention to the shadow side of Isis which has been virtually neglected by many of the works of Neo-Pagans with which I have come in contact.  I have had the desire to write about Isis in this contact for many years, and I even began such essays addressing this topic previously, but they never came to fruition because of time constraints.  Finally, with the time given to me on my winter break from college, I was able to write.

The Goddess Isis has been revered in varying forms since practically the dawn of history, and now Her worship is again being revived by modern Pagans.  In pre-dynastic Egypt, Isis was worshipped as an independent deity in the city of Sebennytos prior to being incorporated into the Osirian myths, and Her worship continued in Egypt on the island of Philae into the sixth century AD, which was well into the Christian era.  She became highly popular with the Greeks and Romans who discovered Her when they acquired Egypt as part of their expansive empires.  As Her cult grew, it “eventually spread beyond Egypt, to Syria, Palestine, Greece, and throughout the whole Roman Empire.”  She absorbed many of the attributes of other Goddesses, much like the Egyptian God Amen before Her absorbed the role and powers of other Gods.  In this process, Isis became an almost Universal Goddess figure – the Celestial Queen of Gods and men.

Since the New Kingdom, but particularly in the first century BC, she increasingly assumed positions and functions formerly associated with Hathor, so that far beyond Egypt’s boundaries she eventually becomes the “goddess of all goddesses.”  Her specific traits as an Egyptian Goddess, which even before Her journey across the Mediterranean were already changing, and the shadowy aspect of Her nature dulled and finally washed away as She evolved into a Goddess of Many Names.  It is as a Goddess of Myriad Names and Faces that most now know Her, and She has come to be viewed in equally as beneficient Goddess of which all other Goddesses are aspects.  This Universal Isis lacks depth and form because She has been deprived of the Dark aspect the original Isis possessed.  It is time to acknowledge Her role as a Dark Goddess.

Isis is generally depicted as the quintessential mother Goddess: kind, compassionate, loving, and always benevolent.  Isis as the Egyptian equivalent of the Catholic Mary.  The perception of Isis as a mother Goddess is indeed valid, but although some might find evidence to support the idea that She is the perpetual Deity of light and love, this hardly even begins to either define or classify Isis.  To categorize Her as the typical mother Goddess would be to tell half the story.

It is often forgotten that nurturing is not the only aspect of being a mother.  When describing the mother aspect of the Goddess (Isis included) Pagans generally focus on Her as a gentle caretaker, rarely is the mother’s role of protecting Her children recognize. For the purpose of protecting offspring, a strength and ferociousness is required that is normally not associated with the mother aspect of the Goddess.

The Egyptians could be assured of Her capacity to be aggressive and downright ruthless in the protection of Her loved ones through myth.  Upon the untimely death of Osiris, the sovereignty of Egypt was to be held by his brother (and murderer) Set to whom it would be given because Osiris had no known male heirs.  However, Isis animated the corpse of Osiris and conceived Horus (a.k.a. Horus the Younger, Hor-sa-Aset, Harpokrates, etc.).  It was not long before Set discovered that Isis had a child and that there was a potential threat to His position as pharaoh, and once He found out He devised all manner of plans to rid Himself of Horus.  While still a small child, Horus was bitten by Set in the form of a poisonous snake, and in Her grief and anger over the state of Her son, Isis literally halted the sun’s passage through the sky.  This caused abysmal darkness to fall on Egypt, and the life of the entire planet was endangered until a cure for the poison was found.  As Horus grew, the feud between uncle and nephew deepened until the other Gods had to intervene in order to solve the matter without excessive destruction.  At one point, due to the savagery of fighting, Isis did on Her son’s behalf (this included spearing Her own brother Set while He was in the form of a hippopotamus), the Gods refused to admit Her onto an island where the Divine tribunal agreed to meet to settle the matter of Egypt’s rulership.  Determined to defend Her son at any cost, She disguised Herself as an old woman so that the ferryman would allow Her passage onto the island.  When She got there, She took the widow of a cowherd, and that a stranger had come and usurped the inheritance Her husband left despite the fact that She had borne the cowherd a son, who would be the rightful heir.  Set was taken by the story of the attractive woman and declared that Her son should receive his rightful inheritance, this condemning Himself for stealing the rightful inheritance of Horus.  Isis then transformed into a kite (some say a vulture) and yelled “You have judged yourself with your own words!”

In nature the mother’s role as defender and guardian of new life is manifested in the very biological traits they possess, for in much of the animal kingdom the female is comparatively larger than the male.  This observation is especially true of diurnal raptors, birds of prey that are primarily active during the daylight hours, because “in almost all species, females are larger than males – noticeably so in some species.”  The Goddess Isis was  commonly known to appear as a kite, a raptor that closely resembles a falcon.  After re-assembling the dismembered corpse of Osiris which had been scattered throughout Egypt by Set, Isis took the form of a kite and gave the breath of life to Her husband/ brother with the great sweep of Her wings.  It was also in this form that Isis conceived Horus once She revived Osiris.  She is frequently shown in both fully kite form as well as in human form with wings of a kite.  The winged Isis along with a winged Nephthys, Selket (Serket), and Neith are poised at each of the four corners of many a sarcophagi and canopic chest in order to guard the bodily remains of the deceased, which in Egyptian funerary belief holds the key to a pleasant afterlife.  Thus represented on such containers, Isis’ protective qualities are invoked for eternity.

Isis is, in fact, a mother Goddess, hug Her scope extends further than the common vision of what a mother Goddess should be to include insidious cleverness and righteous anger.

Isis’ more intense, darker side can also be highlighted in Her status as the Mistress of Magic, the Great Enchantress, and the magic implied in this case does not involve visualizing white light or harmonizing chakras.  Egyptian myth actually reveals that Isis was once a mortal woman albeit with significant magical ability (heka) since She was instructed by the God Thoth in the ways of magic.  The myth continues further saying that Isis was not content with the sphere of mankind and sought a position among the Gods.  In this distant past, the sun God Ra regularly roamed the earth to admire His own craftmanship and to enjoy the beauty of His creation.  Using Ra’s own spittle and some soil, Isis molded a poisonous snake and placed it on the ground near a road Ra was known to frequent.  Ra was bitten by this snake as He strode through Egypt, and as a result He became quite ill.  He called upon all of the Gods to find a cure for the pain which flowed through His body like liquid flame and crippled Him, but They did not succeed.  With the situation becoming ever more critical, Isis finally came forward and assured Ra that She was capable of healing Him.  For suck healing to take place, however, She required the knowledge of Ra’s secret name, which was none other than the closely guarded key to His true power.  At first Ra hesitated and told Isis that He was “Kheperi in greater intensity through His limbs, He yielded.  Thus Isis obtained the knowledge of Ra’s secret name, relieved Ra of His anguish, and claimed Her status as a Goddess.

Such devious cunning, brazen tenacity and potent energy are traits hardly emanated from the Isis that is generally portrayed – soft, gently, and with a slight smile on Her lips.  Egyptian myth illustrates that She most certainly has a darker, more powerful aspect, and this is the aspect that completes Her.

Correspondences:

  • Animal: Man, Woman, Unicorn, Sphinx, Ram, Owl, Lion, Eagle
  • Color: Emerald, Turquoise
  • Day: Wednesday, Friday
  • Festivals: Advent of Aset – January 2nd, July 17th, October 30th through November 2nd
  • Flower: Amaranth, Cypress, Willow, Lily, Ivy, Snowdrop
  • Gems: Ruby, Star Ruby, Turquoise, Sapphire, Pearl, Amethyst, Peridot, Beryl, Moonstone, Lapis Lazuli, Dark Aquamarine (Indigo- colored stones), Malachite
  • Minerals: Phosphorus, Silver, Sulphate
  • Perfume: Musk, Myrrh, Civert, Cedar, Dragon’s Blood, Narcissus, Onycha
  • Tarot: Twos, Threes, Fours, Tens, The Emperor, The Hermit, The Hanged Man
  • Weapon: Lingam, Inner Robe of Concealment, Yoni, Magic Circle

Isis’ esoteric attributes include intuition and perception.  She is related to the third eye chakra, the center of illumination and insight.  She is the embodiment of the feminine as a vessel for divine expression.

Suggested Mantra: Sensuality

Suggested Affirmations:

  • I radiate with wisdom
  • I know the answers
  • My wisdom is reality; all else is illusion
  • I trust my wisdom and insight
  • I trust in my higher self
  • I hear and honor my intuition
  • I have the courage to follow my instincts

More about Isis:

Isis is the Egyptian High Priestess, ruling with love and calm patience.  She provides equilibrium and guidance through our journey.  To open the door to Isis opens the door to love, love fosters the development of inner wisdom, as a budding flower blossoms into a glorious flower that takes people’s breath away.

Her Modern Energy

Isis’ relationship with the third eye, the psychic eye, brings us a powerful skill to cultivate our trust in our own psychic wisdom.  We have all talked about our “gut instinct” at some stage in our lives… Isis lets us embellish on this inner wisdom through divine power.

Isis Divination:

Whatever the tool you use to channel the divine ower, whether it be crystals, cards, runes, pendulums, tea leaves, psychometry (to name a few), use Isis’ powerful, easy presence to understand images or impressions presented to you.  Let Isis open the psychic creation of the Inner Goddess in yourself.

One easy way to channel divine power is to take three differently colored stones of roughly equal size, for example: 1) quartz 2) tiger eye and 3) lapis lazuli.  Holding the stones in your closed palm, tough your palm to your third eye and let the “yes/no” question you need answered float into your mind.  Proceed to ask the question out loud as you throw the 3 stones onto a gentle surface.

Look at how the stones land.  If the tiger eye (red_ lands closest to the quartz, the answer is no.  If the lapis lazuli (blue) lands near the quartz, the answer is yes.  Does this answer make you feel uncomfortable?  If you feel that the answer given to you is wrong, this is your intuition telling you the real answer.  Trust in your inner wisdom to interpret the answers and allow Isis to work with you to open the psychic creation of the Inner Goddess in yourself.

Another way of channeling your intuition, is to use a pendulum, and ask “yes” or “no” questions.  Firstly, ask three questions: 1) What is yes?  2) What is no? 3) May I ask some questions at this time?  If you can feel the presence of Isis, proceed to ask the questions you need to ask, and trust in your inner wisdom to interpret the answers.

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