The Goddess Isis

by Jasmin Jahal, January 2001 (back)


Isis...you've heard of her. Grammar school children who do projects about ancient Egypt learn the names of the most famous of Egyptian gods and goddesses, including that of Isis. Anyone who indulges in the art of belly dance has stumbled upon this name on occasion, and I'm not talking about anyone who has adopted Isis as a stage name. Isis, hmmm...yes, we've heard of her, but who exactly was she? In order to answer that question, I found myself doing some research. Up to now, I had thought there was not much to know about Isis except a general image of her being a powerful, magical goddess, one of many in ancient Egyptian mythology. I was surprised what I learned, and I thought it would be interesting to share it with you.

Isis is pronounced "EYE-sys". This goddess has been worshipped longer than any other known goddess from the origin of written history to the 5th century A.D. Her worship began in ancient Egypt and later spread throughout Asia Minor and Europe. Her religion was a mystery cult in which she was revered as Queen of Heaven, Earth and the Underworld.

Egyptian mythology claims Isis was the daughter of the god Keb ("earth") and the goddess Nut ("sky"). She is often depicted holding the Ankh, the symbol of eternal life. She was represented as human in form though she was frequently described as wearing the horns of a cow. Her personality was believed to resemble that of Hathor, the goddess of love and gaiety. Isis was a powerful and magical healer, gifted with the ability to cure mind, body and spirit.

There is a famous story about Isis' search for Osirus, her brother and husband. First of all, I have always wondered how it could be that she married her brother. Research revealed that in ancient times, among well-to-do Egyptians, young men often married their sisters. Sometimes the marriage was a result of affection, but generally it was because of the desire to keep property in the family. Thus, it was easily accepted that the god Osirus married his sister, Isis.

Osirus, god of the Nile, was brutally killed and hidden by his brother, Set. Upon arriving in Phoenicia, Isis found Osirus' body in the palace, contained in a fragrant tamarisk tree. She carried her beloved back to Egypt for a proper burial. Enraged, Set, the god of Destruction, dismembered the body of Osirus into 14 pieces and scattered them across the land. Isis searched hard to locate the many pieces of Osirus. She found them and performed the first rite of embalming. She magically bound the pieces together with cloth strips, making the first Egyptian mummy. Isis then became a bird, enfolded Osirus in her wings and brought him to life. Thus, Isis was worshipped as a goddess who ensured everlasting life.

After Osirus rose from the dead, he and Isis magically conceived Horus, the sun god. Isis is regarded as the Universal Mother. She is often portrayed suckling her son. She was a particular protector and patron of women. Isis guided women in childbirth and comforted women bereaved by the death of loved ones. Her qualities of compassion, tenderness, love and devotion have endeared her to women throughout the ages. She is a reminder to women of their connection to the All-Goddess and to each other. As a patron of women, she affirms women as great sources of strength, healing and inspiration for each other. She shows us our own ability to heal ourselves and to heal others. Even today Isis reconnects us with our innate healing powers by telling us we need not be victims of the patriarchal, Western scientific traditions of medicine and surgery.

In the 4th century B.C., Isis worship reached its greatest peak. The center was on Philae, an island in the Nile, where a great temple was built to her. Should you travel there today, you can see the awesome temple. Original color still remains on the columns in the hall.

The cult of Isis spread from Alexandria throughout the Hellenistic world after the 4th century B.C. It appeared in Greece in combination with the cults of Horus, her son, and Serapus, the Greek name for Osirus. The three-part cult of Isis, Horus and Serapus was introduced into Rome and became one of the most popular branches of Roman religion.

In the 1st century B.C., Egypt became a province of Rome under the leadership of Augustus. The Romans ruthlessly exacted money and resources from Egypt. They thrived at great expense to the conquered Egyptians. Over the centuries of Roman domination, people in Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean world sought comfort through the worship of the traditional Egyptian gods who mythology embraced a central belief in life after death.

In time, the consulships of Rome made efforts to suppress or limit Isis worship. The cult virtually died out after the institution of Christianity, and the last remaining Egyptian temples to Isis were closed in the middle of the 6th century A.D.

I found it quite interesting as I surfed the net that the cult of Isis is not entirely dead. Should you have interest in pursuing the religion, it is not hard to find connections on the world wide web. Through my research, I have a more thorough appreciation for this infamous goddess, and can admire the beautiful winged statues of Isis with greater understanding. No, she may not have had any direct historical influence upon belly dance per se, but she has a tremendous connection with the feminine power of women, and that is, after all, the essence of belly dancing, isn't it?

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©2001 Jasmin Jahal