Isis may be the oldest deity in Egypt, and certainly the oldest to survive the ages in much the same form. She may also be the most important, for although the other gods were worshipped widely, Isis was worshipped almost universally by all Egyptians. The major goddess of the Egyptian pantheon, she had many of the same attributes of other mother-goddesses found all over the world. She was revered as the great protector, prayed to for guidance, and beseeched for peace in the world. Temples to Isis are found everywhere in Egypt, some of them quite ancient, and many houses had shrines to her devotion. Her worship was taken up by the Greeks and the Romans, and indeed, Isis followers are still found today.
She was the daughter of Nut and Geb, the sister to Osiris, Set, and Nephthys, and the mother of Horus. In earlier times she was not only the wife to Osiris, but his female counterpart, equal in all ways and powers. In the Legend of Osiris it is she who travels the world to find all the pieces of his body and it is she who brings him back to life with the aid of Thoth. But that is not the only time she is associated with Thoth. Together they taught man the secrets of magic, medicine, and agriculture. Her power is spoken of much in the ancient stories, and she may have been even more powerful than Ra and Osiris. She did after all trick Ra’s secret name out of him to gain his power. Yet she is never shown as selfish or cruel, except to those who would harm those she loves. Power and compassion, crafty but merciful, Isis represents all the qualities of women.
“Having first mourned for Osiris, literally crying him a river – her tears caused the Nile’s first flood – Isis recovered Osiris’s body, which she then reassembled, wrapping the parts together to create the first mummy. Then, using her great magic, she resurrected both his soul and his reproductive powers to conceive their son Horus. Truly ‘more clever than a million gods’ and ‘craftier than a million men’, Isis raised her son in secret to avenge his father and take on his uncle Seth in a series of violent struggles.
For Isis was her son’s protector, ‘more effective than millions of soldiers’, whose ability to both nurture and attack was typical of the way the Egyptians never assumed that male and female must necessarily equate simply with the concepts of active and passive. And while Osiris, his father Geb and fellow deities like fertility god Min were usually portrayed as static and inert with only their prominent reproductive organ betraying any sign of life, their female counterparts were often seen to be initiating action, from Nut, the ‘Great Striding Goddess, sowing precious stones as stars’ to her dynamic daughter Isis who, by gradually absorbing the powers of her fellow goddesses, eventually became Egypt’s most powerful deity, striding out across the Mediterranean to be worshipped for centuries across three continents.
As the perfectly mummified Osiris took his place as King of the Underworld, bound up tightly in his wrappings to be ‘everlasting in perfect condition’, he passed, like a parcel, into the permanent care of ‘Mighty Isis who protected her brother’, and joined him in the night sky; Osiris as the constellation of Orion, guarded by Isis, who absorbed the star qualities of Sothis (Sirius), herald of the Nile flood. Yet Isis was also present in the land of the living, to protect and guide their son Horus, who had succeeded his father to take the throne of Egypt. Horus came to symbolize the divine nature of kingship, with every subsequent human monarch named ‘the Living Horus’, and then at death, transformed into ‘an Osiris’, their souls absorbed into an accumulating underworld power base, reinvigorated each night by the nocturnal visit of the omnipresent sun god.”
— The Story of Egypt: The Civilization that Shaped the World, by Joann Fletcher
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