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  • Writer's pictureEgytian Priestess

Isis: Great Mother & Egyptian Goddess of Magic

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

While Isis started out as a relatively obscure goddess in ancient Egypt, she soon became the most popular deity in the Egyptian pantheon and absorbed many of the characteristics and domains of the other Egyptian gods. At the height of her importance, the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis was worshipped across the world from England to Afghanistan. Isis remains an important figure in modern Paganism.

Isis started out as a goddess linked to kingship and dynasty in ancient Egypt and was the female element that provided divine justification for a ruler. But when her husband Osiris was killed, and she brought him back to life, she also created the underworld. Consequently, Isis became a principal deity associated with safe passage from one life to the next.

It was Isis’ powerful magic that allowed her to restore her husband and create the underworld. Isis became recognized as the most powerful magic worker in existence. In this capacity, Isis became a favourite deity of witches, those seeking protection, and those wanting to influence fate.

In the Greco-Roman world, worship of Isis the goddess was among the mystery cults. These were secret societies based on the worship of selected deities. In a similar fashion, many modern covens choose Isis as the deity for their shared devotions.

Isis as protective goddess with open wings
Isis as protective goddess with open wings

Isis of the Ennead

Isis is one of the deities of the ancient Egyptian Ennead of Heliopolis, a group of nine Egyptian gods and goddesses descendent from the creator god Atum-Ra.

Along with her brother-husband Osiris and her sister Nephthys, Isis belongs to the ultimate generation of this Ennead. Isis is the child of the sun god Geb and the sky goddess Nut.

As the youngest descendants of the Ennead and the children of the earth below and the sky above, Isis and Osiris were the queen and king of the middle realm, the realm of reality.

Set, the god of chaos and the desert, was jealous of Osiris’ position. He killed Osiris and cut his body up into 14 pieces, hiding the different pieces across ancient Egypt. Set then usurped Osiris’ role as leader.

With the help of her sister Nephthys, Isis was able to find and reassemble Osiris’ body and restore a kind of life to it. While Osiris was not fully restored to life, he was able to live in the Duat, which is the afterlife. He would become the ruler of the Duat, where mankind would also be able to join him and live on after their mortal deaths.

Isis was also able to impregnate herself with the restored Osiris’ seed and give birth to a son Horus. With the help of his mother, Horus did battle with Set and regained his father’s throne. Horus became the new and rightful king of the middle realm and synonymous with the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.

Isis supporting the rightful king
Isis supporting the rightful king

Goddess of Kingship

Isis the goddess is inextricably linked with the idea of kingship and leadership in ancient Egypt and represents the female element of divine justification to rule. The hieroglyph that represents Isis is the symbol of the throne, a symbol inextricably linked to kingship.

Isis was initially the consort of the ruler Osiris, and as such was often associated with the wife of the Pharoah. But then Isis was also the mother of Horus, who succeeded his father as ruler, and so was also associated with the mother of the Pharoah and became the epitome of maternal devotion.

This blurring of the lines between wife and mother is perhaps not so strange in the world of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs where it was common for brothers and sisters to marry to maintain the purity of their divine line. All the women of the royal household of ancient Egypt could identify with Isis, and in some texts, Isis is described as the consort rather than the mother of Horus.

While men were given priority when it came to rule and divine succession, their legitimacy depended on their connection to women, who were all the embodiment of Isis the goddess.

Unlike many Egyptian goddesses, who were assimilated with Greek and Roman goddesses in later times, Isis retained her name since the Egyptian word for throne translates as Isis in ancient Greek.

The throne hieroglyph can be incorporated into altars to call the presence of Isis and honour the divine queen and female ruler of the realm of reality.

Isis stauettes with heiroglyph headress
Isis stauettes with heiroglyph headress

Goddess of Maternity

The ancient Egyptian Pharaoh was considered the mortal incarnation of Isis' son Horus, and thus Isis was his divine mother. Isis was often depicted nourishing the Pharaoh with her breast milk, and this magical liquid may be part of what gave the Pharaoh his divinity and right to rule.

But Isis was also invoked by the common ancient Egyptian woman for aid during childbirth and the early, challenging stages of maternity. Isis was considered the ideal mother, and also a provider of aid to other women, especially mothers.

In earlier times, Hathor was more closely associated with womanhood and maternal practices. But Isis seems to have absorbed these characteristics as the mother of Horus. Isis even started to take on some of Hathor’s attributes, for example, using Hathor’s headdress of the sun disk between cow’s horns. Isis will usually appear with her throne hieroglyph on top of the sun disk.

Sun disk representations can be used to represent Isis in altars, especially if Isis is being called upon in a maternal capacity or to represent the feminine within a ritual. Blessed milk can be drunk by those wanting the health and good fortune bestowed by Isis.

Isis and the living queen
Isis and the living queen

Goddess of the Afterlife

Isis created the afterlife when she restored Osiris. He cannot return to the realm of reality, but he can live on in the Duat, which is the afterlife. As an extension of this, Isis became a symbol of life after death and was called upon to help individuals safely pass through the trials to earn their place in the Duat.

With her sister Nephthys, Isis created the process of mummification and the spells and rituals required to pass between the world of the living and the dead. When the sisters are depicted as mourning, they are also depicted as conducting these spells. They were also sometimes depicted as kite birds, since the cry of these birds resembles the mourning of women.

The most important ancient Egyptian festival for the worship of Isis started on October 31, a day that is still important in paganism and is often considered the time when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. This is a four-day festival that concluded on November 3rd and often involved re-enactments of the restoration of Osiris.

October 31 is still considered to be one of the best days to conduct necromantic rituals in association with Isis, in particular communing with the dead. Like most Egyptian deities, Isis always appeared with the Ankh in one of her hands as a symbol of eternal life. Ankhs can be incorporated into altars, especially when calling on the goddess for spiritual guidance.

Isis and necromatic rituals
Isis and necromatic rituals

Goddess of Magic

It was the magic of Isis that created the Duat, but this was only one example of her magical prowess. Isis was thought to have magical powers greater than that of all the other gods, even her forebears.

Isis is said to have tricked the god Ra into giving her more power. She collected some of Ra’s own drool and used it to create a serpent that she placed upon Ra’s daily path. The snake bit Ra, and he was unable to heal himself because the snake was made from him. He eventually called Isis to heal him, and she only agreed to do so if Ra told her his true name. This knowledge gave Isis enormous power in the universe.

Isis' powers were so great that she was believed to have power over the natural world, and even over fate itself. Isis could create or extinguish life with a world and could decide the destiny of the kingdom, or of a single individual.

The spoken word was very important in Ebyotian magic. The Egyptians considered exact pronunciation and emphasis important when casting spells, in emulation of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Each word should be uttered in a certain tone, at a certain pace, and at the right time of day or night and accompanied by appropriate hand gestures to be effective.

Ritual chanting and dancing with complex and specific hand movements are often associated with Isis and integrated into rituals for the ancient Egyptian goddess. Isis was also sometimes represented as a woman emerging from a tree, representing her connection to all life and natural magic. A living tree can be incorporated into an altar for Isis.

Isis as a living tree
Isis as a living tree

Protective Goddess

Isis was a master of magic and a loving and maternal character, so she was often called on as a protective goddess. Depicted with wings outstretched like many Egyptian goddesses, these could physically protect the living and spiritually protect the eternal soul.

The symbols of Isis are the throne of Egypt, which she wore on her head as a heiroglyph, tthe sistrum rattle, a musica instrument used to ward off evil spirits, the tyet, a knot like symbol that represents "welfare" or "life", her protective, and the cow horns around a sun disk that she absorved from Hathor.

The Tyet symbol was associated with Isis as a protector, often made of red jasper to represent the blood of Isis.

Tyet of Isis
Tyet of Isis

Mystery Cults

The cult of Isis was so compelling that it not only became one of the most important in Egypt, but spread as far as England in the west and Afghanistan in the east in pre-Christian times.

The cult of Isis was most passionately followed in the Greco-Roman world, where it was modelled on the Mystery Cult of Demeter and Persephone.

How exactly Isis was worshipped in these cults is unclear since one of the principles of the mystery cults was that participants were not allowed to talk about the ceremonies. But most mystery cults were conducted at night and in remote locations to preserve secrecy. Individuals would undergo initiation rites to join the cult and would then be part of a secret society that included social obligations.

Many ritual occasions would involve rites of transcendence to reach a state of ecstasy to allow the individual to feel closer to the goddess.

Isis can be invoked in pacts of secrecy and loyalty for covens and other magical gatherings. Hallucinogens are known to be used by some practitioners to commune with Isis.

Temple of Isis

Various temples of Isis, known as Iseum, have survived from teh ancient world. Isis has known temples as Philae, Behbeit el-Hagar, Menouthis, and Alexandria in Egypt. Remains of Iseum also survive at Delos in Greece, Rome, Pompeii, and Szombathaly in Hungary.

The temple at Isis is the best preserved. The temple dates from the reign of the emperor Augustus (27 BC - AD 14), but not long after the construction the Roman Senate demanded that the temple be destroyed and worship of Isis cease. But there were no volunteers to undertake the destruction, and the cut of the goddess grew in popularity.

Following an earthquake in AD 54, the Iseum was one of teh first structures to be rebuilt. When the enture city was destroyed by the erruption of Vesuvius in AD69, on the temple of Isis was complete. Even the Capitolium, traditionally the most important Roman temple, had not been completely rebuilt.

The main devotees of teh cult of Isis were slaves and freedmen. Her worship promised salvation and she promised to stay by the side of her devotees in both this life and the next. Her popularity seems to have stemmed principally from teh fact that the cult of Isis gave women a position in public religion comparable to men.

In the temple, Isis is depicted with a serpent around her wrist and a crocodile at her feet. Another wall painting shows serpents protecting a wicker basket adorned with moon symbols.

In ancient Egpt, Isis was often worshipped in household shrines as well as major temples. Special rituals for the goddess could require the devotee to undergo a ritual bath and obtain from sexual activity to purify themselves for the goddess.

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