Isis is one of the most prominent Egyptian deities. While she was not widely worshiped initially, she eventually rose to prominence and, along with Osiris (her brother and husband), became the most widely worshiped of the Egyptian gods.
Even during the conquest of Egypt by the Greeks during the Hellenistic period, the goddess’ presence was so powerful that even the occupying Greeks began to worship Isis. The Goddess didn’t disappear when the Romans in turn conquered the Greeks. Instead, numerous cults of Isis sprang up throughout the Roman Empire. By this time, her worship had vastly dwindled, but it speaks to Isis’ power and influence that her presence had been retained for so long in the minds of the ancient Mediterranean world.
Working with Isis
Isis protected children and was also considered the greatest Magician and goddess of Magic. The best way to connect with Isis, like any goddess or god, is through her mythology, epithets and symbols. Here’s a summary of the most important myths featuring the goddess Isis, and how to worship Isis in your personal pagan practice.
- Myth of Isis
- Symbols of Isis
- Titles and Epithets of Isis
- How to Worship Goddess Isis
- Further reading
Myth of Isis
The mythology of Isis is stunning in its richness, depth, and potency. Isis, alongside her brother Osiris, were the children of Nut and Geb. As one of the Ennead (gods that are directly descended from the Creator God Atum/Ra), Isis became the queen to the god-king Osiris. As the story goes, Osiris became the king from which all other kings of Egypt descended.
The Egyptians learned agriculture, theology, and law from Osiris. In this sense, civilization as a whole was a gift from Osiris to humanity. Osiris, not content to merely share these gifts with the Egyptians, left to foreign lands to spread these boons to the rest of humanity. Isis was to rule Egypt in his stead, which she did and did well, but this attracted the ire of their brother, Set.
Set envied Osiris and was utterly insulted that Osiris left Isis in charge. To get his revenge, Set crafted a magnificent box to Osiris’s exact measurements. After Osiris’s return to Egypt, Set presented the splendid box at a banquet attended by the gods. The box was the envy of all those in attendance.
“Whoever can fit within this box may keep it,” Set declared.
Attendee after attendee attempted to fit within the box, though of course none of them could manage to do so. When it was Osiris’s turn to try, he fit within the box perfectly. Set slammed the box shut and sealed it with lead, suffocating his brother. Immediately afterwards, Set threw the box into the Nile, and it floated down to the delta. The box lodged in a swamp with Osiris’s corpse trapped inside.
When Isis discovered that her husband had gone missing, she set out to find him. She searched and searched and eventually found Osiris’s body in a tamarisk tree which had grown up around the body. Unfortunately for Isis, her task would not be as simple as merely finding her husband. The tamarisk tree was so beautiful that it ended up in a palace in Byblos, where it was repurposed into a column that held up the palace roof.
Isis disguised herself and traveled to a well where the local women drew water. The queen of Byblos’s handmaids also drew water from this well. Knowing this, the disguised Isis brushed their hair in an ostensible act of kindness. Unknown to the handmaids, Isis perfumed their hair as she brushed it, leaving her scent on them.
The handmaids returned to the palace. The queen couldn’t help but notice that there was something changed about her handmaids, but did not know what exactly. She asked her handmaids what had happened, and the handmaids told her of the woman that brushed their hair. Intrigued, the queen sent the handmaids back to the well to find the disguised Isis. The handmaids retrieved Isis and brought her back to the palace in Byblos. The queen, awe-struck by Isis (though still unaware of the goddesses true nature) requested that Isis become a nursemaid for her infant son. Isis accepted this request.
Every night, Isis would nurse the child and also place him within a fire. The ritual was intended to give the child immortality. One night, just as Isis made to put the child in the fire, the queen caught her. Panicked, the queen demanded that Isis unhand the child, unaware of Isis’s true intent to grant her child immortality. Isis revealed her true divinity and told the queen her intentions. Isis also informed the queen that her husband, Osiris, was trapped in a box inside of the tree in the palace.
Sympathetic, the queen helped Isis retrieve the box containing Osiris from the tree. Trembling with fear, Isis unlocked the box to find the corpse of her husband within. At the sight of Osiris’s corpse, Isis released an awful wail that killed the queen’s child.
Isis took Osiris’s box out into the wilderness. She took the form of a hawk and laid on top of Osiris’s corpse, breathing into him and resuscitating him just long enough so that he could impregnate her.
Isis gave birth to a child, the god Horus, in the swamp. Many events transpired while Isis and Horus lived in the swamps. One story tells of the time Horus was stung by a scorpion and struck dead, only to be resurrected by a spell Isis had learned from the moon.
One night, while Set was on the hunt for wild boar, he came across Osiris’s coffin. Irate at the recent turn of events, Set dismembered Osiris into fourteen parts and scattered them across the Nile. Isis enlisted the aid of the gods Anubis, Nephthys, and Thoth. They found every part of Osiris save for Osiris’s phallus, which had been eaten by a fish. After finding all the parts, they created a replica phallus and put Osiris back together. Anubis, the god of the afterlife, cloaked the body in linen and performed a ritual that we now know to be the famous mummification process.
Osiris was revived by Anubis’s ritual, as well as Isis and Nephthys’s spells. After this, Osiris became the king of the dead. With Osiris becoming the king of the dead, a power vacuum opened up in Egypt. Naturally, Set deemed himself the appropriate god to sit on the throne and challenged Horus’s position as son of Osiris.
Many plots and counterplots took place, with Set and Horus vying for political power over the realm. The two eventually butted heads in a struggle that lasted for three days. Set grievously wounded Horus, taking his eye, while Horus injured Set so that he lost a testicle.
Horus emerged victorious at the end of the conflict and brought the defeated Set before Isis.
“How am I to dispose of this fiend?” Horus asked Isis. Isis contemplated the question, taking in the visage of the defeated Set.
“Release him,” Isis said. “Let Set go.”
Horrified at her answer, Horus cut Isis’s head off. The god Thoth later replaced Isis’s missing head with that of a cow. Set was banished to the desert, where he would go on to be the resentful enemy of civilization. Some experts on mythology have suggested that Isis elected to let Set go despite his antagonism towards the gods. As the enemy of the gods, he brought disorder and kept the story of the gods alive by functioning as the villain.
Osiris went on to become the judge of the dead, where he weighed the hearts of the dead on a set of scales that determined the worthiness of the heart’s owner. Should the heart prove worthy, the individual would be born anew. If not, they would be devoured by an underworld crocodile, obliterated, never to live again.
Analysis of the Myth
As this particular story shows, Isis is a tenacious deity when it comes to her loved ones. She’s willing to scour the earth in search of Osiris and is even willing to endure her hot-headed son’s wrath for the sake of the greater good. She breathed new life into Osiris and gave him enough vitality for Osiris to produce a new king of Egypt, which makes her both a goddess of fertility and of great magical power.
One story even has her outwitting the great deity Ra by tricking him into revealing his name to her, which she then tells Horus to further secure his power as the king of Egypt.
Even though Isis’s influence — like many polytheistic deities — waned after Christianization, it is theorized that her presence has had a subtle effect on the monotheistic religion. It was even suggested that individuals who converted from the Egyptian religion to Christianity would have drawn a comparison between Isis and Mary, both of them being mothers to men who would be divine kings.
Isis’s influence has continued to spread. Western esotericism often draws on the iconography and power of Isis. The mystery rituals of Isis as written by the Numidian Apuleius in The Golden Ass, had a profound impression on the initiation rituals of Isis-based secret societies. Wherever we find symbolism, ritual, magic, and renewal, we can be sure that the goddess Isis is not far away.
Symbols of Isis
Throne: Many Egyptologists explain that Isis was originally the personification of the royal throne. In Egyptian, She is Iset (Eset; Aset; Auset) often translated as throne. Some depictions of the goddess Isis show her wearing an empty throne on her head. The throne symbolizes her time of waiting for Horus to take the throne.
Sistrum rattle: The sistrum was a musical instrument used during religious ceremonies to ward off evil spirits with its jingling noise. It was particularly necessary in the observance of mystery cults such as the worship of Isis, and statues of the goddess often depict her holding a sistrum.
Knot of Isis: The tyet, sometimes called the knot of Isis or girdle of Isis, is an ancient Egyptian symbol that resembles an ankh, except that its arms curve down. Its meaning is also reminiscent of the ankh, as it is often translated to mean “welfare” or “life”.
Chapter 156 of the Book of the Dead calls for a tyet amulet made of red jasper to be placed at the neck of a mummy, saying “the power of Isis will be the protection of [the mummy’s] body” and that the amulet “will drive away whoever would commit a crime against him.”
Cow horns & Sun disk: One of Isis symbols is the headdress that she wears: a solar disk surrounded by cow horns. These are symbolic of both abundance and the cosmos in Egyptian art. The solar disk refers to the belief that Hathor gave birth to the sun. When Isis wears it, it symbolizes the fact that Isis also has the power to create like Hathor
Wings: Isis’ wings are a symbol of her resurrective power, who fans her wings to give breath back to her dead husband, Osiris. The wings also symbolize safety because they are depicted as outspread, which is a protective gesture in Egyptian art. In this way, the wings of Isis reveal her magical ability, her grief, and her protection of the dead.
Titles and Epithets of Isis
Other names by which Isis was known in Egypt are Auset, Aset, or Eset, which are words that were often associated with the word for “throne.” Her attributes and epithets were so numerous that in the hieroglyphics she is called “the many-named,” “the thousand-named,” and in Greek inscriptions “the myriad-named.”
- Lady Aset
- Lady of Abundance
- Queen of all Gods, Goddesses, and Women
- Queen of Heaven
- Lady of Bread
- Giver of Life
- Creatress of green things
- Green Goddess, whose green color is like unto the greenness of the earth
How to Worship Goddess Isis
Worshippers of Isis in Egypt often kept household shrines dedicated to the goddess, even as far out as Rome. They would conduct ritual baths and abstain from sexuality in order to purify themselves in the goddesses’ eyes.
If you feel that Isis is calling you, a simple way to work with the goddess in modern worship is by setting up an altar to the Goddess, or tending a garden dedicated to her. She is said to dwell in every green thing. According to Egyptian mythology, it was Isis and Osiris that put an end to cannibalism by bringing the knowledge of agriculture 🌾 to the people. It was Isis who understood about the seed being within the fruit, and Osiris understood the idea of planting it in the earth.
You can work with Isis as a Neopagan or Eclectic Wiccan, but you are also encouraged to research Kemetism, a type of worship of the Egyptian gods adapted to modern day religious paths. See Kemetic Orthodoxy.
Ancient Romans saw Isis as an Egyptian version of Demeter. The other Divine Mother with whom Isis is readily compared is the Virgin Mary of Christianity.
Correspondences & Associations of Isis
Goddess Isis Associations: Magic, fertility, motherhood, water, death, healing, and rebirth.
Goddess Isis Role: The fertility aspects of Isis can not only be seen within the context of human fertility and procreation, but also in that of plants and animals, creativity, and general prosperity. In order to understand Isis as the Great Magician, it is important to understand Magic itself from an Egyptian perspective. Egypt was known as the “land of magic”. To the ancient Egyptians, Magic infused life, religion, nature and medicine.
Goddess Isis Colors: Green.
Goddess Isis Animals: Cow, snake, scorpion.
Goddess Isis Genealogy: Daughter of Geb and Nut. Wife and sister of Osiris. Sister of Set and Nephthys. Mother of Horus.
Isis Ritual Invocation
After reading and researching the goddess as much as you can, if you feel that Isis is calling you, invoke the goddess with a simple prayer and a ritual offering. Here’s a simple solitary ritual template:
- Take a cleansing bath. You can find ritual bath ideas here.
- Cleanse your candles and your sacred space.
- Cast a circle for reverence and power.
- If you feel like doing so, invite the quarters into your ritual.
- Light the candles and chant an invocation prayer to Isis. (see below)
- If you have an amulet, bless your amulet.
- Dismiss your circle and ground yourself.
Isis’ Spiritual Healing Prayer
Blessings of Isis Prayer
“A child’s laughter,
A mother’s smile,
Or roses so wild,
A healer’s touch,
A musician’s muse,
An artisan’s crafts or
The tools that he’ll use,
The faith of a priest,
The success of a fisherman,
The joys and the sorrows
Of every single woman,
From the deep blue sea
To the ever fertile ground
The blessings of Isis
Around us abound.”
© Jennifer Runham-Stark, September 2008
Prepare an altar to Isis by lighting green and white candles and offer some sweets, candy, corn, milk, perfumes, raisins, rose petals or freshly-brewed tea. Here are some more ideas for offerings to Isis:
- Drinks: Wines, milk, sweet drinks.
- Incense and oils: Sandalwood, lotus, red rose, white rose, jasmine, verbena and cinnamon.
- Food: Wheat, honey, almonds, peanuts, chocolate, coconut, orange, liqueur, lemon, grains, grapes, sweets.
- Colors: Green, red, lilac, blue, gold and white.
- Crystals: Diamonds, gold, jasper, lapis lazuli, labradorite, moldavite, moonstone, rainbow obsidian, onyx, pearl, white and pink quartz, ruby, sapphire, hot or solar colored stones, carnelian, quartz green and precious stones.
- Flowers: White and red roses, sunflowers, daisy, lily, carnation, lotus and cedar.
- Waters of Life: A Devotional Anthology for Isis and Serapis by Bibliotheca Alexandrina
- Isis Magic: Cultivating a Relationship with the Goddess by M. Isidora Forrest
- Circle of Isis: Ancient Egyptian Magic for Modern Witches by Ellen Cannon Reed
- Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch