See R. E. Witt, Isis in the Greco-Roman World (1981).
One of the major goddesses of ancient Egypt, the wife of Osiris. When Osiris was killed by Seth, she gathered up the pieces of his body, mourned for him, and brought him back to life. She hid their son Horus from Seth until Horus was fully grown and could avenge his father. Worshiped as a goddess of protection, she had great magical powers and was invoked to heal the sick or protect the dead. By Greco-Roman times she was dominant among Egyptian goddesses, and her cult reached much of the Roman world as a mystery religion.
Learn more about Isis with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Isis is a goddess in Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and is celebrated in their mythology as the ideal mother and wife, patron of nature and magic; friend of slaves, sinners, artisans, the downtrodden, as well as listening to the prayers of the wealthy, maidens, aristocrats and rulers.
Shortly after 2,500 B.C., during the fifth dynasty, the first written records concerning the worship of Isis appear. The Romans spread her worship to the farthest reaches of their empire after they occupied Egypt in 32 A.D. This followed the invasion of Egypt by Alexander the Great and a Greek occupation for three hundred years beginning in 330 B.C. Although in different degrees, the Greeks and the Romans adopted deities from the Egyptian pantheon and often interpreted some of their own deities as having a parallel with some of the Egyptian deities. This gave some of their Roman and Greek deities an earlier history than their own—and implied a longer history for themselves. Many of the Egyptian deities were merged and renamed with those of the Greeks and Romans, but a few remained relatively unchanged. Isis is one who retained a unique Egyptian nature while being worshiped in other cultures.
The goddess Isis was the first daughter of Geb, god of the Earth, and Nut, the goddess of the Overarching Sky, and was born on the fourth intercalary day. At some time Isis absorbed some characteristics of Hathor a powerful deity who was the mother of Horus. He represented the pharaohs, and as a deity provided them with protection. In later myths about Isis, she had a brother, Osiris, who became her husband, and she then was said to have conceived Horus. Isis was instrumental in the resurrection of Osiris when he was murdered by Seth. Her magical skills restored his body to life after she gathered the parts of it that had been strew about the earth by Seth. This myth became very important in later Egyptian religious beliefs.
Isis also is known as the goddess of simplicity, from whom all beginnings arose, and was the Lady of bread, of beer, and of green fields. In later myths, Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile River flooded every year because of her tears of sorrow for her dead husband, Osiris, relived each year in rituals. The worship of Isis eventually spread throughout the Graeco-Roman world, continuing until the suppression of paganism in the Christian era.
The Egyptian name was recorded as ỉs.t or ȝs.t and meant "(She of the) Throne." The true Egyptian pronunciation remains uncertain, however, because their writing system usually did not feature vowels. Based on recent studies which present us with approximations based on contemporary languages and Coptic evidence, the reconstructed, correct pronunciation of her name is thought to be *ʔŪsat (ooh-saht). Later, the name survived into Coptic dialects as Ēse or Ēsi, as well as in compound words surviving in names of later people such as "Har-si-Ese," literally, "Horus, son of Isis."
For convenience, Egyptologists arbitrarily choose to pronounce her name as "ee-set." Sometimes they may also say "ee-sa" because the final "t" in her name was a feminine suffix, which is known to have been dropped in speech during the last stages of the Egyptian language.
Literally, her name means she of the throne. Her original headdress was a throne. As the personification of the throne, she was an important source of the pharaoh's power, being her child who sat on the throne she provided. Her cult was popular throughout Egypt, but the most important sanctuaries were at Giza and at Behbeit El-Hagar in the Nile delta, which was in Lower Egypt.
Her origins are uncertain, but are believed to have come from the Nile Delta. Unlike other Egyptian deities, however, she did not have a centralized cult at any point throughout her worship. This may be because of the late ascendancy of her cult to prominence. First mentions of Isis date back to the Fifth dynasty of Egypt which is when the first literary inscriptions are found, but her cult became prominent late in Egyptian history, when it began to absorb the cults of many other goddesses with strong cult centers. This is when the cult of Osiris arose and she became such an important figure in those beliefs. Her cult eventually spread outside Egypt.
During the formative centuries of Christianity, the religion of Isis drew converts from every corner of the Roman Empire. In Italy itself, the Egyptian faith was a dominant force. At Pompeii, archaeological evidence reveals that Isis played a major role. In Rome, temples were built and obelisks erected in her honour. In Greece, traditional centres of worship in Delos, Delphi, and Eleusis were taken over by followers of Isis, and this occurred in northern Greece and Athens as well. Harbours of Isis were to be found on the Arabian Sea and the Black Sea. Inscriptions show followers in Gaul, Spain, Pannonia, Germany, Arabia, Asia Minor, Portugal, Ireland, and many shrines even in Britain.
Most Egyptian deities first appear as very local cults and throughout their history retained those local centres of worship, with most major cities and towns widely known as the home of these deities. Isis originally was an independent and popular deity established in predynastic times, prior to 3100 B.C., at Sebennytos in the northern delta.
Eventually temples to Isis began to spread outside of Egypt. In many locations, particularly Byblos, her cult took over that of worship to the Semitic goddess Astarte, apparently due to the similarity of names and associations. During the Hellenic era, due to her attributes as a protector and mother, as well as a lusty aspect gained when she absorbed some aspects of Hathor, she became the patron goddess of sailors, who spread her worship with the trading ships circulating the Mediterranean Sea.
Likewise, the Arabian goddess Al-Ozza or Al-Uzza العُزّى (al ȝozza), whose name is close to that of Isis, is believed to be a manifestation of her. This, however, is thought to be based on the similarity in the name.
Temples to Isis were built in Iraq, Greece, Rome, Pompeii. At Philae her worship persisted until the sixth century, long after the rise of Christianity and the suppression of paganism. Philae was the last of the ancient Egyptian temples to be closed.
Little information on Egyptian rituals for Isis survives, however, it is clear there were both priests and priestesses officiating at her cult rituals throughout its entire history. By the Graeco-Roman era, many of them were healers, and were said to have many other special powers, including dream interpretation and the ability to control the weather, which they did by braiding or combing their hair. The latter of which was believed because the Egyptians considered knots to have magical powers.
The star, Spica, (sometimes called Lute Bearer), and the constellation which roughly corresponds to the modern Virgo, appeared in the sky above the horizon at a time of year associated with the harvest of wheat and grain, and thus, became associated with fertility deities. Consequently they were associated with Hathor, and hence with Isis, through her later conflation with Hathor.
Isis also assimilated Sopdet, the personification of the star Sirius, since Sopdet, rising just before the flooding of the Nile, was seen as a bringer of fertility, and so had been identified with Hathor as well. Sopdet retained an element of distinct identity, however, as Sirius was quite visibly a star and not living in the underworld—Isis later being thought of as the wife of Osiris who was the ruler of the underworld.
Probably due to assimilation with the goddesses Aphrodite and Venus, during the Roman period, the rose was used in her worship. The demand for roses throughout the empire turned rose growing into an important industry.
In art, originally Isis was pictured as a woman wearing a long sheath dress and crowned with the hieroglyphic sign for a throne. Sometimes she was depicted as holding a lotus, or, as a Sycamore tree. One pharaoh, Hatshepsut, was depicted in her tomb as nursing from a sycamore tree that had a breast.
After her assimilation of many of the roles of Hathor, Isis's headdress is replaced with that of Hathor: the horns of a cow on her head, with the solar disk between them. Sometimes she also was represented as a cow, or a cow's head. Usually, however, she was depicted with her young child, Horus (the pharaoh), with a crown, and a vulture. Occasionally she was represented as a kite flying above the body of Osiris or with the dead Osiris across her lap as she worked her magic to bring him back to life.
Most often Isis is seen holding only the generic ankh sign and a simple staff, but in late images she is seen sometimes with items usually associated only with Hathor, the sacred sistrum rattle and the fertility-bearing menat necklace. In The Book of Coming Forth By Day Isis is depicted standing on the prow of the Solar Bark with her arms outstretched.
The star Sept (Sirius) depicts Isis, which is the star of the new year. The appearance of the star signified the advent of a new year and so Isis was considered the goddess of rebirth and reincarnation and as a protector of the dead. The Book of the Dead outlines a particular ritual that would protect the dead, enabling travel anywhere in the underworld, and most of the titles Isis holds signify her as the goddess of protection of the dead.
You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are, my nod governs the shining heights of Heavens, the wholesome sea breezes. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names ... some know me as Juno, some as Bellona ... the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship call me by my true name...Queen Isis.
When seen as the deification of the wife of the pharaoh in later myths, the prominent role of Isis was as the assistant to the deceased pharaoh. Thus she gained a funerary association, her name appearing over eighty times in the Pyramid Texts, and she was said to be the mother of the four deities who protected the canopic jars - more specifically, Isis was viewed as protector of the liver-jar-deity, Imsety. This association with the pharaoh's wife also brought the idea that Isis was considered the spouse of Horus (once seen as her child), who was protector, and later the deification of the pharaoh. By the Middle Kingdom, the eleventh through fourteenth dynasties between 2040 and 1640 B.C., as the funeral texts began to be used by more members of the Egyptian society, other than the royal family, her role also grows to protect the nobles and even the commoners.
By the New Kingdom, the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth dynasties between 1570 and 1070 B.C., Isis gained prominence as the mother and protector of the pharaoh. She is said to breastfeed the pharaoh and often is depicted as such.
The role of her name and her throne-crown is uncertain. Some early Egyptologists believed that being the throne-mother was Isis's original function, however, a more modern view states that aspects of that role came later by association. In many African tribes, the throne is known as the mother of the king, and that concept fits well with either theory, possibly giving insight into the thinking of ancient Egyptians.
In the Old Kingdom, the third through sixth dynasties dated between 2,686 to 2,134 B.C., the pantheons of individual Egyptian cities varied by region. in one area of Egypt during the fifth dynasty, Isis became one of the Ennead of Heliopolis. She was believed to be a daughter of Nut and Geb, and sister to Osiris, Nephthys, and Set. The two sisters, Isis and Nephthys, often were depicted on coffins, with wings outstretched, as protectors against evil. As a funerary deity, she was associated with Osiris, lord of the underworld (Duat), and thus was considered his wife.
A later legend (ultimately a result of the replacement of another deity, Anubis, of the underworld when the cult of Osiris gained more authority), tells of the birth of Anubis. The tale describes how Nephthys became sexually frustrated with Set and disguised herself as the much more attractive Isis to seduce him. The plot failed, but Osiris now found Nephthys very attractive, as he thought she was Isis. They coupled, resulting in the "birth" of Anubis. In fear of Set's anger, Nephthys persuaded Isis to adopt Anubis, so that Set would not find out. The tale describes both why Anubis is seen as an underworld deity (he becomes a son of Osiris), and why he could not inherit Osiris's position (he was not a legitimate heir in this new birth scenario), neatly preserving Osiris's position as lord of the underworld. it should be remembered, however, that this new myth was only a later creation of the Osirian cult who wanted to depict Set in an evil position, as the enemy of Osiris.
In another Osirian myth, Set had a banquet for Osiris in which he brought in a beautiful box and said that whoever could fit in the box perfectly would get to keep it. Set had measured Osiris in his sleep and made sure that he was the only one who could fit the box. Several tried to see whether they fit. Once it was Osiris's turn to see if he could fit in the box, Set closed the lid on him so that the box was now a coffin for Osiris. Set flung the box in the Nile so that it would float far away. Isis went looking for the box so that Osiris could have a proper burial. She found the box in a tree in Byblos, and brought it back to Egypt, hiding it in a swamp. Set went hunting that night and found the box. To assure that Isis could never find Osiris again for a proper burial, Set chopped Osiris's body into fourteen pieces and scattered them all over Egypt. Isis and her sister Nephthys went looking for these pieces, but could only find thirteen of the fourteen. Fish had swallowed the last piece, his penis, so Isis fashioned one out of gold. Isis used her magic to put Osiris's body back together and managed to bring him back to life, after which they conceived Horus (another earlier deity).
When the cult of Ra rose to prominence he became associated with the similar deity, Horus. For some time, Isis intermittently had been paired as the wife of Ra. Since she was the mother of Horus, he then became the child of Ra as well. A merging of the two male deities resulted in Ra-Horakhty. Hathor had been paired with Ra as well in some regions and when Isis began to be paired with Ra, soon Hathor and Isis began to be merged in some regions also as, Isis-Hathor. Another variant occurred in the Ennead, with Isis as a child of Atum-Ra, making her become the child of Hathor since Hathor had become paired with Ra. This also led to the merger of Hathor and Isis frequently, because of common characteristics.
By merging with Hathor, Isis became the mother of Horus, rather than his wife, and thus, when beliefs of Ra absorbed Atum into Atum-Ra, it also had to be taken into account that Isis was one of the Ennead, as the wife of Osiris. it had to be explained how Osiris, however, who (as lord of the dead) being dead, could be considered a father to Horus, who was not considered dead. This conflict in themes led to the evolution of the idea that Osiris needed to be resurrected, and therefore, to the Legend of Osiris and Isis, of which Plutarch's Greek description written in the first century A.D., De Iside et Osiride, contains the most extensive account known today.
Yet another set of late myths detail the adventures of Isis after the birth of Osiris's posthumous son, Horus. Many dangers faced Horus after birth, and Isis fled with the newborn to escape the wrath of Set, the murderer of her husband. In one instance, Isis heals Horus from a lethal scorpion sting; she also performs other miracles in relation to the cippi, or the plaques of Horus. Isis protected and raised Horus until he was old enough to face Set, and subsequently, became the pharaoh of Egypt.
In order to resurrect Osiris for the purpose of having the child Horus, it was necessary for Isis to "learn" magic (which long had been her domain before the cult of Ra arose), and so it was said that Isis tricked Ra (i.e. Amun-Ra/Atum-Ra) into telling her his "secret name," by causing a snake to bite him, for which only Isis had the cure. The names of deities were secret and not divulged to any but the religious leaders. Knowing the secret name of deity enabled one to have power of the deity. That he would use his "secret name" to "survive" implies that the serpent had to be a more powerful deity than Ra. The oldest deity known in Egypt was Wadjet, the Egyptian cobra, whose cult never was eclipsed in Ancient Egyptian religion. Being a deity from the same region, she would have been a benevolent resource for Isis. This aspect, the use of secret names, became central in late Egyptian magic spells, and Isis often is implored to "use the true name of Ra" while performing rituals. By the late Egyptian historical period, after the occupations by the Greeks and the Romans, Isis became the most important and most powerful deity of the Egyptian pantheon because of her magical skills. Magic is central to the entire mythology of Isis, arguably more so than any other Egyptian deity and she became the goddess of magic. Prior to this late change in the nature of Egyptian religion, the rule of Ma'at had governed the correct actions for most of the thousands of years of Egyptian religion, with little need for magic. Thoth always had been the deity resorting to magic when it was needed. The goddess to hold the quadruple roles of healer, protector of the canopic jars, protector of marriage, and goddess of magic previously had been Serket. She then became considered an aspect of Isis. Thus it is not surprising that Isis had a central role in Egyptian magic spells and ritual, especially those of protection and healing. In many spells, she also is completely merged even with Horus, where invocations of Isis are supposed to involve Horus's powers automatically as well.
Mut, a primal deity called, mother, was originally a title of the primordial waters of the cosmos, the mother from which the cosmos emerged. When paring of the deities began, Mut became a consort of Amun, who already had been assigned a quite different wife. After the authority of Thebes had risen during the eighteenth dynasty, and made Amun into a much more significant god, the cult later waned, and Amun was assimilated into Ra.
In consequence, Amun's consort, Mut, by then a depicted as a doting, adoptive mother—who by this point had absorbed other goddesses herself—also was assimilated into Ra's wife, Isis-Hathor as Mut-Isis-Nekhbet. On occasion, Mut's infertility was taken into consideration, and so Horus, who was too significant to ignore, had to be explained by saying that Isis became pregnant by magic when she transformed herself into a kite and flew over the dead body of Osiris.
Later myths became quite convoluted. Mut's consort was Amun, who had by this time become identified with Min as Amun-Min (also known by his epithet - Kamutef). Since Mut had become part of Isis, it was natural to try to make Amun, part of Osiris, the husband of Isis, but this was not easily reconcilable, because Amun-Min was a fertility god and Osiris was the god of the dead. Consequently they remained regarded separately, and Isis sometimes was said to be the lover of Min. Subsequently, as at this stage Amun-Min was considered an aspect of Ra (Amun-Ra). He also was considered an aspect of Horus, since Horus was identified as Ra, and thus Isis's son, was on rare occasions said to be Min instead, which neatly avoided having confusion over Horus's status as was held at being the husband and son of Isis.
Following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander of Macedon the worship of Isis spread throughout the Graeco-Roman world. Tacitus writes that after Julius Caesar's assassination, a temple in honour of Isis had been decreed; Augustus suspended this, and tried to turn Romans back to the Roman deities who were closely associated with the state. Eventually the Roman emperor Caligula abandoned the Augustan wariness toward what was described as oriental cults, and it was in his reign that the Isiac festival was established in Rome. According to Josephus, Caligula donned female garb and took part in the mysteries he instituted, and in the Hellenistic age Isis acquired a "new rank as a leading goddess of the Mediterranean world." Vespasian, along with Titus, practised incubation in the Roman Iseum. Domitian built another Iseum along with a Serapeum. Trajan appears before Isis and Horus, presenting them with votive offerings of wine, in a bas-relief on his triumphal arch in Rome. Hadrian decorated his villa at Tibur with Isaic scenes. Galerius regarded Isis as his protectress.
Roman perspectives on cults were syncretic, seeing in new deities, merely local aspects of a familiar one. For many Romans, Egyptian Isis was an aspect of Phrygian Cybele, whose orgiastic rites were long-naturalized at Rome, indeed, she was known as Isis of Ten Thousand Names.
Scholars have drawn comparisons with Isis worship in late Roman times and the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The scholars said once the Christian religion started dispersing throughout Rome, the Christians converted an Isis shrine in Egypt into one for Mary and in other ways "deliberately took images from the pagan world For example, the historian Will Durant has claimed, "Early Christians sometimes worshiped before the statues of Isis suckling the infant Horus, seeing in them another form of the ancient and noble myth by which woman (i.e., the female principle), creating all things, becomes at last the Mother of God." Though the Virgin Mary is not worshiped (only venerated) in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, her role as a merciful mother figure has parallels with the figure of Isis. This may be a result of early Christian exposure to Egyptian art. A survey of "twenty leading Egyptologists" by Dr. W. Ward Gasque, a Christian scholar, found that of the ten who replied "all recognize that the image of the baby Horus and Isis has influenced the Christian iconography of Madonna and Child"
Isis is worshiped in modern times, commonly within the context of neo-pagan spiritual movements. Organizations such as the Fellowship of Isis promote the spreading of Goddess worship and attract members from the wider Wiccan, Qabalah, Rosicrucianism, Celtic Mysteries, Zen, Sufi, and Tao paths.
Some of Isis's many other titles were: