The cult of Isis is one of the ancient world’s oldest and one that illuminates many beliefs about the afterlife. As R.E. Witt states in his book Isis in the Ancient World, “There in the beginning was Isis. Oldest of the old, she was the goddess from whom all Beginning arose” (14). Indeed, by the time of Alexander the Great’s arrival in Egypt, some consider Isis to be the most commonly worshipped goddess across Egypt. Although perhaps best known for her ubiquity in Egyptian mythology, her worship spread to Greece during the Greek colonization of Egypt. Her cult, continuing through the Hellenistic period and flourishing in the Roman period, existed until the arrival of Christianity and the outlaw of Pagan religions.
In Egyptian mythology, Isis is closely tied to themes of death and resurrection. The most important of these myths involves the murder of her brother/husband and the king of Egypt, Osiris, by their brother Seth. Although there are several versions of the story, in most accounts, Seth, in a jealous rage, dismembers Osiris and scatters his body parts throughout Egypt. Isis, aided by her sister, Nephthys, roams the country and collects and reassembles these pieces in order to bring Osiris back to life. Together, Isis and Osiris have a child, Horus, who eventually reclaims the throne as the rightful heir. Egyptians therefore saw the living pharaoh as an incarnation of Horus and the deceased pharaoh as Osiris.
Nephthys, Horus, and Isis – the three deities that form the Osirian triad.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Because of Isis’ association with resurrection, myths of Isis were often used across Egypt in the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead. Isis was seen as a beneficent figure to ensure a pleasant afterlife; she had the power to resurrect as well as protect the deceased in the afterlife. Isis is said to accompany the sun god Ra at Dawn as he was resurrected after journeying through the hours of the night. Isis is also depicted in many tomb paintings as the keeper of magical passwords, which must be uttered by her in order for the deceased to navigate through the many levels of Du’at. However, Isis, eventually known as Isis of the Innumerable Names (in the Ptolemaic age at Philae), was also associated with much more than only death and the afterlife. She assumed the roles of goddess of motherhood, birth, death and the Underworld, fertility, agriculture, and magic, among others. Further, Isis was seen as a major god of the Pharaonic pantheon (245, Bonnefoy).
As communications with neighboring countries increased in the last phase of the Egyptian culture, Isis became popular in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea, specifically Greece (97, Bleeker). Starting in the fourth century B.C., she was introduced there mostly by merchants and seamen (246, Bonnefoy) who had a deep respect for Egyptian traditions (Mikalson). One of the few Egyptian gods to be worshipped in Greece, Isis was attractive to the Greek world because of her promise of personal health, safety, welfare, and — quite uniquely — a happy afterlife for all the virtuous dead (Pinch). She further appealed to the Greeks for her connection to their gods such as Aphrodite (see image below), Athena, Demeter, and Persephone.
A Greek Marble head of Isis-Aphrodite. Hellenistic Period, circa 3rd century B.C. Christie’s.
Eventually, worship of Isis evolved into one of the Greek mystery religions, which occurred at dedicated temples across Attica. The cult of Isis in Greece took on new meaning but shared many of the same values of her worship in Egypt. The ways in which the cult functioned were particularly different. Unlike in Egypt, the mystery cults in Greece were “closed societ[ies] to which one should be initiated to understand the esoteric truth” (98, Bleeker). Isis’ characteristics, as well, evolved. Some scholars have argued that she is less associated with death and the afterlife in her Greek cult. However, these scholars overlook the importance of her cult’s promise of eternal life for its initiates. As expressed in the account of Isiac initiation in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (written in the Roman period), Isis is recognized as the “holy and eternal saviour [of humankind.] Both the gates of death and the guardianship of life were in the goddess Isis’ hands.” Through Isis, the initiated was saved, having been “in a certain sense reborn and brought back on a road of a new blessing” (Book XI).
Isis’ declaration in Metamorphoses perfectly describes her position as a goddess of many roles who appealed to a vast range of people for thousands of years: “I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all the elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of the powers divine, queen of all that are in hell, the principal of them that dwell in heaven… my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in divers manners, in variable customs and by many names.”
In this exhibit, we will expand upon how the (at times varying) figure of Isis served both Egyptian and Greeks in the realms of death and beyond. By examining representations of Isis and her sister Nephthys in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, the story of Isis on the Metternich Stela, the statue of Isis nursing her son Horus, Isis’ role in Egyptian funerary text, and Isis iconography we hope to give the viewer a further glimpse into the world of Isis — the fascinating and uniquely universal goddess.
- Apuleius. Metamorphoses. Trans. John Arthur Hanson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.
- Bleeker, Claas Jouco. The Sacred Bridge; Researches into the Nature and Structure of Religion. Leiden: Brill, 1963. Print.
- Bonnefoy, Yves. Greek and Egyptian Mythologies. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992. Print.
- Mikalson, Jon D. Ancient Greek Religion. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. Print.
- Pinch, Geraldine. Handbook of Egyptian Mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2002. Print.
- Witt, R. E. Isis in the Ancient World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. Print.
Julia Hart, Grace Kuipers, Lila Murphy, Max Rosenman, Zoe Ruffner