Discovered in 1881 in five royal pyramids at Saqqara dating to the late Old Kingdom, the Pyramid Texts are some of the earliest written sources that elucidate Egyptian belief in the afterlife. Carved into the walls of pyramids, the Texts as a whole compose a group of incantations intended to stimulate the resurrection process and ensure the prosperity of the deceased in the afterlife. Numbered and separated through line spacing, each utterance also stands alone as a distinct unit. A successor to the Pyramid Texts, the Book of the Dead was a New Kingdom corpus of spells inscribed on papyrus that similarly functioned to equip the dead and ensure their safety in the hereafter. Rather than being exclusive to a royal necropolis, the Book of the Dead was manufactured on a large scale and made more democratically available (to those who would afford to purchase it). Despite the long course of time between the Old and New Kingdom periods in ancient Egypt, the symbolic role of Isis as divine mother and assistant in the afterlife remained relatively unchanged in the literary funeral traditions of the Pyramid Texts and the Book of the Dead. Although her role in the creation narrative and resurrection of Osiris is well defined, her textual presence remains largely symbolic.
Throughout the Pyramid Texts, Isis’ role in the myth of Osiris is clearly defined through illustrating how she pursues his lost corpse, deeply grieves him, and both helps resurrect him and procreate with him, becoming the mother of Horus, and therefore a powerful political symbol. In her mourning depicted in numerous texts, Isis is sometimes symbolically identified with a bird form, the “screecher” (Allen, 102). The deceased king is identified with Osiris, for whom Isis laments. Isis mourning is depicted as relatively positive because it “combines both the ritualistic and the effective mythic symbol,” in her lamentation, rather than purely grief (Tobin, 194). In relation to the deceased, Isis’ maternal role is clear; in several passages, the deceased is directed to drink the milk from Isis’ breasts in order to be resurrected and is referred to as the mother of the deceased. In Utterance 286, Isis’ role as a mother is emphasized in the line “Your sister Isis is the one who has found you on your mother’s thighs, and she shall suckle you” (Allen, 118).
As a divine mother, Isis is powerful in the hierarchy of the gods. In order to secure the spirit’s cosmic ascent, she is able to summon the gods of the sky, speaking directly to the deceased in Utterance 325, “I shall get for you the gods who belong to the sky” (Allen, 128). Her role in resurrection varies in specificity throughout the Pyramid Texts; in Utterance 82, she bestows Osiris’ heart upon him, arguably considered the most significant of the organs in ancient Egyptian funerary rituals, saying “I am Isis. I have come that I may take hold of you and give you your heart for your body.” Despite her association with Osiris, Isis is often simply depicted as being present, playing a generally supportive role amongst other gods.
In accord with the Pyramid Texts, Isis’ depiction in the Book of the Dead is diverse, although there is an emphasis on her role as a mother. Isis appears in numerous forms under different names, demonstrating the nebulous diversity of her character. She appears as Isis, Mert-sekert, the “lover of silence,” also associated with Hathor, who is “sometimes depicted in the form of a woman, having a disk and horns upon her head,” and Serq (or Selk) who is typically characterized “in the form of a woman, with a scorpion upon her head; occasionally she appears as a scorpion with a woman’s head, surmounted by disk and horns” (Budge, 189). Similar symbolism is employed in that Isis and Nephthys represented by birds at the foot and head of the deceased, respectively. She is depicted as generally supportive and comforting, leading the deceased Osiris on his journey in the hereafter (Budge, 302). On the Papyrus of Ani, a Book of the Dead discovered at Thebes in 1888, she is visually depicted clasping the mummified Osiris with her right arm.
The Book of the Dead focuses on another emblematic aspect of Isis as mother; the amulet tet. Chapter 156 reads:
You have your blood, O Isis; you have your power, O Isis; you have your magic, O Isis. The amulet is a protection for this Great One which will drive away whoever would commit a crime against him.
To be said over a knot-amulet of red jasper moistened with juice of the ‘life-is-in-it’ fruit and embellished with sycamore-bast and placed on the neck of the deceased on the day of interment. As for him for whom this is done, the power of Isis will be the protection for his body, and Horus son of Isis will rejoice over him when he sees him; no path will be hidden from him, and one side of him will be towards the sky and the other towards the earth.
A true matter, you shall not let anyone see it in your hand, for there is nothing equal to it.
The preceding chapter functioned as a spell that imbued the amulet with resurrecting powers. The tet symbol was associated with Isis, her blood, and her female sex organs and therefore her magical power as divine mother. The deceased entered the afterlife holding the powerful symbol of Isis, and when an amulet was placed on the neck of the deceased, “especially if the words of this Chapter were cut upon it, it was as if the very life-blood of Isis were present there, and his resurrection was assured” (Budge, 321). Although the tet appears to be an advent of the New Kingdom, it perpetuates the symbolic power of Isis as mother in funeral tradition.
The Pyramid Texts and the Book of the Dead as objects demonstrate Binford’s theory of mortuary variability as expounded in Pearson’s chapter “From Now to Then: Ethnoarchaeology and Analogy;” the differences in these objects suggest social stratification of ancient Egyptian society. Although the Pyramid Texts indicate royalty and the Book of the Dead suggests democratization, the parallels between the content of the two texts show a consistent belief system and image of Isis as a maternal figure and important assistant in the afterlife. In his article “Isis and Demeter: Symbols of Divine Motherhood,” Vincent Arieh Tobin makes a cross-cultural analysis of the two goddesses, astutely examining funeral roles without resting on assumption or generalization.
When acknowledging the significance of Isis, it is important to remember that throughout these texts, she is virtually inseparable from her sister Nepthys; Isis’ role in Osiris’ resurrection does not negate the importance of Nepthys. While the textual presence of Isis is rich, in order to fully realize the role of Isis in Egyptian funeral tradition it is valuable to consider objects in conjunction with text. The sheer number of statues of Isis nursing Horus present her as a divine mother, although this role is complicated by its explicit political associations; religion and political power were deeply intertwined in ancient Egypt, and Isis was the divine mother of the pharaoh. The Egyptian notion of Isis remained relatively static over time; although the worship of Isis spread to Greece, the personality and characteristics of Isis took new form as a mystery goddess of extraordinary individual power.
1. Allen, James P.. Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005.
2. Bleeker, C. J. . “Isis and Nephthys as Wailing Women.” Numen 5 (1958): 1-17.
3. Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Book of the Dead: The Hieroglyphic Transcript of the Papyrus of Ani. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.
4. Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973.
5. Pearson, Michael. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999.
6. Tobin, Vincent Arieh. “Isis and Demeter: Symbols of Divine Motherhood.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 28 (1991): 187-200.
7. Wasserman, James. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 2008.