Countless bronze figures of Isis nursing her son Horus began to exist in the later periods of ancient Egypt. These figures, placed all around the world in museums ranging from The Louvre in Paris to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, depict seated Isis suckling infant Horus. While some are more simple reproductions of this common image, others are more elaborate, often presenting Isis with slight variations. I find the most intriguing of these figures to be the one held at the Brooklyn Museum, “Statue of Isis Nursing the Child Horus” (made in Saqqara during the Third Intermediate Period to the Late Period). In this statue (images on right), as in most of the other figures, Isis, with Horus on her lap, wears Hathor’s headdress: a solar disk placed between two cow horns (unfortunately, part of the disk and one of the horns has broken off since its creation). Uniquely, however, Isis sits in a throne embraced by a vulture. In this short essay I will explain the symbolic significance of these images in connection to Isis’ various roles.
Isis, also known as Isis of Ten Thousand Names (“Myrionyma”) , fulfilled many diverse roles. This statue alone evokes her connections to birth, life, and death; motherhood; love and protection; and pharaonic rule through the images of the nursing Horus, the throne, and the vulture’s wings.
In order to place this image of Isis in the context of death and the afterlife, I will quickly explain how her veneration originates from her connection to the dead and why she, in some ways, should be seen first and foremost as a goddess of the dead. Horus’ presence in this statue should recall the Osirian myth discussed in this exhibit’s opening. As shown in this myth, only through Isis’ ability to aid the dead and return her husband, Osiris, to life was this child able to be born. Further, while Osiris represents death, he also represents rebirth when paired with Isis. Thus, although Isis is seen as the giver of life, it is through her very connection to the dead that she is given this title. (I will later explain how she became the Mother of the Dead.)
Isis as mother (suckling infant Horus) is the most pronounced image in this statue. In fact, she is perhaps best known in relation to motherhood – be it as the mother in the Osirian myth, the Mother of the God, the Mother of the Dead, or, perhaps more generally, the Great Mother. Isis’ capacity to feel deeply allowed her to become the embodiment of a devoted wife and nurturing mother. Out of grief for the loss of her husband, she is said (in the Lamentations of Isis found in the Pyramid Texts) to have flooded the Nile with her tears. Ultimately, however, through her profound love for Osiris that inspires her to reassemble him, she triumphs over evil and thus gives hope to her followers. Nursing and supporting her young son Horus, Isis’ affection is remarkable. Isis’ compassion appealed to a great number of people and influenced her popularity (this fact could possibly explain why there are so many figures of this very image of Isis and Horus).
In the statue of Isis nursing Horus, Isis sits in a throne. On a simple level, she is connected to kinghood through the hieroglyph of the throne that appears in her name. However, she is further – and more importantly – connected to kinghood through her husband Osiris (who represents the dead king) and her son Horus (who represents the living king). Every Pharaoh, being the incarnation of Horus, was also seen as the son of Isis. She bore the weak infant Pharaoh and then, with her milk, gave him his power to grow and become Pharaoh. The Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts identify Isis as the king’s mother – and demonstrate her ability to resurrect the dead king – through its instruction to the dead king to “Raise yourself, O King! You have your water, you have your inundation, you have your milk which is from the breasts of Mother Isis…” As Egyptians saw the Pharaoh as living god, Isis was seen as the Mother of the God.
Later, however, during the First Intermediate Period, Isis became mother not only to the Pharaoh but also to all of the dead. In the Coffin Texts, the deceased is said to have “issued from between the thighs of Isis as Horus” and is consequently seen as a “God-like spirit… whom Isis has made into her child.” The deceased individual declares that he/she has “sucked from my mother Isis.”
It is clear that Isis – a goddess of many roles – has many roles even just as mother. She begins as the mother of Horus (she is frequently depicted nursing him, like in this statue), eventually becomes the mother of all pharaohs, and finally becomes the mother of all of the dead. In Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Isis fittingly declares, “I am she that is the natural mother of all things.”
Finally, this statue of Isis nursing Horus depicts Isis in her role of protectress. As M. Isidora Forrest states in her book Isis Magic: Cultivating a Relationship with the Goddess of 10,000 Names, Isis’ protective instincts… and ferociousness in safeguarding her Diving Child are among Her most consistent characteristics” (52, Forrest). Of course, just by being a mother figure gently and kindly holding her young son, she can be associated with themes of protection. Further though, the addition of the vulture’s wings wrapped around her throne emphasize her protective nature – to both her son and to her followers. Even once Horus is a grown man, Isis continues to aid and assist him; as seen in the myths known as The Contendings of Horus and Seth, Isis is crucial to Horus’ attainment of the throne from Seth (Forrest, 53). An excerpt from the Great Hymn to Osiris (which begins with her search for Osiris and ends with her assisting Horus to become Pharaoh) on the Stela of Amenose further reveals Isis’ immense power as protectress (and makes use of the symbol of wings):
His sister [Isis] was his guard,
She who drives off the foes,
Who stops the deeds of the disturber
By the power of her utterance.
The clever-tongued whose speech fails not,
Effective in the word of command,
Mighty Isis who protected her brother,
Who sought him without wearying.
Who roamed the land lamenting,
Not resting till she found him,
Who made a shade with her plumage,
Created breath with her wings.
Who jubilated, joined her brother,
Raised the weary one’s inertness,
Received the seed, bore the heir,
Raised the child in solitude,
His abode unknown.
Who brought him when his arm was strong
Into the broad hall of Geb.
Isis’ protective powers (specifically over children) were perhaps most important to other mothers. In a time when child mortality was so great, mothers of living children often appealed to Isis to assist them. As noted in Forrest’s book, mothers, in the hope of safeguarding their children, recited a formula stating, “My arms are over this child – the arms of Isis are over him, as She put Her arms over Her son Horus” (Berlin Papyrus 3027). Further, Egyptian mothers even wore amulets depicting Isis and holding Horus (Forrest, 35). This amulet image is again reminiscent of the statue of Isis nursing Horus.
As explained in the exhibit’s opening, the Egyptian gods eventually spread throughout the Greek world. These gods were often assimilated into Greek culture and given new names (Bonnefoy, 256). Although Isis (as Isis) can be found in Hellenistic Greek religion, among scholars there is a lively debate as to whether or not the Greeks merged Isis with their god Demeter. It is certain that there are striking similarities between the two goddesses. Greek merchants and colonists who had settled in Lower Egypt in the seventh century B.C. identified Isis with Demeter, who was also seen as a figure of motherhood (Bonnefoy, 245).
Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, stressed the possibility that Isis and Demeter could be the same. He wrote that “Apollo and Artemis were (they say) children of Dionysus and Isis… in Egyptian, Apollo is Horus, Demeter Isis…” and even said that Isis was “called Demeter by the Greeks” (Histories, Book 2). Similarly, Diodorus, another Greek historian, wrote, “Isis is more similar to Demeter than to any other Goddess.” Through such authors (as well as through the discovery of Egyptian figures at certain Mycenean sites), Foucart theorized that the cult of Demeter in Greece sprung from Egypt (Beach). However, this theory was and to this day, is not, not accepted by all.
Whether or not Demeter is truly Isis, what is most striking is that these two cultures worship two gods that spark this very argument – that these two cultures worship two gods that in many ways are alike and debatably the same. No matter the “correct” answer, Isis and her connection to motherhood (as seen in the statue of Isis nursing Horus) infiltrated Greek culture and beyond.
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