A Goddess of enormous popularity within Egypt, Isis is also alone among the Gods of Egypt in having achieved widespread international popularity in antiquity, her worship extending to the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire and even beyond. The name Isis comes from an Egyptian word meaning ‘throne’, and she is characteristically depicted as a woman bearing the sign of a throne on her head. In later times, however, it is very common for her to bear the solar disk with cow’s horns and uraeus cobra, a crown classically belonging to Hathor, but which becomes as characteristic of Isis as the crown which is peculiar to her. (Strictly speaking, Hathor’s crown associates Isis with the wider defense of the cosmic order (Re), beyond her strict focus on the defense of the mortal (Osiris).) Also typical of Isis, although not restricted to her, is the vulture headdress which belongs strictly speaking to Nekhbet, but which is appropriate to any Goddess strongly linked to Upper Egypt. Her own avian identification, however, is with the black kite or kestrel, in which form she may be depicted. She is also frequently depicted in human form but for a pair of outstretched wings extending along the line of her arms. Isis is associated as well with the scorpion; a group of seven of them, who are even individually named, escort her and Horus in a spell to treat a scorpion’s sting (no. 90 in Borghouts). Among the most popular amulets in Egypt was the tyet, which is associated with Isis. The amulet, sometimes known as the ‘Isis knot’, has the form of a vaguely human-shaped knot and is colored red or carved from a red stone to embody the power of her menstrual blood, as we read in BD spell 156, which charges the amulet with the words, “Thou hast thy blood, Isis; thou hast thy power, Isis; thou hast thy magic, Isis.” In Graeco-Roman statuary, Isiac priestesses are depicted with a knot of this shape in their robes.
Mythically, Isis is the daughter of Nut and Geb, the sister and wife of Osiris, and the mother of Horus. Her other siblings are Seth and Nephthys. Isis has a depth of familial connections unrivalled in the Egyptian pantheon, even after one takes into account that we tend to see her family through the lens of Plutarch’s highly narrativized treatment, which is distinctly un-Egyptian in that respect. Her roles as wife, as mother, as sister, come through strongly in the primary texts, and thus Isis stands at the juncture of nearly all the relationships which defined Egyptian society; only her own parentage is largely undeveloped. She is the paradigmatic mother whose child, Horus, represents the pharaoh, but also the success of right and legitimacy over brute strength. She is the paradigmatic wife, whose husband is also her brother, evoking the Egyptian custom of spouses addressing each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. But her bond with Osiris is about far more than kinship. Since every mortal being is Osiris, Isis is the deity who more than any other represents the power to transcend mortality through love and wisdom, as represented by her successful conception of Horus by Osiris after Osiris’ death. Isis and Nephthys are sisters inseparable in adversity, and Isis even seems to share a sibling bond with Seth, the murderer of her husband. In the narrative of the conflict of Horus and Seth (9; trans. Lichtheim vol. 2, p. 219), when Horus and Seth are battling in the form of hippopotamuses, Isis calls back the harpoon she has cast at Seth after his appeal: “Do you love the stranger more than your maternal brother Seth?”. While these familial ties are illustrative of the basic values which Egyptians expected to be embodied in these institutions, all of them are multivalent symbols allowing of interpretations having nothing to do with the familial sphere. So too, the image of extraordinary initiative and agency which Isis presents must be assessed, not only for what it says about the image of women in Egyptian culture, but also for what it tells us about Egyptian ideas concerning all of the spheres in which Isis is active.
To delimit her spheres of activity is not easy, insofar as her steadily growing popularity through the course of Egyptian history means that in the last analysis, nothing falls outside her scope – Isis becomes the ubiquitous Goddess. However, the principal elements in her character are evident virtually from the beginning, namely conjugal and maternal love on the one hand and wisdom on the other, her wisdom expressing itself especially in the practice of magic, but also in a very human cleverness. It is the universal applicability of these skills which provides the possibility for the devotee to appeal to Isis for assistance in any sphere of life. The key moments in the body of symbol and myth identified with Isis are what one might call her passion, that is, her mourning for Osiris and her quest to recover his body, culminating in her magical conception of Horus; the perilous infancy of Horus, which provides the setting for many of the magical spells in which she is the protagonist; and her advocacy on her son’s behalf, which belongs both to the effort to vindicate Osiris as well as to a broader cosmogonic project in which Isis, like all of the other Gods, participates.
In this project she does not always act purely on behalf of Osiris and Horus, as can be seen when she stands side by side with Seth to defend the boat of Re against the attacks of Apophis. The project to which Isis lends her abilities begins with her great-grandfather Atum, although it is questionable whether the Egyptians ever intended the family tree of the Gods to be thought of in such literal fashion. The idea of the Ennead (or Nine Gods) of Heliopolis as an integral divine group, however, was clearly defined from early times. Within this divine organization, Atum stands at one extreme and Horus at the other, the continuum between them linking the human social order to the most primordial forces in the universe. Isis, as the link between the last two members of this chain, stands in some respects closer to humans and their concerns than to certain of her fellow Gods. Hence she sometimes seems to act according to different rules than the others, most notably in a myth which comes down to us in the form of another spell to treat a scorpion’s sting (no. 84 in Borghouts). In this spell, Isis crafts a serpent to poison Re and thus force him to tell Isis his secret name, so that she may undo the poison – not, indeed, as a matter of blackmail but of magical necessity: “A man lives when one recites in his name,” (p. 53). This means, however, that a balance of power in the cosmos shifts decisively, and shifts in the direction of humanity. Re in some sense delivers over his individuality in this act. In the afterlife literature, to be able to keep one’s name secret is a symbol of the integrity of one’s person; it is to be able to retain one’s individuality. Hence in CTspell 759 the operator says “It is I who see your births, but you do not see my birth. I am one whose name is secret, who is in the boundary of the Gods.” To retain one’s ‘name’ secret is the same as to reserve the power to survey others objectively, to see their births, but not to be entirely an object to them, for they do not see one’s birth. To be invested with this power is to possess some degree of autonomy even from the Gods, hence to be at their boundary. The access by Isis to this most powerful formula in the cosmos is illicit not because it is going to be exercised by her – the spell says of Isis that “[t]here was nothing she was ignorant of in heaven or on the earth – like Re, who takes care of the needs of the earth,” thus explicitly comparing her to Re and rendering her worthy of exercising the power granted by knowing his secret name – but because it is going to be exercised by humans through her, as the context of the spell makes abundantly clear. In this sense it is a Promethean act, albeit one for which Isis suffers no consequences. Similarly, in the narrative of the conflict of Horus and Seth (5; p. 216 in Lichtheim, vol. 2), Isis shows that she considers herself to be bound, at most, by the letter, and not the spirit, of the decrees of the other Gods. This is not a matter of a clash of personalities, but of the inevitable distance between divine commandments whose scope of application extends to the whole of nature and the equally divine power of human intelligence and ingenuity which possesses the power to stand apart from these enough to question them. This is illicit from one viewpoint, but from another it is the culmination of the efforts of all the Gods toward the evolution of the cosmos.
In a certain sense, the difference of Isis from the ‘elder’ Gods (albeit temporality has no actual sense here) is given by the fact that she loves Osiris, who is both a God and mortal, in the sense that he undergoes an involuntary transformation and transposition into an utterly different mode of existence. Isis is therefore tied to a realm in which what passes away is irreducibly important, despite the fact that it has, in some sense, been doomed by the very structure of the cosmos. Isis is essentially transgressive in this sense. To recover the body of Osiris, Isis, alone among the Gods of Egypt, leaves the very borders of Egypt – albeit in a myth recounted by Plutarch and hence possibly late (Isis and Osiris 357ff) – retrieving it from distant Byblos, symbolizing the international spread of her cult, which began even prior to the conquests of Alexander the Great through the composition in Greek of ‘aretalogies’ of Isis, short texts written in the first person in which Isis enumerates her attributes and, in effect, advertises herself for the benefit of prospective devotees. Further testimony to the popularity of her cult outside of Egypt is her prominence in the romances of the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, most notably the Metamorphosis or Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius. The effort to retrieve and to reconstitute the dismembered Osiris, like all mythic action, is ongoing, if the itinerant Goddess of the myth be seen as the driving force behind the diffusion of her image and cult.
What Isis accomplishes can be discerned in a short spell from the Coffin Texts (760). Here Horus is said to be the lord of the solar boat, and to have “inherited the sky”. The boat itself is said here to have been brought into being by the word of Isis herself. It is a matter here not of a primary, but of a secondary creation; hence Horus “has become the repetition of the Lord of All since he entered into it [the boat],” so that “it is this Horus son of Isis who presides over all the skies and their Gods who are in them,” (trans. mod.). The ultimate significance of all this, however, is stated by what comes next: “As for any spirit who knows the name of the Shining Sun, he knows his own name.” That is to say, by passing the sovereignty on to Horus, the child of mortality itself, Isis has secured the cosmic sovereignty for each and every individual: her power is their power.