Isis (Ancient Greek: Ἶσις IPA: [îː.sis]; original Egyptian pronunciation more likely “Aset” or “Iset”) is a goddess from the polytheistic pantheon of Egypt. She was first worshiped in Ancient Egyptian religion, and later her worship spread throughout the Roman Empire and the greater Greco-Roman world. Isis is still widely worshiped by many pagans today in diverse religious contexts; including a number of distinct pagan religions, the modern Goddess movement, and interfaith organizations such as the Fellowship of Isis.
Isis was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife as well as the patroness of nature and magic. She was the friend of slaves, sinners, artisans and the downtrodden, but she also listened to the prayers of the wealthy, maidens, aristocrats and rulers. Isis is often depicted as the mother of Horus, the falcon-headed deity associated with king and kingship (although in some traditions Horus’s mother was Hathor). Isis is also known as protector of the dead and goddess of children.
The name Isis means “Throne”. Her headdress is a throne. As the personification of the throne, she was an important representation of the pharaoh’s power. The pharaoh was depicted as her child, who sat on the throne she provided. Her cult was popular throughout Egypt, but her most important temples were at Behbeit El-Hagar in the Nile delta, and, beginning in the reign with Nectanebo I (380–362 BCE), on the island of Philae in Upper Egypt.
In the typical form of her myth, Isis was the first daughter of Geb, god of the Earth, and Nut, goddess of the Sky, and she was born on the fourth intercalary day. She married her brother, Osiris, and she conceived Horus with him. Isis was instrumental in the resurrection of Osiris when he was murdered by Set. Using her magical skills, she restored his body to life after having gathered the body parts that had been strewn about the earth by Set.
This myth became very important during the Greco-Roman period. For example, it was believed that the Nile River flooded every year because of the tears of sorrow which Isis wept for Osiris. Osiris’s death and rebirth was relived each year through rituals. The worship of Isis eventually spread throughout the Greco-Roman world, continuing until the suppression of paganism in the Christian era. The popular motif of Isis suckling her son Horus, however, lived on in a Christianized context as the popular image of Mary suckling her infant son Jesus from the fifth century onward.
The Greek name version of Isis is close to her original, Egyptian name spelling (namely Aset). Isis’ name was originally written with the signs of a throne seat (Gardiner sign Q1, pronounced “as” or “is”), a bread loaf (Gardiner sign X1, pronounced “t” or “tj”) and with an unpronounced determinative of a sitting woman. A second version of the original was also written with the throne seat and the bread loaf, but ended with an egg symbol (Gardiner sign H8) which was normally read “set”, but here it was used as a determinative to promote the correct reading. The grammar, spelling and used signs of Isis’ name never changed during time in any way, making it easy to recognize her any time.
However, the symbolic and metaphoric meaning of Isis’ name remains unclear. The throne seat sign in her name might point to a functional role as a goddess of kingship, as the maternal protector of the ruling king. Thus, her name could mean “she of the kings’ throne”. But all other Egyptian deities have names that point to clear cosmological or nature elemental roles (Râ = the sun; Ma’at = justice and world order), thus the name of Isis shouldn’t be connected to the king himself. The throne seat symbol might alternatively point to a meaning as “throne-mother of the gods”, making her the highest and most powerful goddess before all other gods. This in turn would supply a very old existence of Isis, long before her first mentioning during the late Old Kingdom, but this hypothesis remains unproven. A third possible meaning might be hidden in the egg-symbol, that was also used in Isis’ name. The egg-symbol always represented motherhood, implying a maternal role of Isis. Her name could mean “mother goddess”, pointing to her later, mythological role as the mother of Horus. But this remains problematic, too: the initial mother-goddess of Horus was Hathor, not Isis.
The religion of Isis thus spread throughout the Roman Empire during the formative centuries of Christianity. Wall paintings and objects reveal her pervasive presence at Pompeii, preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. In Rome, temples were built (such as the Temple of Isis and Serapis) and obelisks erected in her honour. In Greece, the cult of Isis was introduced to traditional centres of worship in Delos, Delphi, Eleusis and Athens, as well as in northern Greece. 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 and many shrines even in Britain. Tacitus interprets a goddess among the Germanic Suebi as a form of Isis whose symbol (signum) was a ship.
The cult of Isis was part of the syncretic tendencies of religion in the Greco-Roman world of late antiquity. The names Isidoros and Isidora in Greek mean “gift of Isis” (similar to “Theodoros”, “God’s gift”).
The sacred image of Isis with the Horus Child in Rome often became a model for the Christian Mary carrying her child Jesus and many of the epithets of the Egyptian Mother of God came to be used for her.