Isis, Egyptian Goddess of Magic and Giver of Life

Isis, Egyptian Goddess

of  Magic and Giver of Life

Isis, the Egyptian goddess of rebirth remains one of the most familiar images of empowered and utter femininity. The goddess Isis was the first daughter of Geb, god of the Earth, and Nut, the goddess of the Overarching Sky. Isis was born on the first day between the first years of creation, and was adored by her human followers.

Unlike the other Egyptian goddesses, the goddess Isis spent time among her people, teaching women how to grind corn and make bread, spin flax and weave cloth, and how to tame men enough to live with them (an art form on which many of us would welcome a refresher course!)

Isis taught her people the skills of reading and agriculture and was worshipped as the goddess of medicine and wisdom.

Isis

More than any other of the ancient Egyptian goddesses, Isis embodied the characteristics of all the lesser goddesses that preceded her. Isis became the model on which future generations of female deities in other cultures were to be based.

As the personification of the “complete female”, Isis was called “The One Who Is All”, Isis Panthea (“Isis the All Goddess”), and the “Lady of Ten Thousand Names”.

The goddess Isis, a moon goddess, gave birth to Horus, the god of the sun. Together, Isis and Horus created and sustained all life and were the saviors of their people.

Isis

Isis became the most powerful of the gods and goddesses in the ancient world. Ra, the God of the Sun, originally had the greatest power. But Ra was uncaring, and the people of the world suffered greatly during his reign.

The goddess Isis tricked him by mixing some of his saliva with mud to create a poisonous snake that bit him, causing him great suffering which she then offered to cure. He eventually agreed.

Isis informed Ra that, for the cure to work, she would have to speak his secret name (which was the source of his power over life and death). Reluctantly, he whispered it to her.

When Isis uttered his secret name while performing her magic, Ra was healed. But the goddess Isis then possessed his powers of life and death, and quickly became the most powerful of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, using her great powers to the benefit of the people.

Isis


Isis was called the Mother of Life, but she was also known as the Crone of Death. Her immense powers earned her the titles of “The Giver of Life” and “Goddess of Magic”. Her best known story illustrates why she is simultaneously known as a creation goddess and a goddess of destruction.

Isis was the Goddess of the Earth in ancient Egypt and loved her brother Osiris. When they married, Osiris became the first King of Earth. Their brother Set, immensely jealous of their powers, murdered Osiris so he could usurp the throne.

Set did this by tricking Osiris into stepping into a beautiful box made of cedar, ebony and ivory that he had ordered built to fit only Osiris. Set then sealed it up to become a coffin and threw it into the river. The river carried the box out to sea; it washed up in another country, resting in the upper boughs of a tamarisk tree when the waters receded.

As time passed, the branches covered the box, encapsulating the god in his coffin in the trunk of the tree.

In a state of inconsolable grief, Isis tore her robes to shreds and cut off her beautiful black hair. When she finally regained her emotional balance, Isis set out to search for the body of her beloved Osiris so that she might bury him properly.


Isis

The search took Isis to Phoenicia where she met Queen Astarte. Astarte didn’t recognize the goddess and hired her as a nursemaid to the infant prince.

Fond of the young boy, Isis decided to bestow immortality on him. As she was holding the royal infant over the fire as part of the ritual, the Queen entered the room. Seeing her son smoldering in the middle of the fire, Astarte instinctively (but naively) grabbed the child out of the flames, undoing the magic of Isis that would have made her son a god.

When the Queen demanded an explanation, Isis revealed her identity and told Astarte of her quest to recover her husband’s body. As she listened to the story, Astarte realized that the body was hidden in the fragrant tree in the center of the palace and told Isis where to find it.

Sheltering his broken body in her arms, the goddess Isis carried the body of Osiris back to Egypt for proper burial. There she hid it in the swamps on the delta of the Nile river.

Isis

Unfortunately, Set came across the box one night when he was out hunting. Infuriated by this turn of events and determined not to be outdone, he murdered Osiris once again . . . this time hacking his body into 14 pieces and throwing them in different directions knowing that they would be eaten by the crocodiles.

The goddess Isis searched and searched, accompanied by seven scorpions who assisted and protected her. Each time she found new pieces she rejoined them to re-form his body.

But Isis could only recover thirteen of the pieces. The fourteenth, his penis, had been swallowed by a crab, so she fashioned one from gold and wax. Then inventing the rites of embalming, and speaking some words of magic, Isis brought her husband back to life.

Magically, Isis then conceived a child with Osiris, and gave birth to Horus, who later became the Sun God. Assured that having the infant would now relieve Isis’ grief, Osiris was free to descend to become the King of the Underworld, ruling over the dead and the sleeping.

His spirit, however, frequently returned to be with Isis and the young Horus who both remained under his watchful and loving eye.

Isis

There are many other variations of this myth . . . in some Isis found the body of Osiris in Byblos, fashioned his penis out of clay. In others the goddess consumed the dismembered parts she found and brought Osiris back to life, reincarnating him as her son Horus.

In one of the most beautiful renditions, Isis turns into a sparrowhawk and hovers over the body of Osiris, fanning life back into him with her long wings.

Regardless of the differences, each version speaks of the power over life and death that the goddess Isis symbolizes. . . the deep mysteries of the feminine ability to create and to bring life from that which is lifeless.

To this day the celebration of the flooding of the Nile each year is called “The Night of the Drop” by Muslims. . . for it used to be named “The Night of the Tear-Drop” a remembrance of the extent of the Isis’ lamentation of the death of Osiris, her tears so plentiful they caused the Nile to overflow.

Isis


The Egyptian goddess Isis played an important role in the development of modern religions, although her influence has been largely forgotten.

She was worshipped throughout the Greco-Roman world. During the fourth century when Christianity was making its foothold in the Roman Empire, her worshippers founded the first Madonna cults in order to keep her influence alive.

Some early Christians even called themselves Pastophori, meaning the shepherds or servants of Isis. . . which may be where the word “pastors” originated. The influence of Isis is still seen in the Christian ikons of the faithful wife and loving mother.

Indeed, the ancient images of Isis nursing the infant Horus inspired the style of portraits of mother and child for centuries, including those of the “Madonna and Child” found in religious art.

The power of the goddess Isis in the “public arena” was also profound. Her role as a guide to the Underworld, was often portrayed with winged arms outstretched in a protective position. The image of the wings of Isis was incorporated into the Egyptian throne on which the pharaohs would sit, the wings of Isis protecting them.

Isis

The ancient Egyptian goddess Isis has many gifts to share with modern women. Isis embodies the strengths of the feminine, the capacity to feel deeply about relationships, the act of creation, and the source of sustenance and protection.

At times Isis could be a clever trickster empowered by her feminine wiles rather than her logic or brute strength, but it is also the goddess Isis who shows us how we can use our personal gifts to create the life we desire rather than simply opposing that which we do not like.

The myths of Isis and Osiris caution us about the need for occasional renewal and reconnection in our relationships. Isis also reminds us to acknowledge and accept the depths of our emotions.

Inanna – Female Head from Uruk, c. 3500 – 3000 B.C., Iraq Museum, Baghdad.


Inanna in the Middle East was an Earth and later a (horned) moon goddess; Canaanite derivative of Sumerian Innin, or Akkadian Ishtar of Uruk. Ereshkigal (wife of Nergal) was Inanna’s (Ishtar’s) elder sister.

Inanna descended from the heavens into the hell region of her sister-opposite, the Queen of Death, Ereshkigal. And she sent Ninshubur her messenger with instructions to rescue her should she not return. The seven judges (Annunaki) hung her naked on a stake.

Ninshubar tried various gods (Enlil, Nanna, Enki who assisted him with two sexless creatures to sprinkle a magical food and water on her corpse 60 times).

She was preceded by Belili, wife of Baal (Heb. Tamar, taw-mawr’, from an unused root meaning to be erect, a palm tree). She ended up as Annis, the blue hag who sucked the blood of children. Inanna in Egypt became the goddess of the Dog Star, Sirius which announced the flood season of the Nile.”

Practically all Sumerian sculpture served as adornment or ritual equipment for the temples. No clearly identifiable cult statues of gods or goddesses have yet been found. Many of the extant figures in stone are votive statues, as indicated by the phrases used in the inscriptions that they often bear: “It offers prayers,” or “Statue, say to my king (god). . . .”

Sumerian Statuettes, from the Temple of Abu,
Tel Asmar, c. 2700 – 2600 B.C., Iraq Museum,
Baghdad and Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

Male statues stand or sit with hands clasped in an attitude of prayer. They are often naked above the waist and wear a woolen skirt curiously woven in a pattern that suggests overlapping petals (commonly described by the Greek word kaunakes, meaning “thick cloak”). A toga-like garment sometimes covers one shoulder. Men generally wear long hair and a heavy beard, both often trimmed in corrugations and painted black. The eyes and eyebrows are emphasized with colored inlay. The female coiffure varies considerably but predominantly consists of a heavy coil arranged vertically from ear to ear and a chignon behind. A headdress of folded linen sometimes conceals the hair. Ritual nakedness is confined to priests.

It has been thought that the rarity of stone in Mesopotamia contributed to the primary stylistic distinction between Sumerian and Egyptian sculpture. The Egyptians quarried their own stone in prismatic blocks, and one can see that, even in their freestanding statues, strength of design is attained by the retention of geometric unity. By contrast, in Sumer, stone must have been imported from remote sources, often in the form of miscellaneous boulders, the amorphous character of which seems to have been retained by the statues into which they were transformed.

Beyond this general characteristic of Sumerian sculpture, two successive styles have been distinguished in the middle and late subdivisions of the Early Dynastic period. One very notable group of figures, from Tall al-Asmar, Iraq (ancient Eshnunna), dating from the first of these phases, shows a geometric simplification of forms that, to modern taste, is ingenious and aesthetically acceptable. Statues characteristic of the second phase on the other hand, though technically more competently carved, show aspirations to naturalism that are sometimes overly ambitious. In this second style, some scholars see evidence of occasional attempts at portraiture.

Yet, in spite of minor variations, all these figures adhere to the single formula of presenting the conventional characteristics of Sumerian physiognomy. Their provenance is not confined to the Sumerian cities in the south. An important group of statues is derived from the ancient capital of Mari, on the middle Euphrates, where the population is known to have been racially different from the Sumerians. In the Mari statues there also appears to have been no deviation from the sculptural formula; they are distinguished only by technical peculiarities in the carving.

Deprived of stone, Sumerian sculptors exploited alternative materials. Fine examples of metal casting have been found, some of them suggesting knowledge of the cire perdue (lost-wax) process, and copper statues more than half life-size are known to have existed. In metalwork, however, the ingenuity of Sumerian artists is perhaps best judged from their contrivance of composite figures.

The earliest and one of the finest examples of such figures–and of Sumerian sculpture as a whole–comes from a Protoliterate level of excavation at Tall al-Warka’. It is the limestone face of a life-size statue (Iraqi Museum, Baghdad), the remainder of which must have been composed of other materials; the method of attachment is visible on the surviving face.

Devices of this sort were brought to perfection by craftsmen of the Early Dynastic period, the finest examples of whose work are to be seen among the treasures from the royal tombs at Ur: a bull’s head decorating a harp, composed of wood or bitumen covered with gold and wearing a lapis lazuli beard (British Museum);

Sumerian Bull’s Head, Lyre from Tomb of Paubi, c. 2600 B.C.

A rampant he-goat in gold and lapis, supported by a golden tree (University Museum, Philadelphia) –

Ram (Billy Goat) and Tree, Offering Stand from Ur (to male fertility god, Tammuz), 2600 B.C.,

The composite headdresses of court ladies (British Museum, Iraqi Museum, and University Museum); or, more simply, the miniature figure of a wild ass, cast in electrum (a natural yellow alloy of gold and silver) and mounted on a bronze rein ring (British Museum).

The inlay and enrichment of wooden objects reaches its peak in this period, as may be seen in the so-called standard or double-sided panel from Ur (British Museum), on which elaborate scenes of peace and war are depicted in a delicate inlay of shell and semiprecious stones. The refinement of craftsmanship in metal is also apparent in the famous wig-helmet of gold (Iraqi Museum), belonging to a Sumerian prince, and in weapons, implements, and utensils.

Relief carving in stone was a medium of expression popular with the Sumerians and first appears in a rather crude form in Protoliterate times. In the final phase of the Early Dynastic period, its style became conventional. The most common form of relief sculpture was that of stone plaques, 1 foot (30 centimeters) or more square, pierced in the center for attachment to the walls of a temple, with scenes depicted in several registers (horizontal rows).

The subjects usually seem to be commemorative of specific events, such as feasts or building activities, but representation is highly standardized, so that almost identical plaques have been found at sites as much as 500 miles (800 kilometers) apart. Fragments of more ambitious commemorative stele have also been recovered; the Stele of Vultures (Louvre Museum) from Telloh, Iraq (ancient Lagash), is one example. Although it commemorates a military victory, it has a religious content. The most important figure is that of a patron deity, emphasized by its size, rather than that of the king. The formal massing of figures suggests the beginnings of mastery in design, and a formula has been devised for multiplying identical figures, such as chariot horses.

In a somewhat different category are the cylinder seals so widely utilized at this time. Used for the same purposes as the more familiar stamp seal and likewise engraved in negative (intaglio), the cylinder-shaped seal was rolled over wet clay on which it left an impression in relief. Delicately carved with miniature designs on a variety of stones or shell, cylinder seals rank as one of the higher forms of Sumerian art.

Prominent among their subjects is the complicated imagery of Sumerian mythology and religious ritual. Still only partially understood, their skillful adaptation to linear designs can at least be easily appreciated. Some of the finest cylinder seals date from the Protoliterate period (see photograph). After a slight deterioration in the first Early Dynastic period, when brocade patterns or files of running animals were preferred (see photograph), mythical scenes returned. Conflicts are depicted between wild beasts and protecting demigods or hybrid figures, associated by some scholars with the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh. The monotony of animated motifs is occasionally relieved by the introduction of an inscription.

Votive Statues, from the Temple of Abu, Tell Asmar,c.2500 BC, limestone, shell, and gypsum

Late Helladic

Late Helladic I

Outside the partial circuit wall, Grave Circle B, named for its enclosing wall, contained ten cist graves in Middle Helladic style and four shaft graves, sunk more deeply, with interments resting in cists. Richer grave goods mark the burials as possibly regal. Mounds over the top contained broken drinking vessels and bones from a repast, testifying to a more than ordinary farewell. Stelae surmounted the mounds.

A walled enclosure, Grave Circle A, included six more shaft graves, with 9 female, 8 male, and two juvenile interments. Grave goods were wealthier than in Circle B. The presence of engraved and inlaid swords and daggers, with spear points and arrowheads, leave little doubt that warrior chieftains and their families were buried here. Some art objects obtained from the graves are the Silver Siege Rhyton, the Mask of Agamemnon, the Cup of Nestor, and weapons both votive and practical.