The research for this Origin of Witchcraft series has exposed me to a lot of mythology I wasn’t super familiar with. It also seems to be taking me further and further back into time. This next post is possibly the closest I am going to come to the first of the Goddesses of Witchcraft, if not the most widely recognized. As far as deities go, there are probably not many people that haven’t heard of Isis from the mythology of Ancient Egypt. However, if you are like me, you don’t know a whole lot about the legends that hail from that part of the world.
I learned a lot on my virtual trip there, and have included a fun video that gives you a crash course in the Pantheons of the Ancient Mediterranean. This was a good place to start my journey, one that took me down a path and led me right to her. Isis was not only thought of as the “Great Lady of Magic” but also “Queen of Heaven,” “Mother of the Gods,” and “Lady of Green Crops.” She has also been called “Goddess with Ten Thousand Names,” which tells us a lot not only about how much she was responsible for, but of how long she has been around. So follow me now to Egypt, to a time long before the pyramids dotted the sands.
Origins of Isis
What I found during my research, is that the Egyptian Pantheon is way more complicated than what the Greeks or Romans had going on. I imagine it is because their deities were worshiped much longer than the Gods and Goddesses who were popular once Rome came into power. It is likely these deities were around long before civilization as we know it. According to Joshua J. Mark from the Ancient History Encylopedia, there were over 2,000 deities in the Egyptian pantheon, and each had their area of expertise. Like many of the Goddesses, Isis ended up evolving over time, and is believed to have taken over the duties of Hathor, the Goddess of the Sky, Fertility, Women and Love, as she grew in favor with those who paid her tribute. Historian Margaret Bunson writes:
The Egyptians had no problem with a multitude of gods and they seldom shelved old deities in favor of new ones. Characteristics and roles of various gods were syncretized to reconcile differing religious beliefs, customs, or ideals. For political and religious reasons, for example, the Theban god Amun, who was considered the most powerful deity in the New Kingdom, was united with Ra, a sun god whose cult dated to the beginnings of Egypt.Bunson, M. The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Gramercy Books, 1991.
Isis was born of the Sun God Geb and the Sky Goddess Nut. She had four siblings, a brother Osiris whom she married, a brother Set and a sister Nephthys who paired off, and by some accounts, another brother Horus (the elder). Isis and her sister Nephthys were primarily funeral Goddesses at first, in that they embodied the power of resurrection and transformation. But Isis quickly became the most powerful of the Gods and Goddesses in ancient Egypt by tricking the Sun god Ra into relinquishing his power to her by giving her his true name in a moment of weakness. Her power over life and death would be referenced in all the stories including her. In this vein, she is the most powerful and innovative Goddess of Witchcraft that I have come across so far.
Isis is depicted as wearing a sheath dress, and her headdress typically shows an empty throne which symbolized her role as the seat of power in her husband Osiris’s absence. In some forms she has outstretched wings, representing the wind, and is often shown with her child son Horus, who has the head of a falcon and the body of a man. She has also been depicted with a headdress of a solar disc and horns, or even the head of a cow, which would tie her with her earlier predecessor Hathor.
Isis was a Goddess for all people. It didn’t matter if you were royal, common, man or woman, she protected all who honored her. But for those who didn’t, her wrath was swift and often deadly, like the scorpions she had a kinship with. She was connected to marriage, fertility, motherhood, magic and medicine and the stories about her showcased her ability problem solve and always come out on top. It is possible that the jealousy that Osiris’s brother Set had against the couple, stemmed from the fact that the people adored them, but you can’t really blame them. It is said that the reign of Osiris and Isis was a time of peace and prosperity, and it was the couple that first showed the people how to grow and harvest grain. Eating bread was way better than what they were eating before…trust me, you don’t want to know. Let’s just say they had a little bit of Wendigo going on. Not to mention, the grain led to the creation of beer as well, so I can see why the people paid them homage.
Myths of Isis
There are a few stories of Isis that show her ability to shape-shift, as well as her clever mind and total devotion to her family. The story that is most prevalent, is that of her role in the story of her husband Osiris and their jealous brother Set. As I mentioned before, he was angry that the people paid his siblings so much attention, and as a lot of these stories go, he wanted to be the one in power. So he devised a plan.
During a celebration held in Osiris’s honor, Set presented a beautifully made casket and announced to all in attendance that whoever fit in the box would receive it as a gift. Now it may seem strange to you, but this would have been a really big deal for a culture that spent so much time preparing for the afterlife. So, each of the guests gave it a try, but the fit was never quite right, until Osiris gave it a whirl that is. You see, Set had made the box with his brother Osiris’s exact dimensions, and when he stepped foot inside the snug box, it was sealed shut by Set’s followers, sealed with lead and tossed into the Nile.
Isis went out of her mind looking for her husband, and eventually found him, only to have Set find the body where she hid it. It is said that Set chopped his deceased brother into 14 pieces (by some accounts 42), and to ensure it was never found again he scattered those pieces across Egypt. Isis would not be deterred, she wanted a family, and had faith in her ability to bring Osiris back from the dead. In every account of the story she managed to find all the pieces of her deceased husband, save one. I’ll give you one guess which piece went missing… yup, you guessed it. His penis was the only thing that she couldn’t retrieve as it had been eaten by a fish (or a crab) when it fell into the Nile. But Isis didn’t let a little thing like that stop her.
With the help of her sister Nephthys (who apparently wasn’t speaking to her husband at this time) she put her husband back together with a shiny new penis she fashioned from gold. Some stories mention wax, or a combination of wax and gold, but I have to believe that any of the options wouldn’t be good. As a matter of fact they weren’t, since Isis still had to use magic to pull the seed from Osiris to become pregnant with their son Horus.
The basic gist of the story is that Osiris was no longer a “whole” living being, so could no longer rule over humans. Instead, he chose to go to the afterlife where he became God of the Underworld. This most likely accounts for the empty throne that Isis wears on her headdress, although she went into hiding after she had Horus for fear of what Set would do to her son. This left aforementioned throne wide open for Set to move into. When Horus grew up, he eventually defeated his evil uncle Set, who was driven from the land (or by some accounts killed). Either way, good riddance evil uncle!
Isis in Witchcraft
When it comes to Isis, what I found interesting was that she had an active pilgrimage at her temple on the island of Philae from around 690 BC when construction began, until it was finally closed by the Christian emperor Justinian in the 6th Century CE. Her temple still stands today after being moved brick by brick in the 1960s from the Island of Philae to the Island of Agilkia, after Lake Nasser flooded. It is believed that her temple is considered one of the last pagan temples to have withstood the rise of Christianity. For those who might not be able to make the trip, I found this cool video that will give you a 10 minute tour of the site.
It was also interesting that when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt the troops associated Isis with the Greek goddess Demeter, which made her accessible to the people by association. Details from the stories of Isis’s missing husband, and Demeter’s missing daughter blended over time, and the goddess found new favor with the Greeks and subsequently the Romans. It is in this vein that I believe she was able to survive, shape-shifting into something that allowed for her followers to continue their devotions to her.
She was blended in art with Aphrodite, Venus, Persephone as well as Demeter and was associated with Middle Eastern goddess Astarte. As her worship spread, so did her duties expand, and in addition to wife, mother, healer and protector of the dead, she was worshiped as the goddess of sea, travel and good fortune. It is highly likely that as people found ways to travel and trade with other countries, she was able to welcome new worshipers throughout the Roman world. It is said that she had devotees as far north as Britain, and as far east as Asia. She didn’t stop there, as now her devotees live and practice all over the world.
Cows, scorpions and snakes are sacred to Isis, as are doves, hawks, and vultures. She is also associated with all four elements; air through her association with the North wind, earth through her connection with fertility, fire through her association with a solar Deity, and water as she is linked to the flooding of the Nile. Isis continues to be a strong guiding force in the Neo-Pagan circles to this day, and she still represents a woman who is fiercely devoted to her family, something I think most mothers can relate to.
I hope you are liking this series, and if you are be sure to drop me a comment below! I have included some clips below as well as some other links that will give you more information on Isis should you be interested. In the meantime, stay tuned for future segments! We will be travelling to other places around the globe to check out Goddesses of Witchcraft in other cultures. To make it easy, I have started an index of my #MythicalCreatureMonday posts which you can link to here. Happy reading! XO