Who was the Egyptian goddess Isis?
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Who was the goddess Isis?

statue of a woman
Isis nurses Horus
(Middle Kingdom, ca. 2000 BC,
now in Metropolitan Museum)

September 2016 - The goddess Isis, in Egyptian mythology, was married to her brother Osiris (as Hera was married to her brother Zeus). Isis means "the queen", in Egyptian. Osiris was killed by his enemy, the god Set, and torn apart, and his body was scattered all over Egypt. Isis mourned for her husband/brother, and travelled all over Egypt finding the pieces of his body. Then she put them back together again into Osiris, and brought him to life again. They then made their child, the god Horus. When Horus grew up, he fought Set with his mother's magic spells.

This story has a lot in common with the West Asian story of Magna Mater and her husband Attis, or with the Greek story of Demeter and Persephone, or the story of Dionysos. Like them, it is a story of death and rebirth, where by praying to Isis people may hope themselves to be reborn.

After the Persians conquered Egypt in 525 BC, people started to worship Isis all over the Persian Empire, as far east as Iran. From there, the worship of Isis spread to Athens by about 350 BC. By the 200s BC more and more Greek people were worshipping Isis as a kind of mystery cult. Soon after that, people were worshipping Isis in Rome, too, and then all over the Roman Empire, from England to the Roman seaports in India. But the spread of Christianity (in the west) and Buddhism (in the east) in the 300s AD, eventually convinced most people to forget about Isis.

Learn by doing: Egyptian afterlife project
More about ancient Egyptian gods

Bibliography and further reading about the Egyptian goddess Isis:

Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, by Leonard Fisher (1999). For younger kids.

Isis and Osiris, by Geraldine Harris (1997). A retelling of the story for kids.

The Egypt Game (Yearling Newbery), by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (reprinted 1985). A great kids' story about kids who pretend to be Egyptian gods and goddesses.

Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, by John Baines, David Silverman, and Leonard Lesko (1991). Pretty hard going, but it will tell you everything you need to know about Egyptian religion.

Isis in the Ancient World, by R.E. Witt (1997). Mostly about the spread of Isis worship to Greece and the Roman Empire.

More about the Egyptian gods
More about African religion
More about ancient Egypt
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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