This question comes up so often that I thought I’d republish my essay on how to pronounce Isis’s Egyptian name:
Isis, Aset, Iset, Ast, Eset, Auset—which is it, anyway?
SO HOW DO you pronounce Isis’ Egyptian name? For, as most people who have had any involvement with Isis know, Isis is what the Greeks called Her. They would have said “Ees-Ees.”
First, and most important, the Goddess will understand Who you’re talking to no matter how you pronounce Her name. Isis can read your heart. She knows.
Second, disappointingly enough, there isn’t a definitive answer as to exactly how the ancient Egyptians would have pronounced Isis’ name. To complicate things further, during the thousands of years that the Egyptians were writing and saying Her name, the spelling and pronunciation changed. What’s more, Egyptians had regional accents and, no doubt, wrote it how they said it or by the conventions of their region.
Nonetheless, the reason people want to know how to pronounce Isis’ name is compelling. It has to do with the Egyptian emphasis on the correct knowledge and pronunciation of Words of Power—especially magical words and names. According to the Egyptians, in the name of a thing lies its essence. So if we know and can correctly pronounce the Goddess’ Egyptian name, we can more effectively invoke and commune with Her essential Divine Self. Or so the theory goes.
The good news is that we can discover the most likely pronunciation of Isis’ Egyptian name. That’s what this article is about. It offers a more detailed explanation than that given in Isis Magic.
How Hieroglyphs Work
The reason we don’t know exactly how the Egyptians would have pronounced Isis’ name is that written ancient Egyptian—hieroglyphic—only records the consonants. No vowels. No a, e, i, o, u. This is also true of Hebrew, so Egyptologists often use Hebrew as a model for understanding some aspects of ancient Egyptian. (Modern Hebrew indicates the vowels by a series of dots called pointing.) As in Hebrew, several Egyptian consonants functioned as vowels under certain circumstances. Scholars even refer to some of these Egyptian glyphs by the Hebrew names.
Several of these bear on the name of Isis. One is the hieroglyph hawk, Hebrew aleph. It is a glottal stop. When we say “uh-oh,” for example, the space between uh and oh is the glottal stop. Aleph is sometimes considered a silent letter. Another is the hieroglyph reed flower, Hebrew yod; it is given a “y” or “i” sound. Yet another is the hieroglyph chick, Hebrew vav. Chick is given the pronunciation “u,” “o,” or “w.”
Isis’ Name in Hieroglyphs
The most common hieroglyphic spelling of Isis’ name is throne, loaf (looks like a semi-circle), Goddess, although there are variations. Egyptian artists commonly identified Isis by painting the throne hieroglyph on Her head or crown. Thus the shortest version of Isis’ name is simply “Throne.” The Goddess Isis is the Goddess Throne. (Please see Isis Magic for an discussion of the meaning of the name Throne. It has a far deeper meaning than simply being “a personification of the royal throne,” as it is so often explained. In my opinion, the “royal throne” explanation is the least important meaning that can be attached to Isis’ name—and certainly, it is the least relevant for those of us who seek the Goddess today.)
The throne hieroglyph is a biliteral glyph and represents two sounds. The loaf is a single sound glyph and represents “t.” In Egyptian, the -t is normally used to indicate a feminine word as in English we add -ess to feminize a word. The Goddess symbol is a determinative or ideagram and provides the overall concept of the word. It has no phonetic value, no sound.
Of the two sounds that comprise the throne, one is fairly certain and one more ambiguous. The more certain sound is an “s.” It’s the second of the two sounds. The first sound has been rendered as both the hawk or aleph and as the reed flower or yod. In other words, when Isis’ name is not spelled using the throne glyph, it has been spelled using both the hawk and the reed flower as the first letter.
The difference might be accounted for by regional accents as well as by the passage of time. For example, the English spoken in London doesn’t sound like the English spoken in Atlanta, Georgia, and modern, American English does not sound like Chaucer’s English. Egyptian was spoken for thousands of years and changed during that time. So Isis’ name was probably pronounced different ways by different people at different times.
Those of you who have already done some exploring have probably seen Isis’ Egyptian name given as Aset—presumably to be pronounced “Ah-set,” or as Ast, pronounced “Ahst,” or as Auset, pronounced “Aw-set or Ow-set.” Several of these are possible, but not the mostly likely, pronunciations. One, Ast, is simply a transliteration (letter for letter exchange of English letters for hieroglyphs) and does not indicate a pronunciation.
The confusion probably comes from a small, but important, omission made when looking up “Isis” in E. A. Wallis Budge’s Hieroglyphic Dictionary, which is the most readily available and thus the most used Egyptian dictionary. In his Isis entries, Budge uses an A with a dot over it as the first letter of Isis’ name. By this he is indicating the reed flower, the yod. Most people simply see the A and ignore the dot—so they pronounce the name as Ah-set. But what Budge intended his readers to say would be something more like Iset.
In cases where Isis’ name is spelled with the hawk or aleph, beginning students of the hieroglyphs are often told to pronounce it as an “a” for the sake of simplicity. But remember, it’s not an “a.” It’s a glottal stop and is essentially silent. Again, both the reed flower and the hawk are consonants, not true vowels. Which means that between the reed flower or hawk and the s, any vowel might have been inserted. Isis’ name could have begun with any vowel sound: Oset, Iset, Eset, Aset, Uset—as well as other vowel sounds not familiar to the English speaker.
To add to the confusion, there are yet more spellings of Isis’ name. Another you’ll run into from time to time is reed flower, chick, folded cloth, loaf, throne. This transliterates as yod, vav, s, t (in this case, the throne is the determinative)—Iuset or as you’ve probably seen it, Auset (again, this is the A with a dot over it, the reed flower). Some scholars have speculated that Isis’ original name—of which we have no definitive record in this form—may have been, in transliteration, Wst (vav, s, t) Wuset, Uset, or Oset. No doubt the idea here is to bring Her name into harmony with that of Osiris: Wsir, Usir, or Osir. But that’s another story.
So What Do We Do Now?
If this all seems hopelessly confusing, never fear. There are clues available to help us sort out which of the vowels were most likely to have been used by the ancient Egyptians in speaking the name of Isis. For help, we can look to some people who were in contact with the Egyptians, actually heard the Egyptians speaking the names of their Deities, and who do have vowels in their alphabet: the Greeks.
The first occurrence of the name Isis in Greek is from the fifth century BCE. It’s in Ionian Greek and is on the base of a bronze statue. It says , “of the Esis.” This simply means that the statue was dedicated to Isis; it belonged to Isis, thus it was “of the Esis.”
The Greeks commonly added a grammatical ending like -is, -os, or -a so that foreign words or names would “work” in their language. The Goddess’ name occurs in Greek as “Isis” as well as “Eisis.” Isis, however, is the most common. As I mentioned, the Greeks would have pronounced Her name as Ees-Ees (Isis) or as Ehees-ees (Eisis). The variation could again be accounted for by regional accents—both Greek and Egyptian—or simply by the difficulty of rendering the Egyptian sound into Greek.
In addition to the Greek evidence, we can look to Coptic to discover the most likely initial vowel sound in Isis’ Egyptian name. Coptic is a late form of Egyptian that was written with Greek letters—plus some special letters to represent Egyptian sounds that the Greek alphabet didn’t have. So Coptic uses vowels. Coptic had about six different dialects (just to continue confusing things) and was spoken from approximately the second to the eighth centuries CE, much later than the first occurrence of Isis’ name in Greek. Coptic is still spoken in the Coptic Christian Church today (they also still use the sistrum in their worship services!).
In Coptic, Isis is (Ese) or (Esi), Aay-seh or Aay-see. The final t was dropped by that time and may have been dropped in spoken Egyptian quite a bit earlier. This development of dropping the final t is familiar in French where the final t is frequently silent or only very softly voiced; for example, the word passent is pronounced pahss-en. The Coptic also tells us that Isis’ name had two syllables—so that we have additional confirmation that the transliteration of Ast or Ist is just that, a transliteration and not a pronunciation.
From the Greek and Coptic, we can safely assume that the vowel sound at the beginning of Isis’ name—at least from the fifth century BCE on—was either “i” or “e.” Thus, the Goddess’ Egyptian name would have been pronounced Iset (Ee-set) or Eset (Aay-set). I have chosen to represent Her Egyptian name as Iset because of the preponderance of early Greek evidence, as well as its similarity to the version of Her name with which we are most familiar today. In my own work with the Goddess, I use the Egyptian pronunciation Iset, the Greek Isis, and, for its soft beauty, the Coptic Egyptian Ese—as well as the anglicized “Eye-sis” (Isis).
Iset of the Ten Thousand Names
In the Book of Coming Forth by Day, better known as the Book of the Dead, Isis is called Iset Nudjerit em Renus Nebu, “Isis, Goddess in All Names.” Perhaps, after this discussion, we can see Her not only as the Goddess of All Names, but of All Pronunciations as well.
Yet, from the Greek and Coptic, I’m convinced that Isis’ Egyptian name was fairly consistently pronounced as Iset and Eset. Although, as I have said, it is entirely possible that other pronunciations were used at other times in other places.
Thus, if your intent is to invoke the essential Isis, you will not be wrong no matter which vowel you choose. And while the Sacred Name and its correct pronunciation is important in Egyptian magic, what is in your heart is more important. Iset, Eset, Aset, Iuset, Isis—since we cannot call upon any ancient Egyptians to assist us, we will have to be content to call upon the Goddess in the name that most resonates for each of us personally. If we do this with clear intent and an open heart, She will know and She will answer and She will bless our efforts.