Posted by: Isidora | December 2, 2011

Is Isis a Black Goddess?

Yes, indeed She is.

Egyptian woman and man in the Otherworld, worshipping.

Like most people, ancient and modern, the Egyptians depicted their Deities (at least the anthropomorphic ones) as more beautiful, more powerful, more perfect images of themselves. So, of course, Isis was shown as a strong and beautiful Egyptian woman.

Images of the Goddess show Her with the skin color and features of Her countrywomen and men. As Egypt is an African nation, Isis is an African Goddess. In at least one ancient text, She is specifically a black African Goddess when She says of Herself, “I am the Nubian and I have descended from heaven.” (Nubia was what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Nubian pharaohs ruled Egypt as its 25th Dynasty.) Another text, from the Ptolemaic temple of Hathor at Denderah, says that Isis was born a “black and ruddy woman, endowed with life, sweet of love”.

“Black Isis” by Zingaia. You can find her on Deviant Art.

Modern artists are increasingly depicting Isis as a black woman and I’m very happy to see their beautiful work showing up online more frequently.

But blackness wasn’t just about ethnic heritage to the Egyptians. It was also symbolic. Black was the color of fertility, the color of the rich, black silt that the Nile deposited on Egyptian fields during the Inundation. Black was the color of the healing statues that were carved with magical formulae and over which sufferers poured water, then drank the magically infused water as a medicine. Black is the color of the heavens at night, from which the Goddess descends to us as a Nubian. Black is the color of the dead, as the resins used in mummification turned dark over time.

When the worship of Isis passed into Hellenistic lands, the Greek symbolism of the color black came into play in Isiac iconography as well. In Greek-influenced lands, black was associated with death and the underworld, thus it was the Greek color of mourning. As Isis is a mourning Goddess, She was often depicted wearing robes of black and Melanophoros, “Wearer of the Black,” became one of Her epithets.

Green Isis on a sarcophagus; I know, it looks like a tattoo, but it’s a cartonnage sarcophagus.

In Egyptian symbolism, the colors black and green were interchangeable. Everything we associate with the color green—life, freshness, renewal—the Egyptians also associated with green and with black. In scenes of the Otherworld, we often see both Isis and Osiris painted with green skin. Just as the rich black silt from the Nile brings forth bright green plants; the rich darkness of the Otherworld is overseen by the bright Goddess and God of Renewal, Isis and Osiris.

In the same way that green and black were associated, green and blue were also related concepts. Blue was specifically used to indicate the waters and the heavens, and of course, both were essential for the greening of the land of Egypt. Since all these concepts were connected, the throne symbol on Isis’ head was frequently painted in black, green, or blue. Her skin might be blue, too, as in the example above. And, like other Deities, Isis was described as having blue lapis lazuli hair.

Golden Isis

But the ancient Egyptians didn’t stop with black, green, and blue. Since skin color was symbolic, it was very flexible. Isis is also shown with the yellow skin that Egyptian artists sometimes used for Egyptian women or the golden skin of Goddesses and Gods. Indeed, Egyptian tradition held that all the Deities had golden skin. This was literally true when it came to the many statues or reliefs of the Deities that were covered in gold. And it was symbolically true as a way to express the purity and incorruptibility of the Divine Ones for gold is the one metal that never corrodes.

 

Roman Isis, from the 2nd century CE, in the Farnese Collection in Naples. Perhaps my favorite non-Egyptian image of the Goddess. Now I have seen Her up close and personal. Image copyright Forrest 2009.

Roman Isis, from the 2nd century CE, in the Farnese Collection in Naples.  Image copyright Forrest 2009.

When Isis made Her entrance into the Greek and Roman world, just as the Egyptians had, those worshippers, too, portrayed their Goddess as more perfect reflections of themselves. There are a number of striking Roman statues of Isis in which the flesh of the Goddess is carved from white marble while Her robes are carved from black. (I honestly don’t know whether these statues were originally painted as we are discovering many ancient Greek statues were. Yet the fact that the artist used two different colors of marble seems to indicate that the marble itself was intended to be seen. And even if they were painted, the Goddess’ skin would have been pale, as She was portrayed in polychromatic Roman paintings.)

The Isis image on my own altar is black in both color and features. But I also have a green Isis, several golden Isises, a terracotta Isis, a turquoise Isis, and the lovely Farnese Isis on the left is one of my all-time favorite images of Her.

Yet all these images are simply ways human beings have portrayed Her so that we can more easily relate to Her. Isis is a Goddess, not a woman. She is not exclusively Egyptian or Roman or American or Japanese. She will always reflect back to us our own faces. She is of no color—and of every color. She is a Black Goddess, a Green Goddess, a White Goddess, a Red Goddess, a Purple Goddess. She is my Goddess. She is your Goddess. She belongs to us all. But more importantly for those who love Her, we all belong to Her.

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Responses

  1. Very nice article. I love how you cover so many themes of Isis that go unspoken in books. These are the real kind of questions many people may wonder about but are afraid to ask.

    My own statue is a golden one with outstretched wings. This is an image that resonates best in my mind. Many of my visualizations of her are more light brown like the Arabic people or Native Americans. Just the way she shows up in my mind. I never attempt to control it. I allow my subconscious to interact with her to create what I need to see.

    My deepest conviction of the Gods are that they are not prisoners of the cultures that brought them to our attention. The mind evolves with culture. Even the Egyptians themselves changed over time culturally and how the viewed the Gods. You can find this all around the globe. The forces transcend borders. That’s my suspicion anyway.

  2. [...] tackles the controversial topic of whether Isis is a Black goddess: Yes, indeed She [...]

  3. [...] Isis, the Black Goddess [...]

  4. Interesting article.

    The part on green-blue-black Isis brought immediately to mind the Indian god Krishna.
    He is most popularly depicted as being light blue in color, but in older artworks Krishna was usually depicted as dark blue or black. In fact the Sanskrit word ‘krishna’ means blue-black*, much like the color of heavy monsoon rain-clouds.

    *Although the Hare Krishnas (ISKCON) say that ‘Krishna’ means ‘all-beautiful’.

    • Ah, Krishna is a favorite with me, too…especially in His connection with Dionysos, with Whom He has many interesting parallels.

  5. [...] to the form that Deity takes; I discuss one of the most obvious manifestations of that phenomenon here. Yet we don’t create that image out of whole cloth. The feeling, the taste, the essence of [...]

  6. Isis is me. I am a child of Isis being dark skinned and dark haired. I have always loved Egyptian mythology and I am Nubian. I’m glad Isis is shown what she truly is. The Roman version if Isis is incorrect but hey that’s what the Romans saw. Long Live Isis


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