I missed last week’s post because the company I work for has a big once-a-year warehouse sale and everyone in the whole company works the sale. I was either bagging purchases or sleeping all weekend long—so my poor brain just wasn’t up to post writing.
But I’m back now…and am thinking once again of Isis and of that lovely holiday tradition that so many of us are indulging in at this time of year; I speak, of course, of bringing a tree into our homes and decorating it with shiny ornaments and glittering lights.
What? Did the Egyptians do that, too? Well, yes and no.
The rather obvious reason for bringing in the Yule tree is to remind ourselves of the green life that exists even in this darkest part of the year when most plant life has either died off or gone into hibernation—as well as to celebrate that ongoing life with our beloved ones and to prepare for the next phase of life in the coming New Year.
Well, there are a number of rather unusual depictions of the Egyptian Tree Goddess—specifically in Her names of Isis and Hathor—that have enough parallels to be interesting and surely must have had a very similar meaning.
One of these images shows a leafless tree planted in a pot. The pot tells us that the tree is (relatively) portable, just like our Yule trees. It is a natural tree, yet it has been moved out of its natural environment and brought into a different one. The tree is decorated with ribbons, but we don’t know their significance. Are they pure decoration like our Yule ornaments? Are they more like Tibetan prayer flags tied to the branches of trees? We simply don’t have an answer. (Sorry, but I couldn’t find a picture of this specific image to share with you.)
Yet there is something else in this particular tree, or more properly, someone else: a Tree Goddess. Her legs disappear in the trunk of the tree, while Her hands offer food and water. She wears the Throne of Isis upon Her head, so in this case, our Tree Goddess is very clearly Isis. This particular image is found on a 19th dynasty funerary stele and so it must partake of symbolism similar to the Yule tree: ongoing life and sustenance in a place of darkness; in this case, the underworld. And indeed, the Goddess in the tree is called Nebet Amentet, the Lady of the West, that is, the Lady of the Otherworld. This is a common epithet of both Isis and Hathor. Hathor is usually the Goddess of this leafless tree, which in other texts is identified as the Southern Sycamore at the Temple of Ptah in Memphis. In some representations of this Tree Goddess, the ba-bird of the deceased drinks from the water offered by the Goddess of the Tree.
There are a number of other representations of Isis as the Lady of the Sycamore. A pillar in the tomb of Sennefer of Thebes (18th dynasty) shows Sennefer and his wife Meryt as they stand before a leafy tree with a Goddess figure in it Who is identified in the hieroglyphic text as Isis. A 19th dynasty stele shows “Isis the Great, the God’s Mother” as a Tree Goddess Who extends Her breast toward the souls of the man and woman standing at Her roots.
Most often, the sacred tree is a sycamore, but other Egyptian sacred trees—the acacia, persea, and date palm—could also be associated with Isis. Isis and Nephthys are called the Two Acacia Goddesses; and sometimes, the tree that grew up around the body of Osiris is said to have been an acacia. According to Plutarch, the persea tree (Egyptian ished) is sacred to Isis “because its fruit is like a heart and its leaf like a tongue.” He explains that this is because no human quality is more Divine than reason, symbolized by the tongue, and that there is no more driving human force than happiness, symbolized by the heart. Isis is associated with the palm through Her assimilation with Seshat, the Scribe & Writing Goddess, for one of Seshat’s symbols is the notched palm branch that was used to count time. In a later period, initiates of the Mysteries of Isis used the palm branch as a symbol of their rebirth.
And so this year as you bring in your Yule tree, perhaps it would be well to say a prayer to the Tree Goddess Isis and acknowledge Her Divinity in this beautiful symbol of ongoing green life. While the tree is not the same, the meaning is: She goes on and we go on—in spite of everything. I, for one, shall be tying a ribboned prayer on at least one branch during this winter holyday season.