Posted by: Isidora | March 23, 2019

Sacred vessels of the Goddess Isis

"To London, at the Temple of Isis"

“To London, at the temple of Isis”

It is finally spring. And here in the Pacific Northwest, we are having a classic one. Last weekend sunny and 70, this one wet and 50. For some reason (probably as I have been planting), this reminds me of vessels. So I hope you will enjoy this little excursion into some of the sacred and sacred-ish vessels associated with the Isis…

There is a very famous jug found in what is now Tooley Street in the Southwark borough of London. It doesn’t look like much; it’s about a foot high, just terracotta, with a graffito scratched on its surface. The jug is dated to the latter part of the 1st century CE.

It’s important because of what that graffito says. It says,”LONDINI AD FANVM ISIDIS,” that is, “To London at the temple of Isis”. Thus it confirms the existence of a temple of Isis in ancient London. One more reference to the temple has been uncovered locally as well. It’s a 3rd century CE altar (which had been used as part of a wall) with an inscription that states that the Isis temple had fallen down due to age, but had now been restored.

Together, these finds are the only certain evidence of an actual Isis temple anywhere in Roman Britain. (There are other artifacts—figurines, hairpins with Her image—that indicate Her presence in London, but nothing else about a temple.)

An Italian terracotta showing Isis with Harpocrates and Anubis. Her London devotees may have owned similar votive images.

An Italian terracotta showing Isis with Harpocrates and Anubis. Her London devotees may have owned similar votive images.

The jug has been presumed to be a wine jug that may have belonged to a tavern near the temple, perhaps even a tavern dedicated to Isis. There is archeological precedent for taverns being located near temples as well as for being dedicated to Deities.

Other scholars have wondered whether the jug may have belonged to the temple itself. In particular, some have suggested that it may have been part of the feasting that would take place at temples by the religious associations who tended them. There is precedent for this, too.

Back in Egypt, demotic texts speak of “Days of Drinking” that became a term for the meetings of such groups. In Egypt, the groups were probably influenced by Greek symposia, meaning “drinking together,” and thiasoi, which were voluntary religious associations like our modern covens as well as larger organizations like the Fellowship of Isis. Yet there was native tradition, too. A scholar who studied this believes that the demotic name, Days of Drinking, may derive from one of the ancient Egyptian lunar festivals, which would no doubt include feasting and drinking as well.

A model of Londinium in the 1st century CE, from the London Museum

A model of Londinium in the 1st century CE, from the London Museum

Such an association of Isiacs would not have been out of place in Roman London. We find them throughout the Empire. Archeologists have also found several other jugs inscribed with Isis’ name from other parts of the Empire.

I haven’t been able to find out whether anyone has actually tested residue from the Southwark jug to discover if it ever contained wine, but it sure looks like a classic wine jug—whether for use as part of the religious festivals at the temple or by the tavern next door.

The Southwark jug is, of course, not the only vessel with which Isis is connected. By the Late Period, She is especially associated with what is usually referred to as a situla, a container for sacred liquids. Many representations of Her show a sistrum in one hand and a situla in the other, some of these situlae conspicuously breast-shaped.

An Egyptian situla or washeb

An Egyptian situla or washeb

The situla is not exclusive to the religion of Isis. From approximately the 19th dynasty onward, these small ritual buckets, washeb in Egyptian, were used to carry offerings of Nile water or milk in the cults of many Egyptian Deities. A text from Denderah that describes rites for Osiris specifically mentions a “situla of gold.” Situlae were usually decorated with scenes involving fertility, nourishment, or the cult of the specific Deity for Whom there were being used.

Scenes on the situale might include images of the nurturing Cow Goddess, images that suggest fertility, such as the plump Nile God or a Child God on a lotus, or sexual images such as the ithyphallic God Min. It seems clear that the breast or womb-like vessel was associated with the nurturing, fertile, and sexual aspects of the Divine—and thus very appropriate to Isis.

While the situla is spoutless, a different type of spouted vessel is also connected with Isis. It is the urnula or hydreion. It is from a later period and found in Isiac representations outside of Egypt.

Roman priestesses and priests of Isis, the urnula is carried by the priestess on the far right

Roman priestesses and priests of Isis; urnulas are carried by the priestesses on the right and left, situlae are carried by the priests

Nonetheless, it was always made to look Egyptian, decorated with Egyptian scenes and hieroglyphs and usually with a rearing cobra on the handle. The urnula was specifically for carrying sacred water, especially sacred Nile water. We don’t know for certain, but it most likely was used to pour libation offerings to the Goddess. In Apuleius’ novelized account of initiation into the Mysteries of Isis, he says that the vessel “represented the Highest Deity.”

A charming vessel in which to store "the milk of a woman who has borne a son"

A charming vessel in the shape of mother and child; it held human milk, which was used in healing medicines

I have argued in Isis Magic, that Isis is one of the Great “Container” Goddesses, that is, one of the Great Mother Goddesses Who Contain All Things.

The concept of the Mother as Great Container is easy to understand. Like the human mother who contains the child and, once born, the milk to nourish it, the Great Mother contains all creatures and provides sustenance for them through the blessings of nature. Judging by the numerous gynomorphic vessels that have been found throughout all regions of the world, the concept of Great Mother as Container of All appears to have been common throughout the prehistoric world.

So, from a specific Isiac vessel, we can take our exploration of Isis to an expanded and more symbolic level. She is at once the Goddess celebrated in feasting and drinking together and She is the Lady of the Vessel and the Great Vessel Herself. She is the All-Containing One Who gives us life and nourishment, in life and in death.

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Posted by: Isidora | March 16, 2019

Isis Great of Magic; Iset Werethekau

“Great of Magic” is absolutely my favorite and most-used epithet of the Goddess. It is Her power name. It is the one that gives me tingles at the back of my neck when I say it. It is the one that invokes Her deepest core, Her magical heart, the ones that makes me want to kiss the ground before Her beautiful and fierce face. I have turned several Sakhmet sacred images into Werethekau for my altar with the addition of a serpent around Their shoulders. You’ll see why that works below.

“O, Isis, Great of Magic, deliver me from all bad, evil, and typhonic things…”                                                  —Ebers Papyrus, 1500 BCE

Werethekau as a winged Cobra Goddess

Werethekau as a winged Cobra Goddess (photo by Mark Williams)

One of Isis’ most powerful epithets is “Great of Magic,” which you may also see translated as Great One of Magic, Great Sorceress, or Great Enchantress. In Egyptian, it is Weret Hekau or Werethekau. (“Wer” is “great” and “et” is the feminine ending. “Hekau” is the plural of “magic,” so you could also translate it as Great of Magics.)

Isis is not the only Goddess Who is called Great of Magic. Many of the Great Goddesses bear that epithet, too: Hathor, Sakhmet, Mut, Wadjet, among others. Gods are also Great of Magic, notably Set in the Pyramid Texts.

Werethekau from Karnak

Werethekau from Karnak

There is also an independent Goddess named Werethekau. As so many Deities were, She was associated with the king, and especially during his coronation. There had been some doubt among Egyptologists about whether Werethekau was indeed a separate Goddess. But recently, Ahmed Mekawy Ouda of Cairo University has been doing a lot of work tracking Her down. He’s gathered references to a priesthood and temples for Her that seem quite clear. More on all that in a moment.

In addition to the Great of Magic Deities, there are objects called Great of Magic, especially objects associated with the king, such as the royal crowns. In the Pyramid Texts, the king goes before a very personified Red Crown:

“The Akhet’s door has been opened, its doorbolts have drawn back. He has come to you, Red Crown; he has come to you, Fiery One; he has come to you, Great One; he has come to you, Great of Magic—clean for you and fearful because of you . . . He has come to you, Great of Magic: he is Horus, encircled by the aegis of his eye, the Great of Magic.”

                                      —Pyramid Texts of Unis, 153

A Lioness-headed Werethekau from Karnak

A lioness-headed Werethekau from Karnak

Some amulets, including a vulture amulet, a cobra amulet, and, as in the example above, the Eye of Horus amulet are also called Great of Magic. So is the adze used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony.

With all this great magic going for him or her, the king or queen becomes Great of Magic, too. King Pepi Neferkare is told, “Horus has made your magic great in your identity of Great of Magic” (Pyramid Texts of Pepi, 315). Queen Neith is told, “Horus has made your magic great in your identity of Great of Magic. You are the Great God” (Pyramid Texts of Neith, 225).

I wonder whether there might be some primordial connection between the Great of Magic royal crowns and the Great of Magic royal throne—Who is Iset, the Goddess Throne. Perhaps we can understand the accouterments of kingship as personified extensions of the Power, Divinity, and Magic of the Living Great Goddesses, which were empowered by Them in order to bestow upon the king his own power, divinity, and magic.

A cobra-headed Werethekau...also from Karnak. Lots of Great of Magics at Karnak, eh?

A cobra-headed Werethekau…also from Karnak. Lots of Great of Magics at Karnak, eh? Or should that be Greats of Magic?

The magic of the crowns is enhanced by the protective uraeus serpents often shown upon them. They’re not just snakes, of course; They’re Goddesses. Most often, the Uraeus Goddesses are Wadjet and Nekhbet or Isis and Nephthys, representing Lower and Upper Egypt. But Werethekau is a Uraeus Goddess, too. The uraei are also known as “Eyes” due to the similarity between the Egyptian word for “eye” (iret) and the word for “the doer” (iret)—for the Eyes of the Deities are the Divine Powers that go out to do things (much like the active and feminine Shakti power in Hinduism.)

The Pyramid Texts of King Merenre associate the Eyes with the crowns:

“You are the god who controls all the Gods, for the Eye has emerged in your head as the Nile Valley Great-of-Magic Crown, the Eye has emerged in your head as the Delta Great-of-Magic Crown, Horus has followed you and desired you, and you are apparent as the Dual King, in control of all the Gods and Their kas as well.”                                               

                                           —Pyramid Texts of Merenre, 52

The human-headed Cobra Goddess Werethekau nursing Tutankhamum

The human-headed Cobra Goddess Werethekau nursing Tutankhamum

The Uraeus Goddesses or Eyes are powerful, holy cobras Who emit Light and spit Fire against the enemies of the king and the Deities. More about Isis as Uraeus Goddess here.

When Werethekau is an independent Goddess, She may have the body of a woman and head of a cobra, be in full cobra form, and we even have a few instances of the Goddess in full human form. Among Tutankhamun’s grave goods is a figure of Werethekau with a human head and cobra body nursing a child Tut.

She also has a lioness form. We know of a lionine Isis-Werethekau from the hypostyle hall at Karnak. A number of the Goddesses with a feline form—Sakhmet, Mut, Pakhet—were also known as Great of Magic, so we can understand that powerful magic has not only a protective and nurturing side, but also a fierce and raging one. Which seems about right if you ask me; magic can be very positive and healing or, if used unwisely, a real mess.

Isis-Werethekau from the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak

Isis-Werethekau from the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. You can read Her name in the hieroglyphs above Her. Click to enlarge.

So far, I haven’t tracked down the oldest reference to Isis as Great of Magic. Since She has always been a Goddess of great magical power, the association is ancient. Perhaps it has always been. Perhaps there’s something to my guess about The Great-of-Magic Throne. Or perhaps Professor Ouda will come to my rescue when I finally get a copy of his thesis.

In Ouda’s article outlining some of the references to Werethekau’s priesthood and temples, several of the extant references to Werethekau also tie-in Isis and Her Divine family.

For instance, on a stele of a chantress of Isis, the chantress is shown playing the sistrum and adoring Isis-Werethekau. The inscription reads, “adoring Werethekau, may They [Isis and Werethekau?] give life and health to the ka of the chantress of Isis, Ta-mut-neferet.”

Ta-mut-neferet holds the hand of a man identified as “the servant of Osiris.”  Another stele calls Werethekau “Lady of the Palace” and is dedicated by a chantress of Osiris, Horus, and Isis. A man who was Second God’s Servant of Osiris, God’s Servant of Horus, and God’s Servant of Isis was also God’s Servant of Werethekau, Lady of the Palace.

Iset Werethekau in hieroglyphs...three different ways

Iset Werethekau in hieroglyphs…three different ways

Ouda also notes that Lady of the Palace may be Werethekau’s most common epithet. That is quite interesting in light of the fact that Lady of the Palace (or House or Temple) is the very meaning of Nephthys’ name. (Learn more about that here.) And of course, She, too, is called Great of Magic. Together, Isis and Nephthys are the Two Uraeus Goddesses and the Two Great of Magics.

So if the question is, “is Werethekau an independent Goddess, a personified object, or an epithet of other Deities?”, the answer is, “yes”. With the beautiful and, to my mind, admirable fluidity of the Egyptian Divine, She is all these things…and most especially, a powerful aspect of Isis, the Great Enchantress.

Posted by: Isidora | March 9, 2019

Is Isis a Moon Goddess or a Sun Goddess?

A lovely painting of a lunar Isis by artist Katana Leigh. Visit her site here.

A lovely painting of a lunar Isis by artist Katana Leigh. Visit her site here.

As we fast approach the time when Night and Day, Moon and Sun come into a brief and beautiful balance, I’d like to share this post about Isis’ lunar and solar natures.

Modern Pagans often think of Isis as a Moon Goddess. And, it’s true, in later periods of Her worship, She was indeed associated with the Moon—and, in fact, that’s how She entered the Western Esoteric Tradition. The Isis-Moon connection first started when Egypt came under Greek rule in the 3rd century BCE, following the conquest by Alexander the Great. To the Greeks, Goddesses were the lunar Deities, so as Isis made Her way into Greek culture and hearts, Her new devotees naturally associated Her with the Moon.

In Egypt, Osiris, Khons, Thoth, and I’ah were the Deities most associated with the Moon. Isis, for Her part, was connected with the star Sirius as far back as the Pyramid Texts; the star was said to be Her ba, or soul. Yet Isis is also linked with the Sun.

As the Sun was the image of one of the most important Gods to the ancient Egyptians, it should not be surprising to find that Isis, one of the most important Goddesses, also has strong solar connections. In some places—notably, Her famous temple at Philae—Isis was worshipped specifically as a Sun Goddess. Among Her solar epithets are Female Re (Re-et) and Female Horus (Horet).

Phoenix by the famous illustrator Boris Vallejo; looks like a rather Isiac phoenix to me!

Phoenix by the famous illustrator Boris Vallejo; looks like a rather Isiac phoenix to me!

Isis’ most common solar manifestation is as the Eye of Re, the Uraeus, the Cobra Goddess Who coils upon the Sun God’s brow to protect Him; and Who fights a constant cosmic battle against His great opponent, Apop (Gr. Apophis). An inscription at Philae calls Isis “Neseret [fiery]-serpent on the head of Horus-Re, Eye of Re, the Unique Goddess, Uraeus.” A hymn from Philae calls Her “Eye of Re who has no equal in heaven and on earth.” The Eye of Re is His active power. While He maintains His place in the sky, the solar power—the Eye Goddess—goes forth to manifest His Divine will. In this way, Isis and the other Uraeus Goddesses (such as Nephthys, Wadjet, and Tefnut) are similar to Shakti, the active, feminine Power related to the God Shiva in some Hindu sects. Isis is also one of the Deities Who travels with Re in His solar barque as it moves through the Otherworld. Again, Her function is to protect Him and help battle His foes.

A vintage illustration of Isis learning the name of Re by H. m. Brock.

A vintage illustration of Isis learning the name of Re by H. m. Brock.

Isis is also associated with the Sun God and the Sun in several of Her important myths. In the tale of Isis and Re, Isis gains power equal to Re’s by learning His secret name, first by poisoning, then by healing the ailing God. In another, with Her magical Words of Power, Isis stops the Boat of the Sun in the sky in order to receive aid for Her poisoned child, Horus.

But it was at Isis’ influential temple at Philae that She was most clearly worshipped as a Sun Goddess and even as the Sun itself. A Philae hymn to Isis praises Her saying, “You are the one who rises and dispels darkness, shining when traversing the primeval ocean, the Brilliant One in the celestial waters, traveling in the barque of Re.” An inscription on the first pylon (gate) at Philae says Isis is the “One Who illumines the Two Lands with Her radiance, and fills the earth with gold-dust.” (I absolutely adore this praise of Her!)

Like many other Egyptian Deities, Isis was often envisioned with immortal, golden, solar skin. Some of Her sacred images would have been covered with gold, earning Her, like Hathor, the epithets The Gold and the Golden One. A Philae hymn addresses Her, “O Golden One; Re, the possessor of the Two Lands, will never be far from you.” Some scholars believe that the holy of holies at Philae may have once been gold-leafed so that it always appeared filled with golden, solar light. O how I would love to have seen that.

At Her Philae temple, Isis is first of those in heaven: “Hail to you, Isis, Great of Magic, eldest in the womb of her mother, Nuet, Mighty in Heaven Before Re.” She is the “Sun Goddess in the circuit of the sun disk” and Her radiance outshines even that of Re.

From Her great temple at Philae, Isis’ identity as a Sun Goddess flowed back up the Nile to Her temples at Memphis and Isiopolis in the delta. From there, it entered into the Graeco-Roman culture in the famous aretalogies (self-statements) of Isis. From a papyrus found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, we learn that one of Isis’ many names is Name of the Sun and that She is responsible for the rising of the Sun:  “Thou [Isis] bringest the sun from rising unto setting, and all the Gods are glad.” In an aretalogy from Kyme, in modern Turkey, Isis says of Herself, “I ordered the course of the sun and the moon.” And later in the same text She says, “I am in the rays of the sun” and “I inspect the courses of the sun.”

Throughout Her worship, Isis has always shown Her life giving, fructifying power in the image of the Sun. She is the Radiant Goddess, the Lady of Sunlight.

Now enjoy this lovely animation of Isis birthing the Sun by Lesley Keen:

Posted by: Isidora | March 2, 2019

Sexuality, Sacred Sexuality & Isis Part 2

A Romano-Egyptian vessel in the form of Isis-Aphrodite, saying "hello."
A Romano-Egyptian vessel in the form of Isis-Aphrodite

Last time we saw that there is no evidence for temple prostitution in ancient Egypt. Yet we still find writers (usually well-meaning ones discussing sacred sexuality) who tell us that Isis spent ten years as a prostitute in Tyre, that She was beloved by prostitutes, and that Her temples were located near brothels and were reputed to be good places to meet prostitutes.

Where does all that come from?

Well, this is definitely one of those “consider the source” situations.

The bit about prostitution in Tyre is from Epiphanius, a 4th century CE Christian bishop writing against what he sees as heresies. He complains about the sister-brother marriage of Isis and Osiris then launches into the prostitution accusation. There’s no other evidence of this story circulating at the time. He may have made it up. He may have confused Isis with Astarte or even with Simon Magus’ muse Helena, who was a prostitute in Tyre (before being recognized as the Thought of God and the reincarnation of Helen of Troy and rescued by the magician; but that’s a whole other story).

The “tradition” connecting Isis with prostitutes and prostitution comes from a couple of sources; both worthy of clear-eyed consideration (see above). Cyril, Christian bishop of Alexandria in the 5th century CE wrote that “the Egyptians,” especially the women (!!!), when they were made initiates of the religion of Isis “are deemed worthy of honor—therefore of wantonness.” (On Adoration in Spirit and Truth, 9) But before him, a number of Roman poets and satirists made such claims in relation to devotion to Isis. Her temples were supposed to be great places to meet loose women. And then there was the famous Isiac scandal, told by the Jewish historian Josephus, in which a Roman matron was supposedly tricked into going to the Temple of Isis so that “Anubis” could sleep with her.

Isis-Aphrodite, a Roman bronze from the 1st or 2nd century CE
Isis-Aphrodite, a Roman bronze from the 1st or 2nd century CE

When you look more closely into these accusations and put them in context, you see that the poets complained not only of temples of Isis, but of anywhere in Rome where women either gathered (the temples of a wide variety of Goddesses as well as just about any public space, for instance) or went to protect their interests (such as courts of law). If women are allowed to run around loose, lewdness is sure to follow.

It’s pure misogyny, folks. (One of these poets, the appropriately named Juvenal, wrote a poem called Against Women, in case I have not already made myself sufficiently clear.)

Without seeing the irony, several of these poets would write about sexual immorality and the temples of Isis, then turn around and complain when their mistresses would abstain from sex for a period of ten days as part of their devotion to Isis. (This period of abstention was known as the Castimonium Isidis or “Chastity of Isis.” Surely it was intended as a purification prior to some important Isiac rite.)

In fact, we have far more evidence for morality and chastity among Roman Isiacs than we do for sexual promiscuity. I’m sure it happened. Humans. Sex. But it wasn’t part of the temple proceedings.

So now we know. But that was Rome, and rather late. What about Egypt?

Ecstatic dance for Hathor
Ecstatic dance for Hathor

We know there were exuberant religious celebrations that included drinking and dancing in Egypt. In the 5th century BCE, Herodotus notes a celebration for Bastet in which boats full of men and women traveled to Bubastis, laughing, singing, clapping, rattling (sistra?) and playing flutes, the women hurling ritual abuse at other women along the riverbank and some raising their skirts to expose themselves to the crowd. The historian notes that more wine was drunk during that festival than all the rest of the year. You know there was some drunken sex going on. Surely this was a festival meant to inspire fertility in the land and in the people. I’ll bet it did, too. Festivals of drunkenness were also celebrated for Hathor. And a recently discovered and translated papyrus, dating back 1900 years, appears to be a fictional story about a devotee of Mut who seduces someone into joining the sexy, drunken festivities for that Goddess.

Isis as the kite settled on the phallus of Osiris, from Abydos
Isis as the kite settled on the phallus of Osiris, from Abydos

I’m not aware of a festival of drunkenness for Isis. The emotionalism associated with Her cult is the sorrow of lamentation—and eventually the joy of reunion with the Beloved. But there is good reason to think of Isis and sex. After all, She is one of the Deities to Whom one prayed for children; and naturally, one must take physical-world action along with one’s prayers. Furthermore, the story of Isis and Osiris has at its heart a sexual coupling. The Goddess magically resurrects Her husband in order that They may make love one last time and so conceive Their child, Horus.

A very unusual 2002 find at Osiris’ temple at Abydos may provide some information. It appears to be a votive offering and shows a woman and man having intercourse. Unlike most Egyptian representations of sex, it is neither crude nor satirical. The man is particularly well endowed, and in contrast to most male-female depictions, the woman is shown larger than the man. Because of the fragmentary nature of the carving, we can’t be sure what sexual position is intended, but it may be that she is straddling him. If so, then perhaps this is because she is intended to be in the Isis (or Nuet) position of woman-on-top.

A clearer picture of the same; Isis comes to make love and bring life to Osiris
A clearer picture of the same; Isis comes to make love and bring life to Osiris

Best guess is that it was a votive offering to promote fertility, even though such offerings were usually in the form of a phallus or a “fertility figure” (such as one of the big-haired wasp-waisted “paddle” dolls). There was a separate shrine of Isis at Abydos, but  archeologists studying the votive have suggested that there might have also been an Isis shrine in the Osiris temple itself and thus the sexual votive would be even more appropriate. Sex is crucial to Isis and Osiris as well as to the Egyptian dead. Sex is part of the magic of renewal and rebirth. It is the magic Isis works with Osiris. It is the magic the Goddess in Her many names works for the dead. (See my post on Isis as a sexy Goddess here.)

In the early days of my relationship with Isis, one of the things She asked of me was that my lovemaking be given in Her name. Now, it could be that the researchers’ guess is correct and that the votive was an offering made to ask for fertility. But perhaps this unusual and somehow poignant votive offering was an expression of the same sort of thing that Isis asked of me so long ago. Perhaps it is a reminder that lovemaking is sacred, that it is a vital part of Isis’ magic of renewal, and that we should honor it as She does.

Posted by: Isidora | February 23, 2019

Sexuality, Sacred Sexuality & Isis; Part I

Egyptians...having sex!
Egyptians…having sex!

Today’s repost is inspired by a Facebook friend’s question about Isis and sex. So let’s dive into that a little bit. We can use having just passed Valentine’s Day and approaching spring—when all things, including love, bloom once more—as an excuse. As if we need one.

If you’ve ever looked into the topic of ancient Egyptian sexuality, you’ll know that they were pretty comfortable with sexuality. Sex was part of the great cycle of creation, life, death, and rebirth. You’ve no doubt read some of the famous ancient Egyptian love poetry with passionate lines like these:

“Your love has penetrated all within me, like honey plunged into water.” “To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me—I draw life from hearing it.” 

As well as some that are an appreciation of the sheer physical beauty of the beloved:

Of course the lotus was a symbol of sexuality
Yes, of course the lotus was a symbol of sexuality!

“Sister without rival, most beautiful of all, she looks like the star-goddess, rising at the start of the good New Year. Perfect and bright, shining skin, seductive in her eyes when she glances, sweet in her lips when she speaks, and never a word too many. Slender neck, shining body, her hair is true lapis, her arm gathers gold, her fingers are like lotus flowers, ample behind, tight waist, her thighs extend her beauty, shapely in stride when she steps on the earth.”

We have such poetic passion from the perspective of both the woman and the man. Before marriage, young men and women seem to have had freedom in their love affairs. After marriage, fidelity was expected, though it went much worse for the woman—including death—if she was caught in infidelity. The ancient Egyptians present a puzzling picture when it comes to homosexuality. On one hand, we have copies of the negative confession in which the (male) deceased declares that he has not had sex with a boy. Because he had to declare it, can we assume that some men were having sex with boys? That I do not know. The only reference to lesbianism comes from a dream-interpretation book in which it is bad omen for a woman to dream of being with another woman. And most references to man-on-man sex refer to the rape to which a victor may subject the vanquished enemy.

Royal servants and confidents of the king...and most likely, a gay couple.
Royal servants and confidents of the king…and most likely, a gay couple.

And yet we have two instances of what seems to indicate a consensual homosexual relationship that seem to be okay: King Neferkare goes off with his general and it is implied that they do so for sex. We also have the tomb of what used to be called The Two Brothers. More modern researchers have suggested that the men, who were royal servants and confidents, were a gay couple. This is based on their tomb paintings, which show them embracing each other or in placements usually reserved for a husband and wife. The men are shown with their children, but their wives, the mothers of the children, are very de-emphasized, almost to the point of being erased. Some scholars say, yes, they probably were a gay couple, other say no.

Yet I want to talk not about ancient Egyptian sexuality in general, but about sexuality and religion, and especially sexuality in relation to Isis.

Temple Prostitution? Nope.

First, let us put the whole “temple prostitutes” thing right out of our heads when it comes to Egypt. There is no evidence of the practice in Egypt. Yes, I know. It was very exciting for the old gentlemen to contemplate the ever-so-Pagan goings on in those richly colored temples in days of old. But it may not have been quite how the old gentlemen envisioned it. (Please see my kindly rant on the old gentlemen of Egyptology here.) In fact, the one specific reference comes from the Greek geographer and historian Strabo (64 or 63 BCE-24 CE). Here’s the passage in its Loeb 1930s translation:

Min was associated with Isis at Koptos
Min was associated with Isis at Koptos

“…but to Zeus, whom they hold highest in honor, they dedicate a maiden of greatest beauty and most illustrious family (such maidens are called ‘pallades’ by the Greeks); and she prostitutes [or “concubines,” pallakeue] herself, and cohabits [or “has sex” synestin] with whatever men she wishes until the natural cleansing of her body takes place; and after her cleansing she is given in marriage to a man; but before she is married, after the time of her prostitution, a rite of mourning is celebrated for her.” (Strabo, Geographies, 17.1.46)

Well, it’s right there, ain’t it? But let’s take another look. The keys are the Greek word pallades that Strabo says the Greeks called such maidens, its relation to another Greek word, pallakê, and how it was translated, and the old gentlemen who did the original translating.

Pallades means simply “young women” or “maidens.” As in Pallas Athena. Virginity is often implied, but it doesn’t have to be. Pallakê originally meant the same thing; a maiden. However, pallakê had long been translated as “concubine” due to contextual evidence in some non-Egyptian texts. A highly influential scholar of near eastern and biblical texts, William Mitchell Ramsay—one of our old gentlemen, indeed—took the term to mean “sacred prostitute” and so-translated it when he first published these non-Egyptian texts in 1883. He based the translation on his own belief in ancient sacred prostitution and two Strabo passages: one about Black Sea sacred prostitutes and the one about the pallades we’re discussing. Ramsay was so influential that his definition became the reigning one. THE Greek-English dictionary, by Liddell and Scott, had “concubine for ritual purposes” as the first definition of pallakê. Now it is the second one.

"Offering to Isis" by Sir Edward john Poynter, 1866; more like our young  palladê?
“Offering to Isis” by Sir Edward John Poynter, 1866; more like our young palladê perhaps?

A non-sexualized translation of the Strabo passage has been made by Stephanie Budin in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World, edited by Christopher Farone and Laura McClure. Here it is:

“But for Zeus [Amun], whom they honor most, a most beautiful maiden of most illustrious family serves as priestess, [girls] whom the Greeks call ‘pallades’; and she serves as a handmaiden and accompanies whomever (or attends whatever) she wishes until the natural cleansing of her body; and after her cleansing she is given to a man (or husband); but before she is given, a rite of mourning is celebrated for her after the time of her handmaiden service.”

Sounds quite different, doesn’t it? Would it not be more likely that a highborn girl who has not yet had her period would serve as a handmaiden in the temple, attending whatever rites she wishes—perhaps even getting an education—until she proves herself marriageable by having her first period, rather than expecting an inexperienced girl to immediately start having sex with “whomever she wishes”? (And who would that be in the temple; the priests who were supposed to abstain from sex during their temple service?) Even the “rite of mourning” is explicable as a kind of farewell to childhood that the young woman would celebrate with her fellow handmaidens and priestesses as she left the temple to take up her married life.

And besides, sex in an Egyptian temple was taboo. Even Herodotus knew of the prohibition against sex in Egyptian temples when he says that the Egyptians were the first to make it a matter of religion not to have sex in temples and to wash after having sex and before entering a temple. (Histories, 2.64)

Alternatively, Budin wonders whether Strabo might have been hearing stories about the Divine Adoratrice or God’s Wife of Amun, powerful and high-ranking priestesses of the centuries before Strabo’s visit. But at least in the later dynasties, these priestesses were celibate and tended to rule long past their first menstrual period.

Sacred Sexuality? Yep.

Well, I didn’t know I was going on so much of a tear today. It seems I have used up all of today’s time and space—and haven’t even gotten to Isis yet. So we’ll do that next time with more on sexuality in Egyptian religion…and we will indeed get to Isis.

Posted by: Isidora | February 16, 2019

Isis Names: Is Your Next Magical Name in This List?

Isis on the foot of the outer coffin of the mummy of Ankh-Wennefer, Washington State History Museum; photo by Joe Mabel, wikicommons
Isis on the coffin of Ankh-Wennefer, WA St. History Museum; photo by Joe Mabel, wikicommons

Let’s talk about theophoric names.

You may have spotted that “theophoric” is a Greek word; it means “Deity-bearing.” In other words, the name of a Deity is incorporated into the name of a human being. Isidora is an example. It means “Gift of Isis.” In the ancient world, a name like that would probably have meant that the parents credited the Goddess with helping them conceive, so the child was Her gift. Since for me Isidora is a “taken” name rather than a given one, I take it to mean that the Goddess has given me many gifts.

This is the most common hieroglypic writing of Isis' name in Egyptian.
This is the most common hieroglypic writing of Isis’ name in Egyptian.

Of course, the simplest form of naming for the Goddess would be to just adopt Her name. There was at least one ancient Egyptian queen named Isis (Iset, in Egyptian), a queen mother named Isis, and a God’s Wife of Amun named Isis (who was also a royal princess). There may have been a whole slew of ordinary Egyptians so named, but alas, we have no records of them.

I recently came across a cache of other Isis-bearing names, some of which I’d like to share with you. They’re in Kockelmann’s Praising the Goddess. Rather than stringing you along for a paragraph or two, I want to cut right to the chase and tell you about the best Isiac theophoric name EVER.

The awesome scene from "The Mummy" when the statue of Isis raises the ankh to save Her reincarnated priestess from a lovestruck but murderous mummy
The awesome scene from “The Mummy” when the statue of Isis raises the ankh to save Her reincarnated priestess from a lovestruck but murderous mummy

Why is it the best Isiac theophoric name ever? Well, I must digress for a moment to explain. Those of you who have been reading along may know that I have a thing for the original Boris Karloff Mummy movie. See here and here. (Oh, I know. Bad Egyptology, blah, blah, blah. Sorry, it’s awesome; it scared the ever-lovin’ b-jezus outta me as a kid, and Isis saves the day in the end. What more do you want?)

So in The Mummy, the name of the princess reincarnated in Helen Grosvenor (played by Zita Johann, who actually was something of an occultist) is Ankhesenamon (Ankh-es-en-Amon). That theophoric name means “She Lives for Amun.”

Well, we also have records of an Ankh-es-en-Iset: “She Lives for Isis.” Oh my Goddess! I think I’m going to have to adopt that as my super-secret Isiac name or something. Ankheseniset! Two of my favorite things have come together in one very magical name!

Whew. Calm down, girl. In fact, that’s not the only very cool Isophoric personal name of which we a record. Here are a few others that you may also enjoy:

Isetneferet (Iset-neferet)—”Isis is Beautiful”

Isetaneferet (Iset-ta-neferet)—”Isis the Beautiful”

Panehemiset (Pa-nehem-Iset)—”He Who is Saved by Isis”

Nehemsejiset (Nehem-sej-Iset)—”Isis Saved Her”

Isetweretayesnekht (Iset-Weret-tay-es-nekht)—”Great Isis is Her Strength” (Kockelmann gives it as “Isis the Great is Her Power”)

Tadjaisetankh (Ta-dja-Iset-ankh)—”Isis Gives Life”

Taheniset (Ta-hen-Iset)—”She Who is Entrusted to Isis”

Paremetiset (Pa-remet-Iset)—”The Man of Isis”

Taremetisest (Ta-remet-Iset)—”The Woman of Isis”

Paeniset (Pa-en-Iset)—”He is Isis’s” or “He Belongs to Isis”

Taeniset (Ta-en-Iset)—”She is Isis’s” or “She Belongs to Isis”

Saiset (Sa-Iset)—”Son of Isis”

Satiset (Sat-Iset)—”Daughter of Isis”

Khajiset (Khaj-Iset)—”Isis Appeared/May Isis Appear”

Isetemrenpy (Iset-em-renpy)—”Isis is Rejuvenation”

Isetiyet (Iset-iy-et)—”Isis Has Come”

Djediset (Djed-Iset)—”Isis Said” (perhaps a shortened form of “Isis Said: He Will Live” and referring to an ill child who recovered; I kinda like it as is, though)

And the Egyptian version of Isidora: Shepeniset (Shep-en-Iset)—”Gift of Isis”

Looking at these names, it won’t come as a surprise that Egyptians were big on shortening their names and calling each other by nicknames.

Of course, I’d never shorten Ankheseniset…

A beautiful Isis by Russian artist Nicholas Burdykin
A regal-looking Isis by Russian artist Nicholas Burdykin. See more of his work here.

And on a sad update to the original post: the original post included a paragraph about how wonderful it was that parents were naming children “Isis” once more. This is no longer true. Instead, we hear stories about girls who are named Isis being bullied because of their names. You know why. I will not give it power by writing it. Such ignorance. Yet She will outlast them. And children will bear Her name once more, in its Greek form or in its original Egyptian one. Amma, Iset.

Posted by: Isidora | February 9, 2019

The Goddess Isis & the Virtue of Tolerance

I don’t have to tell you that we are living in divided times. I don’t have to tell you that we are living in intolerant times. I don’t even have to tell you that many people today think tolerance—political or religious—is a bad thing. Yet in my stubborn heart, I still believe it’s a virtue. Especially in a religious context, and even knowing all its attendant problems.

Yes. Religious tolerance is hard.

thomas_jefferson_on_religious_tolerance_bumper_sticker-p128998325021674241en8y3_400

And it always has been. Even in a polytheistic world where people were used to dealing with a variety of religious expressions.

For instance, Greek comic playwrights often made fun of the religious practices of Egyptians, usually focusing on their reverence for animals as manifestations of the Divine. This 4th-century-BCE bit by Anaxandrides of Rhodes, who won many awards for his work, is an example. He writes as Demos (“the people”) to Egypt:

I couldn’t have myself allied with you. Our ways and customs differing as they do. I sacrifice to Gods; to bulls you kneel. Your greatest God’s our greatest treat: the eel. You don’t eat pork; it’s quite my favorite meat. You worship your dog, mine I always beat when he’s caught stealing. Priests stay whole with us; with you they’re gelded eunuchs. If poor puss appears in pain, you weep; I kill and skin her. To me, the mouse is nought, you see ‘power’ in her.

Some Egyptians, on the other hand, considered Greeks whipper-snapper-know-nothings when it came to religion and declared that anything that came out of a Greek mouth was just a lot of hot air.

Mummy portraits from Egypt's Fayoum, an area where Greeks and Egyptians mixed freely and intermarried
Mummy portraits from Egypt’s Fayoum, an area where Greeks and Egyptians mixed freely and intermarried.

Religious tolerance is hard precisely because our religion, our Deity or Deities, our practices, our beliefs and experiences are so close to our hearts. In many cases, they are cherished building blocks of our lives. If religion is central to our lives, it is also likely to be central to our self-definition. If someone attacks (or, in some cases, even questions) our religion, it seems they are attacking our core self. That not only hurts on a feeling level, it actually seems life-threatening. The chest tightens as the heart speeds up. Nerves jangle. The belly feels sick. Fight-or-flight kicks in—and we often find ourselves coming down on the side of fight. I know I’ve been there, too.

A painting on a funeral cloth from Saqqara Egypt, 180 CE
A painting on a funeral cloth from Saqqara Egypt, 180 CE

Yet, as far as I know, no wars were fought over Greek and Egyptian religious differences. The grandfather of Lycurgus (an Athenian politician from 338-326 BCE) may have been influential in bringing the Egyptian religion of Isis to Athens. Apparently his grandson suffered no discrimination on account of his family’s connection with Egyptian cult—apart from the jabs of the comics. Ancient priestesses and priests often simultaneously served very different Deities without betraying any of Them. The historian Herodotus was able to casually say that Isis “is called Demeter by the Greeks.”

That kind of syncretism, which happened to an astonishing degree with Isis, is one of the ways the ancient religion of Isis modeled religious tolerance. It wasn’t a matter of my-Goddess-is-better-than-your-Goddess; it was a translation of the Goddess from one culture to another. In the bustling world of the Mediterranean, people were used to translating languages. Why not translate Deities? And so they did. And so Isis became known as Isis Myrionymos, Isis of the Myriad Names. In Isis, with Her uncountable number of names, people could see THE Goddess—in all Her many expressions. Isiacism also modeled social tolerance in its acceptance of both women and men, rich and poor, slave and free. In late Isiacism, there was even a tradition of the freeing of slaves through a “sale” to Isis and Sarapis. Freedom and tolerance go hand-in-hand.

I like this a lot
I like this a lot

The modern Fellowship of Isis maintains this type of wide-open religious tolerance. All one must do is to be able to accept the organization’s Manifesto to become a member. To some, this tolerance may seem too chaotic, too accepting; yet it has enabled this modern group to survive for many years, even as it has suffered through the types of internal struggles to which all groups seem inevitably subject.

But how can we maintain the virtue of tolerance when faced with intolerance from others? What do we do when accused of “devil worship,” like the Isis devotees who were accused by some early Christians in Alexandria of worshipping “a dark, Egyptian devil?” How do we handle the current intolerance-based horrors throughout the world? Or, on a much less deadly, but often quite hurtful level, how do we navigate the Neopagan community’s current growing pains as groups of people seek to differentiate themselves from (though I would hope within) the greater community? I’ve been quite surprised at the lack of tolerance I’ve seen in some of these discussions. But I guess it gets back to that close-to-the-heart thing.

Oh, how I wish I had an answer.

Friends and I sometimes play a game in which we choose one thing to change about the world and discuss the implications of that change. True religious tolerance is the magical change of heart that I often wish upon the world. By no means would it solve the world’s problems (poverty, war), but it might just give us enough space to get our heads out of our asses above water long enough that we could at least start to solve them.

Religious tolerance isn’t easy. In some cases, it doesn’t even seem possible. But that doesn’t mean we give up. We take some deep breaths. We remember that Isis lives. We explain it; again. Sometimes we walk away from an un-winnable argument. And in the political part of our lives, we work for civil justice.

1world
Posted by: Isidora | February 2, 2019

Iphis, Ianthe, and Isis, the LGBT-friendly Goddess

This is one of my favorite posts. It has been criticized for being a too-modern interpretation of an ancient tale. The tale itself is merely a retelling and paraphrase from a translation of Ovid; so that is as it is. And yes, my interpretation is indeed modern. But reinterpretation is itself part of our Pagan heritage. Look at how philosophers reinterpreted ancient myths so they were relevant to their own thought. In Egypt, scribes made notes in the margins of older written texts, explaining the ancient symbols and stories for their own age. Because that is the power of the tale, the power of myth, the power of story. The core of it remains the same, but when we look at it with our modern eyes and take it into our modern hearts, we discover our own interpretations, enabling ancient myth to live for us today.

Hear now the tale of Iphis and Ianthe, told by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE -17/18 CE):

In the Phaestos region of Crete, lived a couple named Ligdus and Telethusa. Telethusa was pregnant and near to her time. As the birth of their child approached, Ligdus told Telethusa that he wished for her two things: first, that the birth cause her no pain, and second, that the child be a boy. For if the child wasn’t a boy, he commanded Telethusa to put her to death. (Girls were too much trouble and weak, you see.) Then they both wept.

Crying herself to sleep, Telethusa dreamed. She dreamed of Isis. Accompanied by the entire Egyptian retinue, the Goddess came and spoke to Telethusa:

“O, you who belong to Me, forget your heavy cares and do not obey your husband. When Lucina [Roman Goddess of Childbirth] has eased the birth, whatever sex the child has, do not hesitate to raise it. I am the Goddess, Who, when prevailed upon, brings help and strength: you will have no cause to complain that the Divinity you worshipped lacks gratitude.”

Isis comes to Telethusa in a dream

The child, of course, was a girl. Obeying the Goddess, Telethusa kept the baby and raised her as a boy. Her father even named her after his grandfather, Iphis. As Iphis was a name appropriate for either boy or girl, the mother secretly rejoiced. As Iphis grew, her features were such that she would have been considered beautiful whether a boy or a girl.

Time passed and Iphis’ father betrothed Iphis to the lovely Ianthe. The two met when quite young and were taught by the same teachers. From very early on, Iphis and Ianthe loved each other. For her part, Ianthe anticipated marriage to her beautiful Iphis. Iphis, on the other hand, as Ovid puts it, “loved one whom she despaired of being able to have, and this itself increased her passion, a girl on fire for a girl.”

“Ianthe” by J.W. Godward

Iphis wept, railed, and lamented her love for another girl. Iphis does not understand. She calls her passion monstrous and extreme and wants to wish it away—sort of. But eventually, Iphis pulls herself together and gives herself a good talking to. After all, she has almost everything she wants. Both her parents and Ianthe’s are happy with the match, Ianthe herself is happy with the match, and certainly Iphis is happy with the match (though she is afraid of the revelation of the wedding night). So she stops complaining and prays for the wedding to come.

Her mother Telethusa, on the other hand, feared what would happen when the two girls were wed. So she kept putting off the ceremony with a whole series of excuses. Yet finally, the wedding could be delayed no more. In desperation, Telethusa takes Iphis to the Temple of Isis. She throws herself upon the Goddess altar, crying and  praying to Isis for help—for, after all, it was by the word of the Goddess Herself that Iphis lives!

Suddenly, the altar of the Goddess begins to shake. The temple doors tremble. The horns on the headdress of the statue of Isis shine like the moon and the rattling of sistra is heard throughout the temple. Heartened, mother and daughter take their leave of the Goddess. But as Telethusa turns to look at her daughter, she sees that Iphis now has a tanned, less ladylike, complexion, shorter hair, sharper features, and a longer, more masculine stride. Behold! Iphis is transformed into a boy.

In gratitude to Isis, mother and now, son, place a votive tablet in Her temple. And the next day, Iphis and Ianthe wed…and, we presume, lived happily ever after.

Ianthe and Iphis at the Temple of Isis

This story comes from a book called Metamorphoses in which Ovid tells the history of the world from Creation to Julius Caesar in a collection of myths about transformations of one kind or another. It was an immediate bestseller when first published and continues to exert influence and inspire art to this day. One of our best sources for over 250 classical myths, it was a major inspiration for Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.

The story illustrates a number of things about Our Goddess. First, it demonstrates Her soteriological function; Isis is well known as a Savior Goddess in the Roman period, and She saves Iphis and her mother in their time of need. The traditional Isian theme of dream visitation is part of the tale, too. In dream, Isis makes a promise to Telethusa, who “belongs to Her,” and She keeps the promise. Her saving nature, Her communication through dream, and Her ability to be there—in an immediate, even physical way—for Her devotees were all well-known aspects of the religion of classical Isis. But perhaps most importantly, the story shows the power of Isis’ magic.

In this tale, as from the beginning, Isis is the Goddess of Magic. And transformation is specifically one of the things She does. In one of the tales in the Egyptian myth cycle known as the Contendings of Horus and Set, for example, Isis transforms Herself into a beautiful young maiden, an old woman, and Her sacred raptor, the kite (a form She takes quite often, as a matter of fact). In this case, She transforms a girl into a boy; and so Iphis becomes a transgendered Isiac.

We cannot know for certain what Ovid meant to impart by this tale and I don’t want to read too much into it. Yet I feel quite comfortable putting a modern interpretation on it and understanding in it the love of Isis for Her transgendered devotees. Modern priestesses, priests, and devotees of Isis come in all sexual orientations. We all hear the voice of the Goddess. We all feel Her strong wings. We all taste Her magic. She lives in all our hearts.

Posted by: Isidora | January 26, 2019

Why Does Isis Have Wings?

This is one of the most popular posts on this blog. It seems many of us have questions about Isis’ powerful and magical wings. Indeed, the wings of Isis are among Her most dynamic attributes. The widespread wings of the Goddess are the means by which She fans renewed life into Osiris. They are the protection spread out over the deceased in the tomb. Egyptian representations of Isis frequently show Her with wings attached to Her graceful human arms or embroidered into the fabric of the slim-fitting dress that wraps elegantly around Her body. 

Keep me, Isis, in the shadow of Your wings.

So why does Isis have wings? The first and easiest answer is that Isis is a Bird Goddess. Her most important sacred animal is a bird of prey. The Goddess often takes the form of Her sacred raptor; the kestrel (the most common falcon in Egypt) or the black kite.

Isis protecting Osiris with Her wings

In Egyptian art, when Isis and Nephthys are not shown as women, They are shown in full bird-form or sometimes as woman-headed kites or kestrels sitting or hovering by the bier of Osiris. As birds, Isis and Nephthys mourn Osiris, screeching Their shrill bird cries to express Their sorrow. Even quite late, Isis and Nephthys were shown with wings attached to Their arms—which is the way we are most used to seeing Isis’ wings portrayed—or wearing a garment of stylized wings that wrap gracefully around Their bodies.

Kites were connected with funeral customs from at least the beginning of the Old Kingdom, if not earlier. Texts speak of a woman called The Kite who was the Pharaoh’s chief female funerary attendant. She was supposed to remove poisons from the deceased, magically purifying him. Soon there are two Kites—specifically identified as Isis and Nephthys in the Pyramid Texts. The Kites not only lamented and purified Osiris, but also were responsible for ferrying Him to the Otherworld. (It is not until the New Kingdom that we find illustrations of Isis and Nephthys as kestrels.)

The black kite, sacred raptor of Isis

Black kites are fairly large, dark-plumed birds (although they are more brown than deep black) that feed on both live prey and scavenge for carrion. They are sociable, intelligent, and aggressive birds—and would even attack wounded human beings. It may have been the bird’s fierceness that inspired one of the earliest Pharaohs to take the name Kite.

Isis is fierce in protecting both Osiris and Horus. Both Sisters are fierce in Their lamentations for the God. The black kite’s cry—a shrill, plaintive, screeching—may have sounded to the ancient Egyptians like wailing, lamenting women. It may have been that the ancients saw a correspondence between the kite’s scavenging for carrion and Isis’s scavenging for the scattered pieces of Her husband Osiris’ body in order to assemble them for renewal. Or perhaps in the cleverness of the black kite the Egyptians saw a reflection of the cleverness of the Goddess Isis as She tricked the enemy Set time and again.

Isis fans life into Osiris with Her wings
Isis fans life into Osiris with Her wings

On a magical level, Isis’ wings are the means by which She fans renewed life into Osiris. Spread out over the deceased in the tomb, the Wings of Isis protect the dead. Many of those who have connected with Isis in ritual or meditation have known the feeling of Her wings being wrapped protectively about them. Beneath Isis’ wings, we are sheltered in this life and the next. 

For human beings, wings have always exerted a strong fascination and engendered intense longing. We are in awe of the ability of winged creatures to fly under their own power. Even today when flight is available through mechanical means, many people still have “the flying dream.” In the dream, we fly on our own, our arms held out to our sides like huge wings, soaring like great, wild birds. Yet beyond physical flight, wings also commonly symbolize spiritual flight—ascent to the Heavens. And since feelings of rising, floating, or flying upwards can accompany spiritual experience, it is quite natural for cultures throughout the world to conceive of spirit beings—from angels to faeries—as winged.

In Egypt, a very ancient conception of the cosmos envisioned the Heavens as the enormous wings of the great falcon God Horus. These heavenly wings, attached to the disk of the Sun, were a common Egyptian protective motif. In fact, the image of the winged disk of Egypt was so powerful that other peoples, such as the Babylonians and the Hittites, adopted it. Some scholars believe that the beautiful Hebrew biblical phrase “the sun of righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings” may have been inspired by the Egyptian symbol of the winged solar disk.

I love the flying dream!
I love the flying dream!

This protective aspect of the symbol of wings was key in Egyptian thought; so almost invariably, when you see the open wings of a Deity, the wings are intended to protect—and Isis is the protective Goddess par excellence.

Isis mourning with "to fold the wings" gesture
Isis mourning with “to fold the wings” gesture

Furthermore, the Egyptian word for “to fold the wings,” sekhen, also means to embrace. An Egyptian mourning posture mimicked the protective embrace of Osiris by Isis. And surely, it was Isis’ protecting, enfolding, winged arms that the Egyptian mother had in mind when she recited this protective charm for her child: “My arms are over this child—the arms of Isis are over him, as she put her arms over her son Horus.”

Nevertheless, the wings of Isis could also be aggressive, one text tells us that Isis “struck with Her wing” and closed the mouth of a river.

The open wings of Isis can also be related to a posture seen in images of the ancient Egyptian Bird Goddess. This is the posture of the famous Neolithic statuette of a so-called dancing woman with her arms raised in an open curve above her head, and which has become a popular amulet among modern Goddess worshippers. The same posture can be seen in the Goddess figures that ride in the curved boats that were a favorite theme of pre-dynastic Egyptian pottery and petroglyphs.

These statues are usually identified as Nile Goddesses, but she may be a dancing priestess with her arms upraised...perhaps in the Wings of Isis
The Bird Goddess or Her priestess with arms raised to indicate wings

According to Egyptologist Louis Breasted, the posture is typical of Egypt. And although these ancient figures do not have obvious wings, their unwinged but upraised arms foreshadow the winged, upraised arms of Goddesses seen in later Egyptian art. These beak-faced figures are often identified as Bird Goddesses, so perhaps the wings are implied—or they may indicate that the figures represent human priestesses who are imitating their Bird Goddess. Whatever the case, the “wing” stance is a posture of great antiquity and numenosity and many researchers consider it to be characteristic of the Divine Feminine.

If you wish to experiment with the power of Isis’ wings for yourself, try The Wings & Breath of Isis on page 268 of the new edition of Isis Magic.

Posted by: Isidora | January 19, 2019

Is Isis a Moon Goddess?

Will you be able to see the lunar eclipse and “blood moon” tomorrow? Sadly, it looks like it’s going to be a cloudy sky for me, but I hope you will have better viewing conditions. (For a good explanation of the science, visit here.) With the moon in high focus right now, let’s look at Isis’ association with the moon.

So…is Isis a Moon Goddess?

Well, it depends on when you ask.

Early in Egyptian history, Isis was firmly associated with the heavens—with the star Sirius in particular, and even with the sun—but She was not considered a Moon Goddess.

The horns of the Moon Goddess rising

Moon Gods were the norm for Egypt—Iah, Thoth, Khonsu, and Osiris are among the most prominent and the moon’s phases were quite important to the ancient Egyptians. Scholars generally agree that the first Egyptian calendars, like those of so many ancient people, were lunar based. The temples marked the moon’s changes and especially celebrated its waxing and full phases. But the face the Egyptians saw in the moon was masculine rather than feminine.

The lunar Eye of Horus

For example, the waning and waxing of the moon could be associated with the wounding and healing of the Eye of Horus. And so, we can perhaps think of Isis as the Mother of the Moon. In some myths, Isis is the one Who heals Horus’ Eye, in others, it is Thoth or Hathor. By the time of the New Kingdom, the beloved of Isis, Osiris, becomes prominent as a lunar God. We have a number of examples of statuettes of Osiris-Iah—Osiris assimilated with Iah, a Moon God—or simply as Osiris the Moon. So in this case, Isis is married to the Moon. But She’s not really a Moon Goddess Herself.

On the other hand, the Greeks and the Romans were all about the Moon Goddess. In fact, the moon itself was simply called “the Goddess.” People spoke of doing something “when the Goddess rises.” They would kiss their hands, extending them toward the rising moon, “to greet the Goddess.” Magical texts give instructions for performing a certain working “on the first of the Goddess,” meaning at the new moon. When they saw Isis with Her horns-and-disk crown, they saw a Moon Goddess.

A Roman Isis with lunar crescent

And because we have so much information about Isis from these Moon Goddess-loving people, today when many people think of Isis, the moon is one of the first things they associate with Her. Yet, interestingly, it seems to have been a third century BCE Egyptian priest named Manetho who first connected Isis with the moon. By the following century, when Plutarch recorded the most complete version of the Isis-Osiris myth we have, the tradition of Isis as a Goddess of the Moon was firmly established—even in Egypt.

Of course, it was easy to associate the fertility-bringing moon with the fertile Mother Isis. The ancient world also associated love affairs with the moon (the romance of moonlight, you know) and, in Her passion for Osiris, Isis was a famous lover. Of course, the moon and the obscuring darkness of night were connected with magic, too—and Isis was one of Egypt’s Mightiest Magicians from the beginning. One Egyptian story told how a particular magical scroll—which the tale calls a “mystery of the Goddess Isis”—was discovered when a moonbeam fell upon its hiding place, enabling a lector priest in Isis’ temple to find it.

This beautiful lunar Isis is by Reinhard Schmid. You can see his work here.

Today, we also connect the moon with emotions, the deep, the waters, the feminine (taking our cue from the ancient Greeks and Romans, no doubt), the home, Mystery, and change (to name but a few). And Isis can definitely be associated with all of these things—from the emotional passion of Her myths to Her ancient Mysteries and Her enduring role as the Goddess of Regeneration and Transformation.

So is Isis a Moon Goddess? She certainly has been for millennia. Whether we choose to honor Her in this form has more to do with us than with Her. A modern NeoPagan will probably be quite comfortable working with Isis as a Moon Goddess; a Kemetic Reconstructionist, not so much. But Isis is a Great Goddess; She is All, and so She is unquestionably to be found in the deep and holy Mysteries of the Moon.

For myself, while I do find Her in the moon, I resonate more strongly with Isis of the Stars and Isis of the Eternities of Space and Isis the Radiant Sun Goddess. Nevertheless, I feel called to explore this aspect of Her. What about you?

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