One of the women who will be serving Isis as Her priestess at next year’s SunFest asked me a very good question: why does Isis have wings? To help answer, here’s the entry under “Wings” in my book Offering to Isis, which discusses 72 symbols associated with the Goddess Isis. It explains a bit about Isis’ wings and wings in general in Egyptian thought…
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. Their shadow is our shelter in this life and the next. Egyptian representations of Isis frequently show Her with the wings of the kite hawk or kestrel, Her sacred birds (see “Black Kite”). Isis’ beautiful and powerful wings are usually shown attached to Her graceful human arms or embroidered into the fabric of the slim-fitting dress that wraps elegantly around Her body. Due to a preference for purely anthropomorphic representations of Deities, Greek and Roman images of Isis don’t often show Her wings. (However, there was an exception to purely human representations of Isis in Graeco-Roman Alexandria where the Goddess was sometimes shown in Her serpent form; see “Holy Cobra.”)
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, 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.
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. We see images of Isis standing behind Osiris, Her wings enfolding Him in the protective power of Her magic. We see Isis, Nephthys, Nuet, or Mayet on the ceiling of a tomb as They cast Their winged protection out over the chamber and its occupant like a net. We see the winged disk hovering above temple doorways, protecting all that passes within. 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 (see “Mourning”). 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. 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. Nevertheless, the beak-faced figures are 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.
Isis is the Goddess of the embracing, protective wings that bring us healing and security in this life and the next. Thus do we offer unto Isis that which is Hers.