Posted by: Isidora | January 28, 2012

The Disturbing Story of Isis & Re

Apparently, I’m up for writing about difficult topics in Isiology (or is that Isiolatry?) lately.

This time, I’d like to talk about the Isis myth that is, for many, the most unsettling when we are first learning our Isis lore; and that is the tale of how Isis tricked the Sun God Re into revealing His most secret name and thereby gained additional power for Herself and for Her son, Horus. Know that story? If not, here’s a link to Isis Magic on Googlebooks; go to page 61 and start reading there. That way I can leave space in this post for another intriguingly similar story I want to tell.

The Sun God, Re, Who Isis knew by His own name.

On the basis of this tale, some have decided that Isis is an evil magician. I have even seen the story—recently, I might add—used as an argument to show how naturally underhanded all women are. And, on the face of it, the tale is troubling. Isis decides to gain power. She deliberately poisons Re, then cures Him only after He reveals to Her His most secret, hidden, and powerful name. The name gives Isis Divine power equal to Re’s and She secures from Re a promise that He will give His Two Eyes, the sun and moon, to Her son Horus.

What are we to make of this? Is Isis just another underhanded and tricky female? Perhaps we should consider Her as one of the Trickster Deities. She’s a Divine Magician, after all, and magicians are always tricky. Or maybe Isis was forced to resort to magical artifice to break through a Divine glass ceiling. Think of royal women in the Egyptian court. Because they did not have outright power equal to men’s, they would have used tricks, subterfuge, perhaps even poison, as a path to power. We must remember that it is always human beings who tell these stories, thus all stories come through a human filter.

As you might guess, none of these explanations satisfy me. I do have one that does, but it will take me a little while to get to my point, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

Background Info

There are several things you should know about this story. First, the version of the tale that has come down to us is from a papyrus known as the Turin Papyrus. It has been dated to Egypt’s 20th dynasty, about 1186-1169 BCE. No doubt, the story itself is much, much older, but the version we have comes from the later time. Second, the story is part of a healing formula to cure snakebite. Egyptian medicine always had a magical prescription as well as whatever herbal or surgical therapy was given. Such prescriptions often included a myth that related to the problem, followed by a statement that just as so-and-so was cured in the myth, so shall the sufferer be cured. In this case, just as Re was cured by Isis, so shall the snakebite sufferer be cured. Instruction is given at the end of the formula to recite it over images of the main characters in the story.

The Sun God grew old...

Elements of the Myth: the old king

The papyrus tells us that Re was so old that He drooled. In a time when the pharaoh was considered a God, and therefore should be the epitome of physical, mental and spiritual perfection, it would hardly be acceptable to have a ruler so old He drooled. Myths such as the death of the Holly King in Celtic countries, ritual combat to the death between the outgoing priest of Diana at the grove of Nemi and an incoming hopeful, and Arthurian legends of the Wounded King of the Wasteland—all point to the archetypal nature of this theme.

Elements of the Myth: the Goddess of Renewal

If you know anything about Isis, you know that one of Her key powers is the ability to renew and resurrect. The Turin papyrus tells us that Isis came to Re with Her magic and that Her “mouth was full of the breath of life.” When Sirius, the Star of Isis, rose in late summer, it signaled the beginning of the New Year and the renewal of all things. Her magic brought Osiris back to life enough to conceive Horus and then gave Him a new existance as Lord of the Dead. Isis is the ancient Bird of Prey Goddess, the Lady of Death and Regeneration, an identity that She has never lost, even to this day. Since the failing Re does not willingly give up His power, Isis must create the conditions that force the old ruler to the point of renewal.

Elements of the Myth: the saliva of the God

In Egypt, magic might be worked by means of bodily fluids. Saliva, semen, blood, sweat, milk, and other bodily fluids were a means of creation. If it was the blood, sweat, and tears of the Deities, it was even more creative and powerful. Since Re drooled, rather than purposefully spitting (for example, when Atum creatively spit to give birth to the Goddess Tefnut), He was wasting His power.

The holy serpent of renewal

Elements of the Myth: the holy serpent

Yet, the Goddess does not let it go to waste. Instead, She mixes Re’s drool with earth, the place of renewal from which new life grows, to create a holy cobra. The cobra is a mixture of life—in that it is made partly of earth and will ultimately cause Re to be healed—and death—in that it is made from the wasted generative power of Re and is a symbol of His unfitness for His throne. And of course, the serpent is an almost universal symbol of renewal due to the snake’s ability to shed its skin and emerge new from the experience.

In the form of the holy cobra, Re’s own weakness strikes Him and brings Him more pain than He has ever before experienced. He quakes with cold and burns with fire.

Elements of the Myth: name magic

In Egyptian magical theory, to know someone or something’s name was to be able to access its essence at the time of Creation, when all heka was at its more pure and potent. In this story, Re is considered the most powerful Deity in the universe (the tale also contains a litany of Re’s great powers). Knowing His secret name confers ultimate power; including the power to heal. As Isis tells Re, “the person who hath declared his name shall live.”

If this story is very ancient, it may be that its original form, in which Isis renews Re simply because that’s what the Goddess does, was lost. Perhaps later scribes tried to explain the Mystery to themselves and their audiences by framing it as a trick to gain power. Thus what may seem like simple blackmail is actually much more profound. Re is being forced to reveal a most secret and inner part of Himself to the Goddess. To be healed, He must make Himself vulnerable to the Lady of Renewal. He must accept both Her help and Her very real power.

Once Re gives Himself over to Isis, He is healed, renewed in strength and power. He learns that He must give up in order to gain. He learns to trust the Goddess Whom He has been forced to trust. And the Goddess proves Herself worthy. In no successive myth do we ever find any evidence that Isis abuses the ultimate power She has gained.

But Wait, There’s More

In the very same papyrus in which this story is found, there is a parallel story involving Horus and Set. It, too, is a magical snakebite cure. Here’s that story:

Horus and Set as sphinxes flanking a Cow Goddess

Horus and Set were voyaging together on Horus’ golden barque. Suddenly, Set cried out, “Come to me Horus, I have been bitten!”

And Horus turned to Set and said, “Tell Me Thy name, that I may work magic for Thee. One works magic for a man through his name, and a God is greater than His reputation.”

Set replied, “I am Yesterday, I am Today, I am Tomorrow That Has Not Yet Come.”

But Horus said, “No, Thou art not Yesterday, Today, or Tomorrow That Has Not Yet Come. Tell me Thy name, that I may work magic for Thee. One works magic for a man through his name, and a God is greater than His reputation.”

So Set said, “I am a Quiver of Arrows, I am a Cauldron of Disturbance.”

“No, Thou art not,” said Horus and repeated what He had said before.

“I am a Man of a Thousand Cubits, Whose Reputation is Not Known.”

“No, Thou art not,” said Horus and repeated again what He had said.

“I am a Threshing Floor; I am a Jug of Milk, Milked from the Breast of Bastet.

“No, Thou art not,” said Horus again.

Finally, Set replied with His True Name, “I am a Man of a Million Cubits Whose Name is Evil Day. As for the Day of Giving Birth or of Conceiving, There is No Giving Birth and Trees Bear No Fruit.”

The formula concludes with the promise that the sufferer will be made as sound as Horus was by Isis, even though in this story Horus is one Who is pushing Set to reveal His true name, the cure is attributed to Isis.

What the Trickster Teaches

It seems clear to me that a key to both of these myths is vulnerability to the Divine that precedes healing. We must reveal our innermost selves, symbolized by our true name, to Goddess, to God. We must do so even if, like Set, it is a name with which we are not entirely comfortable. We must give ourselves over to the Divine, as we are, right now, with no masks. Only in this state of radical openness can we receive the renewing gifts that Divinity has for us. Like Re and like Set, we must—at least eventually—be willing to acknowledge and trust the Divine in order to bring Its power into our lives. This vulnerability and revelation of truth can be painful, like poison; and yet the truth always frees us.

Like Re especially, we must acknowledge the power of Goddess and make ourselves open to Her. If we don’t, She will find a way—perhaps a rather difficult way—to bring that lack to our attention. But when we do reveal ourselves to Her, we can know Her and be known by Her. We can enter into mystical communion with Her as we move through the natural cycle of death and renewal that is guided by Her hand.

Let me receive the blessings of Isis, let me kiss Her mouth that is full of the breath of life.



  1. Recently, and I forgot the circumstances, someone said to me “men drool, women rule.” I asked her where she heard that before. She said elementary school as in “boys drool, girls rule.” However, it reminded me of the (‘drooling”) Re and Isis story you are addressing above. Re was supposed to be a supreme god but yet here he was a victim of a snake bite and susceptible to magick by a female goddess. I believe many of these stories of Isis will finding some truth in the historical events of anciet Egypt, including pre-dynastic Egypt, can really be taken in the form of allegory and symbology and thereby reveal ancient, transcendant truth. For this particular story, the meaning is the regenerative nature of the divine femine. In Her is find true power. The male comes to the female for healing and regeneration, the snake representing the vagaries and vicissitudes of existence, indeed, reflecting our frailties in face of such physical realities. It is to the femine goddess, Isis, that salvation and protection are found. In Her being the masculine finds it strength once again. Hence, it is Isis who is the true power behind the throne of heaven and earth, as the oldest of the old, She is the Creator from whence all comes and to whom all go.
    Another dimension of the story is the struggle between patriarchal vs. matriarchal structure. The story reflects that it is the matriarchal structure that in the ultimate outcome predominates over the partiarchal structure. It is no coincidence that all of the currently patriarchal religions, Chistrianity, Judaism, and Islam, fear in some measure and manner the female. The male appears to be in charge but like Re the authority, strength and power of the male is only apparent not actual for it is to and in the female the male must go for propagation of the species for within the woman is carried the womb of creation. Therefore, as divine beings, it is Isis in who lies true dominion. Re is Her servant, subject to Her powers.

  2. With respect Set, it is through the persistence of Horus that the true name of Set is revealed. Horus is of course the son of Isis. It is through him that the pharoahs of ancient Egypt ruled. He represents order and authority. This is an outgrowth of Isis as the giver of laws. Through her son, Her laws via the form of government are instituted and implemented. Set reveals his true name which is the opposite of order. Set is chaos and barrenness. Horus, of course, struggles against Set and eventually overcomes him. To me, Set is the source of and representative of evil. He struggles against the triad of Isis, Osiris, and Horus. He says to Horus in the revelation of his true name: I am a Man…Whose Name is Evil Day and then points out that where he is there is barrenness and death. By revealing his true name to Horus, Horus gains ascendency over Set, that is, order and authority gain ascendency over chaos. Good triumphs over evil, fertility over barrenness, life over death. Because we know the name of evil (its nature), we can gain control over it and mitigate its effect in our lives and indeed in society and among the nations.

  3. I also find the additional statement that “a God is greater than His reputation” interesting in relation to Set. A Mystery, perhaps?

  4. […] discusses one of my favorite Isiac myths: What are we to make of this? Is Isis just another underhanded and tricky female? […]

  5. This is an awesome piece.

  6. […] scorpion-stung Horus. Parts of that formula sound very much like the language used in the story of “Isis and Re” in which Isis cures Re of snakebite. There are also formulae in which Horus is the one Who cures […]

  7. When you say “the natural cycle of death and renewal”, could that not only mean actual death, but also changes throughout your life? Like going from school to college and careers/ dependence as a child to independence as an adult/ your country going from a dictatorship or colony to a democracy?

  8. Oh, both, definitely!

  9. […] already know how Isis tricked the Sun God Re into revealing His True Name. But a lesser-known myth really shows Her Trickster stripes. […]

  10. […] it speaks to us. Yet, I do think that Isis and Her cycle of myths, especially when you include the important Isis & Re story, provide a proto-feminist […]

  11. It should be important to note that Set was once not an evil god, just a troubled one. He was one of the main gods to get rid of the Divine EVIL god Apep and when he destroyed Apep, Egyptians didn’t have anyone else to mitigate blame on their woes to except for Set, the god of storms and Chaos. There is more to Set than Evil. He cried justice, but did not understand empathy and sympathy and was far too judicious. So then he was labeled with evil rather than just strict. Funny, isn’t it?

  12. […] sons and daughters (yes, women were alchemists, too). This story should also remind us of the story of Isis & Re in which Isis uses a trick to gain vital knowledge from the Sun God—the knowledge of His powerful, […]

  13. I like this piece. Very great perspective. However I am not sure I appreciate the tone. I’ll explain.

    It sounds like, with your lists of evidence, that you are trying to find some kind of justification for Isis intentionally poisoning Re, father of some of those gods, and saying “See? It wasnt that bad. She healed him and he learned to trust her.”

    I know that isnt what you are exactly trying to say, and you mention that it isnt exactly what you are trying to say… at the same time… that is exactly what you were saying. It was okay for Isis to basically over step her boundaries and literally poison Re because she knew she could heal him anyway if he caved in and gave his name which to be honest she had no real right to know. Obviously there were reasons he had for why he did not want anyone to know his name and she forced it out of him by literally threatening his life. regardless if she never abused her power afterwards, that was a devious move. What if he didnt cave in and was just a stubborn drooling old man who refused to change his ways even if it saved him? She would have been single handedly responsible for killing off the Supreme God, who is the reason she even exist.

    Like.. I get where you are going with trying to use it as a tale of showing us to trust each other. But I dont think I would encourage trusting someone who poisoned me, to prove they can heal me if I cooperated, so I can trust them and acknowledge them more. That would only make me never trust that person ever again. And just because some good came out of it doesnt mean her actions were just or “good” or should be taken as a “We need to learn to be more open with each other” kind of things. I just dont feel this is the appropriate story or set of circumstances to draw that lesson from. Not with the way she went about handling her business. If he HAPPENED to get poisoned, and she offered help, and he was being stubborn but finally caved in, that would change the story entirely. But she intentionally tried to kill him SO he had no choice but to cooperate so she could heal him. Abusers do that.

    On the flip side I am glad for your perspective and insight because it does KIND of help people who know of Isis see more than just another manipulative and evil female, which most religions seem to love portraying of women for some reason. :-/

  14. You’ve hit the nail on the head as to why I titled this post “The Disturbing Story of Isis & Re.” It IS a disturbing story. (Of course, no more disturbing than, say, the story of Job or Abraham & Isaac or that poor guy that got fried by Yahweh just for trying to keep the Arc of the Covenant from falling…)

    But we need to remember some things about it…

    First of all, it’s about Deities, not human beings. The story is not about human actions or human relationships. It is, instead, about an aspect of our relationship with the Divine.

    In order for an ancient story like this to have relevance for us today (and you may certainly choose for this one not to have relevance for you), we need to step back and take a broader look. We need to look at everything symbolically and mythically—not literally.

    That’s precisely what human beings have done with myths throughout our history. We are always reinterpreting myths to make them relevant for who we are now. They are sacred stories so they have a core of eternal truth, but what they mean changes (as do the details of the story, no doubt) over time—because we human beings change over time. If the ancient Greek philosophers could do it (and they did; frequently), so can we.

    Now, if I were only to look at this only literally, I’d have to agree with you. But looking at it symbolically, as in the interpretation I gave, I think it is an ancient tale that can still have relevance to our spirituality.

    Think of Re as our ego (Sun is a correspondence of ego in astrology). He/we sometimes have to be ‘whacked upside the head,’ in the form of a bite by a holy cobra or whatever misfortune that brings us low in our own lives, in order to understand that He/we need to make ourselves vulnerable before the Goddess. For me, this story is not about being open or trusting other people. It’s about being open—and completely vulnerable—to the Divine, to Goddess.

    My personal opinion is that what we’re seeing here is a much-later “explanation” of an even older story; perhaps a story in which there was no intentional serpent bite at all (perhaps, as you say, Re “just happened” to get poisoned) and the God has to come to the Goddess for renewal—because that’s what one did; rebirth requires the Goddess. But unless we find an ancient book with such an earlier story, we’re stuck with this one. And the purpose of my interpretation is to make the sacred story we have relevant for those of us who worship Isis today.

  15. […] Isis is also associated with the cobra in one of Her most famous myths. In the tale, Isis decides to gain power equal to Re’s. The Sun God is old and drools as He continues along His path in the sky. So the Goddess takes up some of His saliva, mixes it with Earth and forms from it a holy cobra which She places along Re’s path. The next day when Re passes by, the holy cobra bites Him. Re experiences pain like never before. He calls upon the Goddesses and Gods to help Him, including Isis. She reveals that She can cure Re if He tells Her His True Name, the most potent magical name in the universe. After much stalling, He eventually relents and tells Isis His Name. The Goddess heals Re and renews Him so that He can continue on His path through the heavens; meanwhile She gains power for Herself—through the magic of a holy cobra. (Please see my discussion of this important myth in Isis Magic and here.) […]

  16. […] it speaks to us. Yet, I do think that Isis and Her cycle of myths, especially when you include the important Isis & Re story, provide a proto-feminist […]

  17. […] sons and daughters (yes, women were alchemists, too). This story should also remind us of the story of Isis & Re in which Isis uses a trick to gain vital knowledge from the Sun God—the knowledge of His powerful, […]

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