Let’s stay in the Isis cult in late antiquity and talk a bit about some Isiac votive figurines that I find, well, completely charming. They are usually identified as images of Isis-Aphrodite and they show the Goddess either totally nude, but for a Vegas Showgirl-sized headdress and a lot of attitude, or lifting up Her skirts to give us all a good look at “the naughty bits.”
Why do I find them so charming? Mostly, it’s the expression on their faces as they bare themselves to our sight. Their expressions are never of the smiling, fuck-me, Playboy-approved type. Often, they gaze directly at you—or even past you—looking serious or self-possessed, or sometimes even a bit disgusted with you for looking at them like that. Sometimes, I’m sure this was due to the skill of the artist or the fact that these were mostly molded and mass-produced terracottas. Othertimes, I wonder what that expression is meant to convey.
At first blush (yes, I chose that word on purpose), you would probably say this was very late-period version or aspect of Isis. Artistically, She’s very Hellenized, very Romanized. And it’s true that these particular images are from these later periods when Aphrodite, the Great Greek Love Goddess (Who actually comes from the Middle East, but that’s another story), was often syncretized with Isis. For instance, from that period, we find love spells that completely conflate Isis with Aphrodite. Of those, this is my favorite because the the lover clearly wants more than just sex as he calls upon the Goddess “born on Cyprus” (Who would normally be Aphrodite) to fulfill the charm. Yet later, this “Goddess born on Cyprus” is clearly identified as Isis and the love spell is declared effective because it partakes of the true love of Isis and Osiris:
” The goddess in heaven looked down upon him, and it happened to him according to every wish of his soul. . . [name of the lover] says: From the day and the hour I, [name of the lover], do this act to you [name of the beloved]; you will love me, be fond of me, and value me [until] I die.O Lady, goddess Isis, carry out for me this perfect charm.”
Later in the working, the lover is instructed to anoint his face with myrrh and say:
“You are the myrrh with which Isis was anointed when she went to the bosom of Osiris, her . . . brother, and gave him her favor on that day. Give me . . . Wake up [name of the beloved], Mistress Isis, and carry out this perfect charm.”
But this image has a precedent, too. It is the so-called “paddle dolls” that are frequently found in ancient Egyptian graves from Dynasties 12-18. Archeologists used to identify these as “concubines” because of their clearly emphasized vulva and offered the silly interpretation that—because they had no legs—this was meant to prevent the magical concubines from running away from the deceased! But these images were also found in the tombs of women, so unless the women were lesbians, this was clearly not the purpose of the grave images. Oh, and these paddle dolls had big hair, too. Often, they had elaborate strands of beads for hair. And so, like big-hair Hathor and Showgirl-crowned Isis-Aphrodite after them, these images emphasized the vulva and the head.
More likely, these paddle dolls were magical images of resurrection and renewal. The ancient Egyptians very much believed that sexuality was necessary in the otherworld. Male mummies had their phalluses wrapped in perpetual erection so they could do what was needed when they arrived in the Land Beyond. And the Goddess was the one Who aroused. The Pyramid Texts say, “I am your sister who loves you say Isis and Nephthys; they lament you, they arouse you.”
In the Coffin Texts, the deceased claims, “I copulate with my sister Sothis in her hours,” while another formula speaks of the conception of Horus with graphic sexuality: “. . . my mother Isis conceived me, and she swooned under the fingers of the Lord of the Gods when he broke into her therewith on that day of lifting the mat . . .”
In Egypt, as in so many cultures throughout the world, the Goddess is erotic. And Her eroticism is sacred.
I believe that the later-period Isis-Aphrodite images—that were also found in graves, by the way—are later reflections of the “paddle doll” fertility images of much earlier Egyptian society. As always, their purpose was to promote renewal and resurrection…in this case, through the blessing of sexuality. Our Goddess, Isis-Hathor-Aphrodite, is a Sexy Goddess. Many blessings on this Valentine’s Day, this day of love. May you be renewed on this day—and in all the days of eternity to come.