Today we have an Isis story that shows Her fierce and fiery aspect and that I bet you haven’t heard before. This is a tale of Isis the Avenger and it is from the Papyrus Jumilhac. The only publication of the papyrus has been in French (which is why English readers probably haven’t heard the tale). Via the blessings of interlibrary loan, I was able to borrow the French text.
The Papyrus Jumilac is about 23 “pages” long. It is a Ptolemaic text (approximately 2nd century BCE) but it was found in Upper Egypt and records some thoroughly Egyptian myths. It may have been a sort of training manual for the priesthood of the 17th and 18th nomes and tells stories connected with the local landmarks. Our Isis story from it is a tale of transformations, and in it, Isis changes Herself into a hound, a uraeus serpent, Hathor, and Sekhmet—all in Her pursuit of and revenge upon the murderer of Her husband.
Herewith is the tale of Isis the Fierce:
Set once more regrouped His allies, but Isis marched against them. She concealed Herself in Gebal which is south of Dunanwi, after having made Her transformation into Her Mother Sekhmet. She sent out a flame against them all, seeing to it that they were burned and devoured by Her flame. (It is said to Her, “Hathor, Mistress of the Two Braziers.”) She [Isis] created for Herself there, a place to observe the preparations of the Evil One and His allies. (It is said to Her, “The Temple of the Mistress of the Two Braziers,” and the wab priest of this Goddess is called Ouroumem [the Great Devourer].) Then Set, seeing Isis at Her observation point, transformed Himself into a bull to chase Her, but She made Herself unrecognizable and put on the form of a bitch with a knife at the end of Her tail. Then She began to chase Him, and Set couldn’t trap Her again. So He scattered His semen upon the earth, and Isis said, “It is an abomination to have scattered Your semen like this, O Bull.” His semen grew, in Gebal, in the plants which we call bdd-k3w. Then the Goddess entered into the mountain which we call Hout-Kâhet, and settled Herself there. After which, She went to the north and, having transformed Herself into a serpent, She entered into that mountain which is north of this nome to spy on the allies of Set as they arrived in the evening. (It is said to Her, “Hathor, Mistress of Geheset.”) The Goddess [Isis] watched the allies of Set as they arrived in the Oxyrhynchite Nome and as they crossed the country to reach Gebal, the City in the East. She pierced them all [with Her fangs as She was in the form of a serpent], and She made Her venom penetrate into their flesh, so that they perished, all together; their blood poured out upon the mountain, and this is why this mountain is called the prsh of Geheset.
The story bears a little commentary to explain some of the features. Isis is pursuing Set in revenge for His having murdered Osiris. It is interesting to note that it’s not Horus the Avenger Who is going after Set, but Isis the Avenger. I’m not sure exactly where the local Gebal is; but we are told that it is south of Dunanwi. Dunanwi is a local God of the 18th Upper Egyptian nome, so perhaps the direction refers to a temple or shrine of the God or the text is using the Deity’s name as a name for the nome itself.
Although Isis’ first transformation is into “Her Mother” Sekhmet, Isis is repeatedly called by the name and epithets of Hathor, a local Goddess of Geheset. Geheset is a mythically powerful place; it hasn’t been conclusively identified with any real place in Egypt, but some scholars believe it may be at modern Komir, on the westbank of the Nile, south of Esna. (Interestingly, Komir was a center of the worship of Nephthys and a temple dedicated to Her has been found there. It is in the 3rd nome, however, south of the 17th and 18th nomes.) The Jumilhac papyrus does contain more information on Geheset. In another passage it says:
“Regarding Geheset, it is the temple of Hathor of Geheset, the house of the Chief of the Two Lands. House of Uraeus is the name of the Divine Booth of Hathor in this place. Isis transformed Herself into the uraeus. She hid from the companions of Set, Nephthys was there at Her side. The companions of Set passed by Her without their knowing. And then She bit them all. She threw Her two lances at their limbs. Their blood fell on this mountain, flowing, and their death happened immediately.”
Now, in the 4th nome, there was a famous Hathor cult center in Pathyris or Aphroditopolis, modern Gebelein. It is reasonably near to the Komir Nephthys temple. If this is the mythical Geheset, then Nephthys being at Isis’ (as Hathor) side makes some geographic sense.
In the encounter between Isis and Set, in the form of a bull, Set attempts to rape Isis. We know this because He eventually ejaculates on the ground and Isis castigates Him for having wasted His semen like that. This reminds me of the myth in which Hephaestus tries to rape Athena, but His semen either falls on the ground or on Her leg, which She then wipes off in disgust and tosses it on the ground. The semen fertilizes Gaia and the Earth gives birth to Erichthonius, a mythical ruler of Athens who may have been part serpent. In this case, the semen of Set becomes an unidentified local plant called beded kau; the kau part is the plural of ka or vital essence.
For the final part of the tale, Isis Herself takes the form of the holy cobra, the uraeus serpent. As a great serpent, She kills all of Set’s companions with Her venom. Their blood pours out on the mountain and becomes juniper berries (prsh); there is an Egyptian pun here on juniper berries and the flowing out of blood. In another part of the Jumilhac papyrus, Isis “cut up Set, sinking Her teeth into His back” and in yet another She first transforms into Anubis, “and having seized Seth, cut Him up, sinking Her teeth into His back.” (Is there some connection between Isis transforming Herself into a dog with a knife in Her tail and later into Anubis?)
The myths recorded in the Papyrus Jumilhac are surely much earlier Egyptian stories that the priesthood used to teach their tradition in the temples of the 17th and 18th nomes. There were almost certainly other tales like these, from other nomes, in which it is Fierce Isis Herself Who takes revenge upon the murderer of Her beloved Osiris. I hope someday we will find more of them.
May the Fierce Goddess always protect you.
A wonderful lost story. Thank you for posting this for us.
Thank you; the Jumilhac Papyrus is an important theological resource, but one to which few have access. To bring material from it to a wider audience is a public service.
I think I’m going to interlibrary loan the book again and see what else I can struggle through the French to dig out. 😉
It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to unfold about Isis.
Your posts have been particularly poignant for me. I am readying to undergo surgery for thyroid cacner and reading these posts about Isis gives me strength and joy.
Thank you so much:)
May She keep you strong, my sister, and help you heal.