“Isis gives you this knife of Hers which She gave to Horus after the mourning of the Gods.” (Coffin Texts, Formula 102.)

What is this mysterious knife of Isis?

In ancient Egypt, the knife was not only a practical tool and weapon; it was also a magical tool and weapon. The preferred ritual knife was the ancient flint knife, des. Des actually means “flint,” but it remained the general word used for knife throughout Egyptian history. As you might expect, knives, practical and magical, could be used both defensively and offensively.

The des, the ancient Egyptian flint knife

Knives appear frequently in representations of the Egyptian Otherworld. They are used in slaying the enemies of the deceased and smoothing the passage through the land of the dead. Some magical rites called for a protective circle of knives to be erected for the working. Knives are also found in judgment scenes where the deceased must be found worthy or fall to the knives of Divine figures with names like Slaughterer and Repulser of the Wicked. In general Egyptian idiom, someone who was suffering in any way was one who was “under the knife.”

Harmful beings, such as Re’s great enemy, the giant serpent Apophis, and Set, the enemy of Isis and Horus, are often shown stabbed repeatedly with magical knives to subdue and render them harmless. Even the hieroglyphs of Set’s name were sometimes shown stabbed with knives. Knives were also used to decapitate Otherworld enemies. In some scenes, rows of bound and decapitated “enemies of Re” or “enemies of Horus” are guarded by knife-wielding Goddesses and Gods. Decapitation by knife seems to have been a particular threat to the deceased as well and Isis is called upon to “make firm the head” of the deceased upon her or his neck.

The Egyptian solar Great Cat decapitating the enemy snake Apophis with a flint knife

In Egyptian thought, knives have both solar and lunar symbolism. The twin sycamore fig trees between which the Sun God Re rose each day were sometimes called the Two Knives (perhaps from the similarity between the shape of the knife and the hieroglyph for “tree”). And the crescent moon was considered to be a knife wielded by the God of the Moon, Thoth or I’ah.

In the Book of the Amduat, Isis and Set work together to subdue the enemy snake, Apophis, using both magic and knives. Apophis is shown stabbed with six knives, bespelled by Isis, and bound by Serket and Set while four Goddesses with knives wait to dismember the serpent. The corpse of Re, awaiting rebirth in the Sun barque, is also guarded by knives. In yet another myth, Isis transforms Herself into a hound with a knife at the end of its tail in order to engage in a shapeshifting battle with Set. As Isis the Avenger, the Goddess is said to have a knife-shaped phallus (eeeshh!). And in the Book of the Dead, Isis owns a sacred knife that the deceased must know by name in the Otherworld. It is part of the deceased’s fishing equipment and is said to be the knife with which Isis cut the birth cord of Horus.

As a Great Goddess, Isis’ knife has all these powers. It offers magical protection and defense, as when She uses knives and Her own magical power to protect the Sun God during His Otherworld journey, and practical uses, as when She uses it to cut the birth cord of Horus, which is also the re-birth cord of the deceased. When Isis gives “this knife of Hers” to Horus “after the mourning of the Gods,” the Goddess is giving Her son power and strength following the mournful death of His father, Osiris. By receiving it, the deceased, too, accepts a tool imbued with Isis’ considerable power following her or his own death—and inevitable rebirth beneath the protecting wings of Isis.

Although I did not suggest a knife as one of the ritual tools of Isis in Isis Magic, those who enjoy sharp objects may also enjoy acquiring a ritual knife for Isis and charging it with Her protection and strength.