Oregon's Painted Hills
Oregon’s Painted Hills

I’ve just come back from the Red Land.

Not in Egypt, but in eastern Oregon. That’s my Red Land; just over the mountains from Portland.

The eastern Oregon desert is starkly impressive dressed in its iron-rust reds, dry-grass golds, basalt blacks, and pale, dusty sagebrush and juniper greens. And the Painted Hills! O my Goddess, beautiful, beautiful.

In honor of the Red Lands then, let us dive into the color red, its symbolism in ancient Egypt, and its relationship with Isis.

A modern rendition of fiery, red-headed Set
A modern rendition of fiery, red-headed Set

The ancient Egyptians had an interesting relationship with the color red, in Egyptian, desher. It was considered very powerful—in both a bad way and in a good way. The bad way connected red with danger, anger, and of course, the non-life-sustaining desert or desheret. (As you can see, our word for “desert” comes from ancient Egyptian desheret.) Red was associated with the red-haired and red-eyed God Set, a God Who can be angry, powerful, and destructive—as well as helpful and protective. In the magical papyri, you will sometimes see instructions that tell the magician to obtain a lamp “not colored red,” no doubt so as to not taint the magic with the negative aspects of the color red. The Egyptians described someone who was raging or furious as “red of heart.” Red ink would be used to write the names of dangerous creatures or Divinities in the temple scrolls. In the calendars that show lucky and unlucky days, the unlucky days were written in red ink, while the lucky ones were written in black.

A pharaoh's head in red jasper
The head of a pharaoh carved of red jasper

On the other side of the ledger, red could also be associated with life, warmth, and protection, while still maintaining its ambiguous nature. Life-giving blood is red and connected with birth, rebirth, and regeneration, but it can also mean death if we lose too much of it. Warming and light-giving fire is red, but can be dangerous if uncontrolled. Red is the color of the radiant Sun God Re, but it was also the color of the Eye of Re, the Serpent Goddess Who could be either destructive or protective.

When it comes to Isis, we usually find red in its positive aspects. (Though it is true that the myths show that Isis can get a bit “red of heart” when it comes to protecting Horus’ interests.) Nevertheless, Isis is most often associated with red’s favorable characteristics: the promotion of life, protection, and regeneration.

Her famous amulet, the Knot of Isis or tiet, was usually made of red stone such as red jasper or red carnelian. In what I suspect is a modern legend—yet quite appropriate to the mythology of Isis—it is said that Isis wept tears of blood over the death of Osiris and these crystallized as carnelian. From them, the Goddess carved Her red tiet amulet.

The classic red Knot of Isis
The classic red Knot of Isis

The tiet first appears in Egyptian iconography in the third dynasty. It was frequently used in association with the djed pillar of Osiris and so eventually became almost exclusively associated with Isis. Used together, the two symbols could refer to the power of the Goddess and God to engender Life. Because of this, the symbols may also be seen as sexual symbols; the pillar referring to the phallus of the God and the knot to the vulva and womb of the Goddess.

Once born, the new or renewed life would have to be protected, the perfect job for a magical knot. In fact, the formula to be spoken over an Isis Knot of red jasper connects the red of the amulet with the blood, power, and magic of the Goddess and is intended to protect the deceased during her or his transformation after death:

You have Your blood, O Isis. You have Your power, O Isis. You have Your magic, O Isis. This amulet is a protection for this Great One and which will drive away whoever would commit a crime against him.

                                                        —Formula 156, Book of the Dead

The Knot of Isis personified as a Goddess, giving life
The Knot of Isis personified as a life-giving Goddess

You may recall that this amulet is also called the Blood of Isis and may represent the red lifeblood of birth or even red menstrual blood. Some say the amulet is shaped like the cloth worn by ancient Egyptian women during menstruation. Others have interpreted it as a representation of a ritual tampon that could be inserted in the vagina to prevent miscarriage. In this case, it would have been the amulet Isis used to protect Horus while He was still within Her womb.

In addition to Her red amulet, Isis is one of the Goddesses Who is the protective and powerful Eye of Re and we have already seen how Isis is associated with the redness of fire as well as the redness of a fierce nature. In a text from the Temple of the Birth of Isis at Hathor’s temple complex at Denderah, Isis unites the power, magic, and life-renewing qualities of the colors red and black in Herself for it is said that She was born “in the form of a black and ruddy woman, endowed with life, sweet of love.”

Red is the color of Isis’ distinctive, protective amulet. Red is the color of Her life-giving blood. Red is the color of Her powerful magic. Red is the color of the warmth, strength, and illumination of Her fire. Red is the color of the powerful, magical, fiery, life-giving Goddess Herself: Red Isis.