This is a revised and updated version of how to pronounce Isis’ name in Her native tongue. The original post was getting a little long in the tooth and needed updating. The explanation is easier to understand and more complete now. Never stop learning 😉
Until recently, with the advent of Kemeticism, the name of Egypt’s Great Goddess Isis was almost invariably pronounced “Eye-sis.” That’s the Anglicized version of what the ancient Greeks called Her: Ἶσις (Ee-siss). For the sake of familiarity, that’s the version I still generally use in this blog. But when I want to go full Egyptian, I represent Her name as Iset. Here’s why:
In Egyptian, Isis’ name was most often spelled with the hieroglyphs throne, semi-circle (also called bread loaf), Goddess, although during the thousands of years of Her worship there were a number of variant spellings. Egyptian artists commonly designated Isis by painting the throne hieroglyph on Her crown. Thus it is possible to identify the shortest version of Isis’ name with the throne itself. The Goddess Isis is the Goddess Throne.
Because the hieroglyphs include only consonants, we do not know precisely how the ancient Egyptians would have pronounced Her name. But we do have clues. The throne hieroglyph is a biliteral symbol, that is, a single symbol representing two sounds. The semi-circle is a monoliteral, or single-sound glyph, and represents our letter t. In this case, it provides the feminine ending of the word just as in English we might add -ess to feminize a word. The Goddess symbol is a determinative and provides the overall concept of the word, but has no sound.
The first of the two sounds comprising the biliteral throne symbol is a consonant similar to the Hebrew yod* and is represented by modern Egyptologists as ı͗ . The yod sound is similar to English y or i, but remember that it is a consonant, not a vowel. In hieroglyphs, it is represented by the reed flower glyph. The second of the two sounds in the throne is an s. Between the yod and the s, any vowel could have been inserted. Similarly, a vowel could be inserted between the throne and the semi-circle. So how can we know which vowels were used?
The ancient Coptic and Greek languages provide some information. Coptic was a late form of Egyptian that uses Greek letters to represent Egyptian sounds. By the time Egyptian had evolved into Coptic, Isis is Êse, pronounced Aay-seh or Ee-see (the final t was dropped in spelling by this time, and likely in pronunciation much earlier). From their earliest encounter with Egyptian religion, the Greeks—and most importantly those Egyptians who wrote Greek—spelled Her name asἾσις, which they would have pronounced as Ee-siss. In Late Antiquity, they sometimes added an epsilon at the beginning so that an alternative pronunciation would have been Aay-siss. So from examples of Her name in Coptic and Greek—contemporary pronunciations that were actually being used by the people who recorded them—we can narrow the search for initial vowels down to either an ee sound or an ay sound. We can be fairly sure, then, that the first syllable of the Goddess’ name was in earlier times Eess and in the late period had changed to Aayss. (How could it have changed? In the same way that modern English no longer sounds like Chaucer’s English, so ancient Egyptian was spoken for thousands of years and naturally morphed during that time.)
Between the throne and the semi-circle, we insert a generic e before the final t to create the feminine ending in line with the Egyptological convention of representing the feminine ending as et as in Amunet, the feminine form of Amun. (It is entirely possible that this e could have been another vowel, for example, i.) Nonetheless, by combining the information we have about Her name as pronounced in Coptic and Greek with current scholarly opinion on Egyptian pronunciation, it is most likely that Isis in Egyptian would have been pronounced Ee-set and in Late Antiquity also as Aay-set. Either of these could have been Hellenized to Isis by replacing the –et ending with the Greek –is ending. Finally, we Anglicize the name Isis to Eye-sis.
Of course, all this is just for the sticklers among us. Isis will know those who call upon Her no matter what name we use. The various pronunciations of Her name are of interest mainly because of the emphasis that the Egyptians themselves placed on knowing the true name of a Deity, person, or thing in order to know its essential nature.
Pronouncing the Goddess’ name correctly is a courtesy we can do for Her. Yet because She is also the Lady of Ten Thousand Names, we can correctly use any of the various pronunciations of the Goddess’ name and thereby touch different aspects of Her nature. For example, to contact a very Egyptian form of the Goddess, we might invoke Her by the name Iset. For a more Hellenized aspect, we might call upon Isis using the Greek pronunciation, Ees-ees. Many people will call upon Her as Great Goddess using the Anglicized version of Her name, Eye-sis. In any and all of these names, we will still be contacting the energy of the Goddess Isis. The difference will be not in the essence of the Goddess, but in the particular “flavor” of Her energy that may be contacted by using different names and languages to invoke Her.
In the Book of Coming Forth by Day, better known as the Book of the Dead, Isis is called Iset Nudjerit em Renus Nebu, “Isis, Goddess in All Names.” Perhaps, we can see Her not only as the Goddess of All Names, but of All Pronunciations as well.
* A century ago, in his hugely influential books (still so because Dover keeps them readily available), Sir E.A. Wallis Budge used a peculiar set of symbols to transliterate the hieroglyphs, and one of them in particular continues to confuse readers to this day. Instead of the ı͗ used by other Egyptologists and often called yod (borrowing the name of the Hebrew letter), Budge represents the reed flower as å (that’s not quite it; the dot should be solid, but it was all I could get WordPress to do.) And don’t get me started on Budge. You can see my comments on Budge-hating here.