Isis is one of the few Trickster Goddesses and I kinda like that about Her…
Ah, the Trickster Deity. The one Who shakes things up, Who always has creative, boundary-crossing solutions to problems. The Trickster breaks the rules, makes us laugh, often embraces The Other by shapeshifting. The Trickster’s tricky ways can have unintended consequences; often unexpectedly positive, sometimes not so much. The Trickster is clever, of mind and of speech, talking us into doing things we might not normally do. The Trickster is also—usually—a male Deity.
There’s Hermes, Who stole Apollo’s cattle while still a toddler; and once Apollo got over Himself, He had to admit it was kinda funny and pretty cute. In Native American myth, we meet Coyote, Whose interference made human death permanent and Who is always angling to sleep with the women. In Welsh myth, there is Gwydion Who tricks His sister Arianrhod multiple times to get Her to accept Her son, Lleu. There’s the Spider God, Anansi of West African lore, Who trickily captured some of the most dangerous beings in all of Africa in order to win His powerful stories from the Creator. And, of course, there’s the troublemaker, Loki of Norse myth. He’s so tricky, on at least one occasion, He changes genders to get the job done.
Trickster Goddesses are fewer and farther between. We have the Greek Eris with Her golden apple tossing, though generally, She’s more the Goddess of troublemaking and disharmony. The Roman Laverna is a true Tricksteress, Who tricked a number of people out of their property then got off on a technicality, thus becoming the Goddess of pickpockets and thieves. Yet these are fairly minor Goddesses. In fact, the only major Goddess I know of Who is a genuine Trickster is Isis.
We already know how Isis tricked the Sun God Re into revealing His True Name. But a lesser-known myth really shows Her Trickster stripes. Here’s the story as told in Isis Magic and which comes from the probably-New Kingdom Chester Beatty papyrus:
Finally, the day came when Horus was old enough to be taken before the Tribunal of the Gods and Goddesses to claim His father’s throne. Almost immediately, Shu the Lord of the Firmament said that Horus’ petition should be granted. Thoth wholeheartedly agreed and He brought out the Holy Eye of Re.
Isis was overjoyed. She called out to the North Wind, “Wind, blow! And carry the news to the Underworld and to Osiris, the father of our new king!”
But Neb-er-Djer, the Lord of the Utmost, was displeased and He grumbled about the quick decision. The Deities of the Ennead of Heliopolis all quickly put down His objections saying that it was useless to object since Horus had already taken the Royal Name and was wearing the White Crown of Osiris.
Now Set spoke up, “Since Horus has already taken what is not rightfully His, I ask that Ye Gods and Goddesses throw Him out to Me. Let Us see if He is worthy of His high office. Let Him fight with Me!”
A great argument now ensued. Thoth spoke for Horus. Re-Horankhti spoke for Set. All the Gods and Goddesses spoke for one or the other. And this contention between the two Gods continued in the Tribunal for 80 years, until all the Deities were tired and bored and cried out, “What can we do? How can we settle this?” But Wise Isis bided Her time.
It was decided that Thoth should write a letter to the Great Goddess Neith on behalf of the Tribunal. She, They believed, would know what to do. So Thoth wrote to Her—a beautiful letter full of praises for Neith and polite concern about the welfare of Her son, Sobek the Lord of Crocodiles. At the very end of the letter, Thoth finally asked what They all wanted to know: to Whom should the throne belong?
The Great Goddess straightaway gave answer to the Tribunal. “Give the throne to Osiris’ son, Horus,” She wrote, “and do not commit any injustice or I shall be angry and the sky will fall upon the earth.” Furthermore, Neith instructed the Deities that They should compensate Set by increasing His property two-fold and offering Him Anat and Astarte, the Goddesses of Phoenicia, as wives.
All the Gods declared that Neith was obviously right; all but Neb-er-Djer who started the whole argument over again. Soon the Deities were fighting once more, some agreeing with Horus, some with Set.
At this, Isis finally became furious. Her anger rose up. Then She Herself rose up, standing at Her full height as fury and flame emanated from Her Divine Form. In the names of Neith and of Ptah-Tanen, the Lord of the Earth, Isis swore a mighty oath. At the words of the Lady of Magic, the Gods were afraid and backed down, placating Her and agreeing that all She had said would be done and that Horus would receive His throne with no more ado.
When Set heard this, it was His turn to be angry. He threatened to take His mighty scepter, which no one could wield but Himself, and kill one of the Deities each day. Further, He said He would no longer negotiate with the Tribunal as long as Isis was a member of it.
So Re-Horankhti secretly said to the Tribunal, “Come over to the island in the river. There We can make Our decision in peace for We shall tell Anti, the ferryman, not to ferry over any woman who even looks like Isis.” The Deities agreed and crossed over to the island where They sat down to eat a meal of barley bread.
Isis learned of Their plan, of course, and She uttered magic words of transformation. Instantly, Isis changed Herself into an old, bent woman, a crone mother. As Anti the ferryman sat on the shore by his boat, he saw what he believed to be an old woman approach him.
“Hail, ferryman,” said the old woman. “Take me across so that I may take this jar of flour to the boy who has been herding cattle there for the past five days. The poor boy will be very hungry by now.”
“No, old mother,” said Anti, “I have been instructed to take no woman across the river.”
The crone laughed, “Surely you were told not to take any woman who looks like Isis across the river. Do I look like Isis?”
Indeed, thought Anti, this old woman did not look like the beautiful Goddess Isis. “All right then. What will you give me to take you across, old mother?”
“I will give you this bread,” said Isis.
Anti laughed, “What is a loaf of bread to me? Do you think that I shall go against the order of the Gods for a loaf of bread?”
“Then I will give you this gold ring,” the disguised Goddess said as She took the ring from Her finger.
To this rich payment, Anti agreed, and he took Isis to the island.
When She arrived, She walked in and out of the trees until She saw the Tribunal eating bread with Neb-er-Djer. Set was there, too, and He caught sight of Her there in the trees, but He did not recognize Her because of the distance between them. Seeing that Set had noticed Her, Isis once more spoke magic words and transformed Herself into a maiden of unearthly beauty.
She moved into the open a little to let Set more clearly see Her beauty, then She turned and walked into the forest. Set’s heart instantly grabbed hold of Him. He could eat no more of the God’s pale bread. He could breath no more unless He could breathe the breath of this maiden. He left the Gods to search for her.
Hiding behind a tree, Set called out to the maiden, “Come to me, O beautiful one, O lovely girl. I am a God and I am waiting for you.”
Isis let Herself be seen fully now, glittering tears trembling upon Her blushing cheeks. She wept, “For me, Thou waitest in vain, Divine Lord. I was the wife of a cattle-keeper and I bore him a man-child. Then my husband died and our son became cattle-herd. But a stranger came and he threatened to beat my son and take his cattle and cast him out. I am distraught, my Lord! O what shall I do, my strong Lord?” The maiden looked up at the God hopefully, “Could it be that Thou wilt act as his deliverer?”
Set’s heart again spoke to Him—as did His loins when He imagined the young woman’s gratitude for His aid. Indignantly, He said, “What! Shall the cattle be given to a stranger when the good son of the farmer lives! This is an outrage! This stranger should be beaten and cast out and the son should be set in his father’s place.”
In an instant—before Set could tell what was happening—the beautiful young woman transformed Herself into the Kite of Isis and flew like the wind to the top of the tree.
“HA!” She screeched in Her kite’s voice. “Now it is Thou who shouldst weep, My Lord! Thine own mouth hath condemned Thee. Thou hast passed judgment upon Thyself. There is nothing Thou canst do to prevent it!”
Then Set knew Who the Kite really was. He knew He was ruined. He burst out in angry weeping and ran to His ally, Re-Horankhti, and related the whole tale. But Re-Horankhti agreed with Isis. “Verily, Thou hast passed judgment upon Thyself, even as She said.”
In His rage, Set had the unfortunate ferryman strung up and beaten upon the soles of his feet until he no longer had any soles.
In this story, we see Isis in full shapeshifting Trickster Mode. Isis tricks the unfortunate, yet greedy, ferryman with Her innocent old lady routine. She tricks Set as a blushing young widow, seducing Him to Her side. In this single story, Isis shows Herself as a maiden (the young widow), as a mother defending Her son in the Tribunal, and as an old woman—as well as in the form of Her sacred bird, the kite.
Yet Isis’ trickery is in service to Mâet, what is Right. She ensures Horus inherits what is rightfully His. She ensures Set does not. And She teaches that greed is, in fact, not good.
Even this does not exhaust the Egyptian myths in which Isis appears as a Trickster. But this post is long enough, so we’ll leave other tales to other times…