In Egypt, She was called T3 w’t (Tah Uwah-et), “The Only One.” In Greek, this same epithet of the Goddess became Thiouis (Thee-oou-iss). (For some reason, I really like “Thiouis;” I have a chant I like to use with that epithet for Her.) The way some Romans expressed this concept may be summed up in a graffito found on one of the walls of the Temple of Isis in Rome: Una, quae es omnia, Dea Isis, “Being one, Thou art all, Goddess Isis.”
Strange in a polytheistic world, isn’t it?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
It could be confusing to those of us who have been born into a culture steeped in the singularity of the one male Deity. But that was very far from the experience of the ancient world. They were used to dealing with any number of Deities—as well as other Divine beings. The face of the Divine could be seen and sensed in many ways and many places and be known by many names…as we are seeing again today, even though cultural elements struggle against it.
In ancient Egypt, Isis is the Only One and the Unique One; but so are other Deities. Re is the Only One and the Unique One…and so are Atum and Ptah and more.
Erik Hornung in Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt explains this as each Deity being considered unique in Her or His own way. But it may be more than that. There are Egyptian texts, especially the wisdom literature, that simply refer to “God.” This may have been purposely vague so that the student of wisdom could “insert your God here.” Or it may have been an expression of what is today know as henotheism (the term was only coined in the 1800s) which is devotion to one particular Deity without denying the reality of all the rest of Them. We also know that multiple Egyptian Deities could form a unity—and even be referred to with a singular pronoun. For example, in some mortuary literature, Ptah-Sokaris-Osiris is invoked “that He may give…” Atum, when He brought forth Shu and Tefnut was said to have been “One Who became Three.”
Jan Assman, in The Price of Monotheism, discusses what he calls “the Mosaic distinction,” the concept that my God is the One True God and every other Deity is a “false god” and he names the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton as its first known practitioner. Assman also makes the interesting observation that following Akhenaton’s “revolution,” as the old Deities were restored to worship, Akhenaton’s influence nevertheless continued to be felt as the idea of a Hidden Deity Who existed behind and was expressed in all the other Deities came into prominence. He calls this development “evolutionary monotheism” and notes it in the mature stages of polytheism not only in Egypt, but in Mesopotamia, Greece, and India as well.
Thinking through the complexities of poly-mono-heno-pan-and-all-the-other-theisms out there is a worthy meditation for today’s devotees of Isis. For if we look back to the traditions of ancient Isiacism to instruct or inspire our modern devotion at all, then we will inevitably find ourselves confronted with the puzzle. How is Isis The Only One and yet part of a pantheon? What does that mean to my personal devotion to the Goddess? If I am a priestess or priest of Isis, must I also serve other Egyptian Deities—or should I specifically not serve others in order to serve just Her? In what way is Isis a Divine Unity and thus All?
As we meditate on these things, we will likely find our own answers…at least for now. Personal answers to questions like these can change over time as we discover, experience, and learn more about ourselves and about our relationship with Her.