You already know that Isis is a Scorpion Goddess. She is Iset Ta-Wahaet, “Isis the Scorpion.” And She is linked with Serket, the Egyptian Scorpion Goddess par excellence, as Isis-Serket.
But did you know that Isis’ son Horus also has a thing for scorpions, specifically for Scorpion Goddesses? Well, He does. Indeed, He is apparently married to (at least) seven of Them. Just like those seven scorpions that accompany Isis when She is fleeing from Set after baby Horus’ birth. Hmmm…do scorpions run in this family?
But let’s back up a minute. How do we know about Horus and the Scorpion Goddesses? It’s not part of the Egyptian mythology we’re familiar with. And that’s true; it isn’t. But then we have so few of the ancient Egyptian myths. And much of what we do have is so confusing and obscure (I’m looking at you, Delta Mythological Manual) that we can hardly make a coherent story out of it. That just wasn’t the way the Egyptians did things. Very often, the only way we know about a myth is from the fragments of it hidden in other texts…particularly in magical texts that include what is known as a historiola, a little bit of a myth that relates to the subject of the spell.
Our boy Horus is often the subject of these historiolas, particularly when the spells invoke the aid of Isis as healer. Just as Isis comes to the aid of Horus in the story, so She will come to the aid of the present-day sufferer, who is identified with Horus. There is a whole series of these types of spells that are intended to cure inflammation, which can include anything from the pain of swollen breasts in a new mother to the fiery pain of poison from a snake bite or scorpion sting, which the Egyptians described as “burning.” As a whole, these spells are sometimes referred to as “burning Horus” spells since Horus is so often in fiery pain for one reason or another—and requires healing.
There’s an interesting example of this from the Greco-Egyptian magical papyri, aka the PGM.
The Charm of the Syrian Woman of Gadara for Any Inflammation
The most majestic Goddess’ [Isis] child [Horus] was set aflame as an initiate—and on the highest mountain peak was set aflame. And the fire did greedily gulp seven springs, [seven] of wolves, seven of bears, seven of lions, but seven dark[-blue] eyed maidens with dark[-blue] urns drew water and becalmed the restless fire.PGM XX
Horus is almost always on a mountain or in the desert when He gets burned. In this case, His burning is an initiation, which recalls Plutarch’s version of the Isis-Osiris story where Isis nurses the child of Queen Astarte and burns away the mortal parts of his body at night, thereby initiating him into immortality.
In another example, Isis is speaking to a feminine person and tells her to get water to relieve Horus in Isis’ own absence:
My son Horus is burnt upon the gebel (mountain). There is no water there. I am not there. May you (fem.) bring water from the banks of the stream to extinguish the fire. Recitation over milk of a woman who has borne a male child.Papyrus Ebers
Here, milk is blessed and charged by speaking this spell and then used to soothe the burn. Learn more about Isis and milk here.
It is in these types of healing spells that we meet the Scorpion Goddess wives of Horus. Traces of Them have been found in papyri, on ostraca, in graffiti, and on healing statues dating from the 14th century BCE to the end of dynastic Egypt. There may even be an older allusion to Them in the Coffin Texts, where Horus is said to “belong to the Great Lady of the Desert, the Lady of Flame … Who bites with Her mouth, Who strikes with Her tail” (my capitalization). So these Goddesses were quite well known and remained so.
In one of the spells in the Turin papyrus, the Goddesses are said to be Daughters of Re and They bring drink and magical knots to heal Horus during one of His mishaps. In one of the papyri collected by American mining magnate Chester Beatty, we find a long-ish spell against scorpion stings. In the spell, the scorpion’s poison is called to flow out of the person. The poison is called forth seven times—in the names and by the power of each the seven wives of Horus. As Scorpion Goddesses Themselves, They are capable of calling the poison out of the sufferer. In this particular spell, instead of being the victim of poisoning, Horus “the Physician” is working with His wives to draw out and remove the poison.
This spell includes a few of the names of the Goddesses. It is quite damaged, so we can’t see all Their names, though from the structure of the spell, we know seven were originally listed. Yet a list of all seven can be reconstructed from a variety of sources. There are two that are the most well known, appearing in a number of other surviving spells. They are Sepertuenes, “She to Whom One Petitions,” and Ta-Bitchet, which combines the Egyptian feminine article ta with a Canaanite or Amorite word and may mean “The Daughter.”
Other Scorpion Goddesses identified as wives of Horus include Ifdet, “She Who Runs,” Wepetsepu, “She Who Judges Misdeeds,” and Sefedsepu, “She Who Slaughters Misdeeds (or misdeed doers?).” And finally, Metemet-nefertiyes, (the first part of Her name is not translatable, then…) “Beautiful When She Comes,” and Batcheh. Batcheh is not translated but She defines Herself in another text as “the uraeus Who bore the Gods.”
In another of the Chester Beatty papyri, we learn of another Goddess Who may also be a wife of Horus. She is Sefet-Sefekh, “Seven Slayers,” Who recites a spell for the sufferer as She did for Horus when He was poisoned. (Or it may be that ‘Seven Slayers’ is an amalgamation of all seven wives.) In still another, we have a wife of Horus named Tamenet…though I wonder if that name might be a corruption or shortening of the first part of Metemet-nefertiyes’ name. And there may be others listed in other spells, but this is uncertain due to the deteriorated state of the texts.
Some scholars think that all these Scorpion Goddesses may be manifestations of the one Great Scorpion Goddess, Serket. In one spell against poisoning, Wepetsepu specifically calls Herself not only by Her own name, but also says She is Serket. Serket is named as a consort of both Horus the Younger and Horus the Elder. In some tales, Serket is the mother of the four Sons of Horus; in others stories, Isis is the mother of the four Sons of Horus (the Elder). And of course, Isis and Serket can be connected as Isis-Serket.
In a spell invoking Sepertuenes, the scorpion who stung the sufferer is addressed with reference to “your mother Isis.” So the scorpion is a daughter (apparently all scorpions are daughters) of Isis the Scorpion Goddess. In addition to Isis’ identification as Iset Ta-Wahaet, we discover another Scorpion Isis. This one is Iset Hededyt, a name that relates to the concepts of whiteness and luminosity.
It seems that the Egyptians classified scorpions by color, either light or dark. So as Isis Hededyt, She is associated with the lighter-colored types. One scholar I’m reading thinks that Hededyt may be able to be identified as the androctonus australis scorpion, loosely meaning “southern man-killer.” As you might guess, this desert-dweller is quite poisonous, indeed it is one of the world’s most dangerous. Hededyt is called a Daughter of Re, just like the scorpion wives of Horus, and She protects Re as He journeys in the solar barque. In later periods, She protects Osiris and Horus and becomes—forevermore—Iset Hededyt. Iset Hededyt seems to be more associated with Isis’ Upper Egyptian forms, while Iset Ta-Wahaet is associated with Lower Egypt.
There’s more to say about Horus and His Scorpion Goddess wives and how Robert Ritner*, Professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute and author of The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, thinks they may tie in with the PGM spell we started with. But this post is long enough for now. We’ll do Part 2 next time.
*Sadly, Professor Ritner died last year. He and his excellent work will be missed.