Have you ever looked into the warm, earth-brown eyes of a cow? Not in a video or a photo, but right there with the living cow, as her body heat radiates upon you and you share her grassy breath?
Huge, dark pools of calm, those eyes with their long lashes. Up close and personal, cows are large and impressive creatures. With their placid strength and ready supply of milk and meat, it’s no wonder human beings have almost always considered them holy in one way or another.
Among so many other of Her attributes, Our Lady Isis is a Cow Goddess. Like Hathor, Isis can be shown in full cow-form or as a cow-headed woman. We find the Cow Goddess Isis in many ancient places, including Her temple at Isiopolis.
In 2011, a fragment of one of the blocks from Isis’ temple there had been chipped off a larger block and sold on the antiquities market. It has now been returned to Egypt.
The auction identified the Cow Goddess as Akht. I have not otherwise found this Cow Goddess. Akhet usually means horizon or the Light Land; it is the Egyptian liminal place, the transition between earth and the otherworld. Since this cow-headed Goddess was found in Isis’ temple, it may be that She and Isis were assimilated as Iset-Akht.
Of course, as a Goddess, the milk of Isis needn’t be divine cow’s milk. As you may recall, to the ancient Egyptians, bodily fluids could be a way of moving magic or heka. Written spells could be licked from the papyrus in order to be taken into the human body. Magic could be eaten or swallowed. From blood to semen to spittle, all these fluids are powerful and a million times more so when they come from a Deity
Yet of all these magical bodily fluids, it may be that milk is the queen of them all. To us at least, milk is the most pleasant—and palatable—of the magical body fluids. It is, after all, our first food. In fact, it is the perfect food and it gives us an intimate connection with our mothers. Children nursing at the breasts of their mothers are drinking Life Itself. No death has ever touched this pure milk. It comes from the mother alive. It is drunken alive. It becomes part of a living being.
Milk is magic.
Isis is one of the most important Egyptian Milk Goddesses from a very early period. The Pyramid Texts say to the deceased, “Take the breast of your sister Isis the milk-provider.” Throughout Egyptian history, Isis is the mother and nurse of kings. A scholar who as studied the images of Isis Lactans (“Milk-Giving Isis”) observed that the idea that milk from the breast of the Goddess not only gives life, but also longevity, salvation, and even divinity is one that exists “in the mentality of the populations of the Delta from the earliest antiquity, and manifests itself in the official imagery of the Pharaohs.”
Egyptian art shows the king drinking this holy milk of the Goddess three important times: at birth, at his coronation, and at his rebirth. The symbolism is clear. Goddess milk provides life to the babe, royal power—and perhaps wisdom and even divinity—to the new king, and renewal after death for the deceased king.
A daily ritual conducted in the temples at Thebes, Memphis, and Abydos was designed to confirm the power of the king. Pharaoh (or more likely, his representative) received the sa en ankh, life-energy, from his Divine Father, Amun-Re, by means of magical gestures. Then he received the power of the Goddess from his Divine Mother, Amunet, by means of drinking Her milk. Carved on temple walls, the Goddess invites the king to suckle the milk from both Her breasts. In Hatshepsut’s temple, Hathor’s milk gives the young Pharaoh “life, strength, health.” Hatshepsut is also nursed by the Werety Hekau, the Two Great of Magic, Who are connected with the royal crown—as well as with Isis and Nephthys. The Pyramid Texts have Isis bring Her milk to the deceased Pharaoh to assist in his rebirth: “Isis comes, she has her breasts prepared for her son Horus, the victorious.” Isis is said “to flow with” Her milk for the dead, which is a rather lovely phrase.
Milk was also used for healing. The “milk of a woman who has borne a son” was a fairly common ingredient in Egyptian medicines and, according to Prof. Robert Ritner, usually referred to the milk of Isis Who bore Horus.
Archeologists have recovered a number of small vessels in the shape of a woman pressing her breast to give milk or, as in the case of the vessel shown here, a woman nursing. They were designed to hold human milk, perhaps for making medicine, perhaps for later feeding of a child. The milk of the Divine Mother was also directly invoked for healing.
In a formula for the relief of a burn, Isis says that She will extinguish the fire of the burn with Her milk. By applying Goddess-milk to the body of the sufferer, they will be healed and the fire will leave the body. In a New Kingdom myth, the Goddess Hathor uses gazelle’s milk to heal the eyes of Horus, which had been torn out during one of His battles with Set. And we often find milk as one of the ingredients in medicine to cure eye ailments.
Nursing mothers (“a woman with magic spells of milk”) could create talismans using their own milk to place around the necks of their own children to protect them. The flesh and skin of children were thought to have been created from their mothers’ milk while they were in the womb…and milk could consequently heal the body in later life.
With all its magical properties, milk was common among the supplies buried with the dead and it served as a valuable offering to the Deities. At Isis’ Philae temple, wall carvings attest that milk was offered to all the Deities worshipped there. To help renew Osiris, milk was poured upon His tomb at Biggeh, a small, holy island visible from Philae. Every ten days, Isis Herself was said to have made these libations.
The magic of milk was also understood in the wider Mediterranean world. The Greek Kourotrophoi, (“Child-Carrying” and Nurturing Goddesses), could confer hero status on a mortal by feeding him on Their milk. Mysteries, such as the Orphic-Dionysian Mysteries, envisioned a kind of baptism in milk. It may have been from the Greeks that the idea of milk as transformed blood came into Egypt in the later periods.
It is widely understood that the Isis Lactans images of late Paganism became the models for the mother-and-child images of the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus. (Although, since I am updating this post, I have since seen some arguments against it…)
Nevertheless, early Christianity, too, had the concept of the blessings bestowed by divine milk. Eventually, it is Christianity’s male God Who becomes the Divine Nurse of worshipers. The Gnostic 19th Ode of Solomon says,
“The Son is the cup; the Father is he who was milked; and the Holy Spirit is she who milked him; because his breasts were full and it was undesirable that his milk should be released without purpose.”
(This is rather odd since the feminine Holy Spirit—She!—is right there.) Nevertheless this adoption of a Goddess power by a God simply points out, once more, the potency of the symbol of milk—for all of us.
There is a spell from the Berlin Magical Papyrus that instructs one to take milk with honey at sunrise and it “will become something divine in your heart.” Isn’t that just beautiful? I can definitely see this as a sunrise rite for Isis. Charge the milk and honey with Her protection, magic, and healing power…and drink. It will become something divine in your heart.
Milk IS magic. It is life, health, healing, resurrection, renewal, and salvation. For me, this holy, holy milk is always the milk of Isis, the Milk Provider, the Great of Magic and the Great of Milk.
It’s not Isis, but wow!