My beloved got me a new Isis sacred image for my birthday.

Made in a studio in Egypt, this unusual image shows Isis striding, touching the head of a sacred baboon with one hand and a ba-bird with the other.

She just arrived, so I haven’t had time to “open Her mouth” yet. That will happen sometime soon. (It was a long trip from Egypt and Customs definitely opened the package and checked what the heck was in it—and, may I say, did not do a great job of sealing it back up. But I digress.)

The title of this post translates as “Isis the Magician, Lady of Souls” and refers to Isis’ two companions in this sacred image. A semi-deep Google dive did not turn up any similar images, either in replica or original. But it’s such an unusual image, I think there must be an ancient Egyptian original somewhere that I just haven’t found yet. It’s unlikely to be something a modern artist would just dream up without precedent. On the other hand, that mystery (small “m”) leaves me free to interpret the image as I will, which I shall now proceed to do.

Ancient Egyptian image of the wise and sexually potent hamadryas

The Baboon

The Egyptian sacred baboon has been identified as the hamadyras baboon. Unfortunately, it is now extinct in Egypt, and possibly had to have been imported even into ancient Egypt. With their expressive faces and cleverness, they were considered sacred to the Great Magician Thoth. He sometimes even took the form of a hamadryas.

As a creature of Thoth, these baboons were associated with the moon and you often see images of them with a lunar disk above their heads. But they were also sun-connected. When these diurnal monkeys awaken, they stretch their arms up as if praying and vocalize. To the ancients, they were awakening and praising Re in His rising.

A familiar posture to the ancient Egyptians. Handy built-in butt cushion, too.

Because of this, great wisdom was attributed to the baboons and they were considered to be the keepers of secret religious knowledge. In the Book of the Dead, the deceased declare themselves to be one of the baboons who sing and praise the sun as it rises. In a different part of the same text, the baboons “raise up truth to the Lord of All” and they are the ones who offer the best praise and offerings to the Deities and the dead. They are said to “live on truth, feed on truth, and whose hearts have no lies.” These same things are also said of the Deities and of the king. Thus, these sacred baboons are of a high stature.

Thoth in baboon-form, with lunar disk, guiding the work of a scribe

The sunrise vocalizations were even considered to be a sacred baboon language that human beings could not comprehend, but which contained the secrets of the baboons’ ecstatic praise that so pleased the Deities. One magical text (the Harris papyrus) invokes a holy baboon “whose lips are fire and each of whose words is a glowing flame.” Horapollo, who in the 5th century CE wrote a book explaining what he knew about Egyptian hieroglyphs, says that the sacred baboons also knew the hieroglyphs…and some could even write the holy glyphs. In an attempt to find out which ones knew the sacred language, Horapollo says that the priests would give a young baboon a writing stylus, ink, and a tablet to see if he was one of the ones who could write hieroglyphs.

This idea, no doubt, was because of the baboon’s connection with—and sometimes manifestation as—Thoth, the inventor of writing. Like Her compatriot, Isis too, was known to have invented writing. Her aretalogy from Maroneia says, “With Hermes [Thoth] she discovered writings, the sacred ones of these for the initiated, and the demotic for all.”

It is fitting that words and language be under the purview of Isis and Thoth, the two Great Magician Deities of ancient Egypt. For words are magic. Silently, through signs and symbols, thoughts, ideas, and desires can be transmitted from one person to another, and from one to many. Hekau, words of magic, words of power, cause things to change—and most especially when spoken by Isis and Thoth, Lady and Lord of Words of Power. (Read more about Isis as the Great Word here. Read more about Isis and Thoth here.)

And so, in my new sacred image of Isis, I take the baboon under Her right hand to be an image of Her potency as Iset Hekaiet, Isis the Magician, Isis the Lady of Words of Power.

Queen Nefertari’s ba

The Ba-Bird

Beneath Her left hand is a ba-bird, a human-headed image of one of the aspects of the human being that survives after death. As a funerary Goddess, Isis has always been connected to the Land of the Dead.

In the earliest Egyptian texts, the ba appears to be a Divine force, such as the manifestation of a Deity. By the end of the Old Kingdom, the concept of the ba was understood more broadly. Everybody—and some things as well—had one.

While the ba concept is much more complicated, for convenience it is usually just translated as “soul.” Interestingly, it was first so translated by the same Horapollo mentioned above. He translated Egyptian ba as Greek psyche, which further translates to “soul” in English. Generally, the ba is a non-physical aspect of person that comprised their personality or character and is a manifestation of the human being in the spiritual realm.

An Egyptian couple with their bau (pl.) before them

The ba is usually depicted as a human-headed bird having the same face as the deceased to whom it belongs. While its human face identifies it as personal to the individual, its bird wings give it the ability to fly “between the worlds.” The winged ba can move freely in the spiritual realms, coming and going as it will.

A man welcomes his ba in the otherworld

As an immortal and eternally renewing part of all beings, the ba appropriately comes under the wings of Isis, Lady of Souls, Who cares for and renews us in the afterlife, just as She did for Osiris. It is She Who initiates the ba into its new, transformed existence without the living body of the deceased. She is the Lady of All in the Secret Place and She is asked by the deceased in the Coffin Texts to, “spiritualize me, O you who split open my mouth for me and who guide my soul [ba] on the paths of the Netherworld.”

As Isis entered the Graeco-Roman world, She continued Her association with souls as a Mystery Goddess. In Her famous Mysteries, initiates learned what lay before them in the afterlife so that they lost their fear of death and could live more fulfilling lives on earth. Isis was also known as a Savior Goddess. This not only pertains to Her ability to initiate our souls into the Mysteries of Death, but also to Her saving grace in our day-to-day lives.

A Graeco-Roman Isis

In a Hermetic treatise, the Kore Kosmou, Isis is also associated with souls. In the text, She describes for Horus how human souls were created and how She and Osiris devised the “magic of the prophet-priests” so that human souls could be nurtured by philosophy and human bodies could be healed by the magical arts.

My new sacred image of Isis celebrates this aspect of Her power for me: She is the Lady of All in the Secret Place, the Goddess Who protects and renews the souls, including mine.

I hope I can someday find the ancient Egyptian original of this image. If you spot it, be sure to let me know.