Observation of the texts and testimonials of all periods clearly confirm that the goddess Isis held a most unique and exalted position in the minds of the Egyptians from the earliest times to the latest. The influence She rendered unto these cultures in Her realm and those religions which followed is obvious to the wise and demonstrates the preeminent position She held in the hearts of worshipers and in the minds dreamers the world over since the time of Her first appearance.
Much of what we know, however, about the goddess who is amongst those most frequently mentioned, no references are known with certainty concerning Her attributes in origin. But long before Her name occurred in the 6th Dynasty Pyramid Texts, Her divine aspects were already well recognized and established by the Priesthood of Heliopolis between the 3rd and 4th millennium B.C.E. The functions She performed in connection with the dead were quite defined, and were identical in fact to the duties She engaged in the Graeco-Roman period tens of centuries later. Her role as mother to the ‘anointed’ survived far beyond.
The symbol of Her name reads as Ast, or Iset, the ancient Egyptian word meaning throne(as does Her brother/husband Ausar’s) in the feminine. And as are Her brothers Ausar and Set, and Her sister Nebt-het, She is the offspring of Geb and Nuet.
As the wife as Osiris (Ausar), Isis was, most likely, originally worshiped as a river goddess in the Delta region of Egypt. Indeed kings of the 30th Dynasty placed Her temples in the city of Hebyt in the 12th nome of Northern Egypt. The religious significance the priests of Heliopolis recognized in the rising of the Nile in connection to the rising of the Sothic star thus endowed Isis a celestial role very early on. But it was Her prevalence as protectress and creatress which throughout History proved to be Her most renowned attribute.
As the sister/wife of Osiris, Her auspicious functions in the funerary texts of later periods engendered Her subsequent adoration as the cult extended to the nobility and the common classes. Generally speaking, such intercourse with the divine was a prerequisite allocated exclusively to the King and Priesthood. Isis bequeathed to both the Royalty and Plebeian the promise of inviolable justice and the aspiration for a hopeful afterlife. She was the benevolent mother of every living thing, plant and animal, great or small. She personified the faithful wife and loving mother, and in this capacity the Egyptians exalted Her most.
In context to some of Egypt’s earlier more cosmically vested goddesses, the characteristics of Isis perhaps seem somewhat limited by comparison. As Her popularity increased, however, She gradually absorbed their attributes, thus merging with goddesses such as Renunet, Sepet, Bastet, the foreign goddess Astarte, and most significantly, the goddess Hathor.
An attempt to here describe in detail all the functions She procured, the various allegories She appeared in, would be an exercise in futility without the completion of many chapters, but to name only a few of Her most reputable qualities seems a more reasonable endeavor.
As the sister and devoted wife of Osiris, She was the ‘Mighty one of Magical Words’(Urt-Hekau), who assisted not only is His resurrection, but who mothered His son, Horus, through a magnificent act of immaculate conception. As protectress of the infant Horus, She was thus recognized as mother of the King, that is, Lady of the Throne, as her name signifies.
As the goddess of magic, myth relates how she obtained the mystical name of the Sun god RE by fashioning a serpent from His spittle mixed with earth. This she placed in His path and inevitably He was bitten. In this way She was able to coax from Him the secret word of his identity, and with the magical utterances given to Her by the god Thoth, She was able to reanimate Osiris and consequentially conceive Her son, Horus.
The significance of these stories make obvious the relevance of Her semblance as both woman and goddess to the Egyptians. For most of Egypt’s history, there is no evidence of Isis being soley connected to any particular locality, nor does there seem to have been any temple specifically dedicated to Her per se’ until later dynasties. Rather, She was incorporated into the shrines and temples of other divinities whose functions and attributes She syncretized with. In the 21st Dynasty there was the Chapel of Isis dedicated to ‘Mistress of the Pyramid’ in Giza later to be reconstructed in the 26th Dynasty.
Ptolemies Philadelphus and Euergetes 3 completed one of the most important temples of Isis in Egypt, the Iseion in Sebennytos (Hebyt), began by Nectanebo in the 30th Dynasty, which set the standard for what is commonly accepted as ‘classical’ Egyptian temple art. In the Roman Period shrines were dedicated to Her in Dendera by Augustus. Her most famous temple was on the island of Philae where She was identified with a myriad of other goddesses in the form of ‘Isis of Many Manifestations.’
So widely was the goddess venerated in Her own country and abroad, it is worth noting the temple dedicated to Her in the city of Byblos where She was identified with the goddess Astarte, even in the Philosophic environment of Greece and the pragmatic climate of the Roman Empire where liberal curiosity and a zeal for the exotic proved a fertile sanctuary for the promulgation of Her cultus. The worship of Isis was further dispersed through the various trade routes and expansionism of worldly commerce.
In Greece She was identified with Demeter, Selene, Hera and particularly, because of Her congruity with Hathor, She was recognized as Aphrodite. So widespread was the cult of Isis, She became the center point of the Mystery Religions. The writer Apuleius left a detailed description of the initiatory rites contained in liturgies of this growing denomination. Evidence of Her veneration has also been found in places as far as Mesopotamia and Britain. Needless to say, She eventually became more popular than Osiris Himself and long after Egypt and so called Pagan Rome had reached their culmination of power, the worship of Isis still prevailed, especially amongst those Eastern peoples who beheld in Her the symbol of their own divine mother, the Virgin Mary.
Isis with Her son Horus was easily identified with the Madonna and Child icon so revered by the Christians. It is without a doubt that Christianity borrowed many of its religious protocols from the Egyptian goddess in those centuries and that its progress was due mainly to the fact that the new religion closely resembled it in all its essentials. In its close proximity to Nubia, the Temple of Isis flourished on the island of Philae on into the 5th century of the common era when at last it was closed and ‘converted’ by the Christian emperor, Justinian.
Though seldom mentioned by most enthusiasts of popular occult knowledge, the goddess Nebt-het (Nephthys) remains one of the most important and unique personalities of the ancient Egyptian pantheon.
To conclude that Isis was the embodiment of such perceptive and visibly active attributes, Nebt-het must have represented the invisible occurrences which accommodate existence, a ‘House’ in which to dwell. The fact that the name of Isis signifies ‘Throne’ and Nebt-het signifies ‘House’ substantiates this conclusion.
The most celebrated aspect of Nebt-het, the wife of Set, was the faithful and self-less manner in which she befriended Isis, helping the widowed goddess to collect the scattered limbs of Osiris, to reassemble him, and ultimately to assist is His resurrection.
The most well known attributes of the god whom Plutarch referred as Set, was the son of the sky goddess, Nu-et and the brother of Osiris, Isis, and His consort/wife/sister, Nephthys. Much has been written concerning the legend of Set’s slaying of His brother Osiris in His attempt to usurp the throne of Egypt’s kingship. Here, Set is made to assume a multiplicity of nefarious attributes which the Egyptians later came to detest.
His worship existed in the town of Kom-Ombos, a cult center near the Nile’s outlet at the Wadi Hammamat. It has been concluded that He was invoked by the ‘shaman’ of the pre-dynastic Naqada culture as a sort of Rain Maker. An ivory fetish object from El-Amra depicts a menacing hooded figure whose head-dress seems to anticipate the White Crown of Southern Egypt.
It could be that the animal had become extinct through time or Man’s hostility, although many other creatures have been attributed as Setian: the ibex, the hippopotamus, crocodile, various snakes, scorpions, leopards, and other mythological animals.
All creatures (including the Human animal) whose skin or hair was red were considered Setian in nature, and there is some speculation that the early breed of hunting dog may have been one of His primary animals.
Of particular interest is a large green ceremonial kohl palette recovered in Gabalayn, Upper Egypt in safe keeping at the Ashmoleum Museum, Oxford which depicts a variety of creatures both real and mythical engaged in hunting and ritual. On the obverse side, in the lower left corner of the palette, an anthropomorphic Set is depicted amongst the entire parade enthusiastically playing a flute, and here we have a very ancient representation of the Lord of Beasts, quite similar in aspect to Cerrenos and Pan of much later times, a sort of Pied Piper.
In the earliest periods of Egypt’s evolution, even while the Ubaid ancestors of Sumeria had been developing the complex pantheon of the first city-states, many of the gods and goddesses were being propitiated in their original celestial forms and attributes long before the sun cults of Heliopolis had emerged….perhaps because the paths of the stars were such an important observation to those people who knew the trade routes already hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the making.
Set, was the god of Meskhet, the star of the Northern Heavens which to the Egyptians was ‘The Thigh of the Great Bear’.
A Southern goddess, Septet, or Sat, coincidentally has a determinative in her name which the root value means ‘to shoot’, as does the name of the Northern goddess, Neith.
In a scene from the temple of Tuthmoses III, the god is depicted teaching the youthful prince the use of the bow in connection with the goddess, Neith. The words of one Egyptian poet praise Set as ‘that noble and imperious hound whose swiftness is as one with the sharp arrow, more powerful than the gods.’
In the 19th Dynasty, Set is included in the coronation rituals of the kings, the first whose name is Seti. But, after this, the ancient god’s reputation becomes at last demonized in the heart and mind of the common Egyptian. More and more He becomes equated with the gods of Palestine and Syria, a fact which becomes obvious in those civilizations’ iconographies.
From the most remote period in the history of ancient Egypt, the falcon was regarded in the highest esteem as the personification of the cosmic powers which the dwellers of the Nile called 'Heru' and which may be roughly translated to mean 'Who is above' or 'The Distant One'. Early on, because the name 'Hor' was also utilized as the word for 'Face', the concept soon evolved that Heru became explicated to mean 'Face of Heaven'. It was reckoned, therefore, that the eyes of the god were in fact the Sun and Moon by day and night respectively.
Thus, Horus elucidates the concept which repeatedly dramatizes the king's earthly function as the undying Sun which, through the battle waged against the forces of darkness, rises again on the Eastern horizon bringing light and victory to the Two Lands, Upper and Lower Egypt. The king as Horus also represents the victory over the rebellious enemies of Egypt evocative of the mythical battle between Horus, the avenger of His father Osiris, and his executioner, the god, Set.
While the iconography of the triumphant king was standardized and 'set in stone' since the reign of King Narmer, the myth may have been further promulgated during the period of Perabsen who, in the 2nd Dynasty, assumed a Set name rather than a Horus name, but was later ousted by his successor, Kha-Sekhem(ui).
As Uniter of the Two Lands, Horus is thus depicted wearing the Double Crown of Northern and Southern Egypt.
As Horus' role as both a solar god and as the earthly son of Isis and Osiris, He was able to consolidate the legitimacy of both the Priesthoods of Re and of Osiris during the end of the Old Kingdom allowing both theogonies to exist side by side simultaneously.
Horus was worshiped in various forms: Horus, the original sky god revered in the Predynastic 'city' of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis), the Sun god Re Horakhty of Heliopolis, Hor-em-Akhet (Horus on His Horizon) who later became identified as the Great Sphinx of Giza. As Horus of Behdety, He was worshiped at Kom Ombos and Edfu, where His followers were known as Mesnet, that is, The Blacksmiths. As Heru-Ur, He was Horus the Elder or 'The Great' while likewise He was reckoned as Heru-pa-Khrat (Harpocrates), Horus the Child.
From the Northernmost parts of the Delta region in archaic times to as far South as Nubia as late as the Greco-Roman Period, Horus was perhaps the most popularly venerated deity of all of ancient Egypt. His widespread reverence also recognized Him as a healer as is demonstrated by the many 'medicine plaques' which have survived. His image as the Winged Disc also influenced the religious symbolism of cultures as far away from Egypt as Assyria and Persia.
His most common forms, however, were either that of a falcon or a man with the visage of a falcon.
Much contradictory speculation has lead to the debate of the origins of Horus, some preferring to conclude that 'The Distant One' may have entered Egypt from the East and that His battle against the god, Set illustrates an archaic example of His victory over, and subsequent 'domestication' of the native dwellers of the Nile.
Whatever may be the case, Horus had become the God of Kings prior to the 1st Dynasty and His supremacy endured until the very end of Egypt's ancient days.
Incomparatively early times, the god Sokar was apportioned to that part of the underworld allocated to the inhabitants of the area comprising the district of Memphis. He was the tutelary lord of the necropolis in the city of Saqqara, so called by the Arabs and more than likely named after the god.
A compelling article of proof of the god’s importance in antiquity is found on an ebony tablet, now in the British Museum, rendered for the royal chancellor, Hemaka, during the reign of King Den which depicts the early ruler dancing before Sokar in His appearance as Osiris. In the upper register of the tablet, ‘The God at the Top of the Stairs’ is portrayed seated within His shrine. In the register underneath, the King is shown drawing along the unmistakable Arc of Sokar known by the Egyptians as the Hennu Boat. Unlike the ordinary boats represented in various funerary documents of that time, one end is much higher than the other and terminates in a distinctly rendered gazelle head, or perhaps an oryx, a subtle indication of Setian influence which places its iconographical origin at a very early date. In the center of the boat is a coffer surmounted by the head of a winged hawk which presumably contains a fetish image or body of the dormant sun god, Af. The barque itself rests upon a framework sledge provided with runners.
This ceremony assisted the King in an inaugural rite of hoeing the Earth, of digging the first ditch or canal as it was reckoned, perhaps as the First King had done in ‘Harnessing the Nile’ and ‘Reclaiming the Land for His City.’
*** THE GODS AND GODDESSES OF ANCIENT EGYPT PAGE TWO