The History of The Divine Goddess

        “I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all elements,  primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses…though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me… and the Egyptians who excel in ancient Egypt worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, Queen Isis.”  (Apuleius, p. 271)


        Goddess of Divinity, Goddess of Motherhood and Goddess of All: these are all the titles that Queen Isis was given by her Egyptian worshippers.  Queen Isis wasisis a faithful mother and wife according to ancient Egyptian myth.  She is the perfect example of motherhood because of her devotion to her children and to her powerful and loving husband (and brother), Osiris.  Isis glorified motherhood.  She made females all over Egypt more powerful than before. Through her magic skills, strength and faithfulness to her family and her nation, she is known as one of the greatest goddesses in the ancient Egyptian religion. The cult of Isis spread to many different countries influencing cultures and religions all throughout the discovered world. 


        Thousands of years before Christianity, the ancient Egyptians believed that in the beginning there was nothing but darkness.  From the darkness came the great sun-god Atum.  He created the other gods and goddesses that would help him produce life.  Atum created his wife, a mirror reflection of himself, and Shu.  Shu created the gods or earth and sky, Geb and Nut.  From them, Osiris and Isis were born.  Being from the same womb, it is said that they had eternal love for each other.  Isis was considered to be the Universal Mother.  In the myths written about the beginnings of history, she was depicted as an intelligent sorcerer with maternal instincts.  Her mythology was told throughout many lands.  Isis has made a huge impact on ancient history and religion.


        Isis is still represented in many temples and statues across Egypt.  She is usually shown “as the faithful companion and protectress of Osiris (her husband) or as mother of Horus, seated with her son on her knee, suckling him” (Watterson, p.19).  Isis is normally depicted wearing large headdresses:  “A Crown with a solar disk centered between a pair of horns, a small replica of a throne, (with) a vulture” (Knapp, p.1).  Isis was associated with animals such as the cow, the scorpion or the serpent.  The size and use of different animals in her headdress stood for each of her different personalities.    Isis was represented by the symbol of the cow because this animal is sacred to the Egyptian people. The scorpion symbolized her power and the serpent stood for her cunning and intelligence.  She was also identified with many different Egyptian goddesses like Hathor, Bastet, Nut, Sothis, Astarte and Renenutet.  Isis as a goddess is considered to have all the qualities and powers of all the ancient Egyptian goddesses rolled into one.


        Isis was also closely associated with the moon and different elements dealing with spirituality and natural elements:  “The alternating rhythms, vibration, and waves determined by the moon’s force of radiation or ‘streams of power’ impacted strongly on Isis’s moods” (Knapp p. 6).  It was important that Isis was pleased because people believed that she controlled agriculture. It was also believed that she was the keeper of the Nile and controlled the levels of the river.  She regulated the river to make agriculture prosperous in Egypt and to help her people.  It was essential to the Egyptian people that the Nile be at a precise level.  The economy depended on it strongly for their crops, trading with other nations and transportation. 

    isis on wall

        The myths of Isis strongly influenced Egyptian culture.  She is portrayed in Myths of the World and The Golden Ass as a strong powerful woman who used her maternal instincts, skills and magic ability to protect the people of Egypt.  She was an extremely loyal wife and mother.  In turn Isis was worshipped and loved by many women during that time. 


        The origin of Isis is unknown, but it is believed that her cult started in the Delta of Egypt. By the first and second centuries, her cult spread all over the discovered world.  Isis appealed to the people for many reasons.  She was a great and powerful magician, so men were attracted to her worship.   Her maternal nature attracted women, because Isis was considered to be the “Divine Mother:”  “Temples in ancient Egypt were not places of worship…They were places where the forces of chaos, which the Egyptians thought were a perennial threat to Egypt, were kept at bay by the priests” (Watterson, p. 21).  Since ordinary citizens were not allowed in the temples back in ancient and early Egypt, Isis was able to be worshipped in so many different ways.  People were able to perform her rituals outside of religious grounds.


        Isis was also seen as a very sympathetic figure:  “her own suffering as a bereaved wife and her travails on behalf of her son allowed her to understand the sorrows of her worshippers” (Watterson, p. 21).   Since peasants were the majority of the population, Isis’s popularity grew and spread many other cities like Pompeii, Herculaneum, Campania, Rome and also to parts of Italy and Britain.  Statues of Isis and other Egyptian gods influenced sculptures in early Greek and Roman churches: “The Temple of Isis is the best preserved temple of Pompeii. It dates from the pre-Roman age and was almost entirely rebuilt after the earthquake of 62 A.D…The sacred water of the Nile was kept in an underground passage.” (Sedivy, p. 1). 


        Images of maternity and motherhood were important in many religions.  Isis was seen as the Virgin, before the Virgin Mary.  She became popular all over the Mediterranean Europe and parts of Britain, but originally in Egypt.  She became quite popular in Greece and Rome because of her similarities with their gods and goddesses. The cult of Isis was very open unlike the ones the Romans were used to, Isis could be worshipped the way they wanted to.  She was identified with many other goddesses like Fortuna, Athena, Aphrodite, Hesta, Hera and Demeter. 


        Isis was “endowed with magical capabilities, could heal the sick, and promised blessed resurrection to her devotees after death” (Pomeroy, p.218).  Interestingly enough, only about one third of her devotees were women.  Even almost a century later she was still mainly popular among men.  Her cult had spread throughout all of Rome and Greece becoming the Divine Mother. 


        Isis was assimilated into foreign religions and cultures because of her similarities with other goddesses.  Demeter especially was similar to Isis.  They shared many of the same characteristics.  Both Demeter and Isis’s myths were about their quest for a family member.  The gods of the underworld stole someone they loved and cherished.  In the story with Demeter, Hades steals her daughter and takes her to the underworld.  Demeter searches for her all over, fighting anything that gets in her way.  Isis lost her husband and brother to the god of the underworld, Seth, and spends most of her life looking all over the world for him.  With her similarities to Demeter, Isis was easily adapted by the Greeks.  They adored her for her skills, strength and loving maternal nature. 


        Although Isis had many similarities to other female goddesses, her powers were so great that she became comparable to male divinities.  “Isis has attributes traditionally assigned to the Indo-European sky god: domination over lightening, thunder and the winds.  She is the creator, for she divided earth from heaven, assigned languages to nations, and invented alphabets and astronomy…her powers (are) limitless” (Pomeroy p. 218). 


        Isis was such a strong and powerful figure during ancient times, she helped raised the status of women.  She was the supreme female divinity, and she played a major role in religion, politics and agriculture.  Sarah Pomeroy states that “she made the power of women equal to that of men” (p. 219).   Isis was dominate and powerful.  Her magic abilities rose to heights that were not common for goddesses. She was worshipped to such a great state that no one would go against her beliefs.


        Isis was also associated with eroticism.  Her cult believed that she was a prostitute for ten years of her life.  Temples of Isis had been built in areas of cities where prostitution was common.  It was also said that this was a safe place for the prostitutes to meet.  Do not be mistaken, though; women pledged their virginity and devotion to Isis, also, but her cult in some places, was practiced in a very sexual manner. 


        Cleopatra, a powerful woman in Egypt was considered to be the reincarnation of Isis.  The Egyptian Queen was believed to be a reincarnation of Isis because of her powerful leadership qualities and her dominance over men.  During a war between Cleopatra and Octavian, all of the temples of Isis were closed and Octavian ordered the statues of Isis to be destroyed:  “Octavian intended to deprive the goddess of her worshippers…” (Pomeroy, p. 224).  He exploited the cult of Isis, saying that she was just a whore and preached that she was a horrible example of a wife and mother.  Octavian also ordered that the priest in Rome and all Isis’s worshippers be deported.  This cult was extremely popular and integrated too much into Roman tradition that citizens and Roman emperors continued her worship for many years to come.


     The beginning of the end of the cult of Isis came with birth of Christ.  She lost the title of the Divine Mother and was replaced by the Virgin Mary.  Today Isis is still studied because of her major role in the equality of women in society and in religion.  She not only glorified motherhood by showing society that women and mothers can be powerful and intelligent, but was shown as a woman who fought for what she believed in what she thought was right.  Whether or not Isis was depicted as a whore or the Divine Goddess, she was loved and respected by all.  Isis is an important part of religious history.   She is also an essential figure in the advancement of women in early societies.