Literature and Art
The Divine Goddess


The story of the Divine Goddess is traced back to the beginnings of  Egyptian culture.  Isis was the Mother Goddess in the ancient Egyptian religion and many different media were used in her worship.  Through religious scripture, pyramid texts, poetry and art, the story of Isis have been passed on through generations, making her cult one of the longest lived.  Colum’s Myths of the World, J. Geyns Griffith’s translation of the pyramid texts, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, and the Isis Aretalogies from The Nag Hammadi Gospels, are all examples of literature telling the story of Isis.  There are also important and evocative works of art made in honor of Queen Isis.  The Statuette of Isis and Horus and Aphrodite-Isis are both statues made to project maternity and the beauty of Isis.  The Temple of Dendur is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This great temple was built for the honor and worship of this great goddess.

                        The myth of Isis is told in Myths of the World.  This myth was written in early Egypt and was translated and edited in the early 20th century.  In Egyptian mythology, the story of Osiris and Isis is one of the most important and central of all legends.  These two supreme gods are descendants of Re, the god of the sun, and are essential to the story of creation.  Qeb, the goddess of the sky, and Nut, the god of the earth, gives birth to Osiris and when he was born “a voice came in the world crying ‘Behold, the Lord of all things is born!’” (Colum, p. 3).  Isis is Osiris’s twin, and the story describes their eternal love from their beginning of their lives.  Osiris and Isis then marry, and become supreme rulers of the land.  Osiris and Isis are essential to the story of creation.  They are among the earliest of all gods and they were considered to be the two forces that held nature together.  Isis, the mother goddess and Osiris, the god of the underworld are important and central gods in Egyptian religion. 


                  The couples' brother betrays Osiris because of his jealousy:  “Seth’s hatred was growing over the land—vine and grain and flowers.  Many times Seth tried to destroy his brother Osiris, but always his plots were baffled by the watchful care of Isis” (Colum, p.4).  Eventually Seth thinks of a plan that even Isis does not expect, and is able to trap his brother in a wooden chest, bringing him to his death.  Although Osiris is subsequently reincarnated (several times) he then becomes the God of the Dead.


                 Isis is an essential part of this story because of her ever growing love for her husband.  Isis follows Seth all over many lands searching for her beloved.  Isis is able to find her husband because of a vision she sees.  Osiris becomes a part of a column and Isis goes to the King of Byblos’ home to find him.  When she arrives she finds a child sleeping.  Isis, being the Divine Mother, nurses the baby and performs a ritual on the baby to make it immortal.  She places the baby in the fire, without burning the child.   Isis feels connected with the baby because it has been born in the house where her husband rests.  She wishes to make this child immortal to honor her husband. 

        When discovering the column she: “strips the wood from the column…” (p.6). Isis is quick to return to Egypt and open the chest:  “She breathed into his mouth, and, with the motion of her wings (for Isis, being divine, could assume wings), she brought life back to Osiris” (p.6).  The reincarnation of Osiris was an important piece of Egyptian myth.  This scene shows how Isis can assume other beings to make her powers stronger. 

        isis maat

                Osiris is eventually killed again by his brother, “and all the beauty and all the abundance that had come from Re would be destroyed if the pieces that had been the body of Osiris were not brought together once more” (p.6-7).  Isis finds all the parts of her husband “and as the body of Osiris was formed once more, the wars that men were waging died down; peace came; grain and the vine and the fruit-trees grew once more” (p.7).  After she retrevies the chest, Isis’s role in this myth is essential to the fate of Egypt.  Her efforts throughout the story showed her ability to be a powerful divinity worthy of great worship.  Her transformations from being herself to becoming a bird truly showed her abilities and desire to save her husband.


                  In the ancient pyramids of Egypt, people wrote the myths of the gods in the hieroglyphics painted on the walls.  In J. Gwyns Griffith’s translation of the pyramid texts, he discusses how the texts imply that Horus, the child of Isis and Osiris might have been conceived after the death of Osiris:  “…for the great Isis, who tied the girdle at Khemmis, when she brought his garments and her incense in front of her son, Horus the young child, that he might traverse the earth with his white sandals, and go to see his father Osiris” (Griffiths, p.7).  The relationship of Isis and Horus is central to the myth.  The story discusses their love for Osiris and the desire to avenge his death.  Isis is depicted in many other pyramid texts, but she is always shown alongside her husband and brother, Osiris.  The myth shows that even though women were gaining more power in Egypt, when Cleopatra was the ruler of Egypt, they still needed to be protected men.  She is an essential role in the protection of Osiris and Horus and without her the Egyptian people believed that the world would come to an end. 


                  The story of The Golden Ass, told by Apuleius, was written in the second century.  This story is about the power of Isis’s worship.  Lucius, the main character, is turned into a donkey because of his curiosity and desire.  Lucius prays to the Goddess in hopes that she will tell him how to become human again.  The Great Divinity comes to him in a dream.  Apuleius uses powerful and vivid imagery to describe how Lucius envisions the Supreme Goddess, Isis:  “I drowsed and fell asleep… a god-like face emerged from the midst of the sea with lineaments that gods themselves would revere” (Apuleius, p.236).  Lucius then goes on to describe her “abundance of hair…upon her divine neck” (p.237).  He seems truly obsessed with her beauty and her divine presence in his dream.


                 Isis tells Lucius that she has been moved by his prayer and describes to him how important she is:  “I, the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity, the queen of those in hell, the first among those in heaven, the uniform manifestation of all the gods and goddesses…” (Apuleius, p. 237).    Lucius desperately wants Isis to save him.  He makes sure to follow every direction the goddess gives him.  Isis explains to Lucious that she is the Divine Mother and if he was to worship her, she would protect him.

            The Supreme Goddess will answer his prayers if Lucius meets certain conditions:   “that all remaining days of your life must be dedicated to me and nothing can release you from this service except death” (Apuleius, p. 238). She informs him that if he eats a rose bush, during a religious procession, he will become a man,  “Men and women of all classes and ages who had all been initiated into the mysteries of the goddess…”  (p.241) are in a procession that Lucius witneness.  A priest recited a spell that returned the ass to a man once again:  “Lo, here is Lucius who rejoices in the providence of might Isis.  Lo, he is loosed from the bonds of misery and victorious over his fate” (p. 244).  Lucius obeys her wish of Isis and spends the rest of his life being devoted to her. 


                 The Nag Hammadi Gospel, entitled, The Thunder, Perfect Mind, was written in early Egypt, and it was meant to describe the powers of the Divine Goddess.  This poem was featured in The Gospel of the Egyptians and was found in the early 20th century in the are of Nag Hammadi.  It is unsure who actually wrote this poem. This poem is apart of the sixth Codex. It was originally believed that these texts were destroyed in the early Christian struggle, but they discovered in the 1970s.  This text also called the Isis Aretalogies, deals with education, political views and sexuality.  Aretalogies means a string of ‘I am’ statements.  This poem reflects the views Isis is said to have on personal and social issues.  This poem gices interesting perspective on how the Goddess speaks to her people.

    Isis, depicted in the first person, instructs her people: “Do not be ignorant of me; For I am the first and the last…I am the whore and the holy one; I am the wife and the virgin” (Thunder, line 10-15).  She is the Divine Goddess, and she does not want her people to be ignorant of her powers: “Be on your guard! Do not hate my obedience; and do not love my self-control.  In my weakness, do not forsake me; and do not be afraid of my power” (Thunder, line 60-65).  Isis is a powerful goddess, but she was loyal to her people and she does not want to harm them.  This poem also focuses on how the divinity wants the listener to relate to her.  Isis tells the reader to find herself, eventually reaching salvation.  Depicted in many texts, Isis can also be found in many different works of art.

    Isis, the Mother Goddess was sculpted as the perfect depiction of motherhood in 330 BC.   In The Statuette of Isis and Horus, featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Isis is shown breast feeding her son, Horus.  There is a symbol on her head that represents her name.  She is also wearing a head covering that resembles a vulture.  To the ancient Egyptians this is animal represented a queen or goddess.  Horus lies naked on his mother's lap, suckling her breast.  It was typical of early Egypt to show children naked.  Nakedness represents innocence and childhood.  The symbol of motherhood was very important to the early Egyptians.  Made during the Ptolemaic Period, the statue of Horus was seen as an image of rebirth. The blood that flows through his veins is the blood of his father, an important deity in the Egyptian religion.  Osiris becomes the God of the Underworld, and symbolizes an important part of Egyptian mythology.


         During the Egyptian Greco-Roman period, between the second and third centuries, a statue called Aphrodite-Isis was constructed to honor the goddesses Isis and Aphrodite.  The figure is shown nude with an elaborate crown on her head. The thorns on her crown represent Queen Isis, and her long flowing blonde locks are a typical perception of beauty during that time.  Both Goddesses are associated with conception, marriage, and childbirth.  They were both seen a divine mothers.  Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Queen Isis were considered to be very similar and were integrated into both Roman and Egyptian mythologies.


     temple  The Temple of Dendur was built in 15 BC during the Roman period in Egypt.  In  Egyptian culture, temples represented the Egyptian world.  Inside this temple there are drawings of the Nile and the crops that prosper from it.  The Temple of Dendur was built to honor the goddess, Isis.  Carvings of Isis, Osiris and Horus have been sunken into the walls so that when the light hits them it casts a great shadow that makes the deities look as if they are coming out of the walls.  The middle room was used to make offerings to the Supreme Divinity.  These offering rituals were important to the Egyptian people.  They wanted the goddess to be pleased with them, so that she would protect Egypt. 


        During the fourth century a beautiful black stone was carved honoring the son of Isis, Horus.  The stone called Magical Stela was extremely important to the ancient Egyptian religion.  There is a scene carved into the front, showing Isis reciting a spell to the people of Egypt.  This spell was to be recited if a person was bitten by something poisonous or hurt in battle. This is another image depicting Horus is as a healer.  This quality he shares with his mother.  Isis is seen as a nurturer.  Horus seen as a healer is similar because they both possess a desire to help and protect the Egyptian people. 

            Through myth, religious texts, poetry and art, the legend of Isis still lives on today.  Her strong and powerful cult was able to generate remarkable literature and art that was able to be seen in different religious cultures.  These works  reflect the power and centrality of Isis as a powerful deity in Egyptian and Roman myths.  Isis was a very important goddess in ancient Egypt, and her influence can still be found in text and art today.