1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Isis

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ISIS (Egyptian Ēse), the most famous of the Egyptian goddesses. She was of human form, in early times distinguished only by the hieroglyph of her name upon her head. Later she commonly wore the horns of a cow, and the cow was sacred to her; it is doubtful, however, whether she had any animal representation in early times, nor had she possession of any considerable locality until a late period, when Philae, Behbēt and other large temples were dedicated to her worship. Yet she was of great importance in mythology, religion and magic, appearing constantly in the very ancient Pyramid texts as the devoted sister-wife of Osiris and mother of Horus. In the divine genealogies she is daughter of Keb and Nut (earth and sky). She was supreme in magical power, cunning and knowledge. A legend of the New Kingdom tells how she contrived to learn the all-powerful hidden name of Rēʽ which he had confided to no one. A snake which she had fashioned for the purpose stung the god, who sent for her as a last resort in his unendurable agony; whereupon she represented to him that nothing but his own mysterious name could overcome the venom of the snake. Much Egyptian magic turns on the healing or protection of Horus by Isis, and it is chiefly from magical texts that the myth of Isis and Osiris as given by Plutarch can be illustrated. The Metternich stela (XXXth Dynasty), the finest example of a class of prophylactic stelae generally known by the name of “Horus on the crocodiles,” is inscribed with a long text relating the adventures of Isis and Horus in the marshes of the Delta. With her sister Nephthys, Isis is frequently represented as watching the body of Osiris or mourning his death.

Isis was identified with Demeter by Herodotus, and described as the goddess who was held to be the greatest by the Egyptians; he states that she and Osiris, unlike other deities, were worshipped throughout the land. The importance of Isis had increased greatly since the end of the New Kingdom. The great temple of Philae was begun under the XXXth Dynasty; that of Behbēt seems to have been built by Ptolemy II. The cult of Isis spread into Greece with that of Serapis early in the 3rd century B.C. In Egypt itself Isea, or shrines of Isis, swarmed. At Coptos Isis became a leading divinity on a par with the early god Min. About 80 B.C. Sulla founded an Isiac college in Rome, but their altars within the city were overthrown by the consuls no less than four times in the decade from 58 to 48 B.C., and the worship of Isis at Rome continued to be limited or suppressed by a succession of enactments which were enforced until the reign of Caligula. The Isiac mysteries were a representation of the chief events in the myth of Isis and Osiris—the murder of Osiris, the lamentations of Isis and her wanderings, followed by the triumph of Horus over Seth and the resurrection of the slain god—accompanied by music and an exposition of the inner meaning of the spectacle. These were traditional in ancient Egypt, and in their later development were no doubt affected by the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter. They appealed powerfully to the imagination and the religious sense. The initiated went through rites of purification, and practised a degree of asceticism; but for many the festival was believed to be an occasion for dark orgies. Isis nursing the child Horus (Harpokhrates) was a very common figure in the Deltaic period, and in these later days was still a favourite representation. The Isis temples discovered at Pompeii and in Rome show that ancient monuments as well as objects of small size were brought from Egypt to Italy for dedication to her worship, but the goddess absorbed the attributes of all female divinities; she was goddess of the earth and its fruits, of the Nile, of the sea, of the underworld, of love, healing and magic. From the time of Vespasian onwards the worship of Isis, always popular with some sections, had a great vogue throughout the western world, and is not without traces in Britain. It proved the most successful of the pagan cults in maintaining itself against Christianity, with which it had not a little in common, both in doctrine and in emblems. But the destruction of the Serapeum at Alexandria in A.D. 397 was a fatal blow to the prestige of the Graeco-Egyptian divinities. The worship of Isis, however, survived in Italy into the 5th century. At Philae her temple was frequented by the barbarous Nobatae and Blemmyes until the middle of the 6th century, when the last remaining shrine of Isis was finally closed.

See G. Lafaye, art. “Isis” in Daremberg et Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités (1900); id. Hist. du culte des divinités d’Alexandrie hors de l’Égypte (1883); Meyer and Drexler, art. “Isis” in Röscher’s Lexicon der griech. und röm. Mythologie (1891–1892) (very elaborate); E. A. W. Budge, Gods of the Egyptians, vol. ii. ch. xiii.; Ad. Rusch, De Serapide et Iside in Graecia cultis (dissertation) (Berlin, 1906). (The author especially collects the evidence from Greek inscriptions earlier than the Roman conquest; he contends that the mysteries of Isis were not equated with the Eleusinian mysteries.)  (F. Ll. G.)