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Erin Burnett CNRS 501 Wilson 1 October 2008 She Whose

Erin Burnett CNRS 501 Wilson 1 October 2008 She Whose

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Published by: afc140759 on Dec 27, 2009
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Erin BurnettCNRS 501Wilson1 October 2008She Whose Names Cannot Be Numbered“‘[H]ere I am-- I, the mother of the universe, the mistress of all the elements, the firstbornoffspring of the world of time; I, the highest of the powers above, the queen of the shades below,the first of all who dwell in the heavens; I, the one true face and manifestation of all the gods andgoddesses…. [T]he Egyptians, those paragons of ancient lore and learning, who worship me inceremonies that are truly my own, call me by my true name, Queen Isis.’”
This introduction,given to Apuleius in the
by the goddess Isis herself, provides a concise summaryof the place of that goddess in the later Greco-Roman world. Isis is seen as virtually omnipotent by the time of her cult’s end in the fifth century CE, assuming almost all other deities’ functionsand roles, and constantly conflated with any number of the members of the Greek and Roman pantheon. Perhaps no other deity or cult competes so well with the emerging Christianity, for Isis, with her ability to assume the abilities and roles of other deities, seemsto have an almostuniversal appeal. But Isis’ cult does not begin with such an appeal; in fact, in her earliestappearances, Isis has a specific niche, as the mourning wife and sister who by her grief resurrectsOsiris and causes the yearly flooding of the Nile, and she is a purely Egyptian deity. By the timeof the Ptolemies, however, her cult is being actively exported, and her priests are proselytizing asactively as Christian priests later would. As her cult expands its membership and its boundaries,Isis evolves from her beginnings as a fertility goddess into something much more powerful, agoddess who can perform the functions of her husband and sisters, but also of nearly every
Burnett 1
Lucius Apuleius.
, 235-236.
member of the Greek and Roman pantheon. Along the way, she absorbs much of theiconography of these deities. To see how her evolution and later Hellenization progresses,however, we must begin at her beginnings.The traditional Egyptian mythology of Isis emphasizes the maternal and wifely qualitiesof the goddess, but the stor ycan be difficult to discern, as the tales of the various events in thelife of Isis and Osiris are not collected together until Plutarch’s treatise,
 De Iside et Osiride
.Further, Plutarch’s work details the legend as it stood in the late first or early second century of the common era; there is no indication that Plutarch knows anything of the original Egyptianlegend.
Still, the basic story can be gleaned, if not all of the details. Isis and Osiris are bother and sister, children of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb, and they are said to have fallenin love and coupled in Nut’s womb.
Osiris dies, drowning in an earlier version of the story, butusually being murdered at the handsof his brother and foe, Seth.
In Plutarch’s version, Sethtricks Osiris into lying down into a chest or casket, and then he nails the chest shut, covers it withmeltedlead, and places the chest into the mouth of the Nile, where it is carried into the sea.
Thechest lands in Byblos, in Phoenicia, where a tree grows around it and encloses it; the tree issubsequently cut down for use in a palace by a king whom Plutarch names as Melkander, andIsis, informed by demons as to the chest’s location, goes to Byblos and, after some time, removesOsiris’ casket from the tree.
Her son, Horus, is conceived through a necrophilous and somewhat
Burnett 2
Budge, E. A. Wallis.
The Legends of the Gods
, lxxx.
ibid., 217-218.
Witt, R. E.
 Isis in the Graeco-Roman World 
, 36.
Budge, 219.
ibid., 221, 223.
mystical union with the dead Osiris, and she conceals the body in the marshes at Buto, where sherears her son. Seth, however, finds the body, dismembers it, and scatters the pieces (fourteenaccording to Plutarch, twenty-six according to Diodorus Siculus) throughout the Egyptianworld .
With the help of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming and Osiris’ son by Nephthys, sister to both Isis and Osiris, Isis manages to find all the pieces of Osiris’ body, exceptthe phallus, which was thrown into the Nile and, according to Plutarch, eaten by fish.
Wherever Isis found a piece of her husband’s body, she buried it and erected a tomb, but she also was ableto reassemble his body and to restore him to life. The means of his resurrection are vague in theearlier tales, but by the New Kingdom (ca. 15th-11th centuries BCE), the details are thus: Ra (anancient Egyptian sun god whose worship seems to predate that of Isis, Osiris, and the Ennead)allows Anubis to embalm and mummify Osiris’corpse, and then Isis, transformed into a sparrow, breathes life into his body by beating her wings.
The primary story of Isis, then, is one of motherhood and of overwhelming wifelydevotion, and earliest Egyptian depictions of her reflect this. She is generally shown in standardEgyptian style, bearing a throne on her head (the throne is a part of the hieroglyphic for thenames of both Isis and Osiris), mourning Osiris with her sister Nephthys, kneeling by either hiscorpse or his sarcophagus. A relief from the temple complex at Dendera, for exam ple, showsIsis and Nephthys on either side of Osiris’ sarcophagus, Isis wearing a throne upon her head and Nephthys with the hieroglyphs for her name, a basket upon a house, upon her head.
Burnett 3
Turcan, R.
The Cults of the Roman Empire
, 79.
Budge, 226-227.
Witt, 37.
Merkelbach, R.
 Isis Regina, Zeus Serapis
, 8.

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