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of Magic and Giver of Life
Isis, the Egyptian goddess of rebirth remains one of the most familiar images of empowered and utter femininity. The goddess Isis was the first daughter of Geb, god of the Earth, and Nut, the goddess of the Overarching Sky. Isis was born on the first day between the first years of creation, and was adored by her human followers. Unlike the other Egyptian goddesses, the goddess Isis spent time among her people, teaching women how to grind corn and make bread, spin flax and weave cloth, and how to tame men enough to live with them (an art form on which many of us would welcome a refresher course!) Isis taught her people the skills of reading and agriculture and was worshipped as the goddess of medicine and wisdom.
More than any other of the ancient Egyptian goddesses, Isis embodied the characteristics of all the lesser goddesses that preceded her. Isis became the model on which future generations of female deities in other cultures were to be based. As the personification of the "complete female", Isis was called "The One Who Is All", Isis Panthea ("Isis the All Goddess"), and the "Lady of Ten Thousand Names". The goddess Isis, a moon goddess, gave birth to Horus, the god of the sun. Together, Isis and Horus created and sustained all life and were the saviors of their people.
Isis became the most powerful of the gods and goddesses in the ancient world. Ra, the God of the Sun, originally had the greatest power. But Ra was uncaring, and the people of the world suffered greatly during his reign. The goddess Isis tricked him by mixing some of his saliva with mud to create a poisonous snake that bit him, causing him great suffering which she then offered to cure. He eventually agreed. Isis informed Ra that, for the cure to work, she would have to speak his secret name (which was the source of his power over life and death). Reluctantly, he
whispered it to her. When Isis uttered his secret name while performing her magic, Ra was healed. But the goddess Isis then possessed his powers of life and death, and quickly became the most powerful of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, using her great powers to the benefit of the people.
Isis was called the Mother of Life, but she was also known as the Crone of Death. Her immense powers earned her the titles of "The Giver of Life" and "Goddess of Magic". Her best known story illustrates why she is simultaneously known as a creation goddess and a goddess of destruction. Isis was the Goddess of the Earth in ancient Egypt and loved her brother Osiris. When they married, Osiris became the first King of Earth. Their brother Set, immensely jealous of their powers, murdered Osiris so he could usurp the throne. Set did this by tricking Osiris into stepping into a beautiful box made of cedar, ebony and ivory that he had ordered built to fit only Osiris. Set then sealed it up to become a coffin and threw it into the river. The river carried the box out to sea; it washed up in another country, resting in the upper boughs of a tamarisk tree when the waters receded. As time passed, the branches covered the box, encapsulating the god in his coffin in the trunk of the tree. In a state of inconsolable grief, Isis tore her robes to shreds and cut off her beautiful black hair. When she finally regained her emotional balance, Isis set out to search for the body of her beloved Osiris so that she might bury him properly.
The search took Isis to Phoenicia where she met Queen Astarte. Astarte didn't recognize the goddess and hired her as a nursemaid to the infant prince. Fond of the young boy, Isis decided to bestow immortality on him. As she was holding the royal infant over the fire as part of the ritual, the Queen entered the room. Seeing her son smoldering in the middle of the fire, Astarte instinctively (but naively) grabbed the child out of the flames, undoing the magic of Isis that would have made her son a god. When the Queen demanded an explanation, Isis revealed her identity and told Astarte of her quest to recover her husband's body. As she listened to the story, Astarte realized that the body was hidden in the fragrant tree in the center of the
palace and told Isis where to find it. Sheltering his broken body in her arms, the goddess Isis carried the body of Osiris back to Egypt for proper burial. There she hid it in the swamps on the delta of the Nile river.
Unfortunately, Set came across the box one night when he was out hunting. Infuriated by this turn of events and determined not to be outdone, he murdered Osiris once again . . . this time hacking his body into 14 pieces and throwing them in different directions knowing that they would be eaten by the crocodiles. The goddess Isis searched and searched, accompanied by seven scorpions who assisted and protected her. Each time she found new pieces she rejoined them to re-form his body. But Isis could only recover thirteen of the pieces. The fourteenth, his penis, had been swallowed by a crab, so she fashioned one from gold and wax. Then inventing the rites of embalming, and speaking some words of magic, Isis brought her husband back to life. Magically, Isis then conceived a child with Osiris, and gave birth to Horus, who later became the Sun God. Assured that having the infant would now relieve Isis' grief, Osiris was free to descend to become the King of the Underworld, ruling over the dead and the sleeping. His spirit, however, frequently returned to be with Isis and the young Horus who both remained under his watchful and loving eye.
There are many other variations of this myth . . . in some Isis found the body of Osiris in Byblos, fashioned his penis out of clay. In others the goddess consumed the dismembered parts she found and brought Osiris back to life, reincarnating him as her son Horus. In one of the most beautiful renditions, Isis turns into a sparrowhawk and hovers over the body of Osiris, fanning life back into him with her long wings. Regardless of the differences, each version speaks of the power over life and death that the goddess Isis symbolizes. . . the deep mysteries of the feminine ability to create and to bring life from that which is lifeless. To this day the celebration of the flooding of the Nile each year is called "The Night of the Drop" by Muslims. . . for it used to be named "The Night of the TearDrop" a remembrance of the extent of the Isis' lamentation of the death of Osiris, her tears so plentiful they caused the Nile to overflow.
The ancient Egyptian goddess Isis has many gifts to share with modern women. Isis embodies the strengths of the feminine, the capacity to feel deeply about relationships, the act of creation, and the source of sustenance and protection. At times Isis could be a clever trickster empowered by her feminine wiles rather than her logic or brute strength, but it is also the goddess Isis who shows us how we can use our personal gifts to create the life we desire rather than simply opposing that which we do not like. The myths of Isis and Osiris caution us about the need for occasional renewal and reconnection in our relationships. Isis also reminds us to acknowledge and accept the depths of our emotions.
Goddess Symbols of Isis
Full moon, images of madonna and child, rivers (especially the Nile) and the ocean, hair braids, cattails, papyrus, knots and buckles, stars, the ankh symbol, throne, the rattle, diadem headdress (circular disk with horns), cow, wings, milk, perfume bottles, and March 5 (feast day)
Sparrowhawk or kite, crocodile, scorpion, crab, snake (especially cobra), and geese
Cedar, corn, tamarisk, flax, wheat, barley, grapes, lotus, balsam, all flowers, trees and all green plants
Tamarisk, lotus, balsam, amber oil, cedarwood, sandalwood, cinnamon, and sweet orange
Gems and Metals:
Silver, gold, ebony, ivory, obsidian, lapis lazuli, and scarabs
Colors: Silver, gold, black, red, cobalt blue, and green
In the beginning, all was darkness in Nin, the primordial ocean of chaos. And then came a great fire in the heavens and his name was Ra. He created Shu (the air), and Tefnut (the moisture); they in turn created heaven and earth. Nut, Goddess of the sky, and Geb, God of the earth, were filled with desire for each other, knowing that with the union of the ethereal womb of the heavens and the material seed of the earth, all things might be possible. Ra, master of the cosmos, was envious of the potential they possessed, and forbade the union. But with courageous disobedience they soon came together and knew a brief but passionate embrace. When Ra learned of their defiance, a consuming rage came upon him, and he ordered Shu to eternally divide them. To this day, the lonely earth reaches up in arousal, seeking to hold his beloved sky once more. Ra was to slow, however, and their brief union was fruitful: Nut gave birth to four children - brothers Osirus and Seth, and sisters Isis and Nephthys - who became the four cardinal deities of the earth and lords over all therein. Of these four, Isis, Goddess of life, was supreme. Isis is the Mistress of the four elements (terrestrial earth and water, and celestial wind and fire - symbols of the both the divided functions of body and spirit and the rational and creative aspects of the mind). As the will of all the forces of nature, She is the Mother of all life. It is Her power that forges the transcendant, static, ethereal, (the sky) with the immanent, dynamic, material, (the earth) into the unitary miracle of living things. Isis, the great Mother Goddess, exists at the centre of all life. She draws the earth upward, that Her blood might flow down to nourish the four corners of the world. And the seeds of the earth are born upon Her breath, that they might find a home in the desert, and thereby bring the fiery spark of new life to that once desolate place. The oasis in the desert, like life in the cosmos, is a miraculous little jewel,
improbable almost to the point of impossible. Only the fourfold energies of Isis that penetrate and intersect at this place, make it so. Isis holds next to Her breast the egyptian symbol known as ankh. It literally translates as life or vitality, but it is also a pictograph of man (head, arms and body). This is the image of mother and child. Like all mothers, she struggles to protect Her children - and cannot. As children grow and wander far from their mother's gentle protection, they must eventually suffer. And like all mothers, Isis suffers the pain of Her children, and suffers in Her helplessness to prevent it. But the passive nurturing power of the Goddess is a component of the life force the She provides to the world. To be sensitive to the energies of nature, is to be attuned to the Goddess and Her transcendant nourishment that informs the needs of both body and spirit. Between the passive and active extremes of the living experience, is the centre wherein one makes contact with the Goddess, and is replenished and sustained by Her life-giving benevolence. It is a central role of the feminine archetype - the Great Mother Goddess - to bring one into this centre, where the transformation occurs. The ancient egyptians tell a story of a spiritual coupling, between Isis and the dead body of Osirus (once leader of the terrestrial Gods, but killed by his brother Seth). From this union came Horus - the living God and supreme Lord of the cosmos. This story appears many, many times across the earth, and across history. Our stories about Gods, are stories about ourselves. And our desire for the miracle benediction of the Goddess, is pervasive indeed: from Cybele (the most ancient deity we know of - who later becomes Ishtar in Persia, Isis in Egypt, Artemis in Greece, and Diana in Rome), to Devaki (the human mother of Krishna - God incarnate on earth),to Queen Maya (virgin mother of Buddha - enlightenment incarnate), to the Virgin Mary (another human mother of a famous God incarnate on earth). Even the Sage-prophet Merlin (from the grand Arthurian tradition - Christianized from more ancient pre-Christian Celtic mythology), is conceived of a virgin mother and a "golden being of light". The promise for us within these stories is that we too can join with the Truth - and become the Sage-Prophet. And the Mother of the Prophet is a virgin because no physical union has occurred; when God penetrates into the soul, it is a purely spiritual act. As the physical feminine brings forth physical life, so, too, does the spiritual feminine bring forth spiritual life. It is through this aspect of the Goddess we hold in our hearts that we are reborn: not merely physical, but now spiritual beings. When one has learned to resonate with and unify those divine elemental vibrations of earth and sky (that is, unify the two halves of consciousness - the terrestrially informed rational and celestially informed creative, the masculine and feminine, and the conscious and the unconscious), then they are invited to fly upon the wings of
enlightenment up to a great pyramid of light upon which awaits the Lord Creator of the cosmos. Isis hid her son, Horus, from Seth, the murderer of Osiris, until Horus was fully grown and could avenge his father. She defended the child against many attacks from snakes and scorpions. But because Isis was also Seth's sister, she wavered during the eventual battle between Horus and Seth, and in one episode Isis pitied Seth and was beheaded by Horus during their struggle. Despite her variable temperament, she and Horus were regarded by the Egyptians as the perfect mother and son. The shelter she afforded her child gave her the character of a goddess of protection. But her chief aspect was that of a great magician, whose power transcended that of all other deities. Several narratives tell of her magical prowess, with which she could even outwit the creator god Atum. She was invoked on behalf of the sick, and, with the goddesses Nephthys, Neith, and Selket, she protected the dead. She became associated with various other goddesses who had similar functions, and thus her nature became increasingly diverse. In particular, the goddess Hathor and Isis became similar in many respects. In the astral interpretation of the gods, Isis was equated with the dog star Sothis (Sirius). Isis was represented as a woman with the hieroglyphic sign of the throne on her head, either sitting on a throne, alone or holding the child Horus, or kneeling before a coffin. Occasionally she was shown with a cow's head. As mourner, she was a principal deity in all rites connected with the dead; as magician, she cured the sick and brought the dead to life; and, as mother, she was herself a life-giver. The cult of Isis spread throughout Egypt. In Akhmim she received special attention as the "mother" of the fertility god Min. She had important temples throughout Egypt and Nubia. By Greco-Roman times she was dominant among Egyptian goddesses, and she received acclaim from Egyptians and Greeks for her many names and aspects. Several temples were dedicated to her in Alexandria, where she became the "patroness of seafarers." From Alexandria her cult was brought to all the shores of the Mediterranean, including Greece and Rome. In Hellenistic times the mysteries of Isis and Osiris developed; these were comparable to other Greek mystery cults. The Egyptian goddess Isis was worshipped throughout Egypt, even from very early dates. Isis was considered to the patron saint of women, mothers and children. Additionally, ancient Egyptians referred to her as Isis the goddess of magic. In her winged form, she is usually depicted as a slender, graceful young woman, and is appealed to in prayer by those who are performing romance, fertility, fidelity, and love spells and rites.
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