Isis through the Ages

Isis was an Egyptian goddess whose origins stretch back into prehistory. The best-known version of her story goes like this: Isis was married to her brother, the god Osiris. Osiris was king of Egypt and taught his people agriculture. Their brother Set was jealous of Osiris. One day, he hosted a party in Osiris' honor. All of Set's loyal followers were there. At the party there was a contest. Each guest had to get into a cedar chest to see if he fit in it. Of course Set had made the chest to his brother's exact measurements, so when Osiris got into the chest he fit perfectly. Set slammed the chest shut and hid it. He took over the throne.

Isis wandered all over the place until she found the chest with her husband's body inside. Set discovered where Isis had hid the chest and tore Osiris' body into 14 pieces, scattering them all over Egypt. Isis once again searched far and wide until she'd found all the pieces except for one, his manhood, which had been eaten by a fish. She created a new one with magic and managed to reanimate her husband long enough to conceive a son, Horus, who would grow up to avenge his father's murder and take his rightful place on the throne of Egypt.

This version of the myth was developed over thousands of years of Egyptian history; the earliest versions were probably very different. Just as the myth has changed over the years, so too have visual representations of Isis. I've compiled a small and unfortunately inadequate gallery of Isis images for your viewing pleasure.

Isis from the tomb of Seti I, c. 1380-1335 BC

Alexandrian Isis-Aphrodite terra cotta figurine, c. 1st Century AD

Roman statue of Isis, Hadrian era (c. 117-138 AD)

Roman bust of Isis-Sothis-Demeter, Hadrian era (c. 117-138 AD)

I even found a couple of medieval European images of Isis. Christian Europeans knew about Isis via classical sources (which, contrary to popular belief, were not all lost after the Roman Empire fell). In Paradise Lost, Milton casts Isis as one of the fallen angels. Isis was not always negative, however. In her proto-feminist work The City of Women, Christine de Pizan speaks very highly of Isis and extols her virtues, among them the invention of agriculture.

Some people believe that the images of Mary holding the infant Jesus, and especially images of Maria Lactans (Nursing Mary), were inspired by depictions of Isis holding and/or nursing her own baby son Horus. Whatever the case, there are post-pagan works that definitely depict Isis.

Woodcut of Isis from the Nuremberg Chronicle, c. 1493

French image of Isis, c. 15th-16th Centuries

3 comments:

  1. Just came across your blog - really like it, and your debut novel sounds great. I've always been interested in Egypt, too, and is a part of Africa I've always wanted to visit.

    Isn't studying abroad awesome? Like you I did a period of study abroad, and went to Spain. Was brilliant.

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  2. Thanks for your interest in my novel! I've loved Egypt since forever--it probably started with the Bible stories I heard in Catholic school and church about Joseph and Moses, as well as ABC's yearly showing of The Ten Commandments.

    I'm so grateful for the semester that I spent in Egypt, although I must admit I was rather traumatized by the constant sexual harassment, which I wasn't expecting. Now that I'm a little older and more experienced, I'm hoping to go back for a master's in Egyptology. Alas, with the country in turmoil that may not be an option, but I'm still hoping and praying.

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  3. Your blog is so amazing! Excuse me while I go back and read!

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