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Isis in hieroglyphics
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Isis N4130 in the Louvre - Paris 698.jpg
Mourning Isis ( Ptolemaic Period , Terracotta , Louvre ( Paris ))

Isis (from ancient Greek Ἶσις , Coptic spelling Ⲏⲥⲉ and Ⲏⲥⲓ) is a goddess of Egyptian mythology . She was the goddess of birth , rebirth and magic , but also the goddess of the dead. It appears for the first time in inscriptions of the Old Kingdom . She gained popularity and reputation, together with her husband Osiris and her twin sister Nephthys , through the so-called Osiris myth and the Isis hymn. Isis was still venerated by the Greeks and Romans living in Egypt well into Christian times.



Isis protects King
Tutankhamun's canopic shrine

The most common and traditional form of representation of Isis was that of a petite, upright standing or kneeling woman with a throne on her head. She often held a papyrus scepter or an anchor cross in her hand, and in later times sometimes a sistrum or a menit . If she is shown kneeling, she often holds a shen ring or the symbol for eternity. As early as the late Old Kingdom, she could appear with cow horns and a sun disk on her head and thus resembled the cow-headed goddess Hathor , who also always wore horns . Both goddesses can only be distinguished by the inscription next to the representation. But Isis could also be represented as a black kite , later also with a human head. She now represented a so-called "lamenting bird", which mourns the deceased god Osiris and spreads its wings protectively over the corpse.

From the Middle Kingdom on , figurines showing Isis with the little Horus boy are known. Horus sits on Isis' lap and is nursed by her. It is believed that this figurative representation inspired the later Christianity to numerous, well-known Madonna portraits .

In the Greco-Roman era, depictions of Isis were adapted to their own art style. Isis statues in a typical Hellenistic design show the goddess with a tunic and a knotted cloak, holding a sistrum and a wine jug in her hands.

To the character

Bust of Isis in the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki

The goddess Isis is always described as the patroness, guardian and carer of all beings who suffer or are in great concern. Because of this, she was considered a maternal goddess, a goddess of recovery , protection, and magic . According to the famous Osiris myth , Isis was also worshiped as the dead goddess and the goddess of reanimation . This is clearly shown in several coffin texts from the New Kingdom in which the deceased asks for magical assistance from Isis if he is indicted in the underworld court. The Egyptians were very concerned that when they entered the Otherworld, they would lose their human abilities such as seeing, speaking, hearing and independent thinking. Isis was supposed to ward off all demons that were responsible for the loss of human abilities.

But first and foremost, Isis was worshiped as the heavenly mother figure. The cult of Isis and Osiris describes Isis as the mother of various deities such as Ihi , Horus and also as the mother of the late king. The maternity function of Isis is impressively described in the Papyrus Westcar ( 13th Dynasty ), in the story of which she uses her magic to predict and support the birth of three future kings. Isis was therefore worshiped as the deity of birth in addition to deities such as the toad goddess Heqet and the dwarf god Bes .

Isis enjoyed a very special role within the godhood: she was the only goddess with magical powers. In coffin text - columns 147–148, the pregnant Isis fears the jealous and vengeful behavior of her (half) brother Seth . When the creator god Atum asks her why she and her still unborn son need special protection, she can provide information about the future role of Horus and credibly explain why Seth could try to kill Horus. Atum is amazed and asks Isis how she could know. Isis explains this with her magical power: "I am Isis, the magical oh , and I have more wisdom than any other god".

On the other hand, the powers of Isis and her character were equally feared. According to ancient Egyptian belief, it was always possible to come into conflict with a god at any time. This also applied to Isis. Therefore, many papyri , which enumerated protective spells for the journey through the underworld, also contained requests and prayers to various gods that they might put in a good word with Isis in the name of the deceased, in order to please her. Isis was believed to have punished the deceased by sealing their memories and closing their mouths if the deceased had done evil during their lifetime or died unjustifiably. If a deceased was unable to recite his or her name before the judgment of the dead , he was doomed and sentenced.

Origins and places of worship of Isis

Surprisingly, the actual and original provenance of a goddess named Isis is virtually unknown to Egyptologists and archaeologists. The earliest, well-documented mention of her name appears during the 5th dynasty in the sun sanctuary of King Niuserre and within the title of a priest of the 6th dynasty : "Pepi-anch, high priest of Isis and Hathor". At that time, Isis was worshiped by Qusae and Abydos , in Qusae together with Hathor, in Abydos together with Osiris and Anubis . The evidence from the 5th and 6th dynasties could indicate that Isis had been known for a long time, but played a subordinate role and her name was therefore rarely mentioned. Seal impressions from the time of King Narmer and Aha ( 1st Dynasty ) mention a person named Sa-Iset , which could be interpreted as "son of Isis", but this is highly speculative and the supposed name is more likely to be a title ("Son of the royal throne ”,“ Crown Prince ”).

During the Old Kingdom, Isis was worshiped in the following places: Qusae, Edfu , Abydos, and Achmim . Interestingly, in all cultic places, Isis is always mentioned together with other gods who are said to be their wife or mother. She never appears alone. In Edfu, for example, she is called "Mother of Horus-of-Edfu", in Abydos she is called "Great Wife of Osiris-Chontamenti". In Achmim she is titled "Great Mother of Min ". In Koptos there was a double temple for her, which was dedicated to her in connection with Hathor, Min and Horus. The statue of Senui , the wife of the priest Djefai-Hap ( Middle Kingdom ), comes from Kerma (in today's Sudan) . The deceased is described here as "honored by Osiris, Ptah-Sokar, Tefnut, Nut and Isis".

Connections between Isis and other deities in the Old to New Kingdoms

Isis (right) and her sister Nephthys (left) with the ram-headed sun god Re, tomb of Nefertari ( 19th dynasty )

As the goddess of childbirth and motherhood, Isis has been equated with other mother goddesses such as Hathor , Mesechenet , Nut and Nechbet . In part, it appears that Isis actually replaced these goddesses. Isis was mentioned especially often together with Hathor and Nut. Prayers and spells were addressed to Isis and her companions at the same time during the Old Kingdom, but Isis quickly became independent in later times. Nevertheless, Isis remained closely connected with many other deities, this type of syncretism was very common and popular in ancient Egypt, at least since the beginning of the Old Kingdom. The problem of such syncretisms is the change in the original characters, functions and spheres of activity of various deities, the best examples are the deities Seth and Horus.

Isis and Osiris

Isis was the wife of the god Osiris . Egyptologists and historians point out again and again that Isis and her husband Osiris appeared almost synchronously and that in both cases that first appearance was quite sudden. The earliest known names of Osiris can be found in the mortuary temple of King Djedkare-Isesi , and it may already be mentioned indirectly in King Niuserre's solar sanctuary. Just like Isis, Osiris seems to have no divine predecessor or a clearly verifiable past that goes back a long way. At first glance, the names also seem almost identical: Osiris' name is made up of the hieroglyphs for “throne” and “eye”. Older translations as "seat of the eye", "eye of the throne" and "enthroned eye" are rejected in more recent research, as is an interpretation of Isis as the personification of the royal throne. Both gods, however, disagree about the possible meaning of the name.

Osiris was the god of the underworld, chairman of the court of the dead and ruler of death and rebirth. He seems to have taken over the role of underworld ruler from Sokar , the aspects of death control and rebirth are linked to the sun god Re , who is also reborn.

From the beginning, Isis was revered as the "Great Wife of Osiris". According to the Isis hymn and the Osiris legend, it was she who tracked down the murdered and dismembered Osiris together with her twin sister Nephthys, put them back together and brought them back to life through spells, prayers, laments and litanies. For this reason, Isis was often depicted with Nephthys and Osiris during the judgment of the dead.

Isis and Nephthys

According to Egyptian mythology, Nephthys was the twin sister of Isis and the wife of Seth . Her Egyptian name Nebet-hut means "mistress of the house". Its religious and symbolic meaning is just as unclear as that of Isis and Osiris. Nephthys was also a goddess of the dead, goddess of mourning and rebirth, but had no magic and oracle powers like Isis. According to the Isis hymn and the Osiris legend, Nephthys helped her sister find the dismembered corpse of Osiris, put it together with mummy bandages and bring it back to life through prayers, laments and litanies. Although Nephthys bears great similarities to Isis, Isis never appears to have replaced her or inherited any skills from her.

Isis and Hathor

The goddess Hathor was the "mistress of the heavenly bodies who gave birth to Horus and Seth and who hid the youngest gods in her lap during the nocturnal journey". Her Egyptian name Hut-hor (also: Hat-hor ) means "House (womb) of Horus". She was depicted as a woman with cow horns, often with a disk of the sun between the horns. Alternatively, Hathor was depicted as a resting or striding cow with a bald panicle or sun disk between the horns. She played an important role as a protective mother and a jealous “governess”. In view of this role, it is no surprise that Isis was initially very closely linked to Hathor in the Old Kingdom, and soon - from around the Middle Kingdom onwards - Hathor was formally replaced by Isis. Now only the cultic places separated the two goddesses: Hathor had her main cult center at Dendera , and Isis was worshiped elsewhere. Isis and Hathor merged so strongly (also in their representations) that supplementary and explanatory inscriptions were necessary, which should avoid confusion by mentioning their names and functions.

Greco-Roman epoch

Statue of "Isis- Persephone " from Gortyn (Roman epoch, around 180-190 AD)
Isis on coin from Alexandria z. Currently Emperor Vespasianus'

During the Greco-Roman epoch, Isis experienced unimagined popularity. She was primarily equated by the Greeks with the goddess Demeter and especially worshiped in Alexandria . Her Egyptian husband Osiris was identified with the underworld god Serapis . The main temple was in the Alexandrian suburb of Eleusis . When Ptolemy I Soter (323–283 BC) settled in Alexandria and made it his new capital in Egypt, he had the respected priest Timothy come to Eleusis.

Isis, however, also merged with other goddesses, and she was particularly often - alongside Demeter - equated with Aphrodite . Many statue portraits of Isis-Aphrodite show the goddess as she covers her hand in front of her shame, as can be seen in Aphrodite von Knidos by the artist Praxiteles . Alternatively, they were linked to Hera , Athena and Artemis, for example . In Roman times it was the corresponding goddesses Juno , Diana and Ceres . An interesting syncretism emerged from a connection between Isis and the Egyptian goddess Maat : Dikaiosyne . A large number of surnames and titles were assigned to Isis, which is why the Greeks called her Myrionýmos ("the one with ten thousand names"). Or she was called Euthenia ( Eng . “Abundance” or “ Lushness ”), Lóchia ( Eng . “ Midwife ”) and / or Outeira ( Eng . “Savior”). In Roman dedications to them, the epithet Invicta (Eng. "The invincible") is often found .

The equation of Isis with Io , known from Greek mythology, is a much-described connection between Greek and Egyptian mythology. Ovid writes in Metamorphoses, “She is now emblazoned as a goddess among the people of men wearing linen” (that is, the Egyptians). Since Io, transformed into a cow, wandered as far as Egypt, it is particularly noticeable that Isis is often represented with a cow's head or cow horns.

Temple of Isis on
Delos Island

In late Hellenistic Christian era to the Isis cult was introduced by Greece as far as Spain . At that time, Isis was considered the protector of the seafarers. Isis is therefore often represented, especially in Alexandrian coins, standing on a ship with a billowing sail in her hand. Ancient places of worship originated in Athens , Samothrace , Rome and on the island of Delos . The priests were working there as Pastophóroi (dt. " Cry carrier "), respectively. Several mosaics come from Pompeii showing Isis in Roman costume and with a vulture hood. When the Roman dictator Sulla around 80 BC BC had a temple of Isis built on the Capitol , a college of Pastophoroi was immediately founded.

In Hellenism , the living king, who was identified with Horus, was associated with Osiris as the deceased king. So Isis was also associated with the Osiris myth and thus part of the so-called Isis and Osiris cult. The Greek historian Plutarch described the goddess in the 2nd century as the feminine principle in nature.

With Apuleius von Madaura , an eclectic Platonist , Isis becomes the universal goddess who initiates the mystery cults . In the Metamorphoses composed by Apuleius, she is called as the "Queen of Heaven" and with the "all-nourishing Ceres ", the "primordial mother of fruits", the "heavenly Venus ", venerated in the "sea-bathed sanctuary of Paphos ", the "sister of Phoebus ", adored in the "Temple of Ephesus ", or equated with the "three-figure Proserpine ". The goddess then introduces herself as “the mother of nature (rerum naturae parens) , the mistress of all elements, the firstborn child of time (saeculorum progenies initialialis) , the highest of deities, queen of the dead, first of the heavenly ones, all Gods and goddesses united in one appearance (deorum dearumque facies uniformis) , whom I command with my gesture over the clear vaults of the sky, the salutary air of the sea and the underworld much wept silence, the sole deity, which under manifold forms, various rites and many names the whole world adores, the Phrygians […] call me Pessinuntia […], the Athenians […] call me cecropic Athena , the Cypriots call me paphic Venus, the Cretans Diktynna , the Sicilians ortygic Proserpina, the Eleusinians call me Demeter , other Hera , still other Bellona and Hecate and Rhamnusia . But the Ethiopians and the Egyptians, who have the original teaching, honor me with their own customs and call me by my real name Queen Isis. "

While the Isis cult soon subsided in Egypt in post-Christian times, it experienced a real ups and downs, especially in the Roman Empire.There were Roman emperors who temporarily forbade the Isis cult, but also some (including Trajan , Hadrian and Commodus ), who campaigned for the priesthoods of Isis (and Sarapis) and allowed temple services. At that time, statues of Isis were in great demand, and countless coins with the image of Isis came into circulation. The only completely preserved Roman novel of antiquity, Apuleius' Golden Donkey , is about the Isis mysteries. The cult even spread in the Alps and north of them. There there was, for example, Isis temples in Maria Saal , Cologne , Mainz (see Shrine of Isis and Mater Magna (Mainz) ) and London , as well as the Isis presbytery in Szombathely .

From around 300 AD the image of the standing Isis with knot pallas, sistrum and situla prevailed. The Isis cult lasted until around 500 AD. In Egypt, the last official temple cult of Isis on the island of Philae was closed between 535 and 537. In the Temple of Dendur, the cult lasted a few years longer. Thus, Christianity and the old Pharaonic religion had a centuries-old overlap.


Representations of "Isis with the Horus boy" from the Isis iconography , especially the Isis lactans (the "nursing Isis"), appear to be related to later representations of Mary, the mother of Jesus , with the baby Jesus.

See also



  • Hans Bonnet : Isis. In: Lexicon of Egyptian Religious History. Nikol, Hamburg 2000, ISBN 3-937872-08-6 , pp. 326-332.
  • Harald Specht : From Isis to Jesus - 5000 years of myth and power. Leipziger Universitätsverlag, Leipzig 2004, ISBN 3-937209-82-4 .
  • Harry Eilenstein: ISIS: The story of the goddess from the Stone Age to today . BOD, Norderstedt 2011, ISBN 3-8423-8189-1 .
  • Gerhard Krause, Gerhard Müller (Hrsg.): Theologische Realenzyklopädie (TRE) Volume 23, Minucius Felix: Name / Naming. De Gruyter, Berlin 1994, ISBN 3-11-013852-2 .
  • Maria Münster: Investigations on the goddess Isis: from the Old Kingdom to the end of the New Kingdom. With hieroglyphic text attachment (= Munich Egyptological Studies. Volume 11). Hessling, Berlin 1968.
  • Richard H. Wilkinson : The world of the gods in ancient Egypt: Faith, power, mythology. from the English by Thomas Bertram, Theiss, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-8062-1819-6 , pp. 146-149.

Isis cult in antiquity

  • Badisches Landesmuseum : Empire of the Gods: Isis - Mithras - Christ: Cults and religions in the Roman Empire. Theiss, Stuttgart 2013, ISBN 978-3-8062-2871-7 .
  • Thorsten Fleck: Isis, Sarapis, Mithras and the spread of Christianity in the 3rd century. In: K.- P. Johne, T. Gerhardt, U. Hartmann: Deleto paene imperio Romano. Transformation processes of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century and their reception in modern times . Steiner, Stuttgart 2006, ISBN 3-515-08941-1 , pp. 289-314.
  • Kathrin Kleibl: Iseion. Interior design and cult practice in the shrines of Graeco-Egyptian gods in the Mediterranean area . Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, Worms 2009, ISBN 978-3-88462-281-0
  • Reinhold Merkelbach: Isis regina - Zeus Sarapis: The Greek-Egyptian religion depicted according to the sources . de Gruyter, Berlin 2001, ISBN 3-11-095567-9 .
  • JF Quack: "I am Isis, the mistress of the two countries". Attempt on the demotic background of the Memphite Isisar etalogy. In: S. Meyer (Ed.): Egypt: Temple of the Whole World. Festschrift for the 65th birthday of Jan Assmann (= Numen book series. Studies in the history of religions. Volume 97). Brill, Leiden 2003, ISBN 978-90-04-13240-5 , pp. 319-365.
  • JF Quack: On the Egyptian ritual in the Iseum Campense in Rome. In: C. Metzner-Nebelsick (Hrsg.): Rituals in prehistory, antiquity and the present, studies of Near Eastern, Prehistoric and Classical archeology, Egyptology, ancient history, theology and religious studies; interdisciplinary conference from 1st to 2nd February 2002 at the Free University of Berlin (= international archeology, study group, symposium, conference, congress. Volume 4). Leidorf, Rahden (Westf.) 2003, ISBN 3-89646-434-5 , pp. 57-66.

More detailed questions

  • Hartwig Altenmüller : On the origin of Isis and Nephthys. In: Studies on ancient Egyptian culture. No. 27, 1999, pp. 1-26.
  • Jan Assmann : Death and the afterlife in ancient Egypt. Beck, Munich 2003, ISBN 3-406-49707-1 .
  • LV Žabkar: Hymns to Isis in her temple at Phila. Published for Brandeis University Press by University Press of New England, Hanover NH 1988.

Web links

Commons : Isis  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Hans Wolfgang Müller: Isis with the Horus child . In: Munich Yearbook of Fine Arts . No. 14 . Munich 1963, p. 9 .
  2. M. Münster: Investigations on the goddess Isis. Berlin 1968, pp. 190-191.
  3. M. Münster: Investigations on the goddess Isis. Berlin 1968, pp. 191–192.
  4. M. Münster: Investigations on the goddess Isis. Berlin 1968, pp. 193-195.
  5. M. Münster: Investigations on the goddess Isis. Berlin 1968, pp. 196-198.
  6. ^ Dieter Arnold : Temples of the Last Pharaohs. Oxford University Press, New York / Oxford 1999, ISBN 0-19-512633-5 .
  7. M. Münster: Investigations on the goddess Isis. Berlin 1968, pp. 158-164.
  8. M. Münster: Investigations on the goddess Isis. Berlin 1968, pp. 80-86.
  9. ^ Jürgen Osing: Isis and Osiris. In: Communications from the German Archaeological Institute, Cairo Department. (MDAIK) Volume 30, 1974, ISSN  0342-1279 , pp. 91 ff-113; Altenmüller: On the origin of Isis and Nephthys. 1999, pp. 1-8; Jürgen Zeidler : On the etymology of the divine name Osiris. In: Studies on ancient Egyptian culture. (SAK). Volume 28, 2000, ISSN  0340-2215 , pp. 309-316 ( digitized version )
  10. M. Münster: Investigations on the goddess Isis. Berlin 1968, pp. 87-89.
  11. M. Münster: Investigations on the goddess Isis. Berlin 1968, pp. 89-90.
  12. M. Münster: Investigations on the goddess Isis. Berlin 1968, pp. 100-106.
  13. ^ R. Merkelbach: Isis regina - Zeus Sarapis. Berlin 2001, pp. 60-64.
  14. ^ R. Merkelbach: Isis regina - Zeus Sarapis. Berlin 2001, p. 95.
  15. ^ R. Merkelbach: Isis regina - Zeus Sarapis. Berlin 2001, pp. 96-97.
  16. ^ R. Merkelbach: Isis regina - Zeus Sarapis. Berlin 2001, p. 98.
  17. G. Krause, G. Müller: TRE. Volume 23, Berlin 1994, p. 511.
  18. ^ R. Merkelbach: Isis regina - Zeus Sarapis. Berlin 2001, pp. 123-125.
  19. Kathrin Kleibl: The water crypts in the Hellenistic and Roman sanctuaries of the Egyptian gods in the Mediterranean area. Scientific term paper to obtain the academic degree of a Magistra Artium of the University of Hamburg, Hamburg 2003 ( full text as PDF file, 218 pages; 7.0 MB ).
  20. Jan Assmann: Moses the Egyptian. Deciphering a memory trace. 7th edition, Fischer, Frankfurt a. M. 2011, ISBN 978-3-596-14371-9 , pp. 76-77 → Counter-religion and religious translatability in the ancient world.
  21. Johannes Einartner : Isis and her servants in the art of the Roman Empire (= Mnemosyne . Supplementum 115). Brill, Leiden u. a. 1991, ISBN 90-04-09312-5 , pp. 58-59.
  22. ^ Siegfried G. Richter : The Coptic Egypt. Treasures in the shadow of the pharaohs (with photos by Jo Bischof). Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2019, ISBN 978-3-8053-5211-6 , pp. 32–36