Why Isis the Ancient Egyptian Goddess has nothing in common with ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)

Before the name ISIS (an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) became synonymous with public executions and terror, a goddess with the name Isis was popular in ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptian goddess Isis represented many positive values, such as protection, healing, and the importance of family. Clearly, she had nothing in common with the ISIS we read and hear about today.

According to ancient Egyptian mythology, Isis was the wife and sister of the god Osiris. Osiris ruled Egypt, and Isis supported his endeavors. Unfortunately for the couple, Osiris’ brother Seth wanted his brother’s power so badly that he murdered and then dismembered Osiris. Isis and her sister Nephthys mourned Osiris, but they did not sit around crying for long. Instead, the two women travelled to the ends of the earth to find Osiris’ remains and revive him: “Rise up, Osiris, for Isis has your arm and Nephthys your hand.” After Osiris’ resurrection, Isis conceived a son with him whom she named Horus. Osiris left Isis to care for their son and became the god of the underworld.

Osiris and Winged Isis, Isis Temple, Philae Island, Egypt. Photo by Remin.

Osiris and Winged Isis, Isis Temple, Philae Island, Egypt. Photo by Remin.

Proving that a woman’s work is never done, Isis now had to hide her son from the evil Seth. She proved to be a wonderful and protective mother. For example, she healed Horus when a scorpion stung him. Isis continued to watch over her son until he was old enough to fight Seth. Horus successfully avenged his father’s death and became king of Egypt, but he couldn’t have done it without his mother.

Ancient Egyptians associated Isis with motherhood, especially as the mother of Egyptian kings. Early Pyramid Texts state “the king drinks milk from his mother Isis.” At first the goddess could only be called upon to help Egyptian pharaohs, but later the nobility and even commoners could ask Isis for assistance. In a time with high mortality rates, ancient Egyptian mothers often recited spells that included the goddess in the hope that Isis would heal their sick children.

In addition to her role as a mother, Isis also served as the protector of the dead in the afterlife. She was often depicted on the sides of royal coffins with winged arms. With the wings of the goddess to carry their deceased loved ones to next world, Egyptians felt comforted even though they mourned the dead.

A faithful wife, loving mother, a healer of children, and a comforting presence to those who mourn—all qualities that the ancient Egyptians gave to their Isis. Unfortunately, the organization that now uses her name stands for none of these admirable traits.

Sources:

Daughters of Isis by Joyce Tyldesley

The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Richard Wilkinson

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