Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Great Goddess Isis: Lover, Mother, Healer and Mistress of Magic

Isis is perhaps the best known of the Egyptian goddesses.  She was worshiped in Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire from around 3000 BCE to around 200 CE, when many of her titles and attributes were taken over by the Virgin Mary.  Isis is another goddess who can represent the constellation of Virgo, the Virgin, the Divine Mother whose Child is the savior of Life.  Her mysteries taught people the truth of the cycle of life, death and rebirth.  She is a goddess of natural law as well as magic and healing. 

Isis is known by her 1000 names, which reflect her many gifts, attributes and powers.  She is the milk-giving cow goddess; goddess of serpents of the primeval waters; the star goddess Sirius, whose rising signaled the inundation of the Nile; the bird goddess; goddess of the underworld, whose breath gave life to the dead; goddess of the Tree of Life, offering the food and water of immortality; goddess of the words of power; the caring mother of her son, Horus; goddess of the throne, upon whose sovereign lap the king sat as her infant child in the image of all humanity.1   Isis is the Mage, the Enchantress, Lady Isis, She whose Words have Power.
One of the interesting things about Isis is that her story contains the pain and suffering of human life.  Perhaps Isis was so loved because her story is a very human story of love and death and ultimate rebirth.  Or perhaps it is because Isis, like the Virgin Mary, is the Mediatrix of Grace, the Intercessor and Mother who listens to her human children and helps us because she understands us.  

Many of Isis’ statues are of her as the Mother, holding her child Horus in her lap.  These statues symbolize the realization of the potential of the Virgin.  The Virgin Mother is not complete unless she manifests a new form, a new order.  The Child is that new form, a form which completes her.  On an inner level, this image speaks to the power of women who can become virginal again and find our own form of wholeness and completion—our child— taking our unique consciousness and creating something in the world. 
Isis, along with her husband Osiris, brought culture to her people, spending time among them, 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 worshiped as the goddess of medicine and wisdom.  In the myth of Isis and Osiris, we see that Isis is indeed a healer, even bringing her husband back from the dead.

This is the story of Isis and Osiris and their child Horus.

Out of the primal waters, Atum arises and gives birth to the male Shu (Air, Life, Space, Light) and female Tefnut (Moisture and Order), who gives birth to Nut, the sky goddess, and Geb, the god of Earth.  (Right here you can see that the Egyptians had a different consciousness then we do. For us, we see the masculine Deity in the heavens, while we see the Earth as feminine.)
Shu lifts his daughter Nut away from his son Geb, supporting her so she can give birth to the stars and heavens.  And Nut also gave birth to two sets of twins, Isis and Nephthys and Osiris and Set.  They were born during the sacred five days between the years that Thoth, the Moon god, had to win from Ra, the Sun god.   Isis and Osiris loved each other in the womb, and Nephthys married Set.
Osiris, who was given the dark, rich earth around the Nile to rule, and his sister, Isis, taught the Egyptians the arts and crafts of civilization: how to plant and harvest, how to gather fruit and cultivate wine, how to create art and build cities.  Osiris often traveled to other countries to teach these matters, and Isis stayed in Egypt to rule and keep the peace.
But Set, who was given the desert to rule, was jealous of his brother and wanted to rule in his place.  So one day he constructed a richly decorated chest and gathered his friends and his brother for a feast.  Bringing the chest out, he promised as a jest to give the chest to whoever it fit exactly.  Everyone was either too short or tall, but it fit Osiris perfectly.  Once he lay within it, Set slammed the chest shut, nailed the lid and sealed it with molten lead.  Then Set and his fellow conspirators flung it into the Nile.
When Isis heard of the murder, she cut her hair and put on mourning and searched everywhere up and down the Nile for the coffin.  Some children told her they had seen where the chest had floated into the ocean and Isis discovered that it had arrived at Byblos in Phoenicia, where it lodged in a tree.  This tree grew around the chest and was so beautiful that the king and queen had the tree cut down and made into a pillar for their palace.
Isis went to Byblos and sat veiled and mourning by a well, disguising her divinity.  Soon some of the queen’s maidens came to the well and Isis offered to braid their hair in the Egyptian manner. When they returned to the palace, the queen saw their braids and smelled a delightful fragrance on them, and sent for Isis to come serve her in the palace.  She made her the nurse for her child.
At night, Isis would take the child into the great hall, feed him from her finger and hold him in the fires to give him the gift of immortality.  Then she would transform herself into a swallow and fly around the pillar that contained Osiris’ body, singing mournfully.  One night the queen came in and saw her son lying in the fires and screamed, depriving her child of immortality.
Once Isis reveals who she is, the king and queen help her take down the pillar and remove Osiris’ body.  Isis takes him back to Egypt and hides his body in the marshes of the Nile.  It is there that she conceives her son Horus, taking the form of a kite and with her great wings, breathing life back into Osiris’ body. 

When Isis gives birth to Horus in the marshes of the Nile, she has to leave him for a time.  When she returns, she finds him almost dead, stung by a scorpion.  She calls on her teacher Thoth, who gives her the Words of Power to heal Horus.  She becomes the Mistress of Magic, bestowing her magical incantations on the Temples for the healing of her people.
   Isis leaves Osiris’ body to take care of her son Horus, thinking it well hidden.  But one day Set, who is out hunting, comes upon the chest and tears Osiris’ body into 14 pieces and flings them into the Nile.  When Isis discovers this, she once again sets out to reclaim Osiris’ body, along with Nephthys and Anubis, her son Horus and her teacher Thoth.  They find only 13 parts—his phallus has been swallowed by a fish.  Isis makes a replica of the missing phallus to take its place, wraps the body in a mummy with great ritual, and once again with her wings revives Osiris to become King of the Underworld and Eternity, where he judges the souls of the dead.
Now Horus fights Set for the Kingship and finally defeats him.  When Horus brings Set to his mother, Isis, she takes pity on Set’s wounds and lets him go free.  When Horus discovers this, he is so angry he cuts his mother’s head off, but Thoth quickly replaces it with the head of a cow.  Isis now becomes Hathor, the ancient goddess of Childbirth and fertility.  They finally defeat Set and restore peace and prosperity to the Nile Valley.

Isis as Magician and Healer

While we often think of Isis in her roles of lover and mother, since the Sun is in Virgo, I’d like to consider her role as mistress of magic and healing.   Ritual magic and healing are aspects of Isis' gifts.  You need humility, perfectionism (in pronouncing the Word correctly), efficiency in a crisis, the correct application of the learned skills and techniques for problem-solving, intercession for others and healing.3
One story about Isis tells of how she poisons the sun god Ra and then gets him to tell her his NAME--which is his power--so she can cure him.  After this, she has the power to heal both physically and psychologically.   There were many healing temples throughout Egypt, and there are inscriptions there that tell of those who came to sleep in her temples and be healed through dreams.
Isis' story is a lunar myth and deals with feminine magic.  When Isis needs the help of her mentor, Thoth the Moon god of Wisdom, to give her greater consciousness, she does it to enhance the powers of the divine Feminine—that is Life.  It takes the focus and will of Naming something to create magic and healing.  You have to know what it is you want to create or heal!

As for Naming, the words had to be pronounced with the correct tone of voice.  Like chanting, these words of power had to resonant and vibrate to open the way for healing and magic.
Thoth was an ibis-headed god of Wisdom and Healing.  The Egyptians thought that the ibis was the most helpful creature in the delta, killing snakes and scorpions.  Its habit of bending over and wrapping its trunk around itself, tucking its head into its chest, gave it a heart shape.  The Egyptians made this heart-shape into the hieroglyph representing Thoth, which conveyed the meaning of ‘knowledge and an understanding heart’.  Hence, it represents Wisdom.  Thoth was a guide of souls, helping them transition from one state of being to another.  He is the Alchemical guide, the one who brings us knowledge and an understanding heart so we can be transformed.  I would say that he is the masculine energy of the divine Feminine, the ability to name and focus and order the world.
Healing brings us out of disharmony into balance.  We need to know what’s wrong to attempt to heal something.  We need to name it.  Chanting creates the vibration that will entrain in us and therefore bring us into harmony.
Ritual is also about bringing harmony and balance into play in our lives.  A ritual sets a form that is appropriate for its function.  What do you want to create the ritual for?  Knowing that will determine its form.   Magic happens when we align our body, soul and spirit with our desire.  

It is so sad that in our modern world people and corporations use powerful symbols and names to corrupt their original intent.  While Isis is the Goddess of Life, death and rebirth, a group of terrorists have taken on her name—and they sully it. 

Let us instead remember Isis as the Great Mother, the Mediatrix between heaven and Earth, the Magus and Healer who brings us the gifts of civilization.
May she help bring us to a new age of peace and prosperity, equality and creativity.

1.       Anne Baring & Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 224.
2.      Kathleen Burt, Archetypes of the Zodiac, (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Pub., 1997), p. 201.
3.      Ibid. p. 208.



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