Isis Figure 7th-1st cent. BCE
Isis, 7th – 1st cent. BCE
Gilded wood with bronze crown
Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Permanent Collection of the Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
The goddess Isis, descendent of the creator god Ra, was first mentioned in the pyramid texts—texts from the Old Kingdom, about 2375 BCE. In these texts that held magical spells and myths, Isis is depicted as the mother of the god Horus who is shown as the pharaoh in his living form. She is frequently depicted suckling her son and based on the position of her arms—one arm on her breast and the other outstretched—she was probably initially doing so in this example and this figurine is missing a baby Horus. In the pyramid texts, Isis suckles Horus in his form as the pharaoh, thus Isis is seen as the mother of all Egypt. In these texts she is also seen as a protector. She foresaw the murder of her husband, god Osiris, by his brother Seth and searches for his body after his death so her husband can be properly buried and his soul could move on to the afterlife. After her husband’s death, Isis protects her son Horus from Seth to allow him to go on and eventually be the ruler of Egypt. This motherly protection of her son who would be pharaoh is a pattern that appears later on in Egyptian dynastic history.
In the Book of the Dead Isis is seen as the giver of life and food to the dead. This is yet another example of her many roles in the Ancient Egyptian’s polytheistic religion. She is also crafty and known for using her magical skills to get what she wants from the other gods. Her name, Isis, as we say now, is transliteration of the Greek translation for the Egyptian word for throne. The worship of Isis grew with popularity as dynastic Egypt progressed. 2375 BCE may seem like a long time ago but Egyptian civilization first began to emerge about 2,000 years prior to that.
The cult of Isis was wildly popular throughout the ancient word. One of her most well preserved temples appears not in Egypt, but in Pompeii. Apuleius—a Roman writer from the 2nd century CE—described her as the “mother of stars, the parent of seasons, and the mistress of all the world.” Isis has been relatively adaptable in her appearance throughout the centuries. In the early years she was often depicted with a throne on her head. Isis’s crown, seen here—horned with a sun disk— was originally ascribed to goddess Hathor however reattributed to Isis as a testament to her maternal symbolism. She was recognized as the model mother and wife. Isis’s love was said to encompass every living thing and she was revered and adored by the Egyptian people and beyond. Even early Christians attributed some of her qualities to the Virgin Mary. The images of the Madonna and Child are similar to the images of Isis suckling Horus.