Isis was one of the most revered goddesses in ancient Egypt, but she didn’t start off that way. Originally, Isis was a more obscure mythological figure who, unlike major gods and goddesses, lacked her own temples. Eventually, she became one of the most important goddesses in the ancient world, and worship of her spread all over the Roman Empire, with her cult expanding as far as Afghanistan and England. Today, she continues to be worshipped by modern pagans.

The story of Isis was first recorded during the Old Kingdom in Egypt, between 2686 and 2181 BCE. Married to the divine king Osiris, Isis supported her husband and was regarded as a good queen. During her reign, legend says she taught the Egyptian women to brew beer, weave and bake.

Another legend explains why Isis is strongly connected with the afterlife.

King Osiris’s brother, Seth, was jealous of the good king and queen, and he plotted to murder Osiris. He trapped the king in a wooden chest encased in heavy lead and threw it into the great Nile River. With Osiris out of the way, Seth gained the throne and became ruler of Egypt.

Isis was brokenhearted and never stopped searching for her beloved husband. She eventually found him in the chest in a nearby land and brought his deceased body back to Egypt. Seth, the new king, was furious, and in his rage, cut his brother’s body into pieces, scattering them across the land.

Using her magical powers, Isis transformed into a bird and found the pieces of her beloved husband. Putting them together with the help of her sister, Nephthys, Isis made Osiris whole once again. Now neither fully living nor fully dead, Osiris was a mummy, and nine months later, Isis had his son. She named the baby Horus, and Osiris retreated to the afterlife of the underworld, where he was pronounced king of the dead.

After helping her husband enter the afterlife, she gained a reputation among believers for helping others follow that path and is commonly invoked during funerals.

Isis and Horus lived among the marshes of the Nile until Horus was an adult and could avenge the death of his father. During that time, Isis fought off scorpions and snakes from attacking the child, giving her a reputation as a strong, dedicated mother.

Later, ordinary people would invoke her to gain her aid against not just snakes and scorpions, but also against everyday threats and trials.

Regarded as a great magician, there are many tales of Isis’s prowess. As a protector of the dead and curer of the sick, Isis became worshipped more widely by the Late Period, between 360 and 343 BCE. Her first dedicated temple was built in the central Nile delta at Behbeit el-Hagar, and several temples were constructed in her honor throughout Alexandria, Greece and Rome.

She is worshipped during the month of Khoiak, the fourth month of the Egyptian calendar, which corresponds to early December and January in the Gregorian calendar. Egyptians and worshippers around the world celebrated the goddess by carrying statues of her through fields and acting out her grief over her dead husband.

As Christianity spread throughout the region, worship of Egyptian gods and goddess became less frequent and pronounced, but the temple to Isis in Philae remained the last temple in ancient Egypt until it was flooded in the mid-fifth century CE.

Fast Facts

– “Isis” means “throne.”
– Isis is known for curing the sick and bringing dead people back to life.
– Women in ancient Egypt considered Isis a role model for motherhood.
– Isis is often represented as a bird, cow, sow or scorpion.
– Isis is a member of the Ennead of Heliopolis, the rulers of ancient Egypt. Seth, Nephthys and Osiris were also members of this group.
– She is often shown holding an ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of eternal life.
– In hieroglyphics, the writing system in ancient Egypt, Isis’s name appears as a step, egg, loaf of bread and a sitting goddess.