Mother Isis

Images of motherhood are common. This was as true in the ancient world as today. Religion was one of the most visually represented spheres and mother godesses were common. Several goddesses are known as mothers, but the most famous was Isis, the mother of Horus.

 

The literary evidence

The standard introduction to the myth of Isis and the birth of Horus is Plutarch. Plutarch tells how Isis performs various family roles. She conceives Harpocrates from the gathered remains of her dead brother-husband, whom she resurrects. Isis isn’t just a wife to Osiris. She is his sister, mother and wife. Horus grows up to protect his mother by fighting his uncle/brother Seth. Isis’ motherhood could be understood in cosmic terms; by giving birth to Horus, she ensures that evil (Seth) will never overcome.

Plutarch is a difficult source to rely on because he wrote with an agenda to interpret Egyptian religion as a philosophy, but many scholars have argued he did engage with Egyptian scholarship.

 

The epigraphic evidence

Across the Mediterranean seven inscriptions have been found praising Isis for the good that she brings to humanity. She is praised for protecting mothers at birth, as a benefactress to them and as someone who sympathised with their experiences. Isis also introduced social institutions which protected women (to some degree).

In the Greco-Roman world Isis is commonly linked a family unit. This is often Isis, Osiris (or Serapis) and Horus. Sometimes she is also shown with Anubis.

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Isis, and young Horus and Anubis (British Museum)

 

The visual evidence

Images of Isis and Horus are common in a variety of media, from relatively cheap to expense material. This may suggest a wide spread of adherents across society.

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Isis Lactans (Louvre)

 

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Isis Lactans (Louvre)

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Isis Lactans? (Louvre)

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Isis Lactans (Louvre)

Horus

Baby Horus (Glyptotek)

 

Isis and other goddesses

Around the time of the New Kingdom Isis had become the preeminent goddess of the Egyptian pantheon.

By the New Kingdom Isis had taken the visual symbolism of Hathor: the cow horns and moon disk. The became the most common visual attributes of Isis imagery.

In some earlier texts it was Hathor who was mother of Horus.  Isis also took Hathor’s temples. The beautiful Ptolemaic period temple Philae was an expansion of an early pharaonic temple of Hathor.

Another goddess that Isis became associated with was Renenutet, as Isis-Thermouthis the snake goddess. In this guise Isis become a protector of babies, fertility, harvests, royalty and fate.

Isis-Thermouthis

Isis-Thermouthis and Serapis-Agathos-Daimon

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