Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lady of the Words of Power

It's Wednesday, which means it's time for some exploits of an awesome mythological lady badass, and someone has sent in a special request for one today: Hello! I'm really enjoying the Wednesday posts about women in mythology and all kinds of cool things, and I would really love to see one about Isis. She's definitely my favourite among the Netjer, and for all her shenanigans and ambitions, I think she deserves a mention. I could not agree more. Let's talk about Isis!

Isis - which is a later Greek corruption of her name, which was probably originally closer to Aset - is the lady in charge among the Egyptian gods. She isn't one of the oldest goddesses in the pantheon; her worship seems to have begun around the fifth dynasty, making her much younger than the elder mainstay goddesses like Hathor or Neith. She also wasn't initially one of the most important, appearing at first as an assistant to the pharaoh and helper to her significantly important husband and son. But somehow, powers over life and death a-blazing, she stole the spotlight to become the most popular and important of Egyptian goddesses, completely overshadowing the competition.

In fact, Isis was so popular that she literally started to absorb other goddesses, as part of the millennia-long process of intra-pantheon sycretization in which different Egyptian cult centers combined, recombined and recreated various deities to suit their local needs and changing religious trends. Isis became associated with Hathor, taking on her horned headdress and sun imagery, in order that the two goddesses could both be said to be nurturing forces to aid the sun in the forms of both Ra and Horus, Isis' kingly son. She completely superseded the role of the Sothis, minor goddess of the star Sirius, becoming the preeminent goddess of the heavens so that her starlight could herald the annual flooding of the Nile thanks to her husband Osiris' powers of fertility. As her cult grew more and more important, she eclipsed various other minor goddesses, making herself a power rivaled only by the most well-established and traditionally important ladies of her pantheon.

Isis is an interesting contradiction: on the one hand, she's beloved as a benevolent mother figure, lauded for her protection of children, patronage of the pharaoh and renowned dedication to her family, making her the ultimate model for every Egyptian woman to aspire to. And on the other hand, the tales of her adventures make it clear that she is also a lady with such ruthlessly crafty scheming chops that she would win the Game of Thrones in one month flat and then get on with her hobbies. (In fact, she did that, basically.)

Isis is a goddess who goes to any and all lengths to protect her family, and further to ensure that their place in the world, as rulers and beloved deities, is secure and unchallenged by anyone else. Her journey toward political domination begins with the story of her poisoning of Ra, the sun god and for much of Egypt's long religious history the preeminent and most important deity in the religion. She persuades the cobra goddess Wadjet, normally a protector of the pharaonic line and the kings among the gods, to bite her master, and then when Ra lies dying, offers to cure him of the poison on the condition that he give her knowledge of his true name. Ancient Egyptian philosophy believed that a being's true name was the sum total of their existence, akin to the words of creation spoken by Ra and Ptah at the beginning of time, and therefore that to know someone's name was to have utter power over them. Ra was forced to tell Isis his name to escape death, and once she had learned it she wielded it to force him to teach her the secrets of heku, ritual magic, which she distributed to all the other gods, and the powers of healing, which she thereafter embodied instead of Ra. Both actions diminished Ra's power so that he could no longer be the unquestioned ultimate authority over the pantheon, and made Isis, wielder of his name, a political power second to very few.

It's probably not a huge shocker that the next time Isis appears in Egyptian myth, her brother-husband Osiris is the king of the gods, having inherited the title from his father and grandfather, Geb and Shu. As Osiris' wife, Isis is the picture of feminine beauty, grace and political support, which all goes great for everyone until their other brother, Set, kills Osiris and takes the throne. Isis' mourning over her deceased husband is one of the favorite tragic scenes in ancient Egyptian art, and once she comes to her senses, with the help of her sister Nephthys she scours the world for Osiris' dismembered body parts, eventually managing to find and put back together all of him except for his phallus (eaten by a fish, or in later versions by Set himself). Although she is a goddess of life and has no true power over death, she still uses her mastery of healing magic to revive Osiris briefly, granting him a working phallus that she fashions out of gold for him, and then has sex with him in order to posthumously conceive their son Horus. Osiris is forced to return to the land of the dead, but Isis has just gotten started, because she now has a legitimate heir to the throne she can use to start taking back power in Egypt.

Possibly because he realizes how massively outclassed he is in the political maneuvering arena, Set begins sending out troops to attempt to capture Isis and her newborn son, correctly assessing that they pose the only real threat to his rule. She enlists help from Thoth, god of wisdom, who gives her an escort of scorpions from the guardian goddess Serket and sends her off to hide. Isis travels the countryside with baby Horus, inflicting scorpioid wrath on those who refuse to help her and benevolently healing those who do, and manages to successfully hide Horus until he's almost old enough to take on his uncle by systematically discovering the true names of literally everything in nature so that she holds their power and they cannot harm her or her son. Unfortunately, while hiding in the reeds where she placed him, Horus is stung by a scorpion Isis did not capture and dies, and her grieving is so loud and heartbreaking that all the other gods arrive to see what's wrong, and Ra even stops the solar barque in the sky to send down some of its passengers to go comfort her. Depending on the story, Thoth returns Horus to life for her in order to stop her lamenting; in other versions, Isis herself returns him from the dead, calling upon the healing powers she gathered from Ra.

But this was all the prep work, and now that Horus is an adult, the real show is about to begin. Isis brings Horus to Set and sets the two against each other, Horus challenging his uncle for the throne as its rightful heir, and the famous battle for succession begins. The gods call a tribunal to try to decide what to do about the two equally legitimate claims to the throne, and Isis acts as Horus' lawyer, shooting down Set's arguments and providing burning counter-points to paint him as a usurper. Set, who is not nearly as stupid as people think he is, specifically stipulates that Isis can't be at the trial anymore, because she's clearly rigging it with her powers of intense manipulation, which the other gods agree is probably not conducive to due process. Isis is sent away from the trial, but doubles back, bribes the ferryman to take her back to the meeting place anyway, disguises herself as a foreign but beautiful woman, and shenanigans Set into admitting he stole the throne in front of witnesses, after which everyone pretty much gives up on her not getting her way.

Horus, who has inherited his mother's capacity for sneakery, then defeats Set in both subsequent challenges for the throne through trickery, and eventually accedes as king once again.

So here we have a lady who is the ultimate in political craftiness and intrigue, but also the ultimate in motherly love and healing devotion, which she spreads around to not only her own son and husband but to all the gods and the families of the pharaohs alike. It's no wonder the ancient Egyptians were so impressed by her, and such big fans of worshiping her and hoping she sent some of that good political mojo their way.

But Isis is even more popular than that; once they began to hang out with Egyptians, several other cultures also discovered Isis and liked her so much that they imported her into their own religions. The Greeks equated her with Demeter, mother of fertility, and Aphrodite, beautiful goddess of love; the Romans didn't even bother pretending and simply worshiped her under her own name, with cults not only in Roman-controlled Africa but in the city of Rome itself. The Arab peoples of the time thought of her as like their own al-Uzza, the Phoenicians equated her with their Astarte, and even the Celts in Roman-controlled areas borrowed from her imagery for their own gods. The Greeks were such big fans that they even incorporated her into their own mythology, and said that when Io escaped from Greece to evade Hera's wrath after she had been Zeus' lover, she made her way to Egypt, where Isis took her in and made her a priestess of her cult. Even Christianity got in on the action, often using images of Isis as templates for the Virgin Mary in the hopes of impressing the locals with the motherly similarities.

Isis is simply a social powerhouse; where other goddess influence events by using their great beauty to confuse or entice others into doing it for them, Isis gets right in there and gets her hands dirty, pulling the strings herself and never shying away from becoming the power behind the throne in a very direct and real way. She is the ultimate in love to those she cares about - and the ultimate threat to anyone else who might try to take anything away from them that she considers theirs. Stay in her good graces!