The gods held great leverage over the daily lives of the ancient Egyptian society. They were the creators of the cosmos and the ones that set order. The gods and goddesses had a cult of their own; rituals as well as sacrifices were held for them.
Isis (Egyptian Aset or Eset) was the eldest daughter of Geb and Nut. She had four siblings, Osiris, Seth, Nephthys and Haroeris. She was both the sibling and wife of Osiris, from whom she bore Horus. Her other offspring were Bastet and probably Ammit.
She was depicted as a beautiful women dressed in a sheath and a headdress that either had a solar disc in between a cow’s horn or the hieroglyphic sign of the throne. She would also be depicted as a scorpion, cow or a bird. Her symbols were a sparrow, vulture, sycamore tree, cobra and a small hawk.
Isis depicted with outstretched wings (wall painting, c. 1360 BCE)
Isis was unmatched with her magical powers—not even Osiris or Ra could match her skills; she was the goddess of magic but her prowess was indeed diverse. Isis was the goddess of protection, the patron of nature, the dead, children, the noble and the commoners. She was loved and worshiped by all social strata. She had a very close link with the kings and kingship. She answered to the entreaty of the slaves, artisans, sinners, the downtrodden, the aristocrats and the maidens.
As a bereaved soul, she was associated with funeral rituals; as a sorceress, she cured the ill and brought the dead back to life and as the ideal mother she was an exemplar of all Egyptian women.
Initially an obscure goddess without temples consecrated to her, she grew famous during the advance of the dynastic age. She became one of the chief deities of ancient Egypt. The cult of Isis spanned across dominions as far distant as the Greco-Roman world, the Roman Empire and Afghanistan.
Isis was the archetype of an ideal wife and mother who was a stout supporter of her husband Osiris. Egyptian women aspired to become the perfect mother and wife she was; she taught them how to weave, brew beer and bake. She was a woman who remained in the background when all was well, but would intervene either with her sorcery or sharp wit when it came to protecting her family during precarious times.
The Story of Isis and Osiris
The chronicles of Isis and Osiris is largely depicted in Plutarch's Greek depiction “De Iside et Osiride” (written in the 1st century CE).
According to this literary source, Seth, who was envious of the god of Egypt Osiris, contrived a plan to kill him. He held a banquet and, before his guests, displayed an embellished wooden chest. He asked each of them to fit in it and said that he would reward it to the one who did. The box was custom made for Osiris since Seth had measured him in his sleep. When it came to Osiris’s turn, he fit in the chest perfectly. Seth then closed the led on him and thrust the box into the river Nile meaning for the river to send him as far away as possible. He then was crowned the Pharaoh of Egypt.
Isis wept plentifully over her husband’s death. Her tears, it was believed, would induce the flood of the Nile River.
The mourning widow Isis set out to seek his corpse and found it at Byblos, by a tree. She brought back the body to Egypt. Seth had learnt of this so he scavenged for the chest. Once he found it, he hacked Osiris’ body into pieces (according to some accounts, fourteen peaces) and scattered his corpse all over Egypt.
The dogged Isis was undeterred by the challenge. With the help of her sister Nephthys, she transformed into a bird and managed to collect each part of the corpse of Osiris. All but one: his genitals. Unfortunately, a fish had feasted on that organ and Isis could not recover it. Nonetheless, she was able to replace it with a golden phallus. She was also able to use her magical prowess to stitch up his body with bandages; he was transformed into a mummy neither dead nor alive. With the help of Thoth’s magic she was able to bare him a son, Horus, after nine months. Osiris then became the ruler of the dead after being condemned to the Underworld.
Osiris’ demise and reincarnation was revived annually through rituals.
Isis and Her Son Horus
At Khemmis, Isis bore Horus. She fled with her newborn in order to escape the rage of Seth. Horus was endangered by many perils. At one point he was bitten by a poisonous scorpion and Isis had to use her magical skills to heal him. She protected him until he reached the able age to seek vengeance on his father’s murderer and claim his throne.
It was for the role she played in guarding her son that she earned the title “Goddess of Protection.”
The Inspiration of Isis on Christianity
The portraits of Isis suckling her newborn Horus served as an inspiration to many Christian paintings of the Virgin Mary with her baby, Jesus Christ.
Horus (Egyptian, Hor, Har, Her, or Heru) was the Egyptian deity of kingship and sun. He was also depicted as the god of war, hunting, Upper Egypt, light, and protection.
Horus was the posthumous son of Osiris and Isis. Serket (Haroeris) and Hathor were believed to be his consorts.
Depicted as a falcon, Horus had a right eye that was defined as the sun (or morning sun), which symbolized power and epitome. Horus was the archetype of a king and the reigning ruler was often thought to be Horus’ manifestation. His right eye was the moon (or evening star), symbolizing the power of healing. This was why he was the God of the Sky.
Papyrus of Ani: The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day (13th century B.C.)
The Battle of Horus with Seth
After his birth, Horus was pursued relentlessly by the murderer of his father, Seth. His mother Isis worked indefatigably to keep him out of harm’s way. Once he reached an able age, he set out to avenge the murderer of his father and to lay claim to the throne.
The two had unending battles from the 1st dynasty (c. 2925–2775 BCE) onward. Their feud perpetuated for almost a century and was concluded by the triumph of Horus and the merging of Upper and Lower Egypt. Seth was seen as the god of Lower Egypt, and Horus, the god of Upper Egypt. Horus emerged as a victor - not because of a triumph in the battles but because of his acquisition of the most votes from the other gods. He came to be known as Harsiesis, Heru-ur or Har-Wer– translated as Horus the Great or Horus the Elder. He became the new King of Egypt.
Both warring parties were injured severely. Seth lost his testicles; this explains why the desert he embodies is barren; Seth was the deity that ruled over the desert. Horus, on the other hand, lost his left eye (the moon). It was restored through the magical prowess of Thoth. The eye that was restored was known as “the wedjat eye”; it became a powerful amulet.
Osiris (otherwise known as Usir, Asiri, Ausir or Ausar) was the child of Geb and Nut. He was the ruler of the afterlife, the dead and the Underworld. Initially, however, he was the god of the earth. He was the husband of Isis and from her he bore Horus posthumously. Anubis is also believed to be his child.
In his depictions, Osiris is a mummy, with his hands crossed over his chest. In one hand he held a flail and in the other he had a crook. He wore the after-crown which consisted of two ostrich feathers—the crown resembled that of Upper Egypt.
Osiris depicted on the grave of Sennedjem
A yearly ritual to commemorate his death and rebirth would be held. In these festivals processions, sacrifices and nocturnal rites would be held. He was not only believed to be the god that ruled over the dead, but also a god with the power to bestow life from the Underworld (the afterlife), to sprout vegetation and to flood the River Nile.
The deceased kings embodied Osiris, and their children, the living Kings, embodied Horus (the son of Osiris).
Seth (also known as Setekh, Setesh, or Set) was the god of storms, evil, desert, war and disorder. He was the son of Geb and Nut and his triad of consorts included his sister Nephthys and the foreign goddesses Astarte and Anat.
Seth was the envious sibling of Osiris who he killed to become the King of Egypt. He is represented as a canine body with square-tipped ears, forked tail and a curved, long, projecting stout.
God of the sun and radiance, Ra (Re or Pra) was a solar deity whose reign extended far and wide. He was the ruler of the earth, sun and the Underworld. Ra is linked with the hawk and falcon; the sun disc was his symbol. He was the second most powerful deity, but was often wary of other gods supplanting him. His paranoia went to the extent of forbidding Nut from giving birth to deities that he feared would overthrow him. However, his scheme ended up being a tenuous one and Nut gave birth to major gods and goddesses, among whom was Isis, his wife and his fiercest rivalry.
Another rivalry was Apep (or Apophis), the god of chaos. He was Ra's arch-nemesis. He dwelled just below the horizon line and would swallow Ra every time he made his way to the Underworld. When he would swallow Ra, the sun would set and when he would completely devour him, night would come. Fortunately, he would fall by the wayside as he would always spit out Ra. This leads to sun rise.
Imentet and Ra from the tomb of Nefertari (1298-1235 BCE)
His consorts were Hathor, Isis and, in accordance with some accounts, Sekhmet and Bast.
According to certain cult-followers, Ra is viewed as the god who created the world and whose tears created men. He is also accredited for the formation of deities who were also his offspring—most were experiments of vengeance and protection against humanity. Sekhmet was the “eye of Ra”; Bast, the “cat of Ra”; and Hathor, the “eye of Ra.”
Many gods merged with Ra, among them were Atum (Atum-Ra or Ra-Atum) and Amun (Amun-Ra).
Nephthys was a goddess that ruled over the night, rivers, death, water, service, protection and mourning. Like her twin sister Isis she was linked to funerary rites. This was because of the role her and her sister had in protecting the mummies and Osiris. She was depicted as either a kite or a woman with outstretched falcon wings, signifying protection.
Nephthys was the wife of Seth, but her child Anubis is a mysterious subject. According to a myth, she was forbidden a child by Seth, so she contrived a plan in which she disguised herself as her sister Isis and seduced him. From this seduction was born Anubis. In fear of Seth learning of this mischief and later being driven to kill the child, Nephthys pleaded with Isis to adopt Anubis as her own son. This explains why, as the adopted son of Osiris, Anubis became the Underworld’s ruler but was never able to take Osiris’ position - as he wasn’t his real son.
The sister and consort of Geb, Nut was the mother of the major deities Nephthys, Isis, Osiris, and Seth. Her reign spanned over many realms; Nut was the Goddess of the sky, stars, the sun, light, the moon, astronomy, heaven, the universe, winds, and the air.
Nut personified the sun and the earth and was portrayed as either a nude women above the earth covered with stars or a cow.
Nut participated in saving Osiris and was thus seen as a friend of the dead. Upon his death Osiris pleaded:
"O my Mother Nut, stretch yourself over me, that I may be placed among the imperishable stars which are in you, and that I may not die."
Nut was believed to welcome the deceased into her starry sky and nurture them:
"I am Nut, and I have come so that I may enfold and protect you from all things evil."
Anubis (or Anpu) was the ruler of death, the Underworld and funerals. He mummified the corpse of the dead and protected tombs. Anubis was the child of Seth and Nephthys — who was never told of the secret of his fatherhood. Anubis was also the adopted child of Isis and Osiris.
Anubis attending the mummy of the deceased
There are sources that posit Ra and Hesat or Bast as the parents of Anubis. Plutarch (c. 40–120 AD) states that Anubis is the illegitimate son of Osiris and Nephthys.
In the statue of Hermanubis it reads:
“For when Isis found out that Osiris loved her sister and had sexual relations with her in mistaking her sister for herself, and when she saw a proof of it in the form of a garland of clover that he had left to Nephthys - she was looking for a baby, because Nephthys abandoned it at once after it had been born for fear of Seth; and when Isis found the baby helped by the dogs which with great difficulties lead her there, she raised him and he became her guard and ally by the name of Anubis.”
A jackal or a man with a head of a jackal was often the illustration of Anubis. His attributes included a flail, often held in his arm’s crook, and a fetish.
His art of embalming was first practiced on the body of Osiris; he is accredited with the creation of the craft.
Bast (Bastet, Baast, Ubaste, or Baset) was the cat-headed goddess of love, protection, cats, warfare, music, joy and dance. She was the child of Isis and Ra.
Before the union of the two cultures of Egypt, Bast was Lower Egypt’s warfare-goddess. Her counterpart in the opposite side Egypt was Sekhmet who was the warrior lioness deity of Upper Egypt. Although many deities merged after the union of Lower and Upper Egypt, these goddesses didn’t follow suit. Bast transformed from a warrior lioness to a guardian deity during the 22nd Dynasty (c. 945–715 BC).
In the 1st millennium BC, Bast was depicted as a cat-faced woman. In her later depictions in the eleventh century BCE, she was portrayed as either a lioness or a cat-headed woman carrying sistrum (sacred rattle) and an aegis.
Bast was not only the daughter of Ra but also his experimental instrument of vengeance. She was the one who beheaded the god of chaos, Apophis, who was the arch-nemesis of Ra. Bast was styled the “Eye of Ra.” According to a Myth, Ra sends her to the land of Nubia in disguise of a lioness.
Sekhmet (or Sachmis) was the goddess of war, vengeance, medicine and fire. Her attributes were a sun disk, lioness and red linen. She was represented as either a large cat or a lioness; as a solar deity, she wore a solar disc and a Uraeus (a sacred serpent) which linked her to royalty and Wadjet.
To Egyptians she was the fiercest hunter whose breath instantaneously transformed land into a desert. She protected the pharaohs and spearheaded their wars.
She carried similar traits to the goddess Bast. They both had similar roles in Lower and Upper Egypt and both were the children and instruments of Ra. Sekhmet was “the Eye of Ra”, who was the fiercest weapon against the perils of humanity.
According to one myth, she was sent to finish the job Ra had sent Hathor to carry out—the eradication of the human race. Once she arrived, Sekhmet accidentally drunk beer thinking it was blood and ended up being too drunk to finish off the job of slaying humanity.
Amun was the god of the wind and the King of the deities (or Father of the deities). He and his wife Amaunet have been mentioned since the old Kingdom.
From the 11th to 16th century BC he rose to chief importance after his merge with the sun god Ra. He came to be known as Amun-Ra or Amen-Ra. The chief of all deities, Amun-Ra was the patron of the poor, the troubled and was the epicenter of personal piety.
Those who sought the help of Amun-Ra had to first confess their sins. The temple of Deir el-Medina reads:
"[Amun] who comes at the voice of the poor in distress, who gives breath to him who is wretched. You are Amun, the Lord of the silent, who comes at the voice of the poor; when I call to you in my distress. You come and rescue me...Though the servant was disposed to do evil, the Lord is disposed to forgive. The Lord of Thebes spends not a whole day in anger; His wrath passes in a moment; none remains. His breath comes back to us in mercy. May your ka be kind; may you forgive; It shall not happen again."
Maat was the goddess of truth and justice. Her attributes were a feather and an ostrich. Maat was the daughter of Ra and according to some sources the consort of Thoth.
Her role in the creation and her indefatigable struggle to preclude the universe from collapsing into chaos was significant. In her later function, she handled the “weighing of the heart” (also called the “weighing of the souls”). This was carried out at Duat, in the Underworld. Her feather was the determiner of whether the souls of the dead would successfully reach the utopia of the next world.
The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani, Anubis weighs Ani's heart against the feather of Maat (1300 BC)
Often viewed as a female deity, Maat was in truth seen as the personification of the general principles of truth, justice, harmony, balance, morality and order; these were the ethics that every Egyptian had to follow. They were to act honorably and sincerely when dealing with matters of the community, family, god, the environment and their country.