Isis in Big History, Part 2: From the Egyptians to Late Antiquity

Isis nurses Seti I, relief at Abydos

Isis appealed to ancient peoples as a supernormal mother figure, among other things.

– by B. T. Newberg

Last time, the conditions were set for the rise of the myth of Isis.  This time, let’s explore how she emerged and adapted over time to fit the shifting environment of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman peoples.

This is one brief attempt to reconstruct a difficult history.  The historical claims presented here are open to challenge and revision.

This post is the second in a 4-part series exploring the myth of Isis in the context of Big History.  For part 1, tracing the story from the Big Bang to the rise of agriculture, go here.  For a proposal of Big History as the narrative core of naturalism, including HP, go here.

Isis of the Egyptians

Ägyptischer Maler um 1360 v. Chr. 001, from tomb of Seti I

Winged Isis with throne above her head, from tomb of Seti I

Groups that can work together generally out-compete those who cannot, and agricultural Egypt demanded large-scale cooperation.  Thus, stories facilitating organization, such as the myth of Isis, benefited from cultural selection.

Every year, just after the heliacal rising of the star Sothis (Sirius), the Nile river flooded, fertilizing a narrow strip of land on either side.  Managing the water systems needed to farm it required cooperation under a strong central leadership.  Stories legitimating this institution facilitated the rise of a divine ruler, the pharaoh, lord over both upper and lower Egypt.

The origins of Isis are uncertain, but she was connected to the pharaoh by the Old Kingdom at least.  Aset was her name in Egyptian, which meant “throne.” Her iconography bore a throne above her head.  Sometimes she was depicted in theriomorphic (animal) form, as a kite or a woman with wings.

Along with her sister Nephthys, Isis assisted the deceased pharaoh in ascending to eternal life.  By supporting the pharaoh’s otherworldly authority, she supported his this-worldly authority as well.  Though Isis was a relatively minor deity in the Egyptian pantheon at the time, she* played a role in legitimating centralized power.  Through myths such as hers, Egyptians understood what was real – the divinity of the pharaoh – and what mattered – cooperation under his rule.

Like most mythic deities, Isis behaved more or less as a person, but with superhuman powers.  In cognitive science terms, she was a modestly counterintuitive agent, fascinating for her difference but still readily understandable to the average person.  This helped myths such as hers spread more rapidly than less interesting or more intellectually-complicated stories.

In the Middle Kingdom, centralized government weakened, and salvation in the afterlife began to extend beyond the pharaoh to nobles as wellSupporting the afterlife hopes, and thus authority, of the local nobles was the goddess Hathor, with whom Isis would become identified.  Her appeal thus attracted greater strata of society, eventually including the common people.

Isis from Temple of Seti I at Abydos, by Warren Brown

Isis with Hathor’s cow horns and sun disk, beside Osiris; from Temple of Seti I at Abydos

By the New Kingdom, Isis had started to become identified with numerous other goddesses, such as Maat, Neith, Sekhmet, and particularly Hathor.  In the latter identification, she acquired Hathor’s role as mother of Horus (including the pharaoh as the living Horus).  In this role, she became a supernormal mother figure.  She also acquired Hathor’s association with the star Sothis, the rising of which heralded the Nile’s flooding, making her appeal to all those hoping for a good harvest (i.e. all people, regardless of class).

By this time, if not earlier, Isis was spouse to Osiris, an afterlife deity with whom the deceased pharaoh was identified.  This pairing would give rise to dramatic stories of love, loss, and struggle.

With each change, the myth of Isis became more hardy and well-adapted to the environment of human psychology in general and Egyptian culture in specific.  It appealed to a wider range of people for a wider range of needs.

The specific manner in which Egyptians believed in Isis defied modern categories of naturalism and supernaturalism.  Ideas resembling both blended seamlessly.  On the one hand, deities were given gifts and cared for extravagantly in a manner suggesting belief in literal person-like beings.  On the other hand, a more metaphorical line of thought is evident in Isis’ personification of the throne and, as Maat, the principle of order, as well as her identification with the star Sothis and the kite.  Medical science at the time was consistent with this attitude, employing empirical methods alongside magical ones, perhaps without self-conscious differentiation.  Most likely, the undifferentiated attitude worked to the advantage of myths, enabling them to determine what was real and what mattered in a variety of different situations and moods without the perception of conflict.

By the Late Period, Isis was a leading goddess in Egypt.  She held powers of magic, protection, healing, seafaring, motherhood, eternal life, and more.  She was the mother of the pharaoh; her husband Osiris was the past pharaoh and her son Horus the current one.

The drama of her story was deeply meaningful to the Egyptian people: her husband’s murder and dismemberment by Set, her tears which annually flooded the Nile, her wandering to recover his dismembered pieces, her magical coupling with his reconstructed corpse to conceive a son (Horus), and that son’s struggle to regain his rightful place on the throne from the usurper Set.  It reflected something universal in the human condition – love, loss, seeking, strife.  It also reflected and reinforced the local social order – rule by a rightful heir to the throne.  Through it, Egyptians understood that they must cooperate under the order of the pharaoh, even as they also made sense of nature, their own personal struggles, and their hopes for an afterlife.

Isis of the Greeks

Isis Sarapis Harpocrates Dionysos Louvre Ma3128

Left to right: Isis, Serapis, Harpocrates, and Dionysos

So impressive was the Egyptian legacy that the Greek historian Herodotus thought his own culture’s gods must have come in ancient days from Egypt.  He and others began to identify Isis’ story with that of their own deities, including Demeter, a grain goddess, Artemis, a goddess of wild nature, Io, a wandering goddess, and Agatha Tyche, the personification of good fortune.

For some Greeks, this must have lent their relatively young culture a venerable pedigree.  It also made sense of cultural diversity: in an increasingly intercultural Mediterranean, the Greeks saw that other cultures, despite apparent differences, were in some sense like their own.  The interpretatio graeca proposed that Greek and foreign deities were the same beings by different names.

The story of Isis thus began to fulfill human needs beyond the reach of the Nile.  As she adapted to this new audience, her character changed dramatically.

When developments in Greek thought sparked the beginnings of theoretical science, and questions about the world began to be asked in naturalistic terms, myths became implausible as literal representations of the world for many (though not all).  They no longer conveyed what was real and what mattered; that role was taken over by philosophy.  To resolve this crisis, myths began to be read allegorically, which restored their power by linking them with the new reality.  This had consequences for all mythic deities, including Isis.  Plutarch (a much later Roman writer) would come to see Isis’ myth as an allegory for Platonic truths.

Alexander the Great’s march into Egypt heralded the end of the the Egyptian pharaohs.  Thereafter, a Greek family called the Ptolemies reigned, and they needed a new myth to legitimate their power and unite their peoples.  Suddenly, Isis’ story was in trouble.  The environment had shifted, and the story was no longer fit.  It had to change, or risk ceasing to be told.

An adaptation emerged that became even more successful.  Isis’s story transformed through the re-imagining of her relations.  Osiris and the Apis bull combined into Serapis, a deity with mixed Egyptian and Greek associations.  Serapis became Isis’ new husband.  Meanwhile, her son Horus transformed into the child Harpocrates.  Depictions in animal form became more rare, as non-anthropomorphic gods seemed implausible to the Greeks.  This hybrid of Egyptian and Hellenistic influence served the Ptolemies well.  It showed what was real – one reality with different cultural expressions – and what mattered – cooperation in a new, more multicultural Egypt.  It also increased the ease with which the Isian cult spread overseas, throughout the Hellenistic world.

Isis of the Romans

Io (on the left, with horns) is welcomed in Egypt by Isis (sitting, holding a snake and with a crocodile at her feet).

Isis (right) welcomes the Greek goddess Io (left); fresco from Pompeii

When Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria, he found a living Isis, a daughter of the Ptolemies by the name of Cleopatra.  She was Isis in the same way the Egyptian pharaohs had been Horus.  She was the last of this status, however.  After her suicide, Egypt fell to Roman governors.  Myths of pharaonic power were doomed to extinction.

Yet, Isis thrived.  Her story was told throughout the Mediterranean by a priesthood garbed in white linenDaily rituals, annual festivals, and periods of abstinence functioned as costly signals displaying the commitment of her followers.

It was not the original Aset, though, but an increasingly Greco-Roman deity who enveloped one goddess after another.  The fierce, cunning Aset was now a more nurturing, universal goddess.  By the time Apuleius wrote The Golden Ass, she was Isis of Ten Thousand Names.  All goddesses were one goddess, and her true name was Isis.

In late antiquity, Isis posed a serious threat as competition to the new Christian faith.  The latter prevailed, however, and the cult of Isis died in the flames along with the Great Library burned at Alexandria.

It’s hard to kill a good story, though.  Through radical transformations, Isis survived into the Middle Ages and onward…

The series continues in part 3, which follows the Middle Ages to the modern era, and Part 4 which concludes with a look at how all this relates to the daily mundane life of one Contemporary Pagan.

* “she.”  I will often refer to the myth of Isis as Isis herself, to underscore the point that, from the perspective of Big History, she is her myth.
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9 Comments on “Isis in Big History, Part 2: From the Egyptians to Late Antiquity

  1. This is interesting presentation, but I can’t agree with its ideas about the rise of Isis. I think any attempt to explain the origin of mythic or religious elements from human utilitarian needs is doomed to failure. Humans don’t turn to religion for the things they know and control, they turn to religion in relation to the things of which they are uncertain, do not understand, and do not control.

    Agricultural people know how to plant crops. The Egyptians learned how to irrigate groups. They didn’t need religion for this. But the Egyptians did not fully understand why the floods happened; they did not control the rains; they did not control the insect pests and other hazards. It is in respect to these kinds of things that they turned to the Goddess.

    To put this in another way, people do not turn to religion in response to the things that they know clearly how to take care of, they turn to it in relation to the things that cause what I’ll call abstract fear. If we fear something, but know well how to remove the thing we fear, we simply act to remove the thing we fear. We don’t need religion. But the things we fear abstractly, such as a drought that might cause our crop planting to fail, we cannot deal with so directly. Prayer and rituals are a response to such abstract fear. We moderns may clearly see that such prayer and ritual does nothing to ward off drought or pestilence. But if it eased the abstract fear, then it did something of great value for people.

    Human intentionality requires that we can image what does not exists. Thus before the pyramids were built in Egypt, somebody imagined them existing; before the nomad’s tent is put up for the night, he or she imagines it being put up, and in this way gains a better understanding of the best location for it. But while imagining what does not exists serves us in many ways, it also is the source of abstract fear. We also imagine monsters under our beds or jinn in the wind.

    We live in the age of anxiety; anxiety medication is a multi-billion dollar industry. Those who can no longer believe in prayer at least have pills. I too suffer from anxiety, but I forsake the pills. I have found prayer and meditation to be very effective in overcoming it.

  2. Thomas, I think you may have misread this. The history I’ve attempted to portray here doesn’t propose that myths helped peoples solve practical problems like how to invent agriculture, it proposes that shifts in the bio-cultural landscape created new selection pressures that evolved the myths of Isis, at the same time that Isis appealed to human needs to make sense of their world and cooperate as large-scale societies.

    You are right when you say that “Humans don’t turn to religion for the things they know and control, they turn to religion in relation to the things of which they are uncertain, do not understand, and do not control.” Much of the turning to myths portrayed here would be either larger than any individual (social forces), or unconscious from an individual’s perspective, and what isn’t unconscious would indeed relate to the uncertain, not understood, and not controlled, such as that misty and indefinable force by which the world “makes sense” and life becomes “meaningful.”

    Religion does sometimes deal with abstract fear, but it also deals with abstract meaning.

    • Brandon,

      By the time we get to the Isis of the mystery religions, such as is presented near the end of Apuleius’ “The Golden Ass,” we are dealing with the Goddess as providing meaning or orientation (she is becoming an U.I.G – ultimate internal good). But a millenium more time separates the origins of irrigation in Egypt and Apuleius, than separates Apuleius from us.

      You say “the bio-cultural landscape created new selection pressures that evolved the myths of Isis…” “Selection pressures” is a meaningful term in biological evolution, but do you really think that the myth of Isis has anything to do with biological evolution? I know you don’t believe there is an “Isis gene.” And whether or not “selection pressures” is a meaningful term within cultural “evolution” is rather questionable, as there is no generally accepted theory of cultural evolution.

      How the gods and goddesses “evolved” is a most difficult question, and I commend you on the attempt to address it.

      • >But a millenium more time separates the origins of irrigation in Egypt and Apuleius, than separates Apuleius from us.

        Seven millenia, actually. And two and a half since our first records of Isis. What is your point? What relation between Isis and agriculture are you attempting to refute? I don’t see how the critique links up with what I’ve written.

        >“Selection pressures” is a meaningful term in biological evolution, but do you really think that the myth of Isis has anything to do with biological evolution?

        Yes, I do. First, culture evolves. The metaphor to genetics is not perfect and not meant to be. Culture is its own thing with its own properties and environmental pressures, but it is evolution by selection nonetheless. The notion of the evolution of culture has gone through a lengthy and necessary phase of skepticism, and emerged from it quite convincing IMO. Second, cultural evolution can drive genetic evolution (recent research has shocked the scientific world by finding that changes in the human genome have actually sped up since the beginning of agriculture). So, the myth of Isis is deeply interwoven with biological evolution, as is any aspect of culture. I’m not claiming the myth of Isis has made any specific changes to human genetics, but that the myth itself evolves due to differential replication as a meme under relevant selection pressures.

        > I know you don’t believe there is an “Isis gene.”

        Correct. Isis is a cultural entity, a “meme” if you like that term, that exploits human biological features that almost certainly evolved for reasons other than what we would call religion.

        >And whether or not “selection pressures” is a meaningful term within cultural “evolution” is rather questionable, as there is no generally accepted theory of cultural evolution.

        It is still controversial, but the field has progressed far passed the stage of initial speculation. The rigor of the field has developed robust mathematical models, so much so that you can’t read the stuff without a thorough grounding in statistical analysis. Empirical evidence is mounting. And it is showing consilience with other lines of research, such as cognitive science.

        Check out the work being done in dual inheritance theory, which IMO is hands down the best current research on the evolution of culture (including religion). It’s also called gene-culture co-evolution. Google wikipedia for a start. Among books, see Sense and Nonsense by Laland and Brown, or anything by Boyd and Richerson. The best rigorous but short and readable article I can recommend, which enfolds almost all the latest research specifically on the evolution of religions, is Atran and Henrich 2010. It’s only 13 pages and available as free pdf here: www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/pdfs/BIOT_a_00018.pdf

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  4. Thomas and Brandon
    I think statements of the kind quoted below (from Thomas’s comment) are massive projections of the modern mind – completely alienated from relationship with place, which is characteristic of the indigenous mind:
    “Prayer and rituals are a response to such abstract fear. We moderns may clearly see that such prayer and ritual does nothing to ward off drought or pestilence. But if it eased the abstract fear, then it did something of great value for people.”
    I think prayers and rituals are a response to the awesome facts of being – both the beauty and the terror. And how are you so certain that prayer and ritual do nothing to ward off drought and pestilence?? have you been trying it? 🙂 no need to answer that really … but truly we don’t know the half of it as they say.

  5. Pingback: A flood myth or deluge myth is a symbolic narrative in which a great flood is sent by a deity « Wed-Gie

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