If somebody were to take a poll of the most popular Goddesses in modern Paganism, I’d wager that Isis would be one of the highest ranking, somewhere with Hekate, Artemis and Bridged. Yet, some of Her basic functions are misunderstood. Nowadays Isis is most often depicted with Her horns-and-disk headdress, but in antiquity she was shown with a throne atop Her head. After all, Isis, or Aset in the native Egyptian, is the feminine of the word for “Throne”, hence “Female of the Throne”, i.e. “Queen of the Throne”. Aset is a very ancient Deity. Some believe that She was originally a Nubian Goddess Whose worship spread to Egypt very early on. First mentions of Her name begin in the Fifth Dynasty (2494 to 2345 BCE) of the Old Kingdom. Aset was originally a somewhat obscure Deity. She was a protector of the Pharaoh and symbol of his power. The Pharaoh, as Her symbolic child, was called “the Living Horus”.
Eventually Isis absorbed the horns-and-disk headdress from Hathor. Most New Age books will tell you that the disk in question is the moon – depending on your point of view, this is both wrong, and correct. Originally, it was a sun-disk, and Isis was never considered a Moon Goddess by the Egyptians. But to the Romans, any Goddess which a symbol like that had to be a Moon Goddess. There were no Greco-Roman Sun Goddesses. Sky Goddesses, sure, even without the connection to the moon (Hera/Juno). In many ancient Western cultures, the moon and the earth were seen as female, the sky and sun as male. As the cultural descendents of the Romans, we have inherited the same presumption. But this was not true of all cultures. The Egyptians saw the earth as a male God, Geb, and His wife the sky was called Nuit. There are many Deities, male AND female, that the Egyptians associated with the sun. Which makes sense if consider the climate of this desert country. There are also several Moon Gods in Egypt (Min, Khonsu, Thoth), but in all cases they are male.
And there are other cultures where the genders are swapped. The Japanese Amasterasu, the Slavic Saule, the Nordic Sunna, the Australian Aborigine Wuriupranili and the Cherokee Unelanuhi are Sun Goddesses. While the Hindu Ushas and the Greek Eos are both Goddesses of the Dawn, the Sun’s first gentle rays at it rises at its birth.
By the time the Ptolemies came on the scene, Osiris, Isis, and Horus were honored everywhere in Egypt. Isis absorbed the features of other Goddesses (such as the sun-disk and cow horn headdress from Hathor). She was worshiped as the Goddess of magic, motherhood, protector of the dead and giver of fertility, a Savior from Fate. Isis was known as a Goddess for everyone, Who listened to the prayers of slaves and Emperors alike.
Isis, Mut, and Wadjet
Commonly Isis’ headdress also featured vulture wings alongside each of side of Her head, connecting Her to the Vulture Mother, Mut, and the snake rising from Her brow, the urasus, is Wadjet, the cobra Goddess. Both of these Goddesses are considered “lesser” Deities today, but were very important in Their day. Both relate to purification, transformation, and initiation.
Mut (also spelled Maut and Mout) means simply “Mother”. She is a primordial Goddess Who was said to have already existed in the Nun (Chaos; the primordial nothingness from which the universe arose). In Thebes Mut was considered to be the Queen of the Gods, the wife of Ammon, and by Him mother of the moon-God Khonsu. In some versions Khonsu is not Her biological son, but an adopted one. Either way, Ammon, Mut, and Khonsu were worshiped as a triad at Thebes. Earlier texts say the adopted child is Montu, a falcon-headed God of War and one of the Horus-Gods, but eventually Khonsu overtook Him. Part of the reason may be that a certain lake sacred to Mut was in the shape of a crescent moon.
Horapollo (an Egyptian magus of the fourth century CE) tells us that the ancient Egyptians believed there were no male vultures. Instead, when the females wished to reproduce, they exposed their vulvas to the North Wind, thus remaining virgin, while simultaneously becoming mothers. It is said that Mut was never born, but self-created. She is somewhat androgynous, and is sometimes pictured with with a phallus, but in every other way (breasts, long hair, etc) very female.
Mut has a sister, Nekhbet, another vulture Goddess. They are called the “Two Ladies” of the Pharaoh, one Nekhbet protecting Upper Egypt and Mut Lower Egypt. Together They might be considered one Goddess, Nekhbet-Mother Mut. Much of what can be said of Mut also applies to Nekhbet. Mother Goddess, tough love, protection, linked to the Pharaoh. Nekhbet was considered to be the wife of Hapi, the androgynous God of the Nile River. Nekhbet’s fierce side is a little rougher than Mut’s. She is also a War-Goddess, often pictured hovering above the Pharaoh’s war-chariot, protecting him from his enemies. She is also called the Eye of Ra.
Vultures are carrion-eaters. This is an unsavory but necessary job in the natural world. Mut strips the dead flesh from the rotting corpse, leaving only the clean white bones beneath. Death feeds life, but rebirth is only possible after what is unnecessary is striped away. The rest is transformed, decomposed to become fertilizer to feed new green plants as they grow. Mystically speaking, Mut strips the dead weigh from our souls in preparation for initiation into the Mysteries. This is not a pleasant process. In fact it can be incredibly painful, and at the time we might rage and scream against the heavens. But this is necessary, and in fact will leave you much better than you were before. Many people never come to understand the initiation or embrace the lesson that the pain has taught you.
Some of Mut’s many titles included World-Mother, Eye of Ra, Queen of the Goddesses, Lady of Heaven, Mother of the Gods, and She Who Gives Birth, But Was Herself Not Born of Any.
Wadjet (Wadjyt, Wadjit, Udjo, Uto, Uatchet, Edjo, Buto), the Cobra, is also a “tough love” type of Goddess. The poison She spits is purifying, the kind of painful transformation that a sword must go through being tempered in a fire, pounded into shape. She was originally a pre-dynastic cobra goddess of Lower Egypt who rose to prominent when the Pharaoh adopted Her as one of His protectors. Wadjet is usually pictured as a rearing cobra, ready to strike and kill the enemies of Egypt. Sometimes She is also shown as a cobra with the head of a woman, or a cobra with wings.
Wadjet is one of Goddesses Who is called the Eye of Ra (along with Sekhmet, Bast, Hathor, and Tefnut). Her connection is so strong the symbol the Eye of Ra (sometimes called the Eye of Horus) was called a wadjet (in the form of the Eye, Udjat is the most common transliteration of Her name). In earlier times She was said to be a daughter of Ammon, and later a daughter of Ra. Ra sent Wadjet to as His “eye” (remember, irt, “eye” is very similar to ir.t, “doer” or “agent”) to find Tefnut and Shu when they were lost in the waters of Nun. When Wadjet returned with the wayward Deities, Ra was so happy that He cried tears of joy, from which the first humans sprang.
This is another pun, as the word for humans is romi the word for joyful tears is remi. This is also a profound statement on the nature of humankind. Created from tears, we suffer. Our emotions are powerful, and rule our lives. But we persevere, and from our hardship we create joy and beauty. Also, our bodies are 80% water. This element is primary to our species. Deep, emotional, spiritual, nurturing, caring, mystical. This is in our very nature.
Anyway, back to Wadjet. As a reward, Ra placed Her upon His brow in Her form as a cobra so She could always be close to Him and could act as His protector. She is also a protector of Ma’at, the principle of justice, balance, and universal order. There is an obscure myth that demonstrates Wadjet’s abhorrence for the violation of Ma’at, especially by a trusted leader, where Geb raped His mother Tefnut before being made king. When He tried to place the Royal Ureas on His forehead, the snake reared up and attacked him.
Wadjet was a forceful protector Goddess, not only of Justice in general and of kings, but in Lower Egypt of women in childbirth and of young children. Wadjet is the ultimate defender, whose purifying poison cleanses and destroys all evil. Although the cobra was Her primary manifestation, She sometimes took the form of a lioness, a further connection to Sekhmet. The mongoose, which is an apt and efficient killer of snakes, was also considered to be sacred to Her. Mongooses and shrews were mummified and entombed with statuettes of Wadjet that were buried along with human mummies. The Egyptians believed that the mongoose represents daylight, and the nocturnal shrew represents nighttime, and together they stood for the day and night cycle. The snake preys on the shrew, and a mongoose can kill a snake. The cycle of life, the food chain, the magic of the predator-prey cycle, right there in Wadjet’s sacred animals.
As we study all this, it is important to understand something about Egyptian metaphysical thought. In Egyptian thought, a picture of a thing, the word that represents a thing, and that thing itself all share the same magical essence. Spiritually, a hawk, a picture of a hawk, a hawk’s feather, and word “hawk” (whether written or spoken) all have same energy. A symbol of a God IS that God. At least, a part of that God. It’s an important point. We don’t worship idols – a picture of the God – but mystically, that symbol shares in the essence of the Deity. Just as malachite and green turquoise are Hathor embodied, Isis’ headdress *IS* the Goddesses Nekhbet-Mut and Wadjet. In an instance such as this, it can be interpreted as the Deity in question incorporating aspects of the the Deities whose symbols They wear. Another as the Gods teaming up in a temporary synthesis, a partnership, a sharing of essences for a specific propose.
the Kemetic Aset vs. The Romanic Isis
When speaking of the Goddess Isis I tend to use the the Greek transliteration, as it the most familiar and the most pleasing to me aesthetically. However, for clarity, in the rest of this post I will use the proper names to differentiate between the earlier Egyptian Aset and classical Isis
We’ve already discussed earlier the symbolism of Aset’s sundisk headdress and how the Romans interpreted it as a moon, making Isis a lunar Deity. This does not mean that the lunar associations are completely wrong. The Deities are bigger than any single culture’s understandings of Them. But it is important to know where (and when) all these ideas come from. If She comes to you as a Moon Goddess, that’s fine. But don’t try to claim that the ancient Egyptians of 3000 BCE saw Her that way. Aset may be putting on a Romanic guise to speak with you as Isis, it may be part of Her particular message to you at that time. Just because a theological idea is closer to the modern time does not make it invalid. But it is important to know the difference.
Aset has strong funerary aspects that the Romanic Isis does not. The Romans emphasized Isis’ power of life over death, but it was a conquering power, not an embracing of the afterlife. Aset and Her Sister Nebt-Het (Nephtys) are pictured on coffins as two kites (a kind of hawk) with outstretched wings, one at foot and one at the head, protecting the deceased. Aset also had a seat at the Hall of Judgment, where the deceased had to face the council of the Gods before they could enter Amenti, or heaven. When Aset became Isis, the all-loving, all-embracing, all-accepting Goddess known to the Romans, Her position as one of the Divine Judges of the afterlife was apparently shed.
Aset also comes off as a bit fiercer than Isis, somewhat ruthless in the pursuit of Her goals. The difference makes a lot of sense, if you consider the position of women within the two cultures. Egyptian women were NOT fragile, docile and submissive little things we are led to believe Athenian women were. They were used to having all the rights and most of the responsibilities of men. They could own property in their own names, take someone to court, and were considered equal to men as far as the law was concerned. It wasn’t entirely common for a woman to live alone without a father, husband, or other male guardian, but it was permitted. And not unheard of.
Aset lost Her strong connection to royalty when She was exported. In early Egypt, Aset was the protector and symbolic mother of the Pharaoh. She embodied His right to rule, as the throne that supported him. She was the mother of Heru (Horus), and very motherly and protective towards Him (and so the Pharaoh, “the living Horus”). But She was not originally considered motherly and supportive to everyone. Over time, this began to change, and more Egyptians began to turn to Her in times of trouble and address Her as Mother. It wasn’t until She was adopted by that Romans that She became a Universal All-Mother Goddess, but the framework was already there. Her Roman devotees were nearly fanatical in their love for Her. They identified Isis with every Goddess in Their pantheon, and many in others. They adored Her almost to the point of henotheism. It was in Rome that Isis acquired the title Lady of the Ten Thousand names.