Iconography of a goddess

Jun 18th, 2011 | author Antonella Bazzoli | posted in A World of Symbol, East Meets West, Panorama

Isis, wife of Osiris and mother of Horus, is also commonly associated with another ancient Egyptian deity named Hathor. This name, which literally means “house of Horus”, represents a symbolic lap for her son, who is also the son of Osiris.

Following suit of her many forms, Hathor was the goddess of love as well as the goddess of fertility. However she did not bless fecundity solely upon women, but also upon the land. The discovery of wheat and barley was attributed to Hathor/Isis. She was the protector of agriculture and iconographically she was often depicted with two cow’s horns and with a sun disk haloed between them.

Isis was the queen of the earth, the sky, and the seas. Beginning from the New Kingdom (1560-1085 BCE) Isis and her heavenly sister Nefti were represented together in the ship normally occupied solely by the god Ra, used to drag the sun across the sky. In the different stages of the day, Isis takes on a different persona. In the morning she is personified as Sirius (or Sothis to the Greek) : she is the light that follows Orion (Osiris). The appearance of the constellation Orion determined the ancient Egyptian New Years, rising usually around July 15 and inaugurating the flood season of the Nile.

Isis was the goddess of medicine, as well as goddess of salvation who mourns the dead. Protecting mother of the living pharaoh, as well as wife to those deceased, Isis takes on the role also as the mother of all men, as she was known to bring compassion and hope to all of humanity.
It is in this motherly role that she rears Horus, and at the same time was able to help all mortals struggling in their earthly abodes.

Isis attributes and epithets were so numerous that in the hieroglyphics she was called “the many-named”. In Syria and Phoenicia her traits are incredibly similar to those of the goddess Astarte: portrayed nude, with a richly decorated diadem and necklace.

Already by the 5th century BCE in the Greek world Herodotus makes note of the assimilation of Isis with the goddess Demeter (Her. II, 59). He describes her as a goddess holding ears of corn or a torch, with her dress gathered and knotted around a breast in the typical style of Isis. She carries a basileion on her head or the traditional crown with a sun disk, where however the feathers and the cow’s horns are substituted for by ears of corn.

In Egypt, around the end of the Ptolemaic reign, Isis appears highly assimilate to Aphrodite, often-portrayed nude, with a basileion on her head. She is depicted as either wearing her hair loose or gathered in a bun, an elegant hair style called “the Libyan style.”
At times her head is veiled. Occasionally she’d be holding a scepter or an orb in her right hand, while with the left she would have a cornucopia, the symbol of abundance.

Very often she is depicted with a “sistrum” in her right hand and a “situla”, a pail, in her left. The sistrum, a magical musical instrument used to diffuse harmony and accord among men, was one of the objects most frequently associated with Hathor.

It is not by chance that in Egypt stands a temple dedicated to Dendera known as “the temple of the sistrum.” Even in its fundamental designs it appears to be a musical instrument of stone, uniting the harmony of the cosmos with that of earth.

To this goddess-queen of myriad names, a Capuan prayer calls: “Tu, una quae es omnia, dea Isis.” For her multiple guises and powers, Isis has been welcomed and honored even in the temples dedicated to other goddesses.

Isis has even survived the grand strength of Christianity, as the monotheistic sect has appropriated many of her iconographical aspects. It’s sufficient to point out how Isis, the Mother, is depicted in her throne with a child on her lap or in the process of tenderly suckling. This is the “Isis lactans,” found often as small bronzes or in relief, a representation surprisingly similar to the iconography of the socalled Madonna of the Milk which was an extremely popular depiction during the Middle Ages.

Thanks to these endearing characteristics as the mother of all men, whose love nursed and protected Horus, Isis continued to be venerated for a long while, be it in the public or private sphere, in many places, and under many names.

Antonella Bazzoli - 21 agosto 2008
translated by Genna Nielson


“Iside, il mito il mistero la magia” a cura di E.A. ARSLAN.

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