The Golden Ass

The Golden Ass Isis

Isis is one of the most significant goddesses in ancient Egypt, and later in Greece and Rome. Her origins are in the delta area of Lower Egypt around Busiris, where the god Osiris’s cult center was located.

Isis is her Greek name, while in Egypt she was referred to as Aset. Her name may mean “knowledge," “throne," or “female of flesh” to connote that she was mortal once; she was also known as “Hent," or Queen, but there were a myriad of other titles and names bestowed upon her. She was beloved by the rich and the poor, by maidens, artisans, and sinners.

In depictions of Isis, she is occasionally seen as a goddess with a headdress with an empty throne upon it, suggesting the pharaoh of whom she was the progenitor and protectress. She often carries her son Horus. In other representations she has the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, or carries a lotus bud or sycamore tree, or is winged. In the New Kingdom, she was often represented as a cow, or simply with cow’s horns.

The idea that she was once mortal is somewhat belied by the words in the Book of the Dead that call her “she who gives birth to heaven and earth, knows the orphan, knows the widow, seeks justice for the poor, and shelter for the weak”. In The Golden Ass, there is no sense that she was once mortal.

In terms of the familial relations within the mythology, Isis was the daughter of Geb (Earth) and Nut (Sky), the sister and wife of Osiris, the sister of Set, Nepthys, and Horus the Elder. Occasionally she was the wife of Horus the Elder, who was the patron of the living pharaoh. In early Egyptian history, she was also closely aligned with Hathor, while Ra and Horus were closely aligned. Later, when Ra and Atum were conflated, she was then seen as the daughter of Atum-Ra and his wife; then she was made the granddaughter of Ra-Atum, Horus’s mother, and Osiris’s wife. The mythology also developed in a way that made Isis adopt the illegitimate child of her husband and Nepthys –Anubis, the god of the underworld.

Isis’s characteristics included promoting motherly virtues. She was a protectress of pregnant woman, and was a powerful and influential mother figure. She knew the secret name of Ra, which gave her some of her immense power; initiated the ritual of mummification to bring Osiris life after death; was a protector goddess of the sarcophagus and Canopic jars; helped the dead on their journey into the afterlife; and was usually seen as one of the judges of the dead. She was also the goddess of magic and of nature; nature’s phenomena were often perceived to be her work, such as the Nile’s flooding pertaining to her weeping for Osiris.

She was rumored to give her priestesses divine power, such as interpreting dreams, and controlling the weather through braiding or combing their hair.