The Cult Of Isis And The Veneration Of The Virgin Mary Compared


IT has been well said that the Egyptians were better prepared to receive and accept Christianity than any of the nations round about them. For thousands of years before St. Mark came to Alexandria to preach the Gospel of his Master Christ, the Egyptians believed in Osiris the Man-god who raised himself from the dead. He was held to possess the power of bestowing immortality on his followers because he had triumphed over Death, and had vanquished the Powers of Darkness. He was the Judge of souls and the supreme lord of the Judgement of the Dead ; he was all-wise, all-knowing, all-just, and his decrees were final and absolute. No man could hope to dwell with him in his kingdom unless he had lived a life of moral excellence upon earth, and the only passports to his favour were truth-speaking, honest intent, and the observance of the commands of the Law (Maat), coupled with charity, almsgiving and humane actions. It is very probable that in the earliest form of the cult of Osiris the fulfilment of the Law was all that the god demanded from his followers, but in later times, and especially under the New Empire, when men had learned to make personal prayers to him, he certainly required from them the strict observance of the spirit as well as the letter of the Law. In the Vignettes of Chap. CXXV of the Book of the Dead we see him sitting in his shrine as supreme Judge, whilst the weighing of the heart of the dead man is carried out under the supervision of Thoth, the great Advocate, in the presence of a jury of gods and goddesses. With him in his shrine-is the goddesss Isis, and her divine sister Nephthys, and her son Horus is leading the truth-speaking deceased to the foot of the steps of the throne of the Great God. Although it was Thoth who spake the words that caused Creation to be, and who secured the acquittal of Osiris at the Great Judgement when Set, the Arch-Liar, was vanquished, yet it is not he who leads the deceased before Osiris, but " Horus, the son of Isis.' Horus reports that Thoth has found the deceased innocent, and recommends that the reward which is usually bestowed on the Follower of Horus be granted to him. It is impossible not to think that Horus, the son of Isis, had some special influence with Osiris, and that he possessed this influence because he was the son of Isis, who is always present in the shrine of Osiris when hearts are being weighed in the Great Balance. There were many goddesses in Egypt, but none save Isis, together with her shadowy dual counterpart, appears with Osiris in his shrine at the Judgement. It is clear that the Egyptians attributed to her powers and qualities which no other goddess possessed, and what some of these were we may learn from the religious texts of all periods.

Nothing is known about the cult of Isis in the early Neolithic Period in Egypt, but when the first king of all Egypt reigned, her position as the chief goddess in the land was generally recognized. During the Archaic Period she was regarded as the female counterpart of Osiris, and her forms, characteristics and powers changed as those of Osiris changed, but towards the close of the Dynastic Period she became the chief deity of all Egypt, and, in late times, her worship wholly eclipsed that of her male counterpart Osiris. Under the Ancient Empire Osiris and Isis and Set and Nephthys were regarded as the deified members of a human family, and Isis was the most powerful of them. Under the Middle Empire the cult of Osiris and Isis at Abydos and in the Delta increased greatly, and they became the ancestor and ancestress of every Egyptian. The spread of their cult was largely caused by the annual performance of the great Miracle Play at Abydos, in which the principal events in the life, death, funeral ceremonies, and resurrection of Osiris were represented. The Play was based on Legends which had been current in Egypt for untold centuries, and in it Isis was shown to be the faithful and loving wife, who brought away her husband's body from the battle-field, and saved it from falling into the hands of Set, the Arch-Enemy of Osiris, and the personification of Evil.Xln all these Legends great magical powers were attributed to her, for Thoth, the heart and intelligence of the God, had taught her the spells, incantations, magical names and words of power which he had employed in making the wishes of this God to take concrete form, and he had also taught her how to use them. By means of them Isis drew seed into herself from Osiris after his death, and conceived Horus, "the son of Isis" mentioned above. By these spells she, assisted by her son Horus and by Anubis, the divine physician, reconstituted and revivified the body of Osiris, and thus she created her son Horus, and recreated Osiris. She became the personification of the great feminine creative power which conceived and brought forth every living creature and thing ; what she brought forth she protected, and fed and nourished. Of the many Legends of Isis that existed there was none that appealed more to the imagination of the Egyptians of all periods than that which described her persecution by Set, and her flight to the Delta to hide from him. Set tried to seize the kingdom of Osiris and take possession of his wife Isis, who was then with child, as the result of her union with Osiris after his death. She escaped with difficulty from the place where he had shut her up and, accompanied by the Seven Scorpion-goddesses, fled to Per-sui near the Papyrus Swamps. She applied for a night's lodging to a rich woman at Teb, who drove her from her door. Tefen, one of the seven goddesses, enraged at this, got under the door, stung a child to death, and set the house on fire. Isis restored the child to life and extinguished the fire. At the invitation of a peasant woman she went to her house and stayed there. Soon afterwards she brought forth Horus on a bed of papyrus-plants in the Swamps, and she hid him carefully, so that Set might not find him. But during her absence in the city of Am, where she had gone to buy food. Set, in the form of a scorpion, found the child and stung him, and when Isis returned she found him lying dead. When her first burst of grief was over she cried out to Ra, the Sun-god, who stopped his Boat and sent Thoth down to earth to help her. Thoth taught her certain words of power and how to use them, and as soon as she uttered them over Horus, the child was restored to life. Thoth ascended into the sky and took his place in the Boat, and the Sun-god resumed his journey. [I quote from the text found on the great Metternich Stele, which was discovered in Alexandria in 1828. Text and translation were published bv Golenischeff, Die Metternichstele, Leipzig, 1877. A handy English rendering will be found in my Legends of the Gods, p. 142 ff.]

Another ancient Legend of Isis described how she obtained the knowledge of the most secret name of Ra, the Sun-god. She made a model of a most deadly viper, endowed it with life and filled it with venom, and set it by the path of Ra in the heavens with instructions to attack the god as he passed by. This the serpent did, and Ra became sick unto death. Then Isis went to him and offered to drive the poison out of him if he would tell her his secret name, the name whereby he maintained his existence in the sky. At first Ra refused, but when he felt that his collapse and death were imminent, he revealed his name to Isis, who recited the words which expelled the poison from the body of the god, and restored him to health and strength.[See my Legends of the Gods, p. 142.] The great Codices of the Book of the Dead written under the XVIIIth dynasty prove that the blood of Isis was believed to possess great magical protective powers, and models of the internal organs of the goddess which produced this blood were buried with the dead to preserve them from harm. The great amulet of Isis, called " Tet," was made of blood-coloured or red stone, or red glass paste, and was worn by the living, and laid on the bodies of the dead ; and on many coffins the right hand of the deceased is seen to be clasping the Tet. The rubric of Chap. CLVI of the Book of the Dead orders that it be steeped in water and placed on the neck of the deceased, and it is probable that this water, which was supposed to possess the same power as the blood of Isis, was used for ceremonial sprinklings of the dead.

Towards the close of the XlXth dynasty the cult of Isis in her character of faithful and loving wife and tender mother increased greatly. One of the best proofs of the growth of this phase of her cult is afforded by the numerous small figures of the goddess that are found in the tombs of this period, and apparently not earlier. Usually the figures are made of bronze, and the goddess is represented seated on a throne, the symbol of her name, and suckling her son Horus, whom she clasps to her left breast. As time went on they were made of different kinds of valuable stones and gilded. A fine example in hard stone is that which was dedicated to Panub, the son of Nekht, who flourished in the reign of Psammetichus I ; see 5th Egyptian Room in the British Museum, No. 23050. Another example (No. 35089) is made of lapis-lazuli, and is a fine piece of work. On the side of the throne is cut the symbol of " life," and on the back is the same symbol with the symbol of " strength " or " power " on each side of it. It is important to note that the throne of Osiris is a funerary-coffer, which contained dead things, but the throne of Isis is the seat of Life. Figures of this kind were dedicated to the goddess by parents who desired offspring. In connection with this may be recalled the fact that the statue of Isis of Philas was solemnly taken by the Blemmyes year by year from Philae to various towns in Nubia in order that the women might make petitions to her for offspring. The Romans in their treaty with the Blemmyes agreed to allow this to be done, and the Blemmyes visited Philae and observed their ancient customs in respect of Isis for at least fifty years after the famous Edict of Theodosius I.[Revillout, Memoire surles Blemmyes, Paris, 1864, p. 45.] What form the figure of Isis, the mother of the god, took at Philae is unknown, but it must have been one that satisfied the eminently realistic folk of the Egyptian Sudan.

The position that Isis occupied among the goddesses of Egypt was unique, for none but she is ever represented as a mother suckling her child, and none of them conceived a son under such circumstances, or reconstituted her husband, or restored her son to life. From the long list of titles which the Egyptians [See Brugsch, Thesaurus, pp. 102, 217-219.] gave her come the following :—Lady of Many Names, Great Lady from Primeval time. Divine Lady, Only One, Greatest of gods and goddesses, Queen of the gods. Prototype of all beings. Queen of goddesses and women, Queen of the Dekan stars, Maker of the sunrise. Lady of heaven. Holy one of heaven, Queen of the earth, Queen of the South and North, The fire-producer, Great goddess of the Other World, Mother of Horus, Mother of the God, Lady of the Birth Chamber, Lady of Life, Bestower of Life, Giver of gifts to gods and spirits. Lady of bread and beer. Lady of abundance, Lady of joy and gladness, Lady of love, Lady of beauty, The Beauty of Thebes, The Majesty of Heliopolis, The Beneficent one in Memphis, Lady of spells, words of power and incantations. Daughter of Keb and Nut (i.e. Heaven and Earth), Daughter of Neb-er-tcher (i.e.God Almighty), Lady of weaving and fulling, She whose son is Lord of the Earth and whose husband is Lord of the Deep, Lady of the Nile-flood, etc. Her spirit caused the star Sept, or Sothis, the Dog-Star, to rise annually to warn the Egyptians of the coming of the Inundation of the Nile, and it was believed that the Nile Flood itself was the result of the tear-drop which Isis let fall into the Nile each summer.

Like Oiiris, Isis had many shrines in Egypt, and she united in her own person the powers, qualities and attributes of all the great goddesses and of all the small local female deities throughout the land. Her names were many and in each great city she had a special name. Thus she was called Userit in Philse, Aait and Menhit in Heliopolis, Menkhit and Renpit in Memphis, Septit in Abydos, Seshetait in Hermopolis, Anit in Denderah. She was the Queen of heaven, the Queen of all the goddesses both in Egypt and the Sudan, the Mother of the god, and the Lady of all women. Most important of all to the Egyptians, Isis was Queen of the Other World, and in the earliest times she shared the rule and authority of Osiris as " Khenti-Amentt," or " President of Amentt," as the Other World was called. Though only Osiris could admit souls into his kingdom, it was Isis who directed all matters connected with the maintenance of the Spirit-bodies who succeeded in reaching that region. She^also presided over the rebirth of the righteous in Amentt, and their existence was bound up in her. As time went on men began to ascribe to her powers greater than those of Osiris, and, thanks to the action of the priests of Memphis in the seventh century b.c, her votaries exalted her to the rank of Lady of all the Gods. And this result came about in this manner. The chief god of Memphis was Ptah, and the chief sacred animal of the city was the Apis Bull, who was believed to be the " renewed life of Ptah." As the attributes of Apis had assumed a funerary character, and as Osiris was called the " Bull of Amentt," the priests fused the two^ gods into one great funerary god whom they called "Asar-Hep," which is the original of the Greek name " Sarapis." Now Ptolemy I Soter was very anxious to build a shrine at Alexandria at which both Egyptians and Greeks could worship their gods of the dead. He wished to find a god who could represent the Egyptian Osiris KhentiAmentt and the Greek Dis, and be the chief god of both Amentt and Hades. Ptolemy found his shrine, but had some difficulty in obtaining a suitable statue for it. Finally a statue of Pluto, a god of Sinope, embarked of its own accord in a ship, and came to Alexandria, and Ptolemy placed it in the Serapeum which he built there. When the Egyptians at Alexandria were told that the statue represented Pluto, or Hades, they were content to call that god Asar-Hep, or Sarapis. But when it became known in the country generally that Osiris was identified with Pluto, his power and influence declined rapidly, for the Death-god could not be a " Giver of Life " nor a god " who made men and women to be born a second time." In the final state of the cult of Osiris and Isis the god was the symbol of Death and the goddess the symbol of Life and the personification of Life in this world and the next.

As soon as the Greeks obtained power over Egypt, the worship of Isis spread among the Islands of the Mediterranean, e.g. Cyprus, Rhodes,"Samos, Chios,Lesbos, Delos, Crete, etc. The bas-reliefs, coins and other antiquities found in Thessaly, Epirus, Megara, Corinth, Argos and other places prove that Isis and Osiris, and their son Horus the child (Harpocrates), and Nephthys and Anubis were worshipped in many Grecian cities some four or five centuries before the Christian Era. In the first century b.c. Isis was regarded as one of the principal goddesses of Rome, and many temples were built in her honour, and orders of priestesses were endowed to perform her " mysteries." From Rome her cult spread to the provinces, and it passed by way of Marseilles to Carthage and the countries of North Africa. The rapidity with which the cult of Isis and Osiris spread proves that it offered to peoples of many climes and tongues a form of worship of God which satisfied their needs. Being of Egyptian origin it was mysterious, as well as ancient, and this added to its natural attraction for foreigners. The ceremonies connected with the worship of Isis impressed all beholders, and the acting of the miracle-play itself roused ideas and beliefs of an unusual character in their minds. The resurrection of Osiris taught them to believe in the resurrection of the dead, the conception and birth of Horus preached the doctrine of life arising out of death, the triumph of Horus over Set symbolized the ultimate victory of good over evil, and the sorrows of Isis and her tender mother-love touched all hearts. The old crude and semi-savage ideas that centred in Isis in early dynastic times were forgotten, and purer, more refined sublimated conceptions of the divine woman, the Queen of heaven, took their place. She became the personification of all that was good in goddesses and in women. The best description of her is perhaps that which she gives of herself to Lucius in the " Golden Ass " of Apuleius of Madaura. In answer to his prayer she says:—" Lo, Lucius, I am come. ... I, nature's mother, mistress of all the elements, the first-begotten of all the ages, of deities mightiest, queen of the dead, first of heaven's denizens, in whose aspect are blent the aspects of all gods and goddesses. With my rod I rule the shining heights of heaven, the health-giving breezes of the sea, the mournful silence of the Underworld. The whole earth worships my godhead, one and individual, under many a changing shape, with varied rites, and by many diverse names. There the Phrygians, firstborn of men, call me the mother of the gods that dwell at Pessinus; there the Athenians, sprung from the soil they till, know me as Cecropian Minerva ; there the wave-beaten Cyprians style me Venus of Paphos ; the archer Cretans, Diana of the hunter's net; the Sicilians, with their threefold speech, Stygian Proserpine ; the Eleusinians, the ancient goddess Ceres. Others call me Juno, others Bellona, others Hecate, others the Rhamnusian, but those on whom shine the first rays of the Sun-god as each day he springs to new birth, the Arii and the Ethiopians, and the Egyptians, mighty in ancient lore, honour me with my peculiar rites, and call me by my true name Isis the Queen."  [Apuleius, Metamorphoses, XI, 5 (Butler's translation).]

It has often been said and written "that the cult of Isis and Horus and the worship of Mary the Virgin and the Child are one and the same thing, but the above summary of facts, which are derived from Egyptian religious texts, has been prepared to show that such is not the case. The original Isis was an African goddess who appeared in human form, and married the god-man Osiris, and conceived a son begotten by him after he had been murdered. Mary was a woman, the daughter of well-known parents, and although the circumstances that attended her conception were so unusual as to be miraculous, she was not divine. Mary became with child of the Holy Ghost, and when she had given birth to the Son of God she remained a virgin. The wanderings of Mary during her flight from Herod's wrath recall the wanderings of Isis, especially as both Isis and Mary raised the dead and worked other miracles. Horus was killed by a scorpion, and was raised up again through the spells of Thoth, but Jesus did not die until He was crucified. Osiris, more than Horus, resembles Jesus in respect of His murder by the Jews. Isis bewailed Osiris [Apuleius, Metamorphoses, XI, 5 (Butler's translation).] in the shrines of Egypt, as Mary bewailed her Son at Golgotha. The seven scorpion-goddesses who attended Isis seem to have their counterpart in the seven maidens who were associated with Mary in weaving the Veil of the Temple. Osiris was raised from the dead by the spells of Isis, which she had learned from Thoth, but Jesus raised Himself from the dead. Again, Osiris had to do battle with the powers of the Underworld in order to maintain his life and position therein ; but Jesus shattered the bolts of the gates of hell, and tore down the doors, and vanquished Death and his six sons and Satan, and extinguished the fiery cauldrons, in order to save Adam and his posterity and take them out of hell. Isis appears in the Judgement Hall of Osiris, presumably as co-judge with Osiris, but Mary only watches the Judgement of the Dead so that she may in certain cases entreat Christ and the Father to show mercy. In one particular Isis and Mary the Virgin have a common fate ; the grave of each is unknown.

From - Legends of the Virgin Mary