by David Rankine & Sorita d’Este
The influence of the Greco-Egyptian goddess Isis spread throughout much of the ancient world. From her roots in pre-dynastic Egypt as a minor deity, her cult quickly grew in importance in the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BCE) to a position as one of the major goddesses, as can be seen by the fact that, “Isis above all is simply ‘the divine one,’ or ‘great of divine-ness’.” (Hornung, 1996:63-4) The Ptolemaic Greeks who ruled Egypt from 305-30 BCE adopted Isis as a major deity and her worship spread into Greek and Roman religions.
Isis was known as the goddess of ten thousand names; she was the mistress of magic, wife of the fertility/underworld god Osiris, mother of the hawk-headed god Horus, and one of the deities who offered wise counsel. As such we would expect there to be possible connections between her and the Wisdom Goddess tradition. In fact, there is a definite connection both to other goddesses and also to wisdom literature. We discussed this in The Cosmic Shekinah, noting that:
“The influence of Isis on Wisdom Goddess literature is primarily from the Greco-Egyptian or Hellenic Isis. The Hellenic Isis’ mythology, roles and functions assimilated not only that of Aset or Isa (the Egyptian names for Isis), but also that of other Egyptian goddesses such as Hathor, Ma’at and Sekhmet.”
The Egyptian goddess of truth, justice and cosmic harmony, Ma’at, was syncretised with Isis to form Isis-Ma’at. This may have been a stage in the development of the view of Isis as the wisdom saviour goddess (Mack, 1970:54):
“By identification with Maat, Isis takes over this function and adds soteirological motifs taken from her role in the myths of Horus and Osiris. The wisdom hymn in Proverbs 8:22, like the similar hymn in Sirach 24, reflects this general cosmic pattern of myth.”
Indeed the aretalogical (first person deity list of attributions in poem or hymn form) pattern seen in the Wisdom of Solomon 6:22-10:21 mirrors earlier Isis aretalogies, as does the later Gnostic text The Thunder, Perfect Mind (Kloppenborg, 1982:59-61). In addition to such aretalogical literature a number of significant writers in the ancient world promoted the view of Isis as multi-powered saviour. These include the Greek geographer Artemidorus of Ephesus (Geography) and the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (Library of History) in the first century BCE, the Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch (On the Worship of Isis and Osiris), the Berber writer and philosopher Apuleius (Metamorphoses, better known as The Golden Ass) and the Egyptian priest Isidorus (Hymns to Isis) in the second century CE.
Of these texts the best known is probably Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, with its inclusive Isis speech where she equates herself to numerous other goddesses including Ceres, Diana, Hekate, Juno, Minerva, Proserpina and Venus. What is particularly interesting about this speech is the list of powers and roles Isis ascribes to herself, which are very similar to those describing the Shekinah in subsequent Jewish writings, viz:
“I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all the Elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of powers divine, Queen of heaven! the principal of the Gods celestial, the light of the goddesses: at my will the planets of the air, the wholesome winds of the Seas, and the silences of hell be disposed; my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in divers manners, in variable customs and in many names”
The role of saviour is something also attributed to Sophia in Gnostic writings and Hekate (as Soteira, meaning ‘saviour’) in the Chaldean Oracles. With all these goddesses, this emphasis on a female saviour which occurred in the ancient world is something which has been largely lost until recent times.
When we explore some of the motifs associated with Isis we find clear parallels to the Shekinah in later centuries. A prime example is the tree of life, which in the case of Isis was her sacred sycamore. The sycamore was also associated with the god Osiris (husband of Isis) as the resting place of his body after his death and dismemberment at the hands of his brother, the chaos god Seth. A later variation of this symbolism can be seen in the human body being mapped onto the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Osiris was also symbolised by the stylised djed pillar, which can be viewed as a prototype for the glyph of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
Another motif which connects Isis, wisdom and the Shekinah is that of the serpent:
“The connection between Isis and the serpent occurs in a number of ways. Isis used a serpent made from his own saliva to poison and trick the creator god Ra into revealing his true name to her and so giving her his power, effectively elevating her to the status of the creator god. Isis was often portrayed with the Uraeus serpent crown at her brow, which represented rulership and power, and also merged with the serpent goddess Renenutet, as well as the serpent goddess Hermouthis to form the serpentine Isis-Hermouthis, who probably influenced the Gnostic goddess Edem.”
The name Isis (or Aset or Isa) means ‘throne’, and this was shown by her distinctive throne headdress, emphasising another possible derivative quality of the Shekinah, who is particularly associated with the throne of God in pseudoepigraphical and Merkavah literature.
One other example of shared motifs is that of the pearl, which was sacred to Isis. Kabbalistic writings equated the Shekinah to the pearl in parables, e.g. in the classic text the Bahir we see,
“A king had a beautiful pearl, and it was the treasure of his kingdom. When he is happy, he embraces it, kisses it, places it on his head, and loves it.”
It is interesting to note the reference to placing the pearl on the head, particularly when we consider the iconography of crown motifs, particularly in Egypt where they were often a prime method of distinguishing different deities.
From the evidence it is clear that Isis was an influence on the Wisdom Goddess tradition and hence the Shekinah, reminding us that the level of cross-fertilization, fusion and syncretisation in the ancient world was a significant factor in the transmission of wisdom.
Apuleius, Lucius & Adlington, William (trans) (1996) The Golden Ass. Ware, Wordsworth
D’Este, Sorita & Rankine, David (2011) The Cosmic Shekinah. London, Avalonia
Goehring, James E. (1981) A Classical Influence on the Gnostic Sophia Myth. In Vigiliae Christianae Vol 35.1:16-23
Hornung, Erik (1996) Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt. The One and the Many. New York, Cornell University Press
Kaplan, Aryeh (1979) The Bahir Illumination. Maine, Weiser
Kloppenborg, John S. (1982) Isis and Sophia in the Book of Wisdom. In Harvard Theological Review Vol. 75.1:57-84
Mack, Burton L. (1970) Wisdom Myth and Mytho-logy. In Interpretation Vol. 24.1:46-60
MacRae, George W. (1970) The Jewish Background of the Gnostic Sophia Myth. In Novum Testamentum Vol 12.2:86-101
Pinch, Geraldine (2002) Egyptian Mythology. Oxford, Oxford University Press
Shaked, Shaul (ed) (2005) Officina Magica. Essays on the Practice of Magic in Antiquity. Leiden, Brill