Isis (Ēse, Wusa)

Category: GodsChthonic Gods

1 Introduction

According to the ancient Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis’ Book of Pictures (written in Greek and surviving in Arabic translation), “in every prayer niche in Egypt”, there were a male and female figure (Book of Pictures, vol. 2, p. 249), that is, a “prayer niche of Osiris and Isis” (ibid., p. 450). Of course, this is not literally true – different people’s house shrines were for different gods, just like different temples housed different cult statues. Still, it is conceptually appropriate, since “Isis is the guardian deity (genius) of Egypt” (Servius, On the Aeneid 8.696), indeed “the mistress of every land” (IG XII,5 14).

An important deity already in the 3rd millennium BCE (the ‘Old Kingdom’ period of Egypt), Isis was unquestionably the most popular goddess in Egypt when the land was under Greek and then Roman rule. There was also longstanding worship of her among neighboring peoples, including the Nubians and Phoenicians, and in the Roman period especially, there were temples and festivals for her and Osiris (or Sarapis) across the entire Mediterranean and beyond. Without a doubt, while retaining a marked Egyptian character, she was among the most important deities in the devotional lives of Greeks and Romans in the Roman imperial period.

Her temple at Philae, in the South of Egypt, was a center of Egyptian and Nubian worship, and also one of the longest-lasting pagan temples. It is the site of the last known inscriptions in the native Egyptian scripts (Hieroglyphs in 394 CE, Demotic in 452 CE), was famed among late pagans throughout the Mediterranean (Proclus wrote a sadly lost hymn to Isis of Philae), and was only closed in 537 CE.

2 The name ‘Isis’

There is a common misconception among contemporary polytheists that the Greek ‘Isis’ is a somehow inauthentic name for the Egyptian goddess, and that she is properly called Aset. This is not far from the exact opposite of the truth. ‘Aset’ is in fact a purely conventional modern pronunciation, which is derived from the consonantal Egyptian spelling ꜣst in the following way:

  • The consonant ⟨ꜣ⟩ – whose exact pronunciation in the earliest periods is debated, but which was eventually pronounced as a glottal stop /ʔ/ (the sound represented by the ⟨-⟩ in ‘uh-oh’) – is treated as if it were the vowel A (which, to be clear, it historically was not).
  • ⟨s⟩ is kept as S.
  • ⟨t⟩ – which was dropped from Egyptian pronunciation long before the name was adopted into Greek – is retained as T.
  • The default vowel E is inserted between the S and T, even though the final syllable was first pronounced /at/, then /a/, and later /ə/ – never /et/.

So, in other words, of the four letters of ‘Aset’, one is arbitrarily inserted (E), one represents a completely different sound (A), one was silent for a large part of the Egyptian language’s history (T), and only one is unassailably correct (S).

The actual pronunciation represented by the consonantal spelling ꜣst was something like ˀŪsat, which is preserved relatively well in the Meroitic form 𐦥𐦣𐦯 Wusa (more on which below).

In Egyptian itself, however, some drastic sound changes transformed the word significantly. Not only was the final t dropped (as also evidenced in Meroitic), but the long vowel ū became ē, and the final short a was reduced to an ə. So, the name was now ˀĒsə. This is attested in Phoenician and Aramaic consonantal spelling as ˀsy, and later in Coptic alphabetic spelling as Ⲏⲥⲉ Ēse or Ⲏⲥⲓ Ēsi (in Sahidic and Bohairic orthography, respectively).

In Greek, this pronunciation was only slightly fronted, from ˀĒsə to Īsi (there was no sound /ʔ/ in Greek), and the final vowel adapted into a Greek ending, –is; hence Īsis (spelled Ἶσις, later also Εἶσις). Latin, as with other Egyptian gods’ names, borrowed this form from Greek without change, and it is from the Latin Īsis that modern English ‘Isis’ derives.

Also from the Greek derive the Arabic forms in the translation of Zosimus: ˀAsīs (اسيس ˀsys) and ˀAsīdā (اسيدا ˀsydˀ). The latter is not from the Greek nominative but the oblique forms (gen. Ī́sidos, dat. Ī́sidi).

3 (Not) translating Isis

[Meroitic/Nubian (Priscus); Lady of Byblos; Herodotus; Diodorus?]

[Zosimus: Corpus Alchemicum Arabicum, p. 290, 356ff (Prophetissa), 462;
Hymns/aretalogy (Apuleius);

P.Oxy. 1380