Many of you may not know that for about fifty years a goddess used to travel round the schools of Derbyshire. This particular goddess is a small bronze statue from Egypt, and who forms part of the Derbyshire School Loans service – she used to be sent out as a teaching resource to schools and has now been transferred to the permanent collections at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. She is currently on display along with some other goddesses from around the world in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery. Sadly we are closed at the moment because of the Coronavirus outbreak, but once we are open please come and support us, and take a look at this ancient and powerful lady.
The statue that we have depicts the goddess seated on a throne and holding her infant son, Horus, on her lap. She dates to the Late Period of Egyptian history (664 – 332 BC); this was a period which saw the reunification of Egypt after foreign rule, and several wars for independence. Sadly this independence didn’t last long as a hundred years later the Persians invaded; it was only until Alexander the Great liberated the country that Egypt once again went through a Golden Age, this time under the rule of the Greek Ptolemaic kings.
Isis is an ancient goddess, and she played a central role to the lives of the Egyptians, and later across the Roman Empire, as a loving, protective mother. She first appears in the Pyramid Texts, the oldest known corpus of ancient Egyptian religious texts dating to the Old Kingdom (2400 BC). It is here that the tales surrounding her were first formulated. The story was adapted over time but briefly it consists of the following.
Isis and her brother Osiris ruled the earth, being given the power to do so by their grandfather Ra, the sun-god. They introduced farming and crops to Egypt and taught the people the ways of civilisation and laws. Their brother Seth however, was jealous and in a plot murdered Osiris, cutting his body into pieces and scattering it across Egypt. Isis and her sister, Nepthys, gathered up the remains and mummified them. Isis then transformed herself into a bird, and through the action of her wings blew life into the dead god. Osiris was rejuvenated and Isis coupled with him to produce their heir, the god Horus. Osiris would then go to the realm of the dead, where he would be the ruler of the underworld.
Isis hid in the delta marshes with her child and protected him with great magic to keep him away from his jealous uncle. When Horus was old enough he challenged his uncle to a battle for the throne of Egypt, and after a lengthy fight he defeated Seth to become the next divine ruler of Egypt.
At its core the story is one of order and truth overcoming the powers of chaos, but also the protective power of the goddess toward her husband and son, as well as the whole of humanity.
Isis was appealed to for healing, the safe delivery of children, as the overseer of divine order, the protector of the throne, as well as being considered powerful in magic and the guardian of the dead, among many others roles.
During the time of the Greek Ptolemaic rule of Egypt her worship underwent a change with it becoming a Mystery religion; this is most likely due to the influence of the Mysteries of Eleusis near Athens, which was one of the most ancient and popular of the Mystery Cults; others included the Great Mother Cybele, Dionysus, the Orphic Mysteries, and later Mithras who was a favourite of the Roman soldiers. Central to these cults was the belief in salvation and life after death, the revealing of sacred secrets and initiation ceremonies, and a religious society who supported their members.
As Romans began to trade with Egypt they came into contact with the goddess and her worship began to appeal to them. Temples were built and the Mysteries developed further. Temples were set up across the Empire with the largest being in Rome at the Camps Martius near the Pantheon. The best preserved temple is that at Pompeii which preserves the beautiful wall paintings narrating the legends of the goddess.
There is evidence for the worship of the goddess in Roman Britain too; a flagon dating to the 2nd century AD, and destined for a tavern in London reads ‘Londini ad fanum Isidis’, meaning ‘London, next to the temple of Isis’. York also had a large temple complex dedicated to the goddess and her consort Osiris-Serapis, and this temple seems to have been built for use by the Emperor Septimius Severus, a well-known devotee of the goddess who visited Britain and was based at York from 208 to 211 AD.
A novel was also written about the goddess in the 2nd century AD, known as The Metamorphosis of Lucius Apuleius, or more commonly ‘The Golden Ass’. This is a tale of witchcraft and magic where the main character is turned into a donkey by a witch. After many adventures Lucius wakes up to a vision of the goddess rising from the sea. She promises him that he will be turned back to human shape by seeking out her priest, and that after he must become initiated into the cult where he will receive salvation and the promise of a blessed afterlife.
It was not until the 6th century AD that the worship of Isis finally ended when the Christian Emperor Justinian ordered the closing of her most holy shrine on the Island of Philae in Egypt.
When Buxton Museum and Art Gallery reopens in the near future the goddess would love for you to come and see her.