Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Preparing for Egypt, Part Five (Temple of Isis at Philae)

I've been thinking about the goddess Isis for several days now, because another stop we'll be making in Egypt is to the island of Philae to see the Temple of Isis. This temple is interesting because it is one of the later temples in Egypt, built during the reign of the Ptolemies (ie, after Alexander the Great had conquered--or rescued, in the eyes of many Eygptians of the time--that great land.) The temple remained active even after the Romans conquered Egypt and the last dynasty of Pharoahs ended, because Isis was such a beloved goddess--so she was given a new Roman consort, Serapis, instead of Osiris, and later the Isis mysteries were conflated with the Eleusian mystery schools and worshiped by the Greeks as well. To greatly oversimplify matters, I'll just say that Isis wound up representing to many the Great Mother goddess, a protector, nurturer, and healer. The Temple at Philae was the last pagan Egyptian temple as such until the Roman Emperor Justinian I shut it down in 540 CE (he ruled from 527-565 CE) and converted the Temple to a Church of the Virgin Mary. There are still crosses and a Christian altar there. You would not be wrong to see parallels between the adulation of Mary to the worship of Isis. Both were mothers to gods and were/are often depicted with baby upon knee, suckling at the mother's breast.

Later, in the 7th century, when Egypt became largely Muslim, the Church of Mary was also shut down and now it simply stands as an ancient monument and tourist attraction.

The Egyptian story of Isis isn't quite consistent: she was sister to Osiris and his wife (establishing the long-entrenched matriarchal practice of marrying within a royal family to a royal female in order to be king or Pharoah, though the practice did not normally extend to everyday folk). Osiris' evil brother, Set, jealous of Osiris, concocted a plan to trap and kill Osiris, but Isis rescues Osiris. Set, displeased, then dismembers Osiris into fourteen pieces and scatters him all across the country of Egypt. Isis sets out on a journey to find each of the pieces of Osiris and put him back together so he can be properly buried. In one version, she is unable to recover his penis because it had been swallowed by a fish, and so she fashions an artificial one for him. She then impregnates herself with Osiris' penis and the fruit of this union is the falcon god Horus. So in Egyptian mythology, the dead Osiris is the god of the underworld, and the living king is the incarnation of the god Horus. In other versions of the story, Horus is already born before Osiris is dismembered.

Regardless, the myth describes a loving wife and mother with great powers of healing, and other myths (most notably the Roman Lucius Apuleius' The Golden Ass) attribute to her divine powers of transformation--she turns him from donkey back into human. Many pagans continue to worship Isis even to this day, adoring her as The Great Mother. And heck, I can remember as a child a tv show that came on Saturday mornings, alternating stories of Shazam and Isis. Of course, this television version of Isis presented her as a sort of female Superman, flying around and fighting crime, but even then she made an impression on me as the empowered feminine. (Then again, so did The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman. Hey, you take what role models you can.)

"Oh Mighty Isis!"

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