Isis

CULTURE:
Egyptian
DATE:
New Kingdom (1550–1085.BCE)
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General Description

As the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus, Isis was the most popular Egyptian goddess. She was widely regarded throughout antiquity as the personification of the ideal wife and protective mother. Here she wears a tripartite wig with a uraeus surmounted by a modius (a supporting element of a complex headdress) that probably bore either a throne or the attribute of her son Horus, cow horns cradling a solar disk, such as on the DMA figurine Isis and Horus (1997.114). She wears a broad collar but is otherwise unadorned in this fragment. Her female form is emphasized by a clinging garment with breasts bared. With one hand she cups her left breast, while the other hand probably would have prepared to draw the infant Horus to it. The rectangular form that extends midway up the goddesses's back was likely the top part of a throne, to recall her close association with the royal succession of the king. Isis is the Greek form of her name; in ancient Egyptian, she was called Ist, meaning "seat." Known as the "goddess of many names," she was thought to be a great magician, capable of controlling others through her magical knowledge of their names.

After Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth, Isis helped to revive his dead body. In the cult of Osiris, the god became King of the Afterworld, while their son Horus was identified with the Egyptian Pharaoh. These associations of Isis, as the goddess of life and rebirth, led to the great popularity of the cult of Isis during the Greek and Roman periods. It is also possible that figures like this one influenced early Christian imagery of the Madonna and Child. The form of Horus called Harpokrates ("Horus-the-child") was especially popular in Late Period and Greco-Roman Egypt, where he was believed to avert evil. Divine mother and nursing infant statuettes are representative of the ex-voto type Isis Lactans, whose archetype can be traced to the Eighth Dynasty or before.

Drawn from

  • Alan M. May, "Isis Nursing the Infant Horus" in Searching for Ancient Egypt: Art, Architecture, and Artifacts from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, David P. Silverman, ed., (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), cat. 4, 52.

  • David B. Elliott, "Isis Nursing Horus" in Searching for Ancient Egypt: Art, Architecture, and Artifacts from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, David P. Silverman, ed., (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), cat. 15, 71.

  • Anne Bromberg, DMA unpublished material [1997.114], May 1997.

Web Resources

Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Compare the DMA fragment to this similar and complete version of Isis nursing Horus.