The Isis Cult—The Story of The Egyptian Goddess

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

Out of so many mystery cults of Rome, one of the most popular was devoted to the Egyptian goddess Isis. Named after her, it was called the Isis cult. Who was Isis? What was her cult about?

Image shows a statue of the goddess Isis.
A statue of the goddess Isis in an Isis temple. Isis was the deity of love, life, resurrection, and transformation. (Image: Catmando/Shutterstock)

Ancient secret societies make for an intriguing study. But the Great Mysteries of the year 391 would be the last after enduring for 2,000 years. Their members included the likes of Plato, Socrates, Cicero, and Plutarch.

Just four years later ravaging Visigoths ransacked the Eleusinian Mystery and burned it, leaving it in the rubble. But it did not cease to exist because the priests of the cult thought that there was only transformation and that death was not there. So the question remains. Do the secret societies die or do they simply transform to something else? For Masonic scholar Albert Pike, the mysteries represented a pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. He said in the late 1800s that Freemasonry looked exactly like ancient mysteries but added that it reflected only an imperfect image of their brilliance. He further added that the nations where these mysteries had been introduced had modified them by their habits.

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About the Isis Cult

Isis was a deity who grieved and looked to bring her dead loved ones back. She wanted to bring back her dead husband Osiris who was the god of the underworld and regeneration. His brother, Set, who was the god of violence and destruction, murdered him with the help of his 72 associates. The number 72 is significant because it comes up in a lot of places. For example, 72 hidden masters who are supposed to be ruling the world and 72 letters that occur in the Hebrew name of God.

Isis gave birth to the son of Osiris named Horus, who was a holy child and somehow was Osiris himself. It is not difficult to identify Isis in the Isis cult. Her image comes out of every image of another grieving goddess—the Virgin Mary. Their pictures are virtually identical. Virgin Mary holding Jesus and Isis holding Horus look-alike. Similarly, Mary mourning the body of Jesus and Isis mourning the body of Horus look almost identical. Furthermore, Isis standing on her solar boat and Mary standing on a crescent look similar. 

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The Navigium Isidis Festival of the Isis Cult

Statue of the goddess Isis in a Roman dress.
A Roman statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis from the 2nd century A.D. (Image: Andreas Praefcke/Public domain)

Navigium Isidis meaning Voyage of Isis was the main festival of the Isis cult. It was held in the month of March. A procession was taken out from the temple to the harbor. Images of the goddess and other sacred objects were placed on beautifully decorated carts, just like Catholic saints’ day processions. People of the Isis cult dressed very well, usually in the guise of mythological characters. They indulged in full revelry with dance and music. It was like the Mardi Gras festival, minus bare breasts and strands of beads.

A model of Isis’s holy boat was kept at the harbor and all the offerings were piled on that. For luck, an egg was broken on the hull. The boat was then set loose and moved away carrying all the offerings and prayers. The public procession during that festival in the Isis cult resembles the Christian pilgrimages like those of Spain’s Camino de Santiago. It also bore similarities to the sacred ways of the Eleusinian cult. There are many more similarities between the practices of the Isis cult and Christian practices. Just like Christians, rituals of the Isis cult included baptism, confession, and the forgiveness of sins. There was even a sacred meal. An obvious question arises here—did the Christian church abolish Isis’s worship or just absorb it? However, she was never forgotten. The 1791 opera, The Magic Flute by Freemason Amadeus Mozart has references to her and her mysteries.

There were also many dissimilarities between Isis and Mary. Isis had control over stars and planets and their influence over astrology, whether it was good or bad. She was also in charge of fate. An initiate, after getting a favor from her, could change destiny and get salvation. Although in the Isis cult, theoretically speaking, her mysteries were open to everyone, it is believed she was the one who chose her followers. She met them in their dreams and, once chosen, no one could refuse her invitation. Most of the knowledge about the Isisian mysteries have come from a novel. This novel was written in the late 2nd century by Lucius Apuleius and is named Metamorphosis. Interestingly, Apuleius was an initiate of the Isis cult. Therefore, he never gave complete information about the rituals while describing them.

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Claims Made by Apuleius

Wall painting showing a water ritual being performed in the temple of the goddess Isis.
This is a wall painting from Herculaneum depicting priests performing a water ritual with devotees lining the steps of the temple of the goddess Isis. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Initiates transformed spiritually through rituals like baptism. Apuleius was sure he had not just heard about the gods but had seen them and talked to them. He was even shown an afterlife. He returned from the brink of death. Apuleius claimed he had seen sun blazing with white light at midnight. These became the common threads between the future secret societies. The sun blazing at midnight was like Eleusinians’ use of awe-inspiring fire. Of course, this could be a reference to some UFO,  just like some people say that the Rites of Isis go back to Atlantis. Some people also say that Metamorphosis is just a satire and that it should not be taken too seriously. But the bottom line is that the rituals of the Isis cult were supposed to build a new state of mind which is illumination.

The origin of the Isis Mysteries cannot be traced to Egypt although they have all the paraphernalia of Egypt. The Greek historian Herodotus talked about the reenactment of the murder of Osiris in his writing in the 5th century B.C. But it resembled Freemasonry more than the Isis cult. And in ancient Egypt, all rituals were performed by the priests and ordinary initiates could only watch them. They were not allowed to participate. So the roots of the Isis Mysteries are still unclear.

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Common Questions About the Isis Cult

Q: What was Isis the goddess of ?

She was the goddess of life and magic. Isis had the power to heal the sick and protect women and children.

Q: What did the rule of Isis encompass?

The authority of Isis expanded over the sky, earth, and Duat.

Q: Are Isis and Hathor the same person?

Although Isis and Hathor both personified motherhood and family ties, they were not the same. While Isis was the deity of love, life, resurrection, and transformation, Hathor was the deity of dance and arts.

Q: What were the powers of Isis?

Isis had magical powers. She not only revived her husband Osiris from death, but she healed her son Horus also.

Keep Reading
Issues in the Study of Ancient Egypt
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Osiris, Seth, Horus, and the Divine Origins of Egyptian Kingship