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Chapter 41. Isis
THE ORIGINAL meaning of the goddess Isis is still more difficult to determine than that
of her brother and husband Osiris. Her attributes and epithets were so numerous that in
the hieroglyphics she is called the many-named, the thousand-named, and in Greek
inscriptions the myriad-named. Yet in her complex nature it is perhaps still possible to
detect the original nucleus round which by a slow process of accretion the other elements
gathered. For if her brother and husband Osiris was in one of his aspects the corn-god, as
we have seen reason to believe, she must surely have been the corn-goddess. There are at
least some grounds for thinking so. For if we may trust Diodorus Siculus, whose
authority appears to have been the Egyptian historian Manetho, the discovery of wheat
and barley was attributed to Isis, and at her festivals stalks of these grains were carried in
procession to commemorate the boon she had conferred on men. A further detail is added
by Augustine. He says that Isis made the discovery of barley at the moment when she
was sacrificing to the common ancestors of her husband and herself, all of whom had
been kings, and that she showed the newly discovered ears of barley to Osiris and his
councillor Thoth or Mercury, as Roman writers called him. That is why, adds Augustine,
they identify Isis with Ceres. Further, at harvest-time, when the Egyptian reapers had cut
the first stalks, they laid them down and beat their breasts, wailing and calling upon Isis.
The custom has been already explained as a lamen for the corn-spirit slain under the
sickle. Amongst the epithets by which Isis is designated in the inscriptions are Creatress
of green things, Green goddess, whose green colour is like unto the greenness of the
earth, Lady of Bread, Lady of Beer, Lady of Abundance. According to Brugsch she is not
only the creatress of the fresh verdure of vegetation which covers the earth, but is actually
the green corn-field itself, which is personified as a goddess. This is confirmed by her
epithet Sochit or Sochet, meaning a corn-field, a sense which the word still retains in
Coptic. The Greeks conceived of Isis as a corn-goddess, for they identified her with
Demeter. In a Greek epigram she is described as she who has given birth to the fruits of
the earth, and the mother of the ears of corn; and in a hymn composed in her honour she
speaks of herself as queen of the wheat-field, and is described as charged with the care of
the fruitful furrow's wheat-rich path. Accordingly, Greek or Roman artists often
represented her with ears of corn on her head or in her hand.
Such, we may suppose, was Isis in the olden time, a rustic Corn-Mother adored with
uncouth rites by Egyptian swains. But the homely features of the clownish goddess could
hardly be traced in the refined, the saintly form which, spiritualised by ages of religious
evolution, she presented to her worshippers of after days as the true wife, the tender
mother, the beneficent queen of nature, encircled with the nimbus of moral purity, of
immemorial and mysterious sanctity. Thus chastened and transfigured she won many
hearts far beyond the boundaries of her native land. In that welter of religions which
accompanied the decline of national life in antiquity her worship was one of the most
popular at Rome and throughout the empire. Some of the Roman emperors themselves
were openly addicted to it. And however the religion of Isis may, like any other, have
been often worn as a cloak by men and women of loose life, her rites appear on the whole
to have been honourably distinguished by a dignity and composure, a solemnity and