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The cult of Isis

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Of all the cults of Ancient Egypt, none endured longer or spread further than the worship of the goddess Isis. As the consort of Osiris, she civilized the world by instituting marriage and teaching women the domestic arts. As an enchantress, she collected the dismembered fragments of Osiris’s body and briefly revived him to conceive a son, Horus, using her magic to help him defeat the evil Seth and restore the divine order. As pharaohs identified themselves with Horus, the living king, so Isis was their divine mother – a role which inevitably associated her with Hathor, the two goddesses being conflated in the Late Period. By this time Isis was the Great Mother of All Gods and Nature, Goddess of Ten Thousand Names, of women, purity and sexuality.

By a process of identification with other goddesses around the Mediterranean, Isis-worship eventually spread throughout the Roman empire (the westernmost Iseum or cult temple extant is in Hungary). The nurturing, forgiving, loving Isis was Christianity’s chief rival between the third and fifth centuries. Many scholars believe that the cult of the Virgin Mary was Christianity’s attempt to wean converts away from Isis; early Coptic art identifies one with the other, Horus with Jesus, and the Christian cross with the pharaonic ankh.

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