Isis: Goddess of Funeral Rites and Healing in Ancient Egypt

By: Mitch Ryan  | 
The ancient Egyptian goddess Isis was a regal figure who was worshipped in matters of healing and the afterlife. Slashio photography / Shutterstock

Isis, goddess of healing and funeral rites, was one of the most important Egyptian deities and arguably one of the most prominent female deities in the ancient world.

Isis was a magical healer who could resurrect dead gods and mortals alike. She was also the divine mother of her young son Horus, a powerful ancient Egyptian god who ruled over the sun and sky. Her young son Horus is often compared to the Christian Jesus since many of their life events run parallel.


Because she conceived her child through magic, Isis is considered an early member of the virgin goddess archetype. However, Isis differs from the traditional immaculate conception Virgin Mary story from Christianity since she pieced her dead husband together like Frankenstein to do the deed.

A Brief History of Religion in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian culture found roots in the fertile Nile Delta in the northeastern corner of Africa. Along the banks of this winding river, the ancient Egyptians built one of the most dominant empires in human history, brimming with architectural wonder, advanced science and technologies and wide-ranging trade.

Ancient Egyptian mythology evolved tremendously during dynastic periods that lasted nearly 3,000 years, beginning with dynastic rule and the civilization's unification until its inevitable decline under Ptolemy that ended with the dramatic death of Cleopatra.


Even in these waning years of the fourth century B.C.E., Ptolemaic Egypt was a hyper-religious society that clung to their gods and engaged in traditions and rituals to keep the memories of their civilization's former glory alive.

'Isis' Is the Ancient Egyptian Word for 'Throne'

The long history of Ancient Egypt is broken up into dynastic eras, beginning with Narmer's ascension to the throne following the unification of lower and upper Egypt. During these budding centuries of the Old Kingdom, Isis was a minor deity that lived in the background of male gods.

As the dynastic age progressed into the middle kingdom era, rulers began associating Isis as a strong, beautiful woman who influenced dynastic succession and legitimated Egyptian kingship for the masses. Then, the virgin goddess became so closely associated with royalty that either the hieroglyphic sign or her spoken name meant "throne."


Evolution of the Egyptian Goddess During the Roman Empire

Egyptian culture was unique, but it often would undergo slight rebrandings as outside influences rose to power in the Mediterranean. Egyptian gods often traveled along trade routes and developed Greco-Roman iterations to the north or Persian influences in Asia Minor.

The Cult of Isis was an ideological and theological export that many locals adopted in far-off lands. As the cult spread, her iconography would take on Greek form and dress in other parts of the world until Alexander the Great's arrival altered her look into a cosmopolitan Hellenized form.


Isis reached peak international fame in the pre-imperial era of the Roman world before declining into relative obscurity in the first and second centuries C.E. with the spread of Christianity.

What Was the Cult of Isis?

Like ancient Greek gods and various important goddesses in other polytheistic belief systems, the Isis cult had its own dedicated temples where it worshipped its patron deity. Specialized funerary rites connected believers with Isis's ability to look after the dead.

Even though cult followers would worship Isis above all other Egyptian deities, they still would likely pay homage to other deities for their varied attributes and focuses. For instance, worshippers would pray to Osiris for the annual flooding of the Nile, which was essential to replenish the soil and irrigate farmland.


Depictions of the Goddess Isis in Art

Isis first appears in Old Kingdom texts, also known as the Pyramid Texts, as a beautiful woman wearing cow horns framing a sacred sun disk. This iconography is illustrated in small statuettes showing Isis nursing Horus. Many of these artworks are housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

The Louvre Museum in Paris also has several pieces of Cleopatra VII depicted as Isis wearing a sheath dress and an elaborate headdress. The symbolism of the solar disk and other divine implements was meant to portray the famous queen as a direct descendant of the gods.


Other Gods in the Ancient Egyptian Pantheon

Just like any story worth reading, the Egyptian religion required a diverse cast of complex characters for their ancient texts to catch fire and reach a wide audience. Isis was a star in the show, but other Egyptian gods helped to fill out the plot and provide depth to legends.


The God Osiris was a central figure in ancient Egyptian religion. It is fitting that the principal deity of death and resurrection became the poster child of the Egyptian belief that all who entered the underworld may find peace in death or a second chance at life.



Isis' son, Horus, was the falcon-headed lord of the sun and moon. He was the principal deity of lower Egypt and was victorious against the god Seth of upper Egypt, aligning with the real-world unification of the old kingdom. Horus' eye, or Wedjat, was a sign of protection and the most universally recognized Egyptian symbol.


Isis' mother, the sky goddess Nut, was originally the patron deity of the night sky and was often depicted as a nude woman or lightly clothed in stars. She is one of the oldest Egyptian deities and eventually became an obscure goddess compared to her divine children, including Osiris and Set.


Thoth was the ibis-headed god of wisdom and writing. Similar to the howler monkey god of ancient Maya theology, this deity is also depicted as an intellectual baboon. Thoth possessed knowledge of the universe not shared with other gods and was tasked with weighing the hearts of the dead.