Isis and the serpents share a long history. In the beginning, the word for "deity" was composed of the god or goddess's name and the small image of a snake, most likely a cobra. There is some speculation that the pharaohs of Egypt were ritually sacrificed at the end of their term, and that the Sed festival, or jubilee, was originally the moment of truth for the pharaoh, who would celebrate his reign and then accept the bite of a poisonous asp.
While direct evidence for this practice is scanty now, it is interesting that Cleopatra chose this method to end her own life when she believed that it was futile for her to attempt to continue her rule of Egypt. Cleopatra, no matter how we interpret her in modern times, was a rarity among the Ptolemaic rulers. She studied ancient Egyptian and was proud to be a priestess of Isis. There is some evidence that the priesthood of Isis made a bargain with Julius Caesar to support her claim to the throne of Egypt. Did she know something we don't about the practice of ritual royal suicide in previous times?
In myth, we have an echo of this practice in the story of Isis and Ra. In this story, Ra is old, so decrepit that as he goes on his daily travels, his spittle dribbles onto the ground. The needs of humankind are neglected; the universe itself is fraying a bit due to the inability of the solar power to maintain order.
Isis, a magician, a wise woman, is distressed by this state of affairs. She looks at the neglected fields, scorched by accident by Ra. She looks at the dried bed of the Nile, evaporated by Ra in a frenzy of heat. She looks at the parched, sunburned skin of the human people of earth, the dried-up breasts of mothers whose babes cried unsatisfied, at the dehydrated animals, dying in their tracks as they quested for water. She looks at the rainclouds far away whose moisture would not even reach the ground before it was burned away by Ra's mad power. With one word, he can set all right again. But he will not speak the world. His bones are old, he likes the heat. His eyes are growing dim, and he needs his own great blaze of light to let him see. He will not speak the word.
Isis, a magician, a wise woman, a daughter of Ra, conceives a desperate plan. She knows the art of image magic, and can create life out of inanimate objects. But for the supremely immune Ra to be affected by her arts, the image must have something of him in it. One day, Isis follows after Ra and gathers the earth that he has moistened with himself. She fashions from it an image of a small snake, the very toxic dart, and brings it to life.
Isis lays the snake in his accustomed path, with the instruction to bite Ra as he passes. This he does, and the snake springs up and clamps its fangs into the divine flesh. Ra, surprised, makes his way back to his abode, where a tremendous fever takes him. He shudders in his limbs, he cannot believe the virulent poison can be harming him, Lord of the Gods. His own fire should be sufficient to burn away any other, but it is not. He has control over all the things of the universe, but not this one. Too delirious to even begin to find out why this creature's poison can harm him, he welcomes Isis, who rushes in, to apparently comfort him.
"Oh, my father, what is it? What causes you so much pain?"
"I wandered today and was bitten -bitten by a snake!"
"But father, how can the venom of a mere snake harm you, who rules all beasts?"
"Daughter, I do not know ---AHHH! The pain! It burns me! I burn from within like fire! Heal me!"
Isis goes through the motions of healing him, but it is useless, as she well knows.
"Father, I cannot heal you. The power of the poison is too strong!"
"What am I to do! What am I to do! I cannot bear it!"
"There is one thing that might work, father. Give me your name. In your name I may be able to command the fire to cease."
"Unnnnngh....I am the Lord of Light, the Power of Fire...."
"Yes, yes, everybody knows those. Those aren't working. Give me your name, your one true name."
"AAHAHHAGH! No....not my true name -...not even to you, my daughter....AHHAHGH!"
"Give me your name, father! Your one true name, your one secret name, the name before all other names, give it to me that I may save you!"
"Ahhhhh......aaaaa....all right......my daughter.....come close......AHHH....."
Isis leans her ear to her father's mouth. He speaks syllables to her. She straightens up in disgust.
"Father, if you do not give me your true name, you will die of this burning. Don't play games with me, Isis of the Words of Power. I'll know the true name when I hear it. That's not it."
"AHHHHHHGHHGHHGHG! I will tell it! I will tell it!"
Isis leans in. She hears the mystical syllables, and this time, she rises up, satisfied.
"What are you waiting for! Now heal me, daughter! Heal me!"
Isis speaks the words, the syllables of Ra's one true name. The poison flees his limbs, the sweat dries on his brow, he lies back in relief, free.
"Now, daughter, speak the words back to me, give me back my one true name, my one secret name."
"Father, one day I may need to heal you again. If you have lost all consciousness, how could you tell it to me then? No, I will keep this word."
And Isis left her father's bedside. She went and stood alone in the sunlight. She looks at the neglected fields, scorched by accident by Ra. She looks at the dried bed of the Nile, evaporated by Ra in a frenzy of heat. She looks at the parched, sunburned skin of the human people of earth, the dried-up breasts of mothers whose babes cried unsatisfied, at the dehydrated animals, dying in their tracks as they quested for water. She looks at the rainclouds far away whose moisture would not even reach the ground before it was burned away by Ra's mad power.
Isis says the Word, and the Word is good.
So Isis has been associated with snakes from apparently the very beginning of her career as a goddess. In Egypt, her images often include the snake, especially the cobra. The cobra is often depicted on the base of the crown of Isis. The sacred uraeus, which, when worn by queens, indicates their identification with the divine, is a near- constant companion. In images from the Graeco-Roman era, priestesses are depicted carrying serpents in procession. Serpents entwine around surviving altars, or rise up around the body of Osiris.
Even in ancient Egypt, the symbol of the snake indicates power, sometimes referred to as the "flame". Many of the representations of snakes in conjunction with Isis are symbols of what we sometimes call "Kundalini" - the serpent line band of energy that connects our power centers together.
One of the most important forms of Isis as snake goddess is that of Thermouthis, the serpent goddess of the fields, often represented as a cobra crowned with the headdress of Isis.
Isis is the Throne goddess, wearing the seat of power as her symbol. The other throne-related symbol is that of the Wadjet, which refers to the goddess of that name and to the flaming serpent protecting the throne. It's natural that Isis would also be associated with the protective force of the throne.
In the Pyramid Texts, the creator-god Geb, god of earth, gave the cobra as a symbol of legitimacy to the king. When Isis is raising Horus at Khemmis in the Delta, Wadjet is said to be his nurse. Wadjet also had a leonine form, as did Isis. The name "Uraeus, which of course is a Greek version of the Egyptian, derives from the term "yaret" which refers to the cobra as it rises up in anger, preparing to spit flames to defend the Pharoah. This defense can also be offensive - the cobra worn on the forehead of the king acts as a kind of spiritual flamethrower during times of war.
Even Ra wears the Uraeus, which wraps around his soalr disk. Wadjet also defends Ra, destroying evil serpents in the underworld. The power of the Uraeus endured even in the Amarna period, still clinging to the abstract solar disk favored by Akhenaten. Even he could not safely dispatch the sacred snake.
Some Snake Names
Isis and Nepthys: Aar-ti, or Arar-ti, the two Uraei-goddesses
Ahkuti - The two snake goddesses (probably Isis and Nepthys)
Isis alone -
Ast A uraeus in the boat of Af
By far the most potent snake form of Isis is when she is known as Isis-Thermouthis or Isis-Renenutet. This cobra- goddess form is a guardian of the Pharaoh and also a guardian of the granaries and fields. Renenutet is often depicted as a woman with a cobra's head. Renenutet is also considered to be part of the flame that protects the Pharoah, combining with Wadjet to accomplish this task. Her gaze is said to vanquish all enemies, clearly an observation based on the habits of the physical cobra, who seems to hypnotize its prey. However, this same intent emanation from her eyes causes things to grow. She is believed to be part of the force encouraging the child in the womb to enter this world. She, like Isis, is a fate goddess, associated with the span of life and the fortune that comes with each life.
Renenutet was mated with Sobek, one of Isis's alternative husbands, and she is shown as a nursing mother, occasionally with a crocodile as the baby. Ouch!
The Greeks called Isis combined with Renutet "Isermouthis".
In the Hymns of Isidorus, Isis is praised as Isis-Thermouthis.
"Hail, Agathetyche, greatly renowned Isis, mightiest Hermouthis, in you every city rejoices;
O Discoverer of Life and Cereal food wherein all mortals delight because of your blessing(s)..."
Another hymn asks:
"Who built this holy temple to greatest Hermouthis?
What god remembered the All-Holy One of the Immortals?
He marked out the sacred shrine as a high Olympos.
For Deo highest, Isis Thesmophorus..."
In fact, prior to her conjoining with Thermouthis, Isis was not often regarded as a cereal goddess, a goddess of grain. This identification was crucial to her later identification with Demeter, and her rite of the Thesmophoria.
The most prevalent snake form of Isis, however, appears when she is depicted with Sarapis. Both of them frequently have coiled lower bodies very reminiscent of the Chinese goddess Nu Kua and her consort, and this can be seen as a metaphor for the energy exchanged in sexual intercourse. The lower bodies are united; the upper bodies are free to ascend in the air, paired but still individual.
In the Mensa Isiaca, an altar top made in Alexandria, Isis sits throned, surrouned by serpents with crowns.
Quotes of Note -
Of course, serpents are often given phallic meanings, often to the obscurance of their other interpretations. It is interesting, however, that of the two objects that Isis is commonly associated with making out of clay, one is a phallus, and one is a serpent. In one perspective, the drooling, staggering, impotent godform of Ra is brought back into harmony with the universe through the intervention of the serpent that bites him. Though it is not at all clear in the myth if Isis completely heals Ra -though she might, once she has the word - is possible that here, too, she has in essence replaced his phallus by the snake and re-potentized him. She has gone into his body and searched out the word, as one source puts it, reversing the usual order of things.
"So far as I can make out the serpent-symbol has not a direct phallic reference, nor is its attribute of wisdom the most essential. The idea most intimately associated with these animal was that of life, not present merely, but continued, and probably everlasting. Thus the snake Bai was figured as Guardian of the doorways of the Egyptian Tombs which represented the mansions of heaven. A sacred serpent would seem to have been kept in all the Egyptian temples, and we are told that many of the subjects, in the tombs of the kings at Thebes in particular, show the importance it was thought to enjoy in a future state. Crowns, formed of the Asp or sacred Thermuthis, were given to sovereigns and divinities, particularly to Isis, and these no doubt were intended to symbolize eternal life. Isis was goddess of life and healing and the serpent evidently belonged to her in that character, seeing that it was the symbol also of other deities with the like attributes. Thus, on papyri, it encircles the figure of Harpocrates, who was identified with Asclepius, while not only was a great serpent kept alive in the great temple of Serapis, but on later monuments this god is represented by a great serpent with or without a human head." - C.S. Wake quoted by M. Oldfield Howey.
"Mr. Cooper has pointed out that the good serpent of Egyptian mythology is always represented as upright, whilst the evil serpent is shown crawling, and this is usually the only distinction made." "The moon-goddess Isis being the feminine counterpart of Osiris, we must expect to find the mysteries of her worship equally entwined with Ophiolatry. According to Montfaucon, the Isaic table, which described these mysteries, was pictured with serpents in every part as emblems of the goddess. The particular serpent most pictured was the asp, so famous as the instrument of Cleopatra's suicide. This reptile is said to be identified with the horned viper of genus Cerastes, a snake about fifteen inches long, said by Herodotus to have been common near Thebes. In the British Museum there is a head of Isis wearing a coronet of them. It is painted or carved upon the tiaras of kings, the priestly robes, and the image of the goddess, and it was the chief symbol displayed upon the sphinxes. In olden days the living reptiles were housed in Isis' temple, and sanctified the offerings of her worshippers by crawling over and around them.
"Montfaucon also describes an engraved plate of gold which was found in an old wall at Malta in 1694. "This plate
was rolled up in a golden casket ; it consists of two long rows which contain a very great number of Egyptian deities,
most of which have the head of some beast or bird. Many serpents are also seen intermixed, the arms and legs of the
gods terminating in serpent's tails. The first figure has a upon its back a long shell with a serpent upon it; in each row
there is a serpent extended upon an altar. Among the figures of the second row there is seen an Isis of tolerably good
form. This same plate no doubt contains the most profound mysteries of the Egyptian superstition."
Blavatsky - "Esculapius, Serapis, Pluto, Knoum and Kneph, are all deities with the attributes of the serpent. Says
Depuis, 'They are all healers, givers of health, spiritual and physical, and of enlightenment.' The crown formed of an
asp, the Thermouthis, belongs to Isis, goddess of Life and Healing."
R.E. Witt - "She was the invincible Queen, whose emblem was the Egyptian cobra, the uraeus."
George Hart - A dictionary of Egyptian gods and goddesses. Excellent, detailed reference with an especially good section on Isis.
Vera F. Vanderlip - The Four Greek Hymns of Isidorus and the Cult of Isis - Detailed examination of these praise-songs from the Faiyum.
Note:This is the text of material I presented at the Isis Oasis Convocation on October 19th, 1998. At the Convocation, snake priestess Leeima danced with her serpents and then passed her serpents through the audience. We also selected oracles from the assembly, and went through the Isis Oasis grounds to the small pyramid, where the Oracles entered the pyramid with the snakes and then emerged with sacred insights to share with the assembly. It was a splendid event, (though we did lose a few audience members about the time the snakes came through).
Copyright 1998 by deTraci Regula. All rights reserved. Reprint rights usually cheerfully granted on request.