Isis and Ra

IsisRa at Abu Simbel copyright Hedwig Storch

Another myth tells of how Isis created a magical serpent out of dust and Ra’s spittle. She placed the serpent on the path that the sun god usually took when he was traveling by day, and the serpent bit him. Ra had power over all things, and so he ordered the poison to leave his body. However, as the serpent had been made from Ra’s own spittle he was unable to cure himself. He called on Isis (who was already a great magician and healer). She told him that she could only heal him if she knew his secret name. Ra tried to fob her off with some of his lesser names, but eventually he relented and told her his true name. Isis immediately cured Ra, but he could not take back the power that he had granted her by telling her his true name and from that point on Isis was equal even to the sun god in power.

There are two variants on this tale. In the first, Isis takes this action in order to compel Ra to move away from the world and by so doing allow people and animals to flourish. Apparently his fierce heat was drying out the land and causing great hardship to everyone. Isis, who was a compassionate soul, wept for the people and decided that if Ra could not be persuaded to change his ways then she would force him to do so. This is an interesting twist on the tale of the “Eye of Ra” in which the “Eye” (a daughter of Ra manifested as the harsh heat of the midday sun) was sent out to punish mankind for turning away from Ra.

In the tale of Isis and the snake, Ra is the one who is hurting the people and Isis has to use her cunning to help them, while in the story of the “Eye” Ra initially orders the slaughter but relents and tricks the “Eye” to stop her killing everyone. Thus, although Isis was sometimes linked to the “Eye” (as a daughter of Ra), she was always described as a friend to the people who was too compassionate to allow them to suffer.

In the second version (which is probably the later) she plays her trick in order to obtain the magic that she needed to bring about her miraculous pregnancy following the death of Osiris.

copyright J Hill 2010