Translated by: Annette Appel
The Goddess Isis was almost as strong as her grandfather the Sun God, the most powerful of all the gods in the universe. His name was Ra, but he had a few other names as well. He had a name for the morning, a name for the afternoon, a name for the evening, and one more name – but that one was a secret. That name, everyone knew, gave Ra his special powers. If anyone found out what that name was, Ra’s powers would pass directly over to the lucky person who knew.
But that wasn’t Ra’s only secret. He had another secret, which to be honest, was not much of a secret anymore. Ra, the Sun God, was getting old. His mighty light, the light of the sun, was getting weaker every day.
“What are we going to do?” The Egyptians wondered. They were worried. “How will we manage without light? Plants won’t grow and we won’t have anything to eat. And besides…we’re scared of the dark…”
But no one was brave enough to ask Ra to step down and reveal his name to another god who could then inherit his powers and the throne.
There’s no choice, thought Isis. If Grandfather won’t reveal his secret, I will have to discover it by myself.
Isis knew that her grandfather, as the Sun God, would wake up at the break of dawn and walk across the earth until sunset. She knew that he always walked the same route and she also knew – even though it is not so nice to say – that when he got tired, he would cough a lot and then spit.
So this is what Isis did: She scooped up a gob of royal spit, mixed it with a handful of dirt, whispered a magical incantation (something like: Eye of Horus, wing of beetle. Mix and mash for good or evil) and created a small but very poisonous snake.
The next morning, when the Sun God went for his daily walk accompanied by his assistants, Isis was waiting for him in the bushes. Just as he passed by, she put the snake on the path. The snake quickly slithered over and sunk his poisonous fangs right into Ra’s heel.
“Ouch! That hurts!” cried the god. “Help!” He called to his assistants.
“What happened?” the assistants asked in fear.
“I don’t know,” moaned the god bending over in pain. “Something bit me but I don’t know what…”
Ra could not even finish his sentence. He was in too much pain.
Just then, his granddaughter Isis stepped out of her hiding place, looked straight into Ra’s fierce eyes and said, “Grandfather dear, I saw what bit you. It is one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. You won’t have the strength to fight it because all of your strength is draining away. I can help you but only if you tell me your secret name…”
“Fine. I’ll tell you,” moaned Ra. “My name is Hefer…but my foot’s not getting better. Why?”
“Because you did not tell me your secret name,” Isis said. “Everyone knows that Hefer is your morning name.”
“Fine. I’ll tell you,” groaned Ra. “My name is Atum… Now my foot is numb! Why?”
“Because you did not tell me your secret name,” Isis continued. “Everyone knows that Atum is your evening name. And your afternoon name,” she added, “is Ra! So please, Grandfather,” Isis begged. “If you want to remove the curse, I need another name, the name you never revealed to anyone.”
“Fine. I’ll tell you. But you must know that it is a very, very long name. Are you ready? Maybe you should write it down… My name is: ‘Creator-of-the-world-creator-of-the-Nile-the fruit of the vine-the fruit of the date tree-the lotus flower-the fire of life-the beetle…’”
But even that long name was not the secret name.
Finally, the pain was too much for the god, Ra, and he said: “Fine. I’ll tell you, dear Isis. But come close to me so that no one else but you will hear my name.” Then he whispered his secret name into Isis’ ear. In a split second, Isis whispered the incantation and the secret name cured Ra’s pain immediately, but also took away all of his power.
That is how Isis became a goddess with special powers.
Afterwards, Grandfather Ra promised: “Soon, I will step down from my throne and you will be the queen of Egypt.”
Isis and Osiris
Isis had a brother she loved very much. His name was Osiris. She had another brother, an evil red-head named Seth, and a sister named Nephthys.
One day, after Grandfather Ra had an exceptionally long coughing fit, he called for Isis and Osiris and said, “My dear grandchildren! I am getting too old to rule over the Land of Life. The two of you are such good grandchildren, you are my favorites. I am sure that the people will also love you. To make a long story short, I want to crown you as the rulers of the world from now on and I will go off to rule in the Land of the Dead.
That is how Isis and Orisis became beloved rulers. They are the gods who taught the people of their land many new and important things, like how to plant wheat, grind it into flour and then bake bread, or how to grow vines and then make wine out of the grapes, or how to dig in the earth to find copper, silver, and gold and then use the metals to make tools and jewelry. They taught the people to weave cloth, prepare medicine, build temples, and most important of all, they taught them how to live together in peace.
A Devilish Trick
Everything would have been just wonderful if not for red-headed Seth. Seth was jealous of his brother and sister who had become rulers, and not just any rulers. They were dearly loved by all. Seth was especially jealous of his brother, Osiris.
What did he do?
He travelled throughout all of Egypt and told everyone: “Those two are a rotten pair. Not very godly, if you ask me. Especially Orisis!”
“No, why would you say that?” answered most of the people. “They are actually very nice and try to help us all the time.”
But Seth met a few people who, like him, were bitter from the time they were born. They always thought that their neighbor had a better life, taller wheat, a fatter cow, a larger house, a wiser wife, and cuter, smarter children who never complained that they were bored.
“You should know,” explained Red-headed Seth, blinking his tiny, evil, crocodile-shaped eyes, “it’s all the rulers’ fault, especially Osiris. If you help me kill him,” he promised the bitter bunch, “I’ll make sure that your lives will be full of happiness and success, and that your wives and children will be nice, beautiful, wise and healthy and will never ever be bored.”
But that wasn’t enough for Seth. In his red-headed mind, he started to concoct a very wicked plan.
He went to visit a talented carpenter, and said, “I want to order a very fancy coffin.”
“For who?” asked the carpenter.
“None of your business,” answered Seth rudely.
“It actually is my business,” said the carpenter. “If I don’t know the size of the dead person, I can’t make the coffin.”
“Fine. It is very simple,” said Seth. “Lucky for you, I know him well. You could even say he’s like a brother to me… He’s taller than me by exactly one head and three fingers. And now,” he said with a sneaky smile, “stop talking and start sawing.”
So what was Seth’s devilish plan? He made a feast and invited his brother as his guest of honor. No one in Egypt had ever been at such a feast. The guests ate and drank as dancers entertained them. When they finished, Seth declared: “And now, I have a surprise!”
He called in his gang, who carried a coffin on their shoulders.
“What is going on, Brother?” Osiris laughed. “I thought we were celebrating. Get that thing out of here…”
But when the coffin was lowered down onto the floor, and all of the guests ooh’d and aah’d at its beauty, even Osiris agreed. “Yes, that is a splendid, royal coffin. One day, when it is my time to go, I wouldn’t mind being buried in such a fancy coffin.”
You won’t have to wait for long… laughed Seth to himself. Then he turned to the crowd and said: “Let’s try out the coffin and see who it fits. The person who fits into the coffin perfectly will receive it as a gift.”
One after another, Seth’s friends jumped into the coffin and lay down inside. But the coffin did not fit any one of them perfectly, of course.
“It doesn’t even fit me,” Seth pretended to be angry. “It is exactly one head and three fingers too long. What about you, Brother? Do you want to try?”
“Gladly,” answered Osiris. Like the others, he got into the coffin and lay down.
“Yes, it fits me exactly!” he called out. “It is very comfortable,” he laughed…
But Osiris’ smile froze on his face when Seth and his gang of friends jumped on the coffin, slammed down the lid, carried him out of the palace to the banks of the Nile and threw him into the strong current.
The Miracle of the Braids
Poor Osiris died immediately, but the coffin that held him was swept down the Nile towards the sea, road the waves and finally landed on the shores of a faraway country, called Phoenicia. There, on the shores of Phoenicia, the most unusual thing happened: The wood, of which the coffin was made, immediately sprouted roots and soon became a magnificent tree with a thick trunk and tall branches.
“What a beautiful sight! We are in luck!” said the King of Phoenicia as he strolled past with his wife, the Queen of Phoenicia. “This is the perfect tree to use as a pillar for our palace.” He ordered his servants to chop down the magnificent tree but no one knew that inside that thick pillar, a coffin was buried, with the body of Osiris inside.
Many days passed and a lot of water flowed down the Nile. Seth the Evil ruled over Egypt and Isis… well, she ran away from palace and wandered all over Egypt, looking for her beloved Osiris.
I will find him, she told herself, and I will use all of my magical spells and powers to bring him back to life. After many hardships and lots of adventures, Isis reached the shores of Phoenicia.
What should I do now? She thought.
To be honest, Isis did not really know what to do. So she just sat down on the sand and started to braid her long hair.
“What are you doing?” Four women asked as they walked on the shore. “What an unusual and amazing hair style.” It may sound strange, but Phoenician women had never seen braided hair before.
“Oh, it’s very easy to do,” said Isis. “You just need a little bit of patience. I can teach you, if you want.”
A short time later, the heads of all four women were adorned with beautiful braids.
“What have you done to your hair?” asked the Phoenician Queen in wonder when her maidservants returned to the palace. “What an unusual and amazing hair style!”
The queen asked her maidservants to braid her hair as well, and they not only took the time to patiently braid her hair, but they also told her about the mysterious woman they had met on the shore.
The Queen was very curious. She summoned the mysterious woman to the palace. When she arrived, both the King and Queen liked her very much and thought she would be the perfect person to take care of their baby boy.
A Baby in Flames
“We are very worried about him,” the King and Queen told Isis. “He is so small and weak. He barely gained weight since the day he was born. We are afraid he won’t live for much longer.”
“Don’t worry,” Isis tried to calm them down. With her magical powers, she felt that she had arrived at the right place. “Don’t worry. I will give him the best care, with lots of love and patience and I am sure that he will grow stronger.”
Isis meant every word that she said. She even planned to give the baby an eternal life.
So how do you turn a weak, sickly baby into someone who will live forever? You set him on fire with magical flames!
That is exactly what Isis did. Every night, after the King and Queen went to bed, she sat next to the baby’s crib and very patiently set the crib on fire with magical flames. All the while, the baby slept peacefully, but this special treatment made his body strong. He almost became immortal but one night, the Queen had a hard time falling asleep. She decided to surprise Isis with a visit to the nursery, but ended up being surprised herself.
“Stop!” the Queen cried. “You witch! What are you doing to my baby?”
“It is true. I am a witch, a sorceress and a god,” admitted Isis. “But you… you have no patience! At this very moment, you ruined the magic spell!”
“Oh… well then… I apologize. Please continue…” The Queen was embarrassed and frightened. She fell to the ground, bowing down before Isis and begged: “Please, don’t be angry. Take whatever treasures you want from our country, silver, gold, ivory…”
But Isis was not interested in the royal treasures of Phoenicia. She only wanted one thing: The large pillar that stood in the middle of the palace.
“The pillar?” The King and Queen were surprised. “Are you sure? What will you do with a pillar?”
“Wait and see,” Isis replied and she focused her magical eyes on the pillar and with one look, cracked it into two and freed the coffin of Osiris from inside.
Now, she thought to herself, all I have to do is chant the right magical incantation that will bring my beloved back to life.
Osiris Comes Back to Life
But Isis did not have time to chant the magical incantation because on her way back to the palace, the evil Seth kidnapped Osiris’ body from Isis and chopped it up into fourteen pieces.
“Let’s see what you do now, you miserable witch!” he called to Isis and scattered all the pieces of poor Osiris’ body into the Nile, as food for the crocodiles.
What an awful thing to do! Isis was so upset, she almost gave up.
“I would rather die,” she cried to her sister Nephthys. “My life is worth nothing without Osiris.”
“No. Don’t give up!” Nephthys pleaded. “Don’t forget: You have all of Ra’s special powers. And you also have me. Come, Sister. We will go to the Nile and collect all of the pieces.”
And that is exactly what they did. Isis and Nephthys sailed all along the Nile in a small reed boat and very patiently gathered up thirteen pieces of Osiris’ body. The fourteenth part was never found. But they connected all the pieces so nicely that Osiris was whole and perfect even without it.
Now, all that was needed was the magical incantation.
Isis immediately chanted the right magical words (something like: Sarcophagus, River Nile. Bring us life, o’ crocodile!) and Osiris opened his kind eyes and gave her – his beloved goddess – a kiss. He knew that he owed his life to her.
But Osiris could no longer be the ruler of the earth and so Ra gave him his kingdom and he became the ruler of the Land of the Dead.
Image: Donn P. Crane
Want to listen to audio editions?
Purchase a subscription and enjoy unlimited access to all features.
By subscribing you contribute and support authors, translators and editors.