From ancient Egypt to southern California

The wonderful 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica said of ancient Isis that she was “the most famous of the Egyptian goddesses. She was of human form, in early times distinguished only by the hieroglyph of her name upon her head. Later she commonly wore the horns of a cow, and the cow was sacred to her…. [S]he was of great importance in mythology, religion and magic, appearing constantly in the very ancient Pyramid texts as the devoted sister-wife of Osiris and mother of Horus…. She was supreme in magical power, cunning and knowledge…. Much Egyptian magic turns on the healing or protection of Horus by Isis, and it is chiefly from magical texts that the myth of Isis and Osiris as given by Plutarch can be illustrated.”

Plutarch was Greek, and a current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica notes that Isis is a Greek form of the original Egyptian Aset or Eset, which meant ‘throne.’ The fact that we use a Greek version of the goddess’s name tells us how important she was not only in ancient Egypt but in ancient Greece as well. In fact Isis served as the first element in the new Greek name Isidoros; the second element came from Greek doron ‘gift,’ which we recognize as a relative of dote/dowry and donador/donor.

Despite the doubly pagan origin of Greek Isidoros ‘gift of Isis,’ early Christians adopted the name. The most prominent person to bear it was Isidoro de Sevilla, who was born around 560 and died in 636, and who held the post of Archbishop of Seville for three decades. The Catholic Church made him a saint, and it is for him that some of the towns in the Latin American world called San Isidro or San Ysidro are named. The San Ysidro in California, however, which occupies the southwestern corner of the 48 contiguous states in the United States, owes its name to the medieval Spanish saint San Isidro Labrador.

The female nature of the original Egyptian Isis lives on in the English name Isidora or Isadora, whose best-known bearer was the early 20th century American dancer Isadora Duncan.

©2010 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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