In Roman Catholicism the veneration of the Virgin Mary has become a central tenet of the faith. She is honoured as the Theotokos, the mother of God and the ultimate symbol of motherly devotion. However, this cult of the Virgin has its roots in a tradition far older than Christianity. The veneration of this motherly figure came to the Roman Empire from the ancient land of Egypt.
The Egyptian goddess Isis (this was the Greek pronunciation, the Egyptian was more likely to be pronounced Aset) was the daughter of the Earth god, Geb, and the Sky goddess, Nut. Isis was one of four siblings, two brothers Osiris and Seth; and a sister, Nephthys. These siblings marry each other. Seth marries Nephthys and Osiris marries Isis. Isis is the original sorceress capable of great feats of magic. She gained her power by tricking the Sun god Ra into revealing his true name. In ancient religions it was a common belief that knowing the true name of a god would grant you use of his power (this also occurs in the myth of Lilith in the Judeo-Christian traditions). This legend gets more complex very early on. Because Isis is the more beautiful of the two sisters Seth is jealous and wont sleep with Nephthys. Nephthys decides that the only way that she can get pregnant by Seth is to disguise herself as Isis. However, the plot fails as she comes across Osiris first, who, thinking that Nephthys is Isis, does his marital duties. The result is that Nephthys succeeded in getting pregnant but by the wrong man. Nephthys gives birth to Anubis (the jackal-headed god of the underworld), however, fearing Seth’s retribution she gives the newborn god to Isis to raise and hide from their angry brother.
The central legend of Isis revolves around the murder of Osiris by Seth. At a banquet Seth presents a beautiful box and says that anyone who can fit in the box may keep it. Unbeknownst to Osiris, Seth had measured him in his sleep to ensure that only he could fit. When Osiris’ turn came to see if he could fit into the box Seth closed the lid on him. Osiris became trapped in the first sarcophagus which was flung into the Nile so that it would drift to far away lands. Isis went in search of the coffin in order that Osiris could have a proper burial. Isis discovers the coffin in Lebanon in the lands of the king of Byblos. Isis gains employ with the king as a nanny for the royal children while she finds the coffin. She eventually finds the coffin of Osiris inside the body of a tree. Upon finding the body Isis lets out a cry of anguish so powerful that it kills the children of the king of Byblos. Isis takes the body of Osiris back to Egypt so that she may bury it properly. Wary of Seth’s anger Isis hid the body in a swamp while she sought help from Nephthys. However, Seth learnt of the location of Osiris’ body and cut the body into fourteen pieces, spreading them all over Egypt so that he could never be buried as a whole man.
Isis with the aid of her sister, Nephthys, searched for these pieces for years. Eventually they found and pieced together thirteen of the fourteen, the final piece was Osiris’ penis. It transpired that this vital piece had been cast into the Nile where it had been eaten by a fish. Using her magic Isis remedied this by conjuring a new one for her long deceased husband. The pieces were reattached and bound together with bandages as the first mummy. Having done this Isis engaged in incestuous necrophilia and became pregnant with Horus who would become the first Pharaoh. Isis would, thereafter, be worshiped, as the Virgin is today, as the friend of sinners, slaves and the downtrodden; as the protector of children, maidens and the dead.
The cult of Isis was formally introduced into the Roman Empire by the Emperor Caligula who constructed a temple to her in Rome (an interesting side note: There was a bronze pine cone fountain in the temple of Isis which now stands in the cortile della pigna in the Vatican). The cult of Isis would spread throughout the Empire, during the formative years of Christianity, to become the largest cult in the Roman world. Isis would become the patron of several of the greatest Roman Emperors among them Vespasian, Titus, Trajan and Hadrian. The name Isidore (Gift of Isis) would become one of the most common names in the Empire would be common into the medieval period.
During the persecutions of the Christians it would became relatively common place for statues of the Madonna and Child to be disguised as Isis mothering Horus. Many Christians would even publicly follow the cult of Isis as a convenient alibi for their hidden faith.
When Christianity eventually became the official religion of the Empire the cult of Isis had already become synonymous with the cult of the Virgin Mary. As pagan worship gradually became outlawed the cult of Isis managed to survive by providing the template for the cult of the Virgin.
Of course there are a great many differences between the two cults. The cult of Isis was renowned for its sexual promiscuity whereas the cult of the Virgin prizes chastity and purity in such matters. Nonetheless there is a common and very pronounced feature of both cults which is that of the mother of the saviour. Just as Mary gave birth to the Messiah, Isis gave birth to the saviour and first Pharaoh of Egypt. Both conceived by supernatural means and both have become the ultimate symbol of motherhood.