Juliana Rasnic - Isis and Nut

Ancient Egyptian art comes in many forms and covers more than a thousand years. Despite this wide variety, most Egyptian art sought to convey their view of the world, including their views about life and death.
Due to this, much of their art contains religious subject matter, and all of their art is highly symbolic. This can be seen in their depictions of Isis and Nut, two of the most important Egyptian Goddesses.

"Isis wears the headdress - the throne symbol - with which she is usually portrayed. One tradition has it that she was originally the personification of the throne, seen as a female deity."

- Hallam

Isis was the Egyptian Goddess of Magic. She was originally associated with the throne of Egypt, which contained magical power because it could turn a prince into a king.
Later, Isis "absorbed the attributes of most other goddesses and some gods and became a supreme deity, famous for her curing and redemptive powers" (Lesko, 155).
She was the sister and wife of Osiris, and after his death, she became the protector of the dead. In her love and devotion to Osiris, Isis became a symbol of the
loving wife while after his death she became a symbol of the Mother in her protection and her devotion to her son, Horus (Hallam 156).

Isis & Horus
There are two prevalent depictions of Isis that reappear in sculpture, murals, and sarcophagus art. The first shows her kneeling or hovering with her green (when colored) wings outspread and the Egyptian hieroglyph for the throne on her head. Sometimes her skin is also blue in these images. The second depiction is of her wearing a headdress of cow horns and a solar disk (the headdress of Hathor) as well as a girdle bound by a tyet, a magic knot that gives life. In this depiction, she is usually either seated on a throne, suckling Horus or she is standing with a sistrum (rattle) in her hand.

In the first image, the wings, the headdress, the colors used, and the gestures depicted all have symbolic meaning. The wings of Isis symbolize either female falcons or kites, which are birds of prey that have cries "reminiscent of the cries of distraught women" (Lesko 163). In this way, the wings represent both power and mourning. They also represent the resurrective power of Isis, who fans her wings to give breath back to her dead husband, Osiris (Baring & Cashford 231). This is at times reinforced by the green color of the wings because green symbolizes both life and resurrection in Egyptian art (Wilkinson 108). The wings also symbolize safety because they are depicted as outspread, which is a protective gesture in Egyptian art (Freed 22). In this way, the wings of Isis reveal her magical ability (resurrective power), her grief, and her protection of the dead.

Her headdress is the Egyptian hieroglyph for the throne, which is also the hieroglyph for her name As a hieroglyph for the throne, it represents her magical powers because the throne was believed to possess magical power. In addition to this, the throne represents "the primal order of the beginning" because "in its shapes lies the original mound," which "first emerged from the waters as habitable land" (Baring & Cashford, 250). The throne is associated with the lap of Isis and due to this the headdress reinforces the belief that the power of the king is dependent upon her (Baring & Cashford, 250). The headdress is often depicted as blue, which symbolizes the heavens and the primeval flood (and due to this, life and rebirth) in Egyptian Art. In this way, the headdress symbolizes the ability of Isis to give life to a king through the power of the throne. The fact that Isis' skin is sometimes depicted as blue in these images reinforces the belief in her powers over life and death, and her importance to all people.


The second depiction of Isis shows her in purely human form with yellow skin, wearing the headdress of Hathor and a girdle bound by a tyet. The color yellow symbolizes the "eternal and imperishable" (Wilkinson 108). It was believed that the flesh of the deities was pure gold; therefore, the yellow skin of Isis also symbolizes that belief.

Rameses III & Isis
"The pharaoh Rameses III greets Isis on behalf of his deceased son, as the goddess visits the prince's tomb in both her roles: as ideal mother and protector of the dead."

- Hallam
The headdress of Hathor (the Goddess of Fertility) is a crown of cow horns and a solar disk. The cow horns are symbolic of both abundance and the cosmos in Egyptian art. The solar disk refers to the belief that Hathor gave birth to the sun (Hallam 85). When Isis wears it, it symbolizes the fact that Isis also has the power to create like Hathor (Baring & Cashford 252). This is reinforced by the tyet on Isis' girdle, which gives the power of life (Hallam 158). In addition to this, the girdle is often depicted as red, a color that symbolizes life and regenerative power (Wilkinson 106). In this way, the tyet and the girdle symbolize the creative powers of Isis, her resurrective powers, and her immortality.


"Isis, with the throne on her head, guarding Rameses III at one end of his sarcophagus"

-Baring & Cashford


Twentieth Dynasty, c. 1194-1163 B.C.

Isis guarding sarcophagus

Both the images of Isis seated on the throne with Horace and the images of her standing with the sistrum in her hand symbolize Isis as protector and provider. When Isis is depicted seated, she always has her infant son Horus at her breast. Horus was the God with whom the King of Egypt was identified (Lesko 156). Due to this, Horus at her breast represents "the divine nourishment" the king of Egypt received from Isis, which gave him "the qualities of kingship and guarantee[d] his right to rule" (Baring & Cashford 250). This image represents Isis as the mother of the king, who derives his power from her. It also emphasizes Isis as the archetype of the Mother, who protects and provides for her children. Isis is portrayed as a provider and a protector when she is depicted standing, with the sistrum in her hand because the sistrum is used to bless someone and to frighten away evil (Baring & Cashford 252). Isis is often shown shaking the rattle before the king, which again symbolizes the link between Isis and the king of Egypt.


"This jewel from the 14th century B.C. shows Nut the sky goddess in her role as protectress of the dead. Her outspread wings are ready to receive and enfold souls in her star-studded bosom."

- Hallam

Nut is the Egyptian Sky Goddess as well as the sister and lover of Geb, the Earth God, and the mother of Osiris and Isis. She is one of the most ancient deities in Egyptian mythology. As sky Goddess, her primary role is receiving and protecting the dead. She is also the Mother of the Stars and the Mother of the Sun (Hallam 52). She also has three primary depictions. In the first, she is shown with blue skin, her wings outstretched and a star-studded bosom. In the second she is seen in human form with yellow skin, lying down outstretched or arching over the earth. In the third, she is depicted as a sycamore tree with her body as the trunk and her arms as the limbs.

In the first depiction of Nut, her skin color, her wings, and the stars on her chest are all symbolic. Similar to Isis, her blue skin color represents life and rebirth, and her outstretched wings represent her protection of the dead. The stars on her bosom are what distinguish her from Isis (along with the absence of a headdress). The stars symbolize two things. First, they represent Nut's association with the Heavens. The Cosmos, and particularly the Milky Way, were believed to be the body of Nut (Lesko 25). Second, the stars represent the dead because the Egyptians believed that after death, the human's souls went to the Heavens to become stars (Lesko 27). In this way, the stars on her chest symbolize Nut welcoming the dead into her realm.

When Nut is portrayed in human form, her yellow skin, her braided hair, her nudity, and the positioning of her body all symbolize different aspects of her. As with Isis, the yellow skin represents her immortality. Unlike Isis, her light skin also symbolizes the stars in the sky. It is rare for Egyptian deities to be depicted as nude. Nut is an exception because she is depicted nude because she is about to give birth. In this way, her nudity represents her motherhood, as does her braided hair (women in labor often braided their hair to keep it out of the way) (Lesko 28). As such, she can be viewed as the archetype of the mother, who gives birth to all things. Nut is often portrayed as bending over the earth with her fingertips on one horizon and her toes on the other. This is symbolic of her role as the embodiment of the Heavens (Lesko 28). In these images she stands impassive, "with the sun boats of night and day sailing just beneath her belly" (Baring & Cashford 256). This image then symbolizes the power of Nut over both the Sun and the Moon. It also reinforces her connection to her husband Geb, the God of the Earth. The reclining form of Nut shows her lying down, fully outstretched.

She is often depicted this way on sarcophaguses because the sarcophagus was believed to be the womb of Nut (Baring & Cashford 259). In this way, her outstretched body is symbolic of the home of the dead. It was believed that the soul of the dead passed through her body to be reborn, just like the sun passed through her body during night to be reborn with the dawn. Sometimes circles near the throat and pelvis of Nut emphasized this belief (Baring & Cashford 259). Her outstretched form also symbolized her embrace of the decease as she welcomed them into her realm (Wilkinson 26).

Nut depicted
on sarcophagus

"Nut inside coffin of the God's Wife Ankhnesneferibre."

--Baring & Cashford

The final depiction of Nut is of the goddess as a sycamore tree with the trunk as her body and the limbs as her arms. The sycamore represented the cosmos in Egyptian art, and due to this, Nut is here imaged as the universe. Often in these depictions, she is shown reaching out from the tree "to offer the deceased food and water" (Wilkinson 90). In this way, the tree symbolizes Nut's protection of the dead and the blessings she bestows upon them. This also reinforces Nut's association with the coffin, which was commonly made of wood (Lesko 43).

Clearly, the depictions of both Isis and Nut in Egyptian art heavily rely upon symbols to convey aspects of the goddesses and beliefs about the goddesses. This use of symbolism is all-encompassing, affecting every detail of the work-from the color of their skin, to the clothes they wear (or don't wear) and the gestures they perform. In addition to this, there are more concrete symbols included in the works such as the sistrum of Isis or the stars of Nut, which add layers of meaning to the work. Collectively, all the symbols work together to reinforce the Goddesses' roles and their power.

Works Cited

Baring, Anne and Cashford, Jules. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. New York: Viking Arcana. 1991.
Lesko, Barbara. The Great Goddesses of Egypt. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1999.
Wilkinson, Richard. Symbol & Magic in Egyptian Art. New York: Thames and Hudson. 1994.
Freed, Rita. A Divine Tour of Ancient Egypt. Memphis: Memphis State University. 1983.
Hallam, Elizabeth. Gods and Goddesses. New York: Macmillan. 1996.

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