In which we explore the origins of (some) Black Madonnas

Isis and Horus, Montserrat Museum

Intrigued by images of the Black Madonnas in Europe, I followed my curiosity. I traveled to five Black Madonnas sites in four countries during a three-month sabbatical from my nonprofit work. Midway through my trip, I visited the Black Madonna of Montserrat, Spain, in the spring of 2018. The mountain-top monastery complex outside Barcelona includes a cathedral, a hotel, walking trails, and a museum.  It was in the museum that I came across the statues of Isis nursing Horus depicted above. Included in a large room displaying dozens of images of the Black Madonna of Montserrat among old paintings, modern paintings, and sculptures were the three images of Isis. I wondered, and have since begun to explore, why would Isis be included with depictions of the Black Madonna?  Worshipped for over 4300 years, Isis was the significant divine power in Egypt, and her popularity spread throughout Europe and as far as India. What made her so powerful and popular? And what remains of her cult today? In this paper, I will explore the origins of Isis’s power, the characteristics that made her so universally popular and accessible, how Christianity syncretized Isis’ features into Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and finally, how her power, characteristics, and popularity shine through today in the cult of the Black Madonna.

Barbara Lesko’s “The Great Goddesses of Egypt” recognizes Isis’s stature as the goddess who usurped other goddesses, as well as the gods that were her father, husband/brother, and son. 

Older than Hathor, Isis can be traced back to the Pyramid Texts. Her popularity, along with her husband’s, burgeoned among the common people during the Middle Kingdom,

            And rulers paid homage to her in temples built since then. There are many signs that her

cult continued to develop throughout the New Kingdom, Third Intermediate Period, and Late Period, and was embraced by foreign settlers in Egypt as well. As time passed, Isis

absorbed the attributes of most other goddesses and some gods and became a supreme deity, famous for her curing and redemptive powers. Her cult was widespread in the greater Hellenistic world. She was the longest enduring Egyptian goddess.[1]

Egyptians equated Isis with Sirius, or the Dog Star, part of the Orion constellation, which magically re-appeared in mid-summer at the start of the Egyptian New Year, bringing the return of the rains and the rising of the Nile. “Only the rising Nile could bring the land to life again, and Isis/Sothis, appearing after an absence of seventy days, would cause the waters to rise.”[2]

Always identified with the reviving of a parched land, Isis would also revive her murdered husband, to ensure the continuance of his line. The story of Isis and Osiris is Egypt’s first love story. Eventually, they won out over all other deities, promising everlasting life to all humanity. But first, they existed as gods of fertility and of the sky. Their stories are thus multiform.[3]

“Osiris – was also known as Wenenefer, or “He who exists beautifully.”[4] Also, a stellar deity, Osiris, the husband of Isis, died on the winter solstice.[5] Righteous and noble, his death and resurrection noted a significant departure from other cults and elevated the importance of, and opportunity for, life after death. Wallis Budge explains, “The cult of Osiris destroyed the king’s monopoly of heaven, and favored the burial of the dead without mutilation, and promised every man renewed life after death.”[6] While there are many versions of the Osiris myth, in short, he was killed by his evil brother Seth, who cut him up into fourteen pieces and scattered the body parts throughout the land. Isis, his wife/sister, brought him back to life by searching for, finding, and remembering him.[7] She created the missing phallus out of clay, and with her sexual energy, brought him back to life, and thus, Isis became impregnated with their son Horus. Isis’s power increased as the one who resurrected the god Osiris and who nurtured her son Horus. Not very well known until the second half of the Sixth Dynasty, the religion of Osiris also established a holy trinity, including the father, the mother, and the son.

At this time the holy family of Isis, Osiris, and Horus became firmly fixed as well in the royal liturgy and royal art. When the Osiris legend took hold among the people, the story of the death and resurrection of a good king was elaborated and Isis took on a more powerful and sympathetic role as the one responsible for the revivification of her husband. Through this, she was related to the annual beneficial flooding of the Nile. Isis became renowned for her magical powers, not only in funerary literature but also in popular thought.[8]

As the Mother of Horus, Isis received the title, Mother of God. Indeed, she protected her son and hid him from his evil uncle Seth in the reeds of the Nile delta until he was old enough to fend for himself. Thus, she assured the lineage of Osiris to Horus and became known as the perfect wife and mother. Isis was also known for her resourcefulness. When a snake bit her elderly father Ra, she said she needed his sacred name to heal him. First refusing, he eventually succumbed to the pain and revealed his all-powerful name to Isis, relinquishing his mighty powers to his daughter.

            Isis’s strength and popularity originated from and was recorded in the myths, hymns, and aretalogies, listing her lineage, powers, and accomplishments. One legend tells of Isis traveling, disguised as a beggar woman, and escorted by seven scorpions for protection. Knocking on the door of a wealthy woman, she was denied assistance, and she traveled on. Her scorpions, however, consolidated their venom and one scorpion returned to sting the offending woman’s son. Responding to the woman’s cry for help, Isis revived the child and thus forgave the woman for her unkindness. Isis, known for compassion and mercy, was celebrated for her healing powers as “Isis, Mistress of Magic and Speaker of Spells.”[9] Other titles bestowed on Isis were inscribed in hymns on the walls of the sanctuary of the temple Philae.

            O Isis, the great, God’s Mother, Lady of Philae

            God’s Wife, God’s Adorer, and God’s Hand

            God’s Mother and Great Royal Wife

            Adornment and Lady of the Ornaments of the Palace

            …who fills the palace with her beauty

            Fragrance of the palace, Mistress of Joy

            Who completes her course in the Divine Place …

            Princess, great of praise, Lady of Charm

            Whose face enjoys the trickling of fresh myrrh.[10]

Highlighting how Isis collected titles and attributes from both royalty and other deities, Lesko notes that historically the same titles honored King’s Wife and Daughter, “as early as the New Kingdom, fifteen hundred years before this hymn was written.” In another hymn, Isis was recognized as the Creator.

            She is the Lady of Heaven, Earth, and the Netherworld

            Having brought them into existence through what

her heart conceived and her hands created

She is the Ba that is in every city,

Watching over her son Horus and her brother Osiris.[11]

As the Creator of All, her position “watching over” Horus and Osiris underscored her power and authority within the trinity. Yet, another hymn reinforces Isis’ power overall, highlighting her status as Sun-goddess positioned over all the gods.

            Mighty one, foremost of the goddesses

            Ruler in Heaven, Queen on Earth

            Sun-goddess in the circuit of the sun-disc…

            All the gods are under her command;

            Great of Magic when she is in the palace,

            Great one upon whose command the King gloriously

                        appears

            on the throne.[12]

In these and other hymns, Isis absorbs titles and attributes of other gods and goddesses, increasing her power and, accordingly, the praise of her devotees.  

Even older than the hymns at her temple in Philae, the Isis Aretalogy is the primary literature associated with Isis and dates to the Ptolemaic period. Written in the first person, Isis, among many other things, praises herself as the supreme ruler of every land, the Creator of writing, and the one who discovered wheat. While the list of 57 note-worthy praises seems repetitive at times and lacks a coherent order, four key themes jump out: the recognition of her royal authority and the establishment of her religious cult; Isis’s control of the heavens, sky, weather, and by association, navigation of the seas; as the supreme ruler, Isis was the maker of languages and laws; and finally, Isis established and maintained loving families. To further understand and appreciated the attributes, I felt compelled to re-order and group the attributes by these main themes starting with royal authority/religion. Isis established her authority as the Daughter of Kronos, the Wife of Osiris, and the Mother of Horus. In each familial role, she is connected to a male relative. Yet, she claimed her authority as the one who conquered destiny and then further expanded on her titles and accomplishments. The following re-ordered and grouped selections come from the so-called M-text and are otherwise copied as given.[13]

I am the eldest daughter of Kronos

I am the wife and sister of King Osiris

I am the mother of King Horus

I am the one who rises in the Dog-­star

I am the one called goddess by women

I taught men the initiation into mysteries

I instructed them to revere images of the gods

I established the sacred cult places of the gods

No one is honored without my consent

For me was built the city of Bubastis

I founded enclosure walls of the cities

I am the one who discovered wheat for mankind

I conquer Destiny

Destiny obeys me

Hail, O Egypt, that nourished me![14]

Creator of Heaven and Earth, Isis, directed the motions of the stars and sun. She controlled the weather and was Mistress of the thunderbolt and rain. Accordingly, she was also the Mistress of seamanship, directing their activities and successful voyages. Understandably, Isis was popular with all seafaring people.

I separated the earth from the Heaven

I brought up islands out of the depths into the light

I showed the paths of the stars

I regulated the course of the sun and the moon

I am in the rays of the sun

I attend the sun in its journey

I am the Mistress of rivers and winds and sea

I am the Mistress of the thunderbolt

I am the Mistress of rain

I am the Mistress of seamanship

I devised the activities of seamanship

I calm the sea and make it surge

I make the navigable unnavigable, whenever I so decide

Isis wisely wielded both justice and mercy, created laws, and distinguished between the good and the bad. As the supreme ruler of every land and maker of languages and laws, she ended cannibalism and murder and set captives free.

I am Isis, ruler of every land

I was taught by Hermes (Thoth), and with Hermes devised letters, both hieroglyphic and demotic, that all might not be written with the same.

I assigned to Greeks and barbarians their languages

I gave laws to mankind and ordained what no one can change

I made what is right strong

I abolished the rules of the tyrants

I put an end to murders

I with my brother Osiris put an end to cannibalism

I made the good and the bad to be distinguished by nature I made that nothing should be more fearful than an oath

I have delivered him who unjustly plots against others into                                                                                                    the hands of the one against whom he plotted

I impose retribution upon those who do injustice

I decreed that mercy be shown to suppliants

I honor those who justly defend themselves

With me the right has power

What I decree, that is also accomplished

All yield to me

I set free those who are in bonds

I am the Mistress of War

            I am called the Lawgiver[15]

While historians might dispute Isis’s, or even the Egyptian claims to creating languages and laws, these claims and the aretalogy in general, were hyperbolic and expansive. Some roles, such as lawgiver, were initially attributed to Maat, another earlier goddess whose roles she assumed, as she assumed Hathor’s.[16] Most significantly, the aretalogies of Isis and comparisons to Maat’s connection with truth and justice are recognized by scholars as to the likely source of wisdom in the Old Testament scripture, Proverbs 8.

It is probably true, however, that the way that Wisdom is portrayed is influenced by the depictions of goddesses, especially Isis and Maat… The Egyptian goddess Maat is to some degree a personification of truth and righteousness. It has been suggested that Wisdom was also a goddess in this way, specifically that she was the patron goddess of wisdom schools.[17]

Finally, in another selection, Isis strengthened the family unit, uniting men and women and establishing the importance of familial loyalty. While it could have been included under laws, the institution of marriage is grouped here with other aspects of the family unit.

            I compelled women to be loved by men

I brought together woman and man

I devised marriage contracts

I assigned to women to bring into light of day their infants in the tenth month I ordained that parents should be loved by children I imposed punishment upon those unkindly disposed toward their parents[18]

Understandably popular with women, Isis brought women and men together in love and united them with a marriage contract. Indeed, Isis, like older goddesses such as Hathor, was connected with erotic love. Indeed, she resurrected Osiris through intercourse and was impregnated with Horus. Isis established children’s role as loving their parents, further securing and elevating a woman’s role in a household. Unlike other deities, she is loving and compassionate. She is approachable and beloved by all. Barbara Lesko notes her ever-expanding power and authority.

Isis’s references to delivering justice and attending the sun in its journey reflect ancient roles of major Egyptian goddesses, but to these are added explicit claims of power that go beyond the vaguer, “Mistress of Heaven, Mistress of all the Gods titles know from earlier history. With the sparse preservation of earlier Egyptian documents, however, it is difficult to know just what attributes were a later addition.[19]

The Aretalogies to Isis highlight her essential authority and role in creation, creating communications and rule of governance, and promoting happy and sustaining relationships with the family. Isis does, indeed, reflect the Wisdom later portrayed in Proverbs.

She forms a bridge between the creation and the created. By acquiring wisdom, human beings can grasp the order of the universe and the purpose of life, but they can also share in the wisdom of God.[20]

            With such impressive names, attributes, and accomplishments, Isis was also recognized through a striking array of images and representations. The throne is associated with Isis, and she was sometimes depicted wearing a throne on her head. From prehistoric cultures to African tribes today, the role of the mother held high regard.

The throne of a chieftain is known as the mother of the king and is endowed with the magical ability to turn a prince into a king. The word for throne in ancient Egyptian is asset, which is transliterated as Ese or Isis.”[21]

In representing the throne, Isis was depicted as a goddess with wings, supporting Osiris. Isis and her sister, Nephthys, were also represented as a falcon or a kite, “probably a reference to birds of prey, and to the sound the birds make, reminiscent of the cries of distraught women.”[22] As noted and shone earlier, Isis is often seated on the “throne of wisdom,” either holding her son Horus on her lap or nursing him. Her headdress features a solar disc, and cow horns and a cobra or snake adorns her crown. Scorpions protect her. A particularly striking image shows Isis as a tree-goddess nursing the Pharaoh Thutmose III.

[23]

She is known as the loving, nurturing mother and her regenerative milk sustained followers in the afterlife.

Isis was more humane than any other goddess – for this reason she won, and never again lost, the hearts of her people. Surely, she reflects the values of her time, what women themselves would find admirable in women in mothers in particular. Thus, these commendable attributes were projected onto a beloved goddess.[24]

Universally popular among women, and people of all rank and stages of life, including the enslaved and free, Isis was embraced throughout Egypt. Her popularity spread to other countries with seafaring merchants and traders.

Foreigners were equally enthralled with Isis, particularly Greek immigrants who settled in Egypt in the sixth century B.C. Like their female goddess Demeter, Isis, the Great Mother, provided solace and comfort, and most importantly, the promise of eternal life. Her cult expanded with Egyptian merchant traders, to the extent that Athens, Greece, established an Isis cult in the fourth century B.C. With the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. and his quest for a world empire, Isis cults were established at important ports and trading centers.

Phoenician merchants carried the image of Isis and her cult westward to Carthage in North Africa (modern Tunisia), and in due course Spain received her too. From Greece to the Iberian Peninsula Isis’s progress continued on the European continent with the expansion of Roman arms. The next six hundred years would take her as far north as the Rhine valley and even to Britain.[25]

As in Egypt, Isis fused with other goddesses wherever she was embraced, most notably Demeter and Artemis in Greece. Romans furthered her cults as they expanded throughout Europe.

Accompanying her during the Roman period were a form of her child, Horus, then called Harpocrates, …Osiris, her brother, sometimes even her ancestor…and a new syncretistic deity invented by the Ptolemies, Serapis, a combination of Osiris and Zeus. In the company of Serapis, Isis entered the Greek pantheon and received a place beside the Olympians. [26]

Despite being paired with a new consort, “Isis became a truly universal goddess and the only deity to many of her faithful.”      [27] Her powerful cures attracted followers to her healing temples and raised income for the sanctuaries. Acts of charity, and taking care of cult members’ individual needs, a property shared with Hellenistic cults, also took hold, increasing Isis’s universal appeal. Even after the collapse of the last Pharaoh –Cleopatra VII’s death in 30 B.C., her temples spread from Greece and Rome throughout Europe, including Spain, France, Hungary, Poland, Britain, and as far away as India. Archeological artifacts and the ruins of major Isis temples can be found in Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and England.[28]  

Established in Europe well before the birth of Christ, themes from the Isis cult made their way into this new religion, as the Isis cult itself had previously syncretized with other deities and traditions. Among the themes that I have highlighted throughout this paper include some of the most obvious ones that found a hearty welcome in Christianity. Isis, the Mother of God, perhaps in a precursor to Moses’s story, protected her child Horus from his evil uncle in the reeds in the Nile Delta. Isis was the most important part of the holy family that included Osiris and Horus. Credited with resurrecting Osiris, giving him eternal life and to her followers, the promise of salvation and life after death. Among her many names of praise included Mother of God, Mistress of the Sea, and Lady of Heaven. When Constantine converted to Christianity in 331A.D., the backlash against the Isis cult was harsh and thorough; temples destroyed, priests executed. Veneration of the Virgin Mary took on Isis’s attributes as the Mother of God, and followers transferred their devotion to a loving mother who was both caring and powerful. One hundred years later, In 431A.D. The Council of Ephesus served to formally transfer the primary titles of Isis to the Virgin Mary. By naming Mary, both Theotokos, the ‘Mother of God’ and ‘the Queen of Heaven,’ the Roman authorities squelched heretical practices that continued for Isis and now honored Mary, the mother of Jesus. Barbara Lesko, whose work has grounded my understanding of Isis’s emergence as the universal, powerful goddess that she was, concludes with the connection that prompted my curiosity at the beginning of this paper.

Early Roman churches, such as Santa Maria Magiore, are built adjacent to sites of the Isis temples. Isis Bringer of the Crops has been identified at the Church of the Ara Coeli in Rome, and the Church of Santa Maria Navicella on top of the Caelian Hill marks the site of an earlier Iseum Metellinum. Well-known festivals for the Madonna, still popular in Europe, doubtless replaced the pubic outpourings of devotion exhibited by Isis’s ancient devotees, just as her image came to be worshipped as the Black Madonna.[29]

Ean Begg, an early researcher on Black Madonnas, adds other examples of where the Catholic church reconsecrated temples to Isis to honor the mother of Jesus.

About Isis at Le Put, much has already been said. Santa Sabina, the motherhouse of the Dominican order, and the most perfect example of a Roman Christian basilica had already in the fourth century, after the Council of Ephesus, been built over a Temple of Isis, near the temples of Juno and Diana. Also, in Rome, the oldest Madonna in the world, the brown Virgin of the catacomb of Priscilla, is considered by some authorities to be Isis.[30]

Begg continues, noting that within the darkness of the Black Madonna remains an alchemical connection with the black earth of the Egyptian Delta.

The Black Virgin reminds us that we have an alternative, and that not all roads lead to Rome, Isis the alchemist, in who myth are contained all the elements of the art, is still with us. The real name of Egypt and alchemy both derive from Khem, ‘black earth.’[31]

The Black Madonna of Monserrat, Spain, discovered in 888 A.D, was found by shepherds in a cave where she had been hidden for protection from the Moors by a Gothic Bishop.[32] A cathedral and monastery were built on the mountain, where she continues to be honored. She is considered one of the earliest Black Madonnas, and she attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world to this day. Shown on the throne of wisdom, with her son on her lap facing forward, her extended hand holds a globe that pilgrims touch to receive her blessing. Noted for miraculous healing powers and answered prayers, pilgrims, both Catholic and non-Catholic, pray to her, the Mother of God. Whether honored as Mary or Isis, people seek her wisdom and blessings, both at Monserrat and hundreds of other Black Madonna pilgrimage sites dotted across Europe, many, as noted earlier, connected with sites of former Isis temples. As she spread from Egypt to Europe, she also spread from Europe to the New World, primarily through Catholic missionaries. One can find replicas of the Black Madonna of Montserrat in Cuba, Bolivia, and elsewhere in South America and Europe, as popular today as they have been for the past twelve hundred years. Indeed, the universal yearning for a loving, merciful, powerful, and wise mother goddess transcends the ages.

Black Madonna of Montserrat, Spain. Photo credit, Beth Maczka

Bibliography:

Begg, Ean. The Cult of the Black Virgin. Asheville, NC: Chiron Publications, 1985.

Budge, E.A. Wallis. From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt. London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.

Collins, John J. A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: Third Edition, 2018.

Lesko, Barbara. The Great Goddesses of Egypt. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Lesko, Leonard H. “Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egyptian Thought.” In CANE, 1763–74, n.d.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

Watterson, Meggan. The Divine Feminine Oracle Guidebook. Carlsbad, California: Hay House, 2018.

Religions and Cultures of the Ancient Near East

Vanderbilt Divinity School

Dr. Azzoni

December 10, 2020


[1] Barbara Lesko, The Great Goddesses of Egypt (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 156.

[2] Lesko. 156.

[3] Lesko. 156

[4] Leonard H. Lesko, “Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egyptian Thought,” in CANE, n.d., 1763–74.

[5] E.A. Wallis Budge, From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt (London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2013). Conclusions 5.

[6] Budge. Conclusions 7.

[7] Meggan Watterson, The Divine Feminine Oracle Guidebook (Carlsbad, California: Hay House, 2018). 170.

[8] Lesko, The Great Goddesses of Egypt. 159.

[9] Lesko. 182.

[10] Lesko. 189.

[11] Lesko. 189.

[12] Lesko. 190.

[13] Lesko. 196. Note – All following Aretalogy lists were grouped and re-ordered by me.

[14] Lesko. 196 -198.

[15] Lesko. 196-198.

[16] Lesko. 196.

[17] John J Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: Third Edition, 2018. 334.

[18] Lesko, The Great Goddesses of Egypt.196-198.

[19] Lesko. 198.

[20] Collins. 335.

[21] Lesko, The Great Goddesses of Egypt. 156.

[22] Lesko. 163.

[23] Lesko. 171.

[24] Lesko. 175.

[25] Lesko. 187.

[26] Lesko. 191.

[27] Lesko. 191.

[28] Lesko. 190.

[29] Lesko. 200. Emphasis my own.

[30] Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin (Asheville, NC: Chiron Publications, 1985). 68.

[31] Begg. 144.

[32] Begg. 21.

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