From New World Encyclopedia
Isis with cow horns, solar disk, sitting on lion throne with Horus on her lap. (Egyptian Late Period)

Isis was a goddess in ancient Egyptian mythology, often worshiped as the archetypal wife and mother. Mythologically, she was prominent as the wife and sister of Osiris and mother of Horus.

Isis' origins are uncertain but the first mention of the deity dates back to Egypt's Fifth Dynasty (2498-2345 B.C.E.) and the emergence of literary inscriptions. Nevertheless, Isis' cult only became prominent during later periods of Egyptian history, when it began to absorb the veneration of many other goddesses. This process of syncretism became tremendously popular in Egypt's late classical period.

Unlike other Egyptian deities, Isis did not have a single, centralized location of worship at any point in her religious history and her temples eventually spread throughout the Middle East and into Europe. Temples dedicated to Isis have been found as far away as the British Isles. Worship of Isis continued in pockets of Christian Europe as late as the sixth century.

Isis in an Egyptian Context

As an Egyptian deity, Isis belonged to a religious, mythological and cosmological belief system developed in the Nile River basin from earliest prehistory to 525 B.C.E. This particular "cut-off" date has been chosen because it corresponds to the Persian conquest of the kingdom, which marks the end of its existence as a discrete and (relatively) circumscribed cultural sphere. Indeed, as this period also saw an influx of immigrants from Greece, it was also at this point that the Hellenization of Egyptian religion began. While some scholars suggest that even when "these beliefs became remodeled by contact with Greece, in essentials they remained what they had always been" [1], it still seems reasonable to address these traditions, as far as is possible, within their own cultural milieu. Indeed, it was during this relatively late period in Egyptian cultural development, a time when they first felt their beliefs threatened by foreigners, that many of their myths, legends and religious beliefs were first recorded. The numerous inscriptions, stelae and papyri that resulted from this sudden stress on historical posterity provide much of the evidence used by modern archeologists and Egyptologists to approach the ancient Egyptian tradition [2] The cults within this framework, whose beliefs comprise the myths we have before us, were generally fairly localized phenomena, with different deities having the place of honor in different communities. These local groupings often contained a particular number of deities and were often constructed around the incontestably primary character of a creator god [3] Despite this apparently unlimited diversity, however, the gods (unlike those in many other pantheons) were relatively ill-defined. As Frankfort notes, “the Egyptian gods are imperfect as individuals. If we compare two of them … we find, not two personages, but two sets of functions and emblems. … The hymns and prayers addressed to these gods differ only in the epithets and attributes used. There is no hint that the hymns were addressed to individuals differing in character.” [4] One reason for this was the undeniable fact that the Egyptian gods were seen as utterly immanental—they represented (and were continuous with) particular, discrete elements of the natural world.[5][6] Thus, those who did develop characters and mythologies were generally quite portable, as they could retain their discrete forms without interfering with the various cults already in practice elsewhere. Also, this flexibility was what permitted the development of multipartite cults (i.e., the cult of Amun-Re, which unified the domains of Amun and Re), as the spheres of influence of these various deities were often complementary.[7]

The worldview engendered by ancient Egyptian religion was uniquely appropriate to (and defined by) the geographical and calendrical realities of its believer’s lives. Unlike the beliefs of the Hebrews, Mesopotamians and others within their cultural sphere, the Egyptians viewed both history and cosmology as being well ordered, cyclical and dependable. As a result, all changes were interpreted as either inconsequential deviations from the cosmic plan or cyclical transformations required by it.[8][9] Breasted argues that one source of this cyclical timeline was the dependable yearly fluctuations of the Nile. [10] The major result of this perspective, in terms of the religious imagination, was to reduce the relevance of the present, as the entirety of history (when conceived of cyclically) was ultimately defined during the creation of the cosmos. The only other aporia in such an understanding is death, which seems to present a radical break with continuity. To maintain the integrity of this worldview, an intricate system of practices and beliefs (including the extensive mythic geographies of the afterlife, texts providing moral guidance (for this life and the next) and rituals designed to facilitate the transportation into the afterlife) was developed, whose primary purpose was to emphasize the unending continuation of existence.[11][12] Given these two cultural foci, it is understandable that the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tended to be either creation accounts or depictions of the world of the dead, with a particular focus on the relationship between the gods and their human constituents.

Origin of the Name

in hieroglyphs

The English pronunciation used for this deity, /ˈaɪ.sɪs/), is an anglicized pronunciation of the Greek name, Ίσις, which itself changed the original Egyptian name by the addition of a final "-s" because of the grammatical requirements of Greek noun endings.

The Egyptian name was recorded as ỉs.t or ȝs.t and meant '(She of the) Throne.' However the true Egyptian pronunciation remains uncertain because their writing system omitted vowels. Based on recent studies which present us with approximations based on contemporary languages and Coptic evidence, the reconstructed pronunciation of her name is *ʔŪsat (ooh-saht). Later, the name survived into Coptic dialects as "Ēse" or "Ēsi," as well as in compound words surviving in names of later people like "Har-si-Ese," literally "Horus, son of Isis."

For convenience and arbitrarily, Egyptologists choose to pronounce the word as "ee-set." Sometimes they may also say "ee-sa" because the final "t" in her name was a feminine suffix which is known to have been dropped in speech during the last stages of the Egyptian language.

Her name literally means "(female) of throne," that is, "Queen of the throne," which was portrayed by the throne-shaped emblem worn on her head. However, the hieroglyph of her name originally meant "(female) of flesh" (i.e., mortal), meaning that she may simply have represented deified, historical queens.

Mythic Accounts

As the deification of the wife of the pharaoh, the first prominent role of Isis was as the assistant to the deceased king. Thus she gained a funerary association, her name appearing over 80 times in the Pyramid Texts, and was said to be the mother of the four gods who protected the canopic jars - more specifically, Isis was viewed as protector of the liver-jar-god Imsety. This association with the Pharaoh's wife also brought the idea that Isis was considered the spouse of Horus, who was protector, and later the deification, of the Pharaoh himself. Consequently, on occasion, her mother was said to be Hathor, the mother of Horus. By the Middle Kingdom, as use of the funeral texts spread to be used by non-royals, her role also grows to protect the nobles and even the commoners.

By the New Kingdom, Isis gains prominence as the mother / protector of the living Pharaoh. She is said to breastfeed the pharaoh with her milk, and is often depicted visually as such. The role of her name and her throne-crown is uncertain. Some Egyptologists believe that being the throne-mother was Isis' original function, however a more modern view states that aspects of the role came later by association. In many African tribes, the king's throne is known as the mother of the king, and that fits well with either theory, giving us more insight into the thinking of ancient Egyptians.

Sister-wife to Osiris

In another area of Egypt, when the pantheon was formalized, Isis became one of the Ennead of Heliopolis, as a daughter of Nut and Geb, and sister to Osiris, Nephthys, and Set. As a funerary deity, she was associated with Osiris, god of the underworld (Duat), and thus was considered his wife. The two females - Isis and Nephthys were often depicted on coffins, with wings outstretched, as protectors against evil.

A later legend, ultimately a result of the replacement of another god of the underworld when the cult of Osiris gained more authority, tells of the birth of Anubis. The tale describes how Nephthys became sexually frustrated with Set and disguised herself as the much more attractive Isis to try to seduce him. The ploy failed, but Osiris now found Nephthys very attractive, as he thought she was Isis. They coupled, resulting in the birth of Anubis. In fear of Set's anger, Nephthys persuaded Isis to adopt Anubis, so that Set would not find out. The tale describes both why Anubis is seen as an underworld deity (he is a son of Osiris), and why he couldn't inherit Osiris' position (he was not a legitimate heir), neatly preserving Osiris' position as lord of the underworld. However, it should be remembered that this story was only a later creation of the Osirian cult who wanted to depict Set in an evil position, as the enemy of Osiris.

In another myth, Set had a banquet for Osiris in which he brought in a beautiful box and said that whoever could fit in the box perfectly would get to keep it. Set had measured Osiris in his sleep so that he was the only person that could fit in the box. Once it was Osiris' turn to see if he could fit in the box, Set closed the lid on him so that the box was now a coffin for Osiris. Set flung the box in the Nile so that it would float far away. Isis went looking for the box so that Osiris could have a proper burial. She found the box in a tree in Byblos, and brought it back to Egypt and hid it in a swamp. Set went hunting that night and found the box. To make it so Isis could never find Osiris again, Set chopped Osiris' body into fourteen pieces and scattered them all over Egypt. Isis and Nephthys, her sister went looking for his pieces, but could only find thirteen of the fourteen. The last piece, his penis, had been swallowed by a crab, so Isis fashioned one out of gold. Isis used her magic to put Osiris' body back together. Isis managed to bring Osiris back to life for one night, in which they conceived Horus.

Assimilation of Hathor

Beliefs about Ra himself had been hovering around the identification of Ra, a sun god, with Horus, another sun god (as the compound Ra-Herakhty), and so for some time, Isis had intermittently been considered the wife of Ra, since she was the mother of Horus. Consequently, since there was not anything logically troubling by identifying Isis as Ra's wife, Hathor unlike identifying Ra as her own son, she and Hathor became considered the same deity, Isis-Hathor. Sometimes the alternative consideration arose, that Isis, in the Ennead, was a child of Atum-Ra, and so should have been a child of Ra's wife, Hathor, although this was less favored as Isis had enough in common with Hathor to be considered one and the same.

Mother of Horus

Isis nursing Horus.

It was this merger with Hathor that proved to be the most significant event in the history of Egyptian mythology. By merging with Hathor, Isis became the mother of Horus, rather than his wife, and thus, when beliefs of Ra absorbed Atum into Atum-Ra, it also had to be taken into account that Isis was one of the Ennead, as the wife of Osiris. However, it had to be explained how Osiris, who as god of the dead, was dead, could be considered a father to Horus, who was not considered dead. This led to the evolution of the idea that Osiris needed to be resurrected, and so to the Legend of Osiris and Isis, of which Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride contains the most extensive account known today, a myth so significant that it is the most famous of all Egyptian myths.

Yet another set of myths detail the adventures of Isis after the birth of Osiris' posthumous son, Horus. Many dangers faced Horus after birth, and Isis fled with the newborn to escape the wrath of Set, the murderer of her husband. In one instance, Isis heals Horus from a lethal scorpion sting; she also performs other miracles in relation to the so-called cippi, or the "plaques of Horus." Isis protected and raised Horus until he was old enough to face Set, and subsequently became the king of Egypt.


In order to resurrect Osiris for the purpose of having the child Horus, it was necessary for Isis to learn magic, and so it was that Isis tricked Ra (i.e., Amun-Ra/Atum-Ra) into telling her his "secret name," by causing a snake to bite him, to which Isis had the only cure, so that he would use his "secret name" to survive. This aspect becomes central in magic spells, and Isis is often implored to use the true name of Ra while performing rituals. By the late Egyptian history, Isis becomes the most important, and most powerful magical deity of the Egyptian pantheon. Magic is central to the entire mythology of Isis; arguably moreso than any other Egyptian deity.

In consequence of her deeply magical nature, Isis also became a goddess of magic (though Thoth was always the leading god of magic). The prior goddess to hold the quadruple roles of healer, protector of the canopic jars, protector of marriage, and goddess of magic, Serket, became considered an aspect of her. Thus it is not surprising that Isis had a central role in Egyptian magic spells and ritual, especially those of protection and healing. In many spells, she is also completely merged even with Horus, where invocations of Isis are supposed to automatically involve Horus' powers as well.

Assimilation of Mut

After the authority of Thebes had risen, and made Amun into a much more significant god, it later waned, and Amun was assimilated into Ra. In consequence, Amun's consort, Mut, the doting, infertile, and implicitly virginal mother, who by this point had absorbed other goddesses herself, was assimilated into Ra's wife, Isis-Hathor as Mut-Isis-Nekhbet. On occasion, Mut's infertility and implicit virginity was taken into consideration, and so Horus, who was too significant to ignore, had to be explained by saying that Isis became pregnant with magic, when she transformed herself into a kite and flew over Osiris' dead body.

Mut's husband was Amun, who had by this time become identified with Min as Amun-Min (also known by his epithet - Kamutef). Since Mut had become part of Isis, it was natural to try to make Amun, part of Osiris, the husband of Isis, but this was not easily reconcilable, because Amun-Min was a fertility god and Osiris was the god of the dead. Consequently they remained regarded separately, and Isis was sometimes said to be the lover of Min. Subsequently, as at this stage Amun-Min was considered an aspect of Ra (Amun-Ra), he was also considered an aspect of Horus, since Horus was identified as Ra, and thus Isis' son was on rare occasions said to be Min instead, which neatly avoided having confusion over Horus's status as was held at being the husband and son of Isis.


In the Book of the Dead Isis was described as:

  • She who gives birth to heaven and earth,
  • She who knows the orphan,
  • She who knows the widow spider,
  • She who seeks justice for the poor people,
  • She who seeks shelter for the weak people

Some of Isis' many other titles were:

  • Queen of Heaven
  • Mother of the Gods
  • The One Who is All
  • Lady of Green Crops
  • The Brilliant One in the Sky
  • Star of the Sea
  • Great Lady of Magic
  • Mistress of the House of Life
  • She Who Knows How To Make Right Use of the Heart
  • Light-Giver of Heaven
  • Lady of the Words of Power
  • Moon Shining Over the Sea

Isis in literature

Isis is the most important goddess in Egyptian mythology who transferred from a local goddess in the Nile Delta to a cosmic goddess all over the whole ancient world. The name Isis is still a beloved name among modern Coptic Egyptians, and in Europe the name (Isadora) i.e., Gift of Isis is still common.

Plutarch's Isis and Osiris[13] is considered a main source in which he writes of Isis: "she is both wise, and a lover of wisdom; as her name appears to denote that, more than any other, knowing and knowledge belong to her." and that the shrine of Isis in Sais carried the inscription "I am all that hath been, and is, and shall be; and my veil no mortal has hitherto raised."[14]

In The Golden Ass the Roman writer Apuleius' gives us an understanding of Isis in the second century. The following paragraph is particularly significant:

"You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are, my nod governs the shining heights of Heavens, the wholesome sea breezes. though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names … some know me as Juno, some as Bellona … the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship call me by my true name—Queen Isis."



In art, originally Isis was pictured as a woman wearing a long sheath dress and crowned with the hieroglyphic sign for a throne, sometimes holding a lotus, as a sycamore tree. After her assimilation of Hathor, Isis's headdress is replaced with that of Hathor: the horns of a cow on her head, and the solar disc between them. She was also sometimes symbolized by a cow, or a cow's head. Usually, she was depicted with her young son, the great god Horus, with a crown and a vulture, and sometimes as a kite bird flying above Osiris's body or with the dead Osiris across her lap.

Isis is most often seen holding only the generic ankh sign and a simple staff, but is sometimes seen with Hathor's attributes, the sacred sistrum rattle and the fertility bearing menat necklace.


Because of the association between knots and magical power, a symbol of Isis was the tiet/tyet (meaning welfare/life), also called the Knot of Isis, Buckle of Isis, or the Blood of Isis. The tiet in many respects resembles an ankh, except that its arms curve down, and in all these cases seems to represent the idea of eternal life/resurrection. The meaning of Blood of Isis is more obscured, but the tyet was often used as a funerary amulet made of red wood, stone, or glass, so this may have simply been a description of its appearance.

The star Spica (sometimes called Lute Bearer), and the constellation which roughly corresponded to the modern Virgo, appeared at a time of year associated with the harvest of wheat and grain, and thus with fertility gods and goddesses. Consequently they were associated with Hathor, and hence with Isis through her later conflation with Hathor. Isis also assimilated Sopdet, the personification of Sirius, since Sopdet, rising just before the flooding of the Nile, was seen as a bringer of fertility, and so had been identified with Hathor. Sopdet still retained an element of distinct identity, however, as Sirius was quite visibly a star and not living in the underworld (Isis being the wife of Osiris who was king of the underworld).

In the Roman period, probably due to assimilation with the goddesses Aphrodite and Venus, the rose was used in her worship. The demand for roses throughout the Empire turned rose growing into an important industry.

Cults of Isis


Most Egyptian deities started off as strictly local, and throughout their history retained local centers of worship, with most major cities and towns widely known as the hometowns to their deities. However, no traces of local Isis cults are found; throughout her early history there are also no known temples dedicated to her. Individual worship of Isis does not begin until as late as the 30th dynasty; until that time Isis was depicted and apparently worshipped in temples of other deities. However, even then Isis is not worshipped individually, but rather together with Horus and Osiris- the latter of whom being both her brother and husband (marriage between brothers and sisters of the Royal family were common in Ancient Egypt to keep the Royal bloodline 'intact'). Temples dedicated specifically to Isis become wide-spread only in the Roman times.

By this period, temples to Isis begin to spread outside of Egypt. In many locations, particularly Byblos, her cult takes over that of worship to the Semitic goddess Astarte, apparently due to the similarity of names and associations. During the Hellenic era, due to her attributes as a protector, and mother, and the lusty aspect originally from Hathor, she was also made the patron goddess of sailors.

Throughout the Graeco-Roman world, Isis becomes one of the most significant of the mystery religions, and many classical writers refer to her temples, cults and rites. Temples to Isis were built in Iraq, Greece, Rome, even as far north as England where the remains of a temple were discovered at Hadrian's Wall. At Philae Temple Complex Aswan her worship persisted until the sixth century, long after the wide acceptance of Christianity- this was the last of the ancient Egyptian temples to be closed, and its fall is generally accepted to mark the end of ancient Egypt.


Priestess of Isis, Roman statue Second century C.E.

Little information on Egyptian priests of Isis survives; however it is clear there were both priests and priestesses of her cult throughout her history. By the Graeco-Roman era, many of them were healers, and were said to have many other special powers, including dream interpretation and the ability to control the weather by braiding or combing their hair, the latter of which was believed because the Egyptians considered knots to have magical powers.

Isis cult beyond Egypt

The cult of Isis rose to prominence in the Hellenistic world, beginning in the last centuries B.C.E., until it was eventually banned by the Christians in the sixth century. Despite the Isis mystery cult's growing popularity, there is evidence to suggest that the Isis mysteries were not altogether welcomed by the ruling classes in Rome. Her rites were considered by the princeps Augustus to be "pornographic" and capable of destroying the Roman moral fibre.

Tacitus writes that after Julius Caesar's assassination, a temple in honor of Isis had been decreed; Augustus suspended this, and tried to turn Romans back to the Roman gods who were closely associated with the state. Eventually the Roman emperor Caligula abandoned the Augustan wariness towards oriental cults, and it was in his reign that the Isiac festival was established in Rome. According to Roman historian Josephus, Caligula himself donned female garb and took part in the mysteries he instituted, and Isis acquired in the Hellenistic age a "new rank as a leading goddess of the Mediterranean world."

Roman perspectives on cult were syncretic, seeing in a new deity merely local aspects of a familiar one. For many Romans, Egyptian Isis was an aspect of Phrygian Cybele, whose orgiastic rites were long naturalized at Rome, indeed she was known as Isis of Ten Thousand Names.

Among these names of Roman Isis, Queen of Heaven is outstanding for its long and continuous history. Herodotus identified Isis with the Greek and Roman goddesses of agriculture, Demeter and Ceres. In Yorùbá mythology, Isis became Yemaya. In later years, Isis also had temples throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, and as far away as the British Isles, where there was a temple to Isis on the River Thames by Southwark.

Parallels in Catholicism and Orthodoxy

Some scholars[15] believe that Isis worship in late Roman times was an influence behind Catholic development of the cult[16] of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Evidence suggests that this allowed the Catholic Church to absorb a huge number of converts who had formerly believed in Isis, and would not have converted unless Catholicism offered them an "Isis-like" female focus for their faith. Iconographically the similarities between the seated Isis holding or suckling the child Horus (Harpocrates) and the seated Mary and the baby Jesus are apparent.

Some Christian writers find fault with these claims, and suggest that by the time devotion to the Virgin Mary arose, the worship of Isis had greatly evolved from the Egyptian myths, and her relationship with Horus was no longer a major factor. However, this view is overshadowed by the fact that Late Roman beliefs regarding the attributes of Isis are almost identical to early Church beliefs regarding Mary. One has only to read the quote from Apuleius above, to see that Isis was worshiped in Roman Times as a Universal and merciful mother figure. Though the Virgin Mary is not worshiped (only venerated) in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, her role as a merciful mother figure has parallels with the role formerly played by Isis. Critics point out that stylistic similarities between iconography of Mary and Isis are not proof of syncretism, since they could represent a "type." That is, a "good mother" would most naturally be represented by a woman holding a child in her arms. Similarly an exalted female figure would naturally tend toward identification with that of a Queen.

Certain Fundamentalist Christians [17] have popularly promoted and even exaggerated the Isis-Mary similarities as part of anti-Catholic polemic, asserting that Catholicism is therefore syncretic, tainted by paganism.

The veneration of Mary in Orthodox [6] and even Anglican tradition is often overlooked [18]The traditional images (Icons) of Mary are still popular in Orthodoxy today [19]


  1. Adolf Erman. A Handbook of Egyptian religion, Translated by A. S. Griffith. (London: Archibald Constable, 1907), 203
  2. Geraldine Pinch. Handbook of Egyptian mythology. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2002. ISBN 1576072428), 31-32.
  3. Dimitri Meeks and Christine Meeks-Favard. Daily life of the Egyptian gods, Translated from the French by G.M. Goshgarian. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 34-37.
  4. Henri Frankfort. Ancient Egyptian Religion. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), 25-26.
  5. Christiane Zivie-Coche, 40-41;
  6. Frankfort, 23, 28-29.
  7. Frankfort, 20-21.
  8. Jan Assmann. In search for God in ancient Egypt, Translated by David Lorton. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 73-80
  9. ; Zivie-Coche, 65-67
  10. James Henry Breasted. Development of religion and thought in ancient Egypt. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), 8, 22-24.
  11. Frankfort, 117-124
  12. ; Zivie-Coche, 154-166.
  13. Plutarch. "On the Worship of Isis and Osiris." online in English. [1].Thrice Holy Texts.Retrieved May 8, 2008.
  14. Plutarch, ch 9, "Isis and Osiris," [2] retrieved May 29, 2007.
  15. "Religion & Ethics - Christianity," Mary, BBC.[3]
  16. In Roman Catholicism, "cultus" or "cult" is the technical term for the following and devotion or veneration extended to a particular saint.
  17. Why Is Mary Crying? ©1987 by Jack T. Chick. [4]Retrieved May 8, 2008.
  18. Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. [5]. Retrieved May 8, 2008.
  19. St Mary Orthodox Church, Chambersburg, PA. Library of Icons.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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  • Breasted, James Henry. Development of religion and thought in ancient Egypt. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. ISBN 0812210454.
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  • Budge, E. A. Wallis (translator). Legends of the Gods: The Egyptian texts. 1912. Accessed at
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  • David, Rosalie. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0195132157.
  • Dunand, Françoise and Christiane Zivie-Coche. Gods and men in Egypt: 3000 B.C.E. to 395 C.E. Translated from the French by David Lorton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. ISBN 080144165X.
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  • Frankfort, Henri. Ancient Egyptian Religion. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961. ISBN 0061300772.
  • Griffith, F. Ll. and Thompson, Herbert (translators). The Leyden Papyrus. 1904. Accessed at
  • Mancini, Anna. Ma'at Revealed: Philosophy of Justice in Ancient Egypt. New York: Buenos Books America, 2004. ISBN 1932848290.
  • Meeks, Dimitri and Christine Meeks-Favard. Daily life of the Egyptian gods, Translated from the French by G.M. Goshgarian. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996. ISBN 0801431158.
  • Mercer, Samuel A. B. (translator). The Pyramid Texts. 1952. Accessed online at [].
  • Pinch, Geraldine. Handbook of Egyptian mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2002. ISBN 1576072428.
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