Isis, the Goddess of Milk
On breastmilk, healing, and divine kingship
By Adhiambo Edith Magak
A long time ago lived a supreme sorceress and healer who was revered for her power: Isis.
One of the best-known goddesses of the Egyptian and Kushite1 pantheons, Isis was the child of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. She married her brother, the god Osiris, and the pair ruled the world.
Osiris and Isis, it was said, were in love with each other even in the womb, and therefore born as husband and wife. As king, Osiris was respected by both those who lived on earth and the gods who dwelled in worlds beyond. As queen, Isis was supportive and loving towards her people. She taught women to weave, bake, and brew beer. But her and Osiris’ royal bliss was not to last.
Seth, their younger brother, envied Osiris for the respect he commanded from both human and god alike. In a jealous rage, Seth transformed himself into a vicious monster and set upon Osiris, killing him before cutting him into pieces which he spread across the kingdom. With Osiris dead, Seth claimed the throne.
But Isis, who had magical powers, refused to capitulate to this new state of affairs. She roamed far and wide searching for her husband, collecting the pieces of his body to assemble them. Using potent spells, she breathed life into his reconstituted body and resurrected him. Together again, they had a son, Horus. After this, Osiris went back to rule the underworld. To help renew Osiris in the afterlife, Isis would frequently travel to his tomb where she would give her milk as libation. Her sacred milk had the magical ability to not only sustain her infant son Horus but also to give Osiris life during his rebirth in the afterlife.
For ancient Egyptians and Nubians alike, the breast milk of Isis gave salvation, divinity, and life in both worlds. In epithets, they described her as “Isis, Giver of Life”. Sacred inscriptions carved in tomb walls of pyramids instructed the deceased to “Take the breast of Isis, the milk provider.” Isis was revered as a compassionate, maternal goddess, having overcome her husband’s death and sustained her son. Her breast milk had the power to solve many problems. Chief among them was healing the sick.
As a child, Horus was vulnerable to wild animal bites and diseases, but Isis could heal him with her divine milk. The people, therefore, believed the goddess’ milk was medicinal. As a result of the story of Isis, the milk of any woman who had borne a son became a fairly common medicine. Ancient medical papyrus documents the use of breast milk as a treatment, where it was referred to as the “milk of Isis”.
People often stored the milk in vessels in the shape of a woman with a limp child on her lap. It symbolized the vital power of milk for the health of the child.
But its medicinal applications were not strictly limited to children’s ailments. As Maria Ivanova writes in Milk in Ancient Egyptian Religion, eye diseases were treated with “black eye paint, fat of a duck, milk of a woman who had borne a male child.” Breast milk was also used to treat burns; applying Goddess-milk to the body of a burn sufferer would make the fire leave their body, and they would be healed.
The power of breast milk to heal went beyond the earthly realm. At Bigge, where Isis visited Osiris’ tomb to give him milk libations in the underworld, ancient decrees read:
O, Osiris, great lord of Bigge, take to you libations of your sister Isis, it is milk, no water is in them… libations to her brother which is in them, for cooling his heart, rejuvenating his limbs, growing of his new body, a medicine to his majesty, she has ferried to Bigge, for giving life to the great sycamore.
Following Isis’ lead, Nubian widows would pour milk on their husband’s graves on the second day after their deaths to symbolize their rebirth in the underworld.
As Horus, Isis’ son, was the first king, all who ruled after him symbolized the incarnated son of Isis.
Both Egyptian and Nubian kings demonstrated their legitimacy to rule by tracing their female line back to esteemed foremothers. Isis conveyed divine kingship to Horus by nursing him, and so breast milk became the vehicle by which divinity was transmitted from a deity to a monarch. When a ruler was crowned, the king’s mother or sister needed to be present. She would be identified as Isis, who had nursed Horus, the king. Identifying the queen mother as Isis, who gave and legitimized kingship, created a divine basis for the king’s power.
As such, women exercised significant influence because they were the bearers of the offspring of the gods. Because of the powerful influence of women figures, and since women too could produce this divine breastmilk, Nubia produced many more powerful queens. Six queens ruled with their husbands; ten were sovereign. These warrior queens include Amanirenas, Amanishakheto, Amanitore, among others. Ritual objects and temple walls depicted them bare-breasted, signalling the potent power of their breast milk.
Milk was so sacred that if one stepped on it, the spirits would punish them. The proper response was to pick the dirt where milk had spilt and carry it to the Nile River.
With Osiris in the underworld and Seth still king, Isis hid Horus in the marshes of the Nile until he was old and strong enough to avenge his father. It was there that she defended him against snakes and scorpions, healing him with the milk from her breast. When the time came, Horus made a case before the gods that he, not Seth should become rightful king. A competition followed, where Seth cheated Horus out of victory. Isis decided to help her son to set a trap for Seth. But when Seth was ensnared, she took pity on him and allowed him to escape.
Enraged by his mother’s compassion, Horus beheaded her.
But, Isis was to survive to fight another day. Another God, Throth, from whom Isis commanded admiration and respect, used his magic to replace her severed head with that of a cow. Isis would go on to join Osiris, whom she had for so long sustained with her breast milk, in the underworld. Horus, despite having angered the gods by his act of violence against his mother, would eventually claim his birthright as king, aided by a good word from his father.
Isis’ legacy was not diminished by her miring in boorish family feuds. Today, her story lives on, in some ways we may not even fully understand. The Roman Empire embraced Isis, and temples dedicated to the Goddess of Milk were built in Iraq, Greece, Rome, and even England. Scholars continue to debate whether Isis worship in late Roman times was the primary influence on Christianity’s adoption of the Virgin Mary iconography. Some even claim that Paris, the French capital, was named for a Roman temple dedicated to a large idol of Isis, near Saint-German des Prés. The Latin quasi par Isis (“similar to Isis”) became Par-Isis. Today, Isis continues to be worshipped by pagans and Wiccans as a divine goddess of love, protection, and restoration.
As a woman, Isis defied categorization: fierce and compassionate, loyal and manipulative, a devoted wife and mother who made magic. In her image, ancient Egyptians and Nubians revered women for their ability to sustain life and to provide a direct connection to the divine. For thousands of years, the sacredness of Isis’ breast milk has symbolized life and salvation — and it will continue to, in this life and the next.
Adhiambo Edith Magak writes about African history, culture, and arts. Her writing has appeared in Meeting of Minds UK, Africa in Dialogue, Narratively, OkayAfrica, Talenthouse, Critical Read, among others. You can find her on Twitter @oedithknight.
Ivanova, M. (2009). Milk in Ancient Egyptian Religion. Uppsala University. <https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:713303/FULLTEXT01.pdf>
Kneller, T.L. (1993). The Role of Women in Nubia. University of Pennsylvania. <https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Role_Women.html>
The Kingdom of Kush was an ancient kingdom of Nubia, located in what is now southern Egypt and Northern Sudan. Ancient Egypt and Nubia or Kush were neighbouring kingdoms with intermingling histories. The two civilizations were at times friendly and at other times antagonistic.