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Isis and the Secret Name of Re



This myth is preserved as a spell to 'ward off poison' in Papyrus 1993 from Dyn 12 (c. 1200B.C.) in the Turin Museum. A fragmentary version also exists in Papyrus Chester Beatty 15 in the British Museum. Besides giving the spell, it also shows the importance of knowing the true name of someone or something in ancient Egypt.




The first words say:
'Isis was a clever woman... more intelligent than countless gods... she was ignorant of nothing in heaven or on earth'
Isis had decided that she would find out the secret name of her father Re, the sungod. (In this myth she was the daughter to Re. Often same deities appear in different contexts, mixing and sharing traits and aspects.) To know his name would bring her equal power to him, and it would also rank her and her son Horus beside him among the gods.
As Re refused giving away his name freely to her, she set out to find a way to coerce him to reveal it. As the sungod was traveling across the horizon in his 'Boat of Millions of Years', he was aging as he approached the end of the day. He began to be feeble and nodding off. As he did so, his mouth drooped and let out a drop of saliva which fell to the ground. Isis now mixed his saliva with the earth and uttered her magic to create a living venomous serpent from the mixture. Then she placed the serpent across the path where the sungod would travel the next day, and waited.



Sure enough, Re trods on the snake which bites him and he feels a great pain, which causes him to cry out, and his whole Ennead comes to find out what has happened. Re feels the poison invade his veins:
'You gods who originated from me... something painful has attacked me but I do not know its nature. I did not see it with my eyes. I did not create it with my hand... There is no agony to match this'.
But no matter their wisdom and knowledge, none of the other gods can help the supreme deity and they all despair.



Then enters Isis whose sympathetic presence gives Re some hope although he shivers and burns at the same time and loses his vision. Isis then promises to work her magic - in exchange for the knowledge of Re's secret name. This is the last thing Re wants to do, as he will loses a lot of prestige. Instead he tries to give many of his other names:
Creator of the heavens and the earth
Moulder of the Mountains
Creator of the water for the Great flood' [primeval cow goddess]
Maker of the bull for the cow in order to bring sexual pleasure into being
Controller of the Inundation
Khepri in the morning
Re at noon
Atum in the evening

But Isis only notes that his secret name was not included, and as the pain increases, the Supreme God is finally forced to agree to her demand but asks her to lay it upon her son Horus not to divulge it to anyone else.
The secret name of Re remains hidden for us since it is not included on the papyrus. Personally I tend to think that is as it should be, the ancient Egyptians would hardly dare the audacity to pretend to know this powerful name. Instead, the spell which Isis gave the sungod is included, and it was said to heal anyone who got a venomous bite.

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