Egyptian Mythology

The majority of Egypt is dry desert, and only the benevolent Nile brings it life. Now, as thousands of years ago, the population settles along its banks, needing on its water to exist.

Religion was central to everyday life in ancient Egypt. Each area had its own tribal deities which were never completely assimilated into a single system and there are many gods and goddesses with conflicting relationships and histories.

However, there are common themes running through the myths of ancient Egypt. These centre on the constants of everyday life- the rising and setting of the sun, the surrounding arid desert, and the annual flooding of the Nile which left rich alluvial silt that provided a fertile medium for growing crops.  The gods represented these natural forces and ideas sometimes depicted in human form and sometimes as animal headed to emphasise their link with the natural balance.

The country itself was a double kingdom of south and north: Upper Egypt [Shemau] is the southern part of the country, and northern Egypt was considered to be Lower Egypt [Ta-Mehu], the Delta. This is because the Nile is unusual in flowing from south to north.

The two kingdoms were united under King Menes in the early dynastic period around five thousand years ago and the unification is symbolised by the representations of the two lands: the papyrus of the Delta and the water lily of the south, or alternatively the sedge of the south and the bee of the north. The pharaoh was titled ‘he of the two lands’ and wore a double crown consisting of the red crown of Lower Egypt and the white crown of Upper Egypt. Often the two goddesses of upper and lower Egypt are shown wearing their respective crowns. Even Hapi, the god of the Nile, was sometimes shown as twins.

Just as north and south were balanced, so too were east and west, where Ra the sun god rose and set on his journey across the sky in the solar boat during the twelve hours of daylight. At sunset he became Atum, god of the sunset, and entered the Western gateway. During the twelve hours of night, he had to make a dangerous progress through the underworld, along the way reviving the god Osiris, visiting Thoth as the moon god, and defeating his arch enemy Apophis, a giant serpent. In the twelfth hour the solar boat entered the body of a giant snake and Ra emerged from its mouth as the scarab headed Kephera, god of dawn. 

An alternative story tells how the sky goddess Nut swallowed the sun in the evening, it passed through her body at night, and she gave birth to it each dawn. This same journey was promised to the human soul: the passage through life into death, the journey through the land of the dead, and rebirth into the afterlife.


There are various creation myths:

In one the god Ptah created himself and everything else by speaking his thoughts out loud. This is more metaphysical than most Egyptian creation myths; it relies on the concepts of heka [divine magical energy], sia [divine knowledge] and hu [divine utterance].

In the Elephantine Creation Myth, the ram-headed god Khnum modelled creation on his potter’s wheel out of clay and watched over his creation with care.

In the Ogdoad creation myth of Hermopolis Magna eight deities known as the Ogdoad [Greek for “group of eight” or in Egyptian khmum] four frog headed gods and four serpentine goddesses – Nun and Naunet [primeval water], Amun and Amaunet [air or hidden power], Kuk and Kauket [darkness] and Huh and Hauhet [formlessness or flood force] – acted together to create a burst of energy, a kind of big bang, from which creation took place. A primeval mound of earth emerged from the waters, called the Isle of Flame. The god Thoth, in the shape of an ibis bird, placed an egg on it. This cosmic egg cracked and hatched the sun, which rose into the sky. A variation on this story states that a lotus flower [the god Nefertem] grew on the waters and opened its petals to allow the sun [Horus] to emerge from it. The earliest known version of this myth is from the Middle Kingdom [c.2055-1650 BCE].

On the best-known stories is the Ennead of Heliopolis: the primeval waters existed before everything. A mound arose upon them and on this was the god Atum [“The All”]. By masturbating or sneezing he spat out the god and goddess Shu [air] and Tefnut [moisture]. These mated and produced Geb [Earth] and Nut [Sky]. These two had to be separated by Shu and were the parents of Isis, Osiris, Set and Nepthys. These are called the Ennead [Greek for Group of Nine, or in Egyptian pesedjet.]

The various creation myths all emphasise order [maat] being created out of primordial chaos, usually symbolised by land emerging from water. Underlying all Egyptian philosophy, there was a constant fear of the return of chaos [Isfet], represented by the god Set who stood for the barrenness and aridity of the desert. Opposing Set was his nephew Horus, an emblem of order and fertility. Together the two made a perfect balance of two opposites, a common theme in Egypt.


Isis and Osiris, together with their siblings Set and Nepthys, were the children of the earth god Geb and Nut, the sky goddess. Set married his sister Nepthys, while Osiris married Isis and the pair became rulers of Egypt. Thoth the Scribe acted as their chief advisor. Osiris taught humankind how to plant and harvest grain, how to make tools, and how to make bread and beer. Isis taught them how to make wine. Together they built temples and reformed the religion of Egypt. After a few years Osiris travelled abroad and introduced these ideas into other countries, leaving the wise Isis to act as regent.

Then, in the twenty-eighth year of his reign, Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Set. Set is generally seen as an evil figure, the personification of the dry desert that surrounds the thin strip of fertile Nile Valley. Set and his followers tricked Osiris into getting into a coffin, nailed down the lid and then threw it in the Nile. It washed up in Byblos, but Set found it and cut his brother’s body into fourteen pieces, which he scattered across Egypt.

Isis searched the whole land until she found the pieces, leaving a funeral inscription at each site, all but the fourteenth part- the phallus, which had been eaten by a crab. The jackal-headed god Anubis, son of Osiris and Nepthys, mummified the body and this was the first mummy.

Isis formed a new phallus by magic and, transforming herself into a kite, mated with the corpse and conceived Horus, the falcon headed god. Isis was forced to hide from Set until Horus was old enough to avenge his father. As a baby in the marshes he was watched over by the goddesses Nepthys, Sekhat-Hor, Neith and Selkis. He was also guarded by ‘the seven cows of Hathor’, identified with the Pleiades cluster of stars. Horus is sometimes said to be Osiris reborn.

Osiris chose to remain in Amenti (‘West’) the Land of the Dead to act as the judge of souls. He is usually depicted as a mummy.

Much of the lore of Osiris and Isis was appropriated by the Christian religion. Osiris was a god who chose to become a man to guide his people. As such he was called ‘the Good Shepherd’ and depicted with a shepherd’s crook. As a corn god he died, was buried, and was brought back to life when Isis caused the Nile to flood. As corn he fed his people and was called the ‘Resurrection and the Life’. His flesh was eaten in the form of wheaten cakes. Like Mary, Isis was called ‘The Star of the Sea’ and ‘Queen of Heaven’, a virgin who brought forth a son titled ‘the Saviour of the World’, the hero who brings order back into the universe. The pair were forced to hide from an evil king until the son became a man.

The Egyptian calendar of three seasons was based on the agricultural cycle, which depended on the flooding of the Nile. In late July the first heliacal (i.e. just before sunrise) rising of the Dog Star occurs in Egypt. Unlike other parts of the world the effects of Sirius were considered beneficial, and its appearance was thought to cause the yearly rising of the flood waters in the Nile Delta. The star is titled ‘the Water Bringer’. It was this inundation of the great river that provided the rich alluvial deposits for the cultivation of crops, and marked a time when the country, parched by intense heat and drought, would be brought back to life. This was the greatest festival in the Egyptian calendar.

Egyptians called the star Septit -or Sothis in the Greek form of the name- and identified it with the goddess Isis. The rising of Sothis was considered to be the goddess coming to mourn her husband and bring him back to life (as corn god) with the flooding of the Nile. It was called the Festival of Isis seeking Osiris in the Darkness.


The Egyptians believed in an afterlife. The earliest known burials, in shallow oval graves, date from 5000 years ago, and were simple burials in the hot, dry sand of the desert, which preserved the bodies. Even at this time, they were buried with funerary goods, such as pots, tools and weapons, which they were thought to need in the afterlife. They were buried in the foetal position, suggesting that there was a belief in rebirth. The unearthing of these perfectly preserved bodies may have given the ancient Egyptians the idea that the dead were living in some way, and that the body was required to be preserved for the afterlife.

As time progressed, richer people demanded more elaborate burials and tombs. People began to be buried in coffins and lined underground chambers. Mummification developed and continued until the conquest of Christianity on the fourth century AD.

From the later coffins texts, we know that the realm of the dead, called the Fields of Hetep [satisfaction or offerings] was thought to be located in the heavens, the realm of the sun. To reach it, the soul would travel on the back of a falcon or goose, on the outstretched arms of the gods, or by a reed boat. To get to the afterlife, the soul would have to overcome various obstacles.

The afterlife was a perfected vision of everyday life in Egypt, with lovely trees, fertile fields and abundance, where they would work in the fields, feast and so on. So that they did not have to work too hard, they would take servants with them in the form of shabtis. It was personified as the god Aker, shown as a strip of land with a human head or two lions sitting back to back, one facing east, the other west, guarding the entrance and exit to the otherworld. The afterlife and death or imhet was associated with the west, the direction of the setting sun, rebirth and life with the east or duat, the direction of the rising sun.

By dying and passing into the afterlife, a person came closer to the gods, and gained supernatural powers that might help the living. However, the unsettled dead could cause problems for the living.

The eternal part of a person had three parts:

Ka – a spirit double, or the vital energising force of life, represented by two upraised arms. It comes into being at a person’s birth and is linked with the physical body, which is the vessel for the ka after death. It required offerings of food and drink to sustain it in the afterlife.

Ba- represented by a bird with a human head. It seems to represent the non-physical elements that make a human an individual, the personality and will. It is more mobile than the ka and enables a person to move around in the afterlife.

Akh- represented by a crested ibis or a small mummiform figure, it is the transfigured spirit of a person after death. Those who fail to achieve this transformation are condemned to eternal death.

Name and Shadow- in addition, the name and shadow of a person were considered to be important, and these were protected and preserved after death.

After death, the soul of the person was judged in the court of Osiris.  It was the duty of each person, especially the pharaoh, to maintain this cosmic order, a harmony personified as the goddess Maat, and to prepare for the afterlife by obeying the forty two divine laws, as judged by the forty two Maati or afterlife assessors. The soul would be asked to name the assessors and swear that he had not transgressed any of the divine laws, such a murder or polluting the environment. The proceedings were recorded by Thoth, the scribe. The heart of the deceased was weighed on the sales of Maat, and is depicted being weighed against a feather, the symbol of Maat. If it balanced, the soul was allowed into the afterlife. If it was heavy with sin, the heart would be thrown to a monster called Ammit [‘gobbler’]. If the heart passed the scales test, it was returned to its owner, and funeral rites included spells to ensure this. It was protected by a scarab laid over it during the bandaging of the mummy.


The Four Seasons

There are different dates on which the four seasons begin and end, according to how you count them.

Astronomical seasons, for example, use the solstices and equinoxes to divide the year, with spring beginning on the vernal equinox, summer beginning on the summer solstice, autumn beginning on the autumn equinox, and winter at the winter solstice.

The meteorological seasons (in the northern hemisphere) are based on the annual temperature cycle, so spring will always start on 1 March, summer on 1 June, autumn on 1 September, and winter on 1 December. But we witches use the old ways.

However, the old names of the festivals of Midsummer, 21 June (in the northern hemisphere) and Midwinter, 21 December (in the northern hemisphere) tell us our ancestors counted the divisions of the year in quite a different way, according to the light of the Sun. The days of greatest darkness fall from Samhain to Imbolc, with Yule at the midpoint, giving us a solar winter. The days of greatest light fall from Beltane to Lughnasa, with the summer solstice at midpoint, giving us a solar summer; the old song tells us “Summer is a comin’ in” on May Day, or Beltane. The Irish call Lughnasa the first day of autumn. The Craft defines the seasons as follows, which draws on the old ways of counting the year, and reflects the relationship of the Sun and Earth:

Winter – Samhain to Imbolc Eve

Spring – Imbolc to Beltane Eve

Summer – Beltane to Lughnasa Eve

Autumn – Lughnasa to Samhain Eve

© Anna Franklin

Egyptian Temples


While houses were built of mud brick, temples were built of stone beyond the reach of the flood plane.

Each was approached by an avenue, flanked with statues.

This lead to the first pylon [‘gate’], a tapering façade with an opening, flanked by an obelisk or towering statues, with flags.

Inside was a peristyle courtyard surrounded by colonnades which may have been the public area of the temple.

Opposite the first lay the second pylon with a smaller gateway. Access to this was restricted to priests.

Inside were various rooms for equipment and offerings and the hypostyle hall with a roof supported by columns.

Deep within the temple was the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary where the god dwelt in the cult statue standing in the naos [‘inner shrine’]. From the New Kingdom onwards the shrine took the form of a boat. Only the high priest or pharaoh could enter this shrine. The floor of the temple rose towards it to reflect the primordial mound.

The primeval waters of Nun were reflected in the sacred lake where the priests purified themselves.

The pylon represented the horizon, and the columns with their papyrus and lotus tops the original marsh.

The temple was a place of learning, with the library being called ‘the House of Life’. It offered healing, kept all the public records and had workshops for the creation of perfumes and storerooms for the temple goods. Temples employed huge numbers of people; Karnak in the New Kingdom, for example, utilised over eighty thousand workers, though not all were priests. Ordinary people might spend part of the year serving the gods in the temple.

Priests had to be purified in mind and body before entering the temple, and this included shaving off body hair. The statue of the god was washed and dressed daily and offered food; the god was thought to eat ‘the essence’ of it. The lector priests chanted the hymns for the god and also magic spells, as magic was a huge part of Egyptian ritual. The sem priest [dressed in a leopard skin] was important in funerals especially the ritual of the opening of the mouth.

Priestesses were called hemet netjer or “wife of the god” and were usually married to the priests. They generally served as singers and musicians, performing ceremonial dances accompanied by rattles.

At funerals two priestesses took the roles of Isis and Nepthys.

The title ‘god’s wife of Amun’ was held by a daughter of the king and was a powerful position. By the later period the post was more important than the high priest’s and she controlled the vast wealth and estates of Amun.

Isis at Philae

The name Philae was translated by the ancient Egyptians as ‘Island of the Time of Ra’ suggesting that the place recreated the primeval world when Re ruled on earth. On the neighbouring island of Biga was the Abaton or ‘pure mound’ one of the many tombs of Osiris around Egypt.

Philae is situated at the frontier between Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia, at the beginning of the First Cataract of the Nile. From there the river descends on its way to the sea. At the southern end of the First Cataract, before the Aswan dam was built, the river gathered speed, dropping sixteen feet in swirling eddies and turbulent falls of white water, for three miles, until the Cataract ended, and the Nile resumed its calmer flow through seven hundred miles of desert, to the Delta and the Mediterranean.

The ritual focus was Biggeh, the site of the abaton, one of the alleged tombs of Osiris. At Philae, regular visits were paid every tenth day by Isis to the island of Bigeh and the tomb of Osiris.

The ancient Egyptians relied on the annual flooding of the Nile to irrigate and fertilise the land of the Nile Valley, renewing and regenerating the earth. Herodotus said that Egypt is the gift of the Nile. They believed that the river emerged from a cave on Biga Island. Sometimes the floodwaters of the Nile were described as the Tears of Isis, which she cries for her husband.

On Philae Isis was called the Lady of Abaton. Here Isis and Hathor have merged into one deity.

Isis is also depicted as the Mother and Protector of the King, In the Birth house of the temple of Isis, there were rites held at every new king’s ascendancy to the throne of Egypt, to manifest and secure his Divine birth.

An end to the cult was made in 535 ACE by Justinian who ordered its forceful suppression.

The Valley of the Kings

The most splendid tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs lie in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of Luxor. Each tomb had a burial chamber and offering chamber where the ka was fed. The most famous tomb is that of Tutankhamen discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Contrary to popular opinion, it was not intact and had been partly looted in antiquity. It contained fabulous treasures but was far less elaborate than other tombs in the valley, and the treasures that accompanied greater kings must have been astonishing. Nearby is the Valley of the Queens, and also the tombs of nobles and artisans.

When most people think of the burial of Egyptian pharaohs they think of the pyramids. Pyramid means ‘wheat cake’. Some think they may represent shafts of light, other think they may represent the mounds that are raised up over seeds to make them burst into life and grow. They seem to have had the purpose of helping the king’s ascent into heaven, or his rebirth into the afterlife.  Rulers were buried in pyramids from the third dynasty [2667 BCE] to the second intermediate period 1550 BCE when burials were shifted to the valley of the Kings. They are masterpieces of engineering, and show that as well as the sun, the stars were important in Egyptian religion. In the Great Pyramid are two shafts running from the burial chamber aligned with the constellation of Orion [identified with the god Sah, or possibly Osiris. Orion may have been the destination of the king’s ba when he ascended to take his place in the circumpolar stars. The not so wealthy often had mud brick mini-pyramids or a stone pyramid in their tomb.

The worship of a particular Pharaoh did not cease when he died. Like other departed souls he required the service of the living. His priests must assist him to reach the Osirian Paradise of Aalu, or the sun bark of Ra. Even Ra had to be assisted to pass through the perilous hour-divisions of the night.

The pharaohs also had splendid mortuary temples on the west bank of Luxor, where offerings were made to sustain them. In death, the king was identified with Osiris, and the Ramesseum has semi-mummified images of Ramesses II attached to the columns.

In ancient Egypt, people who could afford it were mummified, and in practice this meant only the royal family and very wealthy. Early attempts as mummification were not entirely successful and consisted only of the bodies being wrapped in resin-soaked linen, but by 2500 BCE better techniques had evolved.

The body was taken to a place of purification on the west bank. It was ritually washed with a solution of natron, a natural salt, which would have started the preserving process. The body was then moved to the place of embalming; the chief embalmer was called ‘he who controls the mysteries’ and probably wore a jackal mask during the proceedings to represent Anubis. His deputy was called ‘God’s seal-bearer’ a title of Osiris.

The body was stretched on a board. The brain was removed and discarded, and the head stuffed with linen. The major organs were removed and preserved separately through incisions made with obsidian.  These were dried out and packed with spices into canopic jars, though in later periods they were returned to the body. the body was packed with stuffing and covered in natron for forty days to dry out, becoming darker in colour and 75% lighter. The temporary stuffing was them removed and the body washed out, dried, and stuffed with linen soaked in resin. In the later period, bodies were entirely filled with resin.

The bodies were anointed again with juniper oil, beeswax, natron, spices, milk and wine. The abdominal incision was covered up and protected with an Eye of Horus amulet. The nose, mouth and ears were plugged with wax or sometimes onion bulbs. The whole body was coated in resin. Te soles of the feet might be hennad and the cheeks rouged, lips and eyebrows painted. The bodies were dressed in robes, sandals and jewellery before the bandaging began. The body was shrouded and a mummy mask fitted over the head and shoulders. The mask was usually made of stiffened papyrus, though royal masks were sometimes made of gold. The whole process took seventy days, the same length of time the Dog Star Sothis was missing from the sky before it began its heliacal rising.

The Vernal Equinox

This year, the vernal equinox falls on 20 March. The equinox is a moment of balance, when day and night are of equal length. The Sun, reborn at the winter solstice, has gradually been gaining strength, and at the equinox the light finally overcomes the darkness, and the days will gradually become longer than the nights. The Saxons called March Lentmonat, ‘lengthening’ referring to the lengthening of days, a word the Christians adopted as ‘Lent’, the days leading up to the festival of Easter. 

It is not surprising that many places of the ancient world celebrated New Year at the spring equinox, when the Sun entered Aries, the first sign of the zodiac, and the natural world renewed itself. The Babylonian New Year, for example, began after the vernal equinox with the twelve-day festival of Akitu. It commemorated the defeat of the dragon-goddess of chaos Tiamat by the god Marduk, and the beginning of creation with the emergence of order out of chaos. To mark this, New Year was celebrated with a temporary subversion of order, [1] reminiscent of the customs of misrule in later western Europe, when the king was stripped of his jewellery, sceptre and crown before kneeling before the altar of Marduk and praying for forgiveness on behalf of himself and his subjects, before all his emblems of authority were restored, symbolising the annual renewal of his authority and nature alike. Influenced by these ancient rites, Iranians, Zoroastrians, the Parsis in India, the Kurds and members of the Ba’hai faith still celebrate New Year at the spring equinox with the festival of Nowruz (‘New Day’), and this has taken place in Iran for at least 2500 years. It celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, order over chaos, and the rejuvenation of the world as the warmth of the spring conquers winter.

This regeneration was celebrated in other ancient customs during this month. In ancient Greece the festival of the Anthestêria was celebrated [2] in honour of the god Dionysus Anthios (Dionysus the Blossoming), as the first flowers heralded his return in spring. [3] It fell when the fermentation of the wine made in the autumn was complete and it was ready to drink, reminding everyone that life and the seasons are cyclical, that what is born will die and be reborn again. All the temples of the gods were closed except the Limnaion, the temple of Dionysus ‘in the Marshes’, which contained a sacred spring, a passageway to the underworld. The temple was only opened on this one day of the year, and its opening unlocked the way between the worlds of the living and the dead, enabling  the vegetation god Dionysus, who had been dwelling in the Underworld during the winter, to return, along with the shades of the dead  attracted by the scent of the opening of the pithoi (large wine jars), left fermenting over winter, half buried in the Earth, and now ready to taste.  Swaying masks of the Dionysus were hung in the trees, sending good luck and fertility wherever they looked.

In ancient Rome, a ten-day festival in honour of the vegetation god Attis, son and lover of the goddess Cybele, took place. A young pine tree representing Attis was carried into the city like a corpse, swathed in a linen shroud and decked with violets, then placed in a sepulchre in Cybele’s temple which stood on what is now Vatican Hill, near where St Peter’s stands. [4] On the Day of Blood, also called Black Friday, [5] the priests of the cult gashed themselves with knives as they danced ecstatically, sympathizing with Cybele in her grief and helping to restore Attis to life. That night was spent holding a vigil over the tomb. The next morning, a priest opened the sepulchre at dawn, revealing that it was empty and announcing that the god was risen. This day was known as Hilaria or the Day of Joy, a time of feasting and merriment. [6] The worshippers cheered as the priest announced, “Be of good cheer, neophytes, seeing that the god is saved; for we also, after our toils, shall find salvation!” [7] The longer, warmer days of spring had come, and vegetation was emerging from the earth.

In an echo of the rites of Attis, in Western Christian tradition, Easter often falls during this month. It marks the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, sacrificed on a cross, but when his tomb was opened after three days, it was found empty, and he was declared to have risen.

Out of the winter, spring comes. Out of the darkness comes light. At the equinox, the world is renewed with youth and vitality, freshness and vigour. The folk customs of the season reflect these themes. New clothes were often bought for Easter, particularly gloves and new bonnets for women. [8] With the increase in light, wild and domestic birds start laying, a symbol of renewal and fertility. Forbidden during the fasting of Lent, they could now be eaten for luck, or given as gifts. In many districts, eggs were coloured or eaten for luck at Easter, and there was (and in some parts of England still are) egg rolling down the hillsides, perhaps to reflect the passage of the Sun, or perhaps just for fun, and the winner is the egg that rolls the furthest. The Pace Egg mumming troupes go out, performing mumming plays in return for eggs and beer. [9] In Germany, it is important to eat something green, and fire wheels are rolled down hills, straw stuffed into large wooden wheels, set on fire and rolled it down a hill at night. If all wheels released roll straight down the hill it is said to bring a good harvest. [10]

Since the 1970s, many modern Pagans have called the spring equinox Ostara, with many books claiming that Ostara is a Germanic goddess of spring associated with eggs and hares who gave her name to the Christian feast of Easter. Sadly, Ostara is not an old Germanic name for the vernal equinox. The goddess Ēostre was mentioned, though only once, in early literature, by the seventh/eighth century English monk Bede in his De temporum ratione (‘The Reckoning of Time’). He wrote that during Ēosturmōnaþ (the lunar month of March/April) Pagan Anglo-Saxons had once held feasts in Ēostre’s honour, but the tradition had died out by his time.  Based on this single source, folklorist and recorder of fairy tales Jacob Grimm attempted to reconstruct a possible Germanic equivalent goddess calling her Ostara, arguing that since Germans called April ôstarmânoth while most countries retained the Biblical pascha for Easter, the word must relate to áustrô, from the Old High German adverb ôstar which “expresses movement towards the rising sun”, concluding that the putative deity would have been a goddess of dawn.  [11] Given the lack of any evidence for Ostara or Ēostre, scholars have dismissed the goddess as a pure invention of Bede, [12] concluding that the Old English word eastre is a simply an approximation of the Latin albae (’white’), a word sometimes applied to Easter. [13] [14] It has to be said that this doesn’t mean that she didn’t exist – it is unlikely that Bede made her up – but we have one very brief mention of her name, and it may be connected with the word for east, the direction of the rising Sun. We certainly know nothing at all about her worship, and there is most definitely no mention of hares and eggs as cult symbols. There is no linguistic connection with the Latin word oestrus (relating to ovulation and eggs), nor with the Middle Eastern goddesses Ishtar and Astarte. 

If we want to mark the vernal equinox, we should take our cue from nature itself and celebrate it as the time when the light gains over the dark, and the world rekindles in response, bursting forth from its winter sleep in a flurry of growth and new birth. The Sun warms the earth, ready for planting. Like the Earth we too plant our own seeds at this time; seeds we literally plant in the garden, but also seeds of goals that we will make into reality.

© text and illustration Anna Franklin

[1], accessed 12.2.19

[2] The full moon following the full moon of the Lênaia, and two moons following the full moon nearest the winter solstice.

[3]  Federica Doria, Marco Giuman, The Swinging Woman. Phaedra and Swing in Classical Greece, online at, accessed 27.11.18

[4] Anneli Rufus, The World Holiday Book, Harper, San Francisco 1994

[5], accessed 15.3.19

[6] James Frazer, The Golden Bough,

[7] Louis Bouyer, (trans. I. Trethowan), The Christian Mystery: From Pagan Myth to Christian Mysticism, T.& T.Clark Ltd, 1990

[8] Brian Day, A Chronicle of Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 1998

[9] Brian Day, A Chronicle of Folk Customs, Hamlyn, London, 1998

[10], accessed 12.1.20

[11] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology. (J.S. Stalleybrass edition) George Bell & Sons, London, 1883

[12] Karl Weinhold, Die deutschen Monatnamen

[13] Philip A.Shaw, Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World, Bristol Classical Press (Bloomsbury Academic), London, 2011

[14] Philip A.Shaw, Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World, Bristol Classical Press (Bloomsbury Academic), London, 2011


On this day, the ancient Romans honoured Liber and Libera as spring fertility deities.Liber was another named for Bacchus/Dionysus, while Libera was another name for the goddess Ariadne (see 4 March). The statues of the gods were garlanded with ivy, and it was a day of liberty and license, when slaves were permitted to speak freely. Old women called Sacerdotes Liberi (priestesses of Liber and Libera), crowned with ivy, tended portable altars along the streets and charged a small fee to sacrifice oily honey cakes called liba. [1]

In Russian myth, the spring fertility god and goddess Lado and Lada were worshipped along with the springtime cult of the rusalki, nymphs who brought fertility to the land.  [2] They are spring fertility deities, corresponding to the Norse Freyr and Freya, and the Roman Liber and Libera. [3]

In the Christian calendar 17 March is St Patrick’s Day. Patrick was born in Britain, but was carried off by raiders to serve as a slave in Ireland. After escaping he became a Christian priest, gaining the reputation of battling Paganism in all its forms, banishing the ‘snakes’ from Ireland – since there were never any actual snakes in Ireland, this probably referred to Pagans.  In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, his feast is considered the real first day of spring: On the high day of Patrick/ Every fold will have a cow-calf/ And every pool a salmon. [4]

Curiously, St Patrick also has a partner. The day after St Patrick’s Day was called Sheela’s Day in rural Ireland, bringing the festivities of St Patrick’s Day to an end with dropping the shamrock worn all day into the final glass of drink. No one knows who Sheela was. Some say she was a relative of St Patrick, perhaps his mother or even his wife. [5] Others make a connection with the Sheela-na-Gigs, the grinning images of naked old women with open vulvas carved on churches throughout Ireland, England, France and Spain from the eleventh to the sixteenth century CE. [6] The name ‘Sheela’ in connection with these figures is a mystery. It is generally thought to be the Irish form of the Anglo-Norman name Cecile or Cecilia, since most of the images in Ireland are found in areas where the Normans invaded. ‘Gig’ is an old English slang term for a woman’s private parts. [7] In Ireland though, sheelah was a term applied to elderly women.  [8] It is not known what these figures represent. They may be grotesque representations of female wantonness to warn people against the sin of lust. Alternatively, since they generally appear above doorways, they may be protective figures. They could be fertility symbols, since in some places, brides were required to look at and perhaps touch the sheela before weddings. [9] [10] Modern Pagans often choose to see them as pre-Christian representations of an Earth or hag goddess similar to the Scottish Cailleach who rules the winter and changes place with the maiden Bride (Brighid) in spring. I have a little Sheela-na-gig figurine made for me by a friend, which sits on one of my altars.

[1] Carol Field, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990

[2] Joanna Hubbs, Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988

[3] Joanna Hubbs, Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988

[4] Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987

[5], accessed 27.2.19

[6] Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994

[7], accessed 26.2.19

[8], accessed 27.2.19

[9] Georgia Rhoades, Decoding the Sheela-na-gig, Feminist Formations 22.2 (2010): 167-196.

[10] Georgia Rhoades, Decoding the Sheela-na-gig, Feminist Formations 22.2 (2010): 167-196

Magical Names

There is an ancient belief that by naming something you invoke it. In earlier times, and in tribal societies, the naming of a thing or person was a great responsibility. The true name of something encapsulates its essential nature. Even today a child is named in a solemn ceremony and there is a belief that the name chosen will affect the child, in some way shaping its character.

Often a child is not felt to be a person at all – or to have its own individual identity – until it is formally named. Un-named or unbaptized children were considered to be at risk of being kidnapped by fairies and jealous spirits. In some traditional societies, the naming does not take place until some time after birth, but the child is called by something that is not the real name, which is secret. In Europe the name was often kept secret until the christening, even from the mother. This stems back to the old belief that people, animals, places, gods and spirits have real names that are secret. If a person can discover the real name, then they will have the being in their power (think of Rumpelstiltskin), and the real name can be used to work magic against its owner. Magicians use words of power, which include the names of gods and spirits, tapping into the essence and energy of the being when the name is intoned correctly.

Often a person takes a new name with a change of status, for example a boy will assume a new name when he comes to manhood, a woman when she marries, a priest when he is ordained, and a witch or magician when initiated. Many people choose a special name that they use just for magical work. This is known as a magical name and has certain advantages. When you are within your circle, you leave the everyday world behind and become a magical being who will learn to see things in an entirely new way. Having a magical name can help separate the two worlds and some people find this very useful. Another reason people choose a magical name is for anonymity. In the days when witchcraft was under attack, it was dangerous to be named as a witch, so they took secret names and did not refer to each other’s everyday names at all in connection with the coven.

There is no right or wrong way to choose a magical name. You may have had one in mind for some time. Perhaps you would like to meditate and take whatever comes to you during the meditation. Don’t let anyone choose your name for you, or don’t be persuaded into a name you don’t feel comfortable with. Some choose plants or animals they feel an affinity with. Ravens, crows, foxes and wolves are popular. Herbs have great appeal since they can often sound very well.  Some include a name that relates to their heritage. Some combine an animal name with their own everyday name. Other options include taking the name or part of the name of a famous wizard from legend – especially from the Arthurian tales. There are any number of Merlins, Morgans, Morganas, and Nimues. Take a look on the Pagan or occult shelf of your local bookshelf; many authors write under assumed names which are often the same as their magical names.

© Anna Franklin


Isis is the Greek form of the Egyptian name Aset (‘Throne’). As Isis Unveiled, she is the goddess of manifest nature, as Isis Veiled, she protects the most profound secrets of the universe. She is the goddess of marriage, motherhood, healing, magic, prophecy, love, fertility, agriculture, domestic crafts, spinning, weaving and brewing. She is portrayed with a blue robe, wings and her head-dress is the empty throne, which belongs to her murdered husband, Osiris. She is often shown with her young son, Horus, or carries the ankh, the symbol of life. In addition, she may be shown with the sistula, a breast-shaped container for milk, and a jug for carrying the holy waters of the Nile.

She is called the Light Giver of Heaven, Queen of Heaven, Star of the Sea, Queen of the Earth, Lady of Green Crops, the Green Goddess, Lady of Abundance, Lady of Joy and Gladness and Lady of the Shuttle. She was the source of the ruling Pharaoh’s power, whose throne was said to be her lap.

Isis and Osiris, together with Set and Nepthys, were the children of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. Osiris married Isis and the pair became rulers of Egypt, teaching humankind how to plant and harvest grain, how to spin and weave, make tools, bread, beer and wine. They also established the institution of marriage.

Isis is a magician called ‘Strong of Tongue’, as she knew how to use words of power with the correct pronunciation and tone. She learned her magic from Thoth the god of wisdom, and from the sun god Ra, whom she tricked into revealing his secret name to her, thus giving her full access to his skills. Like other magical goddesses, she is associated with spinning and weaving, drawing out concepts into being, and weaving or knotting various forces to control them. Isis taught humanity the art of using magical knots. It has been said that the priestesses of Isis could control the weather simply by braiding and releasing their hair. One of her symbols is the tiet, which is also called the “Isis-knot” and “the Blood of Isis” and is associated with her menstrual blood. The fact that she inserted a tiet into her vagina when she was pregnant with Horus tells us its meaning: it was once thought that a woman became pregnant when her menstrual blood coalesced into a baby. Women wore a little symbol of the Isis knot to conceive and protect against miscarriage.

She is the “Lady of Life,” often depicted holding the Ankh, the symbol of life. She had power over life and death, and was a skilled healer titled the “Divine Physician”. She once cured the god Ra from the effects of a scorpion bite, and even brought her own husband back to life. In the twenty-eighth year of his reign, Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Set. Set is generally seen as an evil figure, the personification of the dry desert that surrounds the thin strip of fertile Nile Valley. Set and his followers tricked Osiris into getting into a coffin, nailed down the lid, and then threw it in the Nile. It washed up in Byblos, where Set found it and cut his brother’s body into fourteen pieces, which he scattered across Egypt.

Isis searched the whole land until she found the pieces, leaving a funeral inscription at each site, all but the fourteenth part – the phallus, which had been eaten by a crab. [1] The jackal-headed god Anubis embalmed the body, creating the first mummy. Isis formed a new phallus by magic and, transforming herself into a kite, mated with the corpse and conceived Horus, the falcon headed god of day. Isis was forced to hide from Set until Horus was old enough to avenge his father. Osiris chose to remain in Amenti (‘West’) the Land of the Dead to act as the judge of souls.

The protective wings of Isis are depicted folded around may coffins and sarcophagi, showing that she breathes new life into the souls of the dead. Her wings indicate that she may have aspects as the goddess of the cooling breeze, leaving the scent of flowers and spices in her wake. She takes fresh air into the underworld when she goes to take food to the dead. The morning breeze created by her wings heralds the dawn.

Every woman can identify with Isis as the devoted mother of Horus, and with the sorrowing widow who had lost her husband. This may at least partially account for the popularity of her worship, which lasted for 3,500 years. Her cult spread across the Graeco-Roman world, as far as Britain, where there was a temple to Isis in London, on the River Thames in Southwark. The cult died out in Rome after the institution of Christianity, with the last recorded festival of Isis held there in 394 CE. The last Egyptian temple of Isis, situated on the lovely island of Philae, closed around 550 CE.

However, much associated with worship of the Egyptian Holy family was appropriated by the Christian religion. Early Coptic art identified Horus with Jesus, Isis with Mary, and the Christian cross with the pharaonic ankh. The depiction of the seated goddess holding or suckling the child Horus is certainly reminiscent of the iconography of Mary and Jesus. In addition, Osiris was a god who chose to become a man to guide his people. As such he was called ‘the Good Shepherd’ and depicted with a shepherd’s crook. He died, was buried, and brought back to life. He was called the ‘Resurrection and the Life’. His ‘flesh’ was eaten as a sacrament in the form of wheaten cakes. Isis was called ‘The Star of the Sea’ and ‘Queen of Heaven’, titles appropriated by the cult of the Virgin Mary. Isis was a virgin who brought forth a son titled ‘the Saviour of the World’. The family was forced to flee from an evil king and hide until the son became a man. Some say that the so called ‘Black Virgins’ found in some Christian churches, are none other than basalt figures of Isis.

© Anna Franklin

[1] Possibly the Constellation of the Crab (Cancer) which precedes the inundation.