The Metternich Stele, currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is a stone slab carved with spells and stories which is believed to have magical medical properties, both being able to protect and cure against stings and bites, especially from the dreaded and deadly scorpions that can be found in the Egyptian desert.
The main part of the stele depicts the child Horus stepping forward in a three dimensional relief; in his hands he holds snakes, scorpions and lions while he stands on two crocodiles demonstrating his dominance over them all. Beside him are his mother, Isis, the god of wisdom Thoth, and Re-harakhty (another form of Horus who represents the rebirth of the rising sun and its conquest over darkness and death).
The majority of the inscription is dedicated to the story of Horus as a child and his initial encounter with his uncle Set. Set had previously dismembered Osiris and spread his body parts over the Egyptian lands. His devastated wife, Isis, collected the parts and briefly reassembled her dead husband, long enough at least to conceive their child Horus.
With Osiris in the underworld, ruling over the domain of the dead, Set assumed that he would be in line to inherit the title of Pharaoh and the kingdom of the living. He had Isis shut up in a dwelling, keeping her prisoner, unknowing that she carried Osiris’ child.
Thoth, realizing the danger Isis would be in if Set learnt of her pregnancy, helped Isis to escape and sent her into hiding in the papyrus swamps to give birth to Horus. Thoth sent seven scorpions to protect the goddess and her unborn child on their journey into the swamps, and Isis disguised herself as an old beggar woman so none would realize her true form.
Isis, it seems, was shut up in some dwelling by Set after he murdered Osiris, probably with the intention of forcing her to marry him, and so assist him to legalize his seizure of the kingdom. Isis, as we have already seen, had been made pregnant by her husband after his death, and Thoth now appeared to her, and advised her to hide herself with her unborn child, and to bring him forth in secret, and he promised her that her son should succeed in due course to his father’s throne. With the help of Thoth she escaped from her captivity, and went forth accompanied by the Seven Scorpion-goddesses – Budge, E.A. Wallis, Legends of the Gods
Part way through the long journey, a tired Isis stopped to rest, pausing at the home of the governor’s wife and begging her for respite. Alarmed by the appearance of an old beggar woman and her seven scorpions the lady slammed her door in the goddess’ face and Isis was forced to take shelter elsewhere. A poor fisher woman opened her home to Isis, and while Isis settled down to rest, her scorpions plotted revenge on the woman who refused their goddess shelter. They transferred all their poison into the scorpion Tefen who crept into the governor’s home and stung their son. Isis heard the commotion caused by the Governor’s wife as she ran through the streets screaming in distress about the condition of her son.
Isis took pity on the boy, knowing he was innocent in the entire affair and rushed to his side. She laid her hands upon the boy and uttered all the charms she knew to repel the poison from his body, culminating in the final prayer:
“The boy liveth, the poison dieth! As the sun liveth, so the poison dieth,”
The boy was restored to full health and Isis continued to recount her own story of her son Horus being poisoned by a scorpion after Isis was summoned to attend an event in the city of Am. When she returned home, she found that her child had been bitten by a scorpion and killed:
When I had saluted the inhabitants thereof I turned back to seek the child, so that I might give him suck and take him in my arms again. But I found my sucking-child Horus the fair golden one, well nigh dead! He had bedewed the ground with the water from his eye and with the foam from his lips, his body was stiff, his heart was still, and no muscle in any of his limbs moved. Then I uttered a bitter cry of grief, and the dwellers in the papyrus swamps ran to me straightway from out of their houses, and they bewailed the greatness of my calamity; but none of them opened his mouth to speak, for every one was in deep sorrow for me, and no man knew how to bring back life into Horus. – Budge, E.A. Wallis, Egyptian Magic
Isis’ sister Nephthys arrived to comfort her sister and lament the loss of her nephew. She was accompanied by the scorpion goddess Serqet who advised Isis on how to restore her son. So, Isis called out to the heavens and begged the Gods on the Solar barque to halt their nightly journey into the underworld to defeat the serpent Apophis. The occupants of the barge stopped their rowing, causing time to halt while Thoth descended from the heavens to answer Isis’ cries. He taught Isis the spells and talismans needed to restore life to her son, which she did to the great joy of all involved.
This tale serves to cement Isis’ power as a healer and protector. She returned both her husband and her child from the land of the dead, and possessed the sacred knowledge required to heal. The Metternich Stele dedicated to Isis and Horus was a sacred object and would be used in healing rituals. The stories and spell could be read over those who suffered by those that could, or alternatively, water could be washed over the words, absorbing the power of the story and then used as a medicine to heal bites and stings, a beautiful tribute to the power of story, as well as the power of mercy.