The twelfth of this month was observed in Rome as the Lychnapsia, a feast of lights or lanterns for Isis. I added it to my sacred calendar, dug out my little statue of Isis, in the Egyptian style, seated on a throne and holding her breast, and draped over it a small bracelet I bought in a museum gift shop, wooden beads and a blue scarab, sized for a child’s wrist. I had every intention of celebrating the feast… then I worked eight hours, came home in the afternoon heat, and turned off my brain for the rest of the night.
So this entry is something of an offering to Isis for her feast as well as a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while. You see, one of the top items on my “Why I am a bad pagan” list is that I don’t have much of a devotion to Isis.
At least, I don’t have the devotion to Isis that I’d like to. As a child I was mad about ancient Egypt. I read books about archaeology along with books about world religions, and I could rattle off the names of gods, goddesses, and pharaohs like some kids can rattle off the names of the characters in their favorite cartoon. (My favorite cartoons as a child were always Bugs Bunny and company.) The drawings I made as a girl looked a lot like Egyptian wall paintings, even when I drew people who might have appeared in Norse myth or Arthurian legend or even The Lord of the Rings, not northern Africa along the Nile. I was as fascinated by Isis and Osiris, Set, Nephthys, and Thoth as I was by Athena, Apollo, and Dionysus, or Thor’s adventures with Loki and Freyja’s golden necklace.
All of this archaeology and mythology was getting poured into my head alongside the Bible and the Prayerbook and the Hymnal 1940. I read my way through a large book with a dull grey cover called Religions of the World that I think was actually a college textbook, designed as an introductory survey. It included not Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, two chapters apiece, but Hinduism and Buddhism (also two chapters apiece), Shinto, Sikhism, Jainism, and the polytheisms of the ancient world. Mind you I was not more than twelve when I found that book; I read early and light-years beyond grade level.
Then as a teenager I was an early admittant to a Catholic college which, as you might imagine, had a sizable collection of books on religion. It was there I came across a book that I think many of my readers might recognize: It was called Isis in the Graeco-Roman World, but it remains in print under the title Isis in the Ancient World, by R.E. Witt.
As I had done with some of the books in my neighborhood library, I borrowed that book and read it repeatedly. Even as a teenager, I spotted the author’s thesis that much of Catholic Christianity, including devotion to the Virgin Mary, had been borrowed from the Hellenistic worship of Isis. Christianity grew from a movement within the diverse Judaism of its day to a world religion (for Roman values of “world”) only by adopting and adapting from the surrounding polytheisms as much as from the Jewish matrix in which it was born.
There was Isis, and there was the Virgin Mary, and before I read Witt, I read Starhawk, and perhaps more importantly, I read The Mists of Avalon. If you are a pagan woman of a certain age, you have almost certainly read The Mists of Avalon, and perhaps some or all of its sequels as well. (I’m trying not to glance guiltily at my bookshelves.) Many, many pagans of various persuasions have quoted Viviane’s famous words, “All the goddesses are one goddess, and all the gods are one god, and there is one initiator….” It was more than twenty years before I realized that Viviane, High Priestess of Avalon, was quoting another Vivian when she said that–Vivien Le Fay Morgan, the female main character of Dion Fortune’s The Sea Priestess. It is safe to say that without Fortune’s novels, and her esoteric work, The Mists of Avalon would not exist; while the author’s reputation as a human being and/or her soul is now in the lowest depths of your chosen hell, her book encapsulated for a generation both the legend of King Arthur and the work of Fortune and her fellow occultists.
It was longer still after my teen years that I discovered that when Vivien Le Fay Morgan said all the goddesses were one goddess, she identified that goddess with Isis, and the god with Osiris. Which means that, to some extent, Fortune was right: Isis had been worshipped all over the Roman Empire and syncretized with just about every deity that had breasts, and her Hellenistic consort Serapis was likewise syncretized with a multiplicity of gods. Isis and Serapis, by the age of Hadrian, had as good a claim as any deities will ever have to be the goddess and god in whom all others are subsumed.
So it strikes me as strange, and I feel kind of guilty, that I don’t have much devotion to Isis. I have somewhat more feeling for the Hellenistic Isis, the mega-goddess so feelingly hymned by Apuleius, but it seems easier for me to have feels, as we say on Tumblr, for gods than for goddesses. Yet I want to get to know Isis better. If I had the room, I would love to have a shrine for the Greco-Roman-Egyptian Holy Family–Isis, Serapis, Harpocrates, and Hermanubis. (Sometime I may write about the shrines I would *like* to create, if I only had the room.) Perhaps I have trouble relating to Isis because she is so very womanly. She is defined by her relationships to her spouse, her son, and her sister. Nearly everything that she does in myth is motivated by her love for her family. She is not, if memory serves, able to retaliate directly against Set’s attacks on Osiris; she can only rear a son to avenge his father.
Yet Isis is also the mistress of magic, the one who tricked the great sun-god Ra into giving her his secret name. She is the goddess who gathers under her wings goddesses of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, who travels with soldiers and merchants all the way to Britain and leaves her name on a river, her shrines and temples around the islands. Who else could be the goddess worshipped by the priestesses of Avalon but Isis, moon and sea, star and fertile earth, mother, lover, and layer-out?
Let these words, then, be my tribute to her, and a testament to my desire to honor her and get to know her, the greatest goddess of the ancient world, Aset, Isis.