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On Isis

It could be argued that there is no more famous Goddess in modern Paganism than Isis. Her figure -- often winged, with ankh in hand or perhaps an infant Horus, usually crowned by a sun and horns -- is immediately recognizable. 

Such was the case in much of the ancient Western world, as well. Known as Au Set or Aset in Egypt, her myths and worship spread across northern Africa, deep into the Middle East, throughout Europe, and as far north as Roman Britain. The memory of her survived even into the Christian Middle Ages. With the (re)birth of Paganism, songs and hymns are once again being raised in her honor; Wiccans, solitary Pagans, Goddess Spiritualists, Kemetics and many others praise her as the Queen of Heaven, the Throne of Creation, the Great Magician, the Mother of Mothers, the Rose of Eternal Life.

Isis was the first non-Greek Goddess to catch my eye. I loved reading stories about her: how she won the Secret Name of Ra, how she mourned her murdered husband, conceived a son, and eventually helped him to win his rightful throne. I found it fascinating that Isis was the personification of the Egyptian throne and that the few women to rule Egypt in their own name (such as Cleopatra VII) closely identified with her.

Over the years, I have read quite a few essays, short stories, children's books, memoirs, and academic treatises about Isis. What I have read, of course, barely touches what is available; there are quite a few texts in French and German, for instance, and Brill has released a couple of books which are waaaay out of my price range. Nonetheless, I have a few recommendations for those who are curious about the Goddess, passionately devoted to her, and everything in between.

The two most well-known ancient texts concerning Isis are readily available in print and ebook formats, at various prices, and from multiple translators and publishers. The first is Apuleius' Metamorphoses (or, The Golden Ass); the second is De Iside et Osiride, from Plutarch's MoraliaThe Golden Ass, which contains one of the most famous theaphonies* in literature, is the only Latin novel to survive intact to the modern age. Plutarch gives the original Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris a Roman spin, while also forcing a rational linearity upon the tale.

Three excellent quick references are David Kinsley's The Goddesses' Mirror: Visions of the Divine From East and WestThe Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford; and The Cults of the Roman Empire by Robert Turcan. Kinsley devotes his eighth chapter to "Isis, Heavenly Queen," outlining her basic myths and exploring her importance in Egypt and the Mediterranean world. Baring and Cashford spend nearly fifty pages on "Isis of Egypt: Queen of Heaven, Earth and the Underworld," analyzing the Goddess' origins, her relationships to other Goddesses (such as Nut and Nephthys), her nature as the personified/deified throne, and the entire Osirian myth cycle. Turcan, meanwhile, devotes nearly as many pages to "Isis of the Many Names, or Our Lady of the Waves." After a brief exploration of the evolution of Serapis, Turcan dives into the spread of Isis worship across the Roman world, and the relationship between the Goddess and the Emperors.

(Two excellent companion essays to the chapter from Myth of the Goddess are CJ Bleeker's "Isis and Hathor: Two Ancient Egyptian Goddesses" in The Book of the Goddess Past and Present; and "Goddesses and Sovereignty in Ancient Egypt" by Susan Tower Hollis in Goddesses Who Rule.) 

If you are interested in a short, complete text, I recommend Cashford's adaptation The Myth of Isis and Osiris. Heavily illustrated with full color photographs, and accompanied by a brief explanatory text, Cashford's book gathers together all the disparate, scattered bits of the myth and organizes them into a coherent, linear narrative. While not geared explicitly towards children, this is a good introductory text, and so makes a great book to read to younger kids or gift to older children.

Two books that are aimed at children include Leonard Everett Fischer's beautifully illustrated picture book The Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt; Roger Lancelyn Greene's collection Tales of Ancient Egypt; and the Gods of Ancient Egypt coloring book from Dover.  

One of the most beautiful modern depictions I have seen of Isis is that by Kris Waldherr in her volume, The Book of Goddesses, and the companion, The Goddess Tarot.** Walherr's Isis is wise, beautiful and dignified; a woman who has known great sorrow and great joy; a Queen worthy of worship.

A classic work that I consulted frequently in graduate school is Isis in the Ancient World by RE Witt. Witt writes of Isis with great eloquence, as in this paragraph from the first chapter:

"Oldest of the old, she was the goddess from whom all Becoming arose. She was the Great Lady -- Mistress of Heaven, Mistress of the House of Life, Mistress of the Word of God. She was the Unique. In all her great and wonderful works she was a wiser magician and more excellent than any other god."

Despite several references to the "far more spiritualized faith of Christianity," I do wonder about Witt. He is almost ... devotional in his language.  

A number of modern devotees of Isis actually have published books about their experiences with the Goddess. In Dreams of Isis: A Woman's Spiritual Sojourn, Normandi Ellis travels the sacred sites of Isis' homeland, delving deep into ancient mysteries and reflecting on their relevance to people today. Priestess and Fellowship of Isis member deTraci Regula has written several books, the most notable of which is The Mysteries of Isis: Her Worship and Magick; there is a lot of information here, and plenty of illustrations. Finally, founder of the Servants of Isis, Brândon E. Williams penned Isiacism: The Ancient Faith of Isis Reborn; here, he lays out his reasons for, and reconstruction of, that ancient faith.

Finally -- warning, self-promotion ahead -- there is Waters of Life: A Devotional Anthology for Isis and Serapis. Co-edited by myself and Jeremy Baer, Waters of Life contains rituals, poems, hymns, essays and short fiction; we were even privileged to include the Isis chapter from Myth of the Goddess.      

As noted above, there are lots and lots and lots of books out there about Isis. This list includes only a very few of my favorites. Do you have any favorites? If so, post a comment below or email me.

Oh, and here is my other favorite depiction of Isis, courtesy of KY Craft.

*I highly recommend Griffiths' The Isis Book for an in-depth analysis of the Goddess' appearance in book XI of The Golden Ass. Sadly, it is out of print.

**I also recommend the sequel, Embracing the Goddess Within: A Creative Guide for Women which is filled with useful and inspiring meditations and rituals.

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.

Comments

  • Caity
    Caity Sunday, 26 May 2013

    I really enjoyed "Isis Magic: Cultivating a Relationship with the Goddess of 10,000 Names" by M Isidora Forrest, which falls into the devotional category. It's the only one I've read yet (thanks for the recommendations!). Part 1 goes extensively into, I guess you could say, the evolution of Isis and her mythology, and then Part 2 goes into rituals and forming a relationship with Isis. I didn't get to finish it, since I had it on interlibrary loan and had to return it, not to mention it's a pretty big book, but I found Forrest's writing style and interpretations of the myths in the part I read (through chapter 6-ish?) really engaging.

  • Rebecca Buchanan
    Rebecca Buchanan Tuesday, 28 May 2013

    Caity: thanks for the suggestion!

  • Isidora Forrest
    Isidora Forrest Saturday, 17 August 2013

    Thanks for the mention, Caity!

    Isis Magic had been out of print for several years...but happily, it is now back in print in a 10th Anniversary edition with new material. You can find it on Amazon (search "Isis Magic Forrest" to get the new edition). Or get it from the publisher at abiegnushouse.com.

    Thank you, Rebecca, for this lovely column on Isis...and I enjoy your work with Bibliotheca Alexandrina as well.

    Isidora

  • Rebecca Buchanan
    Rebecca Buchanan Sunday, 18 August 2013

    @Isidora: I'm so glad to hear that "Isis Magic" is back in print. :) And I'm glad to hear that you've been enjoying the devotionals from BA, as well. They are a lot of work, but it is satisfying, fulfilling work. :)

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