In Isis Magic, one of the key elemental implements of the priestess of Isis is the sistrum. It is one of several types of ancient Egyptian rattles that were used in the worship of the Goddesses and Gods. But it isn’t simply a musical instrument; it is also a magical instrument.
As you may already suspect, sistrum is a Latin word. In turn, it derives from a Greek term for the Egyptian rattle: seistron ”that which is shaken.” The Egyptian terms are a bit more interesting. One of them is onomatopoeic, that is, the word sounds like the thing it represents. That one is sesheshet (say it out loud and you’ll see what I mean). The other is sekhem. And that one is quite interesting, for it means “power,” as in the name of the Goddess Sekhmet, the Powerful One. It is, of course, among the names of Isis as well.
The sistrum is an instrument of power. Even better, the term for “to play the sistrum” also derives from the sekhem root, so when you’re playing the sistrum, you’re “doing power.” That’s why the sistrum is the elemental Fire implement of the priestess or priest in the House of Isis.
Plutarch seems to be echoing the true Egyptian tradition when he explains in his essay “On Isis & Osiris”:
The sistrum also makes it clear that all things in existence need to be shaken, or rattled about, and never to cease from motion but, as it were, to be waked up and agitated when they grow drowsy and torpid. They say that they avert and repel Typhon by means of the sistrums, indicating thereby that when destruction constricts and checks Nature, generation releases and arouses it by means of motion. (Plutarch, Moralia, Book 5, “On Isis & Osiris,” section 63)
The vibration of the rattling sistrum is as the constant vibration of the atoms that make up all things and the activity of all living things.
Like many modern priestesses and priests of Isis, I have a collection of sistra (which is the plural of sistrum), including both handmade and purchased versions. Since the Coptic and Ethiopian Christian churches today still use sistra, you can actually purchase sistra that flow from the ancient Egyptian religious tradition. Naturally, I wanted to add one to my collection. So I ordered an inexpensive one online and when it came, it was, as expected, not super-high quality, but kinda sweet…except for the fact that the handle appeared to have been made out of ammunition casing. Eeewww. But the rattle sounded wonderful, nice and tinkly. I purified the sistrum and began using it.
Now here’s the part I like. Not too long after that—with no hard use of any kind—I picked up the sistrum one day to discover that the bullet-casing handle had split near where it was joined to the head of the sistrum. While I was disappointed that my new sistrum had broken, I was also somewhat relieved. Happily, I know artists—and an artist friend replaced the handle for me with copper tubing. My repristinated copper and brass Coptic sistrum has been rattling up power for Isis ever since.
In ancient Egypt, while the sistrum was used in the musical worship of all Egyptian Deities, it was especially associated with the worship of the Great Goddesses Hathor, Bast, and Isis. Generally, more priestesses than priests played the sistrum. Yet the archetypal sistrum player is Hathor’s son, Ihy, often called simply the Sistrum Player.
The creation of the sistrum is said to have developed from the polite habit of rattling the papyrus stalks before entering into the papyrus marshes. The marshes, you see, were often the dwelling places of fierce Wild Cow Goddesses, such as Hathor, and poisonous Cobra Goddesses, such as Wadjet. It was considered the wiser course of action to let Them know you were coming. (Never sneak up on a Goddess; all the myths tell us so.)
If we think of it as a polite knock on the door before coming into the presence of the Goddess, we can consider the rattling of the sistrum as an Opening of the Ways from the mundane to the sacred. It can also be used to stir up energy, in ourselves or our temple space, as well as to add emphasis and power to certain parts of a ritual. Softer rattling can be used meditatively and to bring down and sustain energy as the ancients did when they used it to “pacify” an angry Deity.
The sistrum became inextricably tied to Isis when Her worship spread into Greece and Rome. In fact, it was so commonly associated with Her in Rome that when ancient Romans saw a sistrum, they immediately thought of Isis and no one else. Even as late as the 4th century CE, Maurus Servius Honoratus, a grammarian with the contemporary reputation of being the most learned man of his generation, noted that
Isis is the genius [the spirit] of the Nile, who by the movement of her sistrum, which she carries in her right hand, signifies the access and recess (or the rising and falling) of the Nile… (Servius, Observations on the Aeneid, 1.8)
There were two types of ancient sistra, which we know as the naos sistrum and the hoop sistrum. In a naos sistrum, the top of the rattle is shaped like a small shrine (naos in Greek); in a hoop sistrum, the top is an elongated hoop. Holes were made in the sides of the naos or hoop and metal rods were inserted horizontally so that when the sistrum was shaken, the rods rattled in the holes. Sometimes additional pieces of metal were pierced and strung on the rods to amplify the sound. (Many modern sistra have this feature.)
If you’d like to Do Power for Isis, you may purchase a variety of ready made sistra. DeTraci Regula’s Isiscraft Catalog offers a number of lovely ones. You can find versions of sistra in music stores that specialize in ethic instruments. You can also order the Coptic ones online (but they will probably come with the bullet-casing handles). And, of course, you can also make your own.
An Isis devotee of my acquaintance made some wonderful small sistra by splitting a piece of bamboo (about 1/4 inch in diameter) 2/3s of the way down. She glued ribbon around the unsplit part to keep the sistrum from splitting all the way and to create a handle. Then she glued a small piece of wood between the split
bamboo as a wedge to hold the two sides apart, forming a “Y.” Finally, she strung flattened and pierced bottle caps on wire and attached the wire to both sides of the split bamboo. While I have sistra in my collection on which I’ve spent quite a bit of money, these homemade ones remain some of my favorites.
If you have made your own sistrum, I’d love to hear about it.