I am preparing a talk for our Hermetic Society here called “She is a Tree of Life; the Goddess & Qabalah.” In doing so, I am reviewing Raphael Patai’s important work, The Hebrew Goddess. In his introduction, Patai writes, “…the Hebrew goddess succeeded in surviving. She underwent, to be sure, an astounding metamorphosis, but then that too, is the mark of a living deity.”
Those sentences made me jump up and down and shout, “yes, Yes, YES!” For that is precisely the point I find myself called to make, again and again, in relation to Isis. Because She is a Living Deity, and because Her worship is not an Society for Creative Anachronism-like recreation but a living thing itself, the way people throughout history have experienced Isis naturally reflects their own society. They put Her in their society’s clothing. Surprise! This ancient Egyptian Goddess suddenly speaks their language; well, yes, of course She does.
For example, ancient Egypt had no smart phones or tablet computers, yet I would not hesitate in
the slightest to consider Isis and Thoth as the Goddess and God of smart phones, tablets, and computers in general. Has Isis stopped being Isis simply because a modern invention has lately come under Her sway? Is She now the Goddess Technologia and somehow no longer Isis? No. In fact, technology is completely consistent with Isis’ ancient character. As the late lamented Arthur C. Clark quipped, “Magic’s just science we don’t understand yet.” Isis has always been—from the earliest Egyptian texts to today—the Goddess of Magic and so She is also, most assuredly, the Goddess of Science and Technology. Isis understands code, dammit; and I venture to say more than a few of Her modern programmer devotees have called upon Her when confounded by a coding conundrum. Bet they received answers, too.
The last 20 years have seen an upsurge in interest in Isis/Iset/Aset and there has been much good work done by scholarly researchers and amateurs alike. Some of this has made its way across the interwebs, copied and only tweakingly transformed in our great and frenzied modern search for content, content, content. One of the (I suspect, reproduced) memes I find myself running across frequently is the statement that the ancient Egyptian Goddess “Aset” was not the same as the Greek and Roman “Isis.” Aset was fierce, the argument goes; Isis was a kindly big momma; Aset was a funerary Goddess, Isis was concerned only with life. This is quite simply not so. I’ve given clear examples of each of the characteristics supposed to be different for Aset and shown how they were expressed in the much later cult of Isis—yes, even in the very heart of the Greco-Roman period—here.
Perhaps what it boils down to is each individual’s understanding of what a Deity is. Here’s a simple example…and one we all seem to accept without question, even if we’re not Jewish or Christian: Yahweh, the ancient Hebrew God. Read the Old Testament and you see a Deity Who is quite the ancient despot. Arbitrary. Pissy, in many cases. Flat-out evil and engaging in Behavior-Unbecoming-a-Deity in some cases (I’m thinking Job, here). Yet this is not the way most Jews and Christians envision Him today. For most believers, the Lord—the Father Who Art in Heaven—is more kindly, more supportive, and perhaps more mysterious these days. So is Yahweh the same God Who is recorded in the bible or not? Most of His believers believe that He most certainly is.
The same situation applies in the question of whether Aset is the same Deity as Isis. Clearly, I think She is; in fact, I know that She is. The reason I am so certain has to do with my conception of how the Divine reality is structured, which I explain here. The great font of Divinity that IS Isis is the same font from which Aset flowed. At Its origin, this current of Divine energy has a much less human-like personality than either the Divine Face the ancient Egyptians would have called Iset (or Aset, if you like) or the Divine Face the Romans would have called Isis. Yet it is the same Divine current of energy, from the same source. The Holy River of Isis flows from the unmanifest Divine into the manifest Divine—where we can interact with It, and where It, in relationship with us, can develop a “personality;” a personality that we human beings can relate to and which naturally reflects the culture in which It is perceived.
The Divine energy the ancient Egyptians called Iset/Aset is the very same Divine energy the Greeks and Romans called Isis and is the very same Divine energy we call Isis today. The surface differences are almost wholly defined by the cultures that loved and love Her. It’s like two different artists painting the same flower. The flower is the same for both artists; its essential nature is the same, yet the final works of art cannot help but vary simply because there are two different artists at work. The flower itself has not changed at all. It’s the artist’s experience of the flower and her or his portrayal of that experience in the painting that is different.
How do we know that the flower the artists—and that we ourselves—see is the same flower? How can we be sure that the Divine current of Aset and Isis flows from the same, eternal source? As a poker player might say, you have to look for the “tells,” the little cues that tip off the observer as to what a player will do. When it comes to Isis, there are things that are consistent across the millennia. For me, the key Divine “tell” for Isis is Her magic. I’m sure I don’t have to tell any of you that we’re not talking about slight of hand here. For the ancient Egyptians, heka—magic—is the mysterious and Divine force that underlies the universe. It is the mysterious energy that upholds and powers all things. As Goddess of this Divine energy, we find Isis at the limits of life and death; She is present at the places and times of transformation. We feel Her when the hairs rise on the backs of our necks. We sense Her in that frisson of holy fear and awe. She shows us the Mystery and the Magic; She IS the Mystery and the Magic. Sometimes, Her magic is fierce. Sometimes, it is comforting. Who She is hasn’t changed; what She is expressing and what we perceive has.
Which brings me back to Raphael Patai and his comment about change being the mark of a living Deity. As we human beings change, the way we experience our Deities change. While there is always a consistency with the original Divine source, the surface “stuff” may change—indeed, it should change—or we’re not growing. Like the Hebrew Goddesses Asherah and Anath Whose Divine energy eventually came to be experienced in the Shekinah and the Sabbath Queen, so the ancient Egyptian Iset came to be experienced in the Ptolemaic Isis, the Roman Isis, the Alchemical Isis, the Hermetic Isis, the Masonic Isis, and today’s Neo-Pagan Isis—for Isis is, most assuredly, a Living, Changing Goddess.
P.S. If you would like to see more of how today’s artists envision Isis, just do a Google Images search for “Goddess Isis Art,” “Goddess Isis Visionary Art,” or visit DeviantArt.com and search “Isis.” And buy something, will ya?