Not what Her myths say about Her; not what history says.
Who is Isis when we experience Her?
Most of us would start by describing a relationship. She’s like a mother, a sister, a lover, a teacher. Since that’s the way we relate to the people in our lives, it makes sense that we would relate to Divine personalities in the same way. The models for relationship with which we have to work are the ones we’ve used all our lives, the human ones. And this approach works quite well, too. The second half of Isis Magic is about just that—creating and deepening a real relationship with Her.
I have been comforted by the motherly wings of Isis. I have argued with Her like a sister. I have been crazy for Her like a lover. I have bowed to Her will as to a queen. (In fact, a very interesting and worthwhile devotional exercise is to interact with Her in relationships like these—a different type of relationship each day for a week.)
But we must also remember that although Isis can relate to us in ways similar to human beings, Isis isn’t human. She’s a Goddess. She is Goddess. And that adds a whole new dimension to how we experience Her—and to Who and What we might think She is. Perhaps we can call this the priestessly or priestly relationship, the philosophical relationship, or the mystical relationship.
Answering the question of Who Isis is means trying to figure out what we think the Divine is and Who we think the Deities are (or Deity is, if that’s your preference). I have found the Qabalistic concept of the Four Worlds very helpful in trying to sort all this out. Hermetic Qabalah, along with a solid dose of NeoPlatonism and ancient Egyptian theology—to the extent that we can deduce it—form the backbone of my own understanding of the unmanifest and Divine realms. (Yes, yes. I know it’s eclectic. I’m NeoPagan. That’s what we do.)
In the simplest terms—not that I think you need simple terms, mind you; I do—the Qabalah posits four layers or levels of existence, which proceed from a unity at the highest level and become increasingly multiple with each successive stage. Yet all the levels remain connected and interpenetrating. Here in the manifest universe, we have diversity. Diverse plants, animals, people—and Deities. The next level up (or in, or out, if you prefer) is also very diverse, but it’s the first of the unmanifest realms. For lack of a better term, we can call it the astral or lower astral. In Qabalah, this level is the “treasure house of images” and it contains, among many other things, spiritual images—thoughtforms, Godforms, Goddessforms—from all the pantheons of the world. In our regular interactions with the Divine, this is most likely the level in which we’re working. When I talk to Isis and She answers me in words and images, this is probably where we’re connecting.
A great example of this comes from a now-defunct TV show called Dead Like Me. (Bear with me, here.) It’s about a group of grim reapers whose job is to take human souls out of their bodies just before they die—and to send the soul to the next life. In the first season, we always got to see the souls as they walked into the afterlife—and each vision reflected the person’s individual belief about what “heaven” should be. The Buddhist was greeted by a meditating Buddha, the Christian by Christ, a child by a wonderful amusement park. That’s kinda my picture of what happens, too—at least during that first transition after death. Thus all religious traditions are true; if you’re picturing a purgatory, you’re probably going to find one. If you’re picturing a journey through the underworld with Re, you’re probably going to get it.
(On a side note, this is why I recommend having a death dream; by visualizing your transition in advance, you build up your own specific images in the treasure house of images so they’ll be there for you when your time comes.)
The next level is less diverse, more concentrated. We can think of it as the archetypal realm. Here, humankind’s multiplicity of Deities are great, but less diverse, currents of Divine energy. The Great Mother, over here. The Warrior God, over there. The Teacher of Wisdom, two streams down. This is the source of the numinosity that lies behind and empowers the many names and faces of the Divine found in the world’s many spiritual traditions. As a Great Goddess, the energy of Isis flows into our world through many (even most) of these channels, but we are always free to choose whatever current particularly resonates with us. Some people connect with Her most readily as the Divine Mother, others are awed by Isis, Great of Magic, yet others discover Her in all Her aspects.
The next level is the Unity, the singular source of the multiple streams of Divine energy that populate the archetypal realm. Here, Isis is The Only One—as indeed the Egyptians called Her. Of course, if you were approaching from a different stream, Yahweh or Odin or Allah or Amun or Inanna would be The Only One. The Egyptians understood this; there were a number of Deities they called The Only One. (Not all of Them though, this seems to have been a particular title of the Great Goddesses and Gods.)
This ultimate unity of the Divine is why a henotheist can—completely honestly—call Isis the One Goddess and Mother of All Things one day, then the next, understand Dionysos as The One. Both are true. In fact, it’s all true. We only start messing things up when we begin insisting that our preferred stream of Divine current is the one true way and, what’s more, there’s only one proper method for interacting with It.
So Who is Isis? Isis is The Only One, THE Goddess. At the same time, Isis is also to be found in the beautiful and perplexing diversity of our world. Isis really was and is alive in all the homes people have created for Her throughout the millennia—from the marshes of the Egyptian delta to the cataracts at Philae, from ancient Memphis, Rome, Athens, and Londinium to modern Oregon, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Differences in the cult or perceived character of the Goddess in all these times and places arise from the diversity of the people and cultures that honored Her, yet all were and are in genuine contact with the essential Divinity that Isis is, was, and ever shall be.