Almost from the moment I began to think about my own spirituality, I intuited that I needed the Divine Feminine, the Goddess—a Deity in Whose image I, a woman, could be considered to have been created.
I joyfully credit feminism with offering not only me, but our society as a whole, the freedom to consider that Deity not only could be feminine, but had been for a very long time. Like maybe forever. With this freedom, in time, I found what my soul and spirit needed in Isis.
Indeed, I have always considered Isis’ myth to be a pretty strongly feminist tale, especially for its day. I’ve written about that here.
As it turns out, Isis has been inspiring feminists for quite a long time. Only recently I discovered that Margaret Fuller, a journalist and prominent early women’s rights advocate, also had a thing for Isis. More on that in a moment. First, more on Margaret.
Born in 1810, Margaret Fuller was the first female editor of the New York Tribune and its first female foreign correspondent. She advocated for the rights of women, the emancipation of slaves, and prison reform. She earned such a reputation for scholarship that she was the first woman Harvard allowed to use its library. Her book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1845, is considered the first feminist work in America and the first major work since the English writer Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. In addition to equality before the law and in marriage, Fuller argues in her book for woman’s need to gain intellectual and religious freedom, which she believed would in turn promote enlightenment for both sexes.
Her book began life as an essay published in The Dial, a transcendentalist paper that Fuller edited. Transcendentalism was a religious and philosophical movement of the time. Central beliefs included the goodness of the individual and nature, the unity (as opposed to trinity) of the Divine, and the rejection of much of the organized religion of its day as subject to corruption. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson are two names closely tied to transcendentalism. Transcendentalism was inspired by a variety of religions and religious writing, including the Hindu Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the work of Emmanuel Swedenborg.
Yes. We’re getting to Isis. I mention transcendentalism to give you an idea of Fuller’s religious explorations and to introduce you to Emerson, who played an important part in Fuller’s life with Isis.
Fuller was first exposed to Isis when she read Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a child. She fell in love with the story of Iphis & Ianthe in which Isis is a prominent figure. Don’t know that story? Read all about Isis, Iphis & Ianthe here.
Much later, Isis played a role in helping Fuller define her ideas about feminine Divinity in the face of the all-masculine images of God so prevalent in her (and our) society; this according to Jeffrey Steele, who has studied Fuller’s work extensively. We have one of Emerson’s letters in which he notes that Fuller adopted the Isiac sistrum as a personal symbol—clearly pointing to how important the Goddess was to her. From their letters, we know that Emerson and Fuller discussed Plutarch’s essay “On Isis & Osiris” and that, to some extent, Emerson identified with Osiris and Fuller with Isis. It is clear that Fuller was seeking Goddess from an entry in her 1839 journal: “I have never been so near the fountain of inspiration, yet I have not attained to drink. The divinity flits before me, a glittering phantom on the mead, her eyes divine look up to me from the depths of still waters, yet I can never lay hold of her robe or dive to the depth of her grotto.”
In a short story Fuller wrote, “A Tale of Mizraim,” Zilpah, a Hebrew slave, is in love with the Egyptian prince, Amaris. He tries to persuade her to stay with him and that Isis, Whose worship is love, is superior to Jehovah. Yet Zilpah must go with her people who are just about to leave Egypt on the heels of all those biblical plagues. Then Zilpah has a dream-vision of Isis:
“By her side sat a fair being, a woman of majestic mien, arch brow; but the soft, pale sadness of her lips, forbade awe in her presence, and turned the heart to tender reverence. Her forehead was surmounted by a glittering crescent, and when her blue eyes were fixed upon the waters, a long line of silvery light appeared. After a while, she turned on Zilpah a smile so bewitchingly sweet, that the maiden sank at her feet…”
Then the vision changes and Zilpah sees Amaris drowning. As she desperately tries to rescue him, the vision ends. Ultimately, however, Zilpah chooses Jehovah, begging Moses to pray that Jehovah spare her child by Amaris from the coming plague of the first borns. There is no mercy from Jehovah for Zilpah. Their child dies. In mourning, Zilpah leaves with her people only to see her beloved Amaris die as the Red Sea closes over him. At that shock, Zilpah herself expires. Even though the story seems to endorse the choice of Jehovah, modern readers are left to wonder whether Zilpah wouldn’t have been happier remaining in the land of Isis.
As part of her work toward the intellectual freedom of women, Fuller held a series of Conversations, which were intended to provide information about topics to which women of her day were not often exposed. Among these were what might be learned from all that old Pagan mythology. Fuller seems to have recognized the overarching theme of the Great Goddess, a Feminine Deity found in myths all over the world. She was particularly struck by the myths of the searching Goddesses—Isis and Demeter most prominent among Them, of course. At a certain period in her life, Fuller felt herself to be wandering as she tried to come to terms with her own need of Goddess, an option that simply was not available to her at that particular time and place.
Interestingly, in an appendix to her important Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller included a translation of Apuleius’ famous tale of initiation into the Mysteries of Isis. Even earlier, she had written a poem clearly inspired by that story. Here’s an excerpt:
So in Egyptian clime
Grows an Isis calm sublime
Blue black is her robe of night
But blazoned o’er with points of light
The horns that Io’s brow deform
With Isis take a crescent form
And as a holy moon inform.
The magic sistrum arms her hand
And at her deep eye’s command
Brutes are raised to thinking men
Soul growing to her soul filled ken.
There is much more to this complicated woman than I can even summarize here. She had tempestuous relationships with women and men. She argued with Emerson. She went through spiritual crises. She traveled to Rome to write a history of the Republic. She fell in love and married an Italian nobleman. She died too early, shipwrecked on her way back to America, her manuscript on Rome lost. I am sure she must have seen much of Isis in Italy that connected with her love of Apuleius’ tale of the Goddess.
I wonder what she would have thought of those of us today, women and men alike, who love Isis as she seems to have done, but who now have more freedom to express that devotion.