There is a saying in the western esoteric initiatory tradition that seems particularly apt for the priestess or priest of Isis: “I desire to know in order that I may serve.” In means that we are not entering into our priest/esshood simply because we’re greedy for secrets or status. It means that we seek knowledge so that we can better serve the Goddess, our communities, and our world.
Since priest/essly service is essentially about giving, improving our own knowledge base and experience also means we will have something valuable to give.
Of course, priestesses and priests have always been expected to have some special knowledge, for example, knowing how to properly conduct the rites required to create and maintain a relationship with Isis. But priest/essly devotion to learning goes beyond that, too. The Greek philosopher, Porphyry, in his work On Abstinence, paraphrases the Stoic philosopher Chaeremon’s observations on the Egyptian priesthood:
“But they divided the night into the observation of the celestial bodies, and sometimes devoted a part of it to offices of purification; and they distributed the day into the worship of the Gods, according to which they celebrated them with hymns thrice or four times, viz. in the morning and evening, when the sun is at his meridian altitude, and when he is declining to the west. The rest of their time they devoted to arithmetical and geometrical speculations, always labouring to effect something, and to make some new discovery, and, in short, continually exercising their skill. In winter nights also they were occupied in the same employments, being vigilantly engaged in literary pursuits…” (Porphyry, On Abstinence, book 4, section 8)
Thus, being a priestess or priest means not only knowing the proper rites, but also pursuing knowledge of all kinds, striving always to “make some new discovery.” There can be no doubt that teaching went on in the Egyptian temples. Of course, this was knowledge only for a very select group of people. Yet it informed the work of the priesthood so that they could be more effective in their service on behalf of Egypt and her people as a whole.
The Mysteries, such as the Mysteries of Isis or the Mysteries of Eleusis, were open to a wider group of people—as long as you could afford the travel and other expenses. Here, too, the priestesses and priests who officiated were expected to have special knowledge and understanding. Furthermore, they were expected to share that information with the initiates.
It was, in part, for this special knowledge that one undertook the Mystery rites. Initiates might expect the revelation of certain secrets regarding the Deities of the Mysteries. They might learn about new aspects of the Deities or be taught secrets of myth or ritual. Many would have been given important information about how to ensure a happy afterlife, as were Orphic initiates who were instructed on the proper spring from which to drink on their journey toward rebirth. In fact, it was quite commonly expected that the priests and priestesses of the Mysteries led their clients to knowledge.
You may recall that in Apuleius’ tale of initiation into the Mysteries of Isis, he was shown certain books (seemingly in hieroglyphs) that contained the instructions for his preparations for initiation. In fact, one of Isis’ late epithets is Lady of the Book. The aretalogy from Oxyrhynchus says that She was called Understanding at the town of Apis; and Isis has always been a Lady of Wisdom. Isis is a Goddess Who encourages learning and wisdom in Her devotees, and especially in Her priestesses and priests.
Alas, modern Isiacs have no great temples in which to study or established Mysteries of our Goddess in which to serve.
As is our path in general, our course of study in Her honor must be more individualized. As a priestess or priest of Isis, there are things we should know. As far as it is possible, we should know the history of Her worship, how people honored Her in the past, what they thought and said about Her. That is one of the reasons I wrote Isis Magic. To be Her priestess, I needed to know these things; and then, I needed to pass them on. That was one of Her tasks for me. Acquiring that knowledge formed a large part of my personal training. Even so, there is much Isis-related scholarship out there in the world and I still find out new things about Her and how people have related to Her throughout history. I try to share those new discoveries here on Isiopolis.
As a priestess or priest of Isis, you will likely be in a position to influence others. If you are teaching, you will need to know something in order to be able to teach it. As your students learn, you will have to continue learning so that you may always have something new to teach them. If we don’t keep on learning, we become dry vessels—not only for any thirsty students we may have the privilege to teach, but for ourselves as well. To keep our intellectual and spiritual juices flowing, we must keep learning.
But “book learnin” is just one of the priest/essly ways of knowing. The other is experience. This means we must develop our personal relationship with Isis; we must experience Her. This is a subtle kind of learning. It is different for each individual. And yet, there are commonalities. It is these subtle commonalities that let us know we’re connecting with Isis specifically.
This is even trickier when it comes to Isis because She is a Great Goddess. She has many, many aspects and different priestesses and priests may connect with different aspects. Still, there is a feeling commonality. I’m pretty sure that if you connected with Isis as Great Mother and I connected with Her as Great of Magic—and we could share each other’s feelings—as Her priestesses, we would know that we were both experiencing Isis.
In the grand scheme of explaining things, that doesn’t help much, does it? Yet that’s what experience does. As a priestess or priest of Isis, you should be able to tell. On the other hand, we can’t let our experiential knowledge be used to deny someone else’s experience, even if we don’t agree with it, or to boost our own egos because we have the “right” answer. Our experience should be used to guide, and only with the permission of the guided (as in a teaching relationship).
The Pagan blogosphere has recently been lit up with a good deal of theological soul-searching about the nature of the Divine and our relationship to the Divine. It is very exciting that we have grown to the extent that it is time to have these discussions; I just wish we could have them without so many arguments.
Our experiences as priestesses and priests of Isis will lead us to find our own answers to these important questions. Our experiences can add value to the ongoing discussion about the nature of the Divine and our relationship with It. Our experiences may be used to guide others as they begin their own paths and until they find their own answers. But we must use our experiences wisely. Developing that wisdom is part of our Work as priestesses and priests of Isis.