Isis devotees are fortunate in having a long line, though not an unbroken one, of spiritual ancestors that stretches from ancient Egypt to the present. It’s important for us to know our history. Today’s post is the story of two of those ancestors who have definitely made their place in Isiac tradition…
Established in 1888, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is one of the most important esoteric groups of the modern age. Its influence on today’s theurgic groups has been immense. The Order is rightly credited with, and sometimes criticized for, bringing together many strands of esoteric wisdom from a variety of traditions and weaving from them a coherent and effective system of spiritual development.
Many modern spiritual groups continue to work the rituals and exercises originally created by the magicians of the Golden Dawn, sometimes unaware of their provenance. Doreen Valiente, a leader in the modern revival of witchcraft, cited the Golden Dawn material as the best way for witches to learn and understand magical technique.
Yet the Order has received scant recognition for the important part it played in the “return of the Goddess” that continues unabated in much of the developed world today.
In the Golden Dawn’s understanding of the Divine, the Feminine Divine is essential and equal. More than a hundred years ago, the GD honored the Goddess by insisting that women and men be admitted “on a perfect equality”. In a paper on the history of the Order, William Wynn Westcott, a co-founder, explained women’s inclusion in the Order in part due to the importance of women in the Ancient Mysteries, “notably those of Isis”.
It is easy to see why suffragettes and New Women, part of the first wave of modern feminism, were among the Order’s members.
There was, however, a particular Goddess Who particularly inspired two of the Order’s most important members. As you no doubt suspect by now, that Goddess is Isis. The members are MacGregor and Moina Mathers, founding members of the Order.
The Mathers’ Isiac devotions were outside of the Order proper—though Isis is definitely to be found within the Order, too. (For instance, the Order’s Mother Temple was named Isis-Urania and Isis, as well as other Feminine Divine Beings, is found throughout the Order’s curriculum.)
For this post, however, we’ll focus on the Mathers’ personal Work with Isis; and it was personal for they were true devotees and worshippers of the Goddess. What’s more, the Mathers were Isiac evangelists. By the turn of the 20th century, they were living in Paris and publicly performing Isis rites for the avowed purpose of “resurrecting” the worship of Isis and attempting to share the “beautiful truths” they discovered during their study of the religion of Isis, which for Egyptologists was long dead, but was for them “full of life and vital forces.” They believed that the revival of the Isis religion would be a great force for good in the world.
At first, however, their worship of Isis was private. As so many of us do, they had a private temple in their residence. In an interview about the public rites, MacGregor and Moina said that they began their “Isis Movement” when Jules Bois, a journalist familiar with the Parisian occult scene, asked them to perform a public Isis ceremony at the Bodinière Theatre, a small Paris theatre that could be hired for lectures and performances. At first, they refused, but then Moina had a dream in which Isis gave Her permission for the public ceremony, so they proceeded.
Most of what we know about the Mathers’ Isis Movement are from a few newspaper and periodical articles. An interview with the Mathers and an account of one of their Rites of Isis is given in Frederick Lees’ “Isis Worship in Paris: Conversations with the Hierophant Ramses and the High Priestess Anari” in the February, 1900 issue of The Humanitarian. (The Humanitarian was a progressive periodical published in New York and London and edited by Victoria Woodhull-Martin, a Spiritualist, a Suffragist, and the first woman nominated as a candidate for President of the United States.)
Yes, you are correct. Ramses and Anari were the Isiac magical names of MacGregor and Moina. Lees describes the Rites of Isis like this:
“In the center of the stage was the figure of Isis, on each side of her were other figures of gods and goddesses, and in front was the little altar, upon which was the ever-burning green stone lamp. The Hierophant Ramses, holding in one hand the sistrum, which every now and then he shook, and in the other a spray of lotus, said the prayers before this altar, after which the High Priestess Anari invoked the goddess in penetrating and passionate tones. Then followed the ‘dance of the four elements’ by a young Parisian lady dressed in long white robes. She had recently become a convert and had previously recited some verses in French in honour of Isis. The four dances were: the ‘dance of the flowers,’ which symbolized the hommage of the earth to the Egyptian goddess; the ‘dance of the mirror,’ that represented waves of water; the ‘dance of the hair,’ symbolic of fire; and the ‘dance of perfumes’ for the element of air. Most of the ladies present in the fashionable Parisian audience brought offerings of flowers, whilst the gentlemen threw wheat upon the altar. The ceremony was artistic in the extreme.”
A reviewer from another newspaper pretty much snarked at the whole thing, especially MacGregor’s “terrible English accent,” but was, however, somewhat smitten with Moina:
“His wife, on the other hand, completely won their sympathy by her graceful attitude and dignified manner. More than that, she is very handsome, she has a beautiful oval face with large black, mysterious eyes—and beauty always tells in Paris.”
The Lees article also included what the black-eyed priestess had to say about priestesses:
The High Priestess Anari holds some very interesting opinions on woman’s role in religion.
“The idea of the Priestess is at the root of all ancient beliefs,” she said, on one occasion. “Only in our ephemeral time has it been neglected. Even in the Old Testament we find the Priestess Deborah, and the New Testament tells us of the Prophetess Anne. What do we find in the modern development of religion to replace the feminine idea, and consequently the Priestess? When a religion symbolizes the universe by a Divine Being, is it not illogical to omit woman, who is the principal half of it, since she is the principal creator of the other half—that is, man? How can we hope that the world will become purer and less material when one excludes from the Divine, which is the highest ideal, that part of its nature which represents at one and the same time the faculty of receiving and that of giving—that is to say, love itself in its highest form—love the symbol of universal sympathy? That is where the magical power of woman is found. She finds her power in her alliance with the sympathetic energies of Nature. And what is Nature if it is not an assemblage of thoughts clothed with matter and ideas which seek to materialize themselves? What is this eternal attraction between ideas and matter? It is the secret of life. Have you ever realized that there does not exist a single flame without a special intelligence which animates it, or a single grain of sand to which an idea is not attached, the idea that formed it? It is these intelligent ideas which are the elementals, or spirits of Nature. Woman is the magician born of Nature by reason of her great natural sensibility, and of her instructive sympathy with such subtle energies as these intelligent inhabitants of the air, the earth, the fire and water.”
Although it all seems a bit stereotypical now, it was pretty strong stuff in its day.
Strangely enough, a summary of the Lees article—noting this topic in particular—found its way into the Church of England Pulpit and Ecclesiastical Review, a source of sermon ideas for clergy. Even more strangely, it was presented positively, which just goes to show how the times, they was a changin’.
There is yet more that we can know about the Mathers’ Parisian Isis work. But we’ll save that for next time as this post is quite long enough for today.
Next week, a pretty wild account of one of the ceremonies as well as images of the Mathers as Ramses and Anari.