This is my essay published in the recent Awaken the Feminine anthology. Many of the authors are sharing their essays freely on their blogs. And so am I. Feel free to share it as you wish, too. Click the book title above to go to the Amazon.com site to see the list of authors and even to buy a copy for yourself. All authors donated their work to this book. Oh, and since this essay was written for a general, if Goddessy, audience, so some of you will probably already be familiar with some of these ideas.
What if I told you that magic was real?
Would it call to mind a popular card game? Or perhaps Harry Potter and the Hogwarts gang? Would you imagine an illusionist making elephants disappear from the Las Vegas stage? Or would you have visions of witches with poppets and pins and poisons dancing in your head?
The real magic I’m talking about is none of those things. The Path of Sacred Magic is, in fact, an ancient spiritual tradition, one that may still be followed today and which I believe has much to offer us. It is a way of opening ourselves to greater possibilities, a method of connecting intimately and personally with the Divine. It is but one of many ancient yet enduring pathways to Goddess, to God, that is being rediscovered by women and men who are no longer satisfied with the rigid spiritualities most readily offered to them. The Path of Sacred Magic is about transformation; and transformation—of ourselves, our societies, and our world—is exactly what so many of us seek today.
But before we go further, what do I mean by “magic”?
Opening to enchantment
When we speak casually of magic today, for instance, when we say that the Yuletide season or the springtime is a magical time of year, we mean that it is out of the ordinary, special. Our senses are heightened. Lights seem brighter. Scents are more pungent and evoke memories and images. Music is clearer, more beautiful, more meaningful. The numinous seems to be with us in the faces of the people we meet, in the very earth itself.
This enhanced perception of the world, this enchantment if you will, is something we human beings crave. Indeed, we have long complained about the world’s disenchantment. German sociologist Max Weber famously decried it in the early 1900s and before him Friedrich Schiller in the early 1800s. No doubt the complaint goes back much farther than that. More recently, psychotherapist and former monk Thomas Moore’s books Care of the Soul and The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life were best sellers, indicating just how many of us are longing for a world in which magic and mystery are alive once more.
This is precisely what the Path of Sacred Magic can do. It can open us to the enchantment of the world that already exists. It can show us ways to participate in the Mysteries—of life, of spirit, of the Divine. It can also empower us to do something about healing the so-very-many things that desperately need healing these days. By helping us focus our attention and awaken our souls, sacred magic heightens our senses so that we perceive in a more-than-ordinary way. This state of heightened perception may be invoked by a magical ceremony, by meditation, by prayer—or it may come upon us spontaneously, often when overawed by nature. No matter how magical perception comes upon us, it expands our senses and we perceive what we ordinarily might not perceive in our day-to-day consciousness.
Such magical perception is neither fantasy nor an illusion that we are creating in our heads. It is a genuine expansion of our perceptive ability, not a diminishment. We’re not closing off the world of reality. We are instead expanding our ability to perceive more than just physical reality.
If we are of a spiritual inclination, the Path of Sacred Magic can help us reach out toward the Divine; for many of us reading this book, toward the Goddess specifically. Magical perception can help us grow in Her presence, undergo Her initiations of life and of death with greater understanding, and to more deeply explore Her holy Mystery.
Isis, Goddess of Sacred Magic
For me, magic is sacred because its source is the Divine.
As little as ten years ago, whenever you read anything about the Great Egyptian Goddess Isis, She was almost invariably described as a Fertility Goddess. That’s not untrue; She—along with most Egyptian Deities—are important to the fertility of the land and to the fertility of the human beings and other creatures who live upon it. Fertility is a vital and eternal human concern. But “fertility Goddess” does not get to the essence of Isis.
You’d also see Her described as a Great Mother. This, too, is true. In Egyptian tradition, She is the mother of Horus, and thus of the pharaoh; a vital concept in ancient Egypt. As Isis became more widely worshipped, She also came to be experienced as the Great Mother of the World. Yet again, to me, this does not get to the essence of Isis.
Today, I am very pleased to see Isis increasingly described as what is indeed one of Her core identities: Goddess of Magic. While Isis is a Primordial Goddess, a Great Mother, a Lady of Nature, a Queen of the Mysteries, a Goddess of Women, a Goddess of Death and Renewal, and more, each of these aspects is supported by Her central identity as Goddess of Magic.
What the ancient Egyptians meant by “magic”
To the ancient Egyptians, the essential and primordial power of the Egyptian Goddesses and Gods was the power of magic. Through magic, the Universe comes into being. Through magic, all things live. Through magic, the Deities accomplish all that is Their will.
The Egyptian word that Egyptologists translate as “magic” is heka (HAY-kah). It is a very flexible word. It can mean the power of magic, an act of magic, magic words, magical formulae, a magician, or the God Magic. As a God, Heka is said to be the first-created thing and it is because of Him that all the Deities live. Thus the ancient Egyptians conceived of magic as a living force, a primordial power, the very energy of the universe.
They believed heka to be the essential, living energy that infuses and underlies all things, both spiritual and physical. Heka—magic—connects everything and allows the levels of Being to interpenetrate and affect each other. Magic is required to ascend to the realm of the Deities, which was every ancient Egyptian’s post mortem goal. By learning to come into harmony with the magic that is woven into all things, human beings can commune with the Deities, transform and be transformed, have increased effect in the world, and be spiritually renewed.
As Lady of Magic, the Great Goddess Isis is the patroness, embodiment, and most-potent wielder of this sacred, powerful, and living energy. The ancients called Her Iset Hekaiet, Isis the Magician; Iset Ichet, Isis the Sorceress; Nebet Heka, Lady of Magic; and my personal favorite, Great of Magic: Weret Hekau.
Out of Egypt: Mageia Hiera
As Isis’s worship spread from Her native Egypt to Greece, Rome, and beyond, Her identity as Lady of Magic followed. In the Greek Magical Papyri, a fascinating and sometimes-beautiful collection of ancient magical texts, Isis appears in healing rites, love spells, divinations, and She is associated with the mystery of the moon, of darkness, and the underworld.
Yet one of Isis’ strongest and most enduring connections is with what is often called “high magic” or spiritual magic. The association of Isis with spiritual magic was so consistent that when Plotinus, the Greek founder of Neoplatonism, agreed to a magical evocation of his guardian spirit, the Egyptian priest who conducted the ceremony declared that it could only take place in the Temple of Isis because it was the only “pure place” appropriate for the working of such high magic in all of Rome.
Just as we often do today, the ancients distinguished spellcasting from spiritual magic. In Greek, one term they used for spiritual magic is mageia hiera, “sacred magic.” In the Papyri, mageia hiera is especially associated with initiation and the magician is called an initiate. It may be that sacred magic as a personal spiritual practice grew out of the spiritual experiences of the Ancient Mysteries. In Her Mysteries, Isis is considered to be a Savior Goddess and, as She always has, offers renewal and rebirth after death.
In his Apologia, Apuleius of Madaura, a 2nd-century-CE initiate of the Mysteries of Isis and author of our only surviving first-person account of an initiation into any of the Ancient Mysteries, defined magic as a religious tradition dealing with the Divine. He called it an art that the Deities Themselves accepted and which gave human beings knowledge of how to worship and honor the Deities.
Sacred magic then is a spiritual path for approaching the Divine.
Another ancient term for spiritual magic is theourgia, anglicized as theurgy, and meaning “divine working.” The method of theurgy is ritual work. In other words, theurgy is ritual magic for spiritual purposes—for communion with the Divine and the spiritual growth it fosters. One of theurgy’s greatest proponents, the 4th-century-CE Neoplatonist Iamblichus, insisted that theurgy works not simply because of the mechanism of the ritual, but because of the foundation of Divine love that supports the process. The Deities respond to our invocations because They love us. I heartily agree, and most especially in the case of Isis.
Isis also appears in the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of influential spiritual teaching texts, purporting to be Egyptian (and now proving to be much more Egyptian than scholars previously thought, but that’s another story), but written in Greek in what appears to be the style of Greek philosophical dialogs. Isis is one of the key Hermetic teachers. In a text called Kore Kosmou, or Virgin of the World (2nd or 3rd century CE), Isis instructs Her son Horus that philosophy and magic sustain the soul just as medicines sustain the body. Thus magic is on a par with the high art of philosophy.
An enduring magical tradition
At the height of Her ancient religion, Isis was known throughout the Mediterranean world as the Goddess of Ten Thousand Names; She became a universal Goddess. Her universality, along with the great popularity of Her religion with highborn and lowborn people of both sexes, put Her in a unique position. For many people in the polytheistic Græco-Roman world, Isis became THE Goddess.
This is important for understanding why—even with the coming of the Christian Empire and the outlawing of all Pagan worship—Isis and Her sacred magic retained an important place in human consciousness. As The Goddess, Isis could represent the totality of the Divine Feminine, even while retaining the exotic Egyptian-ness that made Her so attractive to so many in the first place.
While Mary became the outward, Christian face of the Goddess in the West, Isis entered into the hidden world, the occult world. There, the secret truth of the Divine Feminine was kept alive in a variety of powerful forms: in magical traditions, in alchemy, in the work of first-feminists like the 13th-century-CE Christine de Pisan, in euhemeristic stories that were often considered to be historical, in wisdom teachings, among the Rosicrucians, in the early Masonic lodges, and in the temples and lodges of late-19th, early-20th-century occultists like the magicians of the Golden Dawn and Dion Fortune. Today, Isis is still one of the most-invoked Goddesses among Goddess devotees, Neo-Pagans, Wiccans, Kemetic polytheists, Magicians of many different traditions, and others. The over-26,000-member, international Fellowship of Isis continues the tradition of honoring Isis as a universal Goddess Who can represent in some way the totality of the Divine Feminine to its members.
Isis & sacred magic today
While we cannot claim that the worship of Isis is an uninterrupted religious tradition, we can rightfully say that Isis never fully left human awareness. And neither did magic. Both merely went underground. But today, with our souls crying out for the re-enchantment of the world, our lives, and our spirits; with the eternal and deeply felt need for connection with our Divine Mother, Who IS a Sacred Magician, the Path of Mageia Hiera beckons to us. We can walk that sacred path. We can reawaken Magic and Mystery and let it flower within us once more.
For those of us attracted to Isis Great of Magic, we can begin by learning about Her religious traditions, including the sacred magical traditions. Tradition enables us to learn about Her and to discover ways to think about Her. If we know Who She was for those who went before us, perhaps we can learn Who She is for us. If we know more about the symbols traditionally associated with Her, the stories traditionally told about Her (at least the ones of which we have records), then we will find we can come into a sweet communion with that deep current of the Feminine Divine river that is Isis.
Tradition can provide the roots of our devotion. It can give us an anchor for our modern love of Isis as we walk the Path of Sacred Magic. It can give us a way to feel close to Her. We can learn and interpret anew Her ancient myths. We can give Her the offerings that were traditionally given to Her. If we are of a scholarly bent, we might learn a bit about hieroglyphs so that we can write Her name in the ancient ways. We may use excerpts from the Egyptian sacred texts in our rites or sing Her traditional epithets in chant. All these, and more, are the methods of sacred magic. They are “a religious tradition dealing with things divine.” They give us ways to approach the Great Goddess Isis.
Yet tradition should not constrain us. Ancient magic is not Her only magic. Tradition may provide the anchor and roots, but not necessarily the wind in the sails of our boat or the sunlight necessary for blossoming. (Isis is perhaps the quintessential Goddess for our dizzying, technological times; for if any Goddess can lay claim to the title of Technologia, it is Isis. But that, too, is a story for another day.)
Thousands of years have passed since Isis’ name was first spoken in praise by human beings. History shows us how Isis manifested Herself differently to the different people who knew Her throughout the long ages. During that time, human beings changed. We are changing right now. And we shall continue to do so. This means that our experience of Isis will never be exactly the same as our ancient sisters and brothers. So while our understanding of Isis may begin with the roots of tradition, it must continue with the flowering of our own experiences of Her. Now. And here.
Those of us who are attracted to Isis today are heirs to a powerful spiritual tradition of sacred magic that we are called upon to bring forward into the present and the future. By opening ourselves to Isis through the Mysteries and rites of mageia hiera, we experience the sacred. We grow, transforming ourselves beneath Her wings. We discover who we really are, becoming wiser and more compassionate. We learn how to live more authentically, in greater harmony with our true selves and with the Divine reality of the Goddess.
The ancient worshippers of Isis found the creative and renewing power of magic to be both natural and, in the hands of their loving Goddess, a great boon to humanity. They understood magic to be inseparable from a relationship with Isis, the Goddess of Magic and a Sacred Magician Herself. Like them, we can have the same understanding. From the compassionate magic of healing to the ecstasy of the theurgic union that renews the spirit and deepens the soul, we can know all these things as part of the Path of Sacred Magic that is now, and always has been, guided by the hand of Isis.