Last time we looked at several of the many ways human beings have envisioned the Divine Reality and how each may be of value in our always-developing relationship with Isis.
As we start today, let’s also keep in mind that people will always have issues with the way just about any of these theisms is defined as well as who should be defined into or out of any given group. As we said last time, one’s conception of Divine Reality remains a touchy subject; it should be approached with kindness and curiosity.
It is not my intent to propose any all-inclusive definitions, nor to sort anyone into any box, whether that box is hard-edged or more flexible. In fact, it may be just the opposite. I hope we can explore our relationship/s with Isis through a wide variety of theistic lenses. Each of them may have something to teach us about how humans have imagined the Divine Reality and, as we try them on, we can decide for ourselves which ones are the best fit—or the best fit right now.
Isis & Polytheism
First up today, polytheism. Easy, right? A belief in many Deities. But in recent years—less so now (I think) than five or so years ago—modern polytheists have been discussing types of polytheism, which are usually referred to as hard or soft polytheism.
“Hard” and “soft” polytheism?
In simplest terms, hard polytheism refers to the concept that many Deities, Who are separate and real Beings and Who have their own agency (that is, the ability to take action as They desire), exist.
Soft polytheism’s definition is, as you might expect, a bit more complicated and can be an umbrella for a number of different ways of looking at the Divine Reality. One of those ways is that the world’s Deities are all expressions of one Deity or a core pantheon of Deities. Dion Fortune’s famous axiom: “All the Gods are One God, all the Goddesses are One Goddess, and there is One Initiator” is an example of this concept. Or we might consider that the Deities are personifications of natural forces (sun and moon, for example). Or that the Deities are psychological or archetypal (for example, Jungian archetypes). Some modern Pagans distinguish this last type of polytheism as naturalistic and eschew any kind of metaphysics in their view.
All of these expressions of polytheism are relatively easy to use as a framework for at least a part of our relationship with Isis. As a unique Divine Being with Her own agency, personality, and concerns, we can make offerings to Isis of Her favorite things. We can pray for help with Her traditional concerns. We can meditate on Her many powers as they have come down to us from ancient myth and historical research. As She is the Goddess of Magic, we can work magic with Her help. It’s likely that this is the way many of us connect with Her on a day-to-day basis, whether or not we conceive of Her as a discrete Goddess or as part of an underlying unity.
If we take a “soft” perspective, we might see Isis as many of Her ancient worshipers did, as the Goddess of Ten Thousand Names, She Who is Isis and Neith and Aphrodite and Hera and Hekate and so many more. Or, if She is a personification of a natural force, which one? Heka? Sun? Sirius? Wind? (She’s such an all-encompassing Goddess, it’s difficult to choose just one; but, of course, we don’t have to.) If we consider that She is all of them, what does that tell us about Her Nature and Being? Or, if She’s an archetype, which one or ones? Mother? Magician? Trickster? Healer? Ruler?
Yet this far from concludes our polytheistic options.
Henotheism, kathenotheism, monalatry & Isis
A henotheistic conception of the Divine holds that while there are many Deities, we focus on one without rejecting the others. It was first coined in the 1700s and originally used to describe the so-called “primitive monotheism” of the ancient Greeks. A number of modern scholars use it for the syncretism of Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean—with the worship of Isis being the prime example.
Henotheism may also include the idea that all Deities are united through one Divine Essence; this approach is thus related to a kind of monism, which is why some scholars prefer the term monalatrism to henotheism. Another type of henotheism is kathenotheism, in which one worships “one God at a time.” This may be my own most common personal practice. While I am devoted to Isis and to Dionysos, and I have some kind of a…thing…with Raphael, I don’t work with all of Them together, but rather one at a time.
It has been my experience that many modern Isiacs relate to Isis through some form of henotheism, at least sometimes. Employing this view, we learn that we can have a primary Deity or Deities without rejecting other Divine Ones. It allows us to be good guests in the temples of Deities Who are not our primaries, yet we still know Them as the true Divinities They are.
Isis & Pantheism/Panentheism
Pantheism is the idea that unified Divinity is completely immanent in the created universe. All-That-Is is God/dess. Generally, pantheists don’t posit a personal Divinity, though they attribute Divine qualities, such as eternity and ineffability, to the All-That-Is. There is quite a bit of philosophical/theological discussion about what-all this means. (I refer you to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for that.)
But I’m trying to simplify. Pantheism might be another case where we could say, “Isis is All Things and All Things are Isis.” In this case, everything is not just OF Her (as Source), but IS Her. How would we relate to our world if we could keep that conception in the front of our minds? How does the act of making offering—or any ritual for that matter—change? Does Deep Mystery become Deep Science?
Panentheism takes this a step further. Divinity is immanent in the universe, but It also extends beyond both time and space and is transcendent in relation to the universe. Like pantheism, panentheism is a relatively new word, being coined in 1828. Neoplatonism, some Hindu sects, some South and North American indigenous religions, as well as some sects of Judaism and Kabbalah, Islam, and Christianity have some panentheistic elements.
We can also point to such elements in post-Amarna Egyptian theology. One of the hymns to Amun-Re hails Him as “the one Who makes Himself into millions, Whose length and breadth are limitless.” Egyptologist Erik Hornung, in discussing this hymn, understands “oneness” as the condition of the God before Creation and “millions” as the polytheistic Divine Reality after Creation. Egyptologist Jan Assman (mentioned in relation to his “Mosaic distinction” last week) explains that Amun-Re, as the One Who makes Himself into millions and yet remains within, behind, and encircling the multiplicity He has created, gives us a panentheistic Deity Who is within the Creation, but also prior to and containing it.
We have already met Isis in an All-Goddess capacity in some of our monotheistic and monistic discussions. And while I’m sure philosophers and theologians can discuss the complexities and distinctions, again, I am trying to simplify. What both of these views may do is bring Isis closer to our world. It is easy to see Her in the natural world as river or mountain (“Her blood is the water, Her body the earth”), but is She also [in?] the laptop I’m typing on? For me, there is an intimacy in this conception that feels personal, whether pantheistically, we reject the idea of a personal Deity, or panentheistically, we accept it.
Animism & Isis
Some philosophers and theologians see the beginnings of pantheism in animism. Animism is an ancient worldview in which all things, from Deities to humans to plants, animals, and rocks, all have their own spiritual essence/soul/spirit. Everything is alive in some way; everything is spiritual. Generally, these essences are distinct—so we can interact with the plant people or an individual tree for example. There may or may not be an underlying unity. There is ongoing discussion as to whether animism is a religion or a worldview.
It is easy to see animist harmonies with the ancient Egyptian concept of the ka, the vital essence in all things (and to some extent, the ba; but let’s just stay with ka for now). Ka is the difference between life and death. It can be given, transferred, and received. We can interact with it in the beings around us. It connects us to our ancestors and even back to original Creation, the Zep Tepi or First Occasion. While each being and thing has its own ka, there is an underlying relationship between all kas due to their origin in First Creation, so here we have an underlying connection if not unity between all things.
In this view, Isis has a Divine ka—or many kas since She is a tremendously powerful Deity. We may seek to learn about and to experience Her ka in meditation. When making offering, it is the ka of the offering that is transferred to the ka of Isis in order to receive its nourishment or other benefits.
I have been working on becoming more conscious of the ka in all things as I move through my life. It definitely takes practice, what with all of life’s mundanities, but it is also a fulfilling way to re-enchant the world.
Autotheism & Isis
The last type of theism I’ll address is autotheism. It’s a new term to me, but it’s an old concept, and one that fits quite well with ancient Egypt. The Wikipedia definition is fairly straightforward: “the viewpoint that divinity, whether also external or not, is inherently within oneself and that one has the ability to become godlike.” (You’ll also see it defined as the worship of oneself, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)
In the early days of my involvement in the local Pagan community, part of the Circle was often to greet each other with “Thou art Goddess.” It drove me slightly crazy because it seemed like a treacly platitude. But I was wrong. This autotheistic concept is what was intended: recognizing that there is Divinity in me and in you and in all of us. In Isis Magic I have called this Divine Within the Isis Heart—the Iset Ib—which is our deep and Divine connection to Her.
I’m going to leave aside the question of whether or not humans can become godlike while alive (in some circumstances, yes; but it bears more discussion than we can do here). Instead, let’s head back to ancient Egypt and Isis.
As many of you already know, the pharaoh was considered a living Deity—at least when acting in specific capacities. Pharaoh was also deified in death. For most other Egyptians (at least the ones for whom we have records), becoming godlike was an after-death experience. With proper rites and having lived a life of ma’et, one could become an akh, an effective or transfigured spirit. Akhs could be effective on earth; the famous “letters to the dead” were likely addressed to the person as akh. And, being a godlike akh, they could dwell among the Deities in the otherworld.
The spiritual Work of discovering and nurturing our own divine natures is growth ably guided by the hand of Isis. As we develop our relationship with Isis, we will also deepen our human nature and discover our divine nature. It is easy to understand being the best human being we can be, but what does it mean to help our divine nature blossom? How is that different from our best human nature? Or is it?
Harmonies and paradoxes
Thinking through the different views of Divine Reality humans have envisioned is a worthy meditation for today’s devotees of Isis. For if we look back to the traditions of ancient Isiacism to instruct or inspire our modern devotion at all, then we will inevitably find ourselves confronted with holy puzzles that might slot into one or another of these various ways of looking at Our Goddess and the Divine Reality.
As we meditate on these puzzles, we may come to discover our own answers…at least our answers for now. Personal answers to questions like these can change over time as we discover, experience, and learn more about ourselves and about our relationship with Her.