D.H. Lawrence as a young man

If you’ve read Ronald Hutton’s masterful Triumph of the Moon, a History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, you might remember a chapter in which Hutton refers to a novella by D. H. Lawrence in which The Man Who Died survives His crucifixion, meets a devout Priestess of Isis, honors her Goddess, and makes love with her as her Osiris.

Wait…what!?

D.H. Lawrence, author of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and other well-known erotica, wrote a story about Isis and Her priestess? Turns out, yep. He did. Is it erotic ala Lady Chatterly? Turns out, yep, it is. In fact, it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “He is risen!”

I am not kidding.

It must have caused more than one vicar’s head to explode when it first came out in 1929, a year before Lawrence’s death. This novella was his last work.

Here is Lawrence’s own summary of the story in a letter to a friend:

I wrote a story of the Resurrection, where Jesus gets up and feels very sick ’bout everything, and can’t stand the old crowd any more—so cuts out—and as he heals up, be begins to find what an astonishing place the phenomenal world is, far more marvelous than any salvation or heaven—and thanks his stars he needn’t have a mission any more.

D.H. Lawrence in a letter to his friend, the American painter, writer, and scholar Earl Henry Brewster

But as you already know from the introduction to this post, dear Isiacs, that is just the beginning of the story. So I shall tell you the rest.

A very interesting rendition of the High Priestess card, or The Papess
High Priestess at the sea

For the sake of completeness—and in the case that you might want to read the whole work for yourself—the title is The Man Who Died. That was the published title, but not Lawrence’s preferred one. His preferred title was The Escaped Cock. (And yes, the story actually does start with a cock. Jesus helps the rooster make his escape, just as Jesus is making His own escape from His fate.)

Terracotta statuette of a priestess of Isis, Egypt, 2nd century CE

Anyway, on with our tale…

After some post-crucifixion healing up at the home of some peasants, Jesus has an encounter with the Magdelene (whom Lawrence calls Madeleine) that sorely disappoints her since Jesus refuses to return to the disciples with her. Instead, He leaves town, wandering until He comes to the sea at Lebanon.

At the sea’s edge, He comes upon a small Temple of Isis, built to face towards Egypt. It had been built by a 27-year-old priestess of Isis, who had tended it for the past seven years. She serves “Isis Bereaved, Isis of the Search.”

He describes the Goddess’ image like this:

The goddess, in painted marble, lifted her face and strode, one thigh forward, through the frail fluting of her robe, in the anguish of bereavement and of search. She was looking for the fragments of the dead Osiris, dead and scattered asunder, dead, torn apart, and thrown in fragments over the wide world. And she must find his hands and his feet, his heart, his thighs, his head, his belly, she must gather him together and fold her arms round the re-assembled body till it became warm again, and roused to life, and could embrace her, and could fecundate her womb. And the strange rapture and anguish of search went on through the years, as she lifted her throat and her hollowed eyes looked inward, in the tormented ecstasy of seeking, and the delicate navel of her bud-like belly showed through the frail, girdled robe with the eternal asking, asking, of her search.

D.H. Lawrence, The Man Who Died

This description doesn’t match any of the standard images of Isis, except possibly one of the Isis Pelagia images. The movement of the Goddess and Her garments that Lawrence describes can be seen in some of those images.

The priestess, the “flower of whose womb was cool,” has quietly been serving her Goddess, waiting.

Jesus and the priestess meet. He asks for shelter saying, “The Goddess is great.” The priestess gives Him shelter. The slaves of the priestess spot the marks on His hands and feet and declare Him a “malefactor.” Days pass as the two come to know each other. Jesus is numb to the world and has no interest in women. The priestess, too, she of the cool womb, has no interest in men.
 
But, of course, things change.
 
One day, the priestess invites Jesus to the temple with her to see the sacred image of the Goddess. He goes.

He followed her into the inner shrine, into the almost-darkness. When his eyes got used to the faint glow of the lamp, he saw the goddess striding like a ship, eager in the swirl of her gown, and he made his obeisance.

“Great is Isis!” he said. “In her search she is greater than death. Wonderful is such walking in a woman, wonderful the goal. All men praise thee, Isis, thou greater than the mother unto man.”

The woman of Isis heard, and threw incense on the brazier. Then she looked at the man.

“Is it well with thee here?” she asked him. “Has Isis brought thee home to herself?”

He looked at the priestess in wonder and trouble. “I know not,” he said.

The Man Who Died

[Ah ha! Lawrence must have been looking at an Isis Pelagia image. He even describes Her as striding like a ship.]

Oh yes; and it is important to know that Jesus could not be touched during all this time; His experiences made it just too much for Him. But things continue to change. The priestess comes to believe that Jesus is Osiris reborn. Jesus eventually does allow Himself to be touched by her. Jesus and the priestess of Isis make love in the temple before the sacred image of the striding Goddess. Touched by the priestess and the Goddess Herself, Jesus is healed just as Osiris is healed. He never asks the priestess’ name; she never asks His, for she already knows Him to be Osiris.

I kinda love this piece of art

Time passes again and the priestess conceives a child.

But just as Osiris leaves Isis in His death, so Jesus must leave the pregnant priestess. Slaves have recognized Him and the Roman authorities are on the way. Jesus makes His escape.

If you wish to read the whole story—and it is worth doing—you’ll find it here.

I was prepared to be disappointed by the tale itself, but in general, I wasn’t. The writing is moody, only gently steamy, though the sexism of the day is apparent.

According to Hutton, the story is fully of its day; a time when, in England at least, many people were trying to reconcile Christianity with their ideas about little-p paganism and finding much good in doing so. The equation of Jesus-Osiris was well known in alternative religion circles of the period. But, of course, it wasn’t a new equation even then. Syncretism has a very long history.

At any rate, this story is one more link in our modern Isiac tradition and I’m very pleased that Mr. Hutton helped me to discover it. I hope you will enjoy it, too.