Posted by: Isidora | July 26, 2015

Werethekau & Isis Great of Magic

“O, Isis, Great of Magic, deliver me from all bad, evil, and typhonic things…”                                                  —Ebers Papyrus, 1500 BCE

Werethekau as a winged Cobra Goddess

Werethekau as a winged Cobra Goddess (photo by Mark Williams)

One of Isis’ most powerful epithets is “Great of Magic,” which you may also see translated as Great One of Magic, Great Sorceress, or Great Enchantress. In Egyptian, it is Weret Hekau or Werethekau. (“Wer” is “great” and “et” is the feminine ending. “Hekau” is the plural of “magic,” so you could also translate it as Great of Magics.)

Isis is not the only Goddess Who is called Great of Magic. Many of the Great Goddesses bear that epithet, too: Hathor, Sakhmet, Mut, Wadjet, among others. Gods are also Great of Magic, notably Set in the Pyramid Texts.

Werethekau from Karnak

Werethekau from Karnak

There is also an independent Goddess named Werethekau. As so many Deities were, She was associated with the king, and especially during his coronation. There had been some doubt among Egyptologists about whether Werethekau was indeed a separate Goddess. But recently, Ahmed Mekawy Ouda of Cairo University has been doing a lot of work tracking Her down. (She was also the topic of his thesis, which I hope to get a copy of someday soon.) He’s gathered references to a priesthood and temples for Her that seem quite clear. More on all that in a moment.

In addition to the Great of Magic Deities, there are objects called Great of Magic, especially objects associated with the king, such as the royal crowns. In the Pyramid Texts, the king goes before a very personified Red Crown:

“The Akhet’s door has been opened, its doorbolts have drawn back. He has come to you, Red Crown; he has come to you, Fiery One; he has come to you, Great One; he has come to you, Great of Magic—clean for you and fearful because of you . . . He has come to you, Great of Magic: he is Horus, encircled by the aegis of his eye, the Great of Magic.”

                                      —Pyramid Texts of Unis, 153

A Lioness-headed Werethekau from Karnak

A lioness-headed Werethekau from Karnak

Some amulets, including a vulture amulet, a cobra amulet, and, as in the example above, the Eye of Horus amulet are also called Great of Magic. So is the adze used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony.

With all this great magic going for him or her, the king or queen becomes Great of Magic, too. King Pepi Neferkare is told, “Horus has made your magic great in your identity of Great of Magic” (Pyramid Texts of Pepi, 315). Queen Neith is told, “Horus has made your magic great in your identity of Great of Magic. You are the Great God” (Pyramid Texts of Neith, 225).

I wonder whether there might be some primordial connection between the Great of Magic royal crowns and the Great of Magic royal throne—Who is Iset, the Goddess Throne. Perhaps we can understand the accouterments of kingship as personified extensions of the Power, Divinity, and Magic of the Living Great Goddesses, which were empowered by Them in order to bestow upon the king his own power, divinity, and magic.

A cobra-headed Werethekau...also from Karnak. Lots of Great of Magics at Karnak, eh?

A cobra-headed Werethekau…also from Karnak. Lots of Great of Magics at Karnak, eh? Or should that be Greats of Magic?

The magic of the crowns is enhanced by the protective uraeus serpents often shown upon them. They’re not just snakes, of course; They’re Goddesses. Most often, the Uraeus Goddesses are Wadjet and Nekhbet or Isis and Nephthys, representing Lower and Upper Egypt. But Werethekau is a Uraeus Goddess, too. The uraei are also known as “Eyes” due to the similarity between the Egyptian word for “eye” (iret) and the word for “the doer” (iret)—for the Eyes of the Deities are the Divine Powers that go out to do things (much like the active and feminine Shakti power in Hinduism.)

The Pyramid Texts of King Merenre associate the Eyes with the crowns:

“You are the god who controls all the Gods, for the Eye has emerged in your head as the Nile Valley Great-of-Magic Crown, the Eye has emerged in your head as the Delta Great-of-Magic Crown, Horus has followed you and desired you, and you are apparent as the Dual King, in control of all the Gods and Their kas as well.”                                               

                                           —Pyramid Texts of Merenre, 52

The human-headed Cobra Goddess Werethekau nursing Tutankhamum

The human-headed Cobra Goddess Werethekau nursing Tutankhamum

The Uraeus Goddesses or Eyes are powerful, holy cobras Who emit Light and spit Fire against the enemies of the king and the Deities. Learn more about Isis as Uraeus Goddess here.

When Werethekau is an independent Goddess, She may have the body of a woman and head of a cobra, be in full cobra form, and we even have a few instances of the Goddess in full human form. Among Tutankhamun’s grave goods is a figure of Werethekau with a human head and cobra body nursing a child Tut.

She also has a lioness form. We know of a lionine Isis-Werethekau from the hypostyle hall at Karnak. A number of the Goddesses with a feline form—Sakhmet, Mut, Pakhet—were also known as Great of Magic, so we can understand that powerful magic has not only a protective and nurturing side, but also a fierce and raging one. Which seems about right if you ask me; magic can be very positive and healing or, if used unwisely, a real mess.

Isis-Werethekau from the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak

Isis-Werethekau from the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. You can read Her name in the hieroglyphs above Her. Click to enlarge.

So far, I haven’t tracked down the oldest reference to Isis as Great of Magic. Since She has always been a Goddess of great magical power, the association is ancient. Perhaps it has always been. Perhaps there’s something to my guess about The Great-of-Magic Throne. Or perhaps Professor Ouda will come to my rescue when I finally get a copy of his thesis.

In Ouda’s article outlining some of the references to Werethekau’s priesthood and temples, several of the extant references to Werethekau also tie-in Isis and Her Divine family.

For instance, on a stele of a chantress of Isis, the chantress is shown playing the sistrum and adoring Isis-Werethekau. The inscription reads, “adoring Werethekau, may They [Isis and Werethekau?] give life and health to the ka of the chantress of Isis, Ta-mut-neferet.”

Ta-mut-neferet holds the hand of a man identified as “the servant of Osiris.”  Another stele calls Werethekau “Lady of the Palace” and is dedicated by a chantress of Osiris, Horus, and Isis. A man who was Second God’s Servant of Osiris, God’s Servant of Horus, and God’s Servant of Isis was also God’s Servant of Werethekau, Lady of the Palace.

Iset Werethekau in hieroglyphs...three different ways

Iset Werethekau in hieroglyphs…three different ways

Ouda also notes that Lady of the Palace may be Werethekau’s most common epithet. That is quite interesting in light of the fact that Lady of the Palace (or House or Temple) is the very meaning of Nephthys’ name. (Learn more about that here.) And of course, She, too, is called Great of Magic. Together, Isis and Nephthys are the Two Uraeus Goddesses and the Two Great of Magics.

So if the question is, “is Werethekau an independent Goddess, a personified object, or an epithet of other Deities?”, the answer is, “yes”. With the beautiful and, to my mind, admirable fluidity of the Egyptian Divine, She is all these things…and most especially, a powerful aspect of Isis, the Great Enchantress.

Posted by: Isidora | July 23, 2015

Join me for the Celebrate the Goddess Telesummit


Hello, Isiacs!

Coming this August, I’ll be participating in the Celebrate the Goddess Telesummit that begins on August 3 and runs through the 14th.

The way this works is that you can register for free and tune in for 20 one-hour sessions, two each weekday, with 20 different speakers. Each session will be about building a relationship with a particular Goddess, including Persephone, Inanna, Saraswati, Artemis, the Black Madonna, Aradia, and more. There’s no cost to attend and the sessions are at 10 am and 1 pm. But since many of us work and won’t be able to listen live, you’ll also have access to listen anytime within 48 hours of each session. You can listen online, via phone, or Skype. You’ll receive the connection information after you register.

You can probably guess which Goddess I’ll be talking about. I’ll be the last speaker—on August 14 at 1 pm…or up to 48 hours after that, at your convenience.

One of the things we’ll be doing is the ritual of Opening the Ways to Isis. I’ve never done the ritual remotely before, so this should be interesting. Please do come and help make the magic even more powerful by your presence and participation.

I hope you’ll join us for all these sessions as we explore some of the many, beautiful faces of Goddess.

Click here to register for free.

Posted by: Isidora | July 19, 2015

It’s Time to Get Sirius about Isis

The holy Star of Isis, the brightest star in the night sky

I know, sorry.

But it is that time.

Star and Cow Goddess were associated very early in Egypt

Stars and the Cow Goddess were associated very early in Egypt

The time when we watch the skies for the pre-dawn reappearance of the beautiful and brilliant star of Isis, Sirius.

Thanks to the wonders of modern online astronomical calculators, we can know pretty precisely when the Fair Star of the Waters will rise before the sun in our area. (To use the calculator, just enter your email and the password: softtests. You will need to know the latitude of your area and its altitude. Both of those are easily google-able.)

I’ve written a number of posts about Sirius and Isis. Here are the links, all in one place:

At Denderah, Sothis is a cow with the star between Her horns, and surrounding Her

At Denderah, one image of Sopdet shows Her as a cow with Sirius between Her horns, and stars surrounding Her

The basic information on Isis and Her holy star and why it is called the “dog star”.

Meditations on Isis and Her Mother during this time of waiting.

Why Sirius is appropriately the heavenly marker of our modern New Year, too, and about temples oriented to Sirius.

The experience of my sister priestess and me last year as we watched Her rise.

About the symbol of the star in Egyptian spirituality and being “joined” to yours.

And a ritual for beginning the process of “being joined to your star.”

Sothis from Isis temple at Philae

Sopdet from Isis’ temple at Philae

The rise of the Star of Isis was important in ancient Egypt for it marked coming of the fertilizing Nile Inundation and the day of the New Year. It was also the end of the epigominal days, those days out of time when the the Cairo Calendar tells us that the birthdays of Osiris, Horus the Elder, Set, Isis, and Nephthys were celebrated.

Thus, if you wish to celebrate the Birth of Isis, it is two days before New Year’s Day.

There are a number of options for choosing our New Year’s Day.

For instance, perhaps you’ve seen a date of July 19th given for the rising of Sirius? This comes from a 1904 calculation by Eduard Meyer, who was the first modern person to have noticed ancient Egypt’s Sothic Cycle.

Isis-Sothis, Lady of the Dog-Star, riding on Her dog

Isis-Sothis, Lady of the Dog-Star, riding on Her dog, from an Alexandrian coin

You may recall that the Sothic Cycle is a period of 1,461 ancient Egyptian years during which the 365-day Egyptian year, which is one quarter day too short, loses enough time so that the Egyptian New Year, once again coincides with the rise of Sirius.

Meyer was trying to calculate the date of the star’s rising from the ancient Egyptian calendar and translate it to the modern Julian so that the reigns of the pharaohs could be more accurately dated. The Sirius rising date he came up with was July 19—but that would have been for 140-142 CE.

You may certainly use that date if you prefer a firm date for planning your celebrations. That would make New Year on the 19th and Isis’ birthday on July 17th.

Personally, I like to use the date when Isis’ star may actually be seen in the morning skies in my area. In my part of the world, the Pacific Northwest of the US, that’s August 23rd. You can use the calculator link above to find out when She rises in your area.

The jumble of stone blocks that is, today, Isiopolis

You could mark the rise of Isis’ star at Isiopolis…

Another option might be to use the modern rising time at either of Isis’ major sacred temple sites in Egypt.

At Her Lower Egypt temple of Isiopolis in the delta, that will be August 9th this year.

 The Temple of Philae; photo by Ivan Marcialis from Quartucciu, Italy and used under Wiki Creative Commons usage guidelines

…or from Her Philae temple; photo by Ivan Marcialis; used under Wiki Creative Commons

At Her Upper Egypt temple of Philae/Agilika, that would be August 3rd.

So you can see that latitude makes a great deal of difference as to when the rising of the Goddess’ star may be actually observed.

This year, at my latitude, the rise of the Star of Isis falls on a weekend (no work worries, yay!), which means that I will be getting up in the wee hours of the morning, traveling a short distance to a high place, and watching as the Mystery unfolds and the Goddess emerges once more from the Underworld into the dawning light.

If you wish to join me, you’ll need to be at your observation point about an hour before sunrise in order to see Her. We may chant Her name—Iset-Sopdet, Isis-Sothis—as She rises. We may offer Her milk and lotuses. Or we may watch in beautiful silence as She comes, She comes.

Posted by: Isidora | July 12, 2015

Isis, the Acacia Goddess

Birds in an acacia tree, from a Middle Kingdom tomb

Birds in an acacia tree, from a Middle Kingdom tomb

There are many species of acacia, medium-sized, thorny trees with rough, dark bark that can be found in the arid parts of Africa and Asia.

In parts of Africa, the trees characteristically have a dome-shaped canopy because of the way the giraffes graze them. Yet the acacia has developed what seems like an almost miraculous defense system. The tree senses its leaves being grazed. This triggers the release into the acacia’s leaves of a poisonous tannin—so poisonous, if enough is consumed, it can even be deadly.

Researchers discovered this when they observed giraffes browsing only one in ten acacia trees, while antelopes on a fenced game ranch that could not roam freely ate acacia and died.

Furthermore, the tree emits a chemical, ethylene, into the air that can travel on the breeze about 50 feet to alert nearby acacia trees—and they produce the tannin, too.

While the ancient Egyptians may not have been aware of the less observable aspects of this cycle, they clearly recognized acacia as special—both practically and magically.

A stool made from acacia wood

A stool made from acacia wood

On the practical side, the Egyptian acacia, acacia nilotica, has many, many uses. Acacia, called shont, shonnet, shondj, or shondet in Egyptian (it is called sont in modern Arabic), is an attractive hardwood from which the ancient Egyptians built, among other things, boats, sarcophaguses, and furniture.

… the Boat of Ra arrived at the town of Het-Aha; its forepart was made of palm wood, and the hind part was made of acacia wood; thus the palm tree and the acacia tree have been sacred trees from that day to this.

—the Legend of Horus of Behutet and the Winged Disk

Acacia flowers are sweet smelling and look like mini suns

Acacia flowers are sweet smelling and look like mini suns

Acacia’s sweet smelling, yellow flowers, which look like little yellow sunbursts, are astringent and were used to help cleanse the skin and clear up skin problems. Brewed acacia leaves were drunk in a cough mixture. They were also applied to wounds and swollen limbs for their astringent properties. The tree’s seedpods are edible by livestock. The crushed bark produces tannin that was used to help heal burns and tan leather.

Gum acacia (aka “gum arabic”), a resin exuded by the tree, has an amazing variety of uses. It is edible and is extremely nutritious. During the gum harvest, modern-day pickers are said to live almost entirely on it, and just six ounces is enough to sustain an adult for a day.

Young woman gathering gum acacia in Sudan

Woman gathering gum acacia in Sudan

Gum acacia assists in blending and smoothing fats, so it is often used in candy making. It can be used in medicines, incense, paint, and even as glue. Ancient Egyptian women used gum acacia, blended into a base of dates and honey, as a contraceptive. And it worked, too. When gum acacia is dissolved, it produces lactic acid, a spermacide.

DMT, a hallucinogen associated with spiritual experiences, may be present in acacia nilotica in low doses. It is, however, present in other species of acacia in higher doses. This has, of course, led some to speculate that the Egyptians may have used the drug as a way to contact the Otherworld.

And that thought is the perfect crossover to look into acacia’s magical potencies.

Acacia pods, very nutritious, make excellent fodder for all kinds of animals

Acacia pods, very nutritious, make excellent fodder for all kinds of animals

The acacia could represent both life and death for it was thought to encompass both. As the antelopes learned, the tree can be deadly, though it is more often connected with life and healing. The tree is evergreen, making it an apt tree of life. Its yellow flowers look like small suns, making it a solar and renewing, tree. Among the virtues of acacia recorded by Pliny, is a quality that would seem to associate it with resurrection and renewal:

…but the principal merit that it possesses is, that when it is cut down, it will grow again within three years.

—Pliny, Natural History, Book XIII, chapter 19

In one of the formulae of the Coffin Texts, wood from the Goddess Saosis’ (that is, Iusaaset, the primordial Grandmother of Creation and the Gods, sometimes identified with Hathor or Isis) sacred acacia is crushed by the deceased for its healing properties.

In another, the acacia provides an unidentified instrument of power that enables the deceased to avoid evil things in the Otherworld. In yet another text, the acacia appears to be an ingredient in a divine mortar.

Just as the Double Lions served as the gateway to the Otherworld, sometimes Two Acacia Trees could be a gateway, too

Just as the Double Lions served as the gateway to the Otherworld, sometimes Two Acacia Trees could be a gateway

The acacia is also associated with the Double Lion, the twin lions Who guard the horizon to the Otherworld.

The Egyptians must have considered the acacia an ancient, even primordial, tree. In the Book of Coming Forth by Day, the deceased says that he stands before Anubis in a time before the acacia was born, that is, In The Beginning, before the Deities had established All Things. At Heliopolis, there was a tradition that all the Goddesses and Gods were born beneath an acacia tree. In the Book of Coming Forth by Day, the deceased goes to “the Acacia Tree of the Children;” probably the Divine Children of Iusaaset, the Goddesses and Gods born beneath the sacred acacia.

The deceased and his ba receive water from the Acacia Tree Goddess in the Otherworld

The deceased makes offering while his ba receives water from the Acacia Goddess in the Otherworld

While the acacia is associated with a number of Egyptian Deities, it has specific associations with Isis and Her family. A particular acacia—simply called The Acacia, or Shondj—was sacred to Her. The Goddess Shontet, the Acacia Goddess Who took part in the Osirian resurrection rites at Djedu (Mendes), was considered to be a form of Isis. And Isis and Nephthys together were called the Two Shonti Goddesses, that is, the Two Acacia Goddesses.

In the story of the “Contendings of Horus and Set,” Isis, in the form of Her sacred bird, flies into the branches of Her holy acacia after tricking Set into condemning His own attempts to usurp the rightful rule of Horus, Isis’ son. In some tales, the acacia is the tree that magically grew up around the body of Osiris when His sarcophagus washed up on the shores of Byblos. He is called “the One in the Tree” and “the Solitary One in the Acacia.” In the Pyramid Texts, Horus, “comes forth from the acacia tree.”

Acacia nilotica

Acacia nilotica, showing leaves and thorns

In one of the poison-curing spells that include the legend of “Isis & the Seven Scorpions,” when Horus is stung and cries out in pain, it is the doorkeepers at the Temple of the Holy Acacia Tree who hear Him and send a cry to the heavens for help, since Isis is away making libations for Osiris.

Because of Divine associations like these, acacia could serve as an offering to both Horus and Isis—and although I haven’t yet run across it, it would seem that it would be a very appropriate offering for Osiris as well.

The acacia is a tree of beauty, usefulness, powerful protection, life and death, and the magic of healing…and thus it is sacred unto Isis Shontet, the Lady of the Acacia.

Posted by: Isidora | July 5, 2015

“Doing Things” for Isis

A Sem priest...Doing Things

A Sem priest…Doing Things

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while may be familiar with my small rants about The Old Gentlemen of Egyptology and their innate sexist attitudes. Well, today it’s time for another rant…just a little one…but this time it’s about the Even Older Gentlemen of Ancient Egypt and their innate sexist attitudes.

You see, I just came across a scholarly article by Carolyn Routledge entitled “Did Women ‘Do Things’ in Ancient Egypt? (c. 2600-1050 BCE)” at the same time as served me up a thesis by the same Carolyn Routledge about ancient Egyptian ritual practice, which was an in-depth study of two specific words having to do with ritual, one of which translates as “doing things” (iri ḫt).

Routledge explains that the Egyptians used ir ḫt (“to do things”) in several specific ways. In addition to its meaning as ritual performance, including funerary rites, it also has to do with the performance of work or duty, and even negative behavior. It was used particularly in relation to physical activity.

A priest making a ritual gesture...part of Doing Things, probably offering

A priest making a ritual gesture…part of Doing Things, probably offering

Of course I’m most interested in ir ḫt meaning “to do ritual.” The kinds of ritual activities that were Done included libating and censing and making offering, including burnt offering: “you perform rites; bread, beer, and incense upon the flame.”

Interestingly, there also seems to be some emphasis on doing these things with one’s arms and hands. Makes me wonder whether, in addition to the sheer physicality of using a sacred vessel to libate, a censer to burn incense, or employing some other ritual object, there was also supposed to have been an accompanying gesture. There also seems to have been a connection to written instructions in the performance of ritual. So the lector priest, the sacred reader, was one who definitely Did Things.

If one wanted to be quite specific, one could also say he was iri ḫt nṯr, “doing God’s rites” or iri ḫt nṯrt, “doing Goddess’ rites.” But notice that pronoun I just used in relation to the person doing the Doing? Yeah. He. Sadly, Routledge answers the question posed in her article title with a resounding no; women did not Do Things. At least as far as we can tell from the evidence left to us, and I must admit it seems reasonably conclusive.

A queen…obviously not Doing Things; from the tomb of Nefertari

For example, the king has the title, neb ir ḫt, “Lord of Doing Things.” It is often used in connection with the king Doing Things that maintain Ma’et, including cultic functions as well as kingly duties and activities. The queen, however, does not Do Things. She has no title, Lady of Doing Things. Instead, she “says all things and it is done for her.” I used to think that was a nice expression of queenly power; now, I’m kinda thinking it’s the opposite: an expression of the perceived inability of women to Do Things themselves.

There are only two exceptions: Sobeknefru and Hatshepsut, both women who ruled as king, not queen. In Hatshepsut’s case, about half of the references to that title are in the masculine form, half in a feminized form: nebet ir ḫt. (We have no references to Tausert, a later woman ruler, using that title.)

The exclusion of women from Doing Things is, of course, the basis of my rant. Or maybe it’s not even really a rant. More of a whine. Or an exhausted, put-upon sigh.

The king, priests, and officials of all stripes Did Things. But when it came to women, the “things” part of the important phrase was avoided. There are instances of women iri irw, “doing doings” or “performing performances,” but not iri ḫt. Routledge gives an interesting example of a husband and wife, both named Djehutynakht, both with the same funerary text on their coffins, but hers excludes the word ḫt.

A new image of queen Tjye recently found at Luxor; pretty sure this woman could Do Things

A new image of queen Tjye recently found at Luxor; pretty sure this woman could Do Things

It’s practically impossible not to smell the old sexist weakness-of-women, unfitness-of-women-for-important-stuff stereotypes here. But we don’t know. Routledge suggests that it may be because iri ḫt was associated with educated, literate, and highly trained people, very few of whom would have been women in ancient Egypt. True enough. But the question underlying that conclusion is “why not?” Which, of course, refers us back to the first sentence in this paragraph.

So what can we do with this information? Why am I sharing it with you?

First, I enjoyed learning an important ancient term for doing ritual and reading about its specific connotations. Second, we sometimes tend to idealize the ancient Egyptians—we do so love their Deities, their art, their magic and mysterious ancient wisdom. It is important to know that every society—theirs, ours, everybody’s—has flaws, often significant ones, and we should not be blind to them.

And third? Third, I hope to encourage all of us to Do Things for Isis. We all have the capacity for Doing Things in the ancient sense: with power, purpose, and effectiveness. Let us also be reminded that the physicality of ritual is important. For when we are fully engaged with what we are Doing—body, mind, soul, and spirit—ritual is far from being empty show. It is instead Right Action that can truly Open the Ways so that we may come, once more, to the Divine Heart of Isis.

Concept art from Exodus; my Egyptian dream...

Concept art from Exodus; an imagined royal palace


Posted by: Isidora | June 28, 2015

Isis, MacGregor & Moina, Part 2

The masthead of L'Echo du Merveilleux

The masthead of L’Echo du Merveilleux

The other big source of information about the Mathers Rites of Isis was published in the French periodical L’Echo du Merveilleux (December, 1900), entitled “Isis á Montmartre” and written by André Gaucher. It is rather more breathless and its prose is deeply—deeply—empurpled.

At the time of the article, the Mathers moved to a new home in Montmartre (a Parisian arrondissement) where they could have a larger temple and a garden. Apparently, they had just moved when they had L’Echo interview—everything was still in boxes.

Napoleon's Coat of Arms for the city of Paris, with Isis enthroned on the prow of the ship

Napoleon’s Coat of Arms for the city of Paris with Isis enthroned on the ship’s prow

Mathers told Gaucher the myth of Isis and Osiris, explained Isis’ connections with Paris (at least according to the lore of the day, including the not-true idea of the city having been named for Her), and eventually—with much mysterious cloak-and-dagger, which I’m guessing was largely in the perception of the author—invited Gaucher to one of the Isis ceremonies.

The article is in French, so please forgive my Google Translate-aided English translation. Here is Gaucher’s account of the ritual:


Removing the blindfold. Light. Before my eyes, a large room draped entirely in white, decorated with garlands of flowers to graceful effect. There are roses, camellias, morning glory and purplish clusters—wisteria. (And in November!) Around me are men and women draped in long robes, or rather colorful peplums [probably meaning what appear to him to be Greek-style robes]. Moreover, they all seem to deeply ignore my presence. Nobody pays attention to me or seems to notice my strange dress in this “Greek Revival” meeting. Motionless, serious, and attentive, their faces were turned to the back of the room where, on a sort of stele supported by a platform, is erected a veiled statue of—Isis?

As if they had waited for my arrival, long curtains that hid the back of the room are opening. At the foot of the statue, a man and a woman appear, also dressed in white, their waists encircled by a length of saffron-colored fabric. Their arms are bare [except for] wide bands of gold or silver. The woman’s abundant, black hair floated over her shoulders.

MacGregor as the Hierophant Ramses in the L'Echo article; click to enlarge

MacGregor as the Hierophant Ramses in the L’Echo article; click to enlarge

They then performed the rites of a simple ceremony.

At the foot of the veiled statue, both kneel to ignite perfumes in a censer; the warm air of the sanctuary is charged with a strong odor of benzoin and incense. Then the priest and priestess scattered grains of wheat and [petals of] flowers on the ground. They pass these to an assistant, who bows deeply. Some of the wheat and flowers are then placed on the burning coals of the censer. They burn slowly.

Around us, the spectators seem to be readying for some important act of the ceremony. Faces become brighter, eyes shine, joy radiates everywhere. What is going to happen? Now, solemn, majestic, and hieratic, the priest of Isis moves toward the statue; he seems to grow taller, with a light touch and triumphant gesture, the mysterious veil falls away. The goddess appears smiling as assistants prostrate themselves, crying, “Isis! Isis! Isis!”

The priestess falls to her knees. The priest remains standing, arms wide, head flung back, ecstatic. A heavy silence—frightening!—falls on the kneeling crowd, and slowly, as if the earth moved under its base, the statue descends bit by bit. As it passes by the priest, he quickly takes up the veil. Then he lets out a frightful cry which is met by a mournful howl from the kneeling people.


Moina as Anari in L'Echo article

Moina as the High Priestess Anari in L’Echo article; click to enlarge

As I wonder in amazement whether I am dreaming or awake, a long and sinister rustling is heard. The white veils and flower garlands fall from the walls with an ominous shudder and the walls now appear to be draped in black. The torches are extinguished one by one as if by the breath of an invisible wind. On the right and left of the sanctuary, two sole flames burn, reddish and sooty. The blackness at the back of the room is rent with a sinister screeching. Away, in that deep darkness, a huge mass, chaotic, separates itself from the black background. Again a cry of the priest, a brief call, and the assistants become rigid, stiff and immobile. They shout three times: “Osiris! Osiris! Osiris!”

Indeed, my eyes, accustomed to the darkness, can better distinguish the details of the huge statue. It’s the Egyptian god wearing a gigantic pschent [the Double Crown]. But how could this colossal statue, this inexplicable prodigy, be transported as far as here? Is it a trick, a disappointing show of painted cardboard? Or is it really the god himself, the art of ancient Egypt torn from the stone bowels of Luxor and Karnak; what mysterious force, what superhuman powers were able to make this great image answer the prayers of his new worshippers? And I hear singing in my memory the verses of the poet [Victor Hugo], “The idol then, blind and monstrous fetus, emerges from the half-open mountain.”

In the middle of Egypt, the presence of such a granite monument would already be extraordinary; in Paris, it becomes completely incomprehensible.

Ramses & Anari, surely from the same L/Echo photoshoot

Ramses & Anari, with a really big sistrum!

I do not have time to think about this new strangeness. Other phenomena both weird and wonderful require my attention and once again I wonder whether I am the victim of an hallucination—or whether the phenomena are only clever tricks? Anything is possible. But then the skill of the architects of this fantastic scene itself touches on the unreal.

Here from the top of the statue, something luminous, phosphorescent, bursts forth and moves, circulating its inexplicable radiance. One by one the attendants appear haloed by the changing light that seems to move around them in a formidable magnetic effluvium. Round and about, under the eyes of the god, the worshippers fall in ecstasy or catalepsy. Around me sighs, convulsive cries. Their bodies roll on the ground, in the darkness, in the anguish of dreadful nervous spasms. Others stand, straight, rigid, with bloodless faces, haggard eyes. The vision descends into a nightmare. A scarlet torch illuminates the back of the sanctuary with an infernal glimmer, I believe that, at the rear, I see the gigantic statue in a terrible grin. Horror!

Scary Osiris from the TV show, Supernatural; maybe this is what Gaucher saw?

Scary Osiris from the TV show, Supernatural; maybe this is what Gaucher saw?

The monstrous head [of the statue] oscillates in darkness, unleashing a dull, deep sound; the indescribable rhythmic motion seems to carry with it, around the statue, a fantastic array of superhuman beings. Confusedly, I see the hawk-headed god Horus, the muzzle of the jackal of Anubis, the face of the bull god Thor [he probably means Hathor]. All the monsters of ancient Egypt—are they here?

Well, I’m afraid; yes, I am afraid, and suffocated by the acrid smoke from the bloody torches, which is becoming thicker and darker; I half-lose consciousness.

Having fainted, the over-excited journalist is driven back to Paris and safely delivered to his front door at “two o’clock, the hour of dreams, visions hour.”

Well! Now that is a ritual. I sincerely wish I could have been there.

Caroline Tully of the University of Melbourne suggests in her paper, “Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers and Isis” that, since this rite took place in November, the Mathers’ ritual could have been inspired by the Osirian Khoiak festival that lamented Osiris’ death and celebrated His rebirth, and which took place at roughly that time of year. It’s a very interesting idea. If we can believe Gaucher, the extreme emotionalism he witnessed at the Mathers’ Rite of Isis would definitely fit the festival of lamentation and joy in Khoiak.

The Palais des Nations from the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris

The Palais des Nations from the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris; you really should click to enlarge this one.

Now, you might think that being public Isiacs, developing their Isis Movement, and dealing with various Golden Dawn upsets (that never happens!) would have kept the Mathers plenty busy enough. But no. It seems that at least MacGregor was involved with creating an Isis Temple for the Exposition Universalle of 1900 in Paris.

MacGregor’s friend, J.W. Brodie-Innes wrote an eulogy for Mathers in the Occult Review of April, 1919.

In it he writes, “When he arranged a Temple of Isis for the Paris Exhibition, an Egyptologist whose name is world-famous said, ‘MacGregor is a Pharaoh come back. All my life I have studied the dry bones; he has made them live.'” We don’t know which world-famous Egyptologist Brodie-Innes intended, more’s the pity.

In a letter to Adept Order member Florence Farr (who had her own Egyptian connections), MacGregor writes, “My time is just now so enormously occupied with the arrangements for the Buildings and Decorations of the Egyptian Temple of Isis in Paris, as well as other matters, that I must write as briefly as possible.” Presumably, this is the Exposition temple. And, having just moved (you’ll recall from earlier), it could also be the smaller temple in their home. Or both.

The Egyptian Palace, 1900

The Egyptian Palace, 1900, note the Temple on the left

From some catalogs of the Exposition as well as descriptions of the Egyptian Palace (the Egyptian pavilion for the Exposition) we know that ancient Egyptian art, including images of Isis, Horus, and Osiris, was reproduced in the temple section of the Palace.

A book in English about the Exposition describes the Egyptian exhibit like this;

“Its facades were copied from the most famous buildings of ancient Egypt with their huge porticos, their strange bas-reliefs and hieroglyphics depicting the history of the ancient dynasties of Egypt, their friezes crowded with polychrome designs. There were three distinct divisions: on the right, the “Temple;” in the centre, the “Onakala,” or Arabian bazaar; to the left, the “Theatre.” The front facade of the Temple was a reproduction of that of the Temple of Dandour in Nubia. The sides were copied from buildings at Philae, Abydos and Karnak. The entrance hall, which formed a vestibule, led to a large square covered gallery in the form of a colonnade, with the atrium in the centre open to the sky.”

And about the Theatre:

In the third division, or Theatre, the exterior and the entrance were antique in style, like the Temple. The interior was richly decorated with immense frescoes, depicting in polychrome the life of ancient Egypt, the triumphal progress of the kings, public festivals on the Nile, ceremonies in the temples, etc. The arrangement of the auditorium and the furnishing was entirely in conformity with the Egyptian style. On the stage there were Arabs and Soudanese enacting their “fantasias” and characteristic dances. The sacred dances of ancient Egypt were also performed; in fact here were gathered together all varied attractions and delights of the mysterious East.

Were the “sacred dances of ancient Egypt” the four elemental dances we read about last week? I don’t know. But the Exposition—and the Egyptian Palace in particular—is another event from that period that I would dearly love to have been able to attend.

And there you have it. That’s about all we know about the Mathers and their Isis Movement.

However, an account on a Golden Dawn site that details the history of the GD’s Ahathoor Temple in Paris, opines that the Isis rites survived MacGregor’s death and Moina’s return to London within l’Ordre Eudiaque headed by Hector Durville. The Ordre Eudiaque seems to have been focused on magnetism and massage as well as Egyptian and Hermetic magic. The Aurum Solis claims it as a close relative and has the Ordre Eudiaque’s papers in its archives.

Posted by: Isidora | June 21, 2015

Isis, MacGregor & Moina, Part I

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…

The Golden Dawn by Gwyllm Llwydd; you can get you own copy of Gwyllm's beautifu work here.

The Golden Dawn by Gwyllm Llwydd; you can get you own copy of this beautiful artwork here.

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”.

Florence Farr, GD Order member and the model for G.B. Shaw's "New Woman"

Florence Farr, GD member and the model for G.B. Shaw’s “New Woman”

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.

Moina Mathers; if the 1895 date on this photo is correct, she would have been about 30

Moina Mathers, circa 1895; if that date is correct, she would have been about 30. Best photo ever!

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.)

Moina's portrait of her husband in his GD regalia; MacGregor met Moina in the British Museum as she was drawing Egyptian antiquities. Egypt had long been a passion for both.

Moina’s famous portrait of her husband in his GD regalia; MacGregor met Moina in the British Museum as she was sketching Egyptian antiquities. Egypt had long been a passion for both.

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 magical ceremony as imagined in a novel of about this period

A magical ceremony as imagined in an illustration of about this period; some have thought that it was supposed to be MacGregor and Moina in their Isis Rites, but I don’t think so. I’ve also seen it called “Necromancy” and I’m thinking that might be more like it given the ghostly look of the floating being between the Pillars.

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.”

The Ecclesiastical Review with the Isis article; click to enlarge and read

The Ecclesiastical Review with the Isis article; click to enlarge and read

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.

Posted by: Isidora | June 14, 2015

Harsiese—Horus, Son of Isis

Horus lead Ani before His father Osiris for judgment

Horus leads Ani before His father Osiris for judgment

This week’s post is inspired by a friend of this blog who was inquiring about how to distinguish the various Horus Gods. (Hint: It ain’t easy.) He was asking about two of Them specifically, as he wished to develop a devotion to Them.

Horus is one of ancient Egypt’s oldest and most important Gods. In fact, many places had their own local form of Horus and there were also other Falcon Gods throughout Egypt Who eventually came to be subsumed in, or at least called by the name of, Horus.

In the earliest texts that have come down to us, there doesn’t seem to have been much of an attempt (or perhaps need?) to separate the Horus Gods. But by the time of the Coffin Texts (beginning around 2100 BCE or so), we have separate funerary formulae for “Becoming Horus the Elder” and for “Becoming Horus.”

Horus as a falcon at His great temple at Edfu

Horus as a falcon at His great temple at Edfu

Scholars don’t know in what part of Egypt Horus’ worship originated. Behdet, a town in the western delta of Lower Egypt, and Nekhen (Hierakonpolis), in Upper Egypt near Luxor, both claimed to be His first cult centers. Interestingly, when His great temple at Edfu in Upper Egypt was built, it was often called by the sacred name of Behdet, though that was not its secular name. The site at Edfu was associated with Horus by the 5th dynasty.

Behdet was so important that Horus is sometimes known as Horus the Behdetite (Hor Behdety). In this aspect, He is usually a protective and powerful warrior—battling the enemies of Re and, of course, the king. Horus the Behdetite may be yet another Horus God that got mixed in with the general Horus blend.

Isis with Horus upon Her lion throne

Isis with Her Holy Child

(Another note of interest: the name of the nomarch, that is, the governor of the nome, when Horus is first found at Edfu is Isi; and he served under king Isesi. I wonder if this name connection with Horus’ mother could have led to the king’s and the nomarch’s honoring of Her son at Edfu?)

Whatever the case, let’s focus on this Horus Who is so intimate with Isis. The Greek rendition is Harsiese (HAR-see-AY-say), which is how you will often see it in scholarly works. In Egyptian it is Hor-sa-Iset, “Horus, son of Isis.”

Horus was not originally a part of the same pantheon or ennead (nine Deities) as were Isis and Osiris. The creation story that was told in Heliopolis (near what is now Cairo and called Iunu in Egyptian) consists of Atum—and later, Atum-Re—Who begets Shu and Tefnut, Who beget Nuet and Geb, Who beget Isis and Osiris, Set and Nephthys.

Horus makes the henu gesture of praise

Horus makes the henu gesture of praise

But Horus was too important and too ancient to be left out of the Isis-Osiris myth cycle, which by that time was becoming central to much of Egyptian religion as well as to the kingship. So they found a place for Horus in the Heliopolitan cycle; in fact, they found two places.

Horus, perhaps as Hor Wer, “Horus the Elder” or “Horus the Great,” became the second-born of the Isis-Osiris generation, while Hor-sa-Iset became the Holy Child of Isis and Osiris. I’ve seen this described as a “secondary ennead” at Heliopolis, and the combination may have happened as early as the 4th dynasty (2613-2494 BCE).

The pharaoh continued to be the living embodiment of Horus and to be especially protected by the God, but now he was Horus, Son of Isis, while the deceased pharaoh was Osiris, Beloved of Isis.

Horus in His solar aspect

Horus in His solar aspect

And while it may have originally been Hor Wer Who battled with Set, now the son of Isis and Osiris opposes Him because of Set’s murder of Horus’ father Osiris and because of Set’s attempt to usurp the throne that rightly belongs to Horus.

It seems that Horus is called Hor-sa-Iset much more often than He is called Hor-sa-Usir (Osiris). Why? It may be because He so strongly takes after His Divine mother.

Like Her, He is a protective and fierce warrior (see more on Fierce Isis here). He fights for His fathers, both Osiris and Re, and He fights for the king. He is a ruler Himself, as is Isis when She rules during Osiris’ civilizing mission throughout the world. As Hor-pa-khred, “Horus the Child,” He is not only protective, but He is also a magical healer—just like His mother Isis.

A cippi of Horus

A cippi of Horus

Hor-pa-khred (Harpokrates in Greek) is particularly connected with a protective amulet known as the Cippus or Stele of Horus. These amulets appear to have been most used during the late dynastic period through the Roman. They were intended to protect the home and depicted Horus the Child subduing dangerous creatures such as crocodiles, snakes, lions, and scorpions with His bare hands.

They were also intended to be used for healing from the bites of poisonous creatures. The most famous example is the Metternich Stele, on which we find the tale of Isis and the Seven Scorpions, as well as numerous formulae for the cure of poisoning. This stele also seems to have been one of the magical images over which the sufferer would pour water to absorb the power of the magic words, then drink as a medicine.

One of the formulae on the Metternich Stele has Horus the Child commanding the poison:

Flow out, poison, approach, come forth on earth. It is Horus Who exorcises you, He cuts you to pieces, He spits you out so that you cannot mount up on high but fall to earth. You are weak, you have no strength, you are miserable and cannot fight, you are blind and cannot see, your head is turned upside down and you cannot raise your face. You wander without being able to find your way, you grieve and cannot rejoice, you wander and cannot open your eyes—in accordance with the speech of Horus, Potent of Magic.

A Roman period Harpokrates, urging Mysterious silence

A Roman period Harpokrates, urging Mysterious silence

Again, like Isis Herself, Horus the Child is Potent of Magic and a magical healer.

With His connection to His widely worshipped mother, as well as His own magic, Harpokrates became one of the most popular Deities of the common people during the Græco-Roman period.

Images showing the Child God with His finger to His lips (which is merely a representation of the Egyptian hieroglyph for “child”) led Græco-Roman worshippers to interpret Horus as a God of the Mysteries—surely those of His Divine Mother—and urging the initiate to Holy Silence.

Posted by: Isidora | June 8, 2015

The Great Divine Magicians of Egypt: Isis & Thoth

Isis & Thoth (far left and right) aid Horus on the famous Metternich Stele

Isis & Thoth (far left and right) add Their magic to Horus’ on the famous Metternich Stele

Ancient Egypt’s two Great Divine Magicians are Isis and Thoth.

Interestingly, both went on to have rather illustrious careers outside Their native Egypt as key players in the Western Esoteric Tradition; Isis as THE quintessential Goddess of esotericism, Thoth as Hermes Trismegistos, THE quintessential teacher of esoteric wisdom.

In fact, the two Divine Magicians have always had a close relationship. Although in earlier Egyptian tradition, Isis is the daughter of Geb and Nuet, Earth God and Sky Goddess, by Plutarch’s time (1st century CE) he is able to say that “many have related that she is the daughter of Hermes,” that is, of Thoth. One inscription calls Her the “vizier and daughter of Thoth.” J. Gwyn Griffiths, one of my favorite scholars, says the two Deities were probably thought to have a family relationship because both were known to be exceptionally wise.

Thoth, Thrice Great

Thoth, Thrice Great

A Hermetic aside

You may be wondering about that Thoth-Hermes connection. How did the Egyptian Thoth and the Greek Hermes become identified? At first glance, it may not seem like They have a lot in common. But not so fast. An important first point of contact is Their connection with souls. Hermes is the psychopomp of the dead, guiding them to the realm of the dead. Thoth, too, is a guide of the dead and takes part in the vital post mortum judgment. Both Gods are associated with the moon and medicine (remember Hermes’s staff the caduceus), and both are known for inventiveness and trickery. The syncretism of Thoth and Hermes eventually resulted in the God/Teacher Hermes Trismegistos, which is an epithet Hermes gets directly from Thoth. In an effort to express Thoth’s majesty, when writing His name Egyptian scribes would often append the epithet Ao, Ao, Ao (literally “Great, Great, Great,” meaning “Greatest”). Greeks and Greek-speaking Egyptians translated the Egyptian epithet as Trismegistos, also using it for ‘their’ Thoth—Hermes. (An excellent book about Hermes Trismegistos’ Egyptian background is Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes.)

Now back to Isis & Thoth

Thoth & Seshat

Thoth & Seshat, the Lady of Books

As noted earlier, the two are linked by Their wisdom. This wisdom, in turn, empowers Their magic. In fact, both work Their magic similarly—primarily by speaking. The words of Isis “come to pass without fail;” the words of Thoth are “Truth.” At Busiris, Isis is even called Djedet Weret, the Great Word, no doubt because of Her magical ability with words. Both are associated with the wisdom and magic of books. Thoth is the patron of scribes and the Divine author of all books. Isis and Thoth together are credited with invention of hieroglyphic and demotic writing in several of the Isis aretalogies. The Cairo calendar calls Isis “provider of the book” and the Oxyrhynchus aretalogy notes Her skill in writing. And, as She is with so many Goddesses, Isis is sometimes assimilated with Seshat, Goddess of Writing.

Both Isis and Thoth are Bird Deities. Thoth is so identified with His sacred bird, the ibis, that He never goes anywhere without His bird head. Some scholars think that his Egyptian name, Djehuty, may come from a very ancient form of the Egyptian word for ibis: djhw. If so, this would speak to the ancient nature of Thoth. Isis, of course, is associated with Her sacred raptor, the kite, and sometimes takes on birdform, through She never appears with just the head of a kite as Thoth does with the ibis.

Edward John Poynter:Feeding the Sacred Ibis in the Halls of Karnac

Edward John Poynter: Feeding the Sacred Ibis in the Halls of Karnac

In the ancient world, wisdom could also be expressed in cleverness and even trickery. Both Isis and Thoth can be tricky. In the story of Thoth and Tefnut, Thoth calms the angry Goddess and lures Her back to Egypt by telling Her amusing stories all the while bringing Her closer and closer to home. In the story of the birth of Isis, Osiris, Nephthys, Set, and Horus told by Plutarch, Thoth plays a game with the Moon and wins five extra days in the year during which Nuet can give birth to Her children. The myths of Isis have Her tricking Set time and again to ensure that Horus gets His throne.

One very interesting aspect of the relationship between Isis and Thoth is that Isis often comes to Thoth for help. In the tale of the “Sufferings of Isis,” Isis has been imprisoned by Set in a spinning house. Thoth finds Her and counsels Her (counseling is one of Thoth’s key functions) to escape with Horus to the papyrus swamps, which She does. During the course of the tale, Isis cures the village headwoman’s son of poisoning from seven magical scorpions. (The scorpions were traveling with Isis and got pissed when the headwoman wouldn’t allow the Goddess with Her seven rather scary scorpions in.) Later in the tale, Isis own son, Horus, is poisoned by a scorpion sent by Set and Isis stops the Boat of the Sun to receive magical aid from Thoth.

Isis (in center) of the Bembine Tablet; Thoth, as He is wont to do, has Her back

Isis (in center) of the Bembine Tablet; Thoth, (second from left) has Her back as always

One of the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri (PGM IV. 94-153) has Isis running to “Ape Thoth, Ape Thoth, my father” in tears because of the adultery of Osiris and Nephthys. It is the beginning of a compulsive erotic spell that (apparently) Thoth is giving to Isis so that She can make Osiris return to Her. Another papyri text (PGM VIII. 1-63) invokes Hermes saying, “Whereas Isis, the greatest of all the gods, invoked you in every crisis, in every district, against gods and men and daimons, creatures of water and earth and held your favor, victory against gods and men and [among] all the creatures beneath the world, so also I, [name of the person invoking], invoke you.”

Thoth aids Isis & Horus in the papyrus swamps

Thoth aids Isis & Horus in the papyrus swamps

I have often wondered why Isis, Great of Magic, Lady of Words of Power, Greatest of All the Gods, Who Knows Re by His Own Name, would need anyone else’s magical assistance. Perhaps the Thoth-Isis relationship goes back further than we have record of it. If Thoth were the elder Magician, it would make sense to call upon His experience. If Thoth can be considered Her father, calling on Dad for help makes sense, too. Or perhaps we’re seeing an ancient version of something still current among some today. For instance, some say that you shouldn’t do a divination for yourself; you’ll skew the results by being personally involved. Sometimes healers can have trouble healing themselves when they are perfectly wonderful when healing others. Some psychologists, those modern-day shamans, can be perfectly terrible at dealing with their own issues while being a great help to others.

Maybe that’s what’s going on in these tales. Sometimes you need a little distance to see clearly—or magically, in this case. It is always during a personal crisis that Isis calls upon Thoth. When Horus is poisoned, Isis is completely distraught and declares that “my heart is adrift.” In such a state, She is not Her magical self. She needs help. As we all do from time to time. In such times, is is well to have friends to call upon as Isis does in Her great friend Thoth.




Posted by: Isidora | May 31, 2015

Offering to Isis

Nefertari makes offering to Isis

Nefertari makes offering to Isis

Can Isis smell the flowers we place upon Her altar? Does She eat the delicacies we so carefully arrange upon Her offering mat? Does She drink the wine we pour into a beautiful cup and lift to the smiling lips of our sacred image?

Well, no.

And, yes.

Although I have had weird phenomena happen with offerings—for instance, once an entire two-ounce packet of incense (you DO know how much two ounces of powdered incense is, right?) was apparently incinerated without leaving a whiff of scent in the air of our tiny temple space—usually, the flowers wither naturally, the food dries to inedibility, and the wine evaporates.

So did the Goddess receive Her offerings or not?

An ancient Egyptian offering table

An ancient Egyptian offering table

For the ancient Egyptians, the sacred images of the Deities were sacred precisely because they were filled with some measure of the Deity Her- or Himself. Offerings to Isis were received by this bit of the Goddess residing in the image, and through it to Her greater Being.

The main spiritual mechanism for the transfer of an offering from offerent to Deity was the ka, or vital, life energy. All living beings—Deities, human beings, animals, fish, plants, stars, mountains, temples—have a ka. The kas of the Goddesses and Gods are extremely powerful. In one Egyptian creation myth, the Creator Atum embraces His children, the God Shu and the Goddess Tefnut, with His ka in order to protect Them from the primordial chaos of the Nun into which They were born. The ka is a subtle body that exists before a being comes to birth, is joined to that being at birth, lives with her or him throughout life, then travels to the Otherworld after death.

The most haunting of the ka statues

The most haunting of the ka statues; of Awibre Hor

The ka “doubles” the person physically, yet the ka is not essentially personal. It is held in common with all living things—including the Deities. The ka was the ancient Egyptian’s connection to a vast pool of vitality greater than the person her- or himself. During life, the ka is in the body with the ba, the soul. At death, the ka flows back to the spiritual realms. The ba must then follow it in order to be reunited with it. Once the ba and ka are rejoined, the person becomes an akh, a Shining One; that is, a divinized being. Thus the tomb became known as the Place of the Ka and to die was to “go to one’s ka.”

Even though the ancient Egyptian could experience the ka as separate from herself, the ka also connected the person with all that was human for the ka was associated with the ancestors. The ancestors were thought to be the keepers of ka energy. Jeremy Nadler suggests that when people died, the Egyptians believed that they returned to the ka-group of ancestral energy to which each person naturally belonged. In other words, after death, the ka returns to its family.

The ka statue of Amenemhet III

The ka statue of Amenemhet III

This meant the living had several reasons for making offering to their ancestral dead. As we all do, they wanted to remember loved ones who had died. The offerings provided their ancestor’s kas with the nourishment required to keep the family spirit strong. But since the ancestors had ready access to the greater pool of beneficial ka energy and could bestow it on the living, people could also ask their ancestors to send them a blessing. A blessing of ka energy could nourish human beings, animals, and crops alike.

As usual in Egyptian society, the king was a special case. He could have multiple kas. He also had more intimate contact with the powerful ka energy of his royal ancestors than the average person had with their familial kas. The royal ka was also connected with the power of the God Horus. By the time of the New Kingdom, the king’s ka was specifically identified as Harsiese, “Horus, son of Isis.”

In Egyptian, the word ka is related to numerous words that share its root. Egyptian words for thought, speech, copulation, vagina, testicles, to be pregnant and to impregnate, as well as the Egyptian word for magic (heka), all share the ka root. And all have some bearing on the meaning of ka. Ka is also specifically the word for “bull” and “food.” Connections such as these reveal mysteries. Ka is also the bull because it is a potent, fertile energy that contains the ancestral seeds that connect us with our families. Ka is also food for it is the energy that nourishes life, in both the physical and the spiritual realms. The ka is intimately connected with offering; the plural of ka, kau, was used to mean “food offerings.” Sometimes the ka hieroglyph replaces the images of food inscribed on offering tables.

Modern Balinese food offerings that look remarkably Egyptian

Modern Balinese food offerings that look remarkably Egyptian

Kau, food offerings, provide life-energy for the individual ka. When the Egyptian offered food to her Deities or honored dead, she was offering the ka energy of the food to the ka of the Deities or ancestors. The ka inherent in the kau nourished the ka of the spirit being. Offering thus feeds the kas of the Deities and ancestors and the great pool of ka energy to which all enlivened things are connected. Simultaneously, the great pool of ka energy is the source of the energy found in the offerings by virtue of the ongoing, archetypal connection with it. By making and receiving offering, a great reciprocal power system was set up and could be eternally maintained. No energy was ever lost; it was continually transformed and re-activated by being offered and received, received and offered. Ka energy may be considered the food that fuels the engine of the universe.

Offering table piled high with kau

Offering table piled high with kau and other offerings

Since offerings are given and received ka to ka, it is no wonder that the Egyptian who made offering before the sacred images in the temples, did not expect the Deity to physically consume the food or drink offered. Instead, she expected the Deity’s ka, residing within the image, to take in the energy from the kas of the offerings. Ancient texts are explicit about this. A text from Abydos says that the pure, Divine offerings are given daily “to the kas” of the temple Deities. Sometimes the Deities are said to have been “united” with Their offerings. It is the ka of the offering and the ka of the Deity that unite. In another text from Abydos, the king asks the Deity to bring His magic, soul, power, and honor to the offering meal. Clearly, the king is not expecting a physical appearance, but a spiritual one.

It is the same with our offerings. We offer the ka of the kau to Isis and Her ka receives it. We can open our awareness to this aspect of offering by envisioning the ka, perhaps as Light, move from the offering to our sacred image of Isis (if we are using one) or to an image of Her we hold in our mind’s eye. In this way, we can know that Isis has indeed received what we offer to Her.

A modern offering table

A modern offering table

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