Isis, She of Ten Thousand Names, was worshipped in ancient days for longer than any other deity. What is sometimes called her cult (remember, if it’s ours it’s a true religion; if it’s theirs, it’s only a cult) can be traced back six thousand years. Her worship spread throughout the lands around the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire, going as far north as London. The last temple of Isis was razed by fanatical Christians in the 6th century. But Isis did not die! As we can see in any representation of the Madonna and Child, the iconography of Isis—a mother nursing her son—was adopted by the early Christian church. Worship of Isis was reborn in the 20th century with the establishment in 1976 of the Fellowship of Isis to renew worship of the Great Goddess in modern times. Another temple of Isis, established in 1996, is located at the Isis Oasis in Geyserville, California. It is a legally recognized religion in California.
The name Isis is the Hellenized version of her Egyptian name, approximately Auset. If you want to know more, read The Golden Ass by the Roman author Apuleius (translated by Robert Graves) and Plutarch’s Of Isis and Osiris.
The story below is partly based on the myths of Isis and Osiris and partly on European fairy tales (which almost never have fairies in them) and comes from my imagination, although the motifs are, of course, common ones. Talking animals and miraculous births are common in fairy tales, and the animal gods of Egypt are well known, and storks and other birds are held to be sacred by many cultures.
So long ago that the earth was still warm from its creation, there was a fabled golden land beside the great desert beyond the south edge of the wine-dark sea. The God-King of this land lay upon his golden couch. He had lain there for eight days already without moving, and his people had begun to fear that he had died. But, no, his breath could be discerned when a court physician place feather beneath his nose, and when his sister-wife looked closely enough at his eyes, she could see the pupils move, even though the eyelids remained shut. The physicians had examined the God-King both inside and out and found neither illness nor injury. The priests had likewise examined him both inside and out and found neither demonic possession nor heresy.
These solemn wise ones had never admitted failure before, and at dawn on the ninth day they went to the great golden temple to see the Hierophant. They waited respectfully in the courtyard as the sun rose and the Hierophant performed his ministrations. When the sun was fully up, they met with him.
After the physicians and priests had spoken, the Hierophant’s seer cast some bones on the alabaster floor. His servants observed the flights of sparrows and hawks around the temple. His first assistant filled the scrying bowl and stared into the motionless dark water. His second assistant observed the movement of the crocodiles in the sacred river. There were no indications that anything untoward was happening in the kingdom. Concerning the state of the God-King himself, however….
“We can only hope,” said the Hierophant, wringing his hands, “that our Mighty Lord, the Greatly Feared One to Whom men and gods come bowing down, has been enchanted. We can only conclude that the Fiercely Bright One has been attacked by some force of which even we have no certain knowledge. Of his ten spiritual and physical bodies, only the lowest and most densely material body remains untouched. His other subtle bodies…well, what has happened is a mystery beyond any comprehension. We must keep watch and wait to see what may be revealed.”
At the conclusion of this sad speech, the Hierophant bowed his head and began to weep aloud, and soon all the court, and then all the common people also began to wail and weep. Hearing of the unnatural sleep of the God-King, they began to tear at their clothes and cover their heads with the ashes from their fires. Even the fabulous animals of the golden land, the ibis, the cow, the hippopotamus, the crocodile, the hawk, the beetle, the lioness, and the jackal—even these extraordinary creature and their families began to mourn the God-King’s illness.
It all the land, only two beings were not overtaken with grief. One of these was a housemaid, a young girl whose secret dream was to become a priestess in the temple of the God-King’s sister-wife. Because she was only a peasant girl, however, she kept to her chores, which included dusting all the pots and mirrors and implements in the workroom of her master, who happened to be a great Magician. The girl, whose name was Ubastet, was so busy scrubbing and dusting that she wasn’t even aware of the Hierophant’s sad speech until her friend, the stork whose nest was on the Magician’s roof, poked his head through the window and told her the news.
“Alas,” cried Ubastet. “What shall we do?” So disturbed was she by the words of the stork that she knocked over one of her master’s magic mirrors. “Oh dear me,” she cried out again. “What shall I do now?”
“You may begin,” said the stork, “by picking up the mirror. Wipe it off, and your master won’t ever know what happened.”
The girl took his advice, but as she wiped the mirror, she seemed to see something in it. Was it a reflection? Was it a djin? Was it a khat or a ren or a ka or a khu? Was it one of the subtle bodies with which the magicians and the priests commonly held learned intercourse? Ubastet knew something of subtle bodies. What she saw in the magic mirror was the face of a beautiful woman, and suddenly, as if out of nowhere, she heard these words:
Love breeds life,
and the highest form of love breeds the highest form of life.
“My goodness,” said the stork. “What a gnomic statement!”
“So you heard it, too?” said Ubastet.
“I certainly did,” said the stork. “It’s obviously a message. An important message. But from whom? And to whom?”
“I think it came from that beautiful lady in the mirror.”
The stork gave a solemn nod and raised his wings slightly. “Be that as it may, it’s still a mystery.”
The only thing Ubastet could think to do was to continue dusting. There was always more to be dusted in the home of the great Magician. When she touched her rag to the cage of the Magician’s large golden beetle, there was a sudden flash of heat, and she thought she heard these words:
Only through love
Can the God-King be brought back to life.
Ubastet was so overcome by the second message that she sank to the floor with her dusting rag and refused to budge.
“Well,” said the stork as he flew back to his nest, “all of this is indubitably mysterious.” And he immediately flew off to the meeting place of all the animals to tell them what he had witnessed.
Ubastet was still huddled on the floor when her master came home in the middle of the afternoon.
“What have we here?” he asked as he lifted the girl up and gave her a sip of cool water.
“Master,” she whispered, “have mercy on me. I have done nothing wrong. I was only cleaning. I clean every day for you.”
“Yes,” he said. “I know. Now tell me what happened to bring you to the floor.”
As Ubastet was trying to tell him about the beautiful woman in the mirror and the first utterance and the flash of heat from the golden beetle’s cage and the second utterance, the stork returned and poked his head in the window again.
“It’s true,” he said to the Magician. “What she says is true. But what does it all mean?”
“That,” said the Magician, “is what I must learn.” He went to his worktable and took down a fresh sheet of papyrus and found a pot of black ink and sharpened a quill. Pulling a fringed, blue-striped linen cloak around his shoulders, he raised his hands and intoned a prayer to the gods above and the gods below, and then he wrote something in the center of the papyrus. Around the edges of the papyrus he drew certain symbols, and then he drew a large triangle. Next he set his magical mirror upon the mystical words enclosed by the triangle. Finally, he invoked the ancient elder god of the sun, creator of all things. The shining mirror became cloudy. It quivered and became smoky. Then it cleared.
Nothing else happened. The Magician tried a dozen other magical operations but the mirror lay still and quiet and neither spirit nor ordinary reflection disturbed its shining surface.
“The girl isn’t lying,” the stork said when he saw that the Magician was becoming angry. “I saw what she saw. I heard the words she heard.” He raised a wing. “Perhaps a consultation at the temple beside the palace…?”
“Of course,” replied the Magician. “Girl, come with me.” He pulled Ubastet up by the arm, picked up the mirror and the cage of the golden beetle, and strode to the temple, where he demanded an audience with the Hierophant.
But no magic the Hierophant worked could bring the beautiful woman back into the mirror. No unspeakable words he uttered could make the mirror speak. No occult gesticulations he made could cause the golden beetle to speak. The Hierophant flew into a rage and with a curse hurled the mirror across the room, where it crashed into a wall and shattered into a thousand fragments.
Ubastet, of course, was shivering with fear by this time. What if they blamed her for ruining the magic mirror? What if they accused her of inventing a story to cover up some mischief? She had heard tales of the punishments given to girls who interfered with the important work of hierophants and magicians and wizards and physicians. Looking up, she saw that the raging Hierophant was now threatening to crush the golden beetle in its cage. She began to crawl along the wall toward the door. And she crawled right into a collision with someone wearing a long white linen robe. Overcome with terror, she hid her face in her hands.
“What is this?” the Hierophant snarled, and then he suddenly prostrated himself on the floor. “Your Majesty. I didn’t see—” He and the Magician prostrated themselves on the floor without a word.
It was the Queen who had come in, the God-King’s sister-wife, followed by her slaves with their great feathered fans. “Yes, yes,” she murmured, “you may rise.” She looked down at the trembling servant girl. “Girl, you may also rise.” Stepping around Ubastet, the Queen came forward. “Sir Hierophant, what was that crash I just heard? What is the meaning of this?”
“Your Majesty, this wretched girl—”
Ubastet had finally dared to look up. Suddenly she screamed. “It’s the lady in the mirror!”
“Silence!” The Hierophant stepped in front of the girl and, using his most oleaginous voice, started to tell the Queen about the mirror. The Magician added further detail to the account. Even the stork, who had somehow gotten inside the temple, began to explain. Soon they were all talking at the same time.
“Stop,” said the Queen. “All of you, be silent. I want to hear what the girl has to say.”
And so Ubastet, with some help from the stork, told the story. “And,” she concluded, “although I’m much too ignorant to understand such marvels, there they are. I cannot help but wonder if it’s your love that can save His Majesty. But how can this be done?” And she fell silent.
The Queen paced around the room for some minutes, deep in thought. “We shall try to find out,” she finally said.
To be continued….
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.