When the press began using I.S.I.S. as a perhaps inaccurate and now obsolete acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, diverse groups made a connection with the Egyptian goddess who was once worshiped all over the Greco- Roman empire. A pagan organization protested the appropriation of the goddess’s name. Others took it as a sign that the self-declared Islamic State represented the anti-Christ or confirmed a conspiracy by the Illuminati. (Divinity of any kind seems to attract human projection.)
When I was doing research for my novel, The Passion of Mary Magdalen, Isis found a special place in my heart. A lover and mother goddess, later associated with both Mary Magdalen and the Virgin Mary, Isis appealed to people from all classes and cultures, especially to women, respectable Roman matrons and prostitutes alike.
My first FAR post appeared two years ago on July 22, Mary Magdalen’s feast day. To observe both anniversaries, I offer an excerpt from the novel.
Exiled and seeking her beloved, Maeve (the Celtic Mary Magdalen) is captured by Roman slavers and sold into prostitution. The passage below describes her first encounter with the goddess Isis. The temple depicted appears to be dedicated to Venus, because Isis worship was out of favor with the Emperor Tiberius who saw it as an exotic cult that undermined civic religion (i.e. worship of the emperor/state). As the scene opens, Maeve (nicknamed “Red”) and her fellow prostitutes, under guarded escort, are en route to a job. Maeve’s behavior is typically rash.
“Red,” called Succula from her litter, “we’ll be passing the Temple of Venus Obsequens soon. “She’s the protectress of whores and adulterers.”
I was not impressed. In Rome there was a Venus for everything, including Venus Cloacina, the goddess of the sewer.
“What does she protect us from?” I quipped but not loud enough for Succula to hear. If Succula wanted to believe there was a goddess who cared about whores, let her. As for me—I stopped for a moment, not quite prepared for my next thought—I had no gods. I had left mine behind in the wells and groves of Tir na mBan and Mona. Or you could say they had abandoned me, cast me out. I was a slave and an exile in a place where I had no connection with the local gods and wanted none.
“It’s right down this alley!” She leaned out and pointed.
With no warning, the dream I’d had my first night at the brothel came back to me—only now it wasn’t a dream. I could hear the sound of the water moving through the reeds, the whispering rasp of snakes; I smelled the mud. Then the drums started and the women’s voices singing, keening, wild as wind, high as birds. Before I knew it, I was running in my silly Roman sandals on the hard stones, through the narrow alley, running straight into the dark mouth of the temple, the dark waters of the river.
You may argue that what I saw was a trick of the eye caused by going from bright light to the cavernous dusk of what turned out to be a hole-in-the wall shrine. But in that suspended moment I felt as though I had stepped into the cosmos, stars and comets blazing by me, the waters rushing past me. And then I saw her, shining horns above a face black and luminous as a clear night, her head crowned with a many-petaled star. Her breasts flooded the sky with milk; her wide wings were made of fire, of fine mist, of colors I did not know how to name. I had known her all my life, and I had never known her before now. Yet she had called me. She had found me in this terrible place far from home and called me to her.
“Welcome, daughter, in the name of Isis.”
In a literal blink of an eye, the goddess was gone. A plain middle-aged priestess in an unadorned white stola greeted me. A half-dozen other priestesses stood by holding frame drums and sistrums. They made a semi-circle around a statue—a small, unimpressive statue, garishly painted, like all Roman statues, and dressed in gold cloth. The figure held a sistrum in one hand and what I came to know as an ankh in the other. She had been garlanded with fresh flowers.
“Isis?” I repeated.
“Our goddess is called by many names: Demeter, Aphrodite, Dyktynna, Proserpina, Hekate, Bellona, a thousand other names. The Temple is known from the outside as The Temple of Venus. Within these walls we know the mother of all, mistress of the living and the dead, ruler of wind and water, builder of ships, guide of the planets, queen of the stars, star of the sea, giver of grain by her true name—Almighty Isis.”
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. She has just completed her first mystery novel, Murder at the Rummage Sale. She is also a counselor in private practice. She wishes you a joyful Feast of Mary Magdalen!