Jeremy J. Baer
Without going fully into my religious history, which would only serve to dredge up details and antecdotes of interest to no one but myself, I would like to offer an outline of one person’s subjective experience with Isis.
Religiously I had been some version or another of a Greco-Roman polytheist for some time. My views had changed somewhat as the years stretched by, but broadly I was interested in the cults of Classical Athens through the Hellenistic era to imperial Rome. While relationships with deities came and went, I maintained steady honors to Zeus and Hermes through it all.
My problem had been with the goddesses of Olympus. At the risk of offending others, I find most of the female divinities of Greece and Rome a trifle on the boorish side. Athene has an austere majesty to her, but by her very rational nature she fails to arouse my deeper spiritual passions. Hekate is an interesting goddess but not enough to elicit my full attentions. Given my relative lack of successful romantic relationships, I will not assail you with my views on Aphrodite.
On top of this religious problem I had what I call a cultural problem as well. I internalize the better political and intellectual achievements of Greece and Rome, but at the same time there are faults in their militant and patriarchal cultures that disturb me. Likewise, I have always admired the generally peaceful and devoutly spiritual Egyptians, but their lack of democracy and certain other aesthetic or intellectual shortcomings leave me a bit cold. If classical paganism is about practicing a cultural religion, which culture should I choose?
As a side interest to the Olympian cults, I eventually contracted into a worship of Isis. It was very much an auxilliary concern at the time, but it seemed to offer a solution to my problems. If I had trouble relating to Olympian goddesses because they seemed underdeveloped, here was a deity so developed she was identified with virtually every major goddess in Antiquity. And if I had difficulty deciding which of the great Mediterranean cultures to internalize, here was a goddess whose cult encompassed and then transcended all three of them.
Thus I found myself erecting a small shrine to Isis in my bedroom with regular devotions. I never had stunning visions from above, but I felt peaceful and content. Something seemed fundamentally right, as if a piece to the puzzle I had been missing fell silently into place.
Joining a Greco-Egyption religious cult like Neos Alexandria only served to foster my interests and devotions. The more I learned about Isis, the more I wanted to learn about her and Serapis. Some people say they at times feel a god nudging them for attention; I am not sure if this is exactly what happened to me, but I did know my brain and my heart were finally working in sync when it came to this cult. Rapidly taking everything to its logical conclusion, I decided to devote myself first and foremost to this cult, and to work
for its benefit.
People who knew me five years ago would find this very strange. I had never particularly liked the so-called mystery religions. Everything I had ever read about them suggested that they had weakened the civic side of classical paganism and lain the spiritual groundwork for the later overthrow of Christianity. There may be some element of truth in all this, though I have learned the picture is a very complicated one with many dimensions (but I still do not have the personality to contract into certain cults, such as those of Dionysus. Different strokes for different folks).
I have discovered why so many people in Antiquity turned to exotic cults like those of Isis and Serapis. They do indeed offer something most of the old civic religions lacked: caring and compassionate deities who intervene vigorously in the lives of individual adherents; potent magic and mystery to save their chosen from the capricious whims of fate; a sense of universal belonging that transcends any particular time and place; and not least an inspiring antitode to classical religion’s often blase approach to death and the afterlife. Christianity operates on much the same level which is why it won many converts from paganism and why it still exists in various forms two thousand years later.
But one thing that the Isiac cult thankfully lacks relative to Christianity is a sense of jealousy and exclusiveness. At the end of the day I am polytheist and believe in many divinities for many different cultures and types of people. I may have chosen to honor primarily Isis and Serapis, but any deitiy I like may receive an offering and prayer from me if the occasion calls for it. I still maintain regular devotions to a few of my Olympian gods. Chief among them is Hermes, who is not coincidentally identified with either Thoth or Anubis, both important figures in the divine retinue of Isis. Hermes is a very useful and helpful deity in his own right, but that is a subject for another essay.
Isis developed quite a bit over the long centuries of her cult, first in Egypt, and then in a Greco-Roman dominated Mediterranean environment. But there were strains of continuity through it all. As the “seat of Egypt” and protector of the throne, she has always been a symbol of power, first to Pharaohs and later to Imperators. She has ever been “Great of Magic,” matched in her esoteric skills only by Thoth. At all times she is depicted as the epitome of a caring mother and loyal wife. Both inside Egypt and out, she was thought to be especially sensitive among the gods in her care and pity for the sufferings of ordinary mortals. While she demands short periods of sexual abstinence for purification, she is otherwise thought to promote a “positive sexuality.” In Isis I found everything I could possibly want in a deity!
I have recently come to see Serapis as a god in his own right rathe than a mere appendage to the Roman cult of Isis. The conflation of Osiris, husband to Osiris and Lord of Eternity, to the Apis Bull from Memphis makes for a powerful syncretic deity. This demiurge from the grave has the power to heal and protect, and is ever a friend to his followers. One of the greatest temples in Antiquity was devoted for him, and his cult was linked everywhere to that of Isis. I look forward to deepening my understanding and devotion to him.
There were public festivals to Isis, domestic worship, and private mysteries. I choose to concentrate on public festivals and household worship and leave the mysteries to later. In the Good Old Days one could not be initiated into the mysteries until Isis spoke in a dream to both the seeker and a priest of the cult. I have never had a dream from Isis, but should I experience one I would do what she commanded of me. Until then I am content to be a layman, doing my small bit to help spread the word in my own way and help others on their journey to Isis.