Jeremy J. Baer aka “Ursus”
In this writer’s opinion, the spirituality of the Western world could use a strong feminine presence which nonetheless nurtures the masculine as well.
I practiced mainstream classical polytheism for a time, and while I encountered goddesses worthy of respect, I found none who truly spoke to me on a deep and satisfying level. Historically speaking, certain goddesses were very popular in certain cities (Athene in Athens, Hera in Argos) while others appealed to certain classes of people (Athene to craftsmen, Hera to married women). But goddesses in normative Greco-Roman religion generally do not, by their nature, lend themselves to a universal appeal. One has to look elsewhere.
In Isis we find one of the most developed female figures of divinity known to the ancient world. In the classical age Isis was equated with Demeter; in the Hellenistic age with Aphrodite. But her mystery adherents saw her as the embodiment of all, the One of Many Names. It is little wonder that the adherents of the Isiac mysteries regarded the goddess as the embodiment of female divinity, of whom other goddesses were mere reflections. Without disparaging the dignity of the female half of the Hellenic pantheon, one might take a quick look at its figures in relation to Isis.
Hestia is the hearth goddess, but in a broader sense a goddess of an individual’s relation to home and community. Hera is the protector of married women, and stately goddess of sovereignty. Demeter is goddess of motherhood and agriculture; in relation to her daughter Kore she is matron of the afterlife mysteries. Aphrodite is the goddess of love and sexuality, but also matron of seafarers. Artemis is goddess of the moon and wildlife, of young women and child birth. Hekate is a goddess of magic, and something of a guide and guardian. Athene the goddess of wisdom presides over civilization, and taught men useful arts such as weaving.
Isis combines all the above mentioned roles in one divine personage. She encompasses all of them collectively, without diminishing any of them individually. In effect, she incorporates all of the major Greek goddesses.
If one does not accept this theology, then Isis is but one of many goddesses from many different cultural pantheons. Yet, objectively speaking, she offers her devotees more than most of them. That is to say, while Isis may not be the only goddess, she may be one of the most worthy of veneration. She ensures the fecundity of the earth. She protects the family, especially women and children. She attends to those who travel by sea. She is magician goddess with a vested interest in the healing arts. She confers sovereignty on those who would rule. Most significantly she is considered a deliverer of mankind, a goddess of mysteries who engenders a spiritual rebirth that continues into the afterlife. Few goddesses command such a wide array of benevolent powers.
More to the point, she is disposed to use them. She listens. Even at the earliest epochs of Egyptian myth, Isis was considered the most compassionate of the divinities. She hears the lamentations and prayers of humanity. She is dutiful wife and mother who, because she suffered, understands humanity’s suffering. While it is wrong to read myth too literally, few other divinities are portrayed as so willing to interceed in the lives of people, at least outside their chosen elect.
With Isis comes a divine entourage of considerable majesty. Her husband Osiris is judge of the dead and Lord of Eternity; the Greeks knew him as Serapis, additionally a friendly god of healing and agriculture. Her son by Osiris is Harpocrates, a warrior god with healing attributes, and in Egypt the embodiment of royal power. Isis, Osiris and Harpocrates were a Holy Trinity that long preceeded Christianity. Thoth and Anubis attended to Isis in her time of need; Thoth as the god of magic and wisdom, and Anubis as a guide and guardian of the dead. Once important deities in their own right, these powerful and kindly beings become, in myth and cult, ministers to Isis and a boon to her cultic adherents.
But this was an ancient faith. The modern West presents two major options for those seeking a universal female figure: Mary of Christianity, and the goddess of popular neopaganism.
The cultic figure of Mary, Virgin and Mother of God, is probably based to some degree on the pagan cult of Isis. Mary obviously comforts millions who know her, but others take exception to her seemingly eternal virginity, or her second-rate status as a mere intercessor on behalf of her more famous offspring. Associations with the greater Church, accused as it is of misogyny and patriarchy, are also a source of contention to some.
The modern neopagan goddess, meanwhile, provides an alternative to Mary. She is a deity in her own right, not a mere minister to someone else. Indeed, many neopagans see her as a transcendent force that embodies the energies of all goddess figures. But there are those who would say neopaganism sometimes over reacts to the perceived patriarchy of modern religions, and emphasizes the feminine at the expense of the masculine. Certain alternative cultural groups have turned the neopagan goddess into an icon of feminist spirituality which may not attract those on the same political page.
Isis experiences none of these problems. She is a powerful goddess in her own right, but beyond patriarchal or feminist politics. A goddess of courtesans, she does not frown on sexuality, except for brief periods of abstinence during religious festivals. She entreats both male and female, farmer and sailor, peasant and emperor. She is the universal goddess of humanity, who for good reason was Christianity’s main rival in Late Antiquity.
It is time we bring back her religion for the modern age.