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Isis in Big History, Part 1: From the Big Bang to Agriculture

July 22, 2012
An Artist's Impression of Sirius A and Sirius B, by NASA

Evolutionary history makes sense of the appeal and transformations of the myth of Isis, including her association with Sothis (Sirius), the brightest star in the night sky.

- by B. T. Newberg

Last time, I ended with a controversial claim: For naturalists, myths are meaningless outside Big History.

Let that sink in – myths, including the deities of which they tell, are not real in and of themselves.

The reality of a myth comes from understanding what it really is: an evolving cultural entity embedded in natural history.

Without Big History, myths are quaint stories.  They become meaningful – in the sense of being consequential – only when placed in the network of causes and effects throughout history and daily life.

So, what does that look like?  To get an idea, let’s explore Big History from the perspective of a myth whose career has been particularly full of changes and transformations: the myth* of Isis.

The following is one way to tell the story in brief, emphasizing cognitive science and evolutionary approaches to religion.  Claims remain controversial and eternally open to revision.

This post is the first in a 4-part series exploring the myth of Isis in the context of Big History.  This is not a telling of the myth itself, but a context that reveals the appeal of different tellings throughout the ages.  For a proposal of Big History as naturalism’s narrative core, within which myths become meaningful, go here.

Isis of matter

Isis.  Image courtesy of Rev. J. Whitfield, from relief at Abydos.

Isis. Image courtesy of Rev. J. Whitfield, from relief at Abydos.

Isis’ story, like our own, goes all the way back to the beginning of time.  The conditions that set the stage for the myth of Isis give vital context for understanding it.

From a bright burst arose spacetime.  An inarticulate dust of light elements coalesced into stars; then from supernovae rained the heavy elements necessary for life.  Thus were set the conditions for all matter, including organic life and culture.

The sun and the star Sothis (Sirius), which appeared from Earth to rise before the annual flooding of the Nile, would later be seen as symbols of order and transcendence in connection with Isis.

On one planet (at least), certain large carbon-based molecules began replicating themselves.  Natural selection coaxed these into complex living organisms.  The generation of life would come to be seen as a key characteristic of nature, eventually symbolized by Isis.

Isis of life

Crucial to all but the most simple forms of life was the twin task of perceiving the environment and responding appropriately.  This let creatures avoid threats and exploit opportunities.  Thus, determining what’s real and what matters became urgent concerns.  The conditions for myths, which would later aid humans in these endeavors, were already set: they needed to be plausible as depictions of reality, and relevant in terms of moral decision-making.

In most cases, accuracy of perception was advantageous for living creatures.  However, other factors could be more important than accuracy if they led to greater reproductive fitness.  Thus, a practical depiction of reality was more adaptive than a factual one.

This affected one of the most important tasks: perceiving agents in the environment, such as predators hiding in the brush.  Creatures developed a hypersensitivity to agents, preferring to perceive beings in each movement of grass, even if it was only the wind, rather than risk missing a predator.  The practical value of this outweighed its factual inaccuracy.  This would later pave the way for the inference of invisible spirits and deities lurking in the natural environment.

Another development was the evolution of behaviors triggered by the perception of certain stimuli, with a stronger stimulus yielding stronger behavior.  The moth, for example, navigates by following the sun or moon, but is drawn astray when it encounters the much stronger light of a fire.  The imagery later employed by deities would take advantage of such supernormal stimuli by invoking larger-than-life figures of parental authority, power, and fertility.  All of these would contribute to the appeal of Isis.

Healthy, strong individuals made better mates, so some creatures developed costly ways of displaying their selling points.  Bower birds, for example, spend precious time and energy building “bowers” to attract mates.  It says, in effect, “I’m healthy enough to afford this expense.”  Among social creatures, those who could draw on group support made stronger mates.  To gain group support, individuals engaged in costly signals to distinguish themselves from free riders who might abuse group resources.  It implied, “I value the group enough that I’m willing to expend this.”  These behaviors would later manifest in humans as time and resources spent in displays of religious devotion to the group’s favored myth.

Isis of mammals

Cheetah nursing young, by DNDavis

Mammals developed an affective bond between mother and young, later leading to images of supernormal mother figures.

After the extinction of the dinosaurs, a branch of organisms called mammals rose to prominence.  They had developed complex emotions, which encouraged mothers to care for their young, and young to stick by their mothers, throughout an extended apprenticeship.  This would lay the foundation for empathy and a whole range of nuanced emotions evoked by myths.

The affective bond between child and mother, in particular, would later prove fertile for stories of supernormal mother figures such as Isis.

Isis of culture

A particular species of mammal developed language.  Stories were told, some more than others.  The stories changed to become more likely to be passed on.  Natural and cultural selection coaxed them into narratives increasingly well-adapted to human biology as well as psycho-social needs.

Stories featuring modestly counterintuitive agents, such as persons who could be omnipresent or weather patterns that could think and act like humans, balanced fascination with understandability.  Thus, they out-competed less interesting or understandable stories.  Tales of spirits and deities spread.

As human groups rose in size, they needed to find new ways to work together.  This was accomplished through stories.  Stories making a common authority seem sensible helped groups cooperate better than those without them.  Groups who could work together out-competed those who could not, so stories bolstering a social order, such as that of Isis, proliferated.

Isis of agriculture

Egyptian plow

Agriculture changed stories and how they spread.

Some groups learned to cultivate crops.  The ensuing change of lifestyle rewarded large families to work the fields, so their populations gradually out-bred those of hunter-gatherers and nomadic herders.  The stories of agricultural communities spread along with their peoples.

Meanwhile, the storage of grain surpluses created a tempting target for raids.  This, along with an expanding population demanding ever greater territory and resources, led to increased military needs. Stories justifying centralized authority became even more urgent.

Eventually, one agricultural people, that of the Egyptians, began to tell stories of a deity called Isis.

The series continues in part 2 with Isis’ myth as it adapts to meet the changing needs of humans throughout the Ancient period.  Part 3 follows the Middle Ages to the modern era, and Part 4 concludes with a look at how all this relates to the daily mundane life of one Contemporary Pagan.

*In HP, myth generally refers to historical traditions of stories, which have come down to us from specific cultures, and which involve pantheons of gods and sometimes other fabulous creatures and beings. For example: Greek myths of Dionysos and Persephone, Norse myths of Freya and Odin, Irish myths of the Dagda and Cerridwen, etc.  Loyal Rue sometimes use myth to mean a grand narrative or “narrative core”, but to avoid confusion I’ll reserve myth for the meaning above.
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