Isis in Big History, Part 3: From the Middle Ages to the Modern Era

Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science, by Louis-Ernest Barrias

Evolutionary history makes sense of the appeal and transformations of Isis, including this art nouveau rendition by Barrias from 1899.

– by B. T. Newberg

What happens when a myth goes through an extinction event?

Pagan cults were stamped out as far as possible under Christian domination, but Isian strains survived through radical adaptation.

This post is the third in a 4-part series exploring the myth of Isis in the context of Big History.  For part 1 go here, for part 2 here.  For a proposal of Big History as the narrative core of naturalism, including HP, go here.

Isis of the Middle Ages

Mary and Isis

The iconography of Isis and Horus was carried over as Mary and Jesus.

By the late Roman period, Isis had become Isis of Ten Thousand Names, enveloping virtually every other goddess (at least in the eyes of her followers).  In this way, she came to reflect and reinforce the very principle of empire itself: infinite dominion.  The only type of myth better suited to the task was monotheism, the Christian version of which finally out-competed the cult of Isis.

The myth of the one Christian God could not save the Roman Empire, which was slowly imploding, but it did survive it as a spiritual empire of sorts.  The one church under the Pope gave unifying structure and common meaning to the disparate feudal kingdoms of the Middle Ages.  To survive, Isis had to adapt to the environment of that new meaning.

One element of her myth, the supernormal mother figure, survived by mutating into Christian form: the iconography of Isis suckling her child Horus became Mary with the baby Jesus.  The cult of the Virgin was readily disseminated by missionaries.

Another element survived by sidestepping competition with the Christian God.  No longer competing for worship, pagan* deities became allegories for aspects of the natural world.  They had already been seen as allegories by some, as we saw in part 2, but now they were exclusively so.  Isis, drawing in no small part on “DNA” acquired through identification with Artemis of Ephesus, endured the Middle Ages as an allegory for material nature.

In both cases, Isis survived by subordinating herself to the dominant myth, thereby reinforcing it.  In the first case, she assumed the role of a human woman who submits to a male God with a graceful fiat or “let it be done to me.”  In the second case, she represented an order inferior to that of its Creator, the natural under the supernatural, in the terms of Thomas Aquinas.  In this way, she helped the Medieval mind understand what was real – a dualistic universe under a patriarchal order – and what mattered – cooperation under a hierarchy of male dominion.

Male dominance was not new to the world; the Greeks and Romans had been quite patriarchal.  But subordination was new to Isis.  Gone was the fierce Aset who tricked the male Ra into telling her his true name with a scorpion sting only she could cure.  Gone was the Roman cult whose sexual ethics (possibly trumped up for political reasons) incurred censure by Augustus and Tiberius, and which empowered wives and even prostitutes to withhold sex during periods of ritual abstinence.  The new Isis survived by bolstering the new patriarchy, at the same time that it agitated against it by preserving the sacred feminine.

Isis of the Renaissance

Genius Unveiling a Bust of Nature

Genius Unveiling a Bust of Nature.

Another way in which Isis survived was through esoteric mysticism.  The Hermetic Corpus, a collection of 2nd-century texts rediscovered in the Renaissance, preserved Isis as mother and teacher.  In the minds of mystics, pagan deities went from allegories of natural phenomena to powers imbuing nature.

Hermetic, alchemical, and proto-scientific currents swirled in the Renaissance, producing an environment fertile for a new adaptation of Isis.  The goddess as an allegory for nature became associated with an enigmatic fragment from Heraclitus: “nature loves to hide.”  This in turn cross-fertilized with a report from Plutarch of an inscription on her temple at Sais: “I am all that hath been, and is, and shall be; and my veil no mortal has hitherto raised.”  These elements fused into the veil of Isis motif, a metaphor for the concealment of nature’s inmost secrets.

The image was tantalizing.  Nature loves to hide; she veils herself, but – so interpreters hoped – the knowledgeable might be able to glimpse what lies beneath.  The masculine sexual fantasy it evoked was probably no coincidence, reflecting and reinforcing the patriarchal social order.

Isis of the Enlightenment

Science Unveiling the Beauties of Nature to the Genius of America, by John James Barralet, 1814

Science Unveiling the Beauties of Nature to the Genius of America, by John James Barralet, 1814.

As modern science took its first bleary-eyed steps in the Renaissance, then learned to run in the Enlightenment, the myth of Isis found a rich environment.  Scientists saw their experimental procedures as peeping into nature’s forbidden secrets.

In the scientific enthusiasm of the Enlightenment, atheists began to thrive openly, but this was not particularly adverse for Isis.  She was already an allegory for the natural order subordinate to the supernatural order; subtract the supernatural and the natural remained.  Thus, Isis thrived in the climate of scientific naturalism.

Further, her veil offered a meaningful metaphor for the pursuit of science itself.  The gaze of science, still quite male, extended to all nature.  It held dominion over it, an empire of knowledge.  Matter was conceived as inert, passive before the active penetration of science.  The submissive character would later be captured by Barrias’ art nouveau sculpture, Nature Unveiling Herself Before ScienceMeanwhile, Deists, who believed in a Creator who set nature in motion but thereafter did not interfere in her working, sought nature’s secrets not as her own but as reflections of the mind of God.  Isis thus helped a more scientifically-minded society see what was real – nature, with or without a Creator above it – and what mattered – cooperation under reason and empirical enquiry.

At the same time that scientists embraced the veil motif, so did the Romantics and Freemasons.  For the Romantics, the unveiling of nature was not so much a discovery of knowledge as a glimpse of ineffable mystery.  For the Freemasons, Isis came to represent a sort of cosmotheism, a truth reserved only for the carefully prepared initiate.  As a result of these contributions, the myth of Isis’s veil developed an emotional dimension of wonder and terror, anguish and pleasure.

Isis Today

Isis and Osiris, by Susan Boulet

A modern rendition of Isis by Susan Boulet.

Since the Enlightenment, science and technology have led to extraordinary advances in health and wellbeing, eradicating or eliminating many serious diseases.  They have also facilitated the return of birth control methods, known in the ancient world but mostly lost in the West, making a gender-equal society possible by empowering women to control their own bodies.

At the same time, the spread of locomotion and communication across the globe has brought an unprecedented level of multicultural collision, yielding disorientation that has manifested in racism, colonialism, and bloody wars.

Advances have also enabled massive population surges, natural resource depletion, and rampant pollution.

With all these rapid changes, new myths are desperately needed.  Isis is playing a role in attempts to address these challenges.

Early 20th-century alternative spiritualities inherited the veil motif, as clear in the title of Blavatsky’s book of Theosophy, Isis Unveiled, and in the ceremonial magic technique called the Sign of the Rending of the Veil.  Golden Dawn occultist Dion Fortune drew on Apuleius’ Isis to assert that all gods were one god and all goddesses one goddess.  This duotheistic image would become widely disseminated through the Contemporary Pagan movement, especially Wicca.  Meanwhile, feminist influences would spur the rise of Goddess spirituality, which saw godhead as female, with Isis as one of its expressions.  Finally, reconstructionist polytheisms would attempt to restore the individuality of historical goddesses, such as Isis.  In this way, the sacred feminine is beginning to throw off subordination.

As a symbol of nature, Isis lends herself well to current environmental concerns as well.  Images of such supernormal mother figures mapped onto nature are inspiring green spiritualities and activism.  Meanwhile, science is gradually rediscovering nature, no longer passive but now active, self-organizing, and inherently creative.

Finally, as a polytheistic deity, Isis helps make sense of the cacophonous pluralism of modern society.  Divine multiplicity better captures the growing valuation of multiple perspectives, orientations, and lifestyles.

Contemporary Pagan debates over whether deities are metaphors or something more, involving a spectrum of views from naturalism on the one hand to hard polytheism on the other, address questions of plausibility.  Naturalists may understand what’s real by linking myths metaphorically to perceptions of nature consistent with mainstream science, while hard polytheists may do so by linking myths to perceptions of historically-accurate styles of belief.  Meanwhile, ambiguity on the point in most Pagan discourse may enable myths to serve in multiple situations and moods without apparent conflict, much as it may have done in ancient Egypt (see part 2).

At the present moment in history, Isis remains a minor influence in mainstream society.  Nevertheless, she is helping a growing segment of the populace re-envision what’s real – the power and consequences of nature – and what matters – intercultural cooperation to address humanitarian and environmental concerns.

Isis of the future

Looking to the 21st century, the Internet may do more than anything in recent history to shift the environment for myths.  It now provides instant access to virtually every variation of Isis’ story, from every age of history, to everyone.  Of course, competing myths enjoy the same advantage.  Whichever fare best in a digitized world will proliferate.  Whether Isis’ myth will be one of those remains to be seen.

This narration of Big History is not quite complete.  The Big Bang must make it all the way to the daily life of the individual, else it is not relevant.  The final installment of this series will explore the enduring appeal and meaningfulness of Isis as manifest in the life of one Contemporary Pagan.

*pagan.  The word is lower case here in its historical meaning as a non-Abrahamic faith.  It is capitalized wherever it stands for a specific way of life, as in Contemporary Paganism.
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5 Comments on “Isis in Big History, Part 3: From the Middle Ages to the Modern Era

  1. what an amazing piece of work Brandon – the whole series … it all looks very good IMO. I hope to give it more detailed attention.

  2. I look forward to reading the final installment about “one Contemporary Pagan’s” experience of Isis. I’m still still trying to wrap my mind around your thesis. It seems like a very different way of understanding myth from what I am familiar with — but maybe not so. I find the claim that “myths are meaningless outside Big History” to be very provocative and I’m surprised that no one has taken issue with it. I think you’ve done a superb job of showing one way of giving meaning to myth — but I don’t see why it has to be exclusive. For me, the “Big History” which makes myth meaningful would probably be something more like Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or Erich Neumann’s description of the evolution of consciousness.

    • Exactly, John! This is one way to contextualize myths in Big History, but there are many others. Big History is usually told from a certain set of scientific fields and theories, but I was hoping someone would bring up other less typical but equally naturalistic sources of information. Campbell and Neumann are good examples. Of course, one should make an effort to use the best current science, so any given source is open to critique and evaluation, but in principle there are a wide variety of options, from anthropology and sociology to neurotheology.

      I’m glad you called me out on the provocativeness of the “meaningless outside Big History” claim. I confess I was trying to turn some heads. I think *for naturalists* myths lose a certain sense of reality outside some kind of naturalistic historical context. We’ve seen commenters on HP scratch their heads in bewilderment at what value ancient myths could possibly have today, apparently considering them equal to quaint old-fashioned stories. In this series, I’ve tried to create a concrete sense of their meaningful consequences in history in a way naturalists can understand.

      Non-naturalists will disagree, of course, with the claim that myths are meaningless outside Big History. Since they may make meaning using different root metaphors, the claim does not extend to them.

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