This Christmas, as we spend time with the people, gifts, and food that we love, we should spare a thought for the thing that made it all possible: Isis.
Not that ISIS.
Without this Egyptian deity, Christianity as we understand it arguably would not exist. Egyptology scholars agree that Isis, the great mother goddess, prefigures the Virgin Mary as we know her. To find out more, Broadly spoke to some of the pagans and Wiccans around the world who celebrate Isis this holiday season—and to find out how they feel about how the ISIS—also known as Daesh, Isil, or the Islamic State—appropriating their beloved god's name.
Dr Okasha El Daly of University College London says that early Christianity simply co-opted the Isis myth. "People have a very deep and long historical memory, so when a new religion comes along, they don't simply ditch all they had before, but a gradual process of mutual absorption starts and takes several centuries. The Christian adoption of Isis as the Mother of the God was natural, and was part of a more complex adaptation of the Story of Osiris (her son) whose fate is closely enacted by Christ himself."
As we celebrate Christmas, Daly reminds us that "Christian festivals were originally pagan—in this case, a great celebration in Ancient Egypt on the occasion of transition to the winter." Some early Christians called themselves pastophori, meaning "servants of Isis."
"Isis was the great mother goddess of Egypt, sister and wife of Osiris," adds Holli Emore, who runs Cherry Hill Seminary, the only pagan seminary in the USA." She was called the Mistress of all Magic because she was the most skilled in heka, or magic. She tricked Ra into giving her his true name so that she could work magic with it, and she resurrected her murdered husband Osiris with magic long enough to conceive their child Horus.
"It's hard to miss the resemblance of Mary to Isis," Emore says. "Both had a virgin birth, had to hide their child, wore blue, were called Queen of Heaven, and came to be seen as powerful mother figures. Many medieval Madonna figures are virtually identical to Egyptian statuettes depicting Horus sitting on Isis' lap."
Vancouver-based Wiccan priestess Rowan Morgana says that most pagans feel enormous frustration over how many people now associate the name Isis with the jihadist group, and not a nurturing earth goddess. "To have a group of human beings so filled with hatred use the name Isis hurts me to my core," she says. "Isil ideology is in complete opposition to everything that the Goddess Isis stands for—she is the Goddess of restorative love, the protector of mothers, children, the poor and the weak. Her tears bring fertility to the land, Her embrace fills us with peace and joy.
"In my opinion it is blasphemy for Isil to use her name and I pray that Isil will stop using the Divine Goddess's name in vain."
In London, pagans gather twice-annually to invoke Isis' spirit on the bank of the River Thames, which is associated with the goddess. In Victorian times, many maps actually called it the River Isis, and the part of the river that flows through Oxford is still known as the Isis.
Mani Novalight organizes the Tamesis ritual, which invokes Mother Isis and Father Thames and takes place near Cleopatra's Needle monument. "Initially we do some praises to Isis," Novalight tells me. "We open the consecrated space. We call in the four winds, then make various invocations to each quarter. Then we put a statue of Isis on the boat, and light a candle and send it out onto the Thames."
Other Wiccans choose to honor Isis in their own personalized ways. "I would honour her by studying magic, and through rituals and offerings such as flowers, high quality incense, chardonnay and lapis lazuli," says Lady Nephthys, the high priestess of the Universal Pagan Temple in England. Morgana worships the goddess differently: "I would light a blue candle carved with her name and anointed with moon water (water that has been blessed and left out in the light of the full moon) and offer Her a heartfelt prayer thanking and praising her. I would offer her a dish of milk and honey, some flowers or possibly a fig."
During the festive period, Isis-worshipping pagans prefer to celebrate the Winter Solstice—also known as Yule—which falls this year on December 22. "Yule celebrates the solstice and the rebirth/birth of the Sun God," Nephthys explains. "In this case I celebrate Isis giving birth to her son Horus, the God of sky, light, and kingship."
You could say that pagans celebrate the birth of the sun and Christians celebrate the birth of the son!
Morgana, who spends Yule with the sisters in her coven, elaborates: "We rejoice as the divine child of light born to the Goddess at the exact moment of Winter Solstice, when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. You could say that pagans celebrate the birth of the sun and Christians celebrate the birth of the son!"
If you would prefer to venerate a pre-Christian nature goddess for Christmas, as opposed to some dude who got nailed to a cross, Cherry Hill Seminary priestess Emore has a few tips. "Sit in meditation and ask Isis to be with you, invite her to start sharing your life," she advises. "The first thing the priests did when they opened the shrine of a god at dawn was to recite a liturgy which began, 'Awake in peace, awake in beauty.' I like to say or think that to myself before I get out of bed."
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To replace the boring nativity display at your parents', consider a setting up a small altar to Isis. "Most days I light a candle. Sometimes I bring in flowers or greenery from my garden, and I often burn incense," Emore says. "Water, milk or wine are nice to put in a small dish on the altar. These are all simple gestures to indicate that you wish to have a relationship with a deity such as Isis."
But to bring Isis into your life this Christmas, you ultimately only need to listen. "In order to connect with Isis, one must open one's heart and listen to the Goddess that resides within each and every one of us," Morgana explains. "Everything and everyone is a manifestation of her divinity so no matter if you call her Isis, Diana, Mary, or by any other name, She will hear you. She has been with us since the beginning of time and will be with us forever."