If you know a little bit about me and my previous books on Egypt, focused as they have been on the god Seth, then you might be surprised that I have spent so much time researching Isis, his nemesis. By way of explanation, I think, because of his special character, Seth provides a holographic or fractal perspective on the entire ancient Egyptian mythos. Seth is supposed to know all of the gods innermost secrets, and threatens to expose them. If he is negative, then we can know them by a simple process of reversal. During one of my meditations on this material, I felt that I had been “instructed” or perhaps “called” to tell a particularly obscure episode in her story. That’s the mysteries after all.
We have all probably heard something of the famous mystery cults of late antiquity, but details of what actually went on is one of the best kept secrets. Which is interesting, as a great many contemporary magical and spiritual groups in the modern era claim to be continuing in this self-same tradition — this includes groups as diverse as Freemasonry to the humble and not so humble Pagan circle.
Luckily, a detailed account of the workings of a mystery cult, devoted to Isis, is recorded in the Latin novel of Apuleius, The Golden Ass. A Roman novel seems an odd place to find any such authentic account, nevertheless all scholarly authorities agree that the author Apuleius was an initiate of several mystery cults, including those which form the subject matter of his novel. Moreover, he was himself put on trial in real life for magick, he was acquitted and his apologia or defense, another fascinating document, also survives.
The Golden Ass revolved around the adventures of Lucius, whose name means “light.” He sets out on a quest to learn the secrets of magick but also to find sexual love. He is tricked and cursed, being metamorphosed into an ass. The story then is all about initiation and rebirth. The ass in this period is very much viewed as an avatar of the god Seth, the enemy of Isis. The story is in turns hilarious, bawdy, tragic but then liberating. As mentioned above, when the goddess does appear it is as a saviour: hence in the “hymn” she says “I am here taking pity on your ills; I am here to give aid and solace.”
The transformed Lucius becomes an initiate of the Iseum in whose vicinity he has been rescued. The novel’s final chapter recounts in some detail the workings of the mystery cult into which he is inducted. Most expert commentators see this element of spiritual regeneration as the innovation made by Greek and Romans to an otherwise Egyptian tradition. Indeed traditional Egyptian temples may well have been modified or supplemented to accommodate this new cult activity.
Often overlooked, The Golden Ass could be classed as text of the Hermetic tradition. Other aspects of the mystery cult do have a clear Egyptian background, the most obvious is the goddess Isis, into whose cult Lucius is initiated. If you don’t already know this novel, it is well worth checking out. Outrageous in parts, it must still count as one of the most entertaining and uplifting of magical tales.
Whilst Lucius is still in his lowly animal body, he overhears a storyteller recounting the allegory of Cupid and Psyche, which is another tale of metamorphoses could well have originated in the Egyptian world. It is also a story that resonates with the Indian culture especially what we might call the tantric tradition. It is a tale of Psyche’s sexual awakening through her connection with Cupid, then their separation and continued yearning, itself a sentiment that can engender a transformation of consciousness.
Psyche embarks on a quest to find Cupid and this erotic feeling is a prelude to their union with god, but also the achievement by both of them of immortality through commitment to sexual love. These are all important aspects of Hindu esoteric lore.
Meanwhile for Lucius, his liberation occurs in Cenchreae, a place that in the ancient Greek world functioned as the harbour of Corinth. Here he experiences an epiphany: Isis appears to him in a dream, and she tells him to seek the annual procession at the beginning of the shipping season on the 5th of March. This is a form of the goddess adumbrated in very ancient Egypt, where Isis is patroness of boats, the sea and of navigation. Hence her name Isis Pelagia, “mistress of the sea,” a popular form of the goddess at the time evidenced by the large numbers of Alexandrian coins which bear her image. She is often shown holding the situla, the breast shaped libation pot and the sistrum. Ultimately this role in connection with navigation is one she took over from Hathor, whose head regularly adorned the prow of the sacred boat of Sokar, an ancient Underworld god and precursor of Osiris.
In The Golden Ass, the liberation of Lucius from his asinine disguise, occurs at the blessing of a special boat in honour of the goddess. Here, at the head of this procession a priest holds a bouquet of roses, emblematic of Isis. Rose brings to mind the Rose+Cross of European esoteric lore, but also the Shri Yantra of Hinduism.
Lucius is told to eat those roses and this act will miraculously return him to human shape.
The magick of The Golden Ass is another feature that connects us to the Egyptian world-view. Two kinds of magick are mentioned, but with only an arbitrary distinction based on whether their instigator is Typhon (Seth) or Isis. The purpose in either instance would often be morally fuzzy. This is similar to the distinction made in early Christianity, where all Pagan magick is “bad” by definition, whilst Christian magick is “good.”
In the story, many important instructions and revelations come to the characters in dreams. Once again, this view of the dream time as the theatre of magick is one with a long history best known from the Egyptian tradition where the idea is first articulated.
The goddess Isis promises to end the cursed existence of Lucius who has been turned into an ass. The mechanics of his transformation, the eating of the roses, had been transmitted to him via the same dream discussed above. Given the despised status of the ass in ancient and indeed modern society, one must wonder how the creature will bring this off given the routine cruelty meted out to these lowly beasts of burden. Luckily Mithras, the priest, has been instructed via his dreams to let it happen. In another dream, Lucius communes with the goddess who tells him his fate is to be initiated into her mystery cult.
In “Pagan mystery cults… the initiate is given a share in the fortunes of his or her deity, and by means of ritual dying and rising attains salvation”. In this the initiate is identified with Osiris, the husband of Isis. Her command to Lucius is that he should “enrol your name in this holy service, whose solemn oath you were asked to take not long ago, and vow yourself from this moment to the ministry of our religion. Accept of your own free will the yoke of service.”
His religious vow is likened to a military oath, a feature of other mystery cults of the time. Interestingly, one of the possible meanings of “Pagan,” as used by early Christians, is “civilian” — one who has not enrolled in the army of the Jesus.
The first initiation of Lucius follows several older Egyptian patterns. First, he prepares with a 10 day fast or dietary restriction. Egyptian weeks were also divided into 10 days. His initiation begins on the evening of the final day, a symbolic death during the hours of the night. He begins with a ritual purification or lustration. These rites were staged in a special underground crypt beneath the Iseum. Here there is also some kind of arrangement for the pre-initiation baptism and lustration. In Egyptian temples there were sacred lakes for the same purpose.
With the uninitiated “far removed,” the candidate assumes the posture of Osiris, not in a coffin but on a special ritual bed, perhaps modelled on that used to re-assemble Osiris after his dismemberment by Seth. The culmination occurs nominally in the sixth hour of the night with a vision of the sun god in the Underworld. This is also the moment in Egyptian religion when the sun god was remade anew each day.
We can assume that the candidate was in a deep hypnotic sleep; according to Plutarch this was induced by burning special incense he calls Kyphi. It could also be induced by the administration of a mild narcotic such as the Egyptian Blue Lily (nymphaea caerulea) known to influence dreams and widely used in Egyptian and indeed later Hindu esoteric rites.
All of this is entirely in accord with the schema set out in ancient Egyptian books of the afterlife. It is accepted by many scholars that the rituals contained in these “secret” books was almost certainly used as guides by the living as much as the dead. The are said to be secret as the only copies appear on the walls of tombs. One of my favourite such texts is known as “The Book of Gates.” At dawn the candidate is reborn with the sun.1
As an exercise in “experimental archaeology,” here is an imaginative reconstruction of the candidate’s journey culminating with initiation into the mystery cult. The setting is one of the small temples in ancient Thebes in Upper Egypt. Your first initiation will be into the cult of Isis.
For some weeks you have been living in special accommodation in the small Roman town that surrounds the temples of Isis at Deir el Shelwit. You exercise by walking to the nearby cultivated fields and beside the irrigation canals and lakes.
West of the town, beyond the fields, begins the desert where people only venture to bury their dead in the mountain necropolis.
The desert is the domain of dangerous animals, wild dogs and wolves who howl in the night. Although there are well trodden paths across the desert, your mentor advises you to beware of some of the creatures who have no inhibition against attacking a person when they are alone or defenseless. Beyond the low desert, mountainous cliffs rise up to form the Libyan plateau.
You cast your mind back over the period leading up to your initiation. As the fateful day approaches the rhythm changes. You spend the best part of your time reading sacred books in the temple, sometimes discussing an obscure point with a mentor, the Hierogrammatos. He is a scribe in the service of the temple, a priest who interprets sacred texts for you and guides you through the process of initiation.
Mostly you meditate in the quiet rooms set aside for this within the temple proper. You make a point of only eating simple food, which invariably means vegetarian, nothing to over stimulate the senses. You have also cut down on wine, preferring to drink pure water sometimes prepared with a calming cordial made by boiling hibiscus herb and allowing it to cool to a delicious sustaining drink. Everything is designed to calm the senses and to avoid nourishing negative thoughts. Some say these thoughts are like daemons that should not be fed.
Your mentor has already recommended that you pay special attention to The Book of Gates. You know it almost by heart and find it comforting. You feel it will be your guide in the transition to the new life that awaits you.
You mull over the events of what will soon be your old life. You think about the chain of causes that has led you to this moment and about the new life to come. It is a period of incubation, almost as if you will give birth to a new you, it reminds you of how the philosopher Socrates spoke of himself as the midwife of knowledge. The Egyptian way of reckoning things says there are 10 days in every week. They also say that 10 months is the period of time a mother incubates a baby in her womb. In your meditation, each day of the 10 corresponds to one of those 10 months; so as each day progresses, you become ever more mature and ready for rebirth.
Other things your mentor told you, that once seemed obscure and required much thought, now begin to make sense. He asked you to make a decision about the emblems to be present at your place of sleeping on the last night. He made you think about the design of the beds in the temple sleeping chambers. They all have four legs, but these are carved to resemble those of particular animals. The head-boards have been individually carved with one of three animals. You surmise that it is one of these animals that will carry you over to the other side during your night journey.
Those animals are the fearsome hippo, the cow with the sun suspended between its horns, and the leopard. All three are rich in symbolism. It dawns on you that your mentor is asking you to consider the nature of each of those beasts as it relates to your transformation. In what sense are you like a hippo, cow, or leopard? The hippo does not eat meat but is extremely fearsome, especially when protecting its territory or young. The cow is a symbol of Isis herself, powerful but also nurturing. The leopard is a carnivore whose form represents pure, naked power.
The fateful evening arrives, the eve of the New Moon. You bathe in the temple baptistry, a brick lined sacred lake east of the temple. You change into a simple full length robe of natural, undyed cloth. Your mentor leads you to the special chamber in which is a comfortable couch in the form of your chosen animal. On it is a mattress of folded linen. There is a small table, upon which there are two small terracotta jugs; one filled with water, the other contains a mysterious substance which your mentor tells you to drink, promising that it will be pleasant and help you through the night. This done you settle down on the couch.
The Hierogrammatos reads the familiar lines that open The Book of Gates. As he reads, you drift into the world of sleep and dreams:
You who came into being from Re,
from his Glorious Eye.
Granted to you is a hidden seat in the Desert.
Come together all those created by the Gods.
The God has taken your measure in the Necropolis.
As he does for all those living on this Earth;
created as it is, from his right eye, the Sun.
The desert is bright,
I give it light,
With what is in me.
Souls of the West, those who would destroy humanity,
my glorious Eye is on you.
I have ordered the destruction,
destruction of the enemies of Ra;
of the enemies of those upon the Earth,
where the chosen ones are.
Breath be given to you, among whom I am
Let there be rays for you,
dweller in the region of offerings.
To you is restored the diadem in the desert.
To you is restored the diadem in the necropolis.
The Gods shall say:
“Your presence is commanded by the great God,
He who lifts up his arms and moves his legs; as shall you,
Come to us, you who share his essence; and say
Hail to the One in His disk,
Great God with numerous forms.
The Egyptians divided the period between sundown and sunrise into 12 equal parts called hours. Although you sleep through this whole time, you are roused at the beginning of each hour by the sound of a priest reading the appropriate section from The Book of Gates. Each of its 12 chapters corresponds to each of the hours. You are momentarily excited by those words before again lapsing into sleep. Your dreams keep pace with the lines as you rest, half heard and half remembered. In those hours you dream of entities and your soul’s journey from dusk to dawn. In the silence it is as if you are watching a drama at the theatre or observing the progress of a night pageant.
Sometimes you are one of the actors in the drama:
At the first gate, a large serpent stands
His name guardian of the desert is upon the door.
He opens for Ra, and those upon the Earth,
Full with the chosen ones of the Gods.
Your mind as a God speaks,
from the prow of the sun-boat
Saying to the wise serpent: Guardian of the Desert
You hear lines concerning the star goddess and you recall how you’ve been taught that she is also a form of the goddess Isis, your patron. In the morning you rise, reborn:
On the sun boat of the morning, lifted by the Abyss
Abysmal waters surging up, from the faraway world.
Kephra the sacred scarab,
As new sun born through the eastern mountains
Isis and Nephthys bearing him up,
to the waiting Goddess of the sky.
Who stands above this earthly sphere,
out of the old and into the new,
You are lifted into her arms,
Mother of the Gods, Nuit.
You wake refreshed and renewed. Details of your visions during the night journey are for you. One ancient initiate commented on the whole experience thus:
I approached the boundary of death and tread on Proserpine’s threshold, I was carried through all the elements after which I returned. At midnight I saw the sun flashing with bright effulgence, I approached close to the gods above and below and worshipped them face to face.
In The Golden Ass, the ancient hero Lucius does not remain in the temple but resumes his normal life. He moves to Rome where he takes up residence in the Iseum Campensis and after a further gestation period of nine months is offered a second initiation on the winter solstice. A third initiation swiftly follows. In all Lucius is initiated as priest of Isis, then priest of Osiris, then of Isis and Osiris together.
Oxford, Spring Equinox, 2016
Based on material in the author’s Isis: goddess of Egypt & India.