7 July 2014

ISIS

As the military situation develops in Iraq, this may not be the most tactful moment to reveal that I am, myself, the Founder of Isis*.

It happened in a modestly Anglo-Catholic Public School on the South Downs, called Lancing College. In 1973, newly appointed, I found myself with quite a number of Lower School sets, and quite a lot of Classical Literature in Translation to teach. (Such can be the fate of new members of Common Room; it was not until I was comfortably settled in that I was able to manoeuvre myself into a timetable happily confined to the teaching of Greek and Latin and Theology at A-level and Oxbridge). So, in those distant days, I founded a Society which gave members the opportunity to get off the campus and attend meetings in my house and to go on expeditions which did not exclude hostelries (nowadays, organising such society activities would be an instantly sackable offence). Quite why we chose Isis as our Patron, I cannot now remember; but we had nice ties manufactured bearing the hieroglyph of Her of the Throne. I still have one somewhere. You had better not tell the Security Services.

My little Foundation (apparently with some modifications) does seem now to have taken off in a big way in the Middle East. I always suspected it might have a future. In the first centuries of the Christian era, Isiacism was a very attractive syncretistic religion. It denied the validity of no other religion; the same Deity was behind all the divine names in all the cults. Isis was the preferred name (and her mysteria  the most satisfying); but in no exclusive way. Frankly, I have often wondered why those relativistic 'Christians' who, taking an analogously syncretistic stand, eschew 'missions' because all religion is at root the same, do not have courage of their convictions and rebrand themselves as Isiacs. It would be a particularly attractive cult for those of them who, by an unfortunate accident, have got themselves metamorphosed into donkeys with oversized membra virilia.

Moreover, if only the Right Side had been victorious at Actium, Isis would have had a great literary future. After all, Cleopatra VII, the philopateira Thea, was also the Nea Isis. Would Vergil, instead of writing that rather tortured aetiological epic about the Ira Iunonis, Venus Genetrix, Pallas puer, and Pius Aeneas, have poured all his heart and genius into an Isiad, which would have climaxed, not in the vengeful killing of Turnus paidophonos, but in the divinely glorious Nuptials and exquisite couplings of Isis Epiphanes with the Neos Bakkhos? Er ... no ... I admit that you are right. He probably wouldn't. No scope there for his libido pronior in pueros. But somebody else might have done it. Nosey, for example.

Since an excitingly Hellenistic Romano-Alexandrian Empire would have had a much more Eastwards bias than the boring old Roman Empire did, the Name of Isis would have been Great in the Orient, two thousand years earlier than today.
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*To make Isis members feel at home in Oxford, we have renamed our bit of the Thames after the Goddess, and divided our other river into two parallel streams so that we can call the bit in between them Mesopotamia.

2 comments:

motuproprio said...

I see you follow the practice of Gibbon. Though he did not quite use the phrase "the decent obscurity of a dead language" he recorded in his memoirs that his "English text is chaste, and all licentious passages are left in the obscurity of a learned language".

Mike said...

Well, Father … as I recall Robert Graves suggests in the Foreword to his translation of the book you allude to that the cult of Isis was essentially aristocratic (or at any rate for the rich and privileged). Graves thinks this a good thing, of course. He notes that contact with the poor, the sick, the unfortunate, seems to be seen as unlucky. This is very unlike early Christianity (or any form of Christianity for the matter of that.) As you know Christianity spread like wildfire among slaves. It also travelled, so to speak, in the knapsacks of common soldiers -- so that Constantine would have been, effectively, forced to recognise it whether he did, or did not, have a genuine religious experience of his own (as who could say?)

Christianity, one might say, was good news to fellers you'd be unlikely to meet at Lancing (or even Hurstpierpoint or Ardingly). Poor mad Nietzsche, you'll recall, went so far as to say that it *was* nothing more than "Chandala hypocrisy".

On a more serious note, I understand the notion that all religions are, at bottom, the same comes out of Hinduism. (The religions are, as it were, gateways, but the actuality behind them all is Brahma, or "pure consciousness" or something of the sort.) The doctrine is, however, also to be found in "New Age" religiosity, and perhaps gets there via the New England Transcendentalists and the theosophists.

This much I was familiar with. What I recently found out, through listening to an interesting interview with an Orthodox Christian lecturing at Oxford who was, however, born a Brahmin Hindu is that the schools of Yoga in India were very much affected by the teachings of Western esotericists and occultists back in the eighteenth century:

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/illuminedheart/yoga_and_orthodox_christianity_are_they_compatible

A case of dubious doctrines getting exported and re-imported, rather like all that cheap olive oil that gets shipped into Italy … and then out again with "Italian Olive Oil" labels on.

Here's another interesting thing. Apparently, when leading New Agers were canvassed by a researchers asking for their "influences" guess whose name came up most often. It's no-one you would expect. It was actually Teilhard de Chardin. Would I be risking "censorship" if I pointed out that Chardin was, thank God, not an Anglican?