The National Geographic Magazine recently ran a cover story about ‘The Most Powerful Woman in the World.’ It was Mary, the mother of Jesus.
A woman, who barely speaks in the bible, has been venerated for more than a millennium by billions of Catholics. As a woman, who conceived without sex, and who herself was conceived without sex – ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’ – Mary is believed to intercede between heaven and earth. She is the friend of the downtrodden, the sinner and the slave. She holds a special place in her heart for innocents and virgins. Like an indulgent mother, she is the one we ask for the little things; the petty favours we don’t like to bother dad with. And when all else is lost, our heavenly mother is the one we run to.
Over the centuries Mary has appeared to numerous ordinary folk all over the world – Walsingham, Fatma and Lourdes – where now millions of incurables go to bathe in her curative spring. She was lauded as the protectix of cities; it was believed her holy image paraded around the walls of Constantinople lifted a siege. Even entire countries enjoyed her special protection; in the Middle Ages Britain was described in Vatican legal documents as ‘The Virgin’s Dowry’.
Tender, merciful and compassionate, Mary is not only Christ’s mother but our mother too. As a mother she is usually depicted as either cradling her dead son brought down from the cross (the Pieta – which gives her the title ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow’) or nursing him as an infant. She is the Star of the Sea and the Queen of Heaven.
Before there was Mary, there was Isis – the star of the Sea; the Queen of Heaven. Most often depicted cradling her dead husband Osiris; tenderly wrapping his body in a winding sheet, or nursing her miraculously born son, Horus (Horace) – a new-year child celebrated during the winter solstice period, just like Jesus. Friend to the downtrodden, the sinner and the slave; Isis holds a special place in her heart for innocents and virgins.
According to Egyptian mythology Isis and Osiris, were the King and Queen of the gods; husband and wife; brother and sister. Osiris, a mighty hunter and defender of the realm, was hated by his brother Set. This may be because he had slept with Set’s wife. According to one story, Set devised a cunning plan to get rid of his brother. He arranged a feast, during which he bought out a beautifully ornate chest, fashioned from precious aromatic woods, lavishly painted and gilded.
He declared the chest was a gift for whoever could fit in it. Each guest tried, but of course only Osiris fitted perfectly. Once Osiris was inside, Set slammed down the lid, locked the chest and threw it into the Nile where Osiris drowned. This led to the Egyptian belief that people who drowned in the Nile were sacred, and beloved by the gods.
Isis, overcome with grief, caused the Nile to flood with her abundant tears – as it does every year replenishing the land with the rich thick mud that gave Egypt its name: the Land of Corn. This was probably the real reason Cleopatra was so attractive to Caesar and Mark Antony. When he defeated them both, the victorious Augustus Caesar deposed the Ptolomy dynasty and made Egypt – the bread-basket of the empire – his private property.
Osiris’ casket eventually reached a foreign kingdom. Here it became caught in the branches of a young tamarisk tree that eventually enveloped it, keeping Osiris safe. Heart-broken Iris set off to find her husband’s body: searching the skies in the shape of a hawk. Finding the tree, she disguised herself as a kitchen maid in a story that may have given rise to the original Cinderella fairy tale. When the King fell in love with her, she revealed who she was and asked for her husband’s body.
Variations of the Cinderella story are found the world over – even as far away as China. The most famous version is Charles Perrault’s from his ‘Stories and Tales from Past Times’ where the glass slipper is often considered a mishearing of the word vair (fur) for verre (glass).
With the help of Thoth, the ibis-headed god of healing and Anubis, the jackel-headed god of embalming, Isis restored Osiris back to life – or at least a semblance of life, in that he became the first mummy. On discovering what Isis had done, Set, attacked Osiris. Tearing his body into numerous pieces he hid them all over Egypt. The exception was Osiris’ penis. In some versions it is eaten by the Nile fishes. In others it becomes a great magical amulet called the Talisman of Set – sought by magicians down the ages for its power to create life.
Isis, after turning herself into a dog, managed to sniff out the fragments of her husband’s corpse, except for his penis. In lieu of the original she made him a new golden phallus. Resuming her hawk shape she fanned Osiris; breathing life back into his corpse, or at least his lingam, for just enough time to become pregnant.
Her child was Horus, the Hawk-headed god of the new Aeon. He fought his uncle Set for eighty years, until they divided the world between them. Set had lost a testicle in the fight and so for this reason was given the summer and the desert – both like Set, sterile in the Egyptian heat. It is thought Set was the original of the Fisher King found in Arthurian legend. The Fisher King was wounded in the ‘thigh’: a festering wound that left him sterile, blighting his kingdom. Until his young pure- hearted nephew Parsifal, took his place returning life to the stricken land.
Horus took the winter half of Egypt’s year, the part made fertile by the Nile flooding, signifying the annual resurrection of his father Osiris that brought the land to life. It was for this reason that Osiris was depicted with a green face. He may be the original model for the Green Man – the spirit of nature. As proof of the regenerative power of Osiris, the Egyptians made small linen mummies stuffed with corn that sprouted when watered. To them it showed how life came from dead matter.
As far-fetched as the link between Horus and Parsifal seems, Egyptian faience glass beads have been found in Neolithic long barrows near Stonehenge. They date to a couple of thousand years before Christ.
The revelation of making life from dead seed was probably very similar to the Eleusinian mysteries, performed annually in honour of the fertility goddess Demeter or Ceres (whose name gives us the word cereal).
Isis enjoyed a strong cult following in the Roman world. It is fair to say the Roman goddesses really did not have her compassion for humanity or her common touch. Neither did they have her knowledge of the journey after death and wisdom to avoid the pitfalls of the afterlife. Nor indeed did they have her knowledge of this world or magical skill to make life more pleasant and a lot less painful.
The educated citizens of the Roman world were sure of two things: life was not the end, and their gods were just childish myths. Spoilt super beings wrapped up in their lives, just like their emperors who were also made into gods. And with as little regard for humanity. The gods did not even offer a moral code to live up to – that was philosophy’s job.
Around the birth of Jesus, Athenian philosophers simply referred to ‘The God’ – all pervasive, incorporeal, wise and moral; rather like what we would recognise today. This is because after 200 years of Greek rule – the god of Jerusalem was no longer a local bad tempered thunderous mountain god like Zeus or Jupiter – with two wives. He was evolving, having been remodelled by philosophy influenced Jews like Philo along Athenian lines, with an exotic tinge of Persian Zorastrianism thrown in for good measure.
For the educated elite, the old gods were simply the property of the state. Anyone could become a god- no matter how amoral. Emperors became gods. Emperor’s boyfriends were gods. Sacrifices were made to the gods to ensure the state endured. Disbelief in the gods was treason punishable by death.
Isis became with identified with Demeter, Ceres and Artemis the Great – a primordial fertility goddess from Ephesus in what is now modern Turkey. (Artemis was adopted by the Greeks and later watered down to a moon goddess – Apollo’s sister). All these ancient goddesses mystery cults were merely considered different names for the one universal truth: Man has an immortal soul and the purpose of life is the preparation for a good afterlife. At the height of Rome’s power the educated classes embraced mystery religions in much the same way the survivors of World War One embraced spiritualism.
In Apuleius’ moral novel called ‘The Golden Ass’ – poignant and funny in turn – it is these magical mysteries that eventually lead the luckless protagonist (turned into an ass) to salvation through Isis’ intercession. The novel works in much the same way Mozart’s Magic Flute is an introduction to the exciting and appealing mystery cult of his own time – Freemasonary. It should also be noted that educated Romans like Apuleius thought the new and somewhat distasteful superstition of Christianity worshipped a crucified ass-headed god – which may account for the title.