by B. T. Newberg
Big History is the entire story of the universe. In the scale of cosmic time, human life can and perhaps should feel dwarfed – it puts us in perspective.
At the same time, the story is not complete till it’s told right down to the human level of individual daily life, else it is not relevant. Thus, this series concludes with how the story of Isis unfolds in the life of one Contemporary Pagan: myself.
This is the final installment in a series exploring the myth of Isis in the context of Big History. For part 1, tracing the story from the Big Bang to the rise of agriculture, go here. Part 2 is here, and Part 3 here. For a proposal of Big History as the narrative core of naturalism, including HP, go here.
Isis of imagination
Despite the prevalence of Isis in popular culture, I had no interest in her at all till one evening as I lied down for a “journey.” It was a technique from Michael Harner’s core shamanism*, my first introduction to Contemporary Paganism.
I followed the technique: visualize a spot in nature which leads downward, follow it down, then allow the spontaneous imagination to take over as you emerge into some new place. It becomes something like a waking dream. This is what came to me that evening:
I found myself falling down, down, deep down. Finally, I hit dirt in a place completely devoid of light. I could only feel around with my hands. It was a chilly, uncomfortable place which immediately suggested “underworld,” and “get out of here as quickly as possible.”
There in the darkness, a brilliant female figure, shining from within with bluish-white light, approached me. She wore a white Greek chiton or robe of some kind, and over her face was a white veil. A subtle wind lifted the veil up, but underneath was only more inky darkness.
The instinct to kneel immediately overwhelmed me. Never had I felt such a commanding presence, nor ever since. At the same time, out of compelling curiosity and naivete, I asked, “Who are you?” The glowing figure answered with a quiet, echoing hiss, “Isis.”
Later, I sketched the figure I had seen. For some reason, I felt moved to depict her offering her breast, even though it was not part of the original vision.
Over the next several days, I researched this “Isis” figure. Some elements of the journey appeared to check out, while others did not. The veil clearly linked with the historical veil motif ultimately deriving from an inscription at Isis’ temple at Sais. The offering of the breast linked with portrayals of Isis nursing Horus, carried over in the iconography of Mary and Jesus. These two elements “checked out.” However, other parts of the vision, including the Greek chiton, the cold underworld setting, and the figure’s aloof character, seemed inconsistent with Isis’ myths, closer to the Greek Persephone.
The simplest explanation was, of course, that I had been exposed to the veil and nursing motifs earlier without realizing it. Meanwhile, the Persephone imagery resembled a certain tarot card I owned. It seemed my mind had pieced together scattered scraps of mythology.
Nevertheless, the experience became profoundly meaningful to me as a personal vision. It perfectly symbolized my agnostic attitude toward religion, embodying the apparent impossibility of gaining knowledge of what lied “beneath the veil.” The more time went on, the more I kept returning to it and seeing new meanings in it.
I have found living with the myth of Isis rewarding, and it’s changed my behavior for the better. She plays on my human biology in order to meet my modern needs, and in return she gains replication.
Isis of biology
The myth of Isis exploits human biology in the ways recounted in part 1: through hypersensitivity to agents, supernormal stimuli, costly signals, the mammalian mother-child bond, a preference for modestly counterintuitive agents, and a need for large-scale group cooperation. In addition, the myth of Isis takes advantage of a few more features of my species.
Since she symbolized nature, I felt encouraged to spend time hiking, biking, and exploring the woods. The result was calm and joy, as often experienced by those who spend any length of time in nature. These positive feelings were then associated with Isis, increasing my bond with her. Thus, she exploited what E. O. Wilson calls biophilia, the “urge to associate with other forms of life.”
Isis’ association with the moon, in particular, became important to me. I timed my devotions to its phases, changing the robe adorning her statue to a color befitting the waxing, waning, full, or new moon. This caused me to spend time gazing at the moon, associating its natural beauty and glow with Isis, and her maternal nurturing love with it. I began to respond emotionally to the phases of the moon.
Mainstream Western society does not necessarily devalue emotion, but suffice to say Paganism places greater value on it as a source of deep meaning. It is no surprise, then, that an expanded, more fulfilling emotional life bonded me deeply to Isis.
Isis of modern needs
The Christian idea of a transcendent deity with an exclusive claim to Truth no longer appeared plausible in an age of science and multiculturalism. The exclusively male image of deity as well as the devaluation of nature and the sensual body were sore spots, too. My needs were not being met by the Christian myth.
After a long period of searching, a new myth came along that was more fit for the environment of my heart and mind. Isis offered a vision in which nature, sexuality, and the feminine were sacred.
Moreover, her story appeared plausible, since I’d come to her by naturalistic routes. Having entered Paganism under the impression that myth and ritual manipulated inner psychological states, it seemed scientifically believable that devotion to her could make a difference in my life (I later learned this was a minority view in Paganism, but the “damage” was done: I had become a naturalist).
The way I lived my life began to change. Since Isis was, for me, embedded in a way of life (i.e. Paganism), integration of her myth had wide-reaching effects. Not only did I take up rituals and devotions, but my behavior toward the environment, society, and my own body transformed. The moon felt overlaid with emotional value, as did every tree and river. Hiking and biking became big parts of my life. I was motivated to clean up trash beside the river, often almost everyday. Family became important to me, as did learning the life stories of deceased relatives. Giving to charity was, for the first time in my life, a priority. Poetry flowed out of me. And my sexual body was no longer a bundle of urges to be pacified, but a wonder of nature to be explored.
All these concrete, empirical changes flowed, in part at least, from living with the myth of Isis. Put simply, my needs were better met.
Isis of symbiosis
Meeting my needs has paid off in dividends for Isis. As a cultural meme, her sole “interest” is the same as that of genes: replication. To propagate, she needs to leap from mind to mind, and she’s gotten me to help her do that.
By exploiting my biology and meeting my needs, she became so meaningful to me that I’ve felt moved to spread her story through artwork, poetry, conversation, and writing – including the present series of essays. I don’t proselytize, but I’m not shy about sharing either. Articulating a mythic path both scientifically plausible and morally responsible is quickly becoming my life’s work.
So, in evolutionary terms, she and I have developed a mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship. She gets what she needs by helping me get what I need.
This symbiosis is surprisingly close to how ancient peoples viewed their relationship with deity: reciprocity. They made public offerings to deities in the belief that such pleased them, and requested blessings in return. The Romans formulated it as do ut des, or “I give so that you may give.”
Astonishingly, they were actually pretty close to the truth. Myths do need public displays in their honor, in order to leap from mind to mind. To encourage such behavior, they did bless humans, by helping them meet their needs. Reciprocity was unconscious symbiosis.
Myths in Big History
To conclude: What is Big History? It’s the tale of the whole universe, as pieced together through the best evidence of modern science.
What does that have to do with myths? Well, let me answer a question with a question.
Have you ever read a forum comment out of context, only to see it in an entirely different light when you go back and read the whole conversation? Myths are the same. They demand to be read in their natural context.
Myths are cultural phenomena that have emerged, like all other phenomena, through the unfolding of natural evolutionary processes. In this context, they bear the following features. Myths are:
- historically contingent
- cultural entities,
- emerging from within the nested systems of the cosmos (physics > chemistry > biology > psychology > culture),
- evolved through cultural selection
- to exploit features of human biology (such as susceptibility to supernormal stimuli and counterintuitive agents),
- and to express or fulfill human needs in order to maximize the likelihood of being passed on.
When a myth becomes meaningful in one’s life, most of the reasons tend to be unconscious. There may be a sense of the myth “resonating”, or of feeling “drawn” to it. There may be some awareness of consistency with personal values.
The deeper underlying causes, though, are the myth’s exploitation of biology and meeting of bio-psycho-social needs. Ultimately, it’s a function of the evolutionary forces of Big History.
Thus, even everyday interactions with myths are part of the greater story of the universe. Without this context, myths may seem quaint at best. With it, myths become meaningful, consequential parts of nature.
Embedded in Big History, myths become real.
*shamanism. I can’t bring up this topic without also acknowledging the issue of cultural appropriation. It’s a complicated matter with no clear-cut answers, but every introduction should at least acknowledge the issue. The class that introduced me to it did not, which was one reason I quickly left Contemporary Shamanism for other Pagan paths.
This article originally appeared at humanisticpaganism.com.