“Listen to the words of the Great Mother, who was of old also called Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Dana, Arianrhod, Bride, and by many other names…”
This opening passage from the Charge of the Goddess used by Wiccans around the world is familiar to many, but how many realize that this introductory statement was inspired by the ancient cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis? A remarkably similar statement is found in “The Golden Ass, or The Metamorphoses” by the classical writer Lucius Apuleius, who lived between 123 and 170 CE. Scholars believe that Apuleius was an initiate of the Isis cult and used his novel to document at least some of the teachings of his beloved goddess. Here’s the relevant passage from book eleven, chapter forty-seven of the 1566 English translation of the book by W. Adlington:
“…my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in divers manners, in variable customes and in many names, for the Phrygians call me the mother of the Gods: the Athenians, Minerva: the Cyprians, Venus: the Candians, Diana: the Sicilians Proserpina: the Eleusians, Ceres: some Juno, other Bellona, other Hecate: and principally the æthiopians which dwell in the Orient, and the ægyptians which are excellent in all kind of ancient doctrine, and by their proper ceremonies accustome to worship mee, doe call mee Queene Isis.”
Adlington’s translation was reprinted in new annotated and updated editions in 1915 and 1924, and Robert Graves produced a new English translation from the Latin original in 1950. The book’s popularity has certainly withstood the test of time as it is still being read almost two thousand years after its author lived.
It’s interesting to note that this passage from Apuleius’ work also confirms that at least some ancient Pagan religions accepted the idea that perhaps different deities were in fact manifestations or different names for a greater Divine One. Today we often refer to the idea that “all gods are One God, all goddesses are One Goddess” as soft polytheism, in contrast to hard polytheism, which affirms all deities are unique and independent. Apuleius’ book proves that soft polytheism is not a new idea that has been thrust upon Paganism in recent times as some have claimed.
Southern influences on the Pagan religions of the British Isles extend to more than just Wicca. During the Roman era the cult of Isis, which had grown tremendously and spread outside of Egypt, made its way to the British Isles and found receptive worshippers. In R. E. Witt’s book “Isis in the Ancient World” they discuss archeological evidence that has proven there was a temple to Isis in London. In “Roman Britain” by T. W. Potter and Catherine Jones, a photo on page 197 shows a stone altar found in London. The altar bears an inscription stating it is dedicated to Isis. Isis’ name and worship was clearly known by at least some people in the British Isles during the Pagan era!
Popular occult philosophy has a huge emphasis on Egyptian material. Hermeticism, the philosophical base behind the vast majority of European and British Isles ceremonial magick, is attributed to the mythical founder Hermes Trismegistus. According to John Michael Greer in “The New Encyclopedia of the Occult,” Hermes Trismegistus (which means “Hermes the Thrice-Great”) actually originated as the Egyptian god Thoth, and then evolved to include the Greek Hermes during the Hellenization of the ancient world. As time went on the mythical Hermes Trismegistus was depicted more and more as an actual human rather than a deity. It was also popular for new occult ideas to be attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the same way that some of the old grimoires (such as the Key of Solomon) have authors listed who could not possibly have written them. Associating occult teachings to a famous occult personality or deity lends them a respectable reputation to some minds.
Hermeticism has been foundational for most occultism in the English-speaking world for centuries. Most modern occultists are at least aware of Hermeticism’s central axiom, “As above, so below.” More recent groups such as the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, founded around 1884 by Max Theon, and the much more successful Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded in 1888 by William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell “Macgregor” Mathers, drew heavily on Hermeticism as well as Egyptian mythology and motifs. Around the turn of the century Samuel Liddell “Macgregor” Mathers and his wife Moina wrote and performed what they called the Rites of Isis for the public in Paris. The Mathers’ performances were a hit, suggesting that Egyptian ideas had an enduring appeal in the occult community in particular in western Europe.
Occultism in the English-speaking world owes a lot to Egypt and other southern sources such as Africa and in more recent times to Australia. Egyptian culture was one of the first to emphasize the use of oaths and swearing promises by the gods. Oaths were so important in ancient Egypt that their legal system was based on it. Oaths that were broken were treated very seriously and had clear legal consequences. In modern Pagan practice this appears in the formal initiation ceremonies that some groups perform where candidates are required to make oaths of loyalty to the specific religion, to the gods and goddesses, and to the other members of the group. Oath breaking is not taken lightly.
Egyptians were also credited with great magickal skill. During the Hellenization of the ancient world Egyptian philosophy and magickal practice was exported to the rest of Europe just as much as Greek and Roman ideas were imported into Egypt. “The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation” edited by Hans Dieter Betz is an amazing collection documenting how magickal ideas mingled and were put to use in the pre-Christian as well as Christian eras. Quite a few of the spells listed include obvious Egyptian references such as Egyptian deity names, Egyptian spell materials such as papyrus or parts of animals that are specific to Egypt, and clear references to Egyptian myth. In many cases these are mingled with Greek, Roman, or Middle Eastern references as well. The ancient practice of magick was certainly eclectic!
Egyptian myth and religion also contributed an enduring image: the Divine triad of mother, father, and child. Other Pagan cultures recognized familial connections between the gods and goddesses, but few seemed to feel it was important enough to emphasize the mother-father-child unit. As Christianity grew the mother-father-child image was absorbed and promoted for Christian purposes. However, the earliest predominant mother and child figure was clearly that of Isis and Horus, with the father Osiris also an important part of the imagery. The Christians knew a powerful image when they saw it and adopted it into their own mythology.
Another magickal practice that the Egyptians popularized was the art of dream interpretation. Dreams were routinely interpreted for hints into the future or insight into the present or past. Specific types of priests and priestesses would interpret dreams for those who sought guidance. There is even evidence that the Egyptians created and used dream dictionaries which would have helped standardize dream interpretations.
Writing itself was an important part of Egyptian culture. Scribes held an honoured place in Egyptian society and were employed by people from all walks of life for creating and reading everything from personal correspondence, to recording royal genealogies and religious scriptures. Scribes were a necessary part of the funerary process for the wealthy as it was the scribes who were responsible for ensuring the correct magickal instructions were inscribed in the tombs so that the deceased would be able to attain a suitable afterlife.
A logical progression from the importance placed on writing is the idea that words themselves contain magickal power. The funeral rituals described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead involve specific prayers and incantations that must be recited for the deceased to earn the best form of afterlife. Spells in “The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation” also frequently include sequences of untranslatable magickal words believed to produce particular magickal effects. Some of these are undoubtedly prayers or Divine titles in forgotten languages but they have been preserved in an attempt to exploit their inherent power.
Ritual gestures too have survived or been adopted into European and British occultism from Egyptian sources. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its offshoots, including Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, employ sequences of clearly Egyptian-inspired ritual motions such as crossing the forearms on the chest (the Osiris position), or holding a finger to the mouth (known as the sign of silence, or the sign of Harpocrates.) Some of these ritual gestures have been adopted in other modern Pagan groups as well, appearing for instance in some Wiccan rituals.
Egypt is not the only southern influence on modern Paganism. While it does have a very clear historical impact, modern Pagans have also drawn inspiration from other African cultures, and in more recent times from Australia.
Sociological, historical, anthropological and folklore research conducted by Europeans exploring Africa’s complex cultures have inspired modern Pagan groups to explore ecstatic and what some consider shamanic practices. Previously English occult and Pagan practices focused more on philosophy, ritual or even abstract worship of the Divine, and a rather intellectual approach to magick. European studies of magick and witchcraft among non-Christian cultures in Africa demonstrated that many of the practices are widespread if not universal. The foundational mythological and religious structures might vary quite a lot but many of the actual practices, such as using images to perform sympathetic magick, healing through the use of herbs and the power of suggestion as well as the direction of life energy, are not exclusive to just one culture or even continent. Some practices such as trance obtained through energetic dancing, the use of mind-altering substances, and even divine possession had been part of occult work in Europe in the past but largely lost through the Christian era. Seeing how well it worked within African cultures inspired many modern European Pagans to explore those practices anew. Sometimes it takes a neighbor to remind us that things can be done different ways!
British and European Paganism has always held at its core a connection to the spirits of place, the genius loci who often grew to become major gods and goddesses. It’s interesting to note though that as occultism developed over the centuries the philosophy of place became formalized into a concrete set of associations which might make sense for some places but not others depending on geography. For instance, associating the direction of East with Air and West with Water does not necessarily make sense in places where the largest body of water is actually to the South as in many coastal regions along the Mediterranean. However, the idea of tradition was allowed to take precedence and associations became dogma.
As Europeans and others immigrated to Australia they took their magickal systems with them. In recent times modern Pagans have come to re-examine the idea of spirits of place and as a result Australian Pagans of European and British descent have pointed out the problems in using a dogmatic and arbitrary system of correspondences. The argument has been made that when tradition alienates you from the spirits of place we have lost a major part of our spiritual basis. The lesson that Australian Pagans have taught us is that sometimes tradition becomes dogma and can be a hindrance to effective spiritual and magickal practice. Many modern Pagans do stick with traditional systems but there are some interesting and effective variations that have come together in the past hundred years that focus more on attuning with the spirits of place rather than sticking with imported dogma or tradition.
Another valuable lesson that Australia’s aboriginal culture has taught modern English-speaking Pagans is the idea that spirit, body, and place are not necessarily as separate as we might think. We European-descended Pagans often talk about the ground we walk on as being the body of the Goddess, but the Australian aborigines actually live it as an inherent part of their traditional culture. It’s sad to see the aboriginal culture losing these connections because of the introduction of the consumer-based culture. All is not lost though – there is a close enough connection to the traditional aborigine culture in a historical sense that the damage can be healed. In a strange way, the aboriginal emphasis on humans being very much a part of the body of the Divine rather than separate from it is being preserved by the modern European-descended Pagans whose own ancestors introduced the destructive elements into Australian aboriginal culture in the first place. Perhaps we can atone for the damage done by our ancestors.
Human history, especially the history of magick and religion, is a vast cloth woven from strands of many colours originating in many different places and cultures around the world. Modern Paganism in English-speaking communities is a product of ideas, practices, and philosophies from a wide variety of sources. We modern Pagans owe a lot to the cultures of the South, the cultures of Africa and Egypt in particular, as well as places such as Australia. As our community grows even more we will undoubtedly find that many more Southern influences will make their way into our spiritual culture.
Apuleius, Lucius (translated to English by W. Adlington and first published in 1566. Formatted in a public domain web edition by Martin Guy in 1996.) “The Golden Asse.” https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1666/1666-h/1666-h.htm
Apuleius, Lucius (translated to English by Robert Graves.) “The Golden Ass.” New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. A modern translation of the Latin classic depiction of the popular cult of Isis presented in fictional form, written in the second century CE.
Betz, Hans Dieter (editor.) “The Greek Magical Papyri In Translation.” Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986. An amazing collection of English translations of ancient spells, prayers, and invocations of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and even Jewish and Christian origin that date back into the BCE times.
Greer, John Michael. “The New Encyclopedia of the Occult.” St. Paul MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2003.
Oakes, Lorna & Gahlin, Lucia. “Ancient Egypt.” New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003. A lushly illustrated exploration of ancient Egyptian history.
Potter, T. W. & Johns, Catherine. “Roman Britain.” New York: Barnes & Noble Books, paperback edition 2002.
Regardie, Israel. “The Golden Dawn.” St. Paul MN: Llewellyn, 1995. Detailed explanations of the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Witt, R. E. “Isis in the Ancient World.” Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.
Note: This article was previously published in Issue 97 of Circle Magazine.