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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Isis in Paris

In the year 1514 the archbishop of the abbey of [1]Saint-Germain-des-Prés, then situated on the outskirts of the city of Paris, ordered a statue in the abbey to be removed and destroyed. The statue must have seemed innocuous enough, for it had the appearance of a typical Madonna and Child. The statue was known to be old – dating from the time when Paris was largely a Roman city. And that seems to have been the problem – at least in the eyes of the archbishop. The statue’s age dated it to pre-Christian pagan times, and there was no place for a pagan statue in a Christian house of worship, however much it might resemble the Holy Mother. And so the offending statue was duly removed and smashed to pieces.

The Roman Isis. The sheaf of corn on her crown links her to Ceres/Demeter. The sistrum which she holds, a jingling temple rattle unique to this goddess, is missing from this statue and has here been recreated digitally from a similar statue of Isis.
And that is how the last known remaining relic that once was housed in the temple of the goddess Isis came to meet its end. Churches in Europe were often built upon the pagan places of worship which the new faith destroyed, and so it was with the abbey. Fourteen years before the abbey existed there was a previous church on the site, and thirty-three years before that – as late as the year 509 – there stood a temple dedicated to the goddess Isis. The foundations of the abbey rested upon the remains of this ancient temple, and the statue closely resembling the Madonna and Child which the archbishop ordered to be destroyed was actually a Romanized version of the goddess Isis nursing her infant son, the god [2]Horus.

Spot the difference. At left: a Romanized version of Isis with the infant Horus. The statue which the archbishop ordered to be destroyed would have been very similar to this one. Centre: the present statue of the Madonna and Child in the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés which would have replaced the destroyed statue. At right: the original Egyptian  'Isis and Horus' version of this theme, the archetypal template ‘Mother and Child’ from which all subsequent versions could have been derived.
Unlike the forces of Christian orthodoxy, the empire-building Romans apparently were happy-enough to absorb the deities of other religions into their own pantheon. Under Roman rule, Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-headed god of the dead, sported the armour of a Roman general, and Isis, the great mother goddess, took on the appearance of a Roman [3]noblewoman. But this Romanized version of Egyptian Isis also absorbed something of the culture of Ancient Greece, having some of the attributes of the Roman goddess [4]Ceres, whom the Greeks knew as Demeter.

The ugly face of iconoclasm. The granite tomb in the Dom church in Utrecht which is - or was - the effigy of Guy van Avesnes, bishop of Utrecht in the 14th-century, defaced by Dutch anti-papal Calvinists in the 17th-century. Iconoclasts might destroy an image, but the idea behind the image lives on.
Iconoclasm – the deliberate destruction of the objects of a belief to which the destroyers are opposed – is nothing new. It was practiced here in the Netherlands during an event in 1566 known as the [5]beeldenstorm’, in which supporters of the new anti-papal Calvinist-Protestantism stormed Catholic churches and destroyed the ‘idolatrous’ statues of the Virgin, saints, and any other items which they considered even to vaguely fall into this ‘blasphemous’ category. And it continues to be practiced in our own contemporary world with the destruction by Islamic State of the irreplaceable cultural treasures of [6]Syria and Iraq, which it also regards as ‘blasphemous’. But what does iconoclasm actually achieve? If you destroy a statue, do you also destroy the idea which that statue represents? Hardly. The physical statue, even the building, might lie in pieces, but the idea still exists, and ideas, like the gods themselves, have proven astonishingly resilient over time. And so it has been with Isis.

The nurturing Isis of the Bastille is hailed by an enthusiastic crowd at her inauguration in 1793. At right: Isis holding her sistrum as she appears on the façade of the Louvre. 
As an underground river continues to flow unseen, so the spirit of the goddess Isis apparently has continued to flow through the city of Paris. How else to explain the wealth of symbols associated with the goddess which insistently push their way to the surface? In August of 1793 a huge statue known as the Isis of the Bastille was inaugurated. The seated female figure spouted water from her breasts to symbolize the nourishment provided by the goddess to her citizens. A bass relief statue of Isis which faces the rising sun decorates the façade of the Louvre. The Louvre itself is orientated along an axis which extends towards a point on the horizon from which rises the star Sirius, the star sacred to Isis. The city’s coat-of-arms commissioned by Napoleon featured a ship with Isis being led by that same star.

The colossal pyramid proposed by the French architect Éttiene-Louis Boullée. Boullée’s genius produced projects that were more visionary than practical, and this towering structure was never realized.
And signs of the original culture from which the goddess sprang are ubiquitous in the city. There is the actual obelisk brought from the Egyptian sacred site of Luxor. There have at various times been pyramids. The unique genius of the architect Éttiene-Louis Boullée proposed a monumental pyramid ‘in the Egyptian style’. The pyramid was never realized – although the elegant [7]glass pyramid at the Louvre by architect Ming Pei has become a familiar landmark. During the Napoleonic era the rage for all things Egyptienne was in full swing. And the city plan itself is modelled on that of Luxor, with the same axes of alignment as its sacred counterpart. Significantly, the city has a specific gender. Paris is not an ‘it’. Paris is definitely a ‘she’.

Yet another grand pyramid, this time designed to be built in the grounds of the Louvre for the centenary celebrations of the Republic in 1889. A hundred years later the glass pyramid for the Louvre by Ming Pei has become a familiar landmark.
Terrorism is the bluntest of blunt instruments. It ranges itself against forces which it has little to no hope of ever actually defeating. The machineries of state are simply too powerful, too overwhelming, with all the massive resources and information, both covert and conspicuous, that governments and their armed forces have at their command. That is why terrorism is as it is: it can only ‘achieve’ some sort of an impact through the brutally crude tactics of shock and human grief. I doubt that anyone reading this post down to this paragraph will now be unaware of the irony that an acronym for Islamic State is ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The title Islamic State is itself a misnomer. It is of course anything but a ‘state’, and the inclusion of that word in its title is more of a wishful dream for its dubious future than an indication of anything which it has actually achieved.

French armed forces patrol in front of the glass pyramid in the grounds of the Louvre following the November 2015 attacks by Islamic State.
So why, of all the major European cities, did Islamic State last month choose to target Paris? There clearly was an active terrorist cell there with connections to other such cells in Brussels, and that cell laid its plan and followed through with that plan, and innocent men and women, many of them with most of their lives still ahead of them, were killed. In Paris the outcome was multiple murder. In the Middle East, Islamic State also have included torture in their ‘doctrine’. But apart from their iconoclasm and [8]torture, what tends to be overlooked is how deeply misogynist Islamic State is: Islamic terrorism is also specifically a campaign of violence against women.

Rape has been a consistent weapon used against the women who have been the victims of Islamic State. Violence against women is as much of a practice by IS as any of its other crimes. Knowing the above history and connections which Paris has to the goddess, what does emerge is that there is a lingering sense that, however unconsciously, the Paris attacks were a violation, certainly against the innocent citizens there, but also against the ‘she’ that is Paris.

A single rose placed in a bullet hole in a pane of glass fronting one of the restaurants that were attacked. The bullet hole has itself been enclosed by a painted heart. The simple but expressive gestures hint at a force which the brute power of mere bullets can neither comprehend nor withstand. 
Smashing a statue to pieces might have satisfied the archbishop’s affront at such a ‘pagan’ presence in his abbey. But what subsequent history establishes is that it is as if the goddess herself has arisen as a presence in the city even more assertively than when her temple stood on the south bank of the Seine. Whether you believe in gods and goddesses or not, whether you hold a belief in a deity – any deity – or not, what circumstances reveal to us is that there would seem to be forces – archetypes, if you will – so powerful, so assertive, that they will push their way through to our consciousness and manifest themselves in whatever forms they choose to adopt. The goddess Isis was not a statue. She was not banished by a mere archbishop, but lived on, creating new forms for herself in the hearts of her citizens. And Parisians are no more likely to bend a knee to terrorism than a goddess would deign to bend a knee to a mere mortal.

A sea of candles in a Paris street lights the faces of those paying tribute to the victims. The delusion of terrorists is to imagine that they are in control of the forces which they unleash, and that their actions will lead to a specific goal. But when the blunt instrument that is terrorism lashes out, the perpetrators are no more capable of foreseeing the eventual consequences than their innocent victims.
[9]Terrorism, it seems, is fighting against some power which makes all other forces pale by comparison. It is not the entrenched power of installed governments and the armed forces which those governments deploy. It is greater even that that. It is an ineffable, invisible something, and you cannot fight what you cannot see. Whatever that something might be, it evidently has survived for thousands of years, and has outlived all attempts by mere archbishops and others to subdue it. So perhaps you had better hope that you have the goddess on your side, because her anger is as dark as her heart is loving.

But I, I am compassionate and I am cruel.
Be on your guard!
I am the one whose image is great in Egypt
and the one who has no image among the barbarians.

~ from the text [10]Thunder, Perfect Mind

[1] Literally: Saint-Germain-in-the-Fields.

[2] The Greek name for Horus was Harpocrates, known as the god of silence. The name derives from an approximate Greek version of the Egyptian phrase Horus the Child. 

[3] Please see my post The Emperor and the Eye of Horus for more examples of these hybrid deities and the way in which they persist and continue to exist in our culture.

[4] Ceres, the goddess of harvests and the fertile earth, still survives in our own world when we use the term ‘cereal’.

[5] Freely translated as: ‘Storm against statues’.

[6] Please see my post Empires of Sand, Empires of Dust for a more comprehensive coverage of these events.

[7] The urban legend fuelled by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code that the pyramid contains 666 panes of glass – the ‘number of the beast’ in the Book of Revelations – is a fallacy. The pyramid contains exactly 673 panes.

[8] To name just one instance: the ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was later shot dead by French special forces, had in Iraq dragged people to death behind his vehicle.

[9] Terrorism in the context of this post means Islamic terrorism. In fact, terrorism these days does mean Islamic terrorism: a pointer, if any were needed, to the single major achievement of terrorism in our 21st-century world: that it has succeeded in making its religion synonymous with acts of terrible inhumanity which are perpetrated in the name of that same religion. In so doing, it has given decent Muslims the unenviable task of dragging the Quran out of the moral gutter where it has been dumped by those criminals acting in its name. Clearly the most effective way of achieving this is for all other Muslims vociferously and robustly to condemn such acts and those who perpetrate them, and it is heartening that many, including the legendary Muhammad Ali, are now doing so. When inhumanity in the name of a religion reaches such extremes, to keep silent is tacitly to condone such extremes, and a tacit silence can only further undermine the foundations of that religion. Misguided demonstrations such as the one seen at left might not be keeping silent, but the damage they are doing to the image of their own faith is real enough. 

[10] As translated by George W. MacRea. This powerful text remains unique among those found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, the find which has given us access to many Gnostic and proto-Christian texts which had been lost for 1,600 years. The first-person narrator is unspecified, but the context and style allows us to assume a connection both with Isis and with Sophia, the female embodiment of Wisdom. 

Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval: Talisman: Sacred Cities, Secret Faith. The Penguin Group for Michael Joseph, 2004. Most of the examples cited in this post of Isis the goddess and Ancient Egyptian culture in the city of Paris are taken from this title, which itself cites many more, complete with detailed expositions which this post only briefly mentions. It is difficult to over-emphasise the importance of this book for me personally. My first reading of it some ten years ago was my own wake-up call that history – more specifically, Church history – was not as I had imagined it. Reading for the first time about the atrocities perpetrated by the rising forces of Catholicism, and directly instigated by the papacy, against the Gnostics, and a millennium later also against the Cathars (please see my post A Dark Crusade), which were on the scale of a Holocaust, came as a shock that was mind-numbing to experience.

This is bearing in mind that the authors are dealing, not with a mere personal interpretation of events, but with what actually is part of recorded history, and whose events are related in many other titles dealing with these subjects. That sense of shock reverberated on, and eventually would give rise to this blog, which itself attempts to be a serious investigation into why we believe what we believe, who gets to decide what is ‘correct’ for us to believe, and ultimately, what ‘faith’ actually is.


  1. Thanks so much for this post, David. You've nailed it. I couldn't have said it better. I'd like to link to this post on Trans-D; do you mind if I pull a quote?

    1. You're welcome, Dia. I'd be only too pleased if you would link and quote on Trans-D Digital!

  2. Thanks again! I'm adding it to the afterword of my most recent post right now... it just happens to fit right in. Obviously, a lot of people (though not all) can make the connection between the two "I" words, but you've really connected the dots in a most illuminating way.

  3. Second Madonna and a child in Corinthian shrine is unambiguously NOT jewish MARYAM with Jesus.

    1. Anonymous, it's really irrelevant how WE see the statue, and we might spot the difference pretty easily. The point is how it was seen at the time. The fact that it was in the church at all (and it was) indicates that the 'cultural artifact' line between Christian and pagan was a hazy one. People of those times did not have the same historical perspective on the past that we do, and a 'mother and child' portrayal would simply signal what it apparently did.

  4. Christianity (Catholics ,East orthodox) based on perversity. Abrahamic religions gave principle of ''true religion'' and continue to bring ''true'' in the world.

  5. Ah, but Anonymous, 'truth' is a moveable feast.

  6. Please clarify for me if you will the name ISIS of the terrorist group is tied to the goddess because the terrorists are misogynistic?

    Thanks and looking forward to reading more of your posts, great information.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Anon. No, I'm just highlighting the strange (and very ironic!) coincidence in the two names, particularly in view of the historical connection which the goddess has to Paris, and that the terrorist attack took place in that city.


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