Upholding Isis

Relief carving of Isis with horned moon headdress
Relief carv­ing of Isis with horned moon head­dress

Dur­ing a hia­tus from feline com­pan­ion­ship last year, I day­dreamed about nam­ing our next cat Isis—after the god­dess Isis so cen­tral to the reli­gion of ancient Egypt, which is also known for its rev­er­ence for cats. Then came the news reports from Iraq and Syr­ia about the hor­ri­fy­ing actions of a ter­ror­ist mili­tia call­ing itself by the acronym ISIS—or ISIL, or IS; but the first name seemed to stick. I silent­ly shelved my thought, but couldn’t come up with a bet­ter name.

Ancient Egypt has fas­ci­nat­ed me almost my whole life, and Isis makes an appear­ance in the nov­el I’m work­ing on, which takes place part­ly in ancient Alexan­dria. Isis was wor­shiped in ancient Egypt as a kind of world-moth­er. The hiero­glyph of her name includes the image of a throne, and it was believed that Isis was the source or “seat” of the Pharaoh’s pow­er. Here’s a won­der­ful dis­cus­sion of the mean­ing of her name. As the sis­ter of Osiris and moth­er of Horus, Isis played the lead in the pri­mal dra­ma of Osiris’ death and res­ur­rec­tion. Her grief for her dead broth­er Osiris made her an emblem of deep feel­ing for oth­ers’ suf­fer­ing, as her wor­ship spread through the late Clas­si­cal world.

Last sum­mer, my hus­band Steve told me about a kit­ten he’d noticed at our local cat res­cue: a beau­ti­ful, self-pos­sessed lit­tle black cat, who might have some Siamese in her. And, he men­tioned, her name was Isis. The woman who fos­tered her after she was found had giv­en her the name. I knew we had found our next cat.

Our Isis in Sphinx pose
Our Isis in Sphinx pose

So Isis entered our lives with her name already bestowed. She wears it well: when she sits at atten­tion, she’s the regal image of the Egypt­ian cat rep­re­sent­ed in stat­ues, reliefs and paint­ings. Telling peo­ple her name leads to a vari­ety of respons­es, often reflect­ing dis­com­fort with the ter­ror­ist-mili­tia asso­ci­a­tion. I may answer with some­thing like, “We’re try­ing to uphold the good feel­ings around her name.” The truth is, it pains me to think of the God­dess being over­shad­owed by a group that rep­re­sents the most heinous actions of which humans are capa­ble. Google doesn’t dis­tin­guish very well between the acronym and the ancient God­dess, and I’m afraid humans can get mixed up too.

On the oth­er hand, I keep think­ing that those who cov­er the news may have set­tled on the ISIS acronym out of the var­i­ous choic­es, part­ly because of its lin­ger­ing mytho­log­i­cal res­o­nance. We need our myths and ancient sto­ries, as a store­house of sym­bols to help us move for­ward. Maybe it’s a good thing that when peo­ple hear the next shock­ing news from that ter­ror­ist group, they feel the breath of Isis remind­ing them of some­thing else.