Isis Worship in Paris
Conversations With the Hierophant Rameses and the High Priestess Anari
By Frederic Lees
From THE HUMANITARIAN: a Monthly Magazine. February 1900. Vol XVI: No. 2., New York. Edited by Victoria Woodhull Martin and Zula Maud Woodhull.
Through the yellow muslin curtains of a window on my right streamed the dim light of a mid-October morning. The winged figure of Isis was facing me, her horned disk circled with an aureola of diffused light, which came through the interstices of the closed shutters of another window behind. A profusion of flowers was at her feet, and on each side of her were lotus flowers - the symbol of resurrection. My thoughts were carried back thousands of years B.C. - I saw that I was in a little temple of the goddess Isis. On all sides were evidences of the religion of the ancient Egyptians; here near the altar, cartoons of Osiris and Nephthys, Horus and Harpocrates; there, in front of it, a triangular-shaped lamp of green stone, whence sprang a little tongue of white flame never extinguished. The heavy odour of incense, telling of a recent ceremony, mingled with the perfume of the flowers.
I was examining the curious green-stone lamp more closely when a voice at my elbow dragged me from my thoughts. It was the Hierophant Rameses who spoke. By his side stood his wife, the High Priestess Anari.
"I see you admire the Tibetan lamp", he said. He proceeded with the enthusiasm of a true archaeologist to tell me its history. "A beautiful symbol!" he exclaimed. "It was brought from Lhassa, the Sacred City. Note that its three sides are not perfectly straight, that it is boat-shaped and flame-shaped. This lamp is symbolical, like everything else in our beautiful religion. Nothing that you can see here is without its meaning, nothing is without its purpose. For instance, here is a sistrum which is shaken during our ceremonies. One side of the wooden body of this instrument represents the Beginning, the Alpha; the other side the End, the Omega; the metal part symbolises the Arch of Heaven; the four metal bars are the four elements. You will notice that on each of these bars are five rings, which, being shaken, represent the shaking of the forces of nature by or through the influence of the divine spirit of life. It is the same with our dress, as I will explain to you after a while. And now let us go into the other room, where we can sit and talk at our ease."
Five minutes later the Count and Countess MacGregor, of Glenstrae, were telling me of how they had come to revive in Paris the worship of Isis, the hope which they placed in it, and the beautiful truths which they had discovered in the course of their studies of a religion dead to the Egyptologist, but so living and so full of vital force to them.
"You have asked me", said the Hierophant Rameses, the name under which Count MacGregor, who is a Scotch gentleman of fortune, appears in the Isis masses which he celebrates at his house in the Rue Mozart, at Passy, one of the fashionable suburbs of Paris; "how we came to revive this ancient religion. The answer is simple. During our studies of the Egyptian religion we obtained certain lost truths, in possession of which we became converts to Isis. The revival, you see, was purely a private matter at first; we had not the slightest intention of making outer converts until an incident occurred which changed our intentions completely. But before I tell you of this incident, let me say one thing. Many have looked upon our propaganda with suspicion, under the impression that we are endeavouring to revive the worship of Isis as practised in its decadence. Now, this is far from our object. We have gone much further back than that; we have gone back to a time when Isis worship was in its primitive form, when it was not overlaid with growths as at later periods in the history of the world. Our Isis worship is Isis worship in its purest form. That being said, the Countess will explain to you how we came to enlarge the scope of our intentions."
"It happened in this way", said the High Priestess Anari. "We made the acquaintance of M. Jules Bois, who, being interested, as you know, in religions and religious revivals, asked us if we could give an Isiac ceremony at the Bodiniere Theatre. He had already lectured there on Buddhism, and arranged for a Buddhist mass, so he thought it would interest the public to know something about Isis. But we were very much disinclined to appear in public. We refused, therefore, and the matter would have dropped but for the intervention of the goddess Isis herself. One night she appeared to me in a dream, and sanctioned any efforts we might make in Paris, her ancient city. Our scruples were swept aside. That is how we came to appear at the Bodiniere, first, when M. Bois delivered a lecture on Egyptian magic, and introduced us to the public, again when we celebrated masses there."
"On these occasions I was present. The second has been described to me by a friend. The Hierophant Rameses and the High Priestess Anari appeared on both occasions, of course, in their priestly robes - the most beautiful costumes which ever priest and priestess wore, beautiful because they express so much to the believer. The priest was dressed in his long white robe; around his waist was the zodiacal belt; around his arms and ankles were the sacred bracelets; over his shoulders was fastened a leopard skin, the spots of which symbolise stars in the world atmosphere, what the theosophists call the astral body. Similarly, the uskh, or collar, around his neck represents abundance of matter, whilst the sidelock is the emblem of youth. "True wisdom is always young." But the dress of the High Priestess Anari is better adapted for giving a good idea of the symbolism of the Isis worshipper. Her long, flowing hair expresses the idea of rays of light radiating through the universe. Upon her head is a little cone symbolical of the Divine Spirit, and a lotus flower symbolic of purity and wisdom. "The lotus springs up", said the Hierophant Rameses, "from the muddy waters of the Nile. The cone is the flame of life. The whole idea of the dress of the priestess is that the life of matter is purified and ruled by the divine spirit of life from above."
The second occasion upon which the Count and Countess MacGregor appeared at the Bodiniere Theatre, an Isis mass was celebrated. In the centre of the stage was the figure of Isis, on each side of her were other figures of gods and goddesses, and in front was the little altar, upon which was the ever-burning green stone lamp. The Hierophant Rameses, holding in one hand the sistrum, which every now and then he shook, and in the other a spray of lotus, said the prayers before this altar, after which the High Priestess Anari invoked the goddess in penetrating and passionate tones. Then followed the "dance of the four elements" by a young Parisian lady, who, dressed in long white robes, had previously recited some verses in French in honour of Isis. A short time before this lady had become a convert. Her four dances were: the DANSE DES FLEURS, which symbolised the homage of the earth to the Egyptian goddess; the DANSE DU MIROIR, which represented waves of water; the DANSE DE LA CHEVELURE, symbolical of fire; and the DANSE DES PARFUMS for the air. Most of the ladies present in the fashionable Parisian audience brought offerings of flowers, whilst the gentlemen threw wheat on to the altar. The ceremony was artistic in the extreme.
"Am I to understand", I asked the Hierophant Rameses, "that your religion is monotheistic?"
"We believe as our predecessors did", was the reply, "that divine force can be made to appear in statues. No, we are not monotheists, and for that reason we have sometimes been called idolators. But is not the universe, God manifest in matter, a great eidolon? We are pantheists; we believe that each force of the universe is regulated by a god. Gods are, therefore, innumerable and infinite."
"And the object of your religion is, of course, precisely the same as that of any other religion?"
"Precisely. Our object is that it should be a moral guide to whoever adopts it. And this revival of a most ancient religion should be a great agency for good in the world. Take our Book of the Dead. It is the Book which Moses himself must have studied when in Egypt; and do we not find in it many things which are in the Bible? What deters some people from Isis worship is its archaic symbolism, but this should rather attract them, in my opinion. Comparing the Book of the Dead and the Bible, the former work is much more similar to the New Testament than to the Old, despite its extreme antiquity. It would seem from these resemblances that there was some ground for the belief that Christ studied Isis worship. You will remember that there is a period of His life of which there is no record - His early years in Egypt. In the New Testament a believer is spoken of as "a member of Christ", in the Book of the Dead a believer is called "a member of Osiris". Then, again, one of the symbols of Osiris is the Crook of the Good Shepherd. As regards magnificence of language, the Book of the Dead compares very favourably with the great Christian work. Where, for instance, could you find a finer passage than this:
The Hierophant took up his Book of the Dead, and read in a voice full of reverential emotion the following lines:
"I have come upon this earth and with my two feet taken possession. I am Toum, and I come from mine own Place.
"Back, oh! Lion, with dazzling mouth and with head bent forward, retreating before me and my might. I am Isis, and thou findest me as I drop upon my face the hair which falleth loosely on my brow.
"I was conceived by Isis and begotten by Nephthys. Isis destroyeth what in me is wrong, and Nephthys loppeth off that which is rebellious."
"I have been told", said I, addressing the Countess MacGregor, "that you have a certain power over the atmosphere. Is it correct that you are in possession of certain lost powers?"
"Yes; we are possessed of certain traditional occult knowledge. We have many traditional truths which are unknown nowadays, except to a very few people. But this hidden knowledge we can only impart to those who consent to be initiated. As in the past, so in the present, we have sacred initiations. These embrace theological notions on a much higher plane than the dogmas taught to the ordinary worshipper; they embrace also a system of magic. The person initiated must, of course, swear to keep this knowledge secret."
"Have you very many followers amongst the Parisians?"
"An increasing number, and quite as many as our little chapel will hold. A temple for our Egyptian ceremonies is now being built in Paris."
Since that first visit to the Count and Countess MacGregor, in mid-October , I have had many opportunities, either at those crowded receptions which they give, or at the masses which they celebrate of hearing their ideas on religion. Those receptions, by the by, are amongst the most interesting in Paris. You will find people attending them of nearly ever shade of opinion and of profession; Isis worshippers, Alchemists, Protestants, Catholics, scientists, doctors, lawyers, painters, and men and women of letters, besides persons of high rank.
The High Priestess Anari holds some very interesting opinions on woman's role in religion.
"The idea of the Priestess is at the root of all ancient beliefs", she said, on one occasion. "Only in our ephemeral time has it been neglected. Even in the Old Testament we find the Priestess Deborah, and the New Testament tells us of the Prophetess Anne. What do we find in the modern development of religion to replace the feminine idea, and consequently the Priestess? When a religion symbolises the universe by a Divine Being, is it not illogical to omit woman, who is the principal half of it, since she is the principal creator of the other half - that is, man? How can we hope that the world will become purer and less material when one excludes from the Divine, which is the highest ideal, that part of its nature which represents at one and the same time the faculty of receiving and that of giving - that is to say, love itself in its highest form - love the symbol of universal sympathy? That is where the magical power of woman is found. She finds her force in her alliance with the sympathetic energies of Nature. And what is Nature if it is not an assemblage of thoughts clothed with matter and ideas which seek to materialise themselves? What is this eternal attraction between ideas and matter? It is the secret of life. Have you ever realised that there does not exist a single flame without a special intelligence which animates it, or a single grain of sand to which an idea is not attached, the idea that formed it? It is these intelligent ideas which are the elementals, or spirits of Nature. Woman is the magician born of Nature by reason of her great natural sensibility, and of her instructive sympathy with such subtle energies as these intelligent inhabitants of the air, the earth, the fire and water."
These words give a better idea than any of mine could, of the thoughtful and dreamy nature of the Countess MacGregor. Beneath them appears something mystical, occult; we catch the glint of a singular mind. This mysticism, this tendency towards the occult appears, moreover, in everything she undertakes. It is so in her speeches and in her writings, but more especially does it come to the surface in her paintings. For the High Priestess Anari is an accomplished artist. A former student at Colarossi's, and at other Parisian academies, she has had a thoroughly good training in art. The methods which she acquired there she has applied in her own way, following no particular master, but relying entirely upon her own thoughts. Her work is, consequently, very original. Her men and women, and the objects which surround them, are not of this world, but of the world of the imagination, where in her opinion true beauty is only to be found. There is much of the spirit in her pictures which one finds in Miss Fiona Macleod's writings, and, judging from one of them, suggested by a story of that gifted lady, she would be an ideal illustrator of the works of the author of "Pharais" and "Old Celtic Tales Retold". This tendency towards idealism appears even when she is painting a portrait, as, for instance, that of her husband which hangs behind the dining-doom door, and in which he is represented as a magician adept, a crown, surmounted by three stars, upon his head, and his hands clasped across the jewelled hilt of a sword, whence radiates a mysterious light.