26.7.16

THE GODDESS THAT DARE NOT SPEAK HER NAME

Chris Morgan. Isis; Goddess of Egypt and India. Mandrake of Oxford, 2016.

The authors’ subject has brought about an unexpected problem. “Because of certain events happening in the political sphere just now, it has become difficult to use her name without risking confusion with a terrorist group, which uses a similar acronym. As always I think the goddess will outlive these ephemeral worldly events.”

We are often told that the Roman empire extended its influence all the way to India, and regularly traded there, but we are never given any details. I realise from this book that this is because so little is known. This account of how some aspects of Egyptian religion thereby found their way to the subcontinent is, necessarily, largely speculative.

“Although Roman speculators usually bankrolled the ancient maritime trade, Greek seamen almost invariably navigated the ships. Those Greek mariners, often natives of Alexandria, invariably worshipped the Egyptian goddess Isis.”

The Tabula Peutingeriana is a Roman world map painted on a scroll seven metres long. In south India is a picture of a temple marked “Templi Augusti”. It is well known that the Emperor Augustus was worshipped as a God, but it is surprising to find that he had a temple so far away. Morgan gives in some detail the principles of Roman temple design, which was explained by Vitruvius. He concludes that the contemporary Hindu temple of Kurumba Bhagavathy Devi in those parts might be built on the foundations of the Augustus temple – this seems a bit desperate, but clearly he is doing his best with limited material.

His search led him to Kotunkolur. There is a spring festival here which in recent years has provoked letters of complaint to the newspapers, as the worshippers sing verses like this:

If you want to fuck the goddess of Kotunkolur
You must have a penis the size of a Palmyra tree.

Finding the Goddess Isis is not easy, but one clue comes from the fact that the ancients often identified her with the zodiacal sign of Virgo. In a rare Sanskrit astrological text, the Yananaj Ataka, ‘the Greek Story’, “Virgo is described as a goddess holding a torch while standing on a boat. This is precisely the same as Isis Pelagia 'mistress of seafarers'.”

One remarkable tale is that of Pattini, a Goddess who took on human birth and married a mortal, and whose legend is still acted out at festivals; Morgan gives the complete text of one. Her husband, Palanga, cheated on her with a courtesan named Madhavi, who quarrelled with him after spending his money and leaving him penniless. The long suffering Pattini agreed to allow him to sell a piece of her jewellery, a golden anklet. Unfortunately, a goldsmith in Madurai he approached accused him of stealing it, the local king believed him, Palanga was put to death, and cut into fourteen pieces. Pattini came looking for him, and cursed the city of Madurai so that most of it was destroyed by fire. Eventually: “The other gods have intervened and successfully appeal to her to stop the destruction. In return Pattini is promised that after fourteen days she will again see Palanga, resurrected in astral form.” Apparently the Hindus do not realise that they are performing the story of Isis and Osiris.

The book is well illustrated, with many in colour  -- Gareth J. Medway.

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