In the early 80’s I was growing up as part of the MTV generation. Cyndi Lauper, Depeche Mode, Wham!, George Michael, Prince and Michael Jackson were all the rage. But foremost of the 80’s pop royalty was Madonna, savvy media mogul and video temptress, whose attention grabbing blend of sex and urban sheikh fashions, mixed with a high octane cocktail of street smarts and femininity, came to define the 80’s and everything that made us tick then.
The first video I saw of this glamorous street urchin was “Burning Up”, in which Madonna appears as a gyrating, sexually frustrated femme fatale, singing and sultry in the middle of a street as her lover drives toward her. Not an award winner by any stretch, but I was hooked. “Who is this girl?”, I thought, and decided to stay tuned. This was the beginning of a 30 year love affair with the Marilyn Monroe look alike who wasn’t, but also coincided with the initiation of a personal obsession with powerful women and divine femininity that was to take me to the depths and heights of human experience. Though pop goddesses may not seem a very likely introduction to THE GODDESS, for me as a young boy, the entrance of Madonna onto the pop culture stage resonated with a budding belief that the power and sexuality of women was a source of something sacred and mysterious…something primordial and latent in all living things.
I was attending St. Alban’s Perish Day School, a private Catholic institution, when Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” album and video were released. This was a seminal moment of my boyhood. Madonna appeared as a lace and crucifix adorned sex symbol, sometimes veiled, sometimes clad in very little at all, and yet her strength, power and femininity were anything but demure. Here was a girl on a mission to conquer the world, who may at times have appeared as the stereotypical blond bimbo, but whose dominant self possession belied any attempts by men to have or control her in traditional domestic sexist roles.
It was Madonna’s liberated sexuality and confidence that made an impression on me, but also her explicit use of Christian and Catholic iconography. For me, the crucifix and the veil, both making appearances in “Like a Virgin”, symbolized deeper mysteries than Madonna’s need to harvest visuals from her staunch Catholic upbringing. These were hallmarks of an ancient Goddess into whose mysteries I was just beginning to be drawn, a goddess whose veiled countenance was to transfix my inner gaze and provoke a lifelong quest.
On Fridays we were required to attend chapel at St. Alban’s. The chapel was an enchanted building surrounded by rose bushes, clad in vivid stained glass windows and icons of various saints and biblical heroes. I had been raised a Baptist, in the tedious austerity of undecorated churches without incense and ritual, so the Latin Mass, with its flickering candles, chanting and icons, struck a deep and mysterious chord in me. Secretly, I was already praying to ancient Egyptian gods and learning about the Goddess Isis, and had developed an aversion to the concept of monotheism and what I saw as the Christian superiority complex.
When kneeling to say the Lord’s Prayer, which I ardently refused to parrot, I folded my hands and silently prayed to Isis, Osiris and Horus. How else could I go through with it…praying in the house of a god I did not even believe existed? For me, I found consolation in transferring the symbols and dogma of Catholic Christianity into the hieroglyphs and deities of the ancient Egyptian pantheon.
Chapel possessed one virtue for me that helped me during what was a very troubled and difficult childhood. The secret faith I kept locked away deep in my heart had no open outlet through which to find expression. My parents were hardline Baptists…bible thumping church goers who believed and taught in the infallible, inerrant existence of the Christian doctrine. So, it was in the iconography of Catholicism that I was able to covertly maintain a living relationship with the Gods of Egypt. My gods.
The chapel at St. Albans contained a number of striking life size icons, but of all these it was the marble statue of the Virgin Mary that called to my heart. When I looked up into her outstretched arms, her veiled, tender form with its kind and compassionate gaze, I saw the Goddess Isis, most ancient Queen of Goddesses, and I petitioned Her to possess the statue of Mary so I could come and offer Her my prayers and heartaches.
For a year I came every week, and sometimes more frequently, to pray and commune with Isis in Her Catholic disguise, lighting candles, and in my mind reliving the ancient stories of the Goddess and Her holy family. Isis had traversed very troubled times, I knew. Her cherished brother-husband Osiris had been brutally murdered, even cut into pieces after He was slain, and Her son Horus was conceived in secret and reared on the run. The Goddess had lost Her queenship of Egypt, and had had to flee for Her life. She had been a refugee in Her own country, forced to scrape together a living in the marshes of the Delta, and She had almost lost Her son to a near-fatal scorpion bite. She had been alone and persecuted, and knew hunger, fear and heartache.
In Isis I knew that I was not alone, and that far from being a lofty fear-commanding god, Isis was the mother and caretaker of all living things. She took all people unto Her in their troubles, not only those who believed in Her, but all hearts. She did not rule through doctrine or man-made institutions, nor did She demand obedience via the threat of eternal torture in hell. Isis, the Mother of all Gods, simply loves. She is a queen of hearts, and it is through the heart that She calls, nurtures and loves.
One Friday morning Father Treat saw me lighting a candle in front of Mary, and sought me out. With a kind smile he said, “Ah, you are praying to our Lady”. With an even bigger smile I replied, “No, I am praying to Isis”. I am not quite sure what possessed me to confess my secret to Father Treat that day, but the cat was out of the bag! Suddenly I had diarrhea of the mouth, and blurted out everything, right then and there. I told Father Treat under no uncertain terms that my Goddess had given birth to his god, that Isis was the true origin of divinity, and that Her faith, the religion of Her people, was the true and ancient belief of the human race. “Christianity is second hand goods”, I told him. “The real thing began in Egypt”.
That was the end of my secret prayers to Isis, because Father Treat, naturally horrified and beside himself, called my mother to St. Albans for a meeting, during which I was chastised for my blasphemy, and assigned a strict penance for the “wicked lies” I had spoken. “Do you want to go to hell?!”, my mother yelled at me in the car on the way home from school. “Don’t you know that God punished the children of Israel for worshipping the false gods of Egypt?” For some reason I still had a tiny fragment of courage left. “No. He is your god, you deal with him. My god is Isis, and She was Goddess before your god ever existed!”
My father made me spend the whole weekend writing out John 3:16 in a legal notepad, and the controversy lingered in the household for quite a while. I never did recant my heresy, and I even had the nerve to return to chapel on Fridays. How suspiciously Father Treat eyed me as I lit candles in front of the Virgin Mary, and made my heartfelt little prayer to Isis:
Hail Isis, Queen of Egypt,
Mother of the World!
Blessed is the fruit of Your womb,
For the fruit which You have
Brought forth is the Sun!
Then I went home, turned on MTV, and got my Goddess fix watching Madonna videos. My parents may have seen an 80’s rock sex symbol, dancing in lingerie in front of a burning cross singing “Like a Prayer”, but I saw Isis, the urban goddess, ever present and ever ready to steal hearts…even in the most surprising of places!
All text copyright © 2001-2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa