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.
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.