Saturday, September 18, 2010

Isis, Venus, and Cleopatra

In the Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris, Isis is a fertility goddess, a version of the Great Mother, like Demeter or Gaia. Her cult’s mythology and rituals center around the murder of her brother-husband Osiris and her painstaking efforts to restore and resurrect him. She is linked to magic, the renewing powers of the Nile, and the rejuvenating forces of nature embodied in the serpent shedding its skin. Isis also represents Justice and is associated with the life-giving powers of the Sun. Queens in Egypt were often worshiped as incarnations of Isis. The historical Cleopatra VII developed a personal cult as Isis-Aphrodite, also presenting herself as an incarnation of Venus (as the Romans called the deity – but Cleopatra was part of the Ptolemaic dynasty, of Greek ancestry). The mythology of Venus, goddess of beauty, love, and desire, includes her infidelity to Vulcan, god of fire and the forge, in a love affair with Mars, god of war. During the affair, of course, peace breaks out all over the world.

(The image shows a statue of Isis-Aphrodite from the Roman Empire of the 2nd or 3rd century, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

Shakespeare’s Mardian recalls the myth when asked by Cleopatra if, even as a eunuch, he feels desire:

Yet have I fierce affections, and think
What Venus did with Mars.


Throughout the play, Cleopatra and her attendants invoke the goddess Isis in a variety of contexts:

Good Isis, hear me this prayer!

By Isis, I will give thee bloody teeth . . .


As well as being outraged at Antony and Cleopatra being publicly crowned, Caesar is also concerned by Cleopatra’s claims to divinity when “she / In the habiliments of the goddess Isis / That day appeared.”

Cleopatra’s death, enthroned with serpents that she compares to a suckling infant, visually echoes other ancient depictions and descriptions of Isis.


The Flatwater Shakespeare Company presents
William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
directed by Bob Hall

The Swan Theatre at Wyuka
3600 "O" Street in Lincoln
Performances continue tonight and tomorrow, September 18-19
And next Thursday -- Sunday, September 23-26
All performances 7:30
Tickets $18 general, $12 seniors, $10 students

CALL 402-473-2897

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