Dylan’s 1976 album Desire reached No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and featured musicians who participated in the Rolling Thunder Revue tour the previous year. Like Oh Sister that has been covered on this blog already, Isis was also co-written by Jacques Levy.
“A Song about Marriage”
Dylan introduced Isis as “a song about marriage”. The narrator marries Isis, but soon has to leave (“But I could not hold on to her very long”). He quickly gets into an adventure with a dubious man, not knowing what it will be about. Rather than finding a treasure, he buries his companion, who dies in the cold, in an empty casket. Then he returns to reunite with Isis.
Ancient Egypt and a Contemporary Spiritual Path
The song references ancient Egypt: Isis is the name of a Goddess, and the place where the narrator’s companion dies is the pyramids. So while there are certainly other valid interpretations, we look at how this setting may correspond to a contemporary spiritual approach. To that end, we’ll view the three figures as aspects of one being.
According to ancient Egyptian mythology, Isis’ husband Osiris was killed by his brother Set, and the corpse cut to pieces and scattered across the country. Isis gathered all the body parts, and finally succeeded in re-awakening Osiris, helped by other gods such as Toth and Anubis. Then they had a son, Horus.
Marrying Isis: A Human Seeking to Connect to the Divine Soul
I married Isis on the fifth day of May
But I could not hold on to her very long
So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away
For the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong
If we apply the idea of Isis representing the Divine Soul, we can identify the narrator with a human seeker. He has become aware of his soul, but is apparently not yet prepared for a lasting connection. This may remind us of Parcival’s quest for the Holy Grail: He encounters it early on, but has to complete many adventures before being worthy to receive it.
I came to a high place of darkness and light
Dividing line ran through the center of town
I hitched up my pony to a post on the right
Went in to a laundry to wash my clothes down
So the narrator’s path begins. He has to make a clear decision whether he commits himself to the search for light, and accept all consequences, or whether he wants to remain in his dark state. (Regarding the “dividing line” we may look at Leonard Cohen’s Different Sides.) Washing his clothes can be seen as a symbol for purifying his state of being: his thoughts, his will, his desires and aspirations. (See post on Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair for an elaborate song about the soul garment, and here for an overview of related songs.)
He meets his strange companion (“I knew right away he was not ordinary“), and both turn out to be men of few words (e. g. “I said, where are we goin’ / he said we’d be back by the fourth / I said, that’s the best news that I’ve ever heard“).
Overcoming Oneself: A Sobering Experience
Typically, the seeker needs to break into unknown territory (“the cold in the North“). The prospect of a spiritual journey may evoke high expectations of finding treasures (like “initiation”, “wisdom”, a life of freedom from earthly worries, etc.).
I was thinkin’ about turquoise, I was thinkin’ about gold
I was thinkin’ about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace
However, it is often a sobering experience: One has to gain self-knowledge, which includes taking a closer look at one’s shortcomings, dark desires, and general unworthiness, compared to the pureness of the Divine Soul.
As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold
I was thinkin’ about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless
The canyons and the cold may symbolize aspects that have been kept in the subconscious for good reasons. It is the deep longing and the glimpse of light he was granted by Isis that help the seeker to endure in these difficult conditions.
How she told me that one day we would meet up again
And things would be different the next time we wed
If I only could hang on and just be her friend
I still can’t remember all the best things she said
The Companion: A Personification of aspects which have to Die
The unnamed companion may signify aspects of the narrator that he wasn’t conscious about before. At the pyramids, his self-knowledge increases:
We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice
He said, there’s a body I’m tryin’ to find
If I carry it out it’ll bring a good price
‘Twas then that I knew what he had on his mind
The Divine Soul’s / Isis’ light enables him to distinguish between aspects of his own being, which can be contradictory, where he may have perceived himself as a cohesive being before. So now, a fundamental change is required. Interestingly, this does not imply a need to fight. The seeker is more of an observer than an actor in this process. Dishonorable character traits cannot be overcome by fighting or oppressing them. They thrive in the subconscious; when brought to light, they cannot be sustained.
The Casket: Mystical Death
The casket may symbolize in time and space the process of overcoming the ego. This “mystical death” does not coincide with death of the physical body, but may be experienced long before that. (Additional material at the end of the surprisingly spiritual movie Revolver, directed by Madonna’s former husband Guy Ritchie, featuring Jason Statham and Ray Liotta, illustrates how it is well possible to live without an ego aspect.)
So the companion dies in the extreme cold, and the narrator buries him in the casket. “No jewels, no nothin‘” may remind us of the lines “Peace will come … But will bring us no reward when her false idols fall” in Dylan’s Changing of the Guards.
Reuniting with Isis
The narrator returns to Isis and finds her “there in the meadow where the creek used to rise“, and we can see another similarity to Changing of the Guards: She’s smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born / On midsummer’s eve, near the tower.
Isis is not in the best of states (“Blinded by sleep and in need of a bed”), and their conversation is quite dry and not as uplifting as one might expect in these circumstances, emphasizing again the sobering effect of the process:
She said, where ya been?
I said, no place special
She said, you look different,
I said, well, I guess
She said, you been gone,
I said, that’s only natural
She said, you gonna stay?
I said, yeah, I might do
The song finishes off by illustrating how unnatural it feels for the human to follow the impulses of the Divine Soul rather than the values he has been living by so far, even though he knows it’s the right way.
Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child
What drives me to you is what drives me insane
I still can remember the way that you smiled
On the fifth day of May in the drizzlin’ rain