The Black of Isis is a magical cloth mentioned in two rituals of initiation and three oracular spells in the PGM. It is generally understood to be a linen cloak (or piece, thereof) used to dress the effigies of the goddess. Our goal in this post is to better understand the use and significance of this Black of Isis in the PGM and within the magical traditions of the Graeco-Egyptian world. We will examine the goddess herself, the spells in the PGM that employ this magical linen, and the ritual use of such linens in the initatic traditions dedicated to the mysteries of Isis.
|PGM I. 42 – 195||Spell to Invoke and Acquire an Assistant||Blindfold|
|PGM IV. 154-285||Initiation rite for necromancy and divination.||Blindfold|
|PGM VII. 222 – 249||Ritual to obtain a Dream Oracle||Wrap around hand & neck|
|PGM VIII. 64-110||Ritual to obtain a Dream Oracle||Wrap around hand & neck|
|PGM CII. 1-17||Ritual to obtain a Dream Oracle||Wrap around hand & neck|
Isis Magic PGM
¤ Isis – Queen of Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld ¤
Isis first appears in the Pyramid Texts (c. 2350–c. 2100 BCE) where she is integral to the protection and funerary rites of the dead pharaoh. Through the spread of the Osirian cult and Heliopolitan cosmogony, Isis becomes one of the most venerated deities of the ancient world.  As the mother of Horus, she nurtures and protects the living; as consort to Osiris, she rules the underworld and protects the dead. With one foot in each world; Isis navigates the rhythms of nature and is the patroness of healing and magic. Among her many names are “mistress of magic”, “the sorcerous”, “healer”, “psychopomp”, and “she who initiates.”
The goddess emerged as the archetypal image of the divine feminine and a tutelary spirit of initiation into the mysteries of life, death, and rebirth. By late antiquity (c. 2nd C. – 6th C. A.D.), the cult of Isis had become one of the most important and widespread mystery cults of the Graeco-Roman world. Shrines and evidence of her worship spread across most of the European continent, the Arabian peninsula, Asia minor, and even into Britain.
Of particular interest regarding the Black of Isis, is that her garments – and those associated with her priests and idols – were considered to be imbued with exceptional magical powers as if made from the very fabric of the cosmos. In a spell titled Oracle to Kronos (PGM IV. 3086-3124), the practitioner is instructed to wear a “garb of a priest of Isis” as a protective measure despite no other mention of her in the rite. Apuleius, a 2nd Century writer and initiate into the mysteries of Isis, writes:
But what obsessed my gazing eyes by far the most was her pitch-black cloak that shone with a dark glow. It was wrapped round her, passing from under the right arm over the left shoulder and fastened with a knot like the boss of a shield. Part of it fell down in pleated folds and swayed gracefully with knotted fringe around the hem. Upon the embroidered edges and over the whole surface sprinkled stars were burning; and in the center a mid-month moon breathed forth her floating beams.
– Apuleius. Metamorphoses. Book XI. 
Not surprisingly, for the Hermetic magicians, the Black of Isis as an object associated with the garments of the goddess would have been endowed with immense cosmic and spiritual power.
¤ Black of Isis in Dream Oracles ¤
For the ancient Egyptians, the process of entering and navigating one’s own subconscious in a meditative, dream, or trance state was equated with the journey through the underworld of the dead. Just as the Sun entered the underworld as it set in the west, so too the human soul would visit this realm as the body drifted into the darkness of sleep. As the queen of the underworld, Isis’ authority and influence naturally extended to this domain of dreams.
The Dream Oracles are a class of spells found in the PGM designed to obtained prophetic messages from the spirit world while asleep. For our purposes we will examine PGM VII, PGM VIII, and the fragments of PGM CII. Despite coming from different sources, these not only share the use of the Black of Isis but also hint at a common ritual methodology.
Take a black of Isis and put it around your hand. When you are almost awake the god will come and speak to you, and he will not go away unless you wipe off your hand with spikenard or something of roses and smear the picture with the black of Isis. But the strip of cloth put around your neck, so that he will not smite you.
-PGM VII. 229 – 234
On your left hand draw Besa in the way shown to you below. Put around your hand a black cloth of Isis and go to sleep without giving answer to anyone. The remainder of the cloth wrap around your neck.
– PGM VIII. 64-69
Unfortunately, PGM CII. 1-17 is extremely damaged, but enough of the fragments are decipherable to see that it is clearly following the same practices:
…over [the lamp] …. your hand, and [when you are almost awake] the god [will come and speak to you, and…][…and smear the picture with the black of Isis…] Put [ the strip of cloth…]
– PGM CII. 1-17 [frag. E, D, C]
These spells instruct the practitioner to make a sigil or drawing of the oracular deity on their hand (In PGM VIII. 64-110, this deity is Bes). The hand is then wrapped with the “black of Isis”, and the rest of the cloth is hung around the neck like a shawl. PGM VIII. 64-110 is more specific, indicating that the left hand should be used. The rest of the ritual follows the standard pattern of dream oracle spells in the PGM. The practitioner is instructed to light an oil lamp and then recite a formulaic incantation over it prior to going to sleep.
Interestingly, none of these dream oracles mention any invocation or prayer to the goddess; nor indeed is any specific mention of her name made outside the “black of Isis.” Similar to the Oracle to Kronos (PGM IV. 3086-3124), the power consecrated within the linen itself provides all the authority and protection necessary to interact with the spirit world.
¤ Black of Isis as Ritual Blindfold ¤
Aside from the dream oracles, there are two other spells that mention a Black of Isis and both employ it as a ritual blindfold. These spells are unique in the PGM as they are the only ones that mention the use of a blindfold simultaneously with the ability to “see” a deity. Unlike other spells of the PGM and many of the Medieval grimoires of magic, their is no claim or desire to evoke to external physical appearance; rather, much like the dream oracles, these spells address an inner spiritual landscape.
…. [and say] the first of spell of encounter as the sun’s orbit is disappearing…with a [wholly] black Isis band on [your eyes], and in your right hand grasp a falcon’s head…
– PGM I. 42 – 195
But as for you, crown yourself with dark ivy while the sun is in mid-heaven, at the fifth hour, and while looking upward lie down naked on the linen and order your eyes to be completely covered with a black [Isis] band. And wrap yourself like a corpse, close your eyes, and keeping your direction toward the sun, begin these words….
– PGM IV. 154-285
The practice of ritual blindfolding is well documented in the initiation ceremonies of the Graeco-Roman Mysteries and in modern Freemasonry. Modern scholarship will point out the symbolism between the darkness and the “womb” of rebirth and other such philosophic concepts; however, the practical application is often overlooked.
Whether in Asia, Siberia, Africa, Australia or the Americas we find ethnographic and historical records of native shamans wearing ritual headpieces, masks and blindfolds to obstruct physical sight (at least partially, in the case of some masks). This sensory deprivation technique helps induce the altered states of consciousness necessary to make soul journeys and interact with the spirit world. Such practices are nearly universal in the indigenous shamanic traditions across our planet.
The blindfold is an article of shaman’s gear. A Samoyed shaman carries a kerchief “with which to blindfold his eyes so that he can enter the spirt world by his own inner light.” 
Similar to the dream oracles, the use of the blindfold represents a chthonic journey within the subconscious realms. Through removing the physical sense of sight, such rituals teach the ability to “see” with the other senses; it is a form of initiation into the world of spirit consistent with the core shamanic teachings of countless native traditions.
¤ The Black of Isis ¤
The spells of the PGM indicate that the Black of Isis was a ritual linen used in rites pertaining to inward initiation and interaction with the spirit world. We should by now have a good idea of how such a magical implement was used by the Hermetic practitioners; however, we are still missing the context as to how it was obtained.
According to Plutarch, whose Moralia provides an invaluable insight into the cultic practices of Isis and Osiris worship, the statue of Isis was robed in many colors, each representing some aspect of her multi-faceted nature. This must have been unique to the goddess since he points out that other statues such as that of Osiris only had robes of one color. As such, the garment from which the black of Isis was made would have been dedicated to one specific aspect; an aspect that Plutarch describes in the following passage:
As the nights grow longer, the darkness increases, and the potency of the light is abated and subdued. Then among the gloomy rites which the priests perform, they shroud the gilded image of a cow with a black linen vestment, and display her as a sign of mourning for the goddess, inasmuch as they regard both the cow and the earth as the image of Isis; and this is kept up for four days consecutively, beginning with the seventeenth of the month…The things mourned for are four in number: first, the departure and recession of the Nile; second, the complete extinction of the north winds, as the south winds gain the upper hand; third, the day’s growing shorter than the night; and, to crown all, the denudation of the earth together with the defoliation of the trees and shrubs at this time. 
– Plutarch. Morelia. 39.
These long dark nights begin after the autumnal equinox and continue through winter solstice, when the sun is “reborn.” In the Nile valley, this dry season brings forth a necessary and vital period of transitional “death”; as the waters of the river recede a rich, black, and ridiculously fertile soil is exposed on the banks. Because of this alluvial soil, agriculture in the Nile valley flourished and civilization thrived; this is what gave the land of Egypt its ancient name, Khemet , the “Black Land”! From this darkness the spirit of the land was renewed and with it came the emergence of new life.
The Black of Isis is thus dedicated and attuned to this period of spiritual gestation marked by long nights, the waning moon, and the black earth of the recessed Nile. It is a symbol of potential rebirth after death, the Omega principle prior to re-becoming Alpha, and the nigredo stage in the alchemical transmutation of consciousness. It a theme that we see over and over again in traditions of spiritual initiation. For a Hermetic magician, the act of donning the black of Isis would have been an immediate spiritual, emotional and mental connection to everything represented by the “mourning of the goddess”; a direct conduit into the magical current of the chthonic realm and the metaphorical death preceding spiritual illumination.
For us modern Hermetic magicians, the lack of functioning cult centers dedicate to the goddess means that we are left having to create and consecrate our own Black of Isis. Hopefully, this post has provided a better understanding of how this ritual cloth was used and what it symbolized in the context of the Graeco-Egyptian magical traditions. Plutarch’s description of the “gloomy rites” quoted above provides the necessary framework and timing to formulate an appropriate consecration rite to transform a piece of linen cloth to a veritable Black of Isis. For those of us with that path in mind, Plutarch provides us with these wise words that should both warn and inspire us:
…having a beard and wearing a coarse cloak does not make philosophers, nor does dressing in linen and shaving the hair make votaries of Isis; but the true votary of Isis, is he who, when he has legitimately received what is set forth in the ceremonies connected with these gods, uses reason in investigating and in studying the truth contained therein.
– Plutarch. Morelia. 3.
- Hans Dieter Betz (ed). The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Including the Demotic Spells (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
- R.E. Witt. Isis in the Graeco-Roman World. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971).
- See the FiercelyBrightOne blog and references therein.
- Matvin W. Meyer. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).
- R.E. Witt. Isis in the Graeco-Roman World. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971).
- David Ulansey. The Transfiguration, Cosmic Symbolism, and the Transformation of Consciousness in the Gospel of Mark. Journal of Biblical Literature (110:1 [Spring 1991] pp. 123-5).
- Note also the synergy between Isis and Kronos and their planetary associations (Moon & Saturn) as symbols of the Alpha-Omega cycles of life. See Moon: The Hook of Consciousness.
- Jack Lindsay (trans.). Apuleius: The Golden Ass (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1962).
- Earle de Motte. Egyptian Religion and the Mysteries. (Xlibris Corporation, 2013 ).
- For both the Greeks and the Egyptians before them, dreams were prophetic messages from the spirit world. Consequently, the ability to “dial in” to a specific deity to shed light on life situations or important decisions would have had very advantageous and practical applications in day to day life. The variation and number of dream oracle spells in the PGM and PDM is a testament to their popularity throughout the Graeco-Egyptian world.
- While speculative, it seems appropriate to use the non-dominant hand since this is a rite to passively receive information. Furthermore, according to Apuleius, the black cloak was draped over the left shoulder of the goddess.
- Robert Lomas. The Secret Science of Masonic Initiation. (Weiser Books, 2010).
- Michael Harner. The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing (New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980).
- Richard J. Kohn. Lord of the Dance: The Mani Rimdu Festival in Tibet and Nepal. (SUNY Press, 2001) p. 152.
- Michael Harner. Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality (North Atlantic Books, 2o13).
- Passages from Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris are from Bill Thayer’s translation available here: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Isis_and_Osiris*/
- Plutarch. Morelia. 39. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Isis_and_Osiris*/B.html
- Byron E. Shaffer, etal. Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).
- Note since the Egyptian religion lunar calendar began with the New Moon. The seventeenth of the month corresponds to three days after the Full Moon and synchs the ritual to the waning period of the moon.
- See A-Ω: Greek Vowels and the Chaldean Planets.