The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature

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The image of veiled Nature has tempted the curiosity of humanity from deep into our ancestral memory until the present day, although the understanding of who and what Nature is has shifted dramatically over that time. Hadot posits two archetypal narratives to illustrate what he sees as the primary approaches humanity has taken in the quest to unveil Nature: the Promethean and the Orphic.

Orpheus thus penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness. The three main methods of the Promethean attitude, as Hadot delineates them, are that of experimentation, mechanics, and magic, all of which manipulate nature in some way for a specific end.

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The Veil of Isis — Pierre Hadot | Harvard University Press

In this perspective Nature is seen as hiding her secrets out of hostility for humanity, keeping her knowledge hidden due to a kind of spite. The Orphic approach is that of approaching nature through the contemplation of art, poetry, music, classical physics, and myth. In our current era of ecological destruction and crisis, understanding what is at stake and how we came to this precipice is key to moving in a new direction.

It goes back to an aphorism by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus in the late sixth or early fifth century BCE, which is traditionally translated as "Nature loves to hide. In the s, Athanasius Kircher 's Oedipus Aegyptiacus explicitly explained Isis's veil as an emblem of the secrets of nature.

The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature

The frontispiece to Gerhard Blasius 's book Anatome Animalum , engraved by Jan Luyken , was the first depiction of a many-breasted Isis-Artemis figure with her veil being removed. It shows a personification of science removing the veil, as an allegory for the way science uncovers nature's secrets.


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  • This metaphor was reused in the frontispieces of many of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek 's works, and then in illustrations to other scientific works throughout the 18th century. In some cases the veiled figure is a statue, reminiscent of the original statue of Artemis at Ephesus, while in others it is a living woman. The motif was sometimes elaborated with other metaphors, so that, for example, in the frontispiece to The Philosophy of Nature by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Delisle de Sales , Nature unveils herself to a philosopher as he overthrows Despotism and Superstition.

    The unveiling of the Isis-figure thus expressed the hope, prevalent during the Age of Enlightenment , that philosophy and science would triumph over unreason to uncover nature's deepest truths. This motif continued beyond the Enlightenment into the 19th century.

    The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature

    An example is Louis-Ernest Barrias 's sculpture Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science , in which the multiple breasts are omitted and the Isis-figure wears a scarab on her gown that hints at her Egyptian background. Another interpretation of Isis's veil emerged in the late 18th century, in keeping with the Romantic movement that was developing at the time, in which nature constitutes an awe-inspiring mystery rather than prosaic knowledge.

    This interpretation was influenced by the ancient mystery initiations dedicated to Isis that were performed in the Greco-Roman world. To do so, he interpreted the first statement on the statue at Sais, "I am all that has been and is and shall be," as a declaration of pantheism , in which nature and divinity are identical.

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    Reinhold claimed the public face of Egyptian religion was polytheistic , but the Egyptian mysteries were designed to reveal the deeper, pantheistic truth to elite initiates. He also said the statement " I am that I am ", spoken by the Jewish God in the Book of Exodus , meant the same as the Saite inscription and indicated that Judaism was a descendant of the ancient Egyptian belief system.

    Immanuel Kant connected the motif of Isis's veil with his concept of the sublime , saying, "Perhaps no one has said anything more sublime, or expressed a thought more sublimely, than in that inscription on the temple of Isis Mother Nature. The ecstatic nature of ancient mystery rites themselves contributed to the focus on emotions.

    He said it prepared the initiate to confront the awe-inspiring power of nature at the climax of the rite. Similarly, a frontispiece by Henry Fuseli , made for Erasmus Darwin 's poem The Temple of Nature in , explicitly shows the unveiling of a statue of Isis as the climax of the initiation.


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    • Helena Blavatsky 's book Isis Unveiled , one of the foundational texts for the esoteric belief system of Theosophy , used the metaphor of the veil as its title. Isis is not prominent in the book, but in it Blavatsky said that philosophers try to lift the veil of Isis, or nature, but see only her physical forms. She added, "The soul within escapes their view; and the Divine Mother has no answer for them," implying that Theosophy would reveal truths about nature that science and philosophy could not.

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      The "Parting of the Veil", "Piercing of the Veil", "Rending of the Veil" or "Lifting of the Veil" refers, in the Western mystery tradition and contemporary witchcraft , to opening the "veil" of matter, thus gaining entry to a state of spiritual awareness in which the mysteries of nature are revealed. In ceremonial magic , the Sign of the Rending of the Veil is a symbolic gesture performed by the magician with the intention of creating such an opening.

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      It is performed starting with the arms extended forwards and hands flat against each other either palm to palm or back to back , then spreading the hands apart with a rending motion until the arms point out to both sides and the body is in a T shape. After the working is complete, the magician will typically perform the corresponding Sign of the Closing of the Veil, which has the same movements in reverse. Media related to Nature with a veil at Wikimedia Commons.

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