By Matthew Sideman
A flickering candle on an altar was the main source of light in a meeting room at the Lincolnwood Radisson, the site of the sixth annual Fellowship of Isis convention. A woman facing the altar and clad in purple robes said she was going to lead the several dozen people seated behind her on a journey into their minds.
Some of the people at the gathering were dressed in multicolored robes and King Tut headdresses, some seemed to have walked straight out of a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, and some were dressed in simple black. The woman in purple, Lady Olivia Robertson, one of the founders of the fellowship, told them the ritual meditation she was about to lead would take them beyond all the negative feelings holding them back, through the waste that life saddles everyone with, and into the ether, where they would meet the gods.
Suddenly she turned around and gently but firmly admonished a man not to take pictures. Then she turned back to the altar and began the meditation.
With approximately 16,000 members, the Fellowship of Isis is the largest pagan association in the world. "The fellowship was founded to provide an alternative to mainstream religion, which has a terrible past," says Robertson, who calls herself a priestess of the goddess Isis. "Our group is there to help those for whom the veil has dimmed. It is for those who have gotten through the university of life with the god teaching them, and now they are into falling in love and writing poetry."
She explains that the fellowship is a "goddess religion or goddess spirituality," in which worshipers try to get in touch with their spiritual selves. "Goddess religion is based upon love, intuition, and spiritual development, to complement the god religion based on 'Thou shalt not,' 'Here are the Ten Commandments,' and dogma. Patriarchal religion is based on the law given by Moses or whomever. It is very carefully structured. Maybe that's the male brain."
Robertson says she knows the patriarchy looks at goddess religion "in the most maddening, stupid, and patronizing way. Just 'Ha-ha!' They made Halloween with all that witch stuff. Women, when they are older, are ugly and barren--all because their period stopped. Poor old women, treated like dirt. It is antiwomen, and it is very cruel.
"I think patriarchy is cruel because it feels threatened. I don't think it was cruel before. But now it feels threatened by the feminist movement--and ecology. I think in patriarchy they are against nature--you have to transcend it by the Holy Spirit and conquer your nature. Woman is nature of course. With regards to women, they seem to have a disgust of feminine birth. They seem to be so ashamed of coming out headfirst from our bodies. It is a very undignified thing to do--covered with slime and afterbirth. I have seen it. It's horrible. They make men look at it now. Yuck!"
Robertson grew up and still lives in a castle in Ireland. Clonegal Castle, in the village of Enniscorthy in County Wexford, was built in 1625, and like all the best castles it has ghosts. The most prominent spirit is apparently the cold floating hand of a little girl that's not seen but felt. Robertson has no idea whom the hand belonged to.
According to her, the castle is built on an ancient power center. If one holds up a pendulum there it will twirl around, she says, and the grounds radiate power and draw people and objects into the castle's orbit, including a meteorite that crashed there in 1900 and glowed for two years. Near the castle is a sacred well used by the Celts.
Robertson was born in 1917, during the Irish revolution. "We were Protestants in southern Ireland," she says. "We lost all our power." For one thing, her family lost the castle. "My mother received a note at her tennis club: 'Castle seized by rebels.' It was made a headquarters by the IRA. They locked the cook in the dungeon, court-martialed the butler, and put a cannon on the roof. They were so strict, the IRA--they shot a poor bloke for stealing apples. And the chief for them was our village butcher. I think this affected us a lot. I was in a world where the only thing that mattered was money. "
After the revolution the Robertsons got their castle back. "We then arrived in this extraordinary place where the poor had won. The kids from the council school had taken over--they were the government. The local Protestants called them murderers."
It wasn't until 1976 that Robertson, her brother Lawrence, and his wife, Pamela, founded the Fellowship of Isis. "I got converted first," says Robertson. "My things were mystical experiences--I got into another dimension, you could call it, where I saw beings of light. I got teachings and instructions. To my utter amazement I found there were females on this level.
"My brother did it totally differently, theologically. He came to the conclusion that God was woman, the divine feminine. And she grabbed him. My brother was a clergyman, so he went to the bishop and asked, should he resign? The bishop said, 'No way. We're glad you believe in God at all. Most people don't.' So my brother went on practicing as a clergyman." Robertson says Pamela was clairvoyant. "She could commune with plants, that kind of thing. The people who are omniscient, they believe in knowledge. Other people just like talking to a grasshopper."
The three deliberately created the fellowship without a set liturgy or dogma, though there is one inviolable rule: no sacrifices are allowed. They did establish rituals, with elements gathered from a wide variety of sources. All the goddesses connected to Isis--and gods, for that matter--can be worshiped, though Robertson doesn't like that term. "The word 'worship' suggests a separation between you and the deity, prostration," she says. "You receive a call from the goddess, in some form, to help her work. This is love. You like the job she is doing."
The many chapters and subgroups of the fellowship all have their own deities. They also choose the focus of their extracurricular activities. Some offer courses in psychic development, some devote themselves to celebratory and seasonal rites, some perform mystery plays. One Chicago chapter, the Lyceum of the Goddess of the Crystal Moon, offers a degree in Wiccan practices. A sister organization of the fellowship, the Noble Order of Tara, works to protect the environment.
Robertson had been to Chicago before. She was invited to represent goddess religion at the plenary session of the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions. She recalls that only one other woman had been invited to speak and that all the people who did speak were being patriarchal. "I got up and gave the 'Blessing of the Goddess.' What was interesting was that an orthodox bishop walked out. The people on the platform sat stony faced, but I got an ovation. When I came out I thought I would have a nice chat with everyone, and suddenly this gentleman came up, seized me by the arm, and said, 'Keep moving. Keep moving.' I wondered, was he arresting me? He dragged me and told me to keep moving. I thought, 'What a funny little place I am in.' I wanted to talk to people. He got between me and a moving stair. I said, 'Is it because I'm Irish? I can handle that.'"
He told her no, and they rode the escalator to the top, where a priest and other men surrounded her and escorted her to her hotel room. It was only later that the priest told her that there'd been a threat against her life. "I said, 'Really? Muslim?' 'No,' he replied. 'Christian.'"
Robertson says that the number of fellowship members is growing rapidly, largely because of its Web site (www.fellowshipofisis.com). Chapters have been springing up all across the United States. She thinks people are becoming more open to her brand of spirituality. "People are getting more in touch with their psychic abilities," she says. "The world of paganism is melding. I love Star Trek, with its world of feminism, goddess religion, Christianity, and the environment. The mainstream people are beginning to come in."
And she doesn't think it's a coincidence that this is happening at the beginning of the new millennium. "I think there is an enormous shift going on in consciousness. I think it is affecting the weather. I think we are destroying the planet. We are going to have frightful earthquakes and every other sort of millennial disaster--but with that will come a wonderful enhanced consciousness for people who like the spirit world. I think the people who don't are going to get left behind. They are going to be scared. Their children will go peculiar--start seeing things or go romantic. And people won't be as interested in something like money."
She's taken particular note of what's changing in Chicago. "You are returning to your North American roots. There were people here before, the North American Indians, and you're the latecomers. You are aware of them, but you have just as much right to be here. You have very great gifts that you're bringing to this place from all over the world. So I think you should be proud to be in Chicago--walk tall and be proud. You are potential goddess and god."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Clasby.