Mind your language

The bloody battle for the name Isis

It’s not just Islamists and Pagans who are disputing the title

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

‘This’ll make you laugh,’ said my husband, looking up from the Daily Telegraph. For once he was right. It was a letter from the Pagan Federation complaining that the acronym Isis ‘is likely to form an inadvertent association in the minds of hearers between Sunni jihadists and followers of the goddess Isis’. These ‘may be caught up in unintended fallout’.

They are not the only ones. Apart from the army of bloodthirsty Islamists, Isis is a centre for scientific research at Harwell, near Oxford; a group of schools teaching English; an ‘end to end’ professional photographic service in Clerkenwell; a private equity investor; and a seven-seater from Toyota. With no connection whatsoever with the jihadists, any of these outfits might easily be subject to accidental drone strikes.


Even if they were not, they are in the same fix as the worshippers of the (I had thought discredited) Egyptian goddess. When acronyms collide the most prominent often drives others to extinction. The popular slimmers’ biscuits called Aids rapidly disappeared after the rise of the acronym for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

How did the violent men with the black flags acquire the name Isis? After all, they are also called Isil, especially in America, where the State Department chose that name. In Britain, newspapers and especially the BBC have cemented the Isis option. Isis stand for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. The alternative acronym uses Levant for al-Sham.

Levant seems not to fit the ideological origins of the movement. A greater Syria was called al-Sham when the territory was conquered for the Umayyad Caliphate in the seventh century. Before that it was the Eastern Diocese of the Roman Empire. Al-Sham means ‘left hand’, as it is if you face east in the Hejaz region of Arabia. Yemen is ‘right-hand’, though others make it Arabia Felix. Al-Sham in the minds of the militants definitely includes Israel.

Isis works well in English as it is a pre-existing word, not only the name of the goddess but also of the river at Oxford, in truth an apocopated Tamesis. Perhaps other terrorists will grab a name with initials spelling out Granta.

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  • Just call them DASH

  • David Gurtler

    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.

    I came to a high place of darkness and light
    The 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.

    A man in the corner approached me for a match
    I knew right away he was not ordinary
    He said “Are you looking for something easy to catch ?”
    I said “I got no money”. He said “That ain’t necessary”.

    We set out that night for the cold in the North
    I gave him my blanket he gave me his word
    I said “Where are we going ?” He said “We’d be back by the fourth”
    I said “That’s the best new that I’ve ever heard”.

    I was thinking about turquoise I was thinking about gold
    I was thinking about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace
    As we rode through the canyons through the devilish cold
    I was thinking about Isis how she thought I was so reckless.

    How she told me that one day we 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.

    We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice
    He said “There’s a body I’m trying to find
    If I carry it out it’ll bring a good prize”
    It was then that I knew what he had on his mind.

    The wind it was howling and the snow was outrageous
    We chopped through the night and we chopped through the dawn
    When he died I was hoping that it wasn’t contagious
    But I made up my mind that I had to go on.
    I broke into the tomb but the casket was empty
    There was no jewels no nothing I felt I’d been had
    When I saw that my partner was just being friendly
    When I took up his offer I must-a been mad.

    I picked up his body and I dragged him inside
    Threw him down in the hole and I put back the cover
    I said a quick prayer and I felt satisfied
    Then I rode back to find Isis just to tell her I love her.

    She was there in the meadow where the creek used to rise
    Blinded by sleep and in need of a bed
    I came in from the East with the sun in my eyes
    I cursed her one time then I rode on ahead.

    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 “If you want me to, Yeah “.

    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 drizzling rain.

  • David Gurtler

    They have changed their name to “IS” even more potential for confusion – Inbred Strain, Intelligence Service, Internal Security, Income Support – all probably applicable!

  • rtj1211

    What about poor old Oxford, eh??

    River Isis, ISIS Innovations (dear god, are they commercialising Al Qa’ida propaganda strategies, the spin-out about to be listed on a dodgy Islamic Stock Market in Karachi? How about mind control techniques to make the Islamic hordes docile and submissive and obedient to their Imam’s hectoring??!!), all kinds of ISIS stuff to be found there.

    You’ll be telling me next that Al Qa’Ida have infiltrated the Rhodes Scholarship programme, setting up links with the CIA on how to channel funds of illicit drug smuggling into the new Kurdistan caliphate….

    No doubt the Crimean Autonomy Militia will be springing up in Fenland soon??

  • Scot Fourowls

    The Goddess Isis: not discredited but pushed aside by the Roman Empire’s violent usurpation and transference of her devotees to the Blessed Mother of God (Mary) and by Islam’s competition with the male-dominant war-god monotheism of Judaism which has morphed into countless versions of secular and modern Jewishness (along with fundamentalist forms) and innumerable versions of Christianity. Many who appreciate the strong female principle call the Goddess Isis the Goddess of a Thousand Names. She and her stories prefigure the biblical mythic christology added later after Jesus came, taught and died on earth. You have no idea how many people, male and female, still honor the Goddess principle, but quietly, practicing alone usually, because the Goddess has been violently suppressed by men — witch burning, for example, and the recent Game of Thrones punitive burning-to-death scene (of a female of course) only reinforces ancient violence against women and the need of all to have an active Goddess — arch-image, archetype, symbol, energy, higher force, call Her what you will — for balance and to right the insanity of patriarchal normality. Set free from the bible and churchianity, it is congruent to follow Jesus and love the Blessed Mother, too (or call her the Goddess Isis, not the would-be caliphate). One might argue that the history of the Abrahamic religions is mainly about men controlling female bodies and lives as male property — but I’d leave it to women to make that point. The knee-jerk atheists, mainly dudes, don’t as a group exactly model respect and fair treatment of women from what I’ve read online about their male celebrity leaders. There is a middle ground between theism and atheism, and Goddess Isis might be a good place to start.

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