And so, Isis. So revered that the longest running Dylan magazine is named after the song.

But why – what is it in Isis that is so powerful, so overwhelmingly important in terms of the Dylan genre?

Certainly it is a hard song to pin down. Those funny people at Wikipedia have it as being in B flat in ¾ time – actually you only have to sit at a piano to find it is in B, and you only have to be a musician to know it is in 6/8. Try conducting it in ¾ – with half a minute your hand is ready to drop off. But the real clue is hitting you in the ears in every verse. Put it in 6/8 and the piano is hitting 3 equal notes for each half a bar – exactly as 6/8 requires.

So, a strophic song in 6/8 – unusual for Dylan. And the melody wanders – there is a basis but the song doesn’t quite stay where the melody is laid down.

Is it a song about his wife Sara? Well, maybe, perhaps, but it is a strain to make the story work. Again I would refer you to the Wiki article which simply takes a stream of events, without asking the rather relevant question – what the hell is going on in this SEQUENCE.

Sequence is the key issue here. Isis was the Egyptian god of nature. She befriended all those at the edge of society – slaves, workers, the poor. She gave them hope – but not of working harder for salvation. Simply hope.

The Egyptian link is clear because there is the line about coming to the pyramids (albeit covered in ice, with snow and the like circling about – somewhat unusual just down the road from Cairo.) But we get the full Egyptian bit with the breaking into the tomb, the casket being empty and all that.

And where are we now – nowhere but in a B movie about raiding the pyramids and stealing the treasure. All the usual stuff about getting stuck in the sandstorm – except it is an icestorm.

In the end it seems more like the science fiction stores of the 1950s in which Mars with its deserts is recast as the Wild West – the new frontier with bars and bandits and searches for treasures. And in the end I am more comfortable with that – another world. The Empress from the tarot features heavily on the sleeve – maybe that’s it – Isis, the Empress.

Isis is a mystery, and the story makes no real sense – it is just a set of irrational images struggling from one episode to another without that sequence that we so crave. And that’s why it works. It tempts you to think there is a meaningful sequence here, but as you try to grab it, it walks away.

That’s the beauty of the song – each time you grab its simple structure is just gets up and walks away.

This entry was posted in Desire, The Songs. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Isis

  1. Rob says:

    Well there’s a huge parallel between the quest upon which the narrator of ‘Isis’ embarks because of the “not ordinary” stranger who asked him for a match – seeking a dead body.
    In the Osiris, Isis & Horus mythology, Osiris is murdered; I’ve heard that 1) he was tricked and sealed into a coffin which floated away, became lodged in a tree on a riverbank and became part of the tree as it grew. The tree gets cut down and used as like a central pillar in a palace. (to be continued)
    I also heard 2) Osiris was cut into pieces and they were scattered about.

    Isis goes on a journey to find/reconstruct her husband Osiris. I believe in the dismemberment version she cannot find his generative organ, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue. Because they reunite and generate Horus!
    I’ve heard we’re now in the Age of Horus by the way.

  2. joey says:

    the whole album has a Spanish sounding theme throughout… pyramids covered in ice could refer to machupichu.. married ISIS on the 5th day of may(stranger said they’d be back by the 4th)…I know that south American pyramids and Mexico’s independence have nothing to do with each other, but as a songwriter you can take certain liberties in what you say , combining this with the 50’s sci-fi mars theme..created his own world to tell a story and convey a theme of obsession

  3. CJ says:

    While your synopsis of this song is interesting, it does not really go any way to answering your initial question. What is the power behind this song?

    I grew up, listening to Dylan and in particular, the album of which this song originates is probably the most endearing to me. I was far too young to even attempt an understanding of this piece, when it was first introduced on the car radio to my by my father, driving home from school each day. I was about 8 years of age. Regardless, the song was indeed so powerful, the lines became indelible in my mind from such a young age.

    If you are still reading, I believe it’s time to share with you my own interpretation of the very deep and hidden meaning contained within this song. I believe it is an interpretation that is widely overlooked. Indeed, I have not come across a similar one. I believe you are on to something, with respect to some of the themes contained within the lyric. Certainly, the song and it’s cyclical structure, both in terms of sound and overall story, is noteworthy. Without ruining your impending adventure, I will suggest that the song is in fact, both plainly and symbolically speaking with reference to secret societies. A mans shadowy and perhaps reluctant descent into a world which could otherwise, might not be revealed. I will reveal no more, other than pointing to some of the clues, such as times, dates and the direction of the sun…

  4. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: (Additional Information)
    Bob Dylan’s Music Box.
    Play every version of every song performed or written by Bob Dylan plus notable interpretations legally for free…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *