Bob Dylan’s “Isis”: the meaning of the music and the song

By Tony Attwood

Isis. A song 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.

For 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 – but at the same time it holds together through the music which is based relentlessly over the same three chords, over and over again.  Indeed without that ceaselessly repeating musical base we would have nothing to hold on to at all.

For such an important song in the Dylan canon it is interesting that Dylan only performed it on stage 46 times between 1975 and 1976, again suggesting an association with Sara.  They were divorced in June 1977.

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  1. 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. 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. 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. Oh this is a common old story. 🙂

    Isis is his wife.
    Isis was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife as well as the patroness of nature and magic

    She has told him:
    ” How she told me that one day we would 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”

    That Means: No sex for a period. …

    The following story could be a dream , where his personality splits in two persons.
    He is angry. He rides to the Pyramids . ( the house of his wife)
    “We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice”

    There are two options: He can kill his wife or the very angry part of himself.
    I think the person WHO dies is the angry part of himself. . HE cools down.
    He rides home . Now he is more realistic about what happened before he left.

    “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. Then I rode back to find Isis just to tell her I love her

    A beautiful tale for young couples with children

  5. Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s independence day, in fact the date is not very significant to many Mexicans outside of the state of Puebla.

  6. oh my!! Dylan´s songs…here is my interpretation….5th day of may, I think, 5 is just a number to rhime but, first days of may it is the universal moment of mother, fertility, the force of creation… I do think It is about the neverending road of conciousness and improvement of his culture skills, debating between mytholgy and religions, beliefs and the endless search for the meaning of life . Of course the story about his wife could match in his biography but I can´t forget about the mythology and what it represents. Isis she is a force of nature, the inspiration, the irrational and the emotional aspect on every human (listening to the epic violin). She´s the patroness of sailors, the fishermen, the seekers. Also he continue with the extraordinay man in the corner and his word… I think it is about a mixing of ISIS and JESUS. In fact Osiris(ISIS´s brother and her husband) and Jesus have in common an empty grave. Writer´s licenses?? maybe…¿? Anyway, that man dies right by the protagonist and he used the same graveyard they was looking for to bury him ¿? All kind of religions??, anyway, he had to go on with his own way to get the inspiration again. Every man dreams on finding the wealth in exchange for money but the source of inspiration doesn´t have any price. Maybe Dylan could think in some moment of his life after his tremendous successes in his recent past that he was impulsive and “reckless”, like thinking that Isis approves it better the caution when you have something to lose. In the present of the song the east at his back and the sun dicline in his eyes it is quite elocuent image for maturity. He knows he is getting older. The pyramids in ice take me to post glaciar age after any kind of a great civilization. The pyramids seems to be right with ISIS and the looking for something really big that anyone could expect to find inside a big box. something that is not on the surface, it is hidden… but blind street again. Maybe all that inspiation is in front of his eyes and you don´t have to dig deep to find it, you just have to free yourself and let you go reckless again. Anyway He´s still young in that moment…I still don´t know, maybe tomorrow I´ll find another meaning, usually happens to me with Dylan…sorry about my english….

  7. You got me thinking a lot more than anyone else did…. Like you i’ll find another meaning tomoz..

  8. Desire has been an album I played relentlessly. This song is perhaps my fave Bob song ever. Every time I listen I think I’ve figured it out but no…

    Perhaps the man he rode off with was looking for a body which he could claim as the one that was not in the tomb so he could profit… that always resonated but I could be way off. And when the man died it was ironic and Bob had to just keep going. The story is bookended by his object of affection.. he married Isis…had this crazy adventure, and now returns. I don’t know… just thoughts.

  9. Thanks to all for sharing your thoughts. The beauty of Dylan is he gets us thinking and talking but there never seems to be a definitive answer and I love that. The writer who said the theme is obsession struck a chord with me. I took up guitar a few years ago so I could learn to play doe Dylan doings and I am obsessed with Isis. The chords are simple and repetitive, like Visions of Johanna and I play Isis over and over to try to memorize the lyrics and make sense of them. As Juan observed, the Isis quality of nature and truth-searching is embodied in this song and it touches me deeply. As Paul A says, thanks for the thought food.
    Best, Brian

  10. I don’t know if this is a common theory about this song, but I always had the vague notion that it was a metaphor about a man who experiments with homosexuality and finds it a hollow and empty experience.
    In this analysis Isis represents all women, whom he left behind to try this adventure. only to return sadder and wiser as they say.
    Little lyrical hints, “a man in the corner approached me for a ‘match’ I knew right away he was not ordinary (homosexual?) he said ‘are you looking for something easy to catch?’. I said ‘I have no money’ he said ‘it ain’t necessary'” that to me is a clear sexual proposal, after which comes the line, “I gave him my blanket”. As for the cold, the trying to break through the ice, frigidity has always been a metaphor for lack of sexual desire, they were trying but nothing was happening.
    There are other smaller clues but they are arguable and not really important to my point anyhow.
    “If i only could hang on and just be her friend, I still can’t remember the best things she said”. He had only looked at women as a source of pleasure, later to realize the true depth of the man/woman relationship. “what drives me to you is what drives me insane”.

  11. The 5th of may is the day Shria Mataji Nirmala Devi saw the Crown Chakra open in the Universe {virata}

  12. Also when one reaches the crown Chakra a spiritual rain is experienced driping around one self , Drizzling , 5th of may is the day of celebration in Sahaja Yoga ! Coincidence ?

  13. I think when he married Isis that was a hard line to haul, she is a Goddess, he knew what had to be done, leave for the wild country where he couldn’t go wrong and do a little soul searching. He found the part of himself that was the problem, the man that tricked him, after he died he buried him, that part of himself, in the tomb “said a quick prayer” then rode back to find isis just to tell her that he loves her. He could do that now.

  14. Like Ian Beardsley’s view! A lot of songs (and other texts) seem to make sense when one sees different actors as aspects within one person. So the adventure is kind of a purification / maturing process, where he recognizes part of himself and thus is enabled to let go of it, rather than identifying with it. Maybe Isis is also an aspect of his, a soul quality …

  15. The 5th of May is an important date for all the people of this world.

    On the 5th of May, in 1970, the path to Spiritual Enlightenment was opened up for Mankind – for
    en-masse enlightenment/self-realisation.

    Dylan, who was born spiritually awakened, must have had a significant experience on that day (not necessarily in 1970, but on any anniversary thereafter)

    He met Isis, who had opened the path to Enlightenment.
    The merging with the Divine is often compared by many spiritually enlightened poets to a marriage.

    Sadly, many are later distracted by the attractions of material wealth – which is why he crossed the line dividing “darkness and light”.
    A lot of time has passed since he left Isis, because the Pyramids are “embedded in ice”.
    This could either mean far into the future, or even the past – because Dylan may be writing about what occurred in the distant Past, when Her (Isis) world was covered in ice.
    I won’t lengthen my post further by explaining each stanza, but in the end, Dylan realises the tenuous nature of material wealth, and returns to Isis – to enjoy the ultimate goal of life – Nirvana, Samadhi.

  16. I always ignore the particulars and read the whole song as metaphor. A man loves a woman but he can’t commit to her. He’s seduced by the wider world and adventure and possible death. A wonderfully grandiose vision of what life might be and what you might miss if you settle down with a good woman. But he is ultimately drawn back to Isis and at the end has this marvelous conversation that could be every inarticulate guy throughout history…she said where you been, I said no place special, she said you gonna stay, I said if you want me to, yes!

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