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Immortal Priestess-Queen

previously published as a feature article in issue 13 of WitchCraft magazine
Somewhere at the centre of all the myths and propaganda in the fight for the Roman Empire, stands the luminous figure of Cleopatra VII, the last great Pharaoh of a 3,000 year-old lineage.

After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, it came under absolute control of his Macedonian general, (Ptolemy I) who then founded the Ptolemaic royal dynasty after Alexander’s death. With territories in the Middle East, Asia Minor, Phoenicia and Cyprus, Ptolemaic Egypt was one of the great powers of the Hellenistic world. Keeping the native Egyptians firmly suppressed, the succeeding Ptolemies preserved the wealth, status and traditional religion of Egypt, but were continually losing territory to the Romans.

At an elaborate coronation in 51 BC, Cleopatra VII became queen of Egypt at the age of 18. Her hostile 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, became her husband and co-ruler, following Ptolemaic tradition. Cleopatra came from a long line of political schemers, hedonists and murderers. They had ruled the country as their personal possession for over 250 years.  Ptolemy I had commissioned Greek and Egyptian priests to synthesize the two religions and deities, and the resulting “Hellenized” Isis cult spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire.

Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, called himself the ‘Wisdom-Loving New Dionysus’, better known as ‘The Bastard’. Deposed temporarily by his eldest daughter – whom he promptly beheaded on his return – he was reinstated by the Roman general Pompey and a young Mark Antony. When Cleopatra and Ptolemy took over, the Egyptian empire was riddled with corruption, only retaining its independence by keeping the Romans well-bribed.

Brought up like any cultured Greek prince, Cleopatra was well educated in maths, science, philosophy and literature. She could ride, sing, fence and was fluent in nine languages, the first Ptolemy ever to speak Egyptian. Probably not beautiful by our clone-like modern standards, she was immensely charismatic. After her death, Octavian destroyed most of her images and those surviving give her a large nose and weak chin. Like England’s Elizabeth I much later, Cleopatra often manipulated her image to show characteristics of a particular person or goddess.


Cleopatra’s expulsion from Alexandria by her brother’s partisans in 48 BC coincided with Julius Caesar’s arrival in Egypt. Her successful ploy of being smuggled back into the palace in a rolled carpet led to civil war, with Caesar fighting on her side, the death of her despised brother-husband, and the birth of her son Caesarion (“little Caesar”) a year later.

Undisputed ruler of the Empire in all but name, brilliant politician, soldier and known womaniser – Caesar was 53 and Cleopatra was 22. As Cleopatra couldn’t have survived her childhood without a precocious intensity of character and intelligence, the age difference was essentially irrelevant. Their affair was very likely a mixture of genuine affection and mutual political expedience. Cleopatra regained her throne, had some of Egypt’s territories restored and gained the close alliance of the world’s most powerful man. Caesar gained the support of one of the world’s wealthiest women, along with control of Egypt’s rich resources.


In 47 BC, Caesar returned to Rome, receiving many honours and a ten-year dictatorship. Subsequently married to her youngest brother Ptolemy XIV, Cleopatra nevertheless joined Caesar in Rome. While Caesar never left his Roman wife nor recognised Caesarion as his son, he did not deny that the child was his; Cleopatra lived in a villa he owned and he erected a huge gold statue to her in the temple of Venus Genetrix.

Rome seethed with disapproving gossip over Cleopatra’s presence. Royalty was repugnant to the republican Romans, so a foreign queen, a woman with power, was an insult to their xenophobic, patriarchal values. She was quick-witted, a mathematician and a good businesswoman, but unfortunately her linguistic skills did not include Latin. Her luxuries and social manners affronted many. Cleopatra must have been a real shock to the senses, with her entourage, her opulent robes, her lavish and expert use of perfume essences and cosmetics.

Fully merged with her role as the living Isis/Hathor/Aphrodite, she called herself the New Goddess, because this was part of Ptolemaic Egyptian custom. In the divine kingship of a pharaoh, politics and religion are one and the same. Cleopatra’s role as High Priestess of Egypt is a remarkable example of the magickal-religious skill of “willed possession by a divine Archetype”, which has also been called “controlled insanity”. If you have ever seen this transformation happening to a Priest/ess in ritual, and witnessed the disorienting side-effects – then imagine living your life in this mode – and you will feel both admiration and compassion for Cleopatra!

When Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC, her protected idyll abruptly ended. Cleopatra returned to Egypt (conveniently losing Ptolemy XIV by poison en route!) and reigned with her son by Caesar, Caesarion Ptolemy (XV).


The empire plunged into civil war. Despite its traditional resistance to monarchy, Rome was now too vast to rule itself as a republic. Caesar had so much power that after his death the vacuum could only be filled by an individual, not an administration.

The main contenders were Mark Antony and Octavian. Antony, one of Caesar’s lieutenants, was well known as a brave fighter, but not good at tactics or politics. Blue-blooded and fiercely ambitious, he was extravagant and often broke. Octavian was Caesar’s great-nephew and official heir, and while unknown, and quite lily-livered as a soldier, he made allies fast, proving to be a clever, consummate politician. The outcome was a division of power between Octavian in the West, and Antony in the East.

Needing a power base in the East, and military victories to emulate Caesar, Antony aimed to conquer Parthia (Iran) – a very expensive project. Thus, in 41 BC, Antony summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Tarsus, Turkey.


Dressed as Isis/Aphrodite, Cleopatra arrived on a gilded barge, reclining under a gold-embroidered canopy and purple sails perfumed with lotus oil, fanned by slaves dressed as cupids and mermaids. This display was deliberately designed to show her divine power as a pharaoh and her wealth as a Ptolemy, and also to seduce a decadent man. Having known Antony for years, she knew exactly what he liked. Her agents had spread the rumour through the city that “Aphrodite had come in revelry to Dionysus, for the good of Asia”.

They quickly became lovers, and instead of invading Parthia, they spent the winter in luxurious Alexandria. In return for funding his campaign, Antony restored territories to Cleopatra and agreed to have her sister Arsinoe, a possible rival, executed. At this point it was just ruthless “sexual diplomacy” – some accounts relate that Cleopatra found Antony vacillating, shallow and coarse.

Antony spent time immersing himself in the Graeco-Egyptian Dionysian rites and winning over the Hellenistic people. Octavian’s propaganda proclaimed Antony an irresponsible ‘Graeculi,’ (a Roman insult meaning both “wog” and “poofter”!) playing to the strong conservative elements in Rome who preferred the traditional manly Roman ideals of gravitas and dignitas,  considering most Greek and Asiatic culture superstitious and extravagant.

In 40 BC, as part of a peace deal, Antony, promptly forgetting Cleopatra, married Octavian’s sister Octavia, staying with her for almost two years, but she produced no son, funds were still lacking and his necessary martial glory was still unachieved. Word reached him that wealthy Cleopatra had given birth to his twin children, a boy and a girl. Still fixed on conquering Parthia, the last independent Hellenistic kingdom - Antony once again allied with Cleopatra, with a shared dream of founding a new Hellenic order in the Eastern Empire provinces.

As a mutual political and religious gesture, Antony as the incarnate Dionysus celebrated the Sacred Marriage (Hieros Gamos) with Cleopatra as the living Isis/Aphrodite. This time, it was also a personal commitment to Cleopatra that was to taint him forever in Roman eyes.


In 36 BC Antony finally invaded Parthia, but it was a huge disaster, and Cleopatra played the cavalry, taking him back to Egypt. Antony planned to recuperate with her, and then return to Octavia, but Cleopatra passionately entreated him to stay, forcing him to choose between them.

There was more than jealousy involved, because she knew that any peace Antony made with Octavian would not include her. She also knew that Octavian’s ambition to found a ruling dynasty was a direct danger to her son Caesarion as Caesar’s heir. Fearing that Antony would abandon her for Rome as he had done in 40 BC, Cleopatra demanded Antony divorce Octavia in exchange for the funding of his armies and fleet. As he could do nothing without her, he agreed, and sent Octavia back to her brother. Now the net of Fate tightened, irrevocably binding Antony and Cleopatra to one another.

Cleopatra was the most popular Ptolemaic ruler at home, but Octavian misrepresented her in Rome as the incestuous, animal-worshipping, harlot-queen who had bewitched Antony. While Antony was made to seem ‘un-Roman’, Octavian made himself the very embodiment of everything Roman – dutiful, patriotic, steady, defending Rome against the depraved oriental horde. Despite the empire-wide popularity of the Isis cult, Octavian’s clever propaganda won Rome to his side. Where Octavian used words, Cleopatra used ritual, spectacular state tours that were living magickal talismans of Egyptian strength and wealth.


In 34 B.C., after successfully conquering Armenia, Antony celebrated with an extraordinary spectacle, the ‘Donations of Alexandria’, Cleopatra and himself presiding as the New Isis and the New Dionysus. With his status as mighty conqueror, handsome physique and lust for revelry, Antony fit the Dionysus profile brilliantly.

He had two golden thrones placed on a silver stage for himself and Cleopatra, and lesser thrones for the children. Cleopatra was awarded the title “Queen of Kings and of her sons who are Kings.” Cleopatra made no secret of her desire to be Empress of the world: “As surely as I shall yet dispense justice on the Roman Capital,” was her favourite oath. Antony proclaimed Cleopatra and Caesarion joint rulers of Egypt and Cyprus, overlords of other Eastern kings, then handed out more Eastern territories to their children.

Unfortunately, several were not yet conquered and, worse, some were Roman. Understandably, the Romans interpreted this piece of theatre as a direct challenge. All this, combined with Octavian’s public reading of Antony’s will (stolen from the Vestal Virgins) which named Cleopatra his beneficiary and formally recognized Caesarion as a Caesar, resulted in the Senate declaring war in 32 BC.


Protesting against Cleopatra’s involvement in the planning of the campaign, two of Antony’s best generals defected to Octavian. When the opposing armies met in 30 B.C at Actium on the western coast of Greece, Antony put his Egyptian fleet to use, but Agrippa, Octavian’s admiral, made short work of them. Antony and Cleopatra fled back to Egypt, sailing into Alexandria with their flags flying, as if from a victory. Fatalistically accepting their tenuous position, they indulged in one last round of feasting and desperate merriment.

Refusing to negotiate, Octavian ordered his legions to close in for the kill. After Antony’s last troops defected, precise details are unclear. According to romantic myth, on hearing Cleopatra was dead he stabbed himself, only to discover that she was still alive. He was taken to her and died in her arms. Before Cleopatra could join Antony in suicide, she was taken prisoner by Octavian.

Cheating Octavian of the satisfaction of parading her through Rome in chains, she managed to kill herself by the bite of an asp. In this her last stage-managed event, she died a dignified, regal death, in full Pharaonic regalia. Suicide by snakebite was her final act of power, the serpent being the sign of the Egyptian royal house, an emblem of Isis and a symbol of rebirth and eternal life.

Octavian allowed Cleopatra to be buried with Antony. Their tomb has never been found. She was 39; he was 52. Octavian had Caesarion strangled, then declared the end of Ptolemaic rule, and Egypt became another Roman province.

Cleopatra was the last pharaoh in a 3,000-year-old spiritual lineage. As High Priestess of Isis, Egypt’s patron goddess, she was identified with Egypt itself. So beloved was she in Egypt that her supporters bribed Roman officials not to destroy her statues. Cleopatra was enough of an initiate to know that as Priestess-Queen of the Gods, carrier of the life-force of the Land, one way or another she would be consumed by that power. In the service of Isis she was a brilliant, but fast-burning flame, living and dying as large as the Goddess she represented.

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