Deciphering Bob Dylan's "Isis"

"Isis" is probably my all-time favorite song by Bob Dylan (though "Simple Twist of Fate" is in serious competition). I've listened to it hundreds of times. It's a 6+ minute song that has no chorus, just a winding tale of a man's journey and a woman named Isis. I find myself singing along frequently, and only recently have I started to really listen to the lyrics and attempt to decode them. Jen and I listened to it twice in a row last night and wondered about some things and tried to develop a sensical explanation for them all.

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.

The part that concerns me is that which takes him on a journey with this man he meets. ...So, he's this guy in love but can't be tied down and seeks some sort of adventure. He sets off and ends up in a random town where he meets a guy who tells him about a 'tomb' that is supposedly full of jewels and such and that, if he joins him, they could rob it together and reap the riches from it. So he agrees, and they set off in search of this tomb. Along the way, the weird guy dies. He continues on in search of these supposed jewels and when he finds the tomb, there was nothing inside. He realizes he'd made a big mistake by trusting the man, and then buries him there.

We theorized that this man knew that he was going to die and didn't have a friend to ensure him a proper burial, so he 'preys' upon him (the narrator/'Bob') in a non-threatening way and gets him to agree to coming along on the journey to rob the tomb, which obviously does not exist and is just the place where the man wanted to be buried. He eventually dies during their excursion, and when they get to the supposed tomb and there's nothing there, the realization sets in that this man just wanted to be buried there and he'd scammed 'Bob'. He then realizes what he's left behind and goes back for his lady, Isis. Of course, these are very literal takes on the lyrics..and thinking about the meaning is only part of the enjoyment I get from the song. It's just one of my favorites to listen to over and over.

Anyway, I turned to a lyrical-meaning website and found the following comments that somewhat support my ideology:

The guy is not going to kill Dylan. And Dylan didn't kill him. The guy was sick and had nobody to bury him, so he just wanted Dylan to help him. When Dylan realizes that, how sad loneliness can be, he goes back to his Goddess.

A man wanted to be buried in a tomb, had no one else to do it, so he turned to Bob...

& some other interesting takes,

In one of his concerts that I have Dylan says it is a song about marriage.

This is another Bob Dylan/Jacques Levy collaboration, as is every song on the album 'Desire'. Levy wrote the lyrics, the song is just a fun flight of fancy, a shot at Bob's desire to write a song with a narrative.

I also like how the grave-robber doesn't really answer Dylan's question. "Where are we going?" "We'll be back by the fourth." And the dialogue at towards the end. He gives some pretty bland answers to what Isis says, in spite of just getting back from this whole crazy adventure.

The song is a simple allegory - love is complicated and the character in the song leaves for a 'wild unknown country' where 'he can not go wrong', where the town is full of 'darkness and light' - simple dividing lines. He goes off on a search for treasure which he dreams of, but when he gets there there's nothing - 'no jewels - no nothing - I felt I'd been had.' He literally buries the guide who led him there adn returns to Isis 'just to tell her I loved her' - the real treasure in the story. Of course in the Egyptian myth, Isis is the one who puts Osiris back together again after he has been chopped into little pieces by Seth. I think the analogy of this 'putting him back together' is blindingly obvious.

I kind of feel like the song is all about the recklessness of youth and how commitment in marriage tends to mature us and make us a different person. "Cut off my hair and rode straight away" is almost cutting his ties to his relationship and responsibilities. He seems to be thinking about all the riches but at the same time about his responsibilities with Isis. The part that throws me off is after "I knew then what he had on his mind". Kind of like a change kindness to this deceit. Me and my Dad originally believed that he was taken off by this grave robber who was trying to cash in on Bob's body or his riches. However, Bob uses some really confusing lines that almost contradict each other. "we chopped through the night" and "when he died I was hoping it wasn't contagious". We don't really know if they were chopping at each other, like a fight, or if the physical labor of chopping into the grave was what caused the other man to die.

This song, I think, is a celebration of some of the great world cultures:
  • Egypt: Isis is an Egyptian Goddess
  • Mexico: The Fifth Day Of May = Cinco De Mayo.
  • Judaism-Jewish Tradition: He cuts his hair in grief. *See the book of Job in the Bible for an example.
  • America/The New World: The Wild Unknown Country where I could not go wrong
  • Iceland/North Pole/Alaska: A high (north) place of darkness and light... half the year is dark and half the year is light
Also references to directions: East, North, etc. It's like a celebratory adventure across the globe.


  1. Bob has a deep dark secret....and when the truth of his past comes out it will blow your theory right out of the water. I am looking at a manuscript that has the whole story. Now to find an agent to sell it so the movie can be made.

  2. I don't know what all this song is about, but one I am sure of is that one part of the song is about Mexico. Precisely, about the Aztecs and their world view and history. The feel is Mexican, the places and the cultural feel are Mexican and there are many references to Mexican history. The City that is divided between darkness and light is Mexico City in two ways> Mexico is a land of contradictions of light and darkness of a country divided between its pre conquest Aztec word and its present post Euro conquest(Darkness and light). But, more precisely, Dylan references the Pyramids, these Pyramids are located near Mexico City, thy are the center and seat of the Aztec Empire and one represent the Sun and the other the Moon, they are divided exactly in the middle by the "avenue of the death". That is the dividing lgith between darkness and light, the two godly and spiritual forces of the Aztec world view. Besides the music, there are many, many references to Mexico. 5th Day of May is a particular day of war and battle against French, Europe, Mexico victorious over the French. The biggest Necklace references Mayan/Aztec treasures/necklaces(Turquoise and Gold, the trade is specific to the Aztecs and used to honor the Aztec gods. The Mexicans labored over creating items of 100% gold (only one in the world) and Turquoise to honor their kinds and gods. That is where those two materials come together by artisans and jewelers). These things have been found in the tombs of the Aztec kings. Isis is a figure similar to Mayan godess. There are legends linking Isis and the Egyptians to the Aztecs on account of the similar world view and mythology and symbols (snakes, gold, jewels, Astronomy and Pyramids) The Pyramids are the ones near Mexico City where the Aztec God and Godess lived and where the Aztecs based their astronomical research. Those pyramids are magical with each aspect of its buildings pointing to astrological events even those not here today up till 2012. Mexico is the "wild and unknown country", the one that has inspired a myriad of expeditions and conquest past and present looking for the land of treasure. The north is the North of Mexico city where there is a Volcano that is covered in snow and the canyons are as cold as a winter day in the Midwest. The volcano near Mexico City is subject to a Mexican legend that depicts an Aztec warrior carrying the dead body of his beloved. The dead man could in fact be the Aztec king whose tomb was found and he was covered in jewels. So, whatever the song maybe be about, it is about Mexico and the pyramids are the Pyramids of the sun and moon and Isis refers to the Egyptian Goddess which had its very own counterpart in Aztec myth. Maybe Isis would be easier to recognize than the Mexican one since few people know about the Mexicans and their glorious culture.

  3. It's going to be ending of mine day, but before finish I am reading this fantastic paragraph to improve my knowledge.

    Here is my web site their web site
    My webpage - payday loans for bad credit

  4. Excellent beat ! I would like to apprentice while you amend your site,
    how could i subscribe for a blog web site? The account aided me a acceptable deal.
    I had been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright clear

    Here is my homepage :: a psychic reading
    my web page - free psychic readings

  5. Wanted to point out one little error in the original post:
    "...ends up in a random town where he meets a guy who tells him about a 'tomb' that is supposedly full of jewels and such..."

    Check the lyrics again; the guy never says a word about any riches or the actual mission, until he mentions a body once they're already at the pyramids. The narrator kind of just assumes there'll be jewels, etc.

    Also, I like the idea of the guy just wanting a proper burial, *although* if that's the case, why is the narrator surprised when the tomb is empty of a body or jewels? He already says before that that he "knew what he had on his mind." I really do think he's talking about the guy's plan to kill him.

    Anyway, this is my take on the middle part of the story:

    We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice
    He said "There's a body I'm trying to find [a murder I'm planning]."
    If I carry it out [carry out my plan] it'll bring a good price [all the riches for me instead of sharing them, OR maybe just a thrilling murder, because I'm insane]."
    It was then that I knew what he had on his mind [killing me].

    The wind it was howling and the snow was outrageous
    We chopped through the night and we chopped through the dawn
    When he died [when I killed him first] I was hoping that it wasn't contagious ["it" as in this "easy to catch" evil I had just done because he left me no choice]
    But I made up my mind that I had to go on [had to keep living myself].

    I broke into the tomb but the casket was empty [empty of reward or meaning]
    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 [exactly -- just as crazy as my contagious partner, who was obviously confused on a few levels].

    I picked up his body and I dragged him inside
    Threw him down in the hole and I put back the cover [covered up the murder I was ashamed of]
    I said a quick prayer and I felt satisfied [with my own atonement for killing, and satisfied that I'd seen enough adventure].
    Then I rode back to find Isis just to tell her I love her [because she's awesome, I miss her, and let us never speak of this whole icy pyramid nastiness again].

    Dave S.

  6. Today, I went to the beach front with my kids. I found a
    sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said "You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear." She
    placed the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is totally off topic but I had
    to tell someone!

    Here is my site ... saffron extract review

  7. Wow, that's what I was exploring for, what a data! present here at this webpage, thanks admin of this site.

    My web blog: backbrushing technique

  8. There's an Isis festival each fifth of May, to give thanks for the annual flooding of the Nile which sustained ancient Egypt. In disgust at the failure of his marriage to a being seemingly too perfect to have and to hold, a loved woman who ebbs and flows, like all women, who, lit with his love, is confounding and unknowable, like all women, he embarks on what is essentially a spirit quest - aimless but full of desperate hope. The narrator encounters the stranger in the place of purification on the right side of the dividing line, emerging from a shadowed corner, like any self-respecting wraith. The stranger approaches him for a match - fire - a symbol of the Twilight Zone hell the stranger exists in until he rights his soul by giving back the body that he stole in ancient times. The cursed soul assures the narrator that he'll be back by the fourth - of May, of course - in order that the narrator can marry Isis again on the fifth, as Isis also promised (things would be different the next time we wed), as indeed they were, as his goddess-wife observes in the meadow of their previous flooding passion (where the creek used to rise). Of course he came in from the east, and just in time, it being late afternoon on the fourth. We realize then that it was all scripted by the Fates down to the last hoofbeat, to be repeated every four seasons, like the flooding of the River, until finally we are perfect souls and no longer need to ride the joy or feel the grief of this place.

  9. One of my favorites of his as well!

    I think it's a rather simple tale gilded with Dylan's typically masterful allegorical tapestries. I always thought it was about a guy stuck in a boring marriage when a single buddy urges him to leave for her all the fun times they can have chasing women in bars. After engaging for a while in this shallow, sad pursuit he realizes his buddy was simply a lonely man looking for a friend, he returns to his wife.

    Thanks for the lyrics and the great take on the meaning, by the way. Deciphering the 'true' meaning of any work of art is a fool's errand (tell me, what does this painting mean to you?.... Art's private and true value lies in evoking emotions and getting us thinking. The public and fun value is making and defending an opinion. Thanks for that!

    Minor editing comment: I think it's 'price' not 'prize' and the final word might be 'yes' not 'yeah'. But again, what do I know?