To note from the start, I have always been drawn to this particular song ("A song about marriage," Dylan says before performing it at The Rolling Thunder Revue - "This is a song about marriage - ". I connect fully because of the notion of reuniting (which is the legend of Osiris and Isis) with one who is in some way kindred and part of us is really what marriage is all about in Kabbalistic terms and ideally, what marriage is about. The other half.
This is in no way to condone any incestuous relationship, for in the myth, Isis and Osiris were twin brother and sister - if we take it literally. Perhaps they were - either way, they seem fated to have been together. Or perhaps Isis was "sister" the way the lover is in The Song of Songs (my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled). They are related by a supreme deity, not necessarily of the same parentage, yet if they were, this was not so rare and this is the stuff of myth. Remember this always, for it's important. The mythical, the theoretical and the actual cannot be intertwined even if at times seem to be at times in our lives.
Whatever the matter, it seems almost irrelevant (in most ways) to impose any sort of contemporary judgment on the legend of Isis and Osiris (just as it would on any of the Greco-Roman myths). The long and short: they fall in love, they marry, and so it was until their very jealous and angry brother Seth murdered Osiris leaving his sister Isis in a state of extreme grief in which she wandered the banks of the Nile only to find Osiris's body (which she did, near Byblos) and where amazing things happened ; to start, a great perfume arose from her hair as handmaidens from the queen's court were brushing it and where, also, Isis, so grief-stricken, cried so much that the Nile rose and the legend is that it is for this, from this, from Isis's tears that the rising of the Nile (and subsequently every year since) the people of Egypt have water for their crops and thus Isis sustains. She is the goddess whose grief brought the good harvest with the rising of the Nile. Her tears nourished the land. Something good came of something so awful, at least this then.
But Seth soon found her there, stole back the box/coffin containing his brother's remains, Isis's husband, and cut him into fourteen pieces and Isis spent days (or months) wandering throughout Egypt until she found all of the parts of her lover and pieced him back together again with bandage, cloth, and oils.
Isis was extraordinary in every way, and the legend of Osiris and Isis is no less extraordinary. After she pieced Osiris back together he became King of the Underworld (to ensure the dead safe passage on their journey) and their son, Horus, (Ra) became the sun god. Isis quickly became one of the most important women that Egypt had ever seen - and it was in part through her very grief and strength that this occurred. It is said that she ruled over Egypt and brought fertility to the land and her dead husband became ruler of the underworld and in time, so did her son, Ra. It's not the last time Dylan will reference Horus. He does again on his album Together Through Life in "I Feel A Change Comin' On".
Dylan's Isis is a "mystical child." and he is drawn both to and from her; "What drives me to you is what drives me insane," he tells her, he tells us, yet clearly the pull between narrator and love object is a stronger attraction that either can (or wants) to fight.
They marry on the Fifth day of May, and, as Oliver Trager points out this is also Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday and true enough, pyramids feature in Mexican history and lore as well, which is an interesting observation - and when you add the mention, "I was thinking' about turquoise…" (among other precious things), this does make me think of Mexico. Still, overall I think Dylan is relating to the Egyptian Isis / Osiris story even if in a very loose way to tell a story all his own - his own myth.
You get the sense that after the marriage on that fifth day of May, he felt he could do no right. There is some obvious tension there so it is that he sets off for the "Wild unknown country where I could not go wrong" and on some sort of quest (which seems actually, that it may be in part for Isis or conversely, a rebellion against Isis). We do know that on the journey he thinks and notes, "We rode through the canyons through the devilish cold/ I was thinkin' about Isis / How she thought I was so reckless."
That is a clue right there into their marriage. Why he could not "hold onto her for very long" we don't really know but before he rides off for the "wild unknown country" he cuts off his hair which signifies sacrifice of some kind (in most schools of thought, the cutting of the hair is a ceremonial sacrifice - witness Fraser in "The Golden Bough").
It may be the shedding of an old skin - for what is hair but years and years of memories stored within it: events, lifetimes, good and the bad. To chop it off is to say "Goodbye to all that…." It is then some way to start again - to light out as he does after chopping off his hair, uncertain of his journey but knowing it is one he must take. Either way, it is almost a purification ritual - a sacrifice (Pyramids often symbolize sacrifice, particularly in Mexican lore, but the world over) and again, that he cuts off his hair before setting out is just one form of sacrifice.
Dylan's pyramids are, curiously, embedded in ice, which brings to mind the image of a perfect shining diamond. Yes, the pyramids encased in ice are inaccessible (sealed) but the glint of them beneath the night sky would be that of a star or a diamond. This is a bleak Egypt (if it is infect Egypt and I would say yes but who knows: it could be a place of Dylan's own making - a place in his head that is a "nowhere" a no-man's land): it is cold, icy, barren, windy, and "the snow was outrageous." This bleak landscape would surely make the fields turn brown, as did the disappearance (and death) of the legendary Osiris.
There is a star associated with Isis / Osiris and that is Sirius, the brightest of all fixed stars in the universe (that we know of currently). It appears just as the summer solstice begins and when the Nile begins to rise. The rising of the Nile, it must be noted, is to this day associated with the Isis / Osiris legend. The Nile rises (and rose) it was believed as a result of Isis's tears as she sat by the banks of the river mourning her lost lover, as noted. As a result, the fields that had turned brown were nourished by the river as it overflowed and re-greened the land and the people were fed: Isis and Osiris became associated with corn gods for it was through them that the people of Egypt were nourished. Babylonians associated the star Venus (Astarte) with Isis.
Whatever it was that he set out for (our narrator), he doesn't really find it. He imagines jewels and gems and "the world's biggest necklace" but his companion rider is not on the up and up - he's a grave robber. In some ways you could argue that the grave robber is Seth (if it falls into the Egyptian legend) for Seth robbed Osiris's coffin and it was he who chopped Osiris up into bits. It is after they come to the Pyramids all embedded in ice that his companion rider says, 'There's a body I'm trying' to find / If I carry it out it'll bring a good price' / Twas then that I knew what he had on his mind." Conveniently, his companion dies and his only thought is to hope it wasn't contagious. He continues his journey and discovers there is nothing at all to be found: no jewels, no nothin'" He feels he's been "had" / When I saw that my partner was just bein' friendly / When I took up his offer I must have been mad."
Therein lies his recklessness: that he journeyed with this stranger in the first place with notions of diamonds and gold and the world's biggest necklace - small wonder that it occurs to him mid-journey that Isis thinks he is so reckless. It sounds as though no matter what his original intent, he has been reckless and Isis was, at the end of the day, right.
What drives him to her is what drives him insane - naturally then, he goes back to her after burying his partner and saying a quick prayer, "I rode back to find Isis just to tell her I love her." He finds her by the creek and tells us, "I cursed her one time then I rode on ahead" (toward her).
In Rolling Thunder when Isis asks the question "You gonna stay?" he says "If you want me to, yesssssss" and in that version of the song a strong voiced and almost defiant Dylan wails out the "Yessssss…." it is absolutely declarative and leaves no room for any confusion, misunderstanding, or wrong interpretation.
His answer is forthright and direct - Yes. If you want me to, then yes. I think that's the answer that most lovers want to hear - and it's this slight difference in wording that lends the Rolling Thunder Revue version of the song so much power because there is force behind Dylan's voice. Why Dylan performed it so decisively (perhaps because it was live and his circumstance at the time, who knows) but it is to my mind The Rolling Thunder Revue version that stands out as the ultimate declaration of love for one who as he said, What drives me to you is what drives me insane…
Ain't love grand.