History Religion

Isis-Thermouthis: snake goddess

In Judeo-Christian culture the snake is perceived as evil. The snake, more subtil of any beast, seduced Eve into eating the fruit of that forbidden tree. Such a tradition leads some people to assume that snakes are universally evil. For example, not only did St George kill a snake but Indiana Jones also hated snakes. Even ignoring the fact that the role of the snake was perceived by some ancient Jewish and Christian groups as “complicated” rather than “pure evil”, it is worth noting that in ancient Mediterranean basin cultures generally the snake was a complex creature in terms of meanings. For the ancient Greeks the snake was associated with the dead, with prophecy and with domestic protection. Tame snakes would be kept in Greek houses to protect against rodents.

For the Egyptians the cobra signified fecundity, protection and blessing. The cobra goddess was Renenutet. Such associations may be due to the fact that cobras were more visible during the inundation period because their normal habitations would be flooded. They would also kill the rats, who become more common during these months, and who spread disease and eat seeds which had been sown. The cobra goddess’ protective power was probably a result of the fearsome killing power of the snake. Most intriguingly, from an early period Renenutet was associated with control over fortune.

During the late period, Isis became associated with Renenutet forming the composite goddess Isis-Thermouthis.

Egyptian religion would assimilate different gods within composite beings such as Atem-Re, Sobek-Re etc. This is different to the syncretization between cultures that Herodotus claimed in his Histories. A major problem with this reading of religion is that we have cases where both deities were worshipped. It is also unclear to what extent and in what ways ancient peoples would have understood this assimilation. At the same time it was a common expression in the literary evidence.

Isis-Thermouthis at the British Museum

Often found in terracotta, Isis-Thermouthis is portrayed as a half woman, half snake. She often wears the attributes of Isis: the cow horns and moon disk (taken from Hathor), the tyet (or Isis knot), the lit torch (taken from Demeter). The most notable thing about this goddess is her body shape. Different statuettes will show her in three broad groups of body shape which are woman from the waist up and snake below, a snake with a woman’s head and a complete snake bearing only the attributes of Isis.

Several examples have been found in terracotta in Egypt. These terracotta were inspired by Greek styles of art and religious adoration, yet in Egypt the terracottas often portray forms of deities only found in Egypt. This does not mean that only Egyptians worshipped these deities however. Four beautiful ancient Greek hymns were inscribed on the column rebuilt by Ptolemy IX Soter II  at the Renenutet Temple in the Fayum region in Egypt. The dedicator Isidorus praises Isis-Thermouthis as the goddess known under other names amongst different peoples. It is interesting that this assimilation is not just with a dominant culture but also between different cultures within the empire.

Whether he was only praising a “universal” or “Hellenistic” Isis can not be supported at this stage, but the temple was a vibrant popular cult to the Renenutet cobra during this period. It is likely that a living cobra was venerated there as a living god. Crocodile nurseries have also been found at the site.

The goddess is rare outside Egypt. Some examples have been found in Rome. It is noteworthy that both examples also reference the crocodile sobek. A stele identified by Edda Bresciani depicts Isis-Thermouthis nursing a baby crocodile. She suggests it has connections to Fayum, where both gods were common. Another example from Rome shows an altar depicting Sobek, Anubis and the goddess. Anubis is relatively common outside of Egypt and depictions to Sobek are not unknown, but again the connection between Isis-Thermouthis and Sobek suggest a link to the Fayum.

The goddess is not well known outside the material evidence. Tantalising references however, to a half snake / half female deity can be found within the gnosticism preached by Justin the Gnostic (as reported by Hippolytus). Roelof van den Broek identifies this figure with Isis-Thermouthis as would I. I have also tentatively identified the wooden statuette of Isis described in the Life of Severus by Zachariah of Mytilene as an example of the goddess.

The goddess is a fascinating example of the religious interconnections between groups in greco-roman Egypt and deserves more research. In the next few months, I will begin playing around with a digital project examining this aspect of the goddess and related terracotta.

Further Reading

Dunand, Françoise (1973) Le culte d’Isis dans le bassin oriental de la Méditerranée.
Leiden : Brill.

Dunand, Françoise (1990) Catalogue des terres cuites gréco-romaines d’Egypte. Paris : Ministère de la culture, de la communication et des grands travaux.

Frankfurter, David (1998), Religion in Roman Egypt : assimilation and resistance. Princeton, : Princeton University Press.

Riggs, Christina (ed.) (2012) The Oxford handbook of Roman Egypt. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Weber, W., 1914. Die ägyptisch-griechischen Terrakotten. Berlin: Mitteilungen aus den ägyptischen Sammlungen der K. Museen.


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