Aretalogies in praise of the goddess, Isis

I am Isis, Queen of every land

The goddess Isis boasting of her powers.

In the Greco-Roman period, the goddess Isis was worshipped across the Mediterranean and beyond in Britain, Germany and Arabia. Her worship was an ancient one, dating back to the times of pharaoh. She and her husband, Osiris, became the most popular gods in the period just before the conquest of Egypt Alexander the Great.

Following the consolidation of power by Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemies, Isis became increasingly important. During this period, worship of the goddess borrowed some Greek traditions, whilst maintaining earlier traditions. This lead to a new form of worship, part-Greek and part-Egypt. It is not always easy to separate the two traditions.

One of the developments of this time was the identification of worshippers with all powerful gods. In  Isis worship, this new belief in the goddess was expressed through the form of aretalogies. These are liturgies or hymns. Aretalogies are praises, often in the first person. They may give some idea about the beliefs of the religion (as opposed to the mythology).

Seven aretalogies have been to Isis around the Aegean Sea. These were inscribed on stone and dedicated in temples. They have been found in varied states of repair. Of these seven, the aretalogies found inscribed at Kyme and Maroneia have survived the best. Those of Thessaloniki and Ios are very fragmentary. Their estimated dates range from late second century BCE to third century CE.

It is not clear if they are creations of the Greek age or if they are translations from Egyptian traditions. The German scholar Bergmann argued that the texts had an Egyptian origin linked to the royal ideology ; whilst Mueller has argued for a Greek identity.

Whether the seven Greek aretalogies share a common origin at all is itself hard to prove given the lack of extensive evidence; however, all the texts share remarkable similarities. There is, however, an aretalogy quoted by Diodorus Siculus from the temple in Memphis which bears an uncanny resemblance to the first lines of the Kyme aretalogy (I 27.4). Yet this might not be proof of an Egyptian origin. These aretalogies come from a relatively mobile and international world.

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Terracotta figureine of Isis holding sistrum (rattle), 50 BCE – 50 CE, Naukratis Egypt

Kyme aretalogy

The Kyme aretalogy is a first person list of the benefits and qualities of Isis.

I am Isis, the mistress of every land, and I was taught by Hermes and with Hermes I devised letters, both the sacred hieroglyphs and the demotic, that all things might not be written with the same letters.
I gave and ordained laws for men, which no one is able to change.
I am eldest daughter of Cronus.
I am wife and sister of King Osiris.
I am she who finds fruit for men.
I am mother of King Horus.
Kyme aretalogy

The hymn continues for nearly 60 lines until it ends:

I overcome Fate.
Fate hearkens to me.
Hail, O Egypt, that nourished me!
[ibid.]

In these two short excerpts several things are clear. Isis is a powerful goddess who is central to both worldly concerns and also more transcendent powers. In the last lines, Isis is clearly more powerful than the traditional Greek gods who were largely powerless against fate.

Isis is identified in her relations to male figures, but not defined by them. She is daughter, wife and sister, and mother; but she is also the first lawgiver and inventor of writing.

She is identified with Egypt and identifiably Egyptian things such as hieroglyphs. Yet is at the centre of two religious pantheons – Egyptian and Greek. Most tellingly she is connected with Osiris and not Serapis. Isis is linked to the dog star, but the other animal gods are not mentioned (except perhaps indirectly in the name of the city Bubastis). All this reveals a world interested in the exotica of pharaonic Egypt, but still choosing what elements to promote and which to ignore.

(Although the figure of Hermes in this aretalogy may allude more to the Egyptian scribe god Thoth than the Greek Hermes, who became identified with Hermes Trismegistus. The god Anubis is often identified with Hermes as well.)

The aretalogies present a goddess who is personally involved in the lives and concerns of her followers; their family dynamics, their finances, their love lives. Although powerful she is accessible.

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Isis and Serapis found in Cologne, Germany

The hymns of Isidorus

Another set of hymns to Isis have been found engraved on a column in the Narmouthis temple (modern day Medinet Madi in Egypt) dedicated to Isis-Thermothis. Inscribed by Isidorus, a man with a Greek name (Gift of Isis), the hymns identify Isis as the most powerful goddess immanent in other divinities.

All mortals who live on the boundless earth,
Thracians, Greeks and Barbarians,
Express Your fair Name, a Name greatly honoured among all, but
Each speaks in his own language, in his own land.
Hymns of Isidorus, I

This reveals a worldview, at once both monotheistic and polytheistic. Sometimes, this belief system is called henotheistic, which means the worship of one god but the recognition of many. Here the goddess is immensely universal and part of an internationally connected world.

In these hymns, Isis is again identified as discoverer of agriculture and a vegetative goddess, particularly associated with motherhood

All indeed who wish to beget offspring,
if they but pray to you, attain fruitfulness.
Persuading the gold-flowing Nile, you lead it in season
over the land of Egypt as a blessing for men.
Then all vegetation flourishes and you apportion to all
whom you favour, a life of unspeakable blessings.
Hymns of Isidorus, II

These hymns offer an insight into what Egyptians in the Greco-Roman period believed about the power of Isis and her particular interests.

In these hymns Isis is associated with the Nile. The Nile was a central symbol for Egyptian understanding of the cosmos. This symbolism continued with the use of “Nile water” and “Nilotic landscapes” across the Roman Empire. The Nile was a metaphor for Isis’ benefits. At Narmouthis, it is all that and also the river itself.

You are directing the world of men, looking down on the manifold
deeds of the wicked and gazing down on those of the just.
If You are also present here too, You witness mens’ individual virtue,
delighting in the sacrifices, libations, and offerings
of the men who dwell in the nome of Suchos, the Arsinoïtes,
men of mixed races who all, yearly, are present
on the twentieth of the month of Pachon and Thoth, bringing a tenth for You
Hymns of Isidorus, III

The goddess position here is more closely linked to other religions of a merciful judge who judges the inner conduct of people. This is, perhaps, linked to the belief in the judgement of souls by Osiris. It is important to note that external actions are still praised, such as the support of the temples. Yet this hymn does not offer any rewards for good behaviour.

The hymns at Narmouthis present Isis, as a goddess, who is both intensely local – her “temple mates” are two crocodile gods including Sobek – and universal across the entire world, known and unknown. She is a great observer, and she looks quite through the deeds of men; yet she is also particularly interested in the one small town in Egypt.

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Isis and Harpocrates