Books History Religion Reviews

Isis in a global empire

Mistress of every land

The Battle of Marathon has taken on an iconic importance in the 2,500 odd years since Greek and Persian forces faced off against each other between marsh and mountain. 

JS Mill, a Victorian Great Sage™, claimed that “even as an event in English history, [it was] more important than the battle of Hastings”. Marathon has been read as the place where Greekness was defined, and by extension for some freedom against tyranny, Democracy, “The West”. Even if we quite rightly question these concepts today, the battle’s symbolism still endures.

It is curious then that in antiquity, at the heart of this small town, was to be found an ancient Egyptian pyramid. 

The pyramid was found in a richly furnished Isis Temple in the city. The Temple would have visually resembled ancient Egyptian temples, like those in Philae, with two pylons and a cavetto cornice. The complex also contained Egyptian-style sphinges and statues of the Egyptian gods. 

The objects and statues were all made in Greece, with the specific aim of creating a miniature Egypt, a trend repeated across much of the Roman world.

The complex in Marathon was likely built by Herodes Atticus, a very rich and highly educated Athenian, who also donated many buildings in Greece during the second century. An associate of Emperors, a scholar of Greek philosophy and a patron of the arts, he might be considered a strange person to have built a small Egypt in this most Greek of places. 

What is happening then?

Sanctuary of the Egyptian gods in Marathon (annysuomo via Wikimedia CC BY SA 3.0)

This – and related questions – is what Lindsey Mazurek sets out to investigate in an important new study examining the goddess Isis in Greece. Mazurek argues that wordshippers of Isis constructed a ‘variant form of Greekness’ in response to the growing size of the Roman Empire.

Isiac groupness can be seen also as a product of imperialism. As empires developed and grew to encompass the entire Mediterranean in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, identities often fractured in response, producing smaller, better defined groups, and the Isiac cults benefited from the effect of this pressure. By establishing mechanisms of differentiation, such as initiations, cultic regulations, and secret knowledge, these communities attempted to construct themselves and create boundaries that would be reified over time.

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The Isiac cults were one of the most important religious trends in the Roman period. Evidence for the cults have been found in every province, from the frontiers to the very hearts of the empire. Aretalogies (hymns of praise) have been found in the Greek speaking provinces, describing the goddess as an all powerful figure. In these, Isis claims for herself the identities and powers of other Greek divinities. 

She is a global goddess: “I am Isis, the mistress of every land”.Visually Isis is represented in a ‘Greek style’ topped with Egyptian symbols and attributes such as the sistrum or situlla. She often wears the Isis knot over her clothes. This image of the goddess is used to represent the province of Egypt, alongside other provincial personifications, on a mosaic in North Africa.

I am Isis, the mistress of every land

Even in Egypt, she was represented as a universal goddess. One of her followers, known as Isidorus (gift of Isis), wrote a poem describing how all countries know Isis, even if they call her by other names. A long hymn surviving on papyrus lists the local names by which the goddess is known: “at Leontopolis serpent, good; at Tanis of gracious form, Hera … at Menouthis truth [etc.]”.

For Mazurek, Isis’ universality does not merely transcend the different goddesses or qualities, but her transcendence is represented through particular aspects.

Isis is universal, but that universality is mediated through Greek culture and materials; Isis is Egyptian, but her Egypitanness is represented through Greek Style.

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An intriguing aspect of the goddess is that she never ceased to be considered Egyptian, even as she assumes more powers and roles from other cultures and becomes a central deity in many regions. For example, during the Roman period Isis was associated with seafaring to such an extent that her festival was the festival which opened the sailing season. Yet this was never really an aspect of the Egyptian pantheon at an early stage of its history. 

Mazurek uses the concept of deterritorialization, an idea first developed by Guattari and Deleuze. Mazurek argues that Egypt was no longer ‘epitomized by its natural landscape’. 

On the one hand, Isis becomes established within a more cosmopolitan Empire. On the other, images of Egyptian landscapes become common in houses and gardens. Several so-called Nilotic (Nile) landscapes have been discovered, including many in Pompeii.

For Mazurek this deterritorialization of Egypt, within Greece, glosses over the colonial violence of the Roman Imperial order across the empire. Returning back to the Marathon Temple created by Herodes Atticus in his villa, she argues:

By deterritorializing Egypt and setting it within his Greek villa, his sanctuary glosses over the violence inherent in Imperial control, and instead follows the Imperial normal of presenting a diverse empire in harmony, a most convenient fiction. The aesthetic’s main purpose, then, was to grant its viewers a sense of control over distant places.

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As Mazurek convincingly shows, Roman rule in Greece was brutal. We only need to think about the sack of Corinth in 146 BCE which saw the once splendid city reduced to rubble and its people killed or sold into slavery.

Mazurek can perhaps read too much into the evidence to present this argument. For example, she argues that a passage from Apulieus describing the goddess as ‘Queen of Heaven’ “refers to the globalizing tendencies of Roman imperialism”. Mazurek draws parallels with depictions of Caelus, the personification of the sky, to refer to Rome’s global imperium. This could more easily refer to the heavenly aspects of the goddess, as when Apuelius describes Anubis as “that awesome messenger between the gods above and those below the earth” (Book XI, 11). 

Overall there is something very persuasive in this global reading of the literary and artistic evidence about the Isiac cults.

She hones in on a description of a statue of Serapis in Alexandria. The Christian author Clement of Alexandria claimed it was made of a ground up mixture of gold, silver, bronze, iron, lead, sapphire, hematite, emerald and topaz. For Mazurek this represents the diverse regions of the Roman world. Although we might question the historical truth of Clement’s account, this story highlights the splendor of the pagan idol. For all its richness, it is ultimately a lifeless object. In my reading, this contrast is what Clement is driving at. Yet the empire expanded the reach of Roman markets and enabled the collection of luxuries. The statue’s worldliness is made explicit in its very nature.

Statue from Marathon (George E. Koronaios via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

If we read the goddess’ global tendencies as a top-level response to the Roman empire, we perhaps miss the agency of her more quotient followers. This is unavoidable due to the available evidence available which tends to come from an elite background. However, focusing on the ‘self-fashioning’ of individuals on funerary monuments reveals how members of the provincial elite, with links to the Isiac cults, presented themselves and their relatives to the wider world.

Several grave reliefs have survived from ancient Athens depicting women wearing the costume of the goddess. They hold her attributes, the sistrum rattle and the situla, a water vessel shaped like a breast, and bear the Isiac knot on the front of their robes.

Mazurek argues that being depicted in such a way allowed the women to signal their membership in the “closed part of the cult” as initiates. To be effective as such the costume must be widely understood as linked to Isis and other Isis cults. It perhaps does this in two ways. First through divine symbolism (the attributes of the goddess as depicted on statues) and second through the commonality of the costume: white linen tunics with knots, styles of hair including shaved heads for men, similar in some ways to contemporary forms of religious dress.

In a study of the Isiac cults in Pompeii, Caitlín Barrett outlined four ways that people could engage with the cults: 

  • initiation, 
  • participation with the cult in temples or houses, 
  • belief in the existence of Egyptian deities and 
  • holding positive opinions about Egyptian cults. 

This model raises as many questions as it answers. 

We might ask if belief preludes positive feelings. One thinks of James 2:19: “thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble”. At the same time, where would you put Augustus, surely a key player in Roman Imperium and rule in Egypt? He never specifically cast doubt on the Egyptian gods, but he didn’t have a particularly positive opinion on them. He refused to venerate the Apis bull when he was in Egypt. 

Ultimately, Barrett’s model works broadly to denote increasing engagement with the cult from fellow traveler to card carrying member. 

Indeed we see something similar in the Isis festival described in the final book of the Golden Ass by Apuleius, as members of the parade increase in piety from general members of the crowd to people in white to the people carrying the images of the gods.

Many readings of this passage highlight the participants difference, whether during the procession itself or more generally.

Crucially, for Mazruek, publically advertising their status as initiates on graves was a way for the Athenian women, to show their membership of a separate group and also to define their Greekness in new ways.  

She argues that:

By placing the god’s or goddess’s dress upon their bodies, devotees extended themselves into a communion not only with the god but also into a new community with those who had engaged with the divine in the same transcendent way.

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Certainly initiates would include the key members of the group surrounding the temple. It would have cost money. If Apuleius is to be believed, a large amount, and may have involved multiple stages. It was a more accessible elite.

By publicly associating with Egypt, the initiates of the cult in Greece could articulate their positions in an important Roman province.

Book cover

Isis in a Global Empire sets out to answer the difficult question on why the goddess Isis was popular for so many centuries until it lost ground to Christianity. Her Egyptianess was such a central part of her identity, that we must assume it was also part of her appeal. This book offers a profound analysis of the Isiac cults and a powerful new way to read ‘global’ cultures within classical antiquity.

An important book for anyone interested in ancient history.

Featured image: Statue of the goddess Isis from Marathon (Tomisti via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)