Isis and ancient Egyptian religion in the Greek and Roman world
One of the main competitors to early Christianity was the religion of the ancient Egyptian Goddess Isis. Did you know that she may be mentioned by St Paul in the New Testament? That the god Anubis was worshipped in ancient Britian? That the last pagan temple was one of hers? Or that a medieval French king may have been one of her last followers?
She was worshipped across the Greek and Roman world along with her family Serapis, Anubis and Harpocrates. She was a popular goddess beloved of Emperors, Kings, merchants, soldiers and the ordinary people. Items have been found in every region of the Roman empire. She was a magician, a healer, a love godess and an immensely powerful female icon. How did this happen?
The Goddess Isis before the Greeks
The goddess Isis was ancient, even in the Greek times. She was not however as ancient as the other gods of the Egyptian Parthenon.
Isis is first portrayed as a Queen. Her hieroglyphic contains a throne (as does Osiris’) and her first divine attribute was a throne resting on her head.
Isis was long associated as the sister and wife of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead; himself a complex figure in Egyptian theology.
In the New Kingdom Isis had taken over the iconographic attributes of Hathor. From this period on she is often portrayed with a headdress of the cow horns and moon disk. The most common iconography of the Late Period are images of Isis nursing the baby Horus. This is a relatively late development, as Isis only took over Hathor’s mythic position as mother of Horus in this period. This iconography suggest that Isis had a particular role for women and mothers, but the Isis-Lactans amulettes were probably symbolically powerful in a more universal way.
By the Ptolemaic period Isis had become the preeminent goddess of the Egyptian pantheon. The major Ptolemaic temple of Isis at Philae was an expansion of an early pharaonic temple of Hathor. The temple of Isis-Thermouthis at Medinet Madi was previously a temple to Rentuet.
What did Isis look like?
The most common portrayal of Isis in the Greco-Roman world was of a young woman.
Isis would carry certain attributes. On her head she would wear a crown of cow horns and moon disk. In the Greek images this could sometimes be small, like a petite tiara. Her hair was often portrayed as curly looks.
The clothes largely followed Greek style. Her dress was light, presumably made of cotton (according to Herodotus, Egyptian priests wore cotton and considered it purer than wool). In the centre however was tied a knot. Called the Tyet, this knot was a symbol of Isis and may have symbolised eternity or immortality, or even power over fate.
Isis often carried a sistrum, or rattle. This object was a traditional ritual object from Egypt. At certain times in rituals or processions adherents would shake it to make a noise.
Isis and Harpocrates
Another common image of Isis was of her nursing her child, Harpocrates. Called, Isis Lactans or Kourophoros, these depictions can be alluring images of motherhood. They have an ancient pedigree, but also developed again during the Greek period when terracottas of Isis Lactans were popular.
Isis was particularly associated with seafaring. The festival of Isis navingdum was worshipped outside Egypt. In Egypt, she was sometimes portrayed on a ship with a good wind in the sails or with the Pharos lighthouse in the background. This images show both her strong association with Alexandria and generally to sailors. Also called Isis Euploia.
Isis Fortuna (Agathe Tyche)
Fortuna was a personification of good fortune (Agathe Tyche is the same type of figure in Greek). In this guise, Isis carried a cornucopia (horn of plenty) full of dainties. This draws from her association with Egypt’s agricultural bounty, but point to her growing association as a goddess who can offer benefits to her followers. Sometimes called Isis-Sotereia (Isis Saviour, although note saviour had a different religious connotation in the ancient world).
During the early Roman period Isis became a goddess of love and associated with Aphrodite. Terracottas are found showing the godess raising her skirt and revealing her sexual organs. Female followers of Isis may have done the same if they wanted to conceive. The Latin love poets often mention her within the context of non-marital relationships.
Isis was also associated with other goddesses like Astarte, Ashtoreth and Ishtar.
The traditional Egyptian calendar was defined by the natural rhythms of the Nile Valley and especially the annual flood. Certain animals and symbols were worshipped because they were prevalent towards the end of July when the flood started. Sothis, or Sirius, was the dog star which rises in July. We often talk today of the Dog Days of Summer to refer to high summer. This saying dates back to the Roman times. However, ancient Egyptians would have associated the dog days with the flood. Isis Sothis shows the goddess riding a dog (often with a star on its forehead).
Images of dogs from Greco-Roman Egypt are sometimes called Sothis dogs even when they do not have a star on their forehead or goddess attaches. This is probably wrong.
Isis’ family and other gods
There were several divinities in the ancient Egyptian parthenon but only a handful spread beyond Egypt to the wider Greek and Roman World.
Within Egypt the ways that they were portrayed was inspired by a mixture of traditional Egyptian and classical Greek iconography. Several Egyptian deities were shown either wearing Roman armour or clothes connected to imperial rule. It seems like the craftspeople drawing on Egyptian styles also drew on contemporary ideas and images of power.
This Isiac triad or tetriad was made up of the family unit of Horus, Serapis/Osiris and Anubis.
Isis’ son Horus performed a specific rule in the myth. He was the child conceived after Osiris’ resurrection. As a child he is often known as Harpocrates. The common image of him as a youth, with a lock of long hair and with his hand to his mouth. Sometimes he is portrayed next to goodies like pots of honey. These images can be found in Egypt and beyond.
Horus became a sun god and increasing subsumed the role of other solar gods such as Ra and Atum. He was regualrly portrayed as a falcon god in Egypt, although he took on other animal forms. Most notably he was depicted as a crocodile in the Fayum region of Egypt.
Isis was connected with her spouse: Osiris / Serapis. Both gods continued to be worshipped within Egypt and beyond. Serapis was formed by Ptolemy I in complex circumstances. the story is that a Greek and an Egyptian scholar created him as a composite of the two religious traditions, or perhaps he was an earlier god whom Ptolemy supported. It is commonly believed that he is a “Greek” version of the mummified Apis bull (Osiris-Apis). He was portrayed as a shaggy haired man with a bucket on his head. His major temple was in Alexandria, but several smaller temples have been found across the Greek and Roman world including one at Delos and even one in York.
Osiris was often portrayed as a mummy, suggesting his role was central to beliefs in an afterlife. In Egypt he was sometimes depicted as Osiris Vegans, a green god suggested death and rebirth. One ritual saw a mummy shape made out of Nile mud and watered so that corn grew from it as a symbol of Osiris’ resurrection (which mirrored the annual Nile flood). Another form of the god depicted him as Osiris Canopus, a round jar shaped figurine resembled the ancient canopic jars used in the mummification process.
Of all the Egyptian animal gods, only Anubis was worshipped outside of Egypt in his animal form. Images of him have been found on wall paintings, in sculpture, on coins and lamps. In these images he is often shown with his dog head, wearing a cloak and holding a caduceus. The caduceus was the rod carried by Hermes. During the Greco-Roman period Anubis became associated with Hermes, as a result of both gods’ role in leading the dead to the underworld. It is likely that Anubis had a strong role in beliefs and rituals of the afterlife. Egyptian religion was partly focused, at least, in death beliefs.
Anubis was a central figure of the Egyptian gods outside of Egypt during this period. Several inscriptions survives dedicated to him. The mostly refer to the other Egyptian gods as well. At Delos he was the third member of the central triad. He was also worshipped in the first century CE in Campania. This may be as a result of Delos role in spreading the Isiac cults to the rest of the Roman empire.
In the Pharonic period, Nepthys was worshipped alongside Isis. She was the sister of Isis, Osiris and Seth as well as Seth’s wife. The Rameside pharaohs particularly venerated her cult and several temples were dedicated to her at this time.
In some myths she is identified as the mother of Anubis via Osiris. Iconography tends to show her mourning the death of Osiris alongside Isis. This iconography tends to be less common during the Greek and Roman periods, but the backs of several of the plaster masks held in the Louvre depict the two godesses mourning their brother’s passing.
The god Bes was popular. A lion headed dwarf demon, he protected people from evil and especially during childbirth. He was shown as a fearsome warrior holding a sword. His wife Beset was a similar figure. Images of Bes were very popular in Egypt but have been found elsewhere.
The powerful crocodile god Sobek was particularly venerated in the Fayum region of Egypt, which saw extensive Greek settlement during the Ptolemaic period. Several crocodile gods were worshipped by this time. The oldest and most important was Sobek. Local people were named after the crocodiles with a combination of Greek and Egyptian names which may attest to its popularity. Several notables visited the crocodile temples during the Roman period and it seems to have become something of a tourist site. Sobek became associated with the god Chronos and a small number of images of a god in the Greek style holding a small crocodile have been found on coins, gems, as statuettes, and a notable painting.
Isis and other animals
The Egyptians were famous in the Greco-Roman world for their worship of animals. The Egyptians revered animals as gods and also portrayed their gods in animal forms.
Scholars have reconstructed three types of religious animal:
- The temple or holy animal regarding as a living incarnation of the god
- The sacred animal, which was the same species of the temple animal. These may have acted as a court or family to the temple animal.
- Fetish animals, domestic animals accorded some religious veneration
From reports of Greeks and Romans it is possible that all animals were honoured in some way and the Egyptians may have has a reverence for all forms of life. However, it is hard to reconstruct how accurately the Greeks and Romans understood the Egyptian concepts of animal divinity.
Part of the veneration involved the mass mummification of animal mummies. Animals were born and killed in industrial levels to feed the demand for pilgrims to temples. The mummies were interned in massive sepulchres. A cemetery of dogs has been found in Memphis and a nursery for young crocodiles has been found in the Fayum.
Isis and the Apis bull
The most noted animal god was of course, the Apis Bull. The living incarnation of Osiris, the mummified bull became an incarnation of Osiris. In the late period, Greek settlers in Memphis worshipped the Apis bull.
Isis was sometimes portrayed as a cow. The horns on her crown are a reference to this imagery. The cow is both a wife of spouse to the bull (Apis-Osiris), it brings fertility to the land (through its fecund dung) and offered milk to its young.
In Egyptian theology milk had a special sacramental role, as a divine substance.
In Egypt Isis was portrayed as Isis-Thermouthis, a serpentine goddess. In opposition to modern conceptions of snakes, Isis-Thermouthis was a mother goddess, protective of the young, a symbol of fertility (snakes became more visible to Egyptians during the flood) and possibly a controller of fate. Her main temple was at Hermouthis (Medinet Madi) in the Fayum.
In this temple, her temple mate or spouse was Sobek the crocodile god. This reflects the complexities of Egyptian theology in which local conceptions of divinity could “over rule” national conceptions. In Egyptian, multiple and even contradictory myths were shared. Isis-Thermouthis was worshipped primarily in Egypt. Only a few images of her have been found outside of Egypt (in Italy).
The central tenets of the Isiac cults are hard to reconstruct. Presumably a major part of the belief system was the power of the goddess. It can also be assumed that there was some belief centring on an afterlife. The importance of both Anubis and Serapis point to this end. Apart from that we can’t really say anything with certainty.
The reason for this difficulty is that very few texts survive.
Classical authors on Isis
Several Greek and Roman poets wrote about Isis. Most notably the poet Tibullus complained that his lover would not have sex as part of her adherance to the goddess.
The two most fulsome accounts of the cult are the writers Apuleius and Plutarch.
Plutarch’s On Isis and Osiris
Plutarch was a priest of the Delphic oracle and notable writer of biographies and essays, In his small work on Isis and Osiris Plutarch describes the cult in symbolic terms.
His version of the myth tells how Osiris was murdered and cut up into 14 pieces by his brother Seth. The pieces were scattered across Egypt. Isis, with the help of her step-son Anubis, found all the pieces but one. The missing piece was Osiris’ phallus. Isis moulded one from the mud of the Nile. Anubis mummified Osiris, putting him back together. Isis said the magic words which brought him to life. In this state, Isis and Osiris procreated and conceived Horus.
Plutarch’s account is important as it is the only full account of the myth from the ancient world. However, there were different versions in the Pharaonic period gleaned from fragmentary texts or allusions. Some versions said that Hathor, another goddess was Horus’ mother. During this period Isis was iconographically portrayed as a mourner of her dead husband with her sister Nephthys.
It is not clear if Plutarch’s version of the myth was the only or even predominant version in the Roman period. For him, the mythic act of death and resurrection is the key insight into the cult. It is not clear how widely this would have been held both within Egypt itself and in the various locations around the Roman world. There wasn’t a centralised organisation to the cult.
Apuelius The Golden Ass
Apuleius was a writer in Latin from North Africa. In his mostly humourous book The Golden Ass his hero is saved by Isis, who is portrayed as a powerful and good goddess. Apuleius describes the initiations his hero undertakes involving water purification, overnight stays in temples and visions. It remains hard to see how much historical knowledge we can glean from his account.
Aretalogies and hymns to Isis
The only texts to survive from the ancient world to explain the beliefs of the religion (as opposed to the mythology) are the aretalogies. Aretalogies are praises, often in the first person.
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. The aretalogies of Kyme and Maroneia are the fullest surviving accounts.
The Kyme Aretalogy
The Kyme aretalogy is a first person list of the benefits and qualities of Isis. It portrays Isis as a powerful goddess who is central to both worldly concerns and also more transcendent powers.
In it, Isis is identified in her relations to male figures, but not defined by them. She is daughter, wife, sister, and mother; but she is also the first lawgiver and inventor of writing. She is also linked with Egypt.
The hymns of Isidorus
Four hymns to Isis have been found engraved on a column in the Narmouthis temple (modern day Medinet Madi in Egypt) dedicated to Isis-Thermothis. They praise Isis as the most powerful goddess, who is immanent in all other divinities.
In these hymns, Isis is again identified as discoverer of agriculture and a vegetative goddess, particularly associated with motherhood, which are all attributes of Isis-Thermouthis.
Isis in Christian texts
The end of the Isiac cults is hard to discern. The only narratives that survive are Christian. These are inherently negative towards the cult. They present its final days as one of eclipse under the truth of Christianity.
Isis in the New Testament
Interesting the cult of Isis might be referenced in the New Testament. When St Paul writes “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13) he may have been speaking of the sistrums used by worshippers of Isis.
Some scholars have argued that Paul’s main “competitors” in the Greco-Roman world were the missionaries of other religions including those of Isis. It is notable that the first Isis temples were in similar places to the first Christian communities mentioned in the New Testament: mercantile and port cities.
The goddess Isis in the apocryphal gospels
In a version of the apocryphal Gospel of the Egyptians Jesus reportedly says ‘I have come to destroy the works of the female’. He must have meant Isis: the female par excellence of Egypt.
The text has not survived, but which we know about the quote from Clement of Alexandria, a Christian leader in the second century CE, who wrote about the Isiac cult in detail.
Interactions with Christianity
Although the majority of interactions between early Christianity and the Isiac cult, as recorded by surviving literature, are presented as conflictive, the reality of worshippers may have been difficult.
It is likely that Christians and worshippers of different religions lived together on a relatively equal basis.
Isis and Mary
These interaction may, perhaps, be seen in early images of the Virgin Mary nursing her child. It is hard to confidently link the two traditions however due to a lack of evidence and a chronological gap between the last (surviving) images of Isis and the first (surviving) images of Mary.
Such images of motherhood draw upon images and sentiment common to humanity, although drawing specific connotations from social contexts.
Isis in Nag Hammadi
The most fascinating link between early Christianity and Isis might be found in the Nag Hammadi codices, a collection of Gnostic texts which reveal a hitherto unknown version of Christianity which combined elements of Jewish and (possibly) pagan mysticism.
The short poem Thunder, Perfect Mind spoken by a female personage resembles the 1st person aretalogies of Kyme leading several scholars to speculate a connection between Isis and gnosticism.
The connection breaks down on further investigation, yet in its radical portrayal of gender relations the text comes closest to the Isis who is sister, wife, widow and mother.
End of the cult
If the closing days of the Isiac cult are hard to investigate due to lack of evidence, the actual end of the cult is even harder to investigate due to a plethora of biased evidence. Several narratives survive of temple destructions across the Roman world, the most notable being the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria in 391 CE. Narratives survive of smaller scale destructions by the monk Shenoute.
The traditional end date of the Isiac cult is often given as 540 CE when Justinian ordered the closure of the Isis temple at Philae. According to the contemporary historian Procopius, writing at some remove from events, this temple had been left open to let the allied nations south of the border in Egypt continue to venerate Isis [Procopius De Bellis XIX].
The archaeological evidence reveals a more complex image however, of an area already with several churches and a bishop even during the reign of Constantine. The last mention of a priest in temple inscriptions date from 456/7 CE.
A less well known temple narrative survives in the Syriac translation (from Greek) of a biography of the bishop Severus written by his friend from college days.
In the 480s CE a private, semi-secret Isis temple was discovered on the outskirts of Alexandria by a group of monks and students. The temple was disguised in a house, but may have been operating as an incubation centre and place of sacrifice.
The text says it is full of animal statues and hieroglyphs on the wall. The crowd carried the moveable goods to Alexandria where they are symbolically burnt.
The narrative is dramatic and full of local colour, yet its veracity is hard to measure given a lack of complementary evidence. The description of animal gods may be a cliche of Egyptian religion, rather than an accurate description of the contacts. It is perhaps likely that such centres continued to survive even after laws prohibiting sacrifice.
Intriguingly two seperate items survive from North-west Europe which might provide evidence for the continuing worship just beyond the boundaries of Roman jurisdiction.
The grave of the Frankish King Childeric, who died in 482 CE, which was exhumed in the seventeenth century may have contained possible Isiac artefacts, including sistrums.
The pulpit at Aachen Cathedral holds an ivory Diptych which may represent Isis (or a personification of Alexandria) dated to the fifth century.
Yet unfortunately because we don’t know more about what these objects meant to the communities, it is hard to prove that they represent a continued cult of Isis. They may just have been gifts which were no longer needed by Romans.
Traditional Egyptian religion continued to intrigue people long after the end of worship.
The magical writings of Hermes Trismegistus claimed to be Egyptian wisdom. Hermes Trismegistus is a shadowy figure with some links to Thoth, Horus and Anubis. The texts are written as dialogues between Hermes and his son Tat.
In the Kore Kosmou, Isis discusses the creation of the world with her son Horus. The myth resembles the Gnostic beliefs found in the Nag Hammadi codices. It is fascinating to consider that these texts were popular in the medieval West throughout the middle ages and into the Renaissance.
Medieval Egyptians also continued to be interested in the cult of Isis and its links with magic. Arabic texts describe the continuing veneration of certain statues by mixed populations of Christians and Muslims.
The Magic Flute
In the West, Egypt was associated with magic and esoteric beliefs, as a result of the popularity of the hermetic texts. This association led to the interest of Egypt amongst the freemasons, who used the pyramid as a symbol.
This connection brought fruit in Mozart’s Magic Flute which merges whimsy and masonry in a musical spectacular. The second half starts with the stately procession of the priests and a song of adoration to Isis and Osiris in the Wisdom temple.