Cults and the Egyptian Goddess Isis in the Greek and Roman World

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In ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, there were hundreds of local gods and hundreds of cults, many devoted to specific gods.Many of the cults, were very secretive and had special initiation rituals with sacred tales, symbols, formulas and special rituals oriented towards specific gods. These are often described as mystery cults. Fertility cults and goddesses were often associated with the moon because its phases coincided the menstruation cycles of women and it was thought the moon had power over women.

On foreign cults in the Roman Empire, Strabo wrote in “Geographia” (A.D., c. 20): “In Gaul, the heads of enemies of high repute they used to embalm in cedar oil and exhibit to strangers, and they would not deign to give them back ever for a ransom of an equal weight of gold. But the Romans put a stop to these customs, as well as to all those connected with the sacrifices and divinations that are opposed to our usages. They used to strike a human being, whom they had devoted to death, in the back with a sword, and then divine from his death-struggle. But they would not sacrifice without the Druids. We are told of still other kinds of human sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples, or having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and make a burnt-offering of the whole thing.” [Source: Strabo, The Geography of Strabo: Literally Translated, with Notes, translated by H. C. Hamilton & W. Falconer, (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857)]

In “The Life of Tiberius Caesar” (A.D. c. 100), Suetonius wrote: “He abolished foreign cults [from Rome], especially the Egyptian and the Jewish rites, compelling all who were addicted to such superstitions to burn their religious vestments and all their paraphernalia. Those of the Jews who were of military age he assigned to provinces of less healthy climate, ostensibly to serve in the army; the others of that same race or of similar beliefs he banished from the city, on pain of slavery for life if they did not obey. He banished the astrologers as well.”

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Multitude of Cults and Roman Society

The multitude of cults, religions and god were not necessarily in competition Roger Beck of the University of Toronto Mississauga wrote for the BBC: “They are better seen as complementary enterprises” whose function was twofold: (1) to secure and retain the goodwill of the gods and thereby the wellbeing of the empire and its communities; and (2) to preserve the socio-political order through appropriate activities, principally the festivities of the local religious calendars. [Source: Professor Roger Beck, University of Toronto Mississauga, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Dionysiac cult ritual

“The prime method of getting (and keeping) the gods ‘onside’ was blood sacrifice. The glue which kept each level of society in its proper place was the system by which imperial and local élites fed and entertained the masses (the famous ‘bread and circuses’) in return for respect and acquiescence in the divinely sanctioned order of things. It is not difficult to see how emperor-worship, a franchise for which rival cities competed avidly, fits into this picture: the emperor’s powers of benefaction were of an order that seemed to eclipse those of mere mortals.

In addition to the cult of a particular god in a particular temple in a particular city,” Rome “also licensed outlets for specialised services and products, notably: (a) oracles to foretell the future and explain the present, and (b) healing shrines, which offered the best that antiquity had to offer in human as well as divine medicine. Brand loyalty was assumed, not enforced. In any case the religion business made few demands on the ordinary citizens of Rome and the communities of her empire. Opting in was not a deliberate choice, and opting out was not an option. |::|

“Only national groups were allowed a distinct religion. Rome greatly respected institutions which could legitimately present themselves as ‘traditional’ and ‘ancestral’, and thus as agents of a sound and conservative status quo. Judaism was just such an ancestral religion. It was licensed not only in its homeland but in the diaspora communities elsewhere in the empire. In the homeland, Judaism was focused on the cult of Jahweh in the Temple in Jerusalem, a cult of blood sacrifice of a type familiar to the Romans, peculiar only in its exclusive monotheism. |::|

“In 70 A.D. Judaism underwent a great sea change: with the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. at the climax of the first rebellion, the sacrificial cult ended. Judaism as we know it today is the descendant of the religion of the synagogues of the diaspora and of Palestine after the second rebellion (ended 135 AD). Proselytizing was then strictly forbidden, so Judaism effectively withdrew from the arena of religious competition.”

Cultic Dining

colorized Mithraic banquet

L. Michael White of the University of Texas at Austin told PBS: The “communal meal was an important ritual that bonded the members of the community together. Dining itself, though, was nothing uncommon as a religious performance among members of the Roman world. Dinner parties were given all time. Private dinner parties as well as public festivals, but one of the most interesting aspects of dining that we find is what we might call religious or cultic dining, or club banquets; in these club banquets more often than not there's a kind of patron deity who could be expected to oversee the proceedings. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“The Mithras cult is known for its dining practices but one of the most popular form of cultic dining that we hear about is found in the Egyptian cults. The cult of Serapis, the god from Egypt, the consort of Isis. We have papyrus invitations from the Roman world which say the god Serapis invites you to dinner at his couch. Meaning his dinner table, his dinner party at eight o'clock on Tuesday evening ... So it's interesting that the Christians do something that looks very much like these religious practices, and at times they actually have to work very hard to distinguish themselves from what the pagans do.

“The Christian writer Tertullian from North Africa around the year 197 really goes way out on a limb to try to make some distinctions. He says, "We Christians hold meals, sure, but we really don't do anything all that extraordinary. In fact, they're very tame. It's not at all like those people who follow the god Serapis. Why when they throw a dinner party you have to call out the fire brigades. We're nothing like that." But indeed the very point that he has to make suggests that in the eyes of a lot of people that's exactly how they looked.

Egyptian God Cults in the Greco-Roman Era

Greek Isis- Aphrodite

Holland Lee Hendrix of the Union Theological Seminary told PBS: “In the religious mix of the time, it's very important to realize that one would have experienced institutions and deities who would come from rather remote places. In the Hellenistic period, in the 3rd, 2nd centuries B.C., a number of very important religions that had been distinctive to Egypt and to Syria, for example, began to migrate in substantial ways, in very important ways, throughout the Roman Empire. One would have found in the major cities of the Mediterranean basin a cult of the Egyptian gods. One would have cults of the Syrian gods.... The Egyptian cult and Mithraism were two of the great religious movements of the time and certainly would have posed some of the most difficult competition for Christianity. [Source: “Holland Lee Hendrix, President of the Faculty, Union Theological Seminary, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Egyptian cults come in a whole host of varieties, but let's sort of take the garden variety. The garden variety of the Egyptian cult would have included probably Isis as the ascendant deity. Isis was perceived by her devotees as being remarkably attentive. Isis would respond to you when you were in trouble. She would answer your prayers. She had that reputation. A bit more removed is Isis's consort, Serapis, again, a creature from the Hellenistic period. Serapis is a bit less popular, again at the popular level, with the people. One very often finds him as a consort of Isis. Serapis is viewed as a more remote, Jupiter-like, Zeus-like, figure and is often in fact presented in iconography with the characteristics of Jupiter and Zeus.

“Then one would have also encountered in the Egyptian cult Harpocrates, and this was specifically a Holly creation. Hippocrates was understood as a youth associated with Isis.... Hypocrates was characterized in the iconography very interestingly, with his finger to his lips invoking the silence of the mysteries of the Egyptian cult. Mysteries were a very important part in Egyptian religion and made it terribly attractive to people because one could be introduced into a special knowledge and a special way of viewing things and probably a special promise of afterlife....

Isis Cult in the Roman Empire

Isis was an Egyptian goddess popular throughout the Mediterranean world. Her cult was one of the most widespread in the late Roman Empire era. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “By the middle of the first century A.D., with the political integration of the many lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean, the cult of Isis was transformed from a secret rite popular among the lower classes of Rome but not permitted within the sacred confines of the city, to a highly structured public cult closely associated with the emperors. During the reign of Vespasian, Isis was officially welcomed into the Roman pantheon, and a public temple within the sacred walls of the city was erected for her. [Source: Claudia Moser, Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2007, \^/]

“Although the cult of Isis, with its distinctive maternal and female characteristics, principally attracted women, the annual spring and autumn festivals held in her honor drew both sexes, of all classes, people celebrating different occasions and customs-springtime renewal, grief and joy. Plutarch describes the pervasive presence of the goddess and her exotic clothing: "the garments of Isis are dyed in rainbow colors, because her power extends over multiform matter that is subjected to all kinds of vicissitudes".” \^/

Roman Isis

Marianne Bonz wrote for PBS’s Frontline: “The Egyptian cult of Isis, which, along with the relatively new cult of her consort Sarapis, together with her son Horus and an assortment of lesser deities of exotic character, had migrated first to Greece and then to Rome. Originating in conjunction with her former husband Osiris as the personification of the divine power of the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, Isis was worshipped continuously for thousands of years, before achieving her greatest renown in the early Roman empire. During this final period, her cult presented one of the most formidable and enduring rivalries to early Christianity. [Source: Marianne Bonz, Frontline, PBS, April 1998. Bonz was managing editor of Harvard Theological Review. She received a doctorate from Harvard Divinity School, with a dissertation on Luke-Acts as a literary challenge to the propaganda of imperial Rome.]

“This exceptional adoration is closely linked to her proven record of benefactions on behalf of ordinary people. Archaeologists have discovered a number of inscriptions in which a grateful worshiper has detailed the many gifts bestowed by the goddess, including healings and miraculous rescues from the perils of sea voyage.

“Like Christianity, Isis's cult was spread by her followers, primarily to the port cities of the empire, by means of its trade and navigation routes. Also like Christianity, the cult of Isis grew from the bottom up. By the dawn of the common era, her cult had become so widespread among the masses of the Roman empire that the emperor Augustus and his immediate successors were unable to suppress it, and they eventually gave up the attempt. By the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the writing of the Gospel of Mark, Isis had even become a patron deity of the Roman imperial family. Her cult, with its mysteries that promised salvation to initiates, remained widely popular well into the early Christian era.”

Isis Legend

Isis Fortune painting

Marianne Bonz wrote for PBS’s Frontline: “According to the ancient Egyptian legend, Osiris succeeded to the throne of Egypt when his divine father, Geb, retired to the heavens. His sister, Isis, became his queen. Osiris brought agricultural abundance to Egypt and introduced the arts of civilization. After some years of peaceful rule, he was cruelly murdered. But Isis recovered his body and, with the aid of Thoth (Wisdom) and Anubis (Guide of dead souls), she succeeded in restoring Osiris to life. Once resurrected from death, Osiris could have returned to rule over Egypt. Instead he relinquished his throne to his son, Horus, preferring to rule over the kingdom of the dead. Marianne Bonz, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Although in the myth of this early period, Isis played only a minor role, she gradually acquired an impressive list of attributes for which she was widely venerated. In the third century before Christ, Egypt was ruled by the Greek successors of Alexander the Great. It was they who substantially transformed the cult of Isis, replacing Osiris with a new divinity, Sarapis (an amalgamation of Osiris and another Egyptian god, Apis). By taking this ancient Egyptian cult of the Pharaohs and making it their own, the new rulers sought to reconcile the land and its people to Greek control.

“Gradually Isis and Sarapis divided between them all the powers of the universe. Sarapis, like the Greek god Zeus, with whom he was often identified, represented a divine majesty of universal scope, encompassing rulers and nations. But Isis was a savior and protector in a far more personal way. Gradually assimilating the most important characters and attributes of a number of goddesses native to Greece, her benefactions became virtually without limits.

See Ancient Egyptian Religion

Isis Worship in the Greco-Roman Era

Isis Temple in Delos, Greece

Marianne Bonz wrote for PBS’s Frontline: “Isis was worshipped as the divine impetus for the establishment of justice and the laws of human society. She was also frequently associated with the benefits of agriculture and the harvest. She was known to guide women through the dangers of childbirth. In one of several surviving hymns, written in the final centuries before Christ, Isis is credited with a knowledge of the nature of all things. In another, she is venerated as the queen of every land. [Source: Marianne Bonz, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

In the following quotation from a Greek novel of the second century, CE, it is the goddess herself who speaks to an initiate who has earnestly sought her favor: "Behold, Lucius. . . moved by your prayer I come to you — I the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity, the queen of the underworld, the first among those in heaven — I, whose single godhead is venerated all over the earth under manifold forms, varying rites, and changing names. . . . Queen Isis. Behold, I have come to you in your calamity. I have come with solace and aid. Away then with tears. Cease to moan. Send sorrow fleeing. Soon through my providence shall the sun of your salvation rise." (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.5)

Holland Lee Hendrix of the Union Theological Seminary told PBS: “Isis was presented in a number of different ways. Sometimes in her more austere Egyptian presentation, in which she's quite heraldic, in which she's quite static, but then also one finds her in more Hellenized presentations that remind one, for example, of Demeter or Artemis. She went through a very important Hellenization. And then one of the most important representations of Isis is what we call the Isis lactans, that is Isis suckling, nurturing her offspring at her breast. This is a kind of iconography that appears to have been terribly determinative in the early iconography of Mary and Jesus. [Source: “Holland Lee Hendrix, President of the Faculty, Union Theological Seminary, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Isis in the Golden Ass

The cult of Isis is featured in The Golden Ass, a strange novel by Lucius Apuleius (A.D. c.123-c.170), a Latin-language prose writer and one of the world’s earliest novelists The only ancient Roman novel in Latin to survive in its entirety, The Golden Ass was given its name by St. Augustine. The proper name of the novel is The Metamorphoses of Apuleius. In the following passage Isis appears to Lucius, and claims to be all goddesses, including the Queen of Heaven, and principal of all the gods and goddesses. This is widely seen as a vivid illustration of religious syncretism.

Isis Temple in Pompeii

On Isis, Queen of Heaven, Lucius Apuleius (A.D. c.123-c.170) wrote in Book 11 of the Golden Ass (c.155 A.D.): “When I had ended this prayer, and made known my needs to the Goddess, I fell asleep, and by and by appeared unto me a divine and venerable face, worshipped even by the Gods themselves. Then by little and little I seemed to see the whole figure of her body, mounting out of the sea and standing before me, and so I shall describe her divine appearance, if the poverty of my human speech will allow me, or her divine power give me eloquence to do so. [Source: Lucius “Apuleius: Metamophoses” or “The Golden Ass,” Book 11, Chap 47. Adapted by Paul Halsall from the translation by Adlington 1566 in comparison with Robert Graves translation of 1951]

“First she had a great abundance of hair, dispersed and scattered about her neck, on the crown of her head she wore many garlands interlaced with flowers, just above her brow was a disk in the form of a mirror, or resembling the light of the Moon, in one of her hands she bore serpents, in the other, blades of corn, her robe was of fine silk shimmering in divers colors, sometime yellow, sometime rose, sometime flamy, and sometimes (which sore troubled my spirit) dark and obscure, covered with a black robe in manner of a shield, and pleated in most subtle fashion at the skirts of her garments, the welts appeared comely, whereas here and there the stars peaked out, and in the middle of them was placed the Moon, which shone like a flame of fire, round about the robe was a coronet or garland made with flowers and fruits. In her right hand she had a timbrel of brass, which gave a pleasant sound, in her left hand she bore a cup of gold, out of the mouth whereof the serpent Aspis lifted up his head, with a swelling throat, her sweet feet were covered with shoes interlaced and wrought with victorious palm.

“Thus the divine shape breathing out the pleasant spice of fertile Arabia, disdained not with her divine voice to utter these words unto me: "Behold Lucius I am come, thy weeping and prayers has moved me to succor thee. I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all the elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of powers divine, Queen of heaven, the principal of the Gods celestial, the light of the goddesses: at my will the planets of the air, the wholesome winds of the Seas, and the silences of hell be disposed; my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in divers manners, in variable customs and in many names, for the Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, the mother of the Gods: the Athenians call me Cecropian Artemis: the Cyprians, Paphian Aphrodite: the Candians, Dictyanna: the Sicilians , Stygian Proserpine: and the Eleusians call me Mother of the Corn. Some call me Juno, others Bellona of the Battles, and still others Hecate. Principally the Ethiopians which dwell in the Orient, and the Egyptians which are excellent in all kind of ancient doctrine, and by their proper ceremonies accustomed to worship me, do call me Queen Isis. Behold I am come to take pity of thy fortune and tribulation, behold I am present to favor and aid thee. Leave off thy weeping and lamentation, put away thy sorrow, for behold the healthful day which is ordained by my providence, therefore be ready to attend to my commandment."

Isis Mystery Cults

Kiki Karoglou of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “ Similar to Demeter, Isis was considered a law giver and protector of the crops, while ritual purification and secret rites were performed in her honor. In pharaonic Egypt, Isis was sister and wife of Osiris (god of the afterlife) and mother of Horus, whom she appears suckling. In the Greek world, the earliest temple dedicated to Isis was founded in Athens in the fourth century B.C. The cult spread rapidly during the third century B.C. and was linked closely to the political and military activities of the Ptolemies. By this time the consort of Isis was Sarapis or Serapis, a syncretic god created in Egypt, who represented the boundary between life and death and was identified with Hades and Asklepios. Harpokrates, their son, is often portrayed with his finger touching the lips in a gesture intended to ensure secrecy. Numerous miniature bronzes and terracotta statuettes of Harpokrates survive and they probably derive from a Hellenistic prototype made in Alexandria. [Source: Kiki Karoglou, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2013, \^/]

“The cult of Isis arrived at Rome at the end of the second century B.C. and reached its height during the second century A.D. The two most informative texts are Plutarch's essay On Isis and Osiris and Apuleius' Metamorphoses, especially book eleven. Both works combine features of other mysteries and contain rather generic descriptions of initiation rites. Inscriptions, on the other hand, provide some evidence for the organization of the cult, which seems to have been modeled on the Egyptian priesthood. Initially, only males served as priests for both Isis and Sarapis. In time, as the cult of Isis predominated, women were allowed to become priestesses. There were two notable departures from earlier mystery cults: the term mystes does not appear in Isiac inscriptions and continued service to the goddess and close relationships with the sanctuary were required. \^/

“Not simply an end in itself, initiation belonged to a series of steps leading to higher service. Initiates of Isis shaved off their hair, wore linen garments, and carried the sistrum, the characteristic percussion instrument for the cult, also of Egyptian origin. Like the cymbals of Kybele, the rattling noise it produced was imbued with magical and protective qualities. Over time, the hierarchy grew more complex, yet no central authority seems to have existed and the various temples were quite independent. Isis remained a distinctively Egyptian goddess and her cult maintained a clear Egyptian identity, even after the conquests of Alexander and the Romans.” \^/

Roman-era Isis water ceremony

Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “The worship of Isis is depicted on a wall-painting from Herculaneum. The high priest stands at the entrance to the temple and looks down on the ceremony beneath him, which is supervised by priests with shaven heads. “One priest tends the sacred fire and another behind him leads the faithful (gathered in two ranks) in worship. In the foreground of the painting can be seen two ibises, sacred to Isis, and to the right is a flautist. Much evidence of the worship of Isis has been found at both Pompeii and Herculaneum, demonstrating the popularity of this eastern cult during the first century AD. Indeed, the Temple of Isis at Pompeii was the only temple to have been completely restored (at private expense) after the earthquake that devastated the town in A.D. 62.” [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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