“I divided the earth from the heaven. I showed the paths of the stars. I ordered the course of the sun and the moon”. (Kyme Aretalogy in honour of Isis)
Since backpacking in Europe in 2001, I have been drawn to images and archaeological sites relating to Isis. There are some things that just strike the right chord for you. My first experience with Isis (in a Greco-Roman style) was at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
The statue fit my understanding of what classical sculpture was, and simultaneously had something a bit unusual. The features were so exquisitely carved, and the goddess’s accoutrements were unlike anything I had seen before. While visiting Pompeii during the same trip, I didn’t quite make the connection between the figure in the statue that I’d seen in Rome and the temple in which I had been standing.
During my undergraduate studies, I came across her again while reading Lucian’s ‘Metamorphosis (The Golden Ass)’. My attention was drawn to the way that Lucian described the power of this mysterious foreign goddess. What was so brash about Lucian’s novel was how much he subtly revealed, through winks and nods, about the mystery cult. He described esoteric celebrations, events and magical healing, all the while saying, ‘but it’s a secret, so I can’t really talk about it’. The story is familiar, in a Shakespearean kind of way, through all the hubris, metamorphoses, changes of fortune, and bawdy humour.
I was fascinated by this religious movement and how it functioned within the religiously pluralistic Roman society. Isis and her cult would ultimately provide some of the foundation of early Christian practices such as baptism, in addition to the depictions with Horus (the infant nursing on her lap is a dead ringer for the baby Jesus), presaging the metamorphosis into the Virgin Mary.
Jumping in with both feet, I was excited and wanted to understand more about this deity. However, my introduction to the topic began at a much later point in the history of the Cult of Isis; to understand the cult and its significance, I would need to go farther back and approach it more broadly.My Masters at the University of Edinburgh was spent exploring the Greek and Hellenistic routes of the cult, from multiple angles, to start filling in the picture (and creating many of my own pictures).
Isis’s power as a deity in Egypt rested in being the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus. She bridged the continuity of kingship from one king to his descendant. Her original function as the literal and symbolic role – as the throne and king-maker in Ancient Egypt – changes quite dramatically once the cult is exported into Greece and Italy.
While the period of Isis worship in the pre-Hellenistic era (before 323 BCE) is interesting, what has captivated me more specifically is what happens with the cult in the Hellenistic-to-Roman period. Like a character from Sailor Moon, she gained many headdresses, wands, tools, and visual associations with other deities (Demeter, Aphrodite, Athena, Nike).
This is the period that I focused on during my MSc, researching the symbols and iconography over time, with an emphasis on the tiny figurines used in her worship. What I discovered was that her strength was in her flexibility. Her image could be adapted to all needs, wants and interests. She could be a local or international deity. She could be closely affiliated with a particular ruling dynasty, or one specific location.
Another investigation looked at the cult’s relationship with Athenian government in Delos, and some of the territorial quarrels that occurred between temples run by different factions on the island. The evidence of a push and pull scenario between Delos’ new overlords (the Athenians) and the previous residents, in the mid-second century BCE. Running cults was big business and politically useful to establishing ones career, and the Athenians had no interest in allowing an Alexandrian ‘Egyptian’ to maintain a monopoly on the worship of Isis in this economically powerful port.
While few temples of Isis remain in even remotely good shape, Pompeii possesses on of the most famous examples.
Pompeii had one of the best-preserved temples (though most of the decorations were long since removed and put in museums). It was fascinating to see the spread of Egyptian-looking artefacts which tend to denote cult membership. The items that were recovered from Pompeii are varied and showed decorations and materials of incredibly high quality that were made for, and used by, the Temple of Isis.
Another leg of the journey in my first large research project involved a trip to Palestrina (ancient Praeneste), some 40 km east of Rome. Part of what I wanted to see was the Egyptian artefacts, which remain some of the most exquisite examples of mosaic work from ancient history.
The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina was breath-taking in person and represented an interesting fusion of culture and appropriation of the Hellenistic Alexandrians and the native Egyptians. Although it is an uneven cultural balance, with the prioritising of the Macedonian elite over the native Egyptians.
It is a rare gem of the exquisite mosaic work that was part of art market in Italy, before the Rome dominated the Mediterranean. It highlighted aspects of Egyptian cult which would find its way into Italy, though altered for Italian tastes.
So, what is next?
This September I will be stepping into the subject and delving deeper into urban design, Egyptian architecture and the art styles that appear in Roman cities. There are so many aspects and angles to investigate with this topic, and being able to work on a PhD toward this end is like a dream come true. There are still so many sites, statues, and sistrums to see in my journey into my studies of this Cult of Isis!
Thank you for reading my blog!