30. DELOS: THE GREAT PORT CITY OF THE ANCIENT WORLD

Looking out to sea from the courtyard in front of the temple of Isis, Delos.

For anyone who has had to go to Mykonos on their way to Delos, I’m sorry. Mykonos in the modern period has been blessed with Instagrammable vistas, from its white-painted walls with brightly coloured doors, to the overpriced meals, it is every social media influencer’s dream. However, when one is traveling to the nearby island of Delos, a brief stay in the tourist labyrinth awaits.

Thankfully my time in Mykonos, while conducting field work, was brief. To ensure we would be able to catch a ferry crossing to Delos, we planned a day and a half in this little seaside area. With ferry tickets and a frappe in hand, my colleague and travel buddy Ms King and I, set off to the sacred island of Delos!

Disembarking the ferry, the view from the port.

Legendary birthplace of the ancient world’s deadliest twins, Apollo and Artemis, the island was a sacred site well into antiquity. A historically important trade hub for merchants crossing the Aegean, Delos was a crucial point for the exchange of ideas, art, goods and slaves. The island of Delos itself drew many cults from across the ancient world. Of particular interest to me were the several temples to Serapis and Isis located fairly high up the hill. These newcomers to Delos were part of the expanding religious landscape of the island in the Hellenistic period.

Facing the sanctuary of Isis

Delos’ sanctity was ensured during the Peloponnesian wars when under oracular guidance the island was required to divest itself of the dead. That is quite uncommon. As is the case now, communities are very connected to their dead. Disturbing graves and reburying the remains on another island seems extreme. Under the guidance of the Delphic Oracle, and just like Disneyland, all of your prayers could be answered; but you couldn’t die or give birth on Delos any longer.

Various leagues were created and centered here to deal with military and political threats, the Delian league during the Persian Wars, and the Nesiotic League during the wars of the Successors of Alexander the Great. It is at this point, during the 3rd century BCE that the island was in the hands of the Ptolemaic Empire and the influence of the Alexandrian kingdom, and its gods was most pronounced on the island.

With more temples to Egyptian gods in one city anywhere outside of Egypt, save Rome, Delos is an interesting location to try to understand the ways in which religious integration occurs and the role in which the urban landscape is a factor.

Cult statue of Isis, in-situ

In 167/166 BCE Delos’ political fortunes changed with the growing influence and meddling in the Aegean of Rome, the island was handed over to the Athenians, who expelled the Delians. As a Roman free port, Delos benefited from the Italian aggression towards competitor cities, until an enemy of Rome sought to disrupt the Republic’s income by sacking the little holy island full of people making money from slaves. The Mithradatic Wars had two waves of destruction in Delos, coming to a head in 69 BCE.

No longer the safest outpost for ensuring Rome’s transportation of slaves and non-human trade goods, Rome made the southern Italian city of Puteoli the new port-de-jour. With that decline and depopulation Delos turned into a relic.

The temples of Isis and Serapis in Delos are built across several phases and interestingly took different forms while they thrived. One associating itself with a more ‘authentically’ Egyptian-style, and another with a more Hellenic-Alexandrian form, they co-existed though not always in perfect harmony.

It was a perfect day to explore this incredible UNESCO World Heritage site, and as I continue with my research, it is always an enriching experience to go to these spectacular sites with my research questions in mind. After a decade passing since my last time here, much remained the same, but due to increased interest in the cults of the Egyptian gods and their relationships with Hellenic and Italic deities, the deities I study tend to get highlighted! The archaeology museum was equally worth the trip to see, with excellent mosaics and gorgeous statues.

Thank you for checking out my blog!

Straight up hanging out at the Temple of Isis

16. Studying the Regina Caeli: the journey so far into the cult of Isis.

Isis Bar“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.

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Capitoline Isis, Rome (2014).

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.

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Isis-Thermoutis, Musee des Beaux Arts, Lyon (2017).

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.

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Isis (holding the snake) and Io (sitting atop the shoulders of the personified Nile) wall painting, Museo Nazionale Napoli (2014).

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.Scanned from a Xerox Multifunction Device002-1~2My 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).

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Some of my sketches of Isis statues over the last 4 years.

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.

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Isis cradling Horus – from the MET archives.

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.

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Temple of Isis and her #1 fan, Pompeii (2016).

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.

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The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina, Italy (2014).

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?

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Isiac procession relief, Palazzo Altemps, Rome (2014).

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. 20160610_150009There 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!

A bientot!

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