Posted by: Isidora | August 5, 2011

Cleopatra’s Goddess

There’s been a Cleopatra-Isis meme weaving about lately. Several new biographies have been published. Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life (which I haven’t yet read) and Duane Roller’s Cleopatra: A Biography (which I have) are helping redefine Cleopatra from the seductive femme fatale of legend to the real-life Queen of Egypt that she was. Rumors of a Cleopatra movie, starring Angelina Jolie, have added to the buzz. There’s a Cleopatra exhibit making the rounds of museums in the US. And Egyptologists have made several new discoveries that they believe may be putting them on the path to finally discovering Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s tomb. Here’s a link to a National Geographic article that tells how Cleopatra’s devotion to Isis may be offering a clue as to her body’s whereabouts. And another blogger who doesn’t buy it.

That's Greek on the bottom of this Egyptian stele. Kleopatra's name is on the second line.

Novelists have taken up the Cleopatra theme, too. Interestingly, several have published stories about Cleopatra’s daughter, Selene. One is Lily of the Nile by Stephanie Dray. In Stephanie’s book, Selene, like her mother, is a devotee of Isis. You might be interested to know that Stephanie used my Isis Magic as a resource for the Isian rituals that appear in her book; she even used excerpts from some rites (with my permission, of course). Nevertheless, it was a bit strange seeing my rituals in this fictionalized form. But have no fear, Stephanie’s work is very respectful and I’m looking forward to seeing additional ritual excerpts in her upcoming two books on Selene’s further adventures.

I wish I could know how personally devoted Cleopatra was to Isis. She identified herself as “The New Isis,” just as her father, Ptolemy XII, called himself “The New Dionysos.” This could certainly have been a political stratagem. Isis was the most well-known Goddess of the time; identifying as Isis would be a power play. On the other hand, Cleopatra could have been entirely sincere. Egyptian monarchs had long been identified with Deities. Even more important, Egyptian magic has the tradition of what I’ve called Kheperu (“Transformations” or “Forms”), but which you may know as the Assumption of God/dessform or Drawing Down the Moon. This technique enables the priestess, priest, and/or magician to “become” the Deity—under certain ritual conditions and for the limited period of the rite. I have a rather lengthy article about Kheperu just sitting around on my hard drive. Maybe I’ll start posting excerpts.

In the meantime, enjoy the links—and I do hope you’ll check out Lily of the Nile. It’s a good read—and if you’re familiar with the rites in Isis Magic, it may give you a little thrill in several places as it did for me.



  1. First, thank you for the kind mention of LILY OF THE NILE. Second, I’m also pretty dubious about Cleopatra’s tomb. Her devotion to Isis seems real, if politically expedient, but the idea that she could somehow secretly arrange all these shenanigans with her corpse while the Romans were in charge of Egypt seems a little bit far-fetched.

    As you point out, it’s hard to know how personally devoted to Isis Cleopatra VII really was because her worship was all tied up with tradition and a political message system. When you want to be Queen of the World, it’s handy to profess devotion to…well…the Queen of the World.

    By contrast, there seems to be little doubt that her daughter’s religious faith was sincere. It wasn’t expedient for Cleopatra Selene to worship Isis as the goddess had fallen from favor with the emperor, who was Selene’s patron. Her insistence upon worshipping Isis and building an Iseum in Mauretania when the worship of Isis was forbidden in Rome, may well have cost her any hope she may have ever had of returning to claim her mother’s throne.

    Still, she continued to proclaim Isis as her patron deity even in a part of North Africa where Tanit was the better known goddess. Which leads one to question if Selene’s faith came about because of the tragic circumstances in her life, or because it was inculcated in her by a very devout mother.

  2. Was worshipping Isis a way for Selene to continue mourning her mother, and was the building of the Iseum in Mauretania more like a monument to Cleopatra than Isis?

    Forgive me if I’m out of bounds. I know little of the matter, but I can imagine a young woman whose mother was considered to be a goddess refusing to let worship of that goddess die, for if Isis-worship dies, then so does her Cleopatra.

    • Selene also memorialized her mother on coins–separately from Isis–so while it’s certainly true that there may have been some fusion between the two in her mind, she clung doggedly to both.

    • Not out of bounds at all—a very interesting comment, in fact. Stephanie makes a great point, too. Since Cleo spent a good deal of energy identifying with Isis, it would have been strange if Selene didn’t make that connection.

      And certainly Goddess Isis functions as a mother figure—whether that’s mother or Great Mother—for many of us today as well.

  3. I think Jamie, Stephanie and Isidora all make valid and closely intertwined points. The mystery of where the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony remains one. Personally, without the required scholarship I am skeptical that such a tomb exists. If you or I were the victorious Octavian, would we have permitted construction of a memorial is the question I ask myself? However her daughter Selene did build the Iseum a temple / tomb for her mother / Nea Isia, when she became Queen consort of Juno II of Mauretania.
    Cleopatra was not permitted to enter Rome. One can only speculate as to what the history of the world would have been if Julius Caesar had not been assassinated and Cleopatra become Queen of Rome.

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