Posted by: Isidora | July 13, 2013

A Festival of Lights for Isis

One of the things I’ve been looking at lately is the continuity between the ancient Egyptian nature and worship of Isis and its later expression when Her religion spread throughout the Greco-Roman world.

There are many such points of continuity, in my opinion, but one that caught my attention recently is Isis’ enduring expression as a Lady of Light.

An oil lamp from Egypt, Roman period. It shows Isis and Harpocrates.

An oil lamp from Egypt, Roman period. It shows Isis and Harpocrates.

The ancient Egyptians held Festivals of Lights in which the entire town or city would light oil lamps that would burn throughout the night—entirely equivalent to our own stringing of lights at Halloween or Yule. (My imagination sees Egyptian neighbors vying with each other over elaborate displays of lights.)

The historian Herodotus (5th century BCE) writes about such a Festival of Lights at Sais, the city of Neith. He says:

“At the times when they gather together at the city of Sais for their sacrifices, on a certain night they all kindle lamps many in number in the open air round about the houses; now the lamps are saucers full of salt and oil mixed, and the wick floats by itself on the surface, and this burns during the whole night; and to the festival is given the name Lychnocaia (“Lamp Lighting”). Moreover those of the Egyptians who have not come to this solemn assembly observe the night of the festival and themselves also light lamps all of them, and thus not in Sais alone are they lighted, but over all Egypt: and as to the reason why light and honour are allotted to this night, about this there is a sacred story told.”

Herodotus, Histories, Book II, Chapter 62

Illumination of the dead

Illumination of the dead

There were Festivals of Light at the New Year and on the five epagomenal days that led up to it. On these days, the birthdays of Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys were celebrated and lights were placed in tombs for the dead. If we can judge by Herodotus’ statement, then other Festivals of Lights were celebrated in which Egyptian homes were illuminated as well as tombs.

I read somewhere that the “sacred story” attached to the Sais festival was that the lights were to assist Isis in Her search for the body of Osiris, but so far I haven’t found confirmation on that. It might just be a scholar’s best guess. I’ll let you know what I find out.

In the meantime, lets leap forward about 800 years and move from Egypt to Rome.

The illustration for the month of August from the Calendar of Philocalus

The illustration for the month of August from the Calendar of Philocalus

The 4th-century-CE Calender of Philocalus lists a festival called the Lychnapsia Philocaliana on August 12th. As you may be able to guess, it was a lamp-lighting festival. The scholars who have studied it seem reasonably certain that it was an Isis festival because a.) the August 12th date of this lamp festival is at roughly the same time as the great Egyptian Festival of Lights at the epagomenal birthdays of the Deities, b.) Isis was extremely popular in Rome and anything Egyptian would have been considered Isiac as well, and c.) there are “Egyptian Days” designated on the calendar several days before and several days after the Lychnapsia.

Furthermore, the theory is that the August 12th date (due to some calendrical calculations with which I will not bore you) corresponded to the 4th epagomenal day—and the 4th epagomenal day is the birthday of Isis.

So there you are. In 354 CE, at Mediterranean latitudes, Isiacs could celebrate the birthday of Isis by the lighting of lamps in Her honor. Next month, modern Isiacs can do the same—perhaps by lighting candles and even putting them on a birthday cake for Her, thus joining today’s traditions with ancient ones. (Want to know when Sirius rises in your area so you can time Her birthday locally? Click here.)

Such interpretations and updating of our traditions is precisely what we human beings have always done. It enables us to connect with the richness of the past and to have traditions that continue to make spiritual and emotional sense to us.

If this scholarly theory about the birthday of Isis is correct, during those 800 years from 5th-century-BCE Egypt to 4th-century-CE Rome, the form of the Isis lamp-lighting rite no-doubt changed, the language changed, the images of the Goddess changed, and yet the essence of the festival was retained: the birth of Isis was celebrated with illuminations. In Egypt, these lamps may have illuminated the paths of the dead or kept the chaos of the end of the year at bay until a brand new light—the light of Sirius, the Star of Isis—rose to signal the arrival of the New Year. Hundreds of years later, in Rome, the lamps may have been symbols of the illumination brought by Isis to the souls of Her initiates and devotees or the Divine Light She shone upon them every day. What do the illuminations of Isis mean to you today and how will you celebrate?

Happy Lychnapsia!




  1. Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.

  2. I’ve read the same information on the Festival of Lights of Aset/Isis in R. E. Witt’s book Isis in the Ancient World and in Malcolm Drew Donalson’s book The Cult of Isis in the Roman Empire. And in Religion in Roman Egypt too although I’ve forgotten the author’s name at the moment.

    The Festival some Kemetics celebrate as the Festival of Lights for Aset/Isis is Aset, the Brilliant, Mother of God (Aset Luminous) from Temple Festival Calendars of Ancient Egypt by Sherif El-Sabban. It’s not the same date as Her birthday (although Her birthday can be celebrated the same). It’s on the 4th Month of Shomu Day 2.

    Thank you for such a detailed post on this festival.

    • Yes! I have that temple calendar…the procession of Isis the Brilliant. Love it! “And every good thing is offered to Her.”

  3. Reblogged this on Adventures and Musings of a Hedgewitch.

  4. Thank you for this gift to all who love Isis and thank you for all the work you are doing and have done regarding Isis. It is a joy to be in the presence of such work. Blessings, Love and Light, C. Isis Andersen

  5. Reblogged this on theINFP.

  6. […] In a papyrus known as Leyden I, She is called “The Great One, Daughter of Nuet.” She is said to be “in Chemmis,” that is, in a particular city in the delta, and She is invoked particularly for protection. In another papyrus, Leyden II, the fourth day is said to be named “the pure one who is in his field.” The masculine pronoun would seem to exclude Isis. It could allude to Osiris or it could be a scribal error. If it should have been the Pure One Who is in Her Field, it would make a good deal of sense in connection with Isis since Isis was associated with the pure new plants that would soon be coming forth from the Egyptian fields with the New Year. In two calendars known as the Cairo calendars, the fourth epigomenal day is said to be named, “the one who makes terror.” Isis is also called the Goddess Who Guides the 3kt-Eye, Daughter of Nuet, Lady of Chemmis. Another calendar notes the fourth day is called, “the child who is in his nest; the Birth of Isis.” (I wonder whether this child is Horus or Isis Herself since the day is Her birthday?) There is some evidence that Isis’ temple at Philae may have been dedicated to Her on the 4th epigomenal day, as a birthday present. At Hathor’s temple of Denderah, which also had a smaller Temple of Isis, there are numerous references to Isis’ connection with the New Year and the renewal it brings. Osiris’ own birthday in this same period only reinforces the connection with rebirth and renewal. For more on Isis and a lamp festival on Her birthday, check out this post. […]

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