Posted by: Isidora | June 8, 2014

So how did the worship of Isis spread throughout the ancient world?

Roman Isis, from the 2nd century CE, in the Farnese Collection in Naples. Perhaps my favorite non-Egyptian image of the Goddess. Now I have seen Her up close and personal. Image copyright Forrest 2009.

Roman Isis, from the 2nd century CE, in the Farnese Collection in Naples. Image copyright Forrest 2009.

Statisticians will do the darndest things.

I just read an article that was a statistical analysis of the conditions that aided in the spread of the worship of Isis from Egypt into the wider Mediterranean world. The period we’re talking about here is roughly from the second century BCE to the second century CE, a period of about 400 years.

Yeah, I know; boring.

Well, much of it, yes. But there is something in it of interest to Isis devotees, which I’ll get to in a moment. First a quick summary.

You’re probably well aware of how, during the time period we’re talking about, the worship of Isis grew out of Egypt and flourished in the nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea, eventually being carried into Europe. Today, there is hardly anywhere on earth that educated people don’t know the name of Isis. Indeed, I am constantly amazed at how often Her name, or an acronym of it, is used for everything from scientific journals to women’s outdoor clothing to (horribly; please stop, please stop) a terrorist group.

Christian symbols carved on the walls of the Philae temple

Christian symbols carved on the walls of Isis’ temple at Philae

During this ancient period of the diffusion of Her worship, at least 35 new sanctuaries for Her were constructed. And those are only the ones of which we’re found evidence. Egyptologist Laurent Bricault (who is on, by the way) made an atlas of Isis sanctuaries at the time and found 167 of them in Africa, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, Gaul, the Balkins, Britain and Spain.

Scholars often note that Her worship particularly appealed to women, yet merchants, sailors, and soldiers (most of whom were, presumably, men) were important in spreading Her cult. It’s probably more accurate to say that the worship of Isis appealed—and still appeals—strongly to both women and men.

This terracotta of an Isis devotee is Roman, but made in Egypt; now in London in the British Museum. Credits: Barbara McManus, 2001

This terracotta of an Isis devotee is Roman, but made in Egypt; now in London in the British Museum. Credits: Barbara McManus, 2001

The author of the statistical study, Robert A. Wortham, identified four hypotheses he wanted to test. They are:

• That Isis temples were established earlier in larger cities

• That Isis temples were established earlier in urban locations closer to Rome

• That Isis temples were established in urban centers with high degrees of religious pluralism

• And that (here’s the interesting one, folks) the diffusion of the Isis cult and the diffusion of Christianity were intertwined

Here’s what he found:

While Isis was indeed worshipped in larger cities, the statistics did not support the idea that the city had to be large in order for Isis temples to be established; i.e. the correlation was not “statistically significant.”

The “distance from Rome” hypothesis didn’t seem to be statistically significant either. The spread of Isis worship seems to have been so pervasive that it didn’t matter whether the sanctuary was in a small town or a large city or whether it was close to Rome, the center of the universe at the time.

All these and more, please

All these and more, please

However, the “religious pluralism” hypothesis was strongly supported. It is also interesting how Wortham defined religious pluralism; it was by the presence of a Christian church, a Jewish synagoge, a Gnostic church, or any combination thereof. Those had to be the indicators of pluralism since the world was generally polytheistic and temples to many Deities was the norm. It was the acceptance of monotheisms that proved pluralism.

Another factor was that these “religious marketplaces” were “deregulated” in that they were generally not controlled by the state and the people living there were open to, even hungry for, new spiritual opportunities; the market wasn’t “saturated,” so there was room for something new. Unmet religious needs existed.

The Isis-Christianity relationship was also highly supported. Wortham took note of the correlations between the Isis-Osiris-Horus death-rebirth myth and the Christos’ death-rebirth myth as well as the Madonna and Child imagery of both Isis worship and Christian worship. Since it is easier for people to accept new ideas if they are similar to old ideas, it is possible that the “cultural continuity” between Isiacism and Christianity may have aided in the spread of Christianity. These harmonies between the two spiritualities are still being discussed, debated, and making some people rather agitated even today.

The Holy Mother & Her Holy Child

The Holy Mother & Her Holy Child

I must admit, knowing what eventually happened, I was a little saddened by learning that Isis may have paved the way for the religion that, wherever it spread, would eventually kill not only Her ancient worship, but that of all the Deities save the Christian one(s). A sociologist much discussed in Wortham’s study, Rodney Stark, concluded from his studies that when exclusive religious groups in a competitive free-market environment challenge non-exclusive religions, exclusive faiths eventually prevail.

But I don’t think exclusive vs. non-exclusive is the whole story. In terms of the rise of Christianity, exclusivity certainly made proselytizing simple, but it seems to me that the real key was Christianity’s rising political power. Once Constantine converted and started making anti-Pagan laws, it was all over. When your choice of Deity means you can be fined, excluded from the best jobs, especially political ones, have your property confiscated, and perhaps even forfeit your life, well, you’re kinda screwed. (No, I’m not forgetting Roman persecution of Christians. But the Romans were equal opportunity about it; they also persecuted Isiacs and Jews and Bacchants and I’m sure there were others.)

Religious freedom for all of us means we need the vibrant existence of many religions and many religious ideas in the “marketplace.” Frankly, I don’t know what the answer is when it comes to religions that insist that theirs is the one true way. How do we tolerate intolerance? How far can religious freedom go before it interferes with the liberties of others? But there is one thing that I do know: no religion—mine, yours, or anybody’s—should have the political wherewithal to enforce religious beliefs with actual laws. The separation of church and state is a vital, even if not always a perfectly realized and sometimes imperiled, concept.










  1. This was a particularly interesting post. Just last night I was having a discussion with an atheist and his adventures in engaging creationists. So right that spiritualities are still being discussed, debated, and making some people rather agitated even today. I would toss secular humanism into the mix while we’re at it.

    To my surprise, in the illustration subtitled ‘All these and more, please,’ I was able to identify many but not all of the religious symbols circling the earth. Would appreciate a list.

  2. “How do we tolerate intolerance? How far can religious freedom go before it interferes with the liberties of others?”

    They certainly don’t make it easy do they? In one corner you have the “Our way or the highway” monotheists and in the other you have the “Religion is a plague on humanity” atheists and both sides work so hard to convert fringe types.

    It’s a load off of one’s mind to not feel compelled to indoctrinate others in paganism. Thank you for this post.

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