Posted by: Isidora | August 30, 2014

The Mysteries of Isis in Antioch

A photo of the site of the House of the Mysteries of Isis in Antioch

Ancient Antioch, modern Antakya, is in Turkey. It was an ancient Greek city, located on the banks of the Orontes River.

Like Alexandria, it was founded by one of Alexander’s generals, in this case, Seleucus I Nicator who also founded the Seleucid Dynasty and ruled over the largest part of the lands conquered by Alexander.

This included Mesopotamia, Armenia, Cappadocia, Persis, Parthia, Bactria, Arabia, and more. Much of the ancient city is still underground, but some has been excavated, revealing a wealth of beautiful mosaics. So why are we talking about this?

Because several of those mosaics have to do with Isis. It is well known that Isis was worshipped in Antioch. Her worship was supposed to have been introduced by Seleucus IV (187-175 BCE), who built an Iseum there for Her, but it may have been even earlier based on the evidence of ancient coins. Images of the Goddess and of Serapis have been discovered, as well as numerous lamps with Isis on them, personal household votive images of the Goddess, and coins with Her head, headdress, or bust.

A coin from Antioch showing an Isis headdress

A coin from Antioch showing an Isis headdress

In ancient Antioch, Isis seems to have been assimilated most strongly with Demeter, Persephone, Aphrodite, and Tyche or Fortuna, as She was in many places, and was preeminently a Goddess of Mysteries.

The locations with the Isis mosaics have been dubbed “The House of the Mysteries of Isis” (in Antioch) and “The House of the Isiac Ceremony” (in Daphne, modern Defne-Yakto, a suburb of Antioch). Perhaps you can see why they caught my interest.

The House of the Mysteries of Isis is just down the hillside from another house with important mosaics, the House of the Bakchic Thiasos. So here again, we find Isis and Dionysos in close proximity; these two houses are, in fact, the only two buildings in the area.

The initiation scene from the House of the Mysteries of Isis; pretty hard to tell what's going on, isn't it?

The initiation scene from the House of the Mysteries of Isis; pretty hard to tell what’s going on, isn’t it? You can see Hermes touches the man with a wand as the female figure, likely Isis, gestures.

The largest preserved fragment from the House of the Mysteries of Isis is thought to show the voluntary ritual death of the initiate of Isis (as in Apuleius’ tale of initiation into Her Mysteries).

It appears to show the initiate, being led by Hermes, with wand in hand and caduceus on His shoulder, to his “death” (represented by the doorway), while Isis, possibly enthroned, watches him go. Because of the lack of common Isiac attributes (e.g. sistrum) and the fragmentary nature of the mosaic, we’re not completely sure this female figure is supposed to be Isis; perhaps she is a priestess, a spirit, or a different Goddess. Naturally, there is scholarly controversy over her/Her identification.

In a second room in the same house, a mosaic has been identified as a representation of the Navigium Isidis, the Festival of the Ship of Isis, also described by Apuleius. This would strengthen the case that the female figure in the previous mosaic is intended to be Isis, but there has been controversy over the identification of this scene as well.

Interestingly, the room with the ritual death of the initiate faces west; this is appropriate for the Egyptian tradition that the dead entered The Beautiful West, personified as the Goddess Amentet Noferet. The Navigium scene faces east, perhaps indicating new beginnings. Of course, there may be no significance to the orientation, but if its just chance, it is magically excellent chance.

The thing that looks like it's on top of Her head is supposed to be an unlit torch that is sort of resting against Her shoulder and appears to be on Her head.

The thing that looks like it’s on top of Her head is supposed to be an unlit torch that is sort of resting against Her shoulder and appears to be on Her head.

In the ritual death scene, the female figure wears a white peplos, a veil, and a wreath with spiky foliage on it. She holds a torch and reaches out to the initiate. The initiate may be naked but for a headdress and shoulder drape; we can’t tell because the middle of his body is missing.

The ritual mosaic is in a small room, suggesting that it was not intended for any type of group ritual, but was likely intended for the family and may have been commissioned to commemorate the homeowner’s own initiation. One researcher has suggested that the ambiguity of the Goddess figure was purposeful, so that only initiates would know who She was, while non-initiates could simply appreciate the mosaic as a work of art.

This seems like an interesting and reasonably possible scenario to me. This idea may be supported by the fact that none of the figures are labeled with a name, which is uncommon in ancient mosaics.

The mosaic from the House of the Isiac Ceremony is much more straightforward. It clearly shows two female figures, one in Isiac white and one carrying a sistrum. This could easily be a representation of an Isis ceremony in which the homeowner took part and wished to commemorate. Who knows? Perhaps it was even the home of a priestess of Isis.

The mosaic from The House of the Isiac Ceremony

The mosaic from The House of the Isiac Ceremony; the figure on the right holds a sistrum in her upraised hand

Another mosaic from Antioch is part of a calendar and shows a wreath-crowned woman with libation cup, spear, and with her tunic knotted at the breast similar to the famous Isis knot. It’s hard to read, but may be labeled as “March.” Thus, one of the scholars studying this piece suggested that the figure represented the Navigium, which was held on March 5 and opened shipping for the year.

A calendar mosaic from Carthage shows a figure with a sistrum for November, which was the month in which the festival of Isis’ Search for Osiris was held.

So there you are. We don’t know much about Isis in Antioch, but so far at least, this is the most interesting of the information I’ve been able to find. I hope archeological work continues to go on in Antioch so that we may learn more about Isis in this important city that was so vital in ancient times.

Sistrum-bearing November from Carthage

Sistrum-bearing November from Carthage

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Responses

  1. Very interesting and informative. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

  2. Wow. This is great information. Thank you for sharing it.


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