Did you know that there is a yearly scholarly conference called the Conference of Isis Studies?
It started in 1997 as a small conference devoted to studying the diffusion of the worship of Isis in the Mediterranean and to fostering contact between researchers who study the Goddess. The proceedings of the conference are published every year by Brill, a wonderful scholarly publisher.
Most of the articles are either in French or English, and in general, of interest only to the deep scholar. The minutia of much of it can get a bit boring for even the Isis-focused reader. However, I usually skim the proceedings to see if anything new and fascinating has come to light. And I do wish I read French better.
I came across something in a semi-recent volume that is indeed of interest. Remember that this conference originally got started to study how the worship of Isis spread?
Well, I didn’t know that one of the theories scholars have been testing is whether there was some kind of “ur-statue” of Isis that served as the model for Her representation throughout the region. In other words, they are wondering whether there was one particular statue that became famous and was then copied by other people wanting an image of the Goddess for their shrines or temples. Presumably, this ur-statue would have the curled locks, a headdress of vaguely Egyptian style, a sistrum, perhaps a situla, and importantly, the famous Isis knot tied into the image’s robes.
So they try to find the earliest examples of these various attributes to see whether they can find some ancient example of the Isis statue with all or most of the attributes.
I’m looking at Robert Bianchi’s work on this right now. He thinks that the earliest example of the corkscrew curls hairstyle may be from the tomb of Petosiris, 4th century BCE. However, the style is not on Isis, but rather on a winged female figure on the ceiling of the tomb. Isis Herself appears to be wearing a standard braided Egyptian wig.
Bianchi thinks the curls are from Greek influence and cites numerous examples of Greek statuary, such as the korai and Athena, with these long, curled locks.
However, it is important to note the original influence of Egyptian sculpture on early Greek sculpture, most especially the kouroi. So perhaps it was another example of Egyptian influence flowing into Greece, then being returned from Greece to Egypt.
But rather than Isis’ curled hair, today I’m interested in Her famous Isis knot. By the time Isis’ worship moved out of Egypt and into the greater Mediterranean world, the Isis knot was indeed an Isis knot—and serves as a marker for the identity of the Goddess in Her images and those of Her priestesses.
When and where did that first appear?
We have already discussed the precedent for the Isis knot in New Kingdom women’s clothing, especially royal women’s clothing.
But it appears to have been the Ptolemaic queens—who were often identified with Isis and Hathor/Aphrodite specifically—who eventually turned the royal knotted outfit into an attribute of Isis specifically.
The earliest instance is Arsinoe II (born 316 BCE) on a monument known as the Pithom stele. Notably, Arsinoe is deceased on the stele and wears the knotted costume and Goddess headdress and is called “the image of Isis and Hathor.”
Arsinoe III is also shown wearing the knotted garment and headdress and she, too, is sometimes assimilated with Isis, for example, in inscriptions that blessed the queen as “Arsinoe Philadelphus Isis.”
By the time of Kleopatra III, Isis had gained more prominence and the queen was more and more connected with Her. When Kleopatra III gave birth to a son, she became “Isis, Mother of the God.” What’s more, because the child had the same birthday as the Apis bull, Kleopatra III also became the “Isis cow,” the Mother of Apis. It is more than likely that Kleopatra III encouraged these types of identifications as she was in an intense rivalry with her mother, Kleopatra II, to whom Ptolemy VIII was still married when he also married his niece, Kleopatra III. Talk about complicated relationships. Ptolemies.
Then finally, by the time of the last of the Ptolemies, Kleopatra VII identified herself completely with Isis as “The New Isis.”
By the end of his study, Bianchi concludes that there were enough different representations of Isis the Many-Named that it is not likely that there was a single ur-statue of the Goddess. However, and interestingly, he says that the Isis knotted garment does seem to have been reserved for Isis when She was being portrayed as especially “Egyptian.”
What this meant in practice was that when Isis wore the Isis knot, She was often also supplied with other images that tied Her more strongly to Egypt, such as a crocodile, Anubis, a cobra, or an Osiris Hydreios (an image of Osiris that gave Him a human head on what appears to be a vessel, although many of them were not hollow and could not have contained the Nile water associated with Osiris).
So here’s the trail so far: the knotted garment was originally an Egyptian fashion, especially seen on royal and noble women. The Ptolemaic queens, who were Greek but trying to be more Egyptian, adopted the knotted garment as an outfit that Egyptian royals wore. As part of “becoming Egyptian” the Ptolemies promoted the cult of Isis, Osiris/Sarapis, and Horus/Harpokarates. Egyptian tradition already associated the pharaoh with Horus, the son of Isis. To emphasize their Egyptian-ness, the Ptolemaic queens began to associate themselves with Isis and with Hathor. By the end of the dynasty, Isis was the more prominent and the queens, wearing their Egyptian knotted outfits, were strongly identified with Isis.
As Isis’ worship was spreading outside of Egypt at this time, non-Egyptian artists looked to Egypt for the way to portray the Goddess. Naturally, they looked to the queens. They then used the knotted garment, along with other symbols, to indicate that this particular image is indeed intended to be Isis Herself.
But that just has to do with imagery. In Egypt, the knot is more than just practical, it is also magical. And as Isis is Goddess of Magic, you may rely on the fact that She can do magic with knots. Thus modern Isiacs may be able to see the Isis knot as a visual emblem indicating the Goddess Isis, as well as a symbol of Her magical power.
I’ve run out of time and space this week…so next week, we’ll have ritual from Isis Magic that uses the power of magical knots for protection.