Sadly, most of Isis’ devotees today are no longer in Egypt. Instead, happily, they are spread out across the globe.
Yet, this diffusion of devotion to Isis is really nothing new; it was part of the ancient world as well. Well before Egypt’s conquest by Alexander, we see devotion to Isis outside Egypt’s borders.
Even during archaic times (800 BC – 480 BC), we see traces of devotion, such as inscriptions or votive images. By the late 4th century BCE, Egyptians living in the Piraeus, Athens’ port city, had built a temple for Her there. At about that same time, the oldest of three Isis-Sarapis sanctuaries on the Greek holy island of Delos was established. We have evidence of Her worship in Crete from the 3rd or 2nd century BCE.
From the beginning of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt to the Roman period, devotion to Isis spread quickly throughout the Mediterranean and then, with the Roman Empire, broadly. As we saw in last week’s post, there was even an Isis temple in London, Roman Londinium. And this is really just the beginning. A papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt provides a long list of where She was worshipped and under what epithets.
Greek parents began giving their children names that included Hers at about these same times. Scholars generally agree that when we see an upswing in what are known as theophoric names (“Deity-Bearing” names; for instance, “Isidora” is a theophoric name), we are witnessing an increase in the Deity’s popularity as well. In Greece, we see a few Isis-bearing names in the 3rd century BCE, many in the 2nd century BCE, then an absolute explosion of Isis names from the 1st century BCE through the Roman Imperial period.
Perhaps even more interesting is that people may have taken names that included Hers as a sign of their devotion. This is not so different today. My own theophoric name is a taken name that I legally changed to permanently connect me with Her. And I know I’m not the only one.
Isis may have been especially important in Miletus, an ancient Greek city in what is now Turkey. There are five women, known from their funerary reliefs, who all bore the name Isias (or Eisias) and had come to Athens from Miletus. Some scholars have suggested that these women may have been former slaves who were freed in the name of Isis and therefore took the name of their deliverer. Others have suggested that they were initiates of Isis who took Her name—or that they may have been both.
The five Isis-named women in Athens were shown on their grave reliefs in the famous “dress of Isis,” that is, the fringed mantle with Isis knot, and holding the sistrum and situla. But theirs were not the only examples. In fact, we know of 108 such Attic reliefs of women and some men with Isis attributes; the women wear the Isis-knotted dress, while the men hold the sistrum and situla. During the Roman period in Athens, this number makes up one-third of all the known (and published) grave reliefs. If that number reflects true percentages rather than just chance, that’s an awful lot of Isiacs.
In addition to the possibility that these Isis-accoutered people were initiates of Isis, it has also been suggested that they may have either been priest/esses, had a priest/essly function, or may simply have been especially enthusiastic devotees; for example, volunteers who helped maintain the sanctuaries and participated in the rites.
Or they may have been members of religious associations, like the thiasoi I mentioned last week, which were connected with the sanctuaries and served both a religious and social function. We know of one such group in particular that was connected to one of the Isis-Sarapis sanctuaries on Delos. It seems likely that enthusiasts would be members, or even founders, of such associations.
People could also stay for a time at the temples. In Apuleius’ tale of initiation into Isis’ Mysteries, prior to deciding to be initiated, his character Lucius simply spends time in Isis’ sanctuary:
“I took a room in the temple precincts, and set up house there, and though serving the Goddess as layman only, as yet, I was a constant companion of the priests and a loyal devotee of the Great Deity.” (Book XI, 19)
I wish he had described what specific things he, as a layperson, was allowed to do to serve the Goddess.
He does describe in part the morning rites, to which the public seems to have been welcomed:
“I waited for the doors of the shrine to open. The bright white sanctuary curtains were drawn, and we prayed to the august face of the Goddess, as a priest made his ritual rounds of the temple altars, praying and sprinkling water in libation from a chalice filled from a spring within the walls. When the service was finally complete, at the first hour of the day, just as the worshippers with loud cries were greeting the dawn light…” (Book XI, 20)
From the evidence we have from Greek Isis sanctuaries, it seems that the Greeks used priest/essly titles they were familiar with, but with adaptations to fit Isis’ mythos. We have records of a hiereus, a priest, a stolistes, one who adorns the sacred image of Isis, a zakoros, an attendant, a kleidouchos, a key bearer, and a melanophoros, a bearer (or wearer) of the black garments—Isis’ black garments of mourning. We can expect that Isis received offerings of food and drink, as did native Greek Deities.
We have mentions from several Roman writers about devotions to Isis. The poets Propertius and Tibullus complain of the period of sexual abstinence their mistresses undertook for Isis. Ovid writes of the crowds of penitents at the temple of Isis. Tibullus also mentions a ritual called votivas reddere voces in which devotees could join in the singing of the virtues (aretai) of Isis in front of Her temple twice a day. (I wonder if they used any of the aretalogies of Isis we know of.)
Interestingly, when Isis comes to Rome, Her Roman worshippers seemed to have tried to make Her worship more “Egyptian” than did Her Greek worshippers. For instance, Roman Isis temples celebrated the rising of Sothis. They added back Egyptian symbols, such as the divine animals: crocodile, baboon, and canine. We see the development of lifelong priesthoods, something done in Egypt, but not done in Greece. Some Roman emperors may have especially appreciated the Egyptian relationship between Isis the Throne and the pharaoh. And it is in Italy that we first see priestesses of Isis rather than just priests.
For modern devotees, knowing the ways in which our spiritual ancestors honored Isis can inspire us in developing our own ways to honor Her. Whether we make offerings of food upon Her altar, pour libations of milk and wine, or sing of Her aretai before our shrines, we honor the Goddess Who fills our hearts and we connect with those who have gone before us.