Last week we talked about Isis devotees outside of Egypt.
But how did there come to be devotees outside of Egypt anyway? How did the worship of an Egyptian Goddess move out of Her homeland and into the greater Mediterranean world?
This is such an interesting puzzle for scholars in many disciplines, from history to religion to sociology, that it has actually been studied quite a bit. But what about those of us who are not historians or religious scholars or sociologists. Why care? Why not just say ‘it is what it is’ and call it a day? Does knowing how Isis’ worship spread make any difference at all to modern Isiacs?
For me, it’s about knowing our history. Those of you who know my work with Isis, know that I have no problem with innovative personal expressions of spirituality. Our relationship with Isis doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. Nevertheless, Isis is a Goddess with a tradition. And like all living traditions, it has grown and changed over the millennia. If we are to be educated Isiacs, it’s important for us to know about those changes and developments.
This question also bears on Who we think Isis is. Once She leaves Egypt’s borders, does She became a different Goddess? Most certainly Iset began to look more Hellenized as Her worship spread. But for me, that is merely a matter of form, not essence. I’ve written about that here. And also here.
But today I’d like to look at that crucial period when Isis moved out of Egypt, how that may have come to be, and how, as a consequence, Isis earned Her epithet, the Many-Named.
First of all, we must remember that even within Egypt itself, Isis was already being joined with many other Goddesses; this is sometimes called “syncretism.” The natural fluidity of Egyptian Deities made this easy. Deities could combine—Osiris-Re, for example—or one could be the ba of another. Isis and Osiris were not just local Egyptian Deities, either. By the 5th century BCE, Herodotus could note that They were the only Deities worshipped throughout Egypt. And although Isis was known outside of Egypt even before this time, it was about then that Her tide began to rise. By the time of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt, it was surging.
But Isis was not the only one. There was a lot of religious movement at the time. Mysteries like those at Eleusis began drawing international crowds. Thracian, Syrian, and Jewish cults were seen in cities throughout the Greco-Roman world. And as they moved in, there were periods of both rejection and acceptance.
When rejected, the new types of worship were seen as deviations from the civic norm and thought either exotic, ridiculous, or horrible. Throughout Isis’ history in Italy, Her worship was rejected a number of times. But it also had periods of high-ranking patronage.
When accepted, we often see the “new” Deities being “translated” for Their new audiences. Since Hellenism was the dominant culture, the non-Greek Deities were translated into Greek—in names, symbols, and forms—so that They could be better understood by the local populations. Isis is like Demeter. Demeter is like Isis. To further explain the harmonies between the Deities, people might transfer symbols. Isis might be shown holding shafts of wheat, for example. That wasn’t in Her Egyptian iconography, but She is connected with grain and the grain cycle in Egypt and so it made sense to show Her in that way so that people could know at least something about Her.
Some aspects of the spread of Isis’ worship seem to have been quite natural. Egyptians who traveled to or settled in other parts of the world brought their Goddess with them. For instance, we know that Athens’ rulers had allowed an Isis temple to be built in the Piraeus “at the request of the Egyptians” sometime in the late 4th century BCE.
In an article I’m reading right now by Greg Woolf, he makes an interesting suggestion as to why Isis may have been singled out by Greeks “from the dense web of Egyptian myth and ritual for particular attention.” In addition to Her prominence in Egypt and the pathos of the Isis-Osiris myth, Isis’ sheer proximity may have been a factor. Her cult center at Isiopolis in the Egyptian delta was readily accessible to visitors from throughout the Mediterranean. (Having named this site “Isiopolis,” that idea pleases me.)
Other aspects of the diffusion of Isis’ worship seems to have been more purposeful.
When Alexander, who conquered Egypt in 332 BCE, was laying out the plans for his new capitol at Alexandria, he specified the number of temples that should be built and to which Greek Deities. He also personally marked the location for “a temple to the Egyptian Isis.” This was clearly a political move. Alexander wanted to placate his Egyptian subjects by including a temple to one of their most popular Deities in his new city. He chose Isis. By doing so, Alexander both recognized Her prominence in Egypt at the time and set the stage for Her prominence throughout the Mediterranean world in the future.
Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemies, the Macedonian Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt from 305 BCE until Rome conquered Egypt in 30 BCE, continued the promotion of Isis, as well as Her new consort Serapis. (You can read more about Serapis in Edward Butler’s excellent article here.)
As we have already seen, a number of the Ptolemaic queens associated themselves with Isis and most likely are the source of the famous knotted robes seen in later images of Isis and Her priestesses. Oh, and the Ptolemies built Egyptian temples—lots of temples. For the most part, these are the temples we still see today in Egypt.
At the time of the Alexandrian conquest, Memphis was a key Egyptian city. It is likely that Egyptian priesthoods there assisted in this translation of Isis to the rest of the Mediterranean. The famous Isis aretalogies, which include both Greek and Egyptian elements, were said to have been copied from an original text at Memphis. It is likely that the aretalogies (along with other hymns and praises of Isis) depicting Isis as both all-powerful and kindly were part of a program of evangelization.
Yet it is not as simple as Ptolemaic political promotion of the Egyptian Deities. Scholars who have studied this extensively have rejected that too-simple explanation repeatedly.
According to one idea of how religions spread, any new religion must be able to fit within existing structures yet it must also offer an element of risk. In other words, it must offer something new and exciting, while at the same time being able to fit within people’s existing ideas.
With Isis’ Hellenization, Her worship was able to fit in. Each time Isis was translated to local people through the Goddesses they already knew, She added to Her list of names and epithets. We specifically find such equations in hymns like those by Isidorus of the Faiyum, in the Oxyrhynchus papyrus, and in Lucius’ prayer in The Golden Ass.
Yet Isis also offered something different. She was Egyptian and exotic. Her rites—especially when they were re-Egyptianized as Her worship came to Italy—were very different than Greek and Roman civic rites and could be quite emotionally exciting. She even developed Mysteries in the Greek mode, which provided a very personal experience of the Divine. Even so, these new Mysteries were merely another way of expressing Her eternal and essential identity as a Goddess of birth, death, and rebirth.
For many, it made Her irresistible. And it is because Isis made this transition out of Egypt that so many still know Her today.