6. Isis

Africa’s most influential cultural export to the Greco-Roman world was the worship of the goddess Isis. The worship of Isis became very popular with both Greeks and Romans and spread throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. Isis was assimilated to various Greek and Roman divinities and forms of religious activities (e.g. mystery cults).
In the Egyptian pantheon, Isis is the sister and wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus. The Egyptian pharaoh was considered the earthly embodiment of Horus. Isis also represents the pharaoh’s throne. This connection results from her name. In Egyptian, Isis is Iset and one meaning of this Egyptian word is “throne.” Beyond being the mother of the pharaoh, Isis has a further connection to fertility, as she represents the agricultural productivity that results from the yearly Nile flood.

6.1 Isis and Greek Goddesses

As her worship spread throughout the Mediterranean world, Isis was linked to several Greco-Roman goddesses. Her association with the Nile flood and the resulting agricultural productivity of Egypt made Demeter an appropriate Greek divinity through whom to understand the Egyptian goddess. The connection between Isis and human reproduction, via the Osiris-Isis-Horus myth, and with seafaring suggests Aphrodite as another Greek analog. Finally and perhaps relating to her role as protector of the pharaoh, Isis is linked with the Greek Tyche, personification of the good fortune and prosperity of a city. Tyche, in turn, is associated with the Roman Fortuna, who has as one of her attributes the cornucopia and, thus, the Isis-Fortuna link embodies the idea of agricultural productivity as well.

6.1.1 Herodotus Histories 2.59, 61, excerpts (c. 425 BCE; Greek)

Herodotus is the first Greek author to mention an Isis festival. He identifies Isis with the Greek goddess Demeter.
59. The Egyptians celebrate holy days not once a year but frequently. The celebrate especially eagerly the festival of Artemis at Bubastis. Second in importance is the festival of Isis at Busiris. The greatest temple of Isis is in this city and the city is located in the middle of the Delta of Egypt. Isis is known as Demeter in the Greek language. The festival of Athena in Sais is the third most important; the festival of Helios at Heliopolis is fourth; the festival of Leto at Buto is fifth; the festival of Ares at Papremis is sixth.
61. … I have already mentioned how they hold the festival of Isis in the city of Busiris. [1] After the sacrifice, all the men and women in throngs engage in mourning. Whom they mourn is not appropriate for me to say. As many Carians as live in Egypt do more than this: they cut their foreheads with knives, a clear sign that they are not Egyptians, but foreigners.

6.1.2 Inscriptiones Graecae II3 1 337, excerpt (333 BCE; Greek)

This inscription from Piraeus, the port of Athens, mentions a sanctuary of Isis built by Egyptians. This is the first record of a permanent cult site of Isis in Greece.
          During Nicocrates’ term as archon,
          in Pandionis’ second prytany. Member
          of the presiding committee
          Phanostratus of Philaidai
30      called for a vote. It was
          decided by the people. Lycurgus
          son of Lycophron of Boutadai
          spoke concerning the things which
          were thought lawful by the Kitian traders
35      who were asking to supplicate
          the people for a piece of land
          on which they could found a shrine
          of Aphrodite. It was referred to the people
          to give to the Kitian traders
40      a piece of land
          on which to found
          a shrine of Aphrodite
          just as the Egyptians
          have founded a shrine of
45      Isis.

6.1.3 Vidman, Sylloge Inscriptionum Religionis Isiacae et Sarapiacae 128 (4th c. BCE; Greek)

This inscription from Perinthus in Thrace demonstrates the association of Isis with Aphrodite.
Artemidorus, son of Heraiiskos, serving as priest to Isis Aphrodite

6.1.4 Plutarch Isis and Osiris 53 (45–120 CE; Greek)

Plutarch describes Isis as representing the female aspect of the natural world and connects the goddess with fertility.
For Isis is the female aspect of nature and is the receiver of all creation; for this reason she was called “nurse” and “all-receiving” by Plato and “she of countless names” by most people because she, transformed by reason, takes on all shapes and forms. She has an innate love of the first and governing principle of all things, which is the same as the good. That is what she desires and pursues. She flees and pushes aside the part that comes from evil. Being both the locus and material of both good and evil, she leans always toward the better of these and allows it to reproduce and to sow its emanations and likenesses in her. In these she rejoices and she is happy when she becomes pregnant and is filled with the creations. For creation is an image of being in matter and its product is a representation of truth.

6.1.5 Vidman Sylloge Inscriptionum Religionis Isiacae et Sarapiacae 358

The inscription below appears on the base of a statue representing Isis/Fortuna. Attributes including a cornucopia and a rudder identify this Isis as connected with the goddess of good fortune.
Pharian Isis [2]

6.2 Isis Worship

The worship of Isis in Greece and Italy resembled the rituals associated with mystery cults. Mystery cults were religious groups that required participants to be initiated. Associated with a particular god or goddess, the mystery cult offered initiates the promise of a better afterlife in return for their worship. [3] Only initiates were allowed to know the secret rituals. Some information about the cult of Isis is preserved in Apuleius’ novel, Metamorphoses. From this work, we gather that initiates underwent purifying baths, confessed and asked forgiveness for their sins, and dressed in linen clothing. The sistrum, a bronze rattle, was shaken during the worship of Isis, perhaps to ward off evil spirits with its sound. [4]

6.2.1 Pausanias Description of Greece 10.32.13–18, excerpt (110–180 CE; Greek)

Pausanias describes the result of entering a shrine of Isis without being invited by the goddess via a dream or vision. The shrine he describes is near Tithorea, which is in the vicinity of Mt. Parnassus.
13. Approximately forty stadia from the shrine of Asclepius is the precinct and sacred shrine of Isis. This shrine is the most sacred of all those the Greeks have established to the Egyptian goddess. For the Tithoreans do not consider it right to live adjacent to it and entry to the shrine is not granted to any other than those whom Isis herself honors with an invitation via their dreams. The gods of the underworld do the same thing in the cities above the Maeander: they send manifestations in dreams to those whom they wish will come to their shrines.
14. In their country, the Tithoreans hold a festival of Isis twice a year in the spring and fall. On the third day before each of the festivals, those for whom it is permitted to enter clean the shrine in a certain secret way. Whatever remains they find of offerings that were thrown in during previous festivals, they take to the same place and bury them there. We judge this place to be two stadia from the shrine.
15. On this day, they do these things around the shrine; on the next day, traders put up booths made from reeds and other sticks they find; on the last day of the three, they celebrate by selling slaves, all sorts of herd animals, clothing, silver, and gold.
16. After the middle of the day, they turn their attention to sacrifice. Those who are rather wealthy sacrifice cattle and deer; those who are less wealthy sacrifice geese and guinea-fowl. They do not customarily use sheep, pigs, or goats. It is necessary for the ones consecrating the victims in preparation for sending them into the shrine to wrap them in coarse or fine linen: the way of preparing them is Egyptian.
17. There is a procession of all the sacrifices: some send the victims into the shrine while others burn the booths in front of the shrine and then quickly depart. They say that one time a man who was not among those admitted to the shrine but who was uninitiated, at the time when the pyre began to burn, entered the shrine on account of curiosity and daring. They say that he saw it was full of ghosts and that when he returned to Tithorea and described what he saw, his own soul departed from life.
18. I have heard similar things from a Phoenician man, that the Egyptians hold a feast of Isis when they say that she is mourning Osiris. At that time the Nile begins to rise and many of the natives have a saying that the tears of Isis make the river rise and water the fields. The Phoenician also said that the Roman governor who commanded Egypt at the time convinced a man with an offer of money to enter the shrine of Isis in Coptus. The one who had been sent returned from the shrine and, after describing all that he had seen, immediately died. …

6.2.2 Apuleius Metamorphoses 11.15–18, excerpts (late 2nd c. CE; Latin)

After magic accidentally transforms him into a donkey, Lucius regains his human form, thanks to the goddess Isis, and describes his initiation into the cult of Isis.
15. The priest spoke thus: “After enduring many varied labors and being driven through great storms and extreme tempests of Fortune, Lucius, you have come at last to a harbor of repose and an altar of mercy. … But in some way the blindness of Fortune, while it tormented you with the worst dangers, led you by shortsighted ill-will to this reverent happiness. … Now you have been received into the care of Fortune—Fortune, that is, who sees—and who illuminates the other gods by the brightness of her own light. Now put on a happier expression suited to your white attire and follow the procession of the savior goddess with a rejoicing step. Let the impious ones see, let them see and recognize their error: ‘Look here! Lucius, released from his earlier troubles by the providence of great Isis, rejoicing, triumphs over his Fortune.’ So that you may be safer and more protected, give your name to this sacred order, the oath of which you were recently administered, dedicate yourself already now to the service of our religion, and assume a voluntary yoke of ministry. For when you begin to serve the goddess, then you will feel the satisfaction of your freedom more.”
16. Having prophesied in this way, the eminent priest, breathing heavily, fell silent. Then, joined with the religious throng and going forth, I accompanied the procession, visible and recognizable to the whole population, conspicuous because of their pointing and nodding. All the people were saying to me, “Today the divine will of the all-powerful goddess has transformed this sacred one into human form. … “Among these events and the commotion of celebratory prayers, advancing little by little we came to the sea shore and arrived at that very place, where on the previous day I had been stabled as a donkey. There, when the religious objects had been properly arranged, the highest priest dedicated to the goddess a carefully built ship decorated all around with wonderful Egyptian painting and consecrated it with a bright torch, an egg, and sulfur, after speaking solemn prayers with a pious mouth. The brilliant white linen sail of this auspicious ship was embroidered with the letters of a vow. These letters formed a prayer for favorable sailing in the new trading season. The mast rises, a round pine tall in its brilliance, conspicuous for its shining top. The stern, cloaked in gold leaf, shone in the shape of a goose’s neck. The whole ship shone with polished citron wood. Then all the people, religious or not, gather up winnowing fans loaded with aromatics and with prayers of this type pour libations of milk onto the waves until the ship, filled with substantial gifts and auspicious offerings, freed from its anchor ropes, was returned to the sea on a gentle breeze. …
17. When we came to the temple itself, the highest priest, those who who were carrying the divine effigies, and those who had already been initiated into the secret worship ritually place within the sanctuary of the goddess lifelike statues. Then one of these, whom all referred to as a scribe, standing before the doors at the coming of the pastophores (which is the name of this holy college of priests) [5] as though calling them to an assembly, from a high platform in the same place read from a book favorable prayers for the great emperor, the senate, the equestrians, and the whole Roman people, as well as the sailors, and ships controlled by the Roman empire. He made the following declaration in Greek, “Ploiaphesia,” [6] by which he signified to all that they could set sail auspiciously. A should of the people followed. … My mind, however, did not allow me to move from the spot; rather, I, gazing eagerly at the appearance of the goddess, was recalling my earlier misfortunes.
18. Rumor had not traveled slowly on sluggish wings, but at once it spread everywhere throughout the country the kindness of the provident goddess and my remarkable good fortune. Immediately, my friends, servants, and close relatives put aside the grief, which had overtaken them at the false news of my death, and, immediately cheered and each bearing gifts, hastened toward me as though seeing one raised from the dead…

6.2.3 Plutarch Isis and Osiris 3 (45–120 CE; Greek)

Plutarch sees in Isis worship aspects that are reminiscent of Greek mystery cults.
Many write that Isis is the daughter of Hermes and many that she is the daughter of Prometheus because they consider Prometheus the inventor of wisdom and foresight and Hermes the inventor of music and the literary arts. Because of this, in Hermopolis they call the first of the Muses Isis and also Justice, since she is wise, as they say, and shows sacred things to those who are truly and justly called bearers of holy vessels and guardians of sacred vestments. These are the ones who carry in their soul, as in a desk, the holy words about the gods, words that are pure of all superstition and officiousness, and who keep the words hidden, giving hints at the ideas about the gods, some obscure and shadowy and others open and clear. The same things are displayed through the sacred clothing. On account of this, dressing deceased worshippers of Isis in these clothes is a sign that the words are with them and that, having these and nothing else, they proceed to the afterlife. Letting the beard grow, Klea, [7] and wearing a threadbare cloak does not make one a philosopher; likewise, wearing linen and shaving one’s hair does not make one a worshipper of Isis. Rather, the true worshipper of Isis is one who, when he receives the things being shown and given about the gods, inquires using reason and pursues knowledge of the truth in them.

6.2.4 Plutarch Isis and Osiris 63 (45–120 CE; Greek)

Plutarch describes the significance of the sistrum, a rattle generally made of bronze and consisting of small metal rods that move back and forth in a frame when the it is shaken.
The sistrum indicates that all things in existence must be shaken and that this action must never be stopped. Rather, they must be awakened and agitated when they lose strength and fall asleep. For they say that Typhon shies away from and is driven off by the sistrum. This demonstrates that when deterioration binds nature and brings it to a standstill, creation sets it free and awakens it through motion. The sistrum has a curved top and this arch holds the four parts that are shaken. For the portion of the world that is created and destroyed is surrounded by the sphere of the moon, but all things in it are moved and changed through the four elements: fire, earth, water, and air. On the curved upper part of the sistrum, they carve the head of a cat with a human face. On the bottom, under the parts that are shaken, on one side is the face of Isis and on the other the face of Nephthys. [8] These symbolize birth and death, for they are changes and movements of the elements. The cat symbolizes the moon because it is dappled, moves at night, and is fertile. For it is said that the cat bears one, then two, then three, then four, then five, and so on one by one until she produces seven. She bears twenty-eight in all, as many as there are days in a lunar cycle. Perhaps this is just legend. The pupils of the cat’s eyes, however, seem to become fuller and widen at the full moon and to grow thinner and contract as it wanes. The reason and logic of the moon’s changes are displayed in the human face of the cat.

6.3 Suspicions about Isis Worship

The worship of Isis came to Rome in the late second century BCE and, like other mystery cults, aroused considerable suspicion. The issue was the secrecy of the gatherings, as is evident from the Decree of the Senate Concerning the Bacchanalia, [9] an inscription dating to 186 BCE. This document prohibits Bacchic rituals, except with the permission of the Senate and was deemed necessary based on rumors that the rites involved licentious behavior and concerns that secret meetings could be used to launch conspiracies against the government.
Temples of Isis in Rome came and went. Temples to Isis were torn down five times in the late Republic. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, the members of the Second Triumvirate established a temple of Isis in Rome. In 28 BCE, however, Octavian forbid the worship of Isis within the city of Rome. Tiberius continued this hostility to Isis worship, but Caligula again allowed an Isis temple in the city and subsequent emperors let it remain. [10] Suspicious of Isis worshippers persisted, however, as Juvenal attests.

6.3.1 Cassius Dio Roman History 47.15.3–4 (200–222 CE; Greek)

Dio describes some of the actions taken by the Second Triumvirate (Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus) after the death of Julius Caesar.
They expunged some laws and added others. In short, they did everything as it seemed best to them. They did not seek titles that were odious and that had been, because of this, abolished. They conducted affairs according to their wish and desire and, as a result, Caesar’s reign seemed golden. In that year, besides doing these things they also established a temple of Isis and Serapis.

6.3.2 Suetonius Tiberius 36, excerpts (119 CE; Latin)

Suetonius attributes to Tiberius the destruction of Isis’ temple in Rome.
He repressed foreign religious rites, including the Egyptian and Jewish, and compelled those who were involved in these superstitious rites to burn their ritual clothes and implements. … He also expelled astrologers, but pardoned those who appealed to him promising to cease their practice.

6.3.3 Juvenal Satires 6.486–491 (late 1st–early 2nd c. CE; Latin)

As a cult popular with women, the cult of Isis attracted speculation concerning what women were doing in their worship of this goddess. Juvenal implies that Isis’ temple was used as a meeting place for lovers and casts the goddess in the role of a procuress or madam, arranging or at least sanctioning these trysts.
          Her house is no milder than the territory of a Sicilian tyrant.
          If she decides and wishes to dress in a way more becoming
          than usual, when hurrying to meet someone in a garden
          or more probably at the temple of that madam Isis,
490    unfortunate Psecas fixes her mistress’s hair with
          her own hair pulled out and her breasts and shoulders bare.

6.3.4 Tibullus Elegies 1.3.23–26 (30–26 BCE; Latin)

Tibullus describes abstaining from sex as part of women’s worship of Isis.
          Now what use is your Isis to me, Delia, how does that
          bronze [11] struck so often by your hand benefit me,
25      or—I remember—while you piously observed the rites,
          your purifying bath and sleep in a chaste bed?


[ back ] 1. The name means ‘city of Osiris’.
[ back ] 2. I.e. Isis of Pharos, the island in Alexandria harbor.
[ back ] 3. Mikalson 1983:82.
[ back ] 4. The cymbals used in the worship of Cybele seem to have served a similar purpose.
[ back ] 5. Pastophores ‘Icon-carrying priests’.
[ back ] 6. Ploiaphesia ‘the launching of the ship’.
[ back ] 7. Plutarch addresses his treatise to Klea, a priestess at Delphi.
[ back ] 8. Nephthys was the sister of Isis and had funerary associations.
[ back ] 9. Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum i2 2, 581.
[ back ] 10. Pomeroy 1975:223–225.
[ back ] 11. I.e. the sistrum.