fbpx

Goddess Isis: Fascinating Facts About The Mother Of All Gods

One of ancient Egypt’s most important divinities was ‘the mother of all gods.’ A goddess worshipped all over the ancient world, Isis.

Isis lactans, Isis Rome, Isis Ramses I relief.
The ancient Egyptian goddess Isis. Neues Museum, Berlin. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. Metropolitan museum.

 

What do ancient Egyptian temples, Athens, Rome, Paris, and London, have in common? They are all places where the goddess Isis was worshipped. A mother goddess beloved by the Egyptian people and an important Greek and Roman deity worshiped in Rome and all over the Roman world. This is the story of the goddess Isis.

 

We Shouldn’t Call Her Isis, But Aset

 

An awful name mix-up exists between a terrorist group committing genocide, cultural heritage destruction, and an Egyptian goddess. One way to solve the confusion is to call Isis by her Egyptian name, Aset. Another is to contemplate how the ancient goddess Isis symbolized multicultural tolerance.

 

A Major Goddess From The Origins Of The Ancient Egyptian Civilization

Ancient Egyptian gods Horus, Osiris and Isis
Horus, Osiris and Isis, gold pendant of Osorkon II, Louvre. Osiris was the first King of Egypt, Horus, the legitimate heir to the throne, Isis Queen of Egypt, Pharaoh’s mother. Photo © Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

 

According to an ancient Egyptian myth, there was nothing but watery darkness at the beginning of time. Then, the sun appeared atop a mound rising from the waters. The sun god created the air Shu and moisture Tefnut. Both, in turn, engendered the sky Nut and the earth Geb. Out of Geb and Nut’s union were born the gods Osiris and Seth, and goddesses Isis and Nephthys.

 

Osiris and Isis had key roles in the ancient Egyptian belief system. Osiris as the promise of eternal life, having been killed and then resurrected by his sister-wife, Isis. Their son was the falcon god Horus, rightful King of Egypt. All Pharaohs were Horus in life and Osiris in the hereafter.

 

Isis As The Throne Of Egypt

Isis is the Greek adaptation of an Egyptian name, 𓊨, roughly meaning ‘she of the throne’. Both Isis and Osiris use a throne for their hieroglyphic name. Her Egyptian name can be pronounced Aset, Eset, Uset, Iset or Ese. Photo Met, © Musée du Louvre / Hervé Lewandowski, British Museum.

 

Sign of Isis’ prominent role for royal power, her hieroglyphic name is a throne. Every Pharaoh was her child. This divine trinity, Osiris, Isis, and Horus, legitimated the power of the person sitting on the throne of Egypt.

 

Helping to maintain a political system that lasted three millennia would already make her one of ancient Egypt’s most important divinities. But Isis’ role went much further than protecting kingship.

 

Isis Protective Role In The Afterlife

Isis on Ramses III sarcophagus, Tutankhamun gold sarcophagus
Isis wrapped around Ramses III’s sarcophagus. Nephthys and Isis wings wrapped around Tutankhamun, “I have come, I encircle my son. I shall be his protection eternally as I have done for Osiris.” Photo © Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps; Egypt Museum.

 

Isis was “Great of Magic,” with the power to bring the dead back to life. The Pyramid texts repeatedly mention her, like inside Unas pyramid, the King, now Osiris, directly addresses her.

 

Isis, this Osiris here is your brother, whom you have made revive and live:
he will live and this Unas will live, he will not die and this Unas will not die.

 

The Pyramid texts would evolve into the “Book of the Dead.” It is not a pessimist book, as dying is “the night of going forth to life,” where one awakens from death, alive. Its Egyptian title is instead “Book of Going Forth by Day.” It should be understood as a map to the great beyond, towards eternal life.

 

Nefertari's tomb Isis and Nephthys.
Nephthys and Isis, as kites, Nefertari’s tomb. Tyet Knot of Isis amulet placed on mummies, for protection in the afterlife. Photo courtesy Kairoinfo4u. British Museum.

 

Isis shared her ability to overcome death with ordinary Egyptians. She mourned in the form of a kite, a bird whose shrill cry sounds like the piercing screams of a grieving mother. Then, she magically resurrected the dead. Here are the words one hoped to hear Isis say in the afterlife.

 

I have come that I may be your magical protection.
I give breath to your nose …
I have caused that you exist as a god …
I have provided you protection.
Illumined is your face with your beauty,
my lord, opened are your blind eyes forever.

 

The Mother Goddess Beloved By All Egyptians

Isis suckling her son Horus figurines.
Isis suckling her son Horus figurines. Metropolitan Museum, Neues Museum Berlin.

Isis wasn’t a remote divinity accessible only to high priests. Having overcome tragedy, her husband’s death, and protecting her son alone made her a compassionate, humane deity. A maternal goddess, Isis was a reassuring figure, with the power to solve many life problems.

She would save a child bitten by a deadly snake, as she saved Horus. A spell against snake bites calls for her motherly protection.

 

I sat down and I wept. Isis, my mother, sat near me,
Saying to me ‘Do not weep, do not weep, my child’.

 

Another spell, in a medical papyrus, in the section “for the healing of all diseases”, states:

 

Oh Isis, you great enchantress, heal me, deliver me from all evil …
as you did deliver and release your son Horus!

 

If a man wanted a woman to love him, he asked that she “love me for all her time as Isis loved Osiris.” If one was lost, Isis “never abandons the one who invokes her on the road”.

 

From the average person to Pharaoh, Isis helped with fertility, childbirth, love, healing, travel, and in due course, eternal life. No wonder that Isis gave hope to millions of Egyptians.

 

Isis, The Goddess Of Many Names

Isis, Isis-Aphrodite, Isis-Demeter statues.
Egyptian Isis, having adopted Hathor’s cow horns holding the sun headdress. Isis-Demeter, Isis-Aphrodite.
Photos Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio, Nueues Museum Berlin, Met.

 

Isis gained her astonishing magical powers from the sun god, tricking Ra into giving her his powers.

 

Now, Isis was a wise woman.
Her heart was more devious than millions among men;
she was more selective than millions among the gods.
There was nothing that she did not know in heaven or earth.

 

 

She was said to have ten thousand names. Among them were:

 

Mistress of heaven. Divine mother.
Queen of all gods, goddesses, and women.
The bestower of life. The Lady of bread.
The Lady of beer. The Lady of abundance.
The Lady of joy. The Lady of love.
Beautiful, mighty, and beloved One.

 

As ancient Egyptians could easily merge two gods into one, Isis gradually took on other goddesses’ attributes, particularly from Hathor. Originally, Isis only was associated to others in temples. Sign that her importance only grew, temples specifically dedicated to her were built in the Egyptian civilization’s late stages.

 

Philae temple of Isis, Egypt.
Temple of Isis, Philae. Photo by the author.

 

Alexander the Great’s conquest ushered seven centuries of Greek, then Roman rule over Egypt. Perplexed by the animal-human gods, both had no problem adopting a human, motherly figure. She could easily become Greek, as “Isis is known as Demeter in the Greek language.”

 

Cleopatra became “the New Isis.” As Egypt was becoming Roman, Isis became universal.

 

However many mortals live on the boundless earth,
They all pronounce your beautiful name,
much honored among all peoples,
In their own languages, and in their own native lands.

 

An Egyptian Goddess Worshipped From England To Afghanistan

Isis from Pompeii, Rome. Arch of Isis to the Iseum Campense, Vatican.
Isis from Pompeii, Rome. Arch of Isis to the Iseum Campense, Vatican.

 

From the 4th century BC, Isis was worshipped in Greece. By the Roman era, there was a sanctuary of Serapis in Athens and a small temple to Isis at the foot of the Acropolis.

 

In Rome, her cult was a ‘mystery religion.’ After episodes of repression and destruction, Isis and Serapis (Osiris-Apis) cults were protected by Emperors. By the 3rd century AD, there were several temples and sanctuaries to Isis and Serapis in Rome. A Roman didn’t need to travel to Egypt to see obelisks, pyramids, and Egyptian statues.

 

Quirinal Serapeum of Rome, digital reconstitution, remains.
Reconstitution of the Serapeum atop the Quirinal, one of the largest temples of Rome, if not the largest. Courtesy Katatexilux. Right, what remained by the Renaissance.

 

Towering above the city, the Serapeum was the most important Roman temple to Egyptian deities. And Rome was the largest center for Egyptian gods outside Egypt.

 

Isis’ festivals took place twice a year. Even Romans uninterested in her ate bread made with Egyptian grain, transported by the Isis, the imperial carrier boat.

 

In Paris, a temple of Isis was thought to be a potential source of Paris’ name, from the Latin quasi par Isis’. It is said that a statue of Isis adorned a Parisian church until 1514. Inscriptions attest to the existence of an Isis temple in London. Isis still is today an alternative name for the river Thames.

 

Bronze figurines of Serapis and Harpocrates, Isis’ husband and son, were found as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Isis had become a multicultural deity, worshipped by Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, from slave to Emperor. The cult of Isis was the most widespread of the ancient world.

 

From Queen Of Egypt To Protector Of The Roman Empire

Roman Imperial coins Isis and Serapis. Trajan relief Dendera Temple.
Serapis and Isis, Isis nursing Horus on Roman coins. Commodus, 192 AD. Empress Julia Domna, 196-202 AD.
Claudius II, 268-270 AD, facsimile. In Egypt, Pharaoh Trajan, Dendera temple. Photos British Museum, the author.

 

Roman Emperors were depicted as Pharaohs on Egyptian temple reliefs. Vespasian attended an important religious event in Egypt. Hadrian toured the country and admired its monuments.

 

One of Isis’ titles was Augusta, feminine of Augustus, Emperor. Commodus made Serapis and Isis “conservatori augusti,” meaning Emperor protectors. Both gods were also depicted on coins minted for the wishes made for the Emperor’s welfare.

 

After three millennia protecting Egypt’s throne, Isis, nursing Horus, wished Rome an “age of Good Fortune.” She was one of the deities safeguarding one of the largest Empires in history. It was to be the peak of Isis’ reign, before the fall.

 

End Of The Cult Of Isis

Isis lactans, Philae, Herculaneum, Karanis.
Isis suckling Horus. Philae temple, Isis, defaced, suckling Harpocartes. Isis from Herculaneum. 4th century AD painting from Karanis, Egypt, probably among Isis and Horus’s last depictions. Philae photo by the author – Soprintendenza Pompei – Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

 

The temple of Isis at Philae, built during the era of Greek Pharaohs, is one of the best-preserved temples of Egypt. At the southern reaches of the Roman Empire, it saw the end of the old ‘pagan’ ancient Egyptian religion.

 

After 3,500 years of use, the last hieroglyphic inscription was etched on its walls in 394 AD. Three years earlier, it was made illegal to “go around the temples; [to] revere the shrines.” The very last words carved in hieroglyphs were that of the “Second Priest of Isis, for all time and eternity.”

 

The final record of the cult of Isis in Philae is a Greek inscription dated 456 AD. The temple was closed in 535 AD.

 

These barbarians retained the temples on Philae,
but the Emperor Justinian decided to destroy them.
Narses … destroyed the temples on the Emperor’s orders,
held the priests under guard, and sent the statues to Byzantium.

 

Fortunately, the survival of the temple of Isis proves that ‘destroyed’ was an exaggeration. The temple was instead converted into a church.

 

Historians debate if Isis nursing Horus influenced Mary and Jesus’ portrayal, as there was no Christian tradition of human or divine images. For a few centuries, both figures were worshipped in the same territories. Hence, Isis would have been the model for early Christians to depict Mary and Jesus.

 

The counterargument is that the similarities are coincidences, as there is nothing more universal than a mother nursing her child.

 

Goddess Isis And Religious Tolerance

Isis, Serapis, Isiac ceremony Pompeii.
Isis and Serapis Egyptian painting, Roman era. Isiac ceremony, Pompeii, fresco circa 62 – 79 AD.
Getty, Museo Archeologico Nazionale.

 

Around 1,900 years ago, the philosopher Plutarch discussed Egyptian and Greek beliefs with On Isis and Osiris. About the Egyptians:

 

And there is nothing to fear if, in the first place,
they preserve for us our gods that are common to both peoples
and do not make them to belong to the Egyptians only …
they do not deny the great gods to the rest of mankind.

 

And the Greeks:

 

Nor do we think of the gods as different gods among different peoples,
nor as barbarian gods and Greek gods.
But, just as the sun and the moon
and the heavens and the earth and the sea are common to all,
[they] are called by different names by different peoples.

 

Survival Of Isis In The Modern World

Renaissance Isis, by Pinturicchio, and illustration of Boccaccio.
‘The ancient goddess and Queen of Egypt Isis’, illustration from Boccaccio’s ‘Concerning Famous Women’. Pinturicchio’s Isis, Moses and Hermes Trismegistus, Vatican. Both late 15th century. Source Gallica.

 

Isis wasn’t forgotten, thanks to being part of the Greek and Roman culture rediscovered during the Renaissance. This is how Isis and Osiris are depicted on the ceiling of Pope Alexander VI’s private apartments. Then, following Champollion’s decipherment, the original Egyptian story could be read again.

 

Her popularity in the ancient world meant that people took the name Isidoros or Isidora, meaning ‘Gift of Isis’. As San Isidoro, towns’ names based on ‘Gift of Isis’ can be found from the US to Argentina and the Philippines. A species of deep-sea coral bears the name of Isis, goddess of the seas. Some of these corals are 4,000 years old.

 

Associated with the star Sirius, her name has been given to satellites and a crater of our moon. Farther away is another Isis crater on Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede.

 

Traces of the ancient goddess Isis are deeply embedded in society’s fabric and millions of people’s daily lives. Isis still is a female first name, sung by Bob Dylan. A colossal marble Isis is one of the ‘talking statues’ of Rome.

 

However hard one tries, it would be impossible to erase the ancient Egyptian goddess from five millennia of history. Isis’ legacy spread across the world, deep in the oceans, on the moon, and out in space.

 

 


 

Note on the ancient Egyptian monuments of Rome.

 

There were two pyramids (only one exists today), numerous obelisks, sphinxes, lions, and statues. Some statues were imported from Egypt, others were created in Rome, in the Egyptian style.

 

The Serapeum on the Quirinal was one of the largest temples of Rome. Its position, on top of one of Rome’s hills, put it on an equal footing with the temple of Jupiter, on the Capitol. It probably was inspired by the Serapeum of Alexandria.

 

Its columns are estimated to have been 21 meters (70 feet) high. For comparison, roughly twice the height of Athens’ Parthenon columns. A fragment of its cornice, in the garden of the Palazzo Colonna, weighs 100 tons. It is the largest fragment of ancient Rome.

 

Historians describe that Caracalla “brought the cult of Isis to Rome and built magnificent temples to this goddess everywhere, celebrating her rites with even greater reverence than they had ever been celebrated before.” 

 

In 1882, a fragment of a statue of Ramses II was found on Rome’s Quirinal hill.

 

Note on ancient Egyptian gods figurines in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

 

Bronze figurines of Harpocrates (Greek for Horus child) and Hercules-Serapis were found in Bagram. National Museum of Afghanistan inv. 711.451 and 712.452. Another is in the Brooklyn Museum.

 

A statuette of Harpocrates was found in Sirkap, Pakistan. It is today is the National Museum of Pakistan, inv. 8699. A small figure of Harpocrates was found in Uzbekistan, in the Farghana Valley. It is in the Institute of History, Uzbek Academy of Sciences, Tashkent.

 

Figurines were found in Khotan, Xinjiang, China. Serapis and Harpocrates. And Harpocrates riding a horse found in Kara-Khoja, Tufan.

 

Alexander the Great conquest went as far as Afghanistan. During the Roman era there was trade by sea between Roman Egypt and India, as described by Strabo. As many as one hundred and twenty vessels were sailing from Myos Hormos to India.”

 


 

Sources

– Lesko, Barbara S. The Great Goddesses of Egypt, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
Allen, Thomas George. The book of the dead or Going forth by day, University of Chicago Press , 1974.
– Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2003.
– Wallis Budge, E. A. From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 1934.
– Dijkstra, Jitse H. F.  Religious Encounters on the Southern Egyptian Frontier in Late Antiquity: AD 298 – 642. – Religious Violence in Late Antique Egypt Reconsidered.
– Bricault, Laurent. Isis, Dame des flots. Aegyptiaca Leodiensia, 7, Liège 2006.
– Malaise, Michel. Les conditions de pénétration et de diffusion des cultes égyptiens en Italie – Inventaire Préliminaire des Documents égyptiens découverts en Italie. Brill, 1972.
– Roullet, Anne. The Egyptian and Egyptianizing Monuments of Imperial Rome. Brill, 1972.
– Žabkar, Louis V. Hymns to Isis in her temple at Philae. Brandeis University Press, Hanover and London, 1988.
Taylor, Rabun. Hadrian’s Serapeum in Rome. American Journal of Archaeology, Apr., 2004, Vol. 108, No. 2.
– Coarelli, Filippo. Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide. University of California Press, 2007.
– Walker, Susan. A Sanctuary of Isis on the South Slope of the Athenian Acropolis. The Annual of the British School at Athens, 1979, Vol. 74.
– Brentjes, B. A Figure of Harpocrates from the Farghāna Valley. East and West, March-June 1971, Vol. 21, No. 1/2 (March-June 1971). Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (IsIAO).

Isis lactans, Isis Rome, Isis Ramses I relief.
The ancient Egyptian goddess Isis. Neues Museum, Berlin. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. Metropolitan museum.

 

What do ancient Egyptian temples, Athens, Rome, Paris, and London, have in common? They are all places where the goddess Isis was worshipped. A mother goddess beloved by the Egyptian people and an important Greek and Roman deity worshiped in Rome and all over the Roman world. This is the story of the goddess Isis.

 

We Shouldn’t Call Her Isis, But Aset

 

An awful name mix-up exists between a terrorist group committing genocide, cultural heritage destruction, and an Egyptian goddess. One way to solve the confusion is to call Isis by her Egyptian name, Aset. Another is to contemplate how the ancient goddess Isis symbolized multicultural tolerance.

 

A Major Goddess From The Origins Of The Ancient Egyptian Civilization

Ancient Egyptian gods Horus, Osiris and Isis
Horus, Osiris and Isis, gold pendant of Osorkon II, Louvre. Osiris was the first King of Egypt, Horus, the legitimate heir to the throne, Isis Queen of Egypt, Pharaoh’s mother. Photo © Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

 

According to an ancient Egyptian myth, there was nothing but watery darkness at the beginning of time. Then, the sun appeared atop a mound rising from the waters. The sun god created the air Shu and moisture Tefnut. Both, in turn, engendered the sky Nut and the earth Geb. Out of Geb and Nut’s union were born the gods Osiris and Seth, and goddesses Isis and Nephthys.

 

Osiris and Isis had key roles in the ancient Egyptian belief system. Osiris as the promise of eternal life, having been killed and then resurrected by his sister-wife, Isis. Their son was the falcon god Horus, rightful King of Egypt. All Pharaohs were Horus in life and Osiris in the hereafter.

 

Isis As The Throne Of Egypt

Isis is the Greek adaptation of an Egyptian name, 𓊨, roughly meaning ‘she of the throne’. Both Isis and Osiris use a throne for their hieroglyphic name. Her Egyptian name can be pronounced Aset, Eset, Uset, Iset or Ese. Photo Met, © Musée du Louvre / Hervé Lewandowski, British Museum.

 

Sign of Isis’ prominent role for royal power, her hieroglyphic name is a throne. Every Pharaoh was her child. This divine trinity, Osiris, Isis, and Horus, legitimated the power of the person sitting on the throne of Egypt.

 

Helping to maintain a political system that lasted three millennia would already make her one of ancient Egypt’s most important divinities. But Isis’ role went much further than protecting kingship.

 

Isis Protective Role In The Afterlife

Isis on Ramses III sarcophagus, Tutankhamun gold sarcophagus
Isis wrapped around Ramses III’s sarcophagus. Nephthys and Isis wings wrapped around Tutankhamun, “I have come, I encircle my son. I shall be his protection eternally as I have done for Osiris.” Photo © Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps; Egypt Museum.

 

Isis was “Great of Magic,” with the power to bring the dead back to life. The Pyramid texts repeatedly mention her, like inside Unas pyramid, the King, now Osiris, directly addresses her.

 

Isis, this Osiris here is your brother, whom you have made revive and live:
he will live and this Unas will live, he will not die and this Unas will not die.

 

The Pyramid texts would evolve into the “Book of the Dead.” It is not a pessimist book, as dying is “the night of going forth to life,” where one awakens from death, alive. Its Egyptian title is instead “Book of Going Forth by Day.” It should be understood as a map to the great beyond, towards eternal life.

 

Nefertari's tomb Isis and Nephthys.
Nephthys and Isis, as kites, Nefertari’s tomb. Tyet Knot of Isis amulet placed on mummies, for protection in the afterlife. Photo courtesy Kairoinfo4u. British Museum.

 

Isis shared her ability to overcome death with ordinary Egyptians. She mourned in the form of a kite, a bird whose shrill cry sounds like the piercing screams of a grieving mother. Then, she magically resurrected the dead. Here are the words one hoped to hear Isis say in the afterlife.

 

I have come that I may be your magical protection.
I give breath to your nose …
I have caused that you exist as a god …
I have provided you protection.
Illumined is your face with your beauty,
my lord, opened are your blind eyes forever.

 

The Mother Goddess Beloved By All Egyptians

Isis suckling her son Horus figurines.
Isis suckling her son Horus figurines. Metropolitan Museum, Neues Museum Berlin.

Isis wasn’t a remote divinity accessible only to high priests. Having overcome tragedy, her husband’s death, and protecting her son alone made her a compassionate, humane deity. A maternal goddess, Isis was a reassuring figure, with the power to solve many life problems.

She would save a child bitten by a deadly snake, as she saved Horus. A spell against snake bites calls for her motherly protection.

 

I sat down and I wept. Isis, my mother, sat near me,
Saying to me ‘Do not weep, do not weep, my child’.

 

Another spell, in a medical papyrus, in the section “for the healing of all diseases”, states:

 

Oh Isis, you great enchantress, heal me, deliver me from all evil …
as you did deliver and release your son Horus!

 

If a man wanted a woman to love him, he asked that she “love me for all her time as Isis loved Osiris.” If one was lost, Isis “never abandons the one who invokes her on the road”.

 

From the average person to Pharaoh, Isis helped with fertility, childbirth, love, healing, travel, and in due course, eternal life. No wonder that Isis gave hope to millions of Egyptians.

 

Isis, The Goddess Of Many Names

Isis, Isis-Aphrodite, Isis-Demeter statues.
Egyptian Isis, having adopted Hathor’s cow horns holding the sun headdress. Isis-Demeter, Isis-Aphrodite.
Photos Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio, Nueues Museum Berlin, Met.

 

Isis gained her astonishing magical powers from the sun god, tricking Ra into giving her his powers.

 

Now, Isis was a wise woman.
Her heart was more devious than millions among men;
she was more selective than millions among the gods.
There was nothing that she did not know in heaven or earth.

 

 

She was said to have ten thousand names. Among them were:

 

Mistress of heaven. Divine mother.
Queen of all gods, goddesses, and women.
The bestower of life. The Lady of bread.
The Lady of beer. The Lady of abundance.
The Lady of joy. The Lady of love.
Beautiful, mighty, and beloved One.

 

As ancient Egyptians could easily merge two gods into one, Isis gradually took on other goddesses’ attributes, particularly from Hathor. Originally, Isis only was associated to others in temples. Sign that her importance only grew, temples specifically dedicated to her were built in the Egyptian civilization’s late stages.

 

Philae temple of Isis, Egypt.
Temple of Isis, Philae. Photo by the author.

 

Alexander the Great’s conquest ushered seven centuries of Greek, then Roman rule over Egypt. Perplexed by the animal-human gods, both had no problem adopting a human, motherly figure. She could easily become Greek, as “Isis is known as Demeter in the Greek language.”

 

Cleopatra became “the New Isis.” As Egypt was becoming Roman, Isis became universal.

 

However many mortals live on the boundless earth,
They all pronounce your beautiful name,
much honored among all peoples,
In their own languages, and in their own native lands.

 

An Egyptian Goddess Worshipped From England To Afghanistan

Isis from Pompeii, Rome. Arch of Isis to the Iseum Campense, Vatican.
Isis from Pompeii, Rome. Arch of Isis to the Iseum Campense, Vatican.

 

From the 4th century BC, Isis was worshipped in Greece. By the Roman era, there was a sanctuary of Serapis in Athens and a small temple to Isis at the foot of the Acropolis.

 

In Rome, her cult was a ‘mystery religion.’ After episodes of repression and destruction, Isis and Serapis (Osiris-Apis) cults were protected by Emperors. By the 3rd century AD, there were several temples and sanctuaries to Isis and Serapis in Rome. A Roman didn’t need to travel to Egypt to see obelisks, pyramids, and Egyptian statues.

 

Quirinal Serapeum of Rome, digital reconstitution, remains.
Reconstitution of the Serapeum atop the Quirinal, one of the largest temples of Rome, if not the largest. Courtesy Katatexilux. Right, what remained by the Renaissance.

 

Towering above the city, the Serapeum was the most important Roman temple to Egyptian deities. And Rome was the largest center for Egyptian gods outside Egypt.

 

Isis’ festivals took place twice a year. Even Romans uninterested in her ate bread made with Egyptian grain, transported by the Isis, the imperial carrier boat.

 

In Paris, a temple of Isis was thought to be a potential source of Paris’ name, from the Latin quasi par Isis’. It is said that a statue of Isis adorned a Parisian church until 1514. Inscriptions attest to the existence of an Isis temple in London. Isis still is today an alternative name for the river Thames.

 

Bronze figurines of Serapis and Harpocrates, Isis’ husband and son, were found as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Isis had become a multicultural deity, worshipped by Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, from slave to Emperor. The cult of Isis was the most widespread of the ancient world.

 

From Queen Of Egypt To Protector Of The Roman Empire

Roman Imperial coins Isis and Serapis. Trajan relief Dendera Temple.
Serapis and Isis, Isis nursing Horus on Roman coins. Commodus, 192 AD. Empress Julia Domna, 196-202 AD.
Claudius II, 268-270 AD, facsimile. In Egypt, Pharaoh Trajan, Dendera temple. Photos British Museum, the author.

 

Roman Emperors were depicted as Pharaohs on Egyptian temple reliefs. Vespasian attended an important religious event in Egypt. Hadrian toured the country and admired its monuments.

 

One of Isis’ titles was Augusta, feminine of Augustus, Emperor. Commodus made Serapis and Isis “conservatori augusti,” meaning Emperor protectors. Both gods were also depicted on coins minted for the wishes made for the Emperor’s welfare.

 

After three millennia protecting Egypt’s throne, Isis, nursing Horus, wished Rome an “age of Good Fortune.” She was one of the deities safeguarding one of the largest Empires in history. It was to be the peak of Isis’ reign, before the fall.

 

End Of The Cult Of Isis

Isis lactans, Philae, Herculaneum, Karanis.
Isis suckling Horus. Philae temple, Isis, defaced, suckling Harpocartes. Isis from Herculaneum. 4th century AD painting from Karanis, Egypt, probably among Isis and Horus’s last depictions. Philae photo by the author – Soprintendenza Pompei – Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

 

The temple of Isis at Philae, built during the era of Greek Pharaohs, is one of the best-preserved temples of Egypt. At the southern reaches of the Roman Empire, it saw the end of the old ‘pagan’ ancient Egyptian religion.

 

After 3,500 years of use, the last hieroglyphic inscription was etched on its walls in 394 AD. Three years earlier, it was made illegal to “go around the temples; [to] revere the shrines.” The very last words carved in hieroglyphs were that of the “Second Priest of Isis, for all time and eternity.”

 

The final record of the cult of Isis in Philae is a Greek inscription dated 456 AD. The temple was closed in 535 AD.

 

These barbarians retained the temples on Philae,
but the Emperor Justinian decided to destroy them.
Narses … destroyed the temples on the Emperor’s orders,
held the priests under guard, and sent the statues to Byzantium.

 

Fortunately, the survival of the temple of Isis proves that ‘destroyed’ was an exaggeration. The temple was instead converted into a church.

 

Historians debate if Isis nursing Horus influenced Mary and Jesus’ portrayal, as there was no Christian tradition of human or divine images. For a few centuries, both figures were worshipped in the same territories. Hence, Isis would have been the model for early Christians to depict Mary and Jesus.

 

The counterargument is that the similarities are coincidences, as there is nothing more universal than a mother nursing her child.

 

Goddess Isis And Religious Tolerance

Isis, Serapis, Isiac ceremony Pompeii.
Isis and Serapis Egyptian painting, Roman era. Isiac ceremony, Pompeii, fresco circa 62 – 79 AD.
Getty, Museo Archeologico Nazionale.

 

Around 1,900 years ago, the philosopher Plutarch discussed Egyptian and Greek beliefs with On Isis and Osiris. About the Egyptians:

 

And there is nothing to fear if, in the first place,
they preserve for us our gods that are common to both peoples
and do not make them to belong to the Egyptians only …
they do not deny the great gods to the rest of mankind.

 

And the Greeks:

 

Nor do we think of the gods as different gods among different peoples,
nor as barbarian gods and Greek gods.
But, just as the sun and the moon
and the heavens and the earth and the sea are common to all,
[they] are called by different names by different peoples.

 

Survival Of Isis In The Modern World

Renaissance Isis, by Pinturicchio, and illustration of Boccaccio.
‘The ancient goddess and Queen of Egypt Isis’, illustration from Boccaccio’s ‘Concerning Famous Women’. Pinturicchio’s Isis, Moses and Hermes Trismegistus, Vatican. Both late 15th century. Source Gallica.

 

Isis wasn’t forgotten, thanks to being part of the Greek and Roman culture rediscovered during the Renaissance. This is how Isis and Osiris are depicted on the ceiling of Pope Alexander VI’s private apartments. Then, following Champollion’s decipherment, the original Egyptian story could be read again.

 

Her popularity in the ancient world meant that people took the name Isidoros or Isidora, meaning ‘Gift of Isis’. As San Isidoro, towns’ names based on ‘Gift of Isis’ can be found from the US to Argentina and the Philippines. A species of deep-sea coral bears the name of Isis, goddess of the seas. Some of these corals are 4,000 years old.

 

Associated with the star Sirius, her name has been given to satellites and a crater of our moon. Farther away is another Isis crater on Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede.

 

Traces of the ancient goddess Isis are deeply embedded in society’s fabric and millions of people’s daily lives. Isis still is a female first name, sung by Bob Dylan. A colossal marble Isis is one of the ‘talking statues’ of Rome.

 

However hard one tries, it would be impossible to erase the ancient Egyptian goddess from five millennia of history. Isis’ legacy spread across the world, deep in the oceans, on the moon, and out in space.

 

 


 

Note on the ancient Egyptian monuments of Rome.

 

There were two pyramids (only one exists today), numerous obelisks, sphinxes, lions, and statues. Some statues were imported from Egypt, others were created in Rome, in the Egyptian style.

 

The Serapeum on the Quirinal was one of the largest temples of Rome. Its position, on top of one of Rome’s hills, put it on an equal footing with the temple of Jupiter, on the Capitol. It probably was inspired by the Serapeum of Alexandria.

 

Its columns are estimated to have been 21 meters (70 feet) high. For comparison, roughly twice the height of Athens’ Parthenon columns. A fragment of its cornice, in the garden of the Palazzo Colonna, weighs 100 tons. It is the largest fragment of ancient Rome.

 

Historians describe that Caracalla “brought the cult of Isis to Rome and built magnificent temples to this goddess everywhere, celebrating her rites with even greater reverence than they had ever been celebrated before.” 

 

In 1882, a fragment of a statue of Ramses II was found on Rome’s Quirinal hill.

 

Note on ancient Egyptian gods figurines in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

 

Bronze figurines of Harpocrates (Greek for Horus child) and Hercules-Serapis were found in Bagram. National Museum of Afghanistan inv. 711.451 and 712.452. Another is in the Brooklyn Museum.

 

A statuette of Harpocrates was found in Sirkap, Pakistan. It is today is the National Museum of Pakistan, inv. 8699. A small figure of Harpocrates was found in Uzbekistan, in the Farghana Valley. It is in the Institute of History, Uzbek Academy of Sciences, Tashkent.

 

Figurines were found in Khotan, Xinjiang, China. Serapis and Harpocrates. And Harpocrates riding a horse found in Kara-Khoja, Tufan.

 

Alexander the Great conquest went as far as Afghanistan. During the Roman era there was trade by sea between Roman Egypt and India, as described by Strabo. As many as one hundred and twenty vessels were sailing from Myos Hormos to India.”

 


 

Sources

– Lesko, Barbara S. The Great Goddesses of Egypt, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
Allen, Thomas George. The book of the dead or Going forth by day, University of Chicago Press , 1974.
– Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2003.
– Wallis Budge, E. A. From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 1934.
– Dijkstra, Jitse H. F.  Religious Encounters on the Southern Egyptian Frontier in Late Antiquity: AD 298 – 642. – Religious Violence in Late Antique Egypt Reconsidered.
– Bricault, Laurent. Isis, Dame des flots. Aegyptiaca Leodiensia, 7, Liège 2006.
– Malaise, Michel. Les conditions de pénétration et de diffusion des cultes égyptiens en Italie – Inventaire Préliminaire des Documents égyptiens découverts en Italie. Brill, 1972.
– Roullet, Anne. The Egyptian and Egyptianizing Monuments of Imperial Rome. Brill, 1972.
– Žabkar, Louis V. Hymns to Isis in her temple at Philae. Brandeis University Press, Hanover and London, 1988.
Taylor, Rabun. Hadrian’s Serapeum in Rome. American Journal of Archaeology, Apr., 2004, Vol. 108, No. 2.
– Coarelli, Filippo. Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide. University of California Press, 2007.
– Walker, Susan. A Sanctuary of Isis on the South Slope of the Athenian Acropolis. The Annual of the British School at Athens, 1979, Vol. 74.
– Brentjes, B. A Figure of Harpocrates from the Farghāna Valley. East and West, March-June 1971, Vol. 21, No. 1/2 (March-June 1971). Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (IsIAO).

Guillaume Deprez
Guillaume Deprez
Guillaume Deprez is a contributing writer and art historian, graduate of the Louvre School. Wondering why statues and monuments were destroyed and how many ancient artworks survive, he searched for a book answering that question. As the saying goes, when you want to read a book that has not been written, then you must write it. The result is Lost Treasures, the destruction of works of cultural heritage by intolerance and greed. An accessible and engaging book, a journey of discovery throughout the rise and fall of civilizations.

You may also like