When (some) Romans first came to worship Isis in the first century BCE they embraced a religion that was even older than Christianity now is to us, for Isis had been worshipped in Egypt since the mid 2000s BCE. In neighbouring Greece she had been attracting worshippers since the 4th century BCE. Five-hundred years later, during the peak of the Roman empire, she was worshipped from as far west as England to as far east as Afghanistan; Tacitus even claimed she was worshipped as far north as Germania. She must have seemed exotically alluring to Romans in the same way that Indian spirituality captures the imagination of many Westerners today. Beyond the enticing mysteries of the orient the success of Isiacism was at least partly attributable to its ability to meet the needs of the increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan societies of the Roman empire. As a Goddess who subsumed the numerous other Gods of different regions Isis was able to achieve universal appeal – her cult was not restricted to Egyptians, but was embraced by people of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. Likewise, Isis was revered by the educated elite as well as slaves, and by women as well as (or perhaps even more than) men.
Lucius Apuleius, an intellectual from Roman Numidia, reverently described a vision of the Goddess in his Metamorphoses (more commonly known as The Golden Ass):
“… she had a full head of hair which hung down, gradually curling as it spread loosely and flowed gently over her divine neck. Her lofty head was encircled by a garland interwoven with diverse blossoms, at the centre of which above her brow was a flat disk resembling a mirror, or rather the orb of the moon, which emitted a glittering light. The crown was held in place by coils of rearing snakes on right and left, and it was adorned above with waving ears of corn. She wore a multicoloured dress woven from fine linen, one part of which shone radiantly white, a second glowed yellow with saffron blossom, and a third blazed rosy red. But what riveted my eyes above all else was her jet-black cloak, which gleamed with a dark sheen as it enveloped her … Stars glittered here and there along its woven border and on its flat surface, and in their midst a full moon exhaled fiery flames. Wherever the hem of that magnificent cloak billowed out, a garland composed of every flower and every fruit was inseparably attached to it … In her right hand she carried a bronze rattle … when she shook the rattle vigorously three times with her arm, the rods gave out a shrill sound. From her left hand dangled a boat-shaped vessel, on the handle of which was the figure of a serpent … Her feet, divinely white, were shod of sandals fashioned from the leaves of the palm of victory … She breathed forth the fertile fragrance of Arabia [likely frankincense] as she deigned to address me in words divine: ‘Here I am, Lucius, roused by your prayers. I am the mother of the world of nature, mistress of all the elements, first-born in the realm of time. I am the loftiest of deities, queen of departed spirits, foremost of heavenly dwellers, the single embodiment of all Gods and Goddesses. I order with my nod the luminous heights of heaven, the healthy sea breezes, the sad silences of the infernal dwellers. The whole world worships this single godhead under a variety of shapes and liturgies and titles. In one land the Phrygians, first born of men, hail me as the Pessinnuntian mother of the Gods; elsewhere the native dwellers of Attica call me Cecropian Minerva; in other climes the wave-tossed Cypriots name me Paphian Venus; the Cretan archers, Dictynna Diana; the trilingual Sicilians, Ortygian Proserpina; the Eleusians, the ancients Goddess Ceres; some call me Juno, others Bellona, others Hecate, and others still Rhamnusia. But the peoples [of Ethiopia and Egypt] … worship me with the liturgy that is my own, and call me by my true name, which is Queen Isis.
… set aside your grief, for through my providence your day of salvation is now dawning … Your future life will be blessed … and when you have lived out your life’s span and you journey to the realm of the dead … you will constantly adore me, for I shall be gracious to you. You will dwell in the Elysian fields … [Apuleius, The Golden Ass at 219-222].”
A startling feature of this vision is that Isis here proclaims herself as a monotheistic God, but she is crucially different to the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions, for she is not a jealous God. She does not revile the worship of other Gods, but claims their worship for her own. According to this perspective she is every other God and they are each facets of her divine entirety. Thus, her worship is necessarily proclaimed as universal in nature. According to this thinking, when Christians pray to God or revere Saints they really worship Isis. When Hindus revere Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti or any other God, they really worship Isis. When Shintoists pray to Amaterasu or when Buddhists pray to a Bodhisattva, they really pray to Isis. Essentially what this means is that, through an Isiac lens, not only is “God” inherently tolerant of other religions (they being the many paths to the ultimate truth of Isis’ godhead) but God is a woman, and not an androgynous woman either, but one who is conceived of as epitomising the most important features of traditional womanhood. The most popular myths about her portray Isis as an:
“ideal wife … She is beautiful, wise, faithful and fertile. While things go according to plan, she remains modestly in the background, supporting her husband and attending to the domestic tasks that are traditionally the wife’s lot [she is specifically associated with weaving, baking and brewing beer] … But we should not underestimate her. Isis is cunning and well versed in magic, and she is quite capable of independent action should the need arise … Her healing powers, in particular, are unsurpassed … While Osiris [her husband] takes a sabbatical to travel the world it is Isis, and not [Osiris’ brother] Seth, who is left to rule in his absence; the tradition of the wife deputising for the husband is a well-documented one, and we have examples of women from all walks of life directing their absent husbands’ affairs. When Osiris departs to the land of the dead, it is Isis who rules on her infant son’s behalf [Tyldesley, Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt at 113-118].”
When I read the myths about Isis the one thing that stands out above all others (for me) is her devotional love. She is devoted to her husband; devoted to her son. Likewise it is known that her adherents were well known for their devotional style of worship.
“Isis was a loving and compassionate deity who showed concern for each individual suppliant. She had herself suffered the loss of a beloved family member and could therefore understand and sympathise with human grief. Each year, when she saw the land of Egypt dry and unproductive, and the people sad and hungry, she was filled with sorrow, and her tears would cause the Nile to flood. The annual flood, of course, made the land once more alive and productive and the people happy. Like the death and rebirth of Bacchus’ grapevines, the death and rebirth of the land provided evidence of immortality. In addition, the central myth of this religion involved the death and resurrection of Isis’ husband, Osiris, and thus a promise to initiates [of Isiac religion] of resurrection after death and a blessed afterlife. Isis was a Goddess of fertility, and also of marriage and of sailing. She became, in fact, a universal Goddess, since she was concerned about any problems of suffering humankind. She was frequently portrayed as a loving mother nursing her son, Horus, and some of these depictions bear a striking resemblance to depictions of the Virgin Mary. The worship of Isis reached Rome early in the first century BC and acquired a strong following. In the 30s, however, it was harshly oppressed by Octavian because it was a religion of the enemy, the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. It could not, however, be crushed because its followers were so numerous and devoted. By the early first century AD, the worship of Isis was again flourishing in Rome, and throughout the Roman empire. The compassionate Goddess and loving mother who listened to the prayers of the lowliest individual and who grieved for the suffering of humankind won the personal devotion of Roman citizens … [Shelton, As the Romans Did at 400].”
“In the cult of Isis … religious identity … was more commonly paraded [than other initiatory cults, eg, that of Mithras]; and there were some priests and worshippers whose physical appearance (shaven heads) signified to the world that they belonged to Isis … Funerary inscriptions … suggest that some people were deeply attached to the cult of Isis. Some funerary monuments represent those they commemorate (mainly women) as servants of Isis, others define the deceased through numerous Isiac positions: a temple warden of Isis Pelagia who had held office for ten years; a man who had paid for a major festival of Isis; women described as Bubastiaca [a devotee of the cat Goddess Bubastis as an aspect of Isis] or Memphiana [an allusion to the major cult of Isis at Memphis]; or a wife commemorated by her husband as ‘chaste worshipper of the Pharian Goddess <ie, Isis>, diligent and beautiful in appearance’. Maybe the display of Isiac attachments on public funerary monuments stemmed from the connection between Isis and the afterlife. On the other hand, they do not read like an attempt to maximise the chances of the deceased in the (Isiac) after-life; rather, they pick out Isiac attachments as crucial attributes of the living … [Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Vol 1 at 308-309].”
This style of love and religion stands in contrast to the cult of the individual with which we are so familiar in our own time. Isiac religion asks us to focus instead on the love that we give to others; to be compassionate as Isis is compassionate; to be strong and persevering as Isis is strong and persevering; to be devoted and loving as Isis is devoted and loving. There are numerous myths which demonstrated these aspects of Isis but by the Roman era the most common myth was that which told how:
“… Seth tricked Osiris [Isis’ husband, a mythological early ruler of Egypt – also known as Serapis in the Greco-Roman age – who taught humanity how to cultivate crops and live a peacefully civilised life] into lying in a special coffin, after which he and his cohorts closed the lid and flung the coffin into the water. The coffin floated to the shore of Byblos in Phoenicia, where a tree formed around it … The tree of Osiris, a symbol of renewed potency to come, was particularly sweet-smelling and grew very large – perhaps like the linga of Siva or the fruit tree that emerged from Dionysos’ loins. It pleased the king of the region, who had it cut down for use as a column in his new palace. The column with a hermlike erection protruding from it was one of the many symbols of Osiris. The column attracted the attention of Isis, who had travelled the world in search of her beloved husband.
… Isis managed to obtain the column containing the coffin from the king, and she removed her husband’s body and returned with it to Egypt. Although Isis attempted to hide her husband’s body in Egypt, Seth found it and cut it into many pieces before flinging it into the Nile. Isis managed to retrieve the pieces of the body – all, according to Plutarch, but the penis, the symbol of fertility itself, which was eaten by a fish, another symbol of fertility.
After retrieving the pieces of her husband’s body, Isis, helped by her sister … (and Anubis, according to some), repaired the body as the first Egyptian mummy and through various spells managed to revive it sufficiently for Isis to fly over it as a bird and to conceive Horus [also known as Harpocrates] …. Isis gave birth to Horus in the delta and hid him away until such time as he would be ready to avenge her husband’s murder. Meanwhile, Osiris descended to the underworld, where he would remain … until his son could avenge him [by dethroning Seth and assuming the throne for himself]. In a sense Osiris was resurrected … It was said that Isis ‘planted’ symbols of his missing phallus in many burial shrines all over Egypt, thus spreading his cult and ensuring the fertility of the land [Leeming, Jealous Gods and Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East at 72-75].”
The Mystic Rites of Isis
It is tempting to wonder if in a parallel universe it is the religion of Isis that flourished across Europe for the last millennia or so, rather than Christianity. However Isiac religion lacks the self-righteous intolerance for other belief systems that characterised early Christianity – the banning of competing religions and the persecution of their practitioners would be anathema to her cult. Thus Isiac religion lacks the necessary characteristics to become the mono-religion of an entire continent in the way that Christianity did. Another notable difference between Christianity and the Isiac movement is that the most important rites of Isis were secret. This was very much in keeping with the spirit of the time. Throughout the Greco-Roman period there was a proliferation of “mystery religions”, and Isiacism was just one of these (albeit amongst the most popular). Other major mystery religions included, inter alia, that of Bacchus; the Magna Mater; Orpheus and Mithras. As the most important rites of these religions were secret we can only speculate as to their nature but it seems that oftentimes they involved a series of initiations via which adherents were exposed to particular mysteries, or teachings, or rites, which enabled their souls to progress through spiritual stages (North, Roman Religion at 69-70). Of the Isiac mysteries Plutarch (1st century CE) writes:
“by means of a perpetually sober life, by [periods of] abstinence from many kinds of food [such as pulses, certain types of fish, meat, garlic, salt and wine] and from venery [excessive sexual indulgence], she checks intemperance and love of pleasure, accustoming people to endure her service with bowels not enervated by luxury, but hardy and vigorous; the object of all which is the knowledge of the First, the Supreme, and the Intelligible … For which reason … they call the foremost one “Isis,” … and they show the divine mysteries to such as be truly and rightfully styled “carriers of sacred things,” and “wearers of sacred robes”: these are they that carry in the soul … the sacred story respecting the Gods that cleanses the recipient from all superstition … For which reason, the circumstance that the votaries of Isis, upon their death, are clothed with these robes, is a symbol that they go into the next world carrying with them this Word, and nothing else. For it is not … the wearing of beards and the dressing in long gowns that makes people philosophers; neither does the linen surplice and shaven crown make votaries of Isis, but the real Isiacist is he that is competent to investigate by the aid of the Word, the symbolism, and the ceremonies connected with these deities (after he has been lawfully empowered so to do); and who meditates upon the Truth which is involved in them [Plutarch’s Morals: Theosophical Essays as translated by King, sacred-texts.com]”.
Lucius Apuleius flirts a little with his readers when he gives the closest account we have relating to the mysteries of Isis:
“I would tell you if it were permitted to reveal them; you would be told if you were allowed to hear. But both your ears and my tongue would incur equal guilt; my tongue for its impious garrulity, and your ears for their rash curiosity. I will not keep you long on tenterhooks, since your anxiety is perhaps motivated by religious longing. So listen, and be sure to believe that what you hear is true. I drew near to the confines of death and trod the threshold of Proserpina, and before returning I journeyed through all the elements. At dead of night I saw the sun gleaming with bright brilliance. I stood in the presence of the Gods below and the Gods above, and worshipped them from close at hand … I shall recount only what can be communicated without sacrilege …
Morning came, and the rites were completed. I emerged sacramentally clothed in twelve garments … I took my stand as bidden on a wooden dais set before the statue of the Goddess at the very heard of the sacred shrine … In my right hand I wielded a torch well alight; a garland of glinting palm leaves projecting like the sun’s rays encircled my head. When I was thus adorned to represent the sun … the curtains were suddenly drawn back, and the people wandered in to gaze on me. Subsequently I celebrated a most happy birthday to the sacred mysteries; there was a pleasant banquet and a gathering … There was also a third day of celebration … including a sacred breakfast and the official conclusion to the initiation [Apuleius, The Golden Ass at 234-235].”
In Pompeii it appears that the most prominent of the mystery religions was that of Isis; archeological excavations give us hints as to the nature of her religion.
“The Temple of Isis at Pompeii is one of the best preserved, and least looted, buildings in the town … It was hidden from the street by a high curtain wall, broken by a single main entrance up two steps and with a large wooden door … The door opened into a colonnaded courtyard … In the centre stood a small temple … its outside stuccoed and painted. The walls of the courtyard itself were covered in frescoes. Hardly a spot was left undecorated. Statues were placed around the courtyard and in niches on the temple building itself … The first thing to emphasise is that it was not open to public view, and the entrance was not welcoming to all-comers. This was a religion for initiates. Secondly the building was catering for more congregational religious use and possibly a resident priest or two … The temple itself originally contained the cult statues of Isis and Osiris … The temple’s altar [on which offerings were made] is outside in the courtyard, and opposite it is … a sunken pool … it does very likely relate to the stress on washing and cleansing we find in ancient discussion of Isiac rituals. And not just any water would do. In theory at least the initiates of Isis bathed themselves in water brought specially from the Nile.
… The overall impression is one of cultural mix … standard classical portraits … and sculptures of traditional deities such as Venus rub shoulders with ‘real’ Egyptian bric-a-brac, such as a fourth century BCE tablet from Egypt inscribed with hieroglyphs … we see this mixture too in the best preserved image of Isis from the complex … adopting a Greek style of sculpture … She is hardly Egyptian at all, but for the characteristic rattle or sistrum she carries in one hand, and the ankh, or Egyptian cross, she once carried in the other. It is hard to resist the feeling that this cult is treading a fairly safe line between its traditional civic Italian links and its mystical Egyptian ‘otherness’. That is the message too from all those Egyptian deities who shared space on the household lararium with little models of Lares, or Hercules, or Mercury [Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius at 303-307].”
To understand Isiacism is to have that much more insight into the religious culture of Pagan Rome. This is a world of many religions, (mostly) peacefully coexisting side by side – so long as the Gods of Rome continued to be honoured, alongside any other God or Gods individuals chose to worship. Isiacists not only acknowledged the Gods of Rome (something which Christians refused to do – hence their intermittent persecution) but claimed that Isis subsumed them all. No doubt many Romans, such as the satirist Juvenal, thought this notion ridiculous, but that was fine – each to their own. Isiacists would say he worshipped her nonetheless (when he worshipped other Gods), though being ignorant of this fact, for only the initiated could understand the profound truths of her godhead. Though her cult had universal appeal it does seem that her divinity was particularly appealing to women, and it is not difficult to understand why. In a world in which sexism was commonplace the cult of Isis offered women a vision of their lives which, at least on some levels, paralleled the divinity of Isis, and in the spiritual sphere of Isiac religion they could occupy a place of transcendence. This is perhaps the only thing the Isis of Rome has in common with the ISIS of our own times – both theoretically offer a means for the disenfranchised to ascend, though it would seem ISIS channels the chaotic and destructive God Seth, rather than the compassionate and healing nature of the true Isis.
- Apuleius, The Golden Ass (Oxford)
- Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius (Belknap Press of Harvard)
- Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Vol 1 (Cambridge)
- Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Vol 2 (Cambridge)
- Britannica.com (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online)
- Kamm, The Romans (Routledge)
- King (trans), Plutarch’s Morals: Theosophical Essays (sacred-texts.com)
- Leeming, Jealous Gods and Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East (Oxford)
- North, Roman Religion (Cambridge)
- Shelton, As the Romans Did (Oxford)
- Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome (Routledge)
- Tyldesley, Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt (Profile Books)