Jeremy J. Baer
Through its millennia long history the cult of Isis developed significantly. In Ancient Egypt, where the goddess was known as Aset, the earliest records depict Isis as a protector of the throne. She was an important deity in her own right, one connected with the royal power of the Pharaohs, but limited to that role. By late Egyptian history she along with her husband Osiris had become one of the most popular and encompassing deities to the common people of Egypt. With the dawn of the Hellenistic era and throughout the Roman epoch she spread well beyond the national borders. She had become a universal savior goddess whose cult knew neither ethnic nor class boundaries.
From guardian of a national throne to a universal soteriological deity; the common threads that facilitated this evolution were a belief in the efficacy of Isiac magic and her inclination to defend those under her charge. Myth describes how Isis had magically resurrected her husband Osiris who had been murdered and dismembered. With this one act, the goddess had conquered death. She had become the Lady of the Gods, the Mistress of Heaven. All who submitted to her cult could expect her favor in life and death.
Many today would consider the worship of Isis as a foolish or even profane anachronism. A few others might accept Isis only on a purely psychological level, one culture’s symbol of divine femininity. Those who have experienced her know her as an active and conscious entity possessed with incredible power and maternal warmth. In some respects modern cult adherents might draw an analogy to the Virgin Mary, for Isis presaged Mary’s role as Mother of God and great intercessor. But Isis unlike Mary is ultimately more important than the god to whom she gave birth, and more powerful as well. Another difference, and not the least one either, is that Isis as patron of courtesans is not linked with perpetual virginity.
Resurrecting the cult of Isis exactly as it existed in pre-Christian times is not possible, nor perhaps even desirable. But if moderns are to forge informed relationships with an ancient goddess, then they must avail themselves of the wealth of knowledge that history affords. How Isis manifested herself to Ancients, and how they knew and cherished the goddess, will offer us valuable insights for developing a living, breathing cult in contemporary times.
The following offers a topical overview of the cult of Isis intended to serve as a primer for a neophyte. It concludes with some suggestions for modern reevaluation.
Seat of Egypt, Great of Magic, The One Who Is All, Of the Many Names, Mistress of Heaven, Lady of the Gods … the list of titles and attributes does go on, reflecting centuries of honors accrued.
By the time of Greco-Roman popular religion, we can condense the many powers and roles into a few broad categories:
1) Matron of sailors, who dutifully spread the cult to port towns across the Mediterranean
2) Protectress of the family, especially of women, children and newborns
3) An exponent of fertility, linked with the earth around the Nile
4) Magician goddess, the initiation into whose mysteries provided a ward to fate and a blessed afterlife.
The particular powers of the goddess were sufficient to attract a large following. Greek and Roman, slave and emperor, women and men; the cult appealed to many. Every port town in the Roman empire witnessed the festivals of Isis.
Levels of Worship
Isis could be honored on a variety of fronts.
Domestic worship was the most accessible level of religion. The poorer sorts could erect a small household shrine and make daily offerings of incense and food stuffs. In Roman Pompeii, figurines of Isis on lararia seem to have been common. Wealthy individuals or corporations of individuals might build private chapels dedicated to the goddess.
Cultic festivals were enacted throughout the year. There were two high festivals in particular that attracted attention: a joyous procession in early March and a somber occasion in late October and early November. One did not have to be a duly initiated member of the cult to participate, and it seems these colorful events attracted large sections of the city population.
A temple of Isis, or Iseum, was a focal point of cultic activity. Clergy led adherents in prayers and song in the morning and early afternoon. In the evening the temple doors were shut and only the initiated were allowed into the inner sanctuary.
Finally there were the Mysteries, a process of secret initiation into the deeper levels of the cult. Initiation involved much preparation and esoteric rituals. Those who underwent the rites achieved a higher understanding of the goddess which conferred upon them Isis’ highest blessings and protection from fate.
Isis and Polytheism
The universal savior cult existed in tandem with cults of other deities throughout the Mediterranean. Isis never claimed the exclusive loyalties of her believers. But on one level, some of her cult adherents identified Isis with virtually every major goddess in Antiquity. This “Isis of the Many Names” was the supreme goddess for them, and other goddesses merely local reflections.
In Egypt the chief cult connected with Isis was that of Osiris. Isis had magically resurrected her brother-husband after his death and destruction. He went on to become ruler of the underworld, Lord of Eternity. Osiris became identified with the mummification process and all deceased individuals. As a vegetation god he was also identified with the fecundity of the Nile.
In Memphis, Osiris was identified with the Apis Bull, a national mascot for Egypt. This conflated deity, Serapis, was a god of healing, dreams and vegetation. He became the patron deity of the Ptolemaic regime who built one of Antiquity’s finest temples to him. Throughout the Mediterranean the cult of Serapis was linked closely with that of Isis.
Finally, Isis was the mother of Horus the Younger. This falcon headed god went on to avenge the murder of his father. Osiris reigned in the Underworld and Horus reigned over the living. In Egypt Horus was linked with the royal power of the Pharaoh. In the Greco-Roman cult, Horus was portrayed as an infant suckling with Isis; this ubiquitous iconography may have influenced later art dealing with the Madonna and the Christ child.
The Here and Now
The Mysteries are lost. Numbers are too small for festivals. Most of us are neither sailors nor farmers. The likelihood of a temple rising soon is slim. The world has changed tremendously since Antiquity.
And yet some things never change. The gods are eternal. As a goddess who protects the individual and family, as a goddess whose magic can ward off fate and harm, Isis is as still relevant today as she was two thousand years ago. In our homes and in small gatherings we can honor Isis still. If and when our numbers swell, greater things will be possible. Elsewhere on this website are suggestions for modern, solitary recreations of observances.
History is an excellent beginning, but it is not the end. Simple yet steadfast devotion will carry us into the future.