Published: 15th May 2009
This essay discusses the transformation of the Egyptian goddess Isis into a cult figure in the Greco-Roman world, and whether the goddess's image continued to be depicted as the Divine Mother and Child in "Western" culture. The word "cult" is used here to indicate specific characteristics of a religion and adherents to a particular religion. This will be confined to the depiction and influence of Isis as a divine mother with a child upon the Greco-Roman world and early Christianity.
To the Egyptians, Isis was a mother goddess and the "Throne." She was normally represented as the faithful companion and protector of Osiris, or as the mother of Horus, seated with her son on her knee, suckling him. Egyptian images of Isis show her with a throne on her head, with huge sheltering wings, with a cow head, with a solar disc between cow's horns on her head, with a child on her lap, accompanied with gods and goddesses.
The transformation of Isis into a cult figure, generally speaking, depended primarily on the famous Egyptian story about Isis and Osiris. A version of this story says that Isis was sister and consort of Osiris, the god of dead. When Seth murdered his brother Osiris, Isis mourned him and searched throughout Egypt for his body. When she eventually found it, she used her magical skills to restore Osiris to life, and to conceive a son by him who would grow up to avenge his father. Isis gave birth to her child Horus in the marsh of Khemmis (Akhmim) in the Delta, where she kept him hidden from the destructive plotting of Seth and from other dangers that threatened the child, through the strength of her magic. Another story says that after the death of Osiris, Isis was forced to flee to the marshes of the Delta for her own safety and that of her child Horus. The child Horus, the baby falcon, lies concealed in the nest, while his mother Isis, "the Kite," keeps watch for the rampaging monster Seth. Despite numerous trials, Isis is not captured by the monster; her son Horus is not destroyed. Thus, Isis became the embodiment of motherhood, and many images survive from about BCE 1000 onwards showing her with her infant son.
The origins of Isis go back to the dynastic era, and the cult of Isis appeared when the pharaoh became a mere representative of deity and was no longer transcendence. Egyptians saw their deities as part of a whole and integral. It seems that the cult was centred at Abydos near the Delta in the north. Isis was adopted into the family of Ra early in Egyptian history by the priests of Memphis (Heliopolis), but from the New Kingdom onward, her worship had no particular centre. In the fifth century BCE, Herodotus (c. 484-430 BCE) says that Isis is represented in statuary as a woman with cow's horns (as the Greeks depict Io). He also says that Isis and Osiris are worshiped by everyone throughout Egypt, and that the second most important public festival is celebrated in honour of Isis in the city of Busiris (Abusir) which has the largest sanctuary of Isis - or Demeter, to translate her name into Greek - in Egypt. It is interesting here that Herodotus identifies Isis with the Greek goddess Demeter though the Greek depiction of Demeter was different from the Egyptian depiction of Isis.
The cult of Isis was strengthened further by the building of special temples for her. For instance, Nectanebo II (or Nekhtharehbe, r. 360-343 BCE) of the 30th Dynasty built a temple in honour of Isis at a site known now as Behbeit el-Hagar (north of Samannud). The main alter of Isis was on the ground in front and to the left of the Temple. It was a stone platform with a step in front of it where priests burnt their offerings. Late period saw the isolation of Isis as a main deity (out with Oriris). Another temple was built on Philae (north of Aswan), but most of the constructions there were done between the reigns of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BCE) and Diocletian (284-305).
Moreover, the power of the goddess Isis was profound in Egyptian society. Her role as a guide to the underworld was often portrayed with winged arms outstretched in a protective position. The image of the wings of Isis was incorporated into the Egyptian throne on which the pharaoh would sit, the wings of Isis protecting him.
During the Late Period, Isis became a universal goddess, assimilating with deities such as Hathor (goddess of love), Bastet (solar and war goddess), Nut (sky goddess), Sothis (a star goddess), Astarte (warrior goddess), and Renenutet (goddess of nourishment). Under the Ptolemies (BCE 306-CE 30) and then the Romans, her cult spread beyond Egypt. She was the most popular deity in the Roman Empire, her only rival being Mithras.
The cult of Isis spread from Alexandria to the Greco-Roman world after the fourth century BCE, and reached a peak in the third century BCE. It was imported from Egypt by priests, merchants, and the Roman army. At first the public worship of Isis in Rome was banned, but eventually a temple was planned to please the populace. Following the death of the Emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), the suppressive measures that had been taken against the worship of Isis were no longer enforced, and the cult of Isis went on to become one of the most popular in Rome and throughout the Roman Empire. On the other hands, writers such as Diodorus Siculus (d. c. 21 BCE), in General History, Plutarch (c. 46-c. 126 CE), in On Isis and Osiris and Apuleius (c. 123-c. 180 CE), in Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass), romanticised, Hellenised, and identified Isis with Greek goddesses.
The spread of the cult of Isis demonstrated how readily the Greco-Roman masses could accept a new divinity provided it met their religious and existential needs. The masses found meanings in the emerging mystery cult of Isis who was identified with Demeter, Athena, Venus, Ceres (goddess of growing plants and motherly love), and Ma Bellona (goddess of war). The cult of Isis found considerable followings in Athens and Rome, offering ceremonial purification from earthly sins, the comfort of a personal loving goddess, and the promise of immortality.
The ancient Egyptian images of Isis nursing the infant Horus inspired the style of Greco-Roman portraits of divine mother and child for centuries. However, it would seem difficult to say, for instance, that the Egyptian Isis, as perceived by Egyptians, was the same cult figure as perceived by the Greeks and Romans. The Egyptian Isis, including her religious significance for the Egyptians, was different from the Greek Demeter or Aphrodite (goddess of love and beauty). Indeed, the form and characteristics of Isis were adapted to suit the Greco-Roman imagination. Isis, who was depicted wearing the ancient robe, was represented for the Greeks and Romans as clad in contemporary Egyptian costume. Her new drapery was Greek. Her Egyptian attributes, such as her headgear, were reduced in size, and new characteristics, such as the cornucopia, were added.
In literature, Isis was romanticised and imagined in a new way and became for many people the supreme saving goddess of all humanity. For instance, in Metamorphoses we read the following statement: "I am Nature, the Universal Mother, mistress of all the elements...sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are...The Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis...The gates of the underworld and the guardianship of life are in her hands".
In her Women in Ancient Egypt, Barbara Watterson says that the "cult of Isis was superseded only by that of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus, whose iconography seems to have been derived from ancient Egyptian depictions of Isis with her son, Horus, sitting on her knee." It seems therefore that the Christian story of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus resembles in some respects the Egyptian story of Isis and her son Horus. In this regard, many scholars of religion assert the Egyptian connection to Christian doctrine. In Bible Myths, Thomas William Doane (1852-1885) says that the "whole secret of the fact of these early representations of the Virgin Mary and Jesus...is that they are of pre-Christian origin; they are Isis and Horus ...baptized anew." Perhaps this is a reason why Egyptians were able to embrace Christian doctrine. As Sir Wallis Budge (1857-1934) says, "In Osiris the Christian Egyptians found the prototype of Christ, and in the pictures and statues of Isis suckling her son Horus, they perceived the prototypes of the Virgin Mary and her Child." Thus the Bishop of Alexandria Cyril embraced the cause of Isis and anthropomorphised her into Mary, "the Mother of God."
Furthermore, some historians are of the opinion that the statue of Isis with her child Horus was the first Madonna and Child. John William Draper (1811-1882) says that the well-known effigy of Isis, "with the infant Horus in her arms, has descended to our days in the beautiful artistic creations of the Madonna and Child." Accordingly, Isis and Horus were renamed Mary and Jesus when Europe was Christianised. But Isis was no Madonna in the virgin sense, though iconography is subtle. Roman legions carried the figure of Black Isis holding the Black Horus all over Europe where shrines were established for Isis. When the Church became powerful, the black figure of Isis and Horus was turned into the Black Madonna and Child who are found in religious art and Catholic churches in Europe. But was the black an indication of ebony wood rather than the colour?
The early description of Isis and her son Horus was uniquely Egyptian. The Egyptian story of Isis and Horus was unrivalled outside Egypt. It is true that non-Egyptians perceived divine mothers and children, but no religious perception was similar to that of the ancient Egyptians.
The Egyptian depiction of Isis nursing her infant Horus, however, underwent changes in new environments. Isis became a popular cult figure in the Greco-Roman world, and was identified with non-Egyptian goddesses such as Demeter and Ceres. She had important cults with sanctuaries in the island of Delos, Pompeii, and Rome. But the fact is that the depiction of Isis and her son was Hellenised, and Isis became a mythical goddess in Greco-Roman mythology, and part of the famous Pantheon. Her external form became Greek and Roman.
There is also an assumption that Isis and her child were converted into Mary and Jesus. It is true that there are images illustrating Mary and Jesus, and that Mary is called the "Mother of God" especially by the Catholics. It is also possible that some artistic interpretations of Isis and Horus found their way into early Alexandrian Christian depiction of Mary and Jesus. But Mary was not a goddess with a throne on her head, and Jesus did not avenge the killing of his divine father. The same can be said about the Black Madonna and Child, though it is said that during the fourth century, the worshippers of Isis founded the Madonna cults in order to keep her influence alive. This is not to deny the fact that Isis had lost its Egyptian ethos forever.