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SHORT DESCRIPTION OF THE ISIS AD OSIRIS’ MYSTERY CULT IN THE ROMAN WORLD

SHORT DESCRIPTION OF THE ISIS AD OSIRIS’ MYSTERY CULT IN THE ROMAN WORLD

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Published by murtsm
PAPER PRESENTED AT DEPARTMENT OF THEOLOGY AND RELIGION –
UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM – 2009
BY
NICOLA SPANU
PAPER PRESENTED AT DEPARTMENT OF THEOLOGY AND RELIGION –
UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM – 2009
BY
NICOLA SPANU

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1
A SHORT DESCRIPTION OF
THE ISIS AD OSIRIS’
 MYSTERY CULT IN THE ROMAN WORLD PAPER PRESENTED AT DEPARTMENT OF THEOLOGY AND RELIGION
 – 
 UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM
 – 
 2009 BY NICOLA SPANU HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION
The diffusion of the
Isis aὀd ηsiὄis’
 mystery cult in Rome began soon after the year 273 B.C., when the Republic and the Ptolemaic reign of Egypt started formal political relations, sanctioned by an embassy sent by Ptolemy II (284 - 246 B.C.) to the Roman senate.
 1
 At the time Rome was beginning to achieve an ever more prominent political role among the people who overlooked the Mediterranean Sea, so that it attracted the attention of such a well-established political and commercial power as the Ptolemaic reign of Egypt. This was founded by Ptolemy I, a Macedonian general under Alexander the Great, who became ruler of Egypt (323ca. - 283 B.C.) and founder of both the Ptolemaic kingdom and Ptolemaic dynasty in 305/4 B.C. Ptolemy took the title of  king of Egypt, thus perpetuating the heritage of the Egyptian monarchy, which had been established by the first Pharaoh, Narmer, almost 3000 years before. The trade exchanges between Rome and Alexandria were intense and along with their precious grain the Egyptian ship-owners and merchants brought with them their own gods: Isis and Osiris.
2
 But who were Isis and Osiris in the Hellenistic era?
ISIS AND OSIRIS
We can form an idea of the way in which Isis was conceived of at that time through the so called aretalogies
, pὁetic wὁὄks dedicated tὁ hὁὀὁuὄ Isis’
 virtue (
ἀ
). These celebrations
ὁf Isis’ pὁweὄ aὀd viὄtues
were very successful in the entire Hellenistic world. The aretalogy of Maronea, which was written in the 2
nd
 century B.C., describes Isis as
Eaὄth’s daugh
ter and Sa
ὄapis’ wife (
Sa
ὄapis’
cult was established by Ptolemy I). Isis is she who has discovered both the holy texts, which none is allowed to read but the initiates to her mysteries, and the texts that can be read by everyone; Isis has established justice among men, has given each nation a language and identified specific roles for men and women.
3
 Particularly worthy of mention are the aretalogies written in Greek on the pillars of the
eὀtὄaὀce ὁf the Isis’ temple
discovered at Medinet Madi, in the Fayum region. The author of these aretalogies calls himself Isidor; they were written at the request of Isiac priests close to the Ptolemaic dynasty, probably in the 1
st
 century B.C.
4
 Isidor regards Isis as the queen of the gods and the ruler of the cosmos, the inventor of laws and art and the mistress of natural elements, as she whose power guarantees the perpetual
1
 R. E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World (Baltimore, Maryland, 1997), 70.
2
 Ibid., 70-88.
3
 Aretalogy of Maronea 6-43, in: Le religioni dei misteri - volume II - Samotracia, Andania, Iside, Cibele e Attis, mitraismo, a cura di Paolo Scarpi (Milan, 2004), 233-235; see also Fabio Mora, Prosopografia Isiaca
 – 
 II. Prosopografia storica e statistica del culto isiaco (Leiden, 1990), 59-66.
4
 Le religioni dei misteri (2004), 515.
 
2
flood of the river Nile.
5
 
Isis’ title ὁf
mirionima,
of infinite names
, clearly shows that she was adored by all people of the world: Isidor says that the Syrians calls Isis Astarte or Artemis Nanaia, the Lycians Leto, the Thracians Mother of the Gods, the Greeks Hera, Aphrodite, Hestia, Rhea, the Egyptians Renenet, goddess of abundance.
6
 But, above all these various names, Isis is the saviour who bestows her grace on any man and woman who suffers or is in danger, such as the sailors who sail the boundless sea, of whom she is the patron.
7
 She also gave mankind the corpus of laws, in order to raise it from the natural state of permanent conflict to the civilized condition
8
 Finally, we can have a look at the aretalogy composed by the Latin writer Apuleius of Madaura, which is contained in his novel The Metamorphoses. Apuleius also regards Isis as the saviour of the man afflicted by sorrow; she is for him the caring mother who is not deaf to
heὄ sὁὀs’ eὀtὄeaties
. In particular, Isis protects man from the adverse consequences of
ύὁddess όὁὄtuὀe’s
unsettled will as well as from the evil influence of stars. Isis is mistress of heaven and hell, the ruler of the cosmos, which she keeps in a state of constant equilibrium. Isis is the goddess whom is worth contemplating.
9
 As far as Osiris is concerned, in the ancient Egyptian religion he was identified with the sun which visits the citizens of the netherworld during its nocturnal journey and brings them light and food. This was the solar aspect of Osiris, who had a chthonic nature as well, constituted by his role of king of the netherworld and judge of the deceased.
10
 Osiris, as Isis, was considered as the discoverer of agriculture and he who taught it to mankind.
11
 
ηsiὄis’ ὄelatiὁὀ with
 the vegetal kingdom is even stronger than his connection with agriculture, because, as vegetation is ruled by the cyclical law of death and rebirth, so Osiris is the god who dies and is then resuscitated by his wife Isis.
The accὁuὀt ὁf ηsiὄis’
death and rebirth varies according to the sources consulted. Apart from the Egyptian sources, Plutarch of
Chaeὄὁὀea’s
account of the myth of Osiris represents one of the most important for the precision of the information it gives on this topic. In his masterpiece entitled On Isis and Osiris Plutarch reports that Typhon (called Seth by the Egyptians), Osiris
’ evil bὄὁtheὄ 
, probably in order to avenge his wife Nephth
ys’ adulteὄὁus ὄelatiὁὀ
ship with Osiris (who had erroneously mistaken Nephthys for his wife and sister Isis), confined Osiris in a sarcophagus that he then threw into the sea. When Isis knew what had happened to her husband, she started searching for the sarcophagus, finally found it in the Phoenician city of Byblos and brought it back to Egypt. When Isis uncovered it, she found his husband Osiris trapped in it. She was still unable to free Osiris from the sarcophagus in which he was confined, but this fact did not prevent her from going in search of her son Horus, in order to rejoice with him over the discovery of her husband. However Typhon, who was hunting in the wilderness, found, with the help of the light of the moon, the place where Osiris
 sarcophagus was located. Typhon then dismembered
ηsiὄis’ bὁdy iὀtὁ 1ζ pieces aὀd scatteὄ 
ed them all over the world.
Wheὀ Isis weὀt back tὁ the place wheὄe ηsiὄis’ saὄcὁphagus s
hould have been and knew what Typh
ὁὀ had dὁὀe tὁ heὄ husbaὀd’s bὁdy
, she again went in search of it and finally managed to find all the pieces
iὀ which ηsiὄis’s bὁdy was dismembeὄed
except for
ηsiὄis’
 phallus, which she replaced with an artificial one. With the help of her magic art Isis
5
 
Isidor, Hymn 1. 1-14, in: V.F. Vanderlip, The four Greek Hymns of Isidorus and the Cult of Isis, American studies in papyrology 12 (Toronto, 1972).
 
6
 Ibid., 1. 15-25.
7
 
Ibid., 25-34.
8
 Ibid., 26.
9
 Apuleius, Metamorphoses, XI, 2; 25, in: Le religioni dei misteri (2004), 227-229.
10
 Witt, Isis (1997), 38.
11
 Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica, ed. K.T. Fischer
 – 
 F. Vogel (post I. Bekker
 – 
 L. Dindorf), 5 vols., 3rd edn. (Leipzig, 1888-1964), I. 14. 1.
 
3
resuscitated Osiris, who then trained his son Horus for the final battle against Typhon, which was decisively won by Horus.
12
 These are the divine figures which the Romans came into contact with when they established diplomatic relations with the Egyptians. Actually, the religion revolving around the divine figures of Isis and Osiris had undergone a considerable reformation process before it reached the costs of Italy, which was promoted by Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Ptolemy wanted to reform the Egyptian religion and refound it on the concept of an hierarchy of gods distributed on the basis of their importance and power, from the supreme and universal divinities, like Isis, Osiris, Sarapis, etc., from the less important ones, like, for example, those who were patrons of villages or households. Of course, Ptolemy was also driven by political motives for undertaking such a massive religious reform; in particular he wanted to reconnect his power to that of supreme and universal divinities, like Isis, who, by virtue of the interpretatio graeca (namely that process of constant assimilation of foreign divinities to Greek ones) could be easily recognized by his Egyptian and Greek subjects. By promoting his role of new Pharaoh of Egypt, son of Isis and god himself, Ptolemy wanted to elicit submission of his Greek and Egyptian subjects (but in Alexandria there was also the biggest Jewish community of the Mediterranean) on the basis of clear religious grounds.
13
 When the Hellenistic kings stepped down in favour of Roman emperors as rulers of the Western world, some of these would prove to be ardent followers of the religious policy of their predecessors, because even they would want to base their absolute power on the religious claim to be sons of the supreme deity (like Diocletian who wanted to be regarded as
Jupiteὄ’s sὁὀ) ὁὄ eaὄthly vicaὄ ὁf it (as iὀ the case ὁf Cὁὀstaὀtiὀe I, whὁ was called ‘bishὁp ὁf thὁse ὁutside’)
.
But let us ὀὁw gὁ back tὁ θtὁlemy’s ὄeligiὁus ὄefὁὄmsέ
In order to achieve his task, he asked for the help of Manetho, an Egyptian priest and of Timotheus, an Athenian member of the Eumolpid family, which was one of the sacred Eleusinian families of priests that ran the Eleusinian mysteries. Manetho and Timotheus acted as real reformers of both the Egyptian and the Greek religion, which they tried to unify without debasing their peculiarities. As a consequence, they maintained the ancient ritual of the Egyptian sacerdotal caste, but imbued the new theology with a fundamentally Greek spirit.
14
 The core of their theology revolved around a divine triad of gods (sometimes a tetrad) that could also be represented as a sort of divine family; this was made up of: 1) The Father, called Sarapis, a transcendent and universal cosmocrator ruler of earth, heaven and Hades, who was identified with several Greek gods such as Pluto, Zeus, Dionysus, Asclepius, Adonis, with Egyptian divinities such as Ammon and Osiris and even with the Jewish patriarch Joseph!; 2) The divine Mother identified with the Greek goddesses Hera, Demeter, Aphrodite, Athena, Artemis, and with the Egyptian goddess Isis; 3) The divine son called by the Greeks Apollo, Hermes and Horus the Young by the Egyptians. Finally, Isis was traditionally associated with the funerary divinity Anubis, the dog-headed god, who accompanied the dead during their ultramundane journey.
15
 
12
 Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 356b- 358e, in: Plutarchi moralia, ed. W. Sieveking, vols. 2-3 (Leipzig, 1935 [reprint 1971]).
13
 Witt, Isis (1997), 52-58.
14
 Ibid.
15
 Ibid., 52-53.

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