The difficulty of orientation: trying to learn about Isis

I’ve been thinking about Mithras and Mithra, Roman and Persian.  Some of the comments on my recent post, Why Cumontian Mithras studies are dead, suggested that Roman syncretism could not be left out of account, and that any eastern cult that entered the Roman world was likely to undergo modification. 

There is much truth in this.  We all remember the Indian gurus who competed for custom among the hippies with westernised versions of their teachings.  The Hare Krishnas come rather readily to mind.  A couple of generations earlier, we find eastern Fakirs in Edwardian drawing rooms.  But then again, all this is rather vague.  How do we know what happened?

I started thinking about an obvious contender for this syncretism and assimilation: the Egyptian cult of Isis.  Isis is an ancient Egyptian goddess, part of the pantheon together with Ra and Osiris and Horus and the rest.  Yet there were temples of Isis in Rome itself, and elsewhere in the empire.  Surely this would be an excellent candidate cult for examination?  After all, we can learn a lot about the pre-Graeco-Roman cult from Ancient Egyptian texts and inscriptions; and then we have a goodish amount of material from the Roman period.

So thinking, I naturally wanted to know just what the data base for the cult of Isis in the Roman world was.  And … there I started to get stuck.

I wanted to know who the scholars are that one should read.  There is, no doubt, much dross and hearsay out there.  Indeed it took only one click on a Google search to find a book about “Isis and Early Christianity” or some such … how drearily predictable.   A bibliography would be a wonderful thing.

For I am entirely a layman on Isis.  I know nothing about it.  In this respect I am just like most people.  Where does one get a reading list of sound sources?  Just who are the good scholars?

One wouldn’t look to Wikipedia for this; indeed if it acquired such a bibliography, some troll would delete it.  And indeed the Wikipedia Isis article displays the usual mixture of hearsay and low-grade sources.

My own approach would be to read whatever I can find, and tabulate the ancient Graeco-Roman literary sources.  It may not be the best way; but it is impossible to avoid learning a great deal in the process.

16 thoughts on “The difficulty of orientation: trying to learn about Isis”

  1. I’ll see if I can spot something in the university tomorrow. This is intriguing and exciting 🙂

  2. The best place to start remains Isis in the Graeco-Roman World, by R. E. Witt (I believe the latest edition has been retitled Isis in the Ancient World).

  3. Laurent Bricault seems to be one of the chief experts, although the following books are out of the price range of most independent scholars (unless they’re independently wealthy):

    Laurent Bricault, ed., Isis en Occident. Actes du IIème Colloque international sur les études isiaques, Lyon III 16-17 mai 2002 (Leiden: Brill, 2004) = Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 151

    Laurent Bricault, Recueil des inscriptions concernant les cultes isiaques, 3 vols. (Paris: Boccard, 2005) = Mémoires de l’Institut de France, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 31

    Laurent Bricault et al., edd., Nile into Tiber: Egypt in the Roman world: Proceedings of the IIIrd International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005 (Leiden: Brill, 2007) = Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 159 (bibliography of secondary sources pp. xiii-xvi)

    There is always J. Gwyn Griffiths, Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride. Edited with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1970).

  4. Dear Roger,

    You ask, ‘Who are the good scholars?’

    People like yourself, who scrupulously respect the ancient sources. There is a wonderful book to be written about the cult of Mithras in the ancient world, and you are probably better placed than most other enthusiasts to write it.

    Just think of the day when the Wikipedia article on Mithras gets its first citations from Pearse, R., ‘The Cult of Mithras in the Roman World’ (Oxford, 2014).

    You can’t fight these trolls on Wikipedia. All you can do is produce something better, which wins general acceptance from reasonable people. So get to work …

    David Wilmshurst

  5. To those listed by Michael Gilleland, I would add Isis on the Nile. Egyptian Gods in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt
    Proceedings of the IVth International Conference of Isis Studies, Liège, November 27-29 2008 (Brill 2010). Judith

  6. @Michael: thank you for these! “Nile into Tiber” I have, I find, although it rather assumed the level of knowledge that I am seeking to acquire. (And yes, who could afford these?)

    @Judith: thank you also!

    It all points to a real need here.

    @Edward: Thanks for this. Have you seen it? How is it on sources?

  7. There is some little information in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius (aka The Golden Ass), which has the consolation of being a primary source.

  8. I must look at that; also at Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride; and apparently there is stuff in Diodorus Siculus.

    The data for the introduction of the cult into Rome would be interesting to have also.

  9. Witt’s methodology is very sound; he was a grand scholar of the old school. (Here’s a biographical sketch you might appreciate:

    The only caveat, of course, would be that the book is from 1971, and so there has been further work on the subject, but for basic orientation one couldn’t do better. All the more recent books will tend to have a narrower focus.

  10. I suspect you’re right. Orientation is precisely what I need to get, and a classical scholar who learned his trade before the poison of the 60’s began to leach away at learning and sense is precisely what one would want. I wish the book weren’t so expensive, tho.

  11. Roger:

    This is more scholars than sources, but here, for what little it may be worth, is the Takács bibliography from the 2nd edition of the Encyclopedia of religion on “Isis”. I have no idea what Takács’ standing/reputation is, but it was by analogy Gordon who was assigned the comparable article on “Mithras” (though editors do sometimes have to settle for who they can enlist). If I were trying to get a quick sense for a short list of the big guns, I would take also a look at the most recent edition of the Oxford classical dictionary, Brill’s new Pauly, the Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, and so forth (proceeding from there):


    Barrett, Anthony A. Caligula. London, 1989.

    Bergman, Jan. Ich bin Isis: Studien zum memphitischen Hintergrund der griechischen Isisaretologien. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Historia Religionum, 3. Uppsala, 1968.

    Bergman, Jan. “Isis.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, edited by Wolfgang Helck and Eberhard Otto, vol. 3, pp. 186–203. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1980.

    Bianchi, Ugo. “Iside dea misterica: Quando?” In Perennitas: Studi in onore di Angelo Brelich, pp. 9–36. Rome, 1980.

    Coarelli, Filippo. “Iside Capitolina, Clodio e i mercanti di schiavi.” In Alessandria e il mondo ellenistico-romano: Studi in onore di Achille Adriani, edited by Nicola Bonacasa and Antonino Di Vita, vol. 3, pp. 461–475. Studi e materiali, Istituto di Archeologia Università di Palermo, 6. Rome, 1984.

    Dio Cassius. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. Cambridge, Mass., 1961–1969.

    Diodorus Siculus. Works. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Cambridge, Mass., 1946.

    Dunand, Françoise. Le culte d’Isis dans le bassin oriental de la Méditerranée. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’Empire romain, 26. Leiden, Netherlands, 1973.

    Floriani Squarciapino, Maria. I culti orientali ad Ostia. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’Empire romain, 3. Leiden, Netherlands, 1962.

    Griffiths, J. Gwyn, ed. and trans. Plutarch’s “De Iside et Osiride.” Cardiff, Wales 1970. Includes commentary.

    Griffiths, J. Gwyn, ed. and trans. The Isis-Book (Metamorphoses, Book XI) Apuleius of Madauros. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’Empire romain, 39. Leiden, Netherlands, 1975.

    Herodotos. Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. New York, 1998.

    Josephus, Flavius. The Jewish War. Translated by H. St. J. Thackeray. Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

    Junge, Friedrich. “Isis und die ägyptischen Mysterien.” In Aspekte der spätägyptischen Religion, pp. 93–115. Göttinger Orientforschungen, Reihe 4, Ägypten, vol. 9. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1979.

    Kákosy, László. “Mysteries in the Isiac Religion.” Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 39 (1999): 159–163.

    Lembke, Katja. Das Iseum Campense in Rom: Studie über den Isiskult unter Domitian. Heidelberg, Germany, 1994.

    Malaise, Michel. “La diffusion des cultes égyptiens dans les provinces européennes de l’Empire romain.” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, vol. 2, 17.3, pp. 1615–1691. Berlin and New York, 1984.

    Maystre, Charles. Les grands prêtres de Ptah de Memphis. Freiburg and Göttingen, Germany, 1992.

    Merkelbach, Reinhold. Isis regina, Zeus Sarapis. Stuttgart, 1995.

    Roullet, Anne. The Egyptian and Egyptianizing Monuments of Imperial Rome. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’Empire romain, 20. Leiden, Netherlands, 1972.

    Suetonius. Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. New York, 2001.

    Takács, Sarolta A. Isis and Sarapis in the Roman World. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 124. Leiden, Netherlands, 1995.

    Taylor, Lily Ross. The Cults of Ostia. Bryn Mawr, Pa., 1912. Reprint, Chicago, 1976.

    Tertullian. Ad Nationes. In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4., edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1969.

    Tóth, István. “Marcus Aurelius’ Miracle of the Rain and the Egyptian Cults in the Danube Region.” Studia Aegyptiaca 2 (1976): 101–113.

    Totti, Maria. Ausgewählte Texte der Isis- und Sarapis-Religion. Hildesheim, Germany.

    Tran, Vincent Tam Tinh. Essai sur le culte d’Isis à Pompéi. Paris, 1964.

    Tran, Vincent Tam Tinh. Le culte des divinités orientales en Campanie en dehors de Pompéi, de Stabies et d’Herculanum. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’Empire romain, 27. Leiden, Netherlands, 1972.

    Turcan, Robert. “Isis of the Many Names; or, Our Lady of the Waves.” In The Cults of the Roman Empire, edited by Robert Turcan, translated by Antonia Nevill, pp. 75–129. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1996. French edition, Cultes orientaux dans le monde romain, Paris, 1989.

    Vidman, Ladislav. Isis und Sarapis bei den Griechen und Römern. Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten, 29. Berlin, 1970.

    Vidman, Ladislav, comp. Sylloge inscriptionum religionis Isiacae et Sarapiacae (SIRIS). Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten, 28. Berlin, 1969.

    Wild, Robert A. Water in the Cultic Worship of Isis and Sarapis. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’Empire romain, 87. Leiden, Netherlands, 1981.

    Wissowa, Georg. Religion and Kultus der Römer. Munich, 1971.

  12. @Steve, thank you very much for the Takács bibliography. It can’t hurt, and as you say, if Gordon did the Mithras one, it must mean that Takács is a specialist in the area. I will look into these references — thank you!

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