Did the priests of Isis have a cross marked on their foreheads?

In the museums of the world there are a number of Roman sculptures of a head, with particular characteristics.  The person depicted is completely bald, lacking even eyebrows.  Deeply incised upon the head, usually on the right but sometimes elsewhere, is a cross-shaped or X-shaped mark.  In some cases the mark is shaped like the Greek letter “tau”, or is just a single line.  The style of the sculpture makes them early, sometimes even belonging to the Republican period.  Prior to 1900 such busts were often identified as portraits of P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Carthage.

Here’s an example from Paris:

Paris, BNF 15-57. Bust of “Scipio”.  Gasparini, fig. 13.4a.
X-shaped mark on head of Paris, BNF 15-57 bust of “Scipio”. Gasparini, fig. 13.4e.

More than a century ago, in 1905, fifteen such busts were listed and discussed in a tightly argued article by Walter Dennison.[1] He concluded that these busts had nothing to do with Scipio. Instead he argued that they represent portraits of a group of people: the priests of Isis.

The Romans did not shave their heads, although they might do so under certain circumstances, as we might.  But literary sources and frescoes show that the Roman priests of Isis were distinguished by their shaven heads.  The cult of Isis in the Roman world was in some ways a fake version of Egyptian religion.  It was an export version, tailored for the foreign market.  Ancient Egyptian priests of all deities had shaved their heads, as Herodotus records (book II, c. 36, here):

Everywhere else, priests of the gods wear their hair long; in Egypt, they are shaven.

The Roman priests of Isis retained this custom, unlike other Roman priests, as literary sources record.  So the collection of busts, of different people, all shaven, can be identified with certainty as images of priests of Isis.

Once this identification is accepted, then we are immediately struck by the presence of a mark on the front of the head in all these busts.  Usually it is an X-shape; sometimes a “tau” shape; sometimes just a straight line.  Usually it is on the right, but sometimes on the left, or on the eyebrow-line.  But the predominant impression is of a X-shaped mark, on the right.

Literary sources also tell us that Roman priests were often marked on the head with a tattoo.  So we have a bunch of portrait busts, all of priests of Isis, all with a characteristic mark, a few with a variant of the X-shape.

For these reasons Dennison concluded that this portrait type – shaved headed with an X mark – was the ancient stereotype for priests of Isis.  Although no ancient source refers to any such stereotype, we may reasonably conclude that this is merely a gap in our sources.

Capitoline Museum, Rome. Inv. MC 562. Bust of “Scipio”, really a priest of Isis, with a “tau” shaped mark. The drilled eyes indicate a date later than 150 AD.  From here.

Dennison’s article is a fine piece of work, especially for 1905, and his conclusion has been almost universally accepted for over a century.

But it is now a very old article, and it is certainly time to revisit it.  In 2019 there appeared a two volume collection of articles on the Graeco-Roman cult of Isis – V. Gasparini, and R. Veymiers (edd.), Individuals and Materials in the Greco-Roman Cults of Isis: Agents, Images, and Practices, 2 vols, Brill (2019).  This included a rather diffuse paper by F. Queyrel and R. Veymiers, “De « Scipion l’Africain » aux « prêtres isiaques » : à propos des portraits au crâne rasé avec cicatrice(s)” (“From ‘Scipio’ to ‘priests of Isis’: some shaven-headed portraits with scar(s)”), 384-412, which addressed Dennison’s paper, and disagreed with it.  It includes some excellent modern colour photographs of a range of the portrait busts.  (There is a Google Books preview available online here).

Queyrel and Veymiers discuss the very same portrait busts, and whether the priests of Isis did indeed have such a mark on their heads.  They think not.

So let’s evaluate some of the key points.

Firstly, there is no doubt whatever that the priests of Isis were distinguished in the Roman world by their shaved heads.  It is a standard literary trope, and also there are painted depictions, although I won’t pursue that here.  In the Gasparini volume, an article by L. Beaurin[2] gives on p.311 f. a detailed list of the literary references.  Here are a couple of examples, taken from two of the more detailed sources on the cult.

Plutarch writes (De Iside et Osiride, c. 4, here):

It is true that most people are unaware of this very ordinary and minor matter: the reason why the priests remove their hair and wear linen garments. Some persons do not care at all to have any knowledge about such things, while others say that the priests, because they revere the sheep, abstain from using its wool, as well as its flesh; and that they shave their heads as a sign of mourning, and that they wear their linen garments because of the colour which the flax displays when in bloom, and which is like to the heavenly azure which enfolds the universe. But for all this there is only one true reason, which is to be found in the words of Plato: “for the Impure to touch the Pure is contrary to divine ordinance.” No surplus left over from food and no excrementitious matter is pure and clean; and it is from forms of surplus that wool, fur, hair, and nails originate and grow. So it would be ridiculous that these persons in their holy living should remove their own hair by shaving and making their bodies smooth all over, and then should put on and wear the hair of domestic animals. …

Firmicus Maternus (De errore profanum religione c.2):

The following is the gist of the cult of Isis. Buried in their shrines they keep an image of Osiris, over which they mourn in anniversary lamentations, wherein they shave their heads so that the ugliness of their disfigured polls may show their grief for the pitiful lot of their king. Also they beat their breasts, tear their upper arms, and break open the scars of old wounds, so that the anniversary lamentations may ever renew in their hearts the memory of the death effected by gruesome and pitiable murder. And after performing these rites on set days, next they feign that they are questing for the remains of the mutilated corpse, and rejoice on finding them as if their sorrows were lulled. 4. O wretched mortals, soon to perish!…[

We should note that the other details of the cult given by Firmicus Maternus here may not be accurate.  I am told that Robert Turcan reports that the author is drawing upon Seneca, de beata vita. But Seneca is in fact mixing in details from the cult of Cybele and others.[3]

Dennison gives a short list of authors, which is worth reproducing: Apuleius Metamorphoses book XI, 10 and end; Juvenal (book VI, line 535); Martial (book XII, poem xxix, line 19); Minucius Felix (c. 22:1); Lactantius (Inst. I, 21, 20); Ambrose (Letters 58, 3, to Sabinus); “Spartianus” in the Augustan History (Life of Pescennius Niger, c. 6); and Prudentius (Contra Symmachum, 1, ll.622-631), but Beaurin gives many more.  Indeed a reference to shaven-headed priests of Isis seems to become a regular part of the anonymous late antique poems against paganism.  It appears in the Carmen ad quendam senatorem (21-23, 32) and Carmen contra paganos (98-99).

Chiaramonti Museum, Priest of Isis, with X-shaped mark.  From here, via twitter here.  Dennison no. 4.  “From the Antonine period”.

But the marks on the head are not documented for Isis, and this is where Queyrel and Veymiers raise objections.

Dennison approaches this question step-by-step.  He shows that branding the forehead was a feature of pagan priests.  But he is not really able to link it to Isis exclusively.  Queyrel and Veymiers rightly point out that there is actually no evidence specifically linking these marks either to Egypt or Isis; other than inferring it from the series of busts.  They then investigate this collection of portrait busts.

In fact Queyrel and Veymiers devote quite a lot of space to the busts and their history.  What they do not do, unfortunately, is offer a list, in the way that Dennison did, with notes against each.  This makes it very hard to follow their argument.  At one point they suggest (p.397-8) that many – nearly all? – of a list of busts given in another paper are actually modern copies of the BNF 15-57 bust at the head of this article.  If so, obviously they can be ignored.  Does that mean that all of the busts, except for that one, are modern?  They do not say.  It is frustrating to attempt to tease this information out of their article. In the next section of their article they write as if this is merely material that Dennison disregards, so at this moment I have no idea.

They make a further point which is interesting but not conclusive.  Busts of Scipio Africanus were worth more to art dealers than random heads of an unknown bald person.  Once any bald bust with a scar was identified as Scipio, the temptation to add such a scar to any bald head might be considerable.  At least one of the heads labelled as “Scipio” had the hair removed and an inscription added.  How many of the genuine heads, they ask, had such a scar originally?  And how many were added in the 18th century, to improve the saleability of the item?  Faking antiquities of famous men was rather a cottage industry after the renaissance, as we learn from Anthony Grafton’s The forgers and the critics.  Many of these busts do indeed have portions which are plainly restored.

But it is an impossible question to answer, unless some forensic investigation can be done, as surely it could be.  At the moment it is just speculation, until hard evidence of alterations to specified busts for this purpose exists.  We can only argue from what we know, not what may be the case.  What we know – I think – is that there is a corpus of heads which are shaven and have distinctive X-shaped marks.

At one point Queyrel and Veymiers go badly wrong.  They dismiss Dennison’s appeal to a passage in Tertullian.  Dennison wrote, “the mark upon the head is a cult sign and has a religious significance.  significance. There is abundant evidence that in period priests of foreign religions were branded, at least one priesthood the branding was done in frontibus.”  As part of his argument he draws particular attention to Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 40, which he gives as follows:

“They are the wiles of the devil,” says Tertullian, of idolatry thus imitates the holy [the devil] baptizes his believers, thus celebrates a rite of consecrating bread image of the resurrection, and rewards sword; et si adhuc memini, Mithra signat illic in frontibus milites suos.”

Of course this explicitly names Mithras, and Dennison has to argue that Tertullian is mingling rites from various cults, and the reference may be a mistake for Isis. Queyrel and Veymiers pooh-pooh this, and state simply that, whatever Tertullian is talking about, it is not Isis.  On the face of it, they are right.  The text is clear.

But in fact the text is almost certainly corrupt at this point.  Queyrel and Veymiers relied – naturally enough – on the very old Sources Chrétiennes 46 (1957) edition by Refoulé.  But the early volumes of that great series were really translations with an existing text, rather than the monuments of scholarship that we know today.  That edition is not that good.  In his own 1942 CSEL70 edition, p.51, Emil Kroymann placed the word “Mithras” in brackets, suggesting that the word was a gloss, an above-the-line comment which has made its way into the text. (Dennison in 1905 had no access to this, of course).  Yet Refoulé does not even signal the variants for this part of the text, not even that many manuscripts give “Mithrae”, the genitive.

If we look at Greenslade’s translation, the most modern, we find this:

40. I shall be asked next, Who interprets the meaning of those passages which make for heresy? The devil, of course, whose business it is to pervert truth, who apes even the divine sacraments in the idol-mysteries. Some he baptizes–his own believers, his own faithful. He promises the removal of sins by his washing, and, if my memory serves, in this rite seals his soldiers on their foreheads. He celebrates the oblation of bread, brings on a representation of the resurrection, and buys a wreath at the point of the sword. Why, he actually restricts his High Priest to one marriage. He has his virgins, he has his continents. If we turn over the religious legislation of Numa Pompilius, if we look at his priestly functions and his badges and his privileges, the sacrificial ministrations and instruments and vessels, the niceties of vows and expiations, will it not be evident that the devil has imitated the scrupulosity of the Jewish Law? If he was so eager to copy and express in the affairs of idolatry the very things by which the sacraments of Christ are administered, we may be sure that he has had an equal longing and an equal ability to adapt the literature of sacred history and the Christian religion to his profane and emulous faith with the same ingenuity, sentence by sentence, word by word, parable by parable. We must not doubt, therefore, that the spiritual wickednesses from which heresy comes were sent by the devil, or that heresy is not far from idolatry, since both are of the same author and handiwork. Either they invent another God against the Creator or, if they confess one Creator, their teaching about him is false. Every falsehood about God is a kind of idolatry.

Greenslade adds (p.60 n.98) “I think Kroymann is right in removing the word Mithra, before signat (seals), from the text as a gloss. The grammatical and logical subject throughout the sentence is the devil.”

Greenslade is right.  So unless Tertullian’s mind wandered – unlikely – then we must treat “Mithras” as no part of the text.  This means that Dennison’s suggestion, that this in fact refers to Isis, is therefore entirely possible.

So where does all this leave us?

I feel that it leaves Dennison’s conclusion where it was.  The priests of Isis were distinguished by shaven heads, and they also had an X-shaped mark on their heads, as doubtless other priests did.  But the existence of the marks depends entirely on whether those busts are ancient – our sole evidence – and unfortunately Queyrel and Veymiers do not make it clear whether they dispute this.  So we must proceed on the basis that there is a collection of genuine busts, as Dennison believed.  We cannot state, as Queyrel and Veymiers do, that “les prêtres isiaques n’affichaient pas leur adhésion religieuse via leurs cicatrices” (the priests of Isis did not show their religious affiliation by their scars).

Dennison’s article has largely stood the test of time.  The same cannot be said for the photographs in his article.  These can never have been very good.  After scanning by JSTOR, they are frankly rubbish.  Nor does the internet help very much – it is still very difficult to find photographs of monuments online.  So I thought that we might end with a few examples that I did find online.  It might help future searchers!

Priest of Isis, with cross-shaped mark. Formerly though to be a bust of Scipio.  From here.  No idea where this is.

Here’s another:

Priest of Isis, with X-shaped mark on right temple. 1st century AD. Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas; anonymous loan; object number 36.1997.  From Wikimedia Commons.

For the moment, we have to say that the priests did have an X-shaped mark on their heads, based on the collection of busts of Isis.  This is deduction, not data.  But that would seem to be the state of opinion.

  1. [1]Walter Dennison, “A new head of the so-called Scipio type: an attempt at its identification”, American Journal of Archaeology 9 (1905), 11-43. JSTOR.
  2. [2]“L’apparence des isiaques : la réalité des stéréotypes littéraires”, p.283-321.
  3. [3]So Queyrel and Veymiers, 407; but see other papers in the volume that note how closely the cult of Isis and that of the Magna Mater were sometimes aligned.