In the Praises of Isis – Ideal Wife and Mother – her rise and fall

The Pagan Religions of Ancient Greece and Rome: In the ‘Praises of Isis’

Why was the Egyptian goddess Isis so popular in the Greco-Roman world, particularly under the Roman Empire?

I will argue that the reason, why the Egyptian goddess Isis was so popular in the Greco-Roman world, particularly under the Roman Empire, was due, initially, to the creating of a new religious pedagogy to bring about the syncretism of the religion of Egypt with Greece’s Olympiad for political purposes.

Isis’ popularity also grew out of her domestic image of ideal wife and mother.  However, it was in Isis’ characterization of being approachable, easily entreated, and merciful, that she became the people’s saviour, offering resurrection, and an after life.  Through her many different and endearing names, Isis, under the Roman Empire, became all things to all people

In Egypt, by the third century BC, Isis had finally become ‘the dominant deity in Egypt’. [1]  Following the conquest of Egypt (332 BCE), Alexander of Macedon, declared divine, the ‘son of Ammon’, made his way to Memphis. [2]  Sacrificing to the Bull Apis and declared by the priests to be Pharaoh, the divine ruler of Egypt, Alexander made it one of his priorities to create a new pedagogy for Egypt’s religious system.

The goal of Alexander’s religious pedagogy was the syncretism of the religion of Egypt with Greece’s Olympiad. With the goals of male political bonding, political change and economic trade, the reconciliation of opposing religious principles was carried out to fit more readily in a rapidly expanding Hellenised world.

Some of the religious differences between Egypt and Greece was Egypt’s deifying of humans. Imperial Rome, however, had no problem with accepting this belief. Greece, unlike Egypt, did not tolerate women in power: Zeus ruled its gods. Ptolemy 1, therefore, employed the brilliance of two priests, one Greek and the other Egyptian, commissioning a new theology incorporating Isis.  The Greek interpretation of the name of the creator goddess of Egypt, Au Set, (lit. ‘Ancient Ancient’) was Isis. [3]

The new image of Isis would display a characteristically Greek spirit with new names, enabling her to mix, mingle and intermarry with the Greek gods of the Olympiad pantheon. Finally, that image would prove to give her unlimited flexibility.  So successful was the new theology to dismantling religious, and thereby, cultural and social barriers, it eventually carried Isis all the way to Imperial Rome where she was identified with Ceres who was celebrated by the plebs in contrast to Cybele’s annual celebration, organised by the patricians. [4]

Following the conquest by Rome of Hannibal and Carthage (250 BC) and the resultant surplus wealth and increasingly mixed population, Isis aretologies were produced by Hellenised Egyptian priests, of which six remain. [5]  By the time Isis reached the shores of Italy, she was a goddess with accretions of myths and rituals of many lands. [6]  ‘She was a single supreme goddess behind many manifestations; the prerogatives of other goddesses accrued to her and she was worshipped in varying ways, but she remained Isis’. [7]

Unlike the worship of the Aten, in Egypt, Isi did not supplant all other deities, although she accrued many features from others – Hathor is especially noteworthy in this regard.  Isis’ worshippers were not, therefore, henotheistic; it being too strong a word.  Her worshippers were, however, pagan and polytheistic and they did not deny the existence of other divinities.

The Goddess, nevertheless, transformed polytheism. Many of the different deities that people worshipped were only manifestations of Isis under a different name.  Isis came as the champion of polytheism and until the time of Christianity and her eventual overthrow, she was all things to all people. [8]

Another example of Isis’ cross-cultural identity, with her ability to transcend national boundaries, can be seen in one of the hymns written by Isidoros, in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. In this hymn, Isidoros names Isis, amongst many other names, ‘Queen of the gods’, ‘Ruler of all’, ‘Deo most high’, and ‘Discoverer of all life’. Laws, justice, skills, nature and creation are also attributed to her: ‘because of you heaven and the whole earth were established’[9].  Isis travels to foreign ports instigated her popularity throughout the Greco Roman world.

In 273 BC, Alexandria and Rome forged commercial links through Rome’s desperate need for grain. The Egyptian navy already controlled the East Mediterranean. [10]  Alexandria had already become the world’s trading centre with Isis as patroness of shipping and commerce and a temple was erected to her in the famous port-city.  The great seaport launched Isiac priests, traders, merchants and seamen in ships to the Greek lands along the coast of Asia Minor, on the islands of the Archipelago, and on the mainland itself.[11]  Seamen proclaimed Isis’, ‘Bringer to Harbour’, [12] ‘Most Great, you who save all those who sail the sea in great storm, when men perish and ships are destroyed: all these are saved when they invoke your presence’. [13]  When, on her arrival in strange ports, such as, Delos, Athens, Corinth and Tyre, Isis also became a safe port bringing to all those who looked to her for comfort and hope [14].  In these port cities, the humble goddess had ‘either a house of her own, or other times shared a house with other cognate deities’. [15]

In Alexandria, at the same time that those who visited the taverns and places of prostitution were frequenting Isis’ temples, the cross-cultural, egalitarian goddess was also presiding over ‘the spiritual emporium of science, philosophy and religion’. This most famous emporium of the Greco-Roman world was where the mighty museum of Alexandria played host to the great male and female minds of Greeks and Jews alike. There, the greatest library in the known world was housed. [16]  One of Isis’ praises stems from her being ‘skilled in writing and calculation’, as having, ‘understanding’. [17]

The cult’s reception in the hearts and minds of women and men of every class is detectable in the aretalogy of Maronea. The aretalogy is a eulogy in honour of Isis, the healing goddess. It also reveals the close personal relationship the author had with her as the goddess-saviour.  Isis was also firmly established in Turkey by the second century BC. [18]  Apuleis wrote of Isis as omnipotent on a cosmic scale: ‘Thou dost revolve the sphere of heaven and illumine the sun; thou dost guide the earth, and trample Hell under thy feet. For thee, the constellations move, for thee the seasons return; the divine beings rejoice for thee, and the elements are thy slaves’. [19]

Isis asserts herself as invincible in a similar aretology, which Demeterius from Magnesia claims he transcribed from a stele in Memphis and, as an offering to Isis, he displayed it in the first century BC or the first century AD, in the city of Cyme in northwest Anatolia. In this aretology, the universalisation of Isis’ power and the syncretism of Isis in both the Greek and Egyptian religions are evident. ‘I am she who is called Thesmophoros.  I conquer Fate.  Fate heeds me.  Hail Egypt who reared me’. [20]

In the ‘Praises of Isis’, [21] certain attributes of the goddess are identifiable which would have endeared her to the Romans as well as the Greeks. The home and hearth was the very centre of male concerns and existence of Greece and Rome. For the Roman, the home ‘of each and every citizen’ was ‘the most hallowed place on earth’.  ‘There are his sacred hearth and his religious gods, there the very centre of his worship, religion, and domestic ritual’. Indeed, ‘it is a sanctuary so universally held sacred that for any man to be dragged from it is a breach of the ordinances of heaven’. [22]

Rome was a prudish society. [23]  Isis’ Egyptian image of suckling mother to her son Horus, was more than acceptable to Imperial Rome.  ‘For woman I determined that in the tenth month she shall deliver a baby into the light’, the honour and care of the mother and the father, ‘I ordained that parents should be cherished by their children’.  Isis’ names present her in a chaste womanly image.  This image is in keeping with the traditional expectations of Imperial Rome’s matrons and daughters. Isis was faithful to women and to the traditional union of male and female, ‘woman and man I brought together’; I compelled women to be loved by men; I invented marriage contracts’[24].

However, not all emperors appreciated Isis’ popularity, and she, along with other exotic foreign cults, were considered a danger and a threat to some of Imperial Rome’s new and deified emperors suspicious of secret meetings.  Furthermore, not all Roman ‘Ornament of the female sex and affectionate’, the beloved wife and sister of Orisis, overflowing with affection and compassion, and ‘Immaculate’, husbands were entirely happy with their wives’ religious activities.

The inscription of Amymone, a Roman housewife in first century BC, reveals what a Roman husband’s expectations were, concerning their wives: ‘here lies Amymone wife of Marcus best and most beautiful, worker in wool, pious, chaste, thrifty, faithful, a stayer at home’[25].

Juvenal’s satires (120-130 AD) launch a ‘vicious attack on Roman wives’, poking fun at Roman matrons. [26]  Nevertheless, the satires also affirm the power of Isis, as well as articulating the women’s own sexual prowess, together with revealing the link between female sexuality and the imported exotic cults, of which Isis was only one. These exotic cults attracted the women of Rome, and held sway over the women’s lives to such an extent that husbands were excluded from receiving sex-on-demand from their wives.  Juvenal claims that the women also ‘make a pilgrimage to the ends of Egypt’, and ‘abstain from sex on the prescribed and ritual days, exacting huge penalties when the marriage bed is polluted’ [27].  Although derogatory, and showing some male anxieties, Juvenal’s satire also reveals how firmly planted in the hearts and minds of women, in particular, Isis had become.

Because of its conquests abroad, Rome’s wealth increased and brought with it many social changes to the empire, empowering both women and men.  For all of its prosperity, nevertheless, Lucius writes a eulogy to Isis, appealing to her as the champion of the downtrodden and oppressed.  Isis, ‘Saviour Goddess’ of ‘both sexes’ (v 9), is addressed by Lucius as ‘by whatever name or ceremony or visage it is right to address thee’.  Lucius, trapped in the body of an ass, makes his plea based upon the mercy of Isis, ‘help me now in the depth of my trouble, strengthen my crushed fortune, grant respite and peace after the endurance of dire ills’ (v 2). [28]

Isis, the ‘Heavenly Venus’, ‘Queen of Heaven’, and as ‘creating Love’ (v 2), ‘adored in the celebrated temples of Ephesus’ is envisaged by Lucius as offering hope. ‘Thou in truth art the holy and eternal saviour of the human race, ever beneficent in helping mortal men and thou bringest the sweet love of the mother to the trials of the unfortunate’… ‘and when thou hast stilled the storms of life thou dost stretch out thy saving hand’.  ‘She established justice, so that each one of us, just as he by nature endures equal death, may also be able to live in conditions of equality’. [29]

Lucius attributed Isis with establishing language for egalitarian purposes, ‘so that the human race may live in mutual friendship, not only men with women, but all with all’.  Prophetic attributes accompany Isis: she decreed ‘that life should come into existence through man and woman’.[30].  Hailed as an equaliser, ‘Thou didst make the power of women equal to that of men’ [31] she was extolled, ‘Immortal Saviour, of many names, Isis most great’. [32]

Like highborn Greco-Roman women, Isis was useful in the hands of men seeking greater political power.  In Rome, as was true in the Hellenistic courts, betrothals, marriages, and divorces among Rome’s upper-class were usually arranged between men for the political and financial profit of the families involved, rather than for sentimental reasons.  In such an oppressive climate, women had little or no refuge.  Roman fathers, husbands and other male blood relatives held the power of life and death over women.  By her very many different names invoking her empathy, Isis became that place of refuge for women.

Rome was a ‘society suspicious of sexual pleasure, and remote from any concept of love as a passion bringing joy and sorrow’. [33]  Women’s chastity was held in unrealistic terms, In a world such as this.  For example, the vestal virgins, who, ‘in the city guard the eternal flame of the public hearth’; [34] ‘those who abandon their sacred virginity’, [35] were buried alive if accused of being unchaste.  In a world such as Imperial Rome was, slaves, both men and women, were at the mercy of their oppressors to do with them as they wished and ‘adultery was defined by law and custom as sex with a married woman other than one’s wife.  In this same world, a master had sexual access legally to his slaves, to women whose work as prostitutes or barmaids put them outside the law’s concerns and to concubines, where none of these cases counted as adultery for him’[36].  In such a society, it is to be expected that oppressed and demoralised women and men must have striven to develop a sense of purpose and identity for themselves apart from the State.

The cult of Isis initially gained popularity through the merchants and traders.  Her popularity increased along with her many names depicting her diverse characterisations bestowed upon her through them.  Her cult allowed an outlet for intimacy and especially for women’s stifled sexuality and pent up emotions.  To a people starved for intimacy and affection Isis appears to have become their all-in-all.  Politically, economically and for domestication, the syncretism of Isis, with the many names that characterised her, appear to have made her palatable for universal consumption.  Isis was also very adaptable in the Greco Roman world due to her enshrining the family, chastity and marriage, all of which brought her closer to women and men.  By her offering hope of salvation and resurrection the oppressed of the Greco Roman world, and particularly Rome, could also look forward to a better life in the next world than in this one.


ANCH 314, Citizen and Society in Ancient Rome, University of New England, Armidale, 2003.

Fantham, E., Foley, H. P., Boymel Kampen, N., Pomeroy, S.B., & Shapiro, H. A., Women in the Classical World: Image and text, New York, 1994.

Herodotus, The Histories, Penguin, London, 1972.

Lefkowitz, M. R., &. Fant, M. B., Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A source book in translation, Baltimore, 1992.

Pomeroy Sarah Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slave: Women in classical antiquity, New York. 1975.

RELS 307, The Pagan Religions of Ancient Greece and Rome, Unit Introduction and Notes, University of New England, Armidale, 2003.

RELS 307, The Pagan Religions of Ancient Greece and Rome, Documents and Iconographies, University of New England, Armidale, 2003.

Stone, M., Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood: A treasury of goddess and heroine lore from around the world, Beacon, Boston, 1990.

Vermaseren M. J., trans Lemmers, A.M.H., Cybele and Attis: The myth and the cult Thames and Hudson, London, 1977.

Witt, R. E., Isis in the Graeco-Roman World, Camelot, London, 1971,

[1] ANCH 314, Citizen and Society in Ancient Rome, Topic 12, Foreign Cults & the Imperial Cult, Armidale, 2003, p. 108.

[2] Merlin Stone, op cit, Boston, 1990. pp. v- viii,

[3] Stone, op. cit., pp. v-viii. 

[4] A.M.H. Lemmers, Maarten J. Vermaseren (trans), Cybele and Attis The myth and the cult London, 1977, p. 124.

[5] RELS 307, The Pagan Religions of Ancient Greece and Rome, Armidale, 2003, p. 79.

[6] Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slave: women in classical antiquity, New York, 1975, p. 217.

[7] Ibid., p. 218

[8] R. E. Witt, Isis in the Graeco-Roman World, London, 1971, p. 129.

[9] Isidorus, Hymn 1, in RELS 307, The Pagan Religions of Ancient Greece and Rome, UNE Documents and Iconographies, Armidale, 2003, Doc 167.

[10] ANCH 314, op. cit, p. 108.

[11] Witt, op. cit, pp. 58, 65 & 70.

[12]  P.  Oxyrhynchus XL. 1380 in RELS 307, op. cit., p. 169.

[13] ibid., p. 169.

[14] ANCH 314, op. cit., p. 108.

[15] Witt, op. cit., p. 59.

[16] ibid., p. 59. 

[17] P.  Oxy. XL. 1380, in RELS 307, op cit., 2003, p 169.

[18] RELS 307, op cit., p. 79.

[19] Apuleis, Metamorphosis, docs 170-180, para 25, in RELS 307, op cit., p. 178.

[20] The Praises of Isis, Inscriptions Graecae 12.14, RELS 307, op cit.,, p. 168.

[21] ibid., p.. 168.

[22] Cicero De Domo 108-112, RELS 307, op cit., p. 212.

[23] Eilane Fantham, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, & H. Alan Shapiro, Women in the Classical World: Image and Text, New York, 1994, p. 228.

[24] Inscriptions Graecae 12.14, in RELS 307 op cit., p. 168.

[25] Mary R. Lefkowitz & Maureen B. Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A source book in translation, Baltimore, 1992.

[26] RELS 307, The Pagan Religions of Ancient Greece and Rome, Unit Introduction and Notes, 2003, Armidale, p. 112.

[27] Satire 6, lines 510 541 in RELS 307, Documents and Iconographies, Armidale, 2003, doc. 238.

[28] Apuleis, Metamorphosis, in RELS 307, op. cit., , The Aretalogy of Maronea, Armidale, p. 170.

[29] ibid, p. 178.

[30] ibid., p. 170.

[31] P.  Oxy. XL. 1380, RELS 307, op. cit., p. 169.

[32] Isidorus, Hymn 1, RELS 307, op cit., p. 167.

[33] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Boymel, Pomeroy, & Shapiro, op. cit., p. 280.

[34] Cicero, On the laws, 20 RELS 307, op. cit., p. 231.

[35] Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompillius 9.5-10.7, excerpts. 2nd cent. AD. G. vestal Virgins, Rome, 7th Cent, BC. RELS 307, op. cit., 2003, p 225.

[36] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, & Shapiro op. cit., p. 300