Thursday, October 13, 2016

Is Isis still Egyptian in Greece and Rome?

Isis (seated right) welcoming the Greek Heroine, Temple of Isis, Pompeii
Two very important aspects of Ancient Egyptian culture is art and the gods. Ancient Egyptians used art to portray their rulers, show their everyday lives, and to worship their gods. When most people think of Ancient Egyptians their minds usually go to the pyramids. While the pyramids are architectural masterpieces; what is even more intriguing is the art found inside the pyramids in my opinion. The insides of most pyramids, which are in essence tombs, often have depictions of the deceased and of the gods. Ancient Egyptians, throughout the majority of their history, practiced a polytheistic religion. The gods and goddesses were pivotal influences in their lives. Much of the Egyptian traditions and deities have been borrowed by the Greeks and the Romans. Isis in particular has many temples dedicated to her in Greece and Rome, including the Temple of Isis in Pompeii and the Temple of Isis in Delos. The Greeks moved into Egypt around 332 BC. They were immediately awed by the Egyptian monuments and architecture. The Romans entered Egypt much later, around 30 BC. They both entered Egypt towards the end of the Late Period. By this time, Isis was a well established goddess and widely worshipped. The Greeks and the Romans were fascinated by the Egyptian gods and goddesses. They created many paintings and sculptures honoring Egyptian deities. The Egyptian goddess Isis was very popular with the Greeks and Romans and they adopted her as one of their own deities. When they did this, they happened to make several key changes to her appearance. 

Isis' appearance is quite different from how she was traditionally depicted in Egypt. Some of the most noticeable changes is that her skin tone lightened considerably, and she wears Greek/Roman dress. What would be the purpose of the ancient Greeks and Romans adopting a foreign goddess and then completely changing her appearance? Now, the Greeks did start this new tradition. The Greeks were in Egypt first, and the Romans were known to copy Greek paintings and sculptures. Also, some would argue that there is no ill intent when one culture changes the appearance of another cultures' adopted deity. Perhaps the Greeks and Romans changed her appearance to better fit into her society. The Ancient Greeks and Romans were huge fans of aesthetics. They often depicted Isis as an ideal Greek/Roman woman. They could have depicted her this way to better assimilate her into their society. Another option is that they found her appearance too primitive and wanted to make her appear more “civilized”. Regardless of the reason, the real question is whether or not these images of Isis, in the Greek and Roman context, should be considered depictions of her at all.

Isis did not start to truly gain popularity until the New Kingdom. However, by the Late Period Egypt she was still very relevant. Her widespread popularity is most likely one of the reasons the Greeks and Romans became so interested in her. One of the reasons Isis is so influential is because she is the sister-wife of Osiris. According to mythology, Osiris and Isis, along with their siblings Seth and Nephthys, are the children of Geb and Nut.  Isis is considered a powerful mother goddess in Egyptian mythology. She is also associated with mourning and magic. Isis was associated with being the mother of the pharaohs as well. 

Iconographically speaking, Isis was a very prominent figure. Isis is often represented in her anthropomorphic form. She is seen as a woman with a long white sheath dress. She is also often seen crowned with the sign for throne in hieroglyphs. She sometimes wears a necklace and is seen with an ankh. Also, in many reliefs and images, Isis is seen in her mourning state, with her hands upraised in lamentation, or outstretched across the deceased. One of the most common ways Isis is depicted in art is with her wings. Her arms turn into wings, and she often seen half kneeling with her wings outstretched on either side of her. This image is one that has often be popularized and used to describe the goddess.This association with wings could be due to Isis’ status as an avian goddess. However, the Ancient Greeks and Romans depict Isis in a very different manner. Honestly, she is almost unrecognizable. She is often depicted in long white robes and perhaps a snake. What is most shocking is her skin tone difference. She is always white with Greek/Roman features. Traditionally, Isis’ complexions ranges from olive to a deep brown; which is a definite difference to how the Greeks and Romans depicted her.

One important question, that a lot of art historians don’t think about, is whether or not we should acknowledge these depictions of Isis in the Greek and Roman context. It is important to consider that most art historians would argue that this is merely a depiction of Isis. However, when the transformation is so drastic it does raise question. In my opinion, I appreciate the Greek and Roman depictions of Isis as works of art and vital pieces of ancient history. However, I do not think these depictions should be glorified or even acknowledged as actual depictions of Isis. There needs to be a clear distinction that they are Greek and Roman depictions of her, and not traditionally accurate representations of this great Egyptian goddess. 

Aldred, Cyril. Egyptian Art. New York: Oxford UP, 1980. 

Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997.

“Roman Egypt”, accessed October 19, 2016,

"When the Greeks Ruled Egypt”, accessed October 19, 2016,

Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames 
& Hudson, 2003.

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