Isis, a mother goddess for all humanity

May 18th, 2011 | author Ambra Antonelli | posted in Portrait, Women in History

Book XI of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, or “The Golden Ass,” begins in the obscure silence of the night, with the moon rising from the sea in its unabashed fullness. Thus opens a fundamental chapter for the understanding of the cult of Isis.

“…video praemicantis lunae candore nimio completum orbem commodum marinis emergentem fluctibus. Nanctusque opacae noctis silentiosa secreta, certus etiam summatem deam praecipua maiestate pollere resque prorsus humanas ipsius regi providentia, nec tantum pecuina et ferina, verum inanima etiam divino eius luminis numinisque nutu vegetari, ipsa etiam corpora terra caelo marique nunc incrementis consequenter augeri, nunc detrimentis obsequenter imminui”.

The poetic intensity of these sentences expresses with great force the rhetoric of Apuleius, while also expressing the profound religious sentiment of his mystic protagonist in the moments leading up to the goddess’s appearance. It is this moment in which Lucius, protagonist of the work, finds a solution to a nagging query. For in the apparition of Isis he sees the embodiment of all the other goddesses without exactly identifying any of them.

Here Isis is glorified, but it was not without difficulty that she was welcomed into the ancient Roman world. She also appears different from the many personifications she represented in Ancient Egypt. She is more so the fruit of a complete process of syncretism, a process that arrived in the period following Alexander the Great and more representative of a new Egypt, one ruled by a Greek-Macedonian dynasty.

According to Egyptian lore, Isis is directly connected with the origins of the Universe, seeing that she was a member of the divine generation that introduces the coming of the reign of men. Her role in this event revolves around pre-destined passion, the same to be used with and that awaits the coming of men.

Isis has a close relationship with her brother Osiris in that she is also his wife, the two of them comprising the archetypal polytheistic, royal couple. In tradition, she repeatedly experiences the pain at the loss of her husband who is killed and dismembered by her brother Seth, the incarnation of all negative actions. Once the widow Isis recovers all of the pieces of her dismantled husband she conceives their son, Horus (known as Harpocrates in the Greek world), who she will subsequently share her empire with.

With regards to this traditional display of character, the Hellenistic Isis seems to amplify her role as royalty, putting her interests and love for mankind in the second wrung. With this grand role it is then easier for her to be assimilated with other female deities, like the goddess Demeter, who desperately searched for her stolen daughter, Aphrodite, who was the guarantor of married love, and even the Egyptian cat-goddess Bastet, protector of maternity.

The cosmos and the race of man both gain a form of stability from Isis. By demonstrating that Lucius in the “Golden Ass” is able to invoke the goddess at his own will attests to the availability of Isis and her general offer to men to modify the course of their very own destiny. If Fortune is really blind, as she is always depicted so, then it is Hope that must give permission to the dispersion of the cult of Isis and allow adaptations so that it may appeal favorably with all classes and sexes.

It is no doubt that the gods were role models to their believers. They saw Osiris die and resurrect himself regularly, or Isis who represented the perfection of femininity as the goddess of compassion, hope, and motherhood—examples by which the mortals wished to live their lives.

The diffusion of Isis and her cult occurs despite a decisive opposition of the ruling class. The repeated attempts of royal rulers to stop the building momentum of the cult shows in fact how popular was her success in that it was occupying the minds of some leaders.

At the end of the 2nd century CE the archeological finds in Italy multiply, attesting to the adhesion of the Isiaic cult. The discoveries are numerous and demonstrate how wide spread the membership to this cult really was. Some materials found from this period include small bronzes, precious gems, amulets, as well as ritual objects like the situla and the sistrum.

One can be sure that if the Isiaic cult has penetrated so thoroughly a large city such as Rome, it has permeated also through to the more interior regions, often following roads of communication. The couriers were most often merchants, selling exotic goods and carrying a glimpse of salvation with them, in the name of Isis and of other Egyptian divinities, to the Italic populations.

It is in this context therefore that we find a presence of Isiaic material in Gubbio, a city that for its strategic position on the west side of the Apennines and in the direction of the Adriatic sea would have nobly acted as a hub in Umbria for the devotion to Isis.

It is now necessary to return to and analyze with great attention the pieces of the puzzle thus gathered in order to understand better the diffusion of an eastern influence into the center of Italy. This must be done so that we may distinguish how the movement came about and may soon discover the presence of great and noble sanctuaries.


M.CIPOLLONE, Necropoli in località Vittorina a Gubbio in Notizie degli scavi di Antichità Serie IX vol.XI-XII 2000-2001.

F.COARELLI, Iside in Il rito segreto, misteri in Grecia e Roma a cura di A.Bottini, Electa 2005.

N.GRIMAL, Storia dell’antico Egitto 1990 Laterza.

Iside, il mito il mistero la magia a cura di E.A. ARSLAN.

APULEIO, Metamorfosi (L’asino d’oro), a cura di Marina Cavalli, Arnoldo Mondatori Editore. 1988 Milano.

Ambra Antonelli 8/18/2008. Translated by Genna Neilson
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