Eastern cults in the Apennines

Oct 21st, 2013 | author Ambra Antonelli | posted in Report, Take the road less traveled, Voices of the Past

In  the region of Umbria it is already possible to pick out the name of the goddess Isis from ancient inscriptions, especially at Terni and at Spoleto. These cities are geographically projected towards the area of Latium, where the port of Ostia, and naturally Rome, would have constituted the principle landing and launching point for the diffusion of the cult into the rest of the peninsula.
The village of Bettona, in the Umbrian valley, has also given its share of interesting elements, and ignites the path to Fano and on to the Adriatic coast. The Apennine chain has, in this sense, maintained its traditional role of the absorbent border. Therefore, across the mountain pass and winding rivers the exchange of merchandise, men, and naturally of cultural and religious curiosities was made easier.
After a group sculpture of the Egyptian Pantheon was discovered at Sarsina, consisting of Isis, Serapis, and the head of Anubus, the floor was really opened for proper historical and archaeological research, as this discovery heightened the possibility of a cult sanctuary being found in the area.
In the case of Gubbio, the presence of some significant clues could leave us to think of the existence of a true and important religious center. Still, this consideration should be expressed with extreme caution not only because sometimes we find ourselves in front of objects in which we know nothing of the provenance, but also because the ways in which the goddess was honored could be numerous.
In Italy, in fact, Isis was welcomed in many ways as the protector of motherhood and was assimilated to the goddess Fortune. In some cases she has been substituted for the traditional household gods taking on their cult practices often limited to the private sphere.
It is always important to underline the exceptionality of certain finds beginning with the small bronze of the child Harpocrates which is now in the archeological museum in Gubbio, of which has an unknown provenance but was most likely made in Egypt before being transported to Italy. Such a hypothesis is based on the particular iconography of the bronze which is regally represented and of which style is mostly unknown on the Italic peninsula. According to state research, we have only 3 other examples of similar pieces of this nature in all of Europe.
The small bronze in Gubbio represents Harpocrates seated. In order to evoke the idea of the paternal throne, a particular prominence is given to the depiction of the pschent, the pharaoh’s double crown and symbol of the royalty that the son of Isis won after usurping the throne from Seth, his uncle as well as his father’s murderer. The pointer finger of his right hand is raised slightly to his lips, in a call for silence and respect for this most secret cult, one that is destined only for those most exclusively faithful and worthy.
The Isiac cult opened up the public rituals in a way in which all participants could speak and partake in the rites. Whereas in other cult rituals, comprised of esoteric doctrines, only a small group of followers were able to take part in the mystery. With a look of Book XI of Apuleius “Metamophoses”, we learn of his protagonist Lucius’s initiation into the sacred cult of Isis. Between the lines a new style is formed, deliberately evocative and windingly involved in the path that awaits the neophyte who should have understood the ritual of death and rebirth.
The problem with the small bronze is that the symbolic message alone cannot tie it to foreign territory. Above all, the absence of information in relation to its discovery is also unfavorable. To know the provenance would enrich the object’s worth tenfold—especially in the case of understanding why and how it made its way to Gubbio.
No less complex is the interpretation of a portrait, now at the local Museum in Gubbio, that could represent a priest of Isis. This personification is shown without hair, as the religion considered hair be impure, and on the forehead is a sign in the form of a cross that could be identified with the sacred symbol of the goddess.
Seeing how impossible it would be to find information on the provenance of the portrait and the small bronze, our research would be better spent focused on the two Isiaic tombs found during an excavation in the early 1980’s in the middle of a cemetery not far from Gubbio in the area of Vittorina.
In this study, we have combined all of the attentive research surrounding the discovery with all of the fundamental information for a historical reconstruction as complete as possible.
Both of the burial locations are a part of a necropolis with a strong connotation to slavery, therefore reserved mostly for slaves, however it is not without its fair share of freemen. Many of these freemen were undoubtedly a part of the lower social classes and are buried either after cremation or inhumation, both practices common for the first imperial age. The slaves, moreover, knew very well how to arrange the particular tombs and plot them in accordance, with many of theme parallel to the street that crosses the town’s valley on a north-south axis.
Tomb n. 117 stands out for its different orientation from all the other tombs as well as for the contents of the tomb. The deceased was holding a “sistrum” in her left hand, a sign of her “direct” participation in the cermenoies honoring the goddess Isis. The sistrum is a musical instrument usually made from metal with some barrettes that go across the frame and produce a sound when the instrument is shaken back and forth. Naturally its use is limited to the ritualistic sphere so much so that in the Roman world it becomes attributed solely to Isis. In the case of tomb n. 117, the object is decorated with the small image of a cat, symbol of Bastet the Egyptian half-goddess/half-cat protector of motherhood and childbirth. The presence of the sistrum in this tomb is a completely isolated case.

The attribute of Isis is a musical instrument namen sistrum

The attribute of Isis is a musical instrument namen sistrum The tomb also gives us traces of the funeral rites and of the format in which it was conducted. The body of the woman was lying face up with her head turned northeast and her arms crossed. At the angles of the tomb were four thymiateria (incense burners) in ceramic, one of which was being shielded from the wind.Inside the incense burners, were found traces of aromatic wood, or burned incense, in accordance with eastern traditions, ones far from those of the western world that preferred banquets, libations or the occasional aspiration of the blood of a victim.
Two strips of black cloth were found together next to one of the “thymiateria”, which could re-evoke the great black cloake worn by the goddess Isis at the moment of her epiphany in Apuleius’ Book XI (Metam. XI, 3-4).
All in all, after the analysis of the findings and in particular a piece of money could suggest a dating of the tomb to the age of  Trajan.
In the same necropolis, in the inside of a tomb of an interred child (tomb n. 232) was found a pendent made of green faience with a portrait of Harpocrates. It probably would have decorated a small bracelet or a necklace together with another amulet in the form of an eye. This tomb too has been date to the 2nd century CE.
The two Isiaic tombs testify to the two diverse ways to approach and receive the cult of this Egyptian goddess.
The woman buried with the “sistrum” was probably making a declaration of her faith. The child, however, shows a more cautious and superstitious approach in relation to the goddess. The amulet is seen as a protective object, so perhaps it was a final gift from his mother.
This grand goddess of providence and fortune, who protects women in their most critical moments of need, when they are giving birth or crying over a deceased loved one, was able to become even the goddess of mystical art, enhancing the possibility to cross her cult and her doctrine to change reality beyond the confines of man.

by Ambra Antonelli - translated by Genna Nielson – Agosto 2008

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