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‘The Expansion of the Cult of Isis in the Roman Empire’

Researcher: Svenja Nagel (Institute of Egyptology)

Svenja Nagel is working on a Ph.D. thesis entitled ‘The Expansion of the Cult of Isis in the Roman Empire’ (working title), in which the transfer, adaptation and transformation of a so-called ‚oriental deity’ on the way from East to West shall be analyzed.
Among all the Egyptian deities it is Isis whose cult spread most extensively outside the borders of her homeland. Because of her significance within the Greek-Hellenistic and, later on, even more within the Roman cultural space, the goddess soon attracted the interest of historians and archaeologists. However, the numerous studies mostly focused on her Hellenistic and Roman appearance, that is firstly on Greek and Latin texts as well as archaeological evidence outside Egypt, while excluding earlier and especially contemporary material from her country of origin itself. This resulted in a somewhat one-sided picture, although in the last years important groundwork by the Egyptological side, such as the edition and translation of demotic textual sources, has increased considerably. A comprehensive study concerning the expansion and development of this Egyptian cult within the particular historical and cultural setting of the Roman Empire, that includes the land of origin as well as different areas of diffusion, with special regard to the factors of cultural flow taking place between these regions, is still a desideratum.

To fill this gap the first part of the thesis is concerned with a detailed translation and analysis of Egyptian religious texts on Isis from the Graeco-Roman period. With the complex hieroglyphic wall inscriptions illustrated with cultic scenes of the indigenous temples from this era, we have a large corpus of official theology, which up to now is translated only in parts and has insufficiently been evaluated with regard to the conception of Isis. Hymns and other longer texts, which sometimes can be replenished with papyri from the temple archives, show a broad and locally varying spectrum of epithets and ideas connected with the goddess and developing continually further in Greek and Roman times. Her increasing importance is also mirrored in numerous new temple building projects dedicated to her under the Roman Emperors of the 1st century A.D. Furthermore, the leading cult centre of Philae in the extreme South of Egypt had a strong radiance into Nubia where the cult of Isis of Philae gained the highest rank throughout the land. Therefore, a religious flow also runs from Egypt southward.
Currently, the translation of the relevant temple inscriptions is completed and their overarching analysis is ongoing.
In addition to this corpus, which was mainly accessible to the highly educated priests, demotic texts with sometimes individual prayers, as well as literary works, magical texts, visitor’s graffiti in temples or the onomastics grant clues to the personal relationship to and the conception of Isis within the population. In these categories we can obviously already encounter cultural flows between the different parts of the population (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans etc.), especially when including Greek textual sources which often run parallel to the demotic ones. Furthermore, archaeological evidence, e.g. from the field of small and votive art and from funerary contexts, has to be integrated into the evaluation.

The second main part of the thesis focuses on the expansion of the cult outside Egypt. Here, though the main emphasis is on the Roman period, a diachronical perspective is also important: to understand the position of the cult and its regionally specific characteristics, earlier developments must be examinated as well. Therefore, a chapter on the first spread of Egyptian cultural elements into the Western Mediterranean region under Phoenician and Punic influence, in which the significance of Isis and associated deities forms the central question, leads on to a survey of selected regions of the Roman Empire.
For that purpose, in currently ongoing case studies, archaeological evidence for the outer appearance and the contents of the cult of Isis shall be examinated within three regions which show differing preconditions concerning their geographical situation, their cultural influences and their historical relationship with Egypt as well as the Egyptian cults. These selected regions are:


1. The provinces of North Africa, parts of which have already for a long time been strongly influenced by Phoenicians and close cultural contact with Egypt.


2. Italy as the centre of the Roman Empire, with special emphasis on Rome/Latium and Campania.


3. A Northern border region which only at a relatively late time was adjoined to the Mediterranean cultures through Roman conquest: Germany or the Danubian provinces (not yet decided).


Within these studies, questions after cult practices and concepts form the main emphasis, for which an analysis of architecture and equipment of the sanctuaries is especially relevant.  Further important sources are private dedications and inscriptions.

In a final step, Greek and Roman religious and literary sources, such as e.g. the much discussed Isis aretalogies, shall be examined with regard to their statements about the cult of Isis and the ideas of the goddess, to find out if a general applicability of these texts on the actual cult practices, as it has repeatedly been done in scientific research especially on the basis of Apuleius‘ Metamorphoses Book XI, is at all justifiable.
On the foundation of the analyzed material as well as the comparison between the single regions and their relations with each other, the land of origin and to the literary tradition, an overall interpretation shall be attempted, integrating recent theoretical starting points from the fields of cultural history and science of religions into the evaluation of the cultural mechanisms at work. Within this synthesis, the backflow of new concepts to Egypt itself and the reciprocal influences of old and new cult concepts in the land of origin will also play an important role.

For the theoretical framework and central questions within this research project, see also under Research Programme. 

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