Part I: Narrative


There have been many cults and religions over the thousands of years. Some have faded into obscurity whilst others have thrived over time and are still practiced today. One such religion is the cult of Isis, though the cult is not practiced precisely like it was in the Hellenistic period in Greece it is still practiced today around the world. Isis is known for many things, she is known as the mother goddess, she is known as the lawgiver, and she has complete control over fate. All the aspects of Isis combine to make her one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, goddess of the Hellenistic period and into today. The cult of Isis in the Hellenistic period had spread to many different countries, spanning the Mediterranean area and going farther north as well as its original home in Egypt.


What is a Mystery Religion?:

Mystery Religions are religions that have secret practices and rituals that one must be initiated to know and take part in. This does not always mean that people do not know that the cult exists or who is in it. But those initiated are not allowed to practice any rituals in front of those who are not. There is some knowledge on what happened in the mystery rituals, but most of what we know is what happened before and after the actual rituals take place. There are some documents with accounts of what happened inside the rituals but not many, because if people found out someone broke the oath of silence on the secrets it was punishable by death.

Two Main Mystery Religions in the Hellenistic Period:

There are two main mystery religions in the Hellenistic Period, the Cult of Demeter and the Cult of Isis. The cult of Demeter found its main location for worship in Eleusis in Greece. People would flock there to try to be initiated into the mysteries and be able to partake in the rituals. The cult of Demeter began when her daughter, Kore (Persephone), was taken to the underworld by Hades. She wandered the land in search of Kore until Demeter ended up in Eleusis. After some events, she taught the royal family her mysteries. These mysteries were secret and only initiates were allowed into her temples during the mysteries.

The other main mystery cult was the mystery cult of Isis, she is one of the oldest gods in ancient egypt but her origins are unclear. The cult of Isis was originally spread from Egypt. The people celebrated this cult for many reasons, life, death, safety at seas, justice, the list goes on. Isis was the mother goddess and had power over all other gods, some works say she was those gods in different forms, but it was not unusual to worship Isis and other deities at the same time. For if she was those other gods, then it was still praising her, and if she was not then the people would have their bases covered.

Features and Attractions Similar in Both Mysteries:

Both the two main mystery religions have similarities and differences. Both the cult of Demeter and the mysteries of Eleusis, and the cult of Isis both have benefits for after death. These two cults offer what many other cults and practices of the time do not. They offer a better after life if you worship them and are initiated into the cult. This is one of the biggest attractions to the mysteries. Another similarity between the two are that both Demeter and Isis are attractive for women to follow in their cults and be initiated. They are both mother figures and have power over love and the woman. These two cults, while maybe not offering many priestess positions, in the cases of Isis at the beginning in Greece, are partial toward women and represent mothers and childbirth.


The Cult of Isis as a Religion:

“There in the beginning was Isis. Oldest of the old, she was the goddess from whom all Becoming arose” [1]. Isis was an Egyptian goddess who made her way into the Greco-Roman world because she was powerful, encompassed all the other deities, and benefitted not only life but the afterlife of her initiated followers. She was a popular god with women because she was the goddess of love and motherhood, she was popular with sailors because she had control of the sea and the weather, and she was popular with the men as she was the goddess of warfare and she controlled fate. The cult of Isis was also unique in that it was a mystery religion, bathed in secrecy, but daily worship of the goddess did not require one to be roman isisinitiated in the mysteries [2]. The transformation of Isis and Sarapis from personal to Roman state gods was a reason why daily worship was common without being initiated within the mysteries. It allowed those who wanted to have her favor in the after life join the mysteries and worship here there but also sailors who just wanted a safe passage could worship her as well. There were harbors dedicated to her all other the different regions which showed her vast influence over the people of the Hellenistic age. The cult of Isis offered redemption for lives poorly lived, healing, and protection at war. She was the pantheon goddess of the Greek world that was the closest deity to the Christian god, and having one god to worship instead of multiple appealed to many people.

Major benefits of worshipping Isis:

There are many different reasons that worshipping Isis brings major benefits to one’s life. She will take care of you after death, and will take care of you in life. She is all powerful and has control over everything that she is not, for example she has control over the sea and storms but she is not the sea and storms themselves, while she has control over fate but also says that she is fate in the Isis Aretology. Isis, when she attached herself to Osiris, later known as Sarapis the god of the dead, became involved in what happens to someone in the underworld. Later, as the religion progressed, she became more entwined in death as the mourner and widow  of Osiris. There is a painting of a scene, in Pompeii, of Isis finding the body of Osiris and mourning his dead body. Isis is also a goddess of healing, she discovered the elixir of life. Any of her worshippers would then perchance have a shot at getting that if they were devout enough.

The spread of the cult of Isis:

Much of the spread of Isis is from merchants, sailors, and the trade of slaves from Egypt [3]. The goddess Isis was popular among the Greeks for many reasons but a main reasons that her cult spread so far was that she was the goddess to pray for when you want a safe journey overseas. People would pray to her before they left and again when they ended their journey. This goddess that was a protector then of sailors and merchants was very popular becauseegyptian isis so much of the Greek economy, food base, and people relied on seafaring. The Romans took to Isis and Sarapis strongly because the different myths that go along with the cult that “propagated an understanding in princeps” [4]. This basically means that the Romans liked this cult because it supported the rulers position that there were people beyond normal human conventions and status. There was another reason that Isis was such a popular cult and spread in the Mediterranean world, Isis as well as some other foreign gods had ideals that suggested that every person had their place in the world and they reveled in the functioning and non-chaotic universe. The cult of Isis spread and was successful originally because of the relationship that Isis and Sarapis had, the way that the two gods went together and encompassed most of what people wanted out of a deity. Together they ruled over life, death, fate, the seas, the heart, justice, everything and that was a big pull for people in the Greco-Roman world who had hundreds of other gods to worship to.


The All Loving Mother

Isis was the mother goddess, the more powerful queen of heaven [5]. Isis was a universal goddess, she reigned as a queen in heaven and was a maternal life force on earth. This was a main theme for the cult of Isis, a powerful mother-like goddess who ruled over most everything. She was known as the goddess with innumerable names, she was all the other gods and goddess’ that other people believed in, and she even took control over main centers of Greek worship. Inscriptions show that she had a large presence in Delphi, Eleusis, and Delos [6]. She won the love and loyalty of innumerable men and women as her wisdom was without measure and had healing abilities for the sick.

The Giver of Life/ Redemption

Isis suckled the pharos of Egypt to life, she healed the sick, she was regarded as the source of all things that lived. She was the authority on animal worship in Egypt, where animals were considered sacred and she provided healing for those who needed it. Another theme of Isis was redemption. She provided those who had lived bad lives a way out, by being initiated into the mysteries and living their lives through her she would give them redemption for their bad lives.


Isis as perceived by women in the Greco-Roman world:

Isis was an important goddess for the women in the Greco-Roman world because she represented a mother. She was the mother goddess, was thought to be the mother of pharos in Egypt [7], and had established herself as the patron of the female sex. She was a savior goddess, redemption could happen by participating and being initiated into her mysteries. This is shown in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, Lucius after returning to human at the will and instruction of Isis, he becomes initiated into her cult. He follows and worships her blindly, all this because she promised him redemption and that she would look after him as a human. Women seem to find great comfort in the redemption aspect of Isis, many men do not associate religion with morality but the women seem to take more stock in it.  Another reason that women were drawn to Isis is because she provided them with acceptable ways to have emotional outlets. “Public acts of penance by Isis devotees are well documented” [8], she was known to have a temper and would act in anger if one did something that was expressly forbidden and thus expected when others did they would pay penance. This anger was often directed toward men who had wronged a woman, women still utilized the emotional outlets for they had often done wrong but it was less often grecco isis2that they would be outwardly punished like the men.

Isis is also viewed as a calm and spiritual goddess who ruled over love and the ways of the heart. She had a role of protecting lovers and was known to have a relationship with Venus/Aphrodite; this was particularly emphasized in imperial times. In the Isis Aretalogy, she states that “she compelled women to be loved by men” [9]. Her protection of women and her support of their love are all reasons that women are drawn to Isis over some of the other deities that they worship.

Participation of women in the cult:

Isis was an attractive cult for women in the Greek world as we can see, their participation in the cult, however, was not as frequent as we might believe. In 1099 inscriptions on the cult of Isis and those who worship it there was only 200 that mentioned women [10]. This thought that there weren’t as many women participating in the religion as we thought is based off the amount of surviving literature alone, the surviving paintings and sculptures suggest though that there were many women who had a significant role in the cult of Isis.  However there were more women who participated in the cult outside of Greece, in Asia and Africa, the women were more prominent in their roles in the ritual sacrifices, as shown by their literature and writing. This could be because when Isis and Sarapis first came to the Greek world, Sarapis was more popular. Lending to more priests than priestesses [11].

grecco isisIn the Roman empire, the amount of female priestess in the Isis cult was many. In Pompeii, the statues and paintings were maintained very well over the years because of mount Vesuvius’ eruption. Those paintings show women preforming important ritualistic and sacrificial duties. One such painting depicts a group of women dressed in black, wearing Greek clothing but have Egyptian features [12]. The mourning festival of Isia was a public festival where people mourned for Isis’ loss of Osiris. This was a festival that women actively participated in. Though this festival was public, the mourners who were initiates seemed to be more affected by the mourning than simple bystanders [13]. Though the participation of women tended to arise suspicion of members that were not initiated into the cult, they saw the gatherings of Isis worshippers as seduction dens. This is because there were so many women gathered together and they believed Isis to have an air of sexual impurity about her rituals and desires [14]. That did not stop the women from actively participating though because Isis was their goddess, and she looked out for them.


The cult of Isis has lasted throughout history, and though it has changed over time it has still maintained the integrity of how it was once practiced. The mysteries of the cult have restricted what we know about the actual rituals of Isis but the legend of Isis and the power of the mother goddess has lived on in the knowledge of people. The distance that the religion spread as well as the diversity of the people who practiced it, made the cult of Isis one of the largest and most important cults in the Hellenistic period. This cult is written about in literature, Apuleius, celebrated in Egypt, and is one of the only cults from the Hellenistic period to still be worshipped other than the Abrahamic religions. The cult of Isis has changed history and impacted the people of the Mediterranean and Africa for thousands of years as a strong religion.


[1] Witt, R.E. Isis in the Graeco-Roman World. New York: Cornell Univerity Press, 1971.

[2]Valantasis, Richard. “Isis Aretalogy”.  Late Antiquity in Practice. Princeton:Princeton University Press, 2000.

[3] Valantasis, Richard, 370.

[4] Takács, Sarolta A. Isis and Sarapis in the Roman World. New York: Brill,


[5]Witt, 19.

[6] Witt, 23.

[7]Valantasis, Richard, 371.

[8] Heyob, Sharon Kelly. The Cult of Isis among women in the Greco-Roman world. Leiden: Brill, 1975.

[9] Valantasis, Richard, 374.

[10]Heyob, 83.

[11]Heyob, 89.

[12] Heyob, 98.

[13] Takács, 18.

[14] Heyob, 113.

Part II: Annotated Bibliography

Cott, Johnathan. Isis and Osiris: exploring the goddess myth. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

This work was a very helpful resource because the author Jonathan Cott went to many different areas to research Isis and Osiris. He took information from Egyptian secret sects to the founder of a fellowship of Isis in Ireland. This gathering of information not only tells us how current the worship of Isis is and how it has lasted all these years but also how wide spread the cult of Isis really was, enough so that it had strong enough roots to stay relevant and worshipped in present. I primarily took advantage of this text to highlight the cult of Isis’ far reaching influence and importance to the different peoples of the world today as well as the world known by the Egyptians and Greeks.


Heyob, Sharon Kelly. The Cult of Isis among women in the Greco-Roman world. Leiden: Brill, 1975.

 This book was primarily used to look at the role of women in the cult of Isis, both their participation as well as how they perceived Isis. The different ways that the cult incorporated morality teachings into the lives of the people was, if not a new thing, then an unpopular way to look at life. This book has a section on the morality and those aspects in the cult and it presented an interesting way to look at the cult as set apart from others. Not only did this book give us insight into the cult of Isis as it had to do with women but it also gave history on the cult. Some of its beginnings and transformation into the Greek world.


Magness, Jodi. “The Cult of Isis and Kore at Samaria-Sebaste in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods.” Harvard Theological Review 94, no. 2 (2001): 159-179 

 The book was singularly helpful because it was about the temple of Kore being placed over the temple of Isis and Sarapis. This is interesting because these cults were worshipped around the same time, Isis is even still worshipped today, so to look at a temple that had been replaced with that of Kore is an interesting way to look at the worship of Isis as a whole and the effects she had on people at the time. He focuses on the foundation of the cult in the Hellenistic period which is relevant to my project as well. I found it interesting that Samaria replaced a temple of the Mother Goddess and instead put up a temple for Kore, had Kore’s image on their money, and the town has statues and inscriptions of the goddess. This made me think about the different aspects Kore brings to the lives of the Greeks verse which aspects Isis does.


Pakkanen, Petra. Interpreting early Hellenistic Religion: a study based on the mystery cult of Demeter and the cult of Isis. Helsinki : Suomen Ateenan-instituutin säätiö, 1996.

I primarily used the chapter specific to Isis and Demeter in the Hellenistic period. There were other chapters focusing on problems in the mysteries and the general methodology but I focused on the Hellenistic period of Isis and her role parallel to Demeter from this book. I vaguely used the chapter on changing religions but as I was mainly focused in the Hellenistic period section of my research project, that is the majority of what I took from this book. This work was helpful as it expressed the importance of the cult at the time, as well as the potential biases that could happen when one was trying to get initiated. The ultimate secrecy of the cult, at the scale that is was practiced, was emphasized as the significance of the cult in the people.


Regula, DeTraci. The Mysteries of Isis: Her worship and magick. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1995

This book was very helpful for this paper in that it took one through the temple of Isis as if one could worship there. There is information on clothing, rituals, the vastness of Isis, and the practices of worshipping her. This book gave a new age look to the worship of Isis. It tended to focus more on some aspects, like her presence in many other religions like Scandinavian and Celtic, and her power in more than just healing and being the Great Mother. However it tended to leave out some of the big aspects that she was known for in the Greco World because of this new age look, like the aspect of her protecting the innocent, as shown in her protection of Horus and vengeance for Osiris, in other works.


Solmsen, Friedrich. Isis among the Greeks and Romans. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1979.

Isis among the Greeks and Romans starts off with Isis’ speech to Lucius in The Golden Ass. I found this very interesting because it showed that though The Golden Ass was a work of fiction the importance of its relationship to Isis was strong. That it was referenced in a book like this emphasizes that it was a good way to look at Isis and her relationship to her followers. This is important as well because in the speech to Lucius, Isis identifies herself as all the gods and goddess’ in the world. That this would be referenced in a modern day literary work, suggests the validity of the claim was not fiction as the rest of the book was but an inside look at the way the Greeks and Romans viewed Isis. This book also talks about why Isis was so capable of spreading her influence so widely. Though there were so many other deities to be worshipped she transcends national and continental barriers to be a widely worshipped goddess in the Greco-Roman world, as well as the Egyptians and many other places.


Takács, Sarolta A. Isis and Sarapis in the Roman World. New York: Brill,


This book was primarily used to highlight the different aspects of the cult of Isis in different parts of the world and different times it was studied: The late republic, the principate, the Rhine provinces, and the Danubian provinces. It addressed misconceptions about the cult and talked about the ultimate aspects and goals that one could expect in worshipping Isis. I found the second chapter on the late republic to be the most enlightening because it had sections on the senatorial actions against the cult. This is the main article I have that shows that not all people were in line with the cult as the only deity to worship.


Valantasis, Richard. “Isis Aretalogy”.  Late Antiquity in Practice. Princeton:Princeton University Press, 2000.

 This was the most helpful work on the actual powers of Isis and what she brings to the daily lives of the Greek people. It outlines what we should worship her for and what different things she had created. Things such as her inventing letters and seafaring, she brought man and women together, she basically controlled all aspects of a person’s life. This was very helpful because it helped shine light on why this cult was such a popular one, it took away the need to worship many gods and goddess’ and instead gave the people one goddess who had the power of them all. Debatably was all the different deities in different forms.


Vanderlip, Vera F. The Four Greek Hymns of Isidorus and the Cult of Isis. Toronto: A.M. Hakkert Ltd, 1972.

This combination of the different hymns of Isis was very helpful because it gave me a primary source to deal with of different hymns that were, and might still be, used in the worship of Isis. This work goes into detail of how and where the hymns were found, giving another look into the sanctuaries and temples of Isis and where the cult practiced. It has a chapter on the earliest aretalogies and Greek hymns to Isis, this gave me another way to look at the aretalogy of Isis that we had on blackboard to use. Gave me a background to where some of these texts were found and a way to put them into perspective of when and where they were used.


Vermaseren, M.J. Studies in Hellenistic religions. Leiden: Brill, 1979.

 This book was a conglomeration of many different articles on the Hellenistic religions. The article that I used was the Cista Mystica in the cult and mysteries of Isis. It provided a new look into aspects of the cult that I had not known previously, as well as giving some more background on the cult of Isis itself. Looking at different parts of the rituals and worship specifically in the Hellenistic period also helps us known what were the people in the Hellenistic period looking for in a religion and why this cult was one they chose to follow in.


Witt, R.E. Isis in the Graeco-Roman World. New York: Cornell University Press, 1971.

This book was very helpful because it had all I wanted to know on the specifics of the Isis religion. It provided a look at the different aspects as well as the relationship Isis had to some of the gods. It also gave accounts of Isis and her interactions with some people, specifically her relationship with different roman emperors. This provided different views on Isis and some of the different variations of the cult that popped up in the “Graeco-Roman” world.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email