Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Classical Dictionary. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 28 January 2021

Egyptian deitieslocked

  • Richard Gordon

The Graeco-Roman view of Egyptian religion is sharply fissured. Despite Herodotus 2. 50. 1 (comm. A. B. Lloyd, 1975–88), many writers of all periods, and probably most individuals, found in the Egyptians' worship of animals a polemical contrast to their own norms (though cf. Cic. Nat. D. 1. 29. 81 f.), just as, conversely, the Egyptians turned animal-worship into a symbol of national identity (cf. Diod. Sic. 1. 86–90). The first Egyptian divinity to be recognized by the Greek world was the oracular Ammon of the SiwaOasis (Hdt. 2. 54–7); but oracles have a special status. The only form of Late-period Egyptian religion to be assimilated into the Graeco-Roman world was to a degree untypical, centred on anthropomorphic deities—Isis, Sarapis, and Harpocrates—and grounded in Egyptian vernacular enthusiasm quite as much as in temple ritual. The other gods which became known in the Graeco-Roman world, Osiris, Anubis, Apis, Horus, Bubastis, Agathodaemon (see agathos daimon), Bes, etc. , spread solely in their train. Moreover, especially in the Hellenistic period, a nice balance was maintained between acknowledgement of their strangeness (Isis Taposirias, Memphitis, Aigyptia, etc. ) and selection of their universal, ‘hearkening’, ‘aiding’, ‘saving’ roles.

From the late 4th cent. bce, these cults were most commonly introduced into the Greek world, primarily to port- and tourist-towns, by (Hellenized) Egyptians, i.e. immigrant metics: cf. IG 11. 4. 1299, comm. H. Engelmann (19752). Sometimes they were introduced by Greeks who had served or lived in Egypt (e.g. SEG 38. 1571, 217 bce). There is a growing consensus that they were often indirect beneficiaries of Ptolemaic political suzerainty. Within a generation or two they became sufficiently attractive to Greeks of some social standing to be able to press for recognition as thiasoi (see thiasos): it was when they proselytized among the citizen body that they were regulated by city governments and incorporated as civic deities. Full-time Egyptian priests were then obtained for larger temples, and subordinate synodoi (associations) formed, e.g. melanephoroi (lit. ‘the black-clad’), pastophoroi (‘shrine-carriers’), analogous to a development widespread in Late-period Egypt. In many smaller communities the Greek model of annual priesthoods was adopted. (see priests.) In the west, Isis reached Campania from Delos in the late 2nd cent. bce. At Rome the situation was initially volatile: the private Isium Metellinum (75–50 bce) and an illegal shrine on the Capitol were pulled down in 53 bce (Dio Cass. 40. 47. 3, cf. 42. 26. 2). The first public temple was the Iseum Campense (43 bce). The cults became attractive to members of the decurial class in the 1st cent. ce, spreading from Italy unevenly into the western empire. Neither slaves nor the poor are anywhere much in evidence.


  • Epigraphy: L. Bricault, Recueil des inscriptions concernant les cultes isiaques, 3 vols. (2005).
  • Animal-worship: K. A. D. Smelik and E. A. Hemelrijk, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2. 17. 4 (1984), 1852–2000, 2337 ff.
  • F. Dunand, in Les Grandes Figures religieuses (1986), 59–84.
  • Spread: L. Vidman, Isis und Sarapis bei den Griechen und Römern (1970).
  • F. Dunand, Le Culte d'Isis dans le bassin orientale de la Méditerranée, 3 vols. (1973).
  • F. Dunand, Religions, pouvoir, rapports sociaux (1980), 71–148.
  • M. Malaise, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2. 17. 3 (1984), 1615–1691.
  • F. Mora,Prosopografia isiaca (1990), 2. 72–112.
  • L. Bricault, Atlas de la diffusion des cultes isiaques (2001).