Keywords: Egyptian, Roman, Goddess, Gods, Horus, Isis, Greek, Greco-Roman, Hellenisation, symbolism,breastfeeding, kingship, Alexandria.
By Grace Cantillon 3 minutes to read
When the Greeks, under Alexander the Great, conquered Egypt in 330 BC, they embraced the cult of Isis, and built many temples to her. Three hundred years later, the victorious Romans also discovered Isis, and they wanted to spread her worship throughout the Roman Empire. However, they seem to have found her Egyptian image too “foreign”, so they gave her a complete ‘makeover’. This new style had begun in Alexandria with Greek artists where a softened image of Isis had worked very well. Eventually there were temples to Isis all over the Roman Empire.
Images have always been used to “sell” Kings, Gods and politicians. These visual presentations act directly on the viewer and are designed to produce a desired effect. This small bone carving of the Egyptian goddess Isis is a good example of how an image can be adapted for a new public.
This small bone carving (Figure 1) shows Isis nursing her son, Horus. It was probably made in Alexandria about the beginning of the 2nd century CE.
For over 3,000 years, Isis was a nurturing spirit for the Egyptians, being the goddess of motherhood, wifehood and the constant renewal of life on the land, when the Nile renewed its fertility each year. Egyptian Isis (Figure 2) was usually depicted in a stark rigid pose, wearing a short tunic, with Horus, her son, sitting upright on her right knee. On her head she wore her symbols – two cow corns with a sun disc in the centre. Often she also had a small snake, called uruaeus, on her brow, a symbol of kingship. These symbols were her brand: they made her instantly recognisable.
This little carving (figure 3) is an excellent example of the new presentation of Isis. She has delicate features and her hair is drawn back in bands to form a chignon which then cascades over her shoulders in charming ringlets. She is shown as a classical Greek beauty, wearing a finely pleated Greek dress, called a (chiton), and generous shawl (himation). She is seated on a high-backed chair and her posture is easy and elegant while she nurses her baby. Horus keeps a hand on her breast while he is distracted by something on his left. He will soon be back for more however! We can see the vacant place in her head where her symbols would have been inserted (now lost) so that everyone would recognize who she was.
One of the scholars who have studied the Hellenisation of the isis image is a Vietnamese monk, Abbe Tran Tan Tinh. His special interest was Isis Lactans, or Isis Breastfeeding Horus. In his publication in 1973 in Leiden he shows illustrations of many examples in bronze, bone and other materials. The one that is closest is posture, dress and hairstyle to the Hunt piece is small bronze, located in Munich.
When shown a photo of the bone carving from the Hunt Museum, Abbe Tan Tinh wrote: “I have never seen such a beautiful sculpture in bone…..which reveals extraordinary artistic work.”
Quirke, Stephen Ancient Egyptian Religion, London 1992
Marangou, Dr. Lila, Bone Carvings from Egypt, Tubingen, 1976
Tran Tan Tinh, V., Isis Lactans, Corpus des Monuments Greco-Romaine d’Isis allaitant, Harpocrate, Leiden 1973