The Transformation of a Goddess: Depictions of Isis throughout the Ancient Mediterranean World
By Melissa Mair
Honors Thesis, Emory University, 2012
Abstract: The cult of the goddess Isis spread from Egypt out to Greece and Rome, where Isis became one of the most celebrated goddesses in the Ancient Mediterranean world. Her worship spanned an impressive time period from around the third millennium BCE up until the fourth century CE. Over time, as Isis was encountered by different cultures, her identity and image was transformed. From one among many deities to the all-encompassing goddess, the Hellenistic Isis appears to be a different deity than the original Egyptian Isis.
In order to evaluate how and why these changes occurred, the artistic depictions of Isis are examined as a lens to view the cultural realities of religion in the ancient Mediterranean World. Several different sites, the chapel to Isis in the Temple to Seti I, the Temple to Isis at Philae, the Temple to Isis at Delos, and the Temple to Isis at Pompeii, are used as case studies to help show a specific presentation and depiction of the goddess Isis in comparison to broad generalizations found across the Mediterranean. At each site and geographical area, Isis’ iconography changes to reflect the cultural norms of each place her worship is established.
However, these changes do not obscure the goddess’ Egyptian origins. Instead, her connection with Egypt is shown through the use of certain symbols associated with Egypt in her images as well as other Egyptian items found in her places of worship. The combination of different cultural ideas in the cult of Isis allows for Isis’ own identity, powers, and connections to other deities to be expanded and changed as well. Overall, the transformation of the goddess can be seen as a conversation between the different cultures as each culture sought to incorporate the goddess into their own religious practices.