You are here

Animals and Worship in the Temple of Isis at Pompeii

Frederick E. Brenk

The Temple of Isis at Pompeii is in a sense unique among Graeco-Roman shrines, since it was discovered almost intact. Through the Temple, one can study the religious worship of the devotees, including hints about their approach to animal worship, something usually considered despicable by Greeks and Romans but not always. Greeks in Egypt, in fact, sometimes participated in animal worship (Pearce 2007, 242-243, 250-254), and Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris (382A-C) could justify it

            The architecture and archaeological artifacts suggest that practice and personal experience worked on three levels: an Egyptian, slightly Egyptianizing, and wholly Hellenistic (for overviews, see, e.g., Quack 2005,  Bianchi 2007, Brenk 2009, Moorman 2007, Swetnam-Burland 2007 and 2010; Bricault and Versluys 2008, 2010, 2013, and forthcoming; Versluys, 2010, 2013, and forthcoming; Davies 2010, Capriotti Vittozzi 2013; and Bricault 2013). The genuinely Egyptian style is virtually relegated to two small objects and a plaque in hieroglyphs (see De Caro 1992, 79, Swetnam-Burland, and Bülow Clausen 2011 for the objects; Golvin 1999, for the architecture). One might presume, then, that a completely Egyptian style of worship would also be minimized. The slightly Egyptianizing religiosity is expressed visually in the Ekklesiasterion, and in the depiction of Isiacs in the portico, where they are posed in various religious roles

At the sensitive level of worship, no god appears in a completely Egyptian style. The allusions to animal worship, however, in the temple at Pompeii are not as slight as they might seem. Egyptian animals appear in a decorative “peopled frieze” running around the top of the Ekklesiasterion. The frieze depicts sacred animals (ichneumenon, cobra, and hippopotamus, but they are mixed with some non-sacred ones. The most Egyptian of the triptych frescoes in this room, “The Adoration of the Mummy,” probably representing the burial island of Osiris next to Philae, portrays an Egyptian priest performing sacrifice before a mummy case (see Meyboom 1995, e.g. 99, 107). There is a hint here of animal worship. A mysterious bird wearing a crown, possibly meant to be a phoenix, indicating the resuscitation of Osiris, or a falcon, representing Osiris in theriomorphic form, is perched on top of the case. Since worship is being performed, it could be directed toward the bird as well as to the coffin. In another large fresco, “Io at Canopus,” Isis holds a cobra in her hand and rests her foot on a crocodile, while in another, cattle on a sacred island suggest the cult of the Apis bull.

In the Sacrarium fresco called “The Finding of Osiris,” Isis in a reed boat tows another boat which supports a large box, presumably intended for the scattered members of Osiris. A bird, perhaps meant to be a falcon (Osiris or Horus) or a swallow (Isis), is painted on the mysterious box. On the same wall are an ibis and cobra with lotus crowns, and an Apis bull with a solar disk. On another wall with a fresco called “Isis and Osiris Enthroned,” the divine couple are accompanied by four serpents with lotus crowns. Other animals representing Egyptian gods appear in random fashion on another wall. The Apis bull, however, which has a solar disk, is the one most clearly indicated as divine. In the portico, on pilasters behind Isiacs pictured in hieratic poses, one can detect a cat, and possibly a lioness. Also in this group, the startlingly realistic mask of an Isiac wearing a red toga, and portraying Anubis, is another sign that the devotees were acquainted with theriomorphic gods (see Sampaolo 1998).

In conclusion, the rites undoubtedly minimized animal worship, which, if performed, probably would have involved only an image of the animal. Still, the Isiacs should have been aware of the Egyptian practice and have known that they used living animals (see now Zivie-Coche 2004, 16-21; Dunand 2004, 331-333). Thus, the possibility of animal worship existing in some form at Pompeii cannot be ruled out altogether.

Session/Panel Title

Innovative Encounters between Ancient Religious Traditions

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy