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Paper #1: The Cult of Isis, from ‘Oriental’ to Global

Laurent Bricault

Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès

This paper traces the development of scholarship devoted to Isis for more than a century, culminating in the present-day collective effort among numerous scholars to recognize the complex and varied nature of this goddess. The 1884 publication of the thesis of Georges Lafaye, Histoire du culte des divinités d’Alexandrie hors de l’Égypte, gave birth to a new field of research, one devoted to the interaction between Egyptian civilization and the classical Greco-Roman world, particularly the diffusion of the worship of several divine figures (Isis, Sarapis, Harpocrates, and Anubis). This concept of diffusion was “sacralized” in a certain manner by the extraordinary synthesis of Franz Cumont first published in 1906 (and reprinted multiple times), Les Religions orientales dans le paganisme romain (Cumont 1906). Cumont’s notion of “Oriental cults” was an immense success, even giving birth, half a century later, to the now classic collection of Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’empire romain, founded in 1961 in Leiden by a former student of Cumont, Maarten J. Vermaseren, and greatly augmented by the French Egyptologist Jean Leclant, who at Paris’s École Pratique des Hautes Études held a chair bearing the title “Histoire de la diffusion des cultes égyptiens.” For more than twenty-five years, the concepts of “religions orientales” and “diffusion des cultes” gave rise to many important publications, mainly corpora of inscriptions or other objects from a particular territory or divinity’s cult, and these enormously rich and precious collections rarely, if ever, questioned Cumont’s brilliant work. Robert Turcan’s fine book entitled Les cultes orientaux dans le monde romain (Turcan 1989) was proof of Cumont’s continued influence, even if the title of the 1996 English edition, The Cults of the Roman Empire, already showed some evolution away from his categorization.

Even as, under the influence of Leclant, there still appeared in 2001 an Atlas de la diffusion des cultes isiaques (Bricault 2001), the simplistic and monolithic vision of a religious outflow coming from the East and breaking upon Rome began to crack. A new generation of scholars, trained in interdisciplinarity and relying on both the exceptional documentation gathered for the past century and new approaches in an effervescing area of scholarship, would radically revitalize this research field, challenging old concepts while presenting new ones. Furthermore, an ongoing reconsideration of the nature of the Isiac cults as well as relations between Egypt and the rest of the Greco-Roman world based on the sources continues to be greatly facilitated by the establishment of several rigorously produced projects: the epigraphical and numismatic corpora of Laurent Bricault (Bricault 2005; Bricault 2008); Kathrin Kleibl’s archaeological catalog, devoted to all known Isis sanctuaries (Kleibl 2009); the creation of the Bibliotheca Isiaca (2008–), a regularly published collection of studies directed by Bricault and Richard Veymiers; and, soon, the iconographical series Thesaurus Iconographicus Cultuum Isiacorum (ThICIs), a work in progress directed by Veymiers. Complementing such tools are the conference volumes produced as the result of international conferences that were organized for young and established scholars (e.g., Bricault/Versluys/Meyboom 2007, Bricault/Versluys 2012, Bricault/Versluys 2014, Gasparini/Veymiers forthcoming).

It thus appeared that the cults were not – far from it – the only vector of these relations, but that they were interwoven into a network of connections: cultic, cultural, economic and human. If the concept of cultic dissemination remained fundamental, it was only one stage of the process. For the relationship between divinity and worshippers to be established sustainably, reception, implantation, and finally appropriation were equally essential. As this paper shows, it is this kaleidoscope of interpretationes variaegraeca, romana, judaica, christiana, and even aegyptiana, since Isis returned to Egyptian soil after her peregrinations around the Mediterranean, subsequently co-existing with her ancestral forms – that current research endeavors to analyze and place in the global context of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean koine.

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New Directions in Isiac Studies

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