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Paper #2: In the Guise of Isis: Visual Symbols and Constructing Identity

Richard Veymiers

Leiden University

During the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, individuals from very different backgrounds defined themselves as “Isiacs” and, by doing so, expressed their religious adhesion to the Greco-Roman cults of Isis. These cultic communities, whose members seem to share the same sentiments of belonging and being able to claim a shared religious identity, for a long time have been studied in a quite monolithic way and distorted through the prism of the isolated category of “Oriental religions” (inherited from Franz Cumont’s 1906 synthesizing essay on Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain).

In recent decades, an evolution in scholarly representations of the world of ancient religion (as is to be seen, for instance, in Bricault/Bonnet 2013), and a new momentum in research devoted to the Greco-Roman cults of Isis (exemplified by the work of L. Bricault, especially his establishment of the Bibliotheca Isiaca series), have paved the way for a reassessment of these cultic groups that reveal them to have been much more heterogeneous and colorful, offering varied configurations in accordance with their local contexts. Emblematic of this is the pair of international conferences on the “Isiacs” held at Erfurt and Liège in 2013, soon to appear in an important two-volume book (Gasparini/Veymiers, forthcoming).

This paper continues the exploration of the Isiac phenomenon, seeking to understand in context these cultic communities, beyond any received ideas, and to debate a religious identity that was by no means uniform and exclusive, but was sometimes expressed, or even displayed, in singular ways. The Isiac communities left their traces in the material culture of antiquity in multiple ways, notably in the form of images, including explicit visual symbols, which would later grab the attention of Renaissance antiquarians. Some of these iconographic formulas to which these groups resorted in order to proclaim their identity were successful and spread around the Mediterranean. Such was the case with the numerous artifacts depicting women in the guise of Isis, wearing the knotted and fringed clothing, holding the sistrum and situla, or even crowned by the so-called basileion.

As a case study, this paper aims to shed new light on this theomorphic mode of representation and self-representation, mainly documented by some 110 Attic funerary steles of the Imperial period showing the deceased as Isis, which were studied during the 1980s and 1990s by E.J. Walters and J. Eingartner (Walters 1988; Eingartner 1991). The central question with which these scholars were concerned was the identification of the religious function of these women: were they priestesses, initiates, musicians, etc.? It must be asked, however, if it is relevant to seek to define the religious status of these women under a single label. Was this really the raison d’être of these images? Rather, by means of this mimetic set that could take various forms, in a context that was often but not exclusively funerary, these women in fact implemented a much wider iconographic practice – described as consecratio in formam deorum by H. Wrede (Wrede 1981), but overlooked by Walters and Eingartner – which seems to have particularly interested the Isiacs. As this paper argues, while intended to celebrate some virtues of women, whose social promotion they commemorated, these images were also an efficient way for the commissioners to affirm publicly an adherence to a very prosperous cult.

Session/Panel Title

New Directions in Isiac Studies

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