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Paper #5: Origins, Dialogues, and Identities: Shifting Perspectives on Greek Hymns to Egyptian Gods

Ian Moyer

University of Michigan

This presentation reviews recent developments in the study of Greek hymns to Egyptian gods, more than a dozen of which survive on papyrus and stone.  Particularly important is a shift from earlier debates over origin and identity to a more nuanced analysis of the cross-cultural dialogues and networks of circulation in which the hymns emerged, and the significance of the hymns in their social and ritual contexts.  Such recent approaches provide a productive way to think about the hymns and their interrelationships with one another as evidence for the construction of identity in the communities that used and preserved them.

The origin and cultural identity of the so-called Memphite hymns (I.Kyme 41 and related texts) have been debated for over eighty years.  Views that they were predominantly Greek have often harmonized with the argument that the “Hellenization” of Egyptian divinities was necessary for their migration beyond Egypt.  (The debates have been summarized in Versnel 1998, 41-44; Dousa 2002, 149-151; Quack 2003, 319-324; Jördens 2013, 159-161, inter alia.)  Such debates remain unresolved, but they have revealed in these hymns an array of motifs, ideas and formal characteristics of both Greek and Egyptian origin that fit the multicultural contexts of both Ptolemaic Egypt and the Hellenistic Mediterranean.  Recent studies have complicated assumptions about the unidirectional diffusion of Egyptian gods and cults into the Mediterranean and about the relationship between their homeland and diasporic forms.  M. Stadler has made a compelling case that the Greek hymnic tradition represented by the “Oxyrhynchus Aretalogy” (P.Oxy. XI 1380), in which “many-named” (polyonymos) Isis is equated with divinities from around the Mediterranean, not only had Demotic Egyptian antecedents, but those antecedents, in turn, incorporated material from Greek sources (Stadler 2017).  The hymns of Isidorus erected at Medinet Madi, moreover, dramatize the return of a universalizing Mediterranean Isis to confront epichoric forms and local syncretisms of the goddess in Egypt, as shown by I. Moyer (Moyer 2016).  And finally, studies of the Sarapis aretalogy from Delos (IG XI.4, 1299), have shown that Greek language, content, and formal features did not preclude continuing connections with the Egyptian homeland (Moyer 2011, 142-207; Mazurek 2016, 45-50).

A number of studies have also devoted attention to the social and ritual contexts of the hymns.  J. Quack has proposed that the Egyptian precursor to the Memphite hymns was a dramatic performance of Isis’s self-predications in an epiphanic ritual (Quack 2003, 364).  A. Jördens has stressed the mediating agency of aretalogoi at Greek sanctuaries (Jördens 2013), and others, most recently Moyer, have explored the physical performative context of the Greek hymns (Moyer 2017, 335-338).  Other scholars have reconstructed the affective dimensions of these texts, and how they contributed to the formation of a ritual and emotional community (Chaniotis 2011; Martzavou 2012).  Combining these new perspectives with the previously described shifts from models of diffusion to dialogue and from migration to circulation, a revived study of the interrelations between the so-called Memphite hymns and closely related texts reveals insights into constructions of identity and community among worshippers of Egyptian gods at sanctuaries in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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New Directions in Isiac Studies

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