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(Re)Reading the Roman Goddess Isis-Fortuna in Apuleius' Metamorphoses

Ashli J. E. Baker

Bucknell University

In one of the most famous scenes in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Mithras, a priest of Isis, addresses the recently rehumanized Lucius before a crowd of Isis worshippers. Describing the events of Books 1-10 as the malevolent acts of the blindness of Fortune (11.15: Fortunae caecitas), Mithras assures Lucius that he has now found himself in the safety of Isis, described as Fortuna videns (11.15). The link between Fortuna and Isis in Mithras’ speech – and the implications thereof – has elicited several scholarly interpretations: from the notion that Isis and Fortuna are two aspects of the same goddess (e.g. Merkelbach 1962, Fry 1984) to the recently more dominant idea that Isis is distinct from the Blind Fortuna of Books 1-10 (e.g. Keulen et al. 2015). Despite the fact that Apuleius’ novel has been shown to be deeply engaged in the “real” world of the Roman empire (e.g. Millar 1981), no study has taken sufficient account of the material world in which the Romans of Apuleius’ time were living in respect to reading Fortuna and Isis in the novel. This paper, which fills this void by reconsidering the textual evidence alongside the abundant material evidence in which these goddesses are syncretized, argues that the connections between Fortuna and Isis both within the text and in the religious culture outside of the text are so strong that they should be seen as the same deity throughout, the syncretized Isis-Fortuna.

Beyond the description of Isis as Fortuna videns seen above, thematic consistency between the depictions of each goddess suggest that Fortuna and Isis should be seen as a single goddess. For instance, Lucius’ life under Fortuna is figured as slavery (Bradley 2000, Fitzgerald 2000, Sabnis 2006; 11.15, described as servitium by Mithras) as is his life under Isis (11.6, when Isis demands the remainder of his life; 11.15, also described as servitium by Mithras). Furthermore, both Fortuna and Isis are depicted with Imperial militaristic imagery throughout (e.g. Fortuna – 1.7; Isis – 11.7, 11.15).  The textual conflation of these goddesses, particularly as inflected by the theme of Imperial militarism, is most notable in Book 2, when Lucius describes several statues in the atrium of Byrrhena’s house. In addition to the much-discussed statue of Diana and Actaeon, four identical winged goddesses barely balancing on spheres flank the atrium. These unnamed goddesses are described by Lucius as palmaris deae facies (2.4). Scholars have variously identified these goddesses, but the most persuasive suggestion – acknowledging Isis’ association with the palm – is that they depict Isis-Fortuna-Victoria (Peden 1985). When Byrrhena then says to Lucius tua sunt…cuncta quae vides (2.5), she may not be alluding only to Actaeon’s unfolding crisis, but also to the many forms of Isis-Fortuna-Victoria that will hold sway in Lucius’ life.

Material and inscriptional remains from the Imperial period demonstrate that the syncretism between these deities was well established in Apuleius’ time and offer an experiential, visual framework for considering the goddesses in the novel. This syncretism is attested in large-scale architectural monuments, such as the Fortuna complex at Praeneste, at the base of which was a shrine to Isis (Coarelli 1994), and in smaller instances, such as a graffito at Pompeii’s temple of Isis addressed in Greek to the savior Isityche (CIL IV 4138, echoed in a later inscription from Praeneste (CIL XIV 2867)) or in the Pompeiian frescoes that depict Isis-Fortuna-Victoria and Isis-Fortuna Panthea. Finally, a significant number of bronze statuettes from Imperial Rome have been identified as syncretized forms of Isis-Fortuna and Isis-Fortuna Panthea (e.g. Giardina 2000, Pollini 2003). It has recently been suggested – based partly on Isis’ deep association with magic – that these statuettes may have been used as magical amulets (Faraone 2018), further bolstering the claim that Apuleius’ contemporary audience would have readily associated these goddesses, particularly in a magical context such as that offered by the text. 

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Greek and Roman Novel

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