Isis in Italy

Dalu Jones follows on the trail of the Ancient Egyptian goddess to Pompeii, Naples and Turin


Pompeii is not immediately associated with Ancient Egypt, and yet Egyptian religious beliefs and practices – especially the worship of the goddess Isis (4 and 13) – influenced the lives of many inhabitants of the doomed city, as it did elsewhere throughout the Roman world.

Gilded bronze model of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii made in a Roman atelier at the end of the 18th century-beginning of the 19th century. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples. Photograph: Soprintendenza Pompei, Archivio fotografico.

Two contemporary texts tell us much about the esoteric beliefs and the rituals performed by priests and initiates of the increasingly popular Isiac cult that spread out from Egypt into the Roman empire from the 2nd century BC. These are the essay On Isis and Osiris (Moralia) by the philosopher Plutarch (AD 45-120) and the novel Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass written by Apuleius (AD 125-180), in which the hero, Lucius, after many picaresque adventures, finds his salvation in the goddess Isis.

The ruins of the Temple of Isis, 1st century AD , in Pompeii. Photograph: Soprintendenza Pompei, Archivio fotografico.

Isiac temples were found in most cities of the empire, including Rome where a large temple to the goddess next to one to her consort Serapis was rebuilt after the fire of AD 80 by Emperor Domitian (r AD 81-96) in the Campus Martius, near where Emperor Hadrian (r 117-134) was to build the Pantheon. The best preserved of these temples was, however, unearthed in Pompeii (2) between 1764 and 1766. It was complete with its furnishings and vivid wall paintings, all priceless documents that show the secret rituals enacted within (3 and 10). Five years later, one of the first visitors to the newly discovered buried city was the 13-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He saw the temple of Isis which, 20 years afterwards, inspired him when he was composing The Magic Flute.

Wall painting showing the goddess Isis, seated and holding a cobra, welcoming Io the “bull maiden”, 1st century AD, in the so-called ekklesiasterion of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii. In the background Isiac initiates rattle sistrums. H. 150cm. W. 137.5cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Photograph: Soprintendenza Pompei, Archivio fotografico.

The temple was found behind the city’s main theatre; this is not surprising since a syncretistic cult had developed in Greece and Rome, which identified Dionysus, the god presiding over drama, with Isis’ consort Osiris. A statue of Dionysus, set in a niche of the temple in Pompeii, was the gift of a wealthy freedman, Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, who had paid for the reconstruction of the building after it was damaged by the earthquake of AD 62.

An inscription found there states that he did so in the name of his six-year-old son Celsinus, in order to secure admittance to the city senate: he was himself ineligible, not having been born free. Temples to Isis became associated with freedom for slaves liberated through a fictitious sale to the goddess who ‘owned’ them instead of their former masters. This practice may explain the occasional persecution of Isiac initiates because one of the ways the cult had come to Rome was via the Greek island of Delos, the birthplace of Phoebus Apollo and the centre of the Mediterranean slave trade.

Gallery designed by Francesco Venezia for Egypt-Pompeii in the Palaestra Grande in Pompeii. Photograph © Alessandra Chemollo.

The Isis cult was also universal since it could be practised by both men and women equally, regardless of status and class, a departure from the usual Roman religious tenets. Nevertheless, the navigium Isidis (vessel of Isis) became an official annual festival in Rome in honour of the goddess. It marked the beginning of the sailing season in March, when a ship laden with spices was solemnly launched and allowed to float out to sea. Even some of the emperors, especially those of the Flavian dynasty such as Domitian, were drawn to Isiac philosophy and subscribed to its beliefs.

Standing Sekhmets, Egyptian
lion-headed goddesses, diorite.
211cm x 45cm x 56cm. 210cm x 46cm x 36cm.
Photographs: Fondazione Museo delle Antichità Egizie di Torino, Archivio fotografico Museo Egizio, Turin.

The temple of Isis in Pompeii was built on a high podium surrounded by a porticoed courtyard (1). A flight of steps led up to the Egyptian-style pronaos and naos, the inner sanctum, which contained cult statues of both Isis and Osiris. Niches on either sides of the main entrance door were probably once inhabited by statues of the gods Harpocrates, the god of silence and secrets (11), and Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death and rebirth. Harpocrates, the son of Isis and Serapis, was the Greek personification of the child Horus, the new-born sun rising each day at dawn. An aedicule in the eastern corner of the courtyard contained a basin for holy water – possibly imported from the River Nile – which was essential for purification and regeneration in Isiac rituals. Juvenal, writing during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, mocks female devotees of Isis for making pilgrimages to Egypt to fetch sacred water, which was then stored in underground tanks. It is likely that holy water would be brought home by adepts to use in domestic ceremonies performed in the numerous Isiac lararia (private shrines) found in many houses in Pompeii.

Wall painting showing a priest of the Isiac cult holding a sistrum from the House of Octavius Quartius in Pompeii,1st century AD. Photograph: Soprintendenza Pompei, Archivio fotografico.

The cultural and artistic dialogue between Egyptian and Roman religious beliefs and their artistic representations, exemplified by the monuments and objects excavated in Pompeii, is presently the subject of an ambitious Egypt-Pompeii/Egypt-Naples project. Initiated by three prestigious Italian institutions: the Egyptian Museum in Turin, the Archaeological Museum in Naples and the Superintendence of Pompeii, it has scheduled four consecutive events throughout this year.

Wall painting showing a scene from the cult of Harpocrates, the Greek equivalent of the child Horus (shown with his finger pressed to his lips signifying silence and secrecy) from the portico of the temple of Isis in Pompeii, 1st century AD. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Photograph: Soprintendenza Pompei, Archivio fotografico.

The project began in the Egyptian Museum in Turin in March with the opening of The Nile in Pompeii: Visions of Egypt in the Roman World. Drawing on the museum’s own collections, supplemented by loans from other Italian (Naples and Pompeii especially) and foreign museums, this exhibition shows the connection between Egypt and the Graeco-Roman world in the Mediterranean. Three sections illustrate how ancient Greeks viewed and absorbed Egyptian cults and gave them artistic expression. It shows how Egyptian deities were Hellenised under the Ptolemies, and finally, how wide the spread of Egyptian cults was in the Mediterranean region and in Italy in particular.

Seated Sekhmets, diorite. 213cm x 56cm x 109cm. 225cm x 59cm x 116cm. All from Karnak (Thebes) probably from the temple of Amenhotep III, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1388-1351 BC.
Photographs: Fondazione Museo delle Antichità Egizie di Torino, Archivio fotografico Museo Egizio, Turin.

This was followed in April by Egypt-Pompeii, an exhibition in the newly restored Great Palaestra in Pompeii (5) where the somewhat anachronistic, but imposing, focus of the display is the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet (6, 7, 8, and 9), set here to testify to the centrality of sun worship in Pharaonic beliefs and rituals. There are seven of these large granite masterpieces from Tutmosis III’s temple in Karnak dating from the 15th and 14th centuries BC. Part of the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, this is the first time they have been loaned to another venue. They are displayed in Pompeii in a strikingly streamlined setting together with other Pharaonic artefacts and a statue of Thutmoses I (d 1493 BC).

In addition to having reopened the temple of Isis (after a six-month-long restoration), a series of domus decorated with Egyptian-inspired motifs have also been restored and reopened. These include the House of the golden bracelet with its own private Isiac lararium and the Home of the pygmies. They can now all be visited thanks to a specially devised tour starting at the temple of Isis.

Statue of Isis-Hathor, diorite, from Coptos, New Kingdom, XVIIIth Dynasty (circa 1540-1295 BC). H. 153cm. Museo Egizio, Turin. Photograph: Fondazione Museo delle Antichità Egizie di Torino, Archivio fotografico.

The last two events of Egypt-Pompeii-Naples are significant: the first is the long-awaited opening of the galleries of Eastern and Egyptian antiquities in the Archaeological Museum in Naples, which have been closed for decades. Egypt-Naples: Eastern cults in Campania opened in June in the Sala dei Culti Orientali (Oriental Cults Room). Among the striking objects on display here are the silver hand with symbols of the mysterious Thracian/Phrygian chthonian god Sabazius (16) and the magnificent inlaid obsidian cup (14 and 15) found in Stabiae, depicting Isiac rituals, dating from 30 BC-1st century AD.

Four canopic jars from Coptos, probably from the temple of the god Min-Horus, diorite, Middle Kingdom. H. 34cm. 35cm. 48cm. 54cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.Photograph: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Archivio fotografico.

The final event of the project will take place in October when the museum’s Egyptian collection, one of the most important in Italy, will finally be accessible to visitors (12, 17 and 18). The collection was established in the 19th century, with the purchase of objects from private collections and with the treasures found during the excavations undertaken by the Bourbon kings in the 18th century in the Vesuvian and Phlegrean areas. It is of great importance for documenting the history of collecting, since most of it came from the Borgia collection, formed in the 17th and 18th centuries by Alessandro Borgia (1682-1764) and Stefano Borgia (1731-1804).

Two views (front and side) of an inlaid obsidian skyphos (deep, two-handled wine cup) from Stabiae showing scenes of the Isiac cult, 30 BC-1st century AD. H. 12.5cm. D. 18.3cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Photograph: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Archivio fotografico.

Cardinal Stefano Borgia, a polymath who was interested in history and antiquities, created his own celebrated museum at Velletri (Museo Universale) containing artefacts as diverse as Chinese idols, Christian ivories from Goa and American-Indian feathered coats, as well as Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman objects. When his nephew Camillo inherited the collection he tried to sell it first to the king of Denmark, then to Gioacchino Murat and, finally, to the king of Naples who purchased it in 1814 – although the details were not finalised until the return of the Bourbons under Ferdinand I a year later.

Marble bust of horned Isis-Io, 1st century AD, Pompeii. 22cm x 15cm x 8.5cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.Photograph: Soprintendenza Pompei, Archivio fotografico.

The Borgia Collection, one of the oldest in the history of European collecting, illustrates a phase of interest that predates the clamour created by the Napoleonic expedition in Egypt in 1798-1799. It reflects the typical antiquarian taste of the time with a penchant for objects of a funerary and magical-religious nature discovered mainly in the areas of the Delta and Memphis, those most easily accessible to Europeans during the 18th century.

The most important Neapolitan collection after that of the Borgias was assembled by a man of Venetian origin named Giuseppe Picchianti, who was so fascinated by the extraordinary discoveries made by the Paduan adventurer Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823) that he embarked on a journey to Egypt in 1819. It lasted for about six years, during which time he journeyed up the Nile Valley until he reached the Nubian Desert.

Wall painting of two intertwined agathodaimones (beneficial snakes), 1st century AD, found at Herculaneum in 1745. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Photograph: Soprintendenza Pompei, Archivio fotografico.

During his travels, he visited the archaeological sites of greatest interest for collectors at the time, such as Giza, Saqqara and Thebes, where he acquired a considerable amount of material, probably deriving from funerary contexts. Eventually Picchianti sold a number of these artefacts to the British Museum. Another part of his collection, spanning a period of about 3000 years – from the beginning of the Ancient Kingdom to the Ptolemaic-Roman period, was purchased by the Neapolitan museum from his widow in 1828.

Hand of Sabazius, a vegetation god associated with Dionysus/Bacchus and used in divination, silver, 3rd century, from Herculaneum. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.Photograph: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Archivio fotografico.

In its totality the Egypt-Pompeii/Egypt-Naples project highlights the encounter between different, but intimately and historically linked, ancient cultures. Together the four events that it has set in motion tell a story of material and religious interaction in a new, quite unusual and challenging way.