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Goddess Worship: Goddess Worship in the Hellenistic World


After Johann G. Droysen's famous Geschichte des Hellenismus (18331843; 18771878), the term Hellenism was increasingly used to qualify a crucial period in the history of the ancient Mediterranean world. Droysen considered the exploits of Alexander the Great (356323 bce) as a crucial turning point in the politico-cultural history of the vast geographical area around the Mediterranean and saw the year of his death as the beginning of a new historical cycle. This cycle started with the progressive fragmentation of the supranational empire set up by the Alexander in the thirteen years of his dazzling career (336323 bce) and the creation of new kingdoms by his generals, the Diadochi, and ended with the Roman conquest of Egypt after the Battle of Actium (31 bce). By reducing the ancient kingdom of the Pharaohs (subsequently inherited by the Ptolomies) into a Roman province (30 bce), the new power of Rome, soon itself at the head of an empire, concluded its gradual conquest of the kingdoms of ancient Macedonian origin.

The Hellenistic Period

Hellenism covers a wide period: three centuries of intense political, military, social, economic, and religious events that influenced in various ways all the peoples of the Mediterranean. In the East, in particular, it affected the kingdoms that had been formed from the division of lands conquered by Alexander. However, this circumscribed definition is now considered inadequate, and the scope of Hellenism extends to cover the entire time span of the Roman Empire until its transformation into a Christian Empire at the end of the fourth century. At this time bloody sacrifices were prohibited by Theodosius (391 ce), with the aim of putting an end to the traditional cults of the Mediterranean world. The antipagan legislation of the Christian emperors took effect gradually and over a long period of time, and polytheistic religious traditions persisted, albeit to a lesser extent, in many regions of this vast geographical area for at least another two centuries. It was however the clear sign of a deep cultural and religious transformation that brought to a close the long and variegated historical period known as Hellenism. A distinction between early and late Hellenism can be identified, respectively, as the ancient Droysenian phase and that of Imperial Romeeach have particular aspects while also being part of an historical continuum.

Hellenistic culture

Unlike the Greek etymon hellenismos, which defines Greek as opposed to those different than Greeks (represented by the "barbarians"; i.e., all non-Greeks), after Droysen the term Hellenism insofar as it refers to the last three centuries before the Christian erawas used to express the complex cultural physiognomy of that age, with its repercussions in subsequent centuries. This was the result of Greek elements meeting and amalgamating to various extents with the traditions of those peoplesabove all Asian, but also Westernwho came into direct contact with them. The first and most evident consequence of the gesta of Alexander the Great, who had created an immense supranational empire and modeled the subsequent structure of Hellenistic kingdoms, was in fact the intense movement of people that, although mainly for military and commercial purposes, acted as a vehicle of wide-ranging cultural exchange and the source of profound changes also on a religious level.

Extremely significant differences existed on the social, economic, and institutional levels, between the nations of the eastern Mediterranean, where monarchic Hellenistic states lived alongside independently ruled Greek cities and their leagues. However, it is possible to talk of Hellenism as a sufficiently homogeneous cultural entity, based on a common language (the Greek of the koine set up on the basis of the Attic dialect) and characterized by common spiritual and intellectual traits. The religious component is an essential part of this culture, and here also there is significant homogeneity, albeit with local and national variety. This homogeneity is the result of various kinds of interference between the Greek religion and that of the peoples with which it came into contact. In other words, in religious terms the Hellenistic period was characterized by a phenomenon that, although foreshadowed and rooted in the archaic and Classical periods, now acquired such large proportions that it became a distinguishing feature of an entire phase in the history of Mediterranean civilization.

A distinction should also be made between the situation in the western Mediterranean and of the oriental regions, where Hellenism penetrated deeply into the local humus and from which in turn it sucked vital nutrients. Here, alongside peoples only marginally touched by Greek expansion in the early Hellenistic period, there were entire regions such as Magna Graecia and Sicily, with a Greek tradition dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries bce, and Etruria, with centuries of contact with Greece and the East. For its part, during its gradual expansion through the peninsula, Rome was receptive to Hellenic influence already in the monarchic age, whereas the Classical period brought direct contact with the poleis of continental Greece. Moreover, with the eastward expansion of the Roman Republic, the Hellenistic period witnessed the large-scale Hellenization of the cultural and religious life of the Urbs, which would continue throughout the life of the Empire.

Fundamental tendencies of Hellenism

Although tending to be linked primarily to tradition, the dialectic connection between various components of a cultural system, beliefs, and cults nevertheless influence change in a community's socio-political and economic life. Two fundamental tendencies run through Hellenistic culture: (1) cosmopolitan open-mindedness and the preeminence of the individual (i.e., the overcoming of the particularistic barriers of both the polis and the wider national aggregate) and (2) the initiative of the individual who, by making new life choices, may reject traditional patterns and participate independently in the many activities available in a supranational panorama. In this situation the individual often looks for new forms of aggregation, including from a religious point of view, and may join groups, communities, and associations that in foreign lands practice the cult of one or another deity (of the nation of provenience or of local deities) encountered by immigrants in their new home. In the case of the indigenous populations, certain divine figures are sometimes the object of particular veneration by groups of worshipers, independent of public or city traditions, and thus fuels dynamic forms of personal religion.

The phenomenon of religious contacts and influences is an almost structural factor in the history of Mediterranean peoples as far back as the observation of history allows. For the Greeks, it represented an important aspect of their colonial experience in the East and West, in which they took their own gods and came into contact with those of the local populations. However, it assumed particular relevance in the Hellenistic period and, subsequently, under the Roman Empire. The Greeks and almost all the peoples of the Near East and the West had in fact ethnic religious traditions whose origins and development were contemporaneous to the origins and developments of the communities in which they originated, where they were perceived as an essential component of cultural identity, together with language and the socio-economic and political framework. Because they are related to highly civilized peoples, the respective religious contexts may be defined as national rather than ethnic because they have (to varying extents) common constants and tendencies that, as in the case of the numerous Greek poleis, give homogeneity to the religious life of the individual ethnic group and go beyond local identities. The national religions of the ancient Mediterranean world were, then, the heritage of individual peoples, mutually acknowledged and cohabiting without intolerance or exclusivism.

An essential component of the picture is the structure of such religious traditions, which, with the exceptions already mentioned, may all in various ways be defined as polytheistic, implying the belief as reflected in ritual praxis in a series of superhuman entities with more or less clearly defined personalities. These divine figures possess particular attributes and prerogatives and are often connected with the various cosmic departments whose working they ensure and with human institutions over whose foundation they presided and of which they are now protectors. Greek polytheism may be defined as a dynastic-departmental religious structure, because the various deities (especially the main ones) are linked by bonds of parentage and endowed with power over the various spheres of cosmic and human life.

As contact intensified in the early Hellenistic period and, subsequently, in the Imperial Roman period, the structural similarities between the religious traditions of Mediterranean peoples made possible the phenomenon of religious cosmopolitanism that characterizes the period. In fact, certain cults (i.e., mythicalritual complexes gravitating around single deities or divine "families") spread progressive beyond their respective national boundaries, as is the case of the oriental cults that spread through Greece and the West. At the same time, Greek religion penetrated extensively into the East, in part superimposing itself on local systems and in part cohabiting with them, giving the religious life of the great Eastern citieswhether newly founded or of ancient originsa more or less marked but in any case decisive Hellenic stamp. With the affirmation of the power of Rome, numerous figures of the Roman pantheon also began to be worshiped under various guises by the peoples of the Mediterranean and were found to be susceptible to forms of convergence or identification with local deities.

Methodological Issues

Before examining the Goddess worship in the Hellenistic World, two preliminary difficulties need to be discussed. The first regards the polytheistic structure of the religious contexts in question, in which each figure acts and functions with specific attributes and prerogatives yet also within a complex web of relationships involving the other superhuman entitiesparticularly those to which they are linked due to having similar or contrasting functions. This web implies a strongly anthropomorphic gender differentiation, which is translated into a distinction between gods and goddesses (i.e., in the creation of a male and female divine world). The question, as posed by Nicole Loraux (1990), then becomes "what is a goddess?"an inquiry that can be related to the Greek pantheon as well as similar Mediterranean religious contexts.

When facing the problem of the significance of female divine figures within the religious systems of a Hellenistic milieu, the structural dialectic of the relations operating among all their components and, in particular, between the two gender dimensions must be taken into full consideration. The focus on the various female presences should not overshadow the individual basic reality of religious contexts in which the divine world is articulated according to the complementary functions and prerogatives of these two dimensions.

The second difficulty regards the very notion of Hellenism assumed as the parameter of reference for the theme under discussion. As mentioned previously, this term combines a time span that current historical research extends significantly beyond the limits of Droysen's formula with an extremely wide-ranging spatial dimension, enveloping all the cultures of the Mediterranean area that in various ways came into contact with Greek culture. It follows that, in principle, the entire chronological and cultural framework in question must be examined to identify the personality and role at least of its main female figures, who embody the spiritual and religious needs that the worshipersboth men and womenin turn express through the prerogatives and the attributes with which they create the goddesses' images and organize their cult. Additionally, all the religious contexts converging in this vast geographical area maintained their ancestral structures and, despite the more or less profound changes caused by the politico-military and socio-economic events of the age, fundamentally conserved the beliefs and worship practices consolidated by tradition. Each of the divine figures of the numerous national pantheons had by now assumed universally recognizable stable and defined prerogatives and attributes, so a full description would require the examination of the deity's entire history, right back to the most ancient sources.

Despite these reservations, we may try to identify the peculiarities of certain main female divine figures that occupied a dominant role in the collective religious imagination of early and late Hellenism. The distinguishing traits of this wide historical time span were individualism and cosmopolitanismfactors able to trigger processes of confluence and cultural homogenization. Also, on a religious level, it is legitimate to focus attention on those figures and their mythicalritual systems that were involved in similar processes, grouping aspects and prerogatives of similar figures from other cultural contexts around an original national identity. These are not phenomena of syncretism (a widely abused term that is contested by religious historians) but authentically creative processes, whereby certain aspects of a deity's defining functions and attributes were selected and developed so that the deity drew to itself other divine figures with similar functions but from different historico-cultural contexts.

Greek Original Traits in Goddess Worship

In this process, as in other components of the Hellenistic cultural amalgam, a predominant and guiding role was played by the Greek religious tradition, in which there were a number of great goddesses with a long history (perpetuated by various sources of nourishment) and whose origins were often unclear (e.g., Mediterranean, Indo-European, Near Eastern), but which had by now assumed strong polyhedral identities. Figures included Hera, bride of the great Zeus, whose distinguishing feature is her link with marriage; Athena, the parthenos (never a child, always a virgin) who emerged intact and motherless from the head of Zeus as a warrior and patron of the arts, protectress of the polis, and civilizing deity; Artemis, the virgin huntress, mistress of the animals (potnia therōn ), and protectress of the critical passages of human life from birth to male and female initiations; and, lastly, Aphrodite. She represented the very force of sexual desire and, according to Hesiodic tradition, was born before the other gods of Olympus from the marine foam fertilized by the member of Uranus and mutilated by his son Cronus to open the cosmic space necessary for the creation of gods and men. This figure undoubtedly had oriental connections in contiguity and probably in continuity with the Babylonian and Phoenician Astarte (perhaps via the Cypriot culture; Kypris is already a typical Homeric name given to her) and also brings together warlike aspects and a bisexual component.

In the Hellenistic period, Aphrodite once more takes forceful possession of those far-off roots, moreover never forgotten, to become associated and identified with numerous goddesses of Near Eastern pantheons. Already in the archaic and Classical periods, those roots were expressed, amongst other ways, in the typical lovedeath relationship with Adonis, whose typological analogies and historical connections with the Babylonian Tammuz are clear. Associated in Sappho's female thiasos with the ritual of mourning and in classical Athens with women dancing on roofs in a state of emotional turmoil, in the city of Alexandria during the days of Arsinoë II, wife of Ptolemy II, the cult of Adonis was, instead, the great city festival described in the famous Idyll XV of Theocritus, thus confirming a religious continuity that in the Hellenistic period widened to involve the cosmopolitan public of the newly founded cities.

The metropolis of Alexandria was, in fact, built on Egyptian soil by Alexander the Great as a tangible sign of hellenismos introduced into the heart of the ancient local civilization and, under Ptolemaic rule, was considered one of the most prestigious cultural and religious centers of the Mediterranean world. The traditional Greek cults were practiced there, and sources indicate that the prevalent cult was that of Demeter, who was the subject of numerous festivals also observed in Egyptian society and in Eleusis, a suburb of Alexandria, where she was evoked in her peculiar dimension as the figure-head goddess of the mystery cult. With no local "branch offices" to perform its role, Attic Eleusis would remain a religious center of extreme vitality throughout early and late Hellenism, attracting worshipers from all over the Mediterranean and, in particular, from Italy and Rome. Eleusis was also visited by many emperors from Augustus (31 bce) to Gallienus (264/65 ce); Hadrian, an admirer of Greek culture, was a particularly devoted worshiper. They displayed a special respect for Demeter's gifts, which the famous Ciceronian formula listed as cereal cultivation and the mysteries with their eschatological guarantees.

On the acropolis of Pergamum (founded by Attalus I and capital of his kingdom) near the great altar of Zeus, stands the sanctuary of Demeter, together with those of Athena Polias and Hera Basileia. This sanctuary testifies to the substantial Greek influence on the new Asian kingdom, along the lines of the ancient Hellenic colonies in the Anatolian peninsula. This sanctuary, moreover, was also a particular center for the worship of Artemis, who in numerous sites of ancient origin or Hellenistic foundation displayed evident oriental traits (reflecting both the marked Mediterranean and Anatolian components of her ancient roots) and new confluences with figures of great local goddesses. Examples include the great sanctuary at Ephesus in which the unusual iconography of the cult statue of the goddess, enclosed within a sheath decorated with numerous animal protomes (heads or foreparts), plastically expresses her essential dimension as mistress of wild animals (pothnia therōn); those of Magnesia on the Meander, in which Artemis bears the name of Leukophryene; of Sardis; of Perge in Pamphylia; of Bargylia, with the epithet Kindyas; and of Hypaipa, where she is identified with the Persian Anaitis. In fact, in the Hellenistic period, the Persian goddess was worshiped in various Anatolian centers, which to a varying extent preserved traces of ancient Persian domination. In the game of finding similarities between the traits and functions of divine figures that emerged from the contact between different religious contexts, she is usually identified with the Greek goddess. The name Persian Artemis (persike ), in fact, is one of the most frequent names given to Anaitisespecially in Lydia, which emphasizes how various defining traits of the two figures are similar, such as their links with nature and the animal kingdom in particular.

The Oriental and Egyptian Contribution

In the Hellenistic period, other major Eastern goddesses began to be worshiped beyond their national boundaries, thus increasing their number of worshipers. The contact with some of the main characters in the Greek, and then also Roman pantheon, led to partial changes in their personalities.

Dea Syria

A case in point is the Semitic goddess Atargatis, whose main center of worship was the city of Hierapolis-Bambyke in northern Syria. She had been known in Greece since the third to second century bce by the name of Pure (hagne ) Aphrodite or Goddess Syria and was on occasions called Aphrodite Goddess Syria or Hagne Aphrodite Atargatis, confirming that worshipers perceived certain analogies between the two goddesses. Moreover, Atargatis did not lose her own distinct identity, underlined by the national name and clearly expressed in her traditional association with the great Syrian Baal Hadad, lord of the tempest and of lightning, who was linked to the kingdom of the underworld and fertility.

In Delos, where the cult was introduced by Syrian merchants, the two gods were first venerated together as patrician gods by the Eastern community. When Athens took control of the island, the public of worshipers widened to envelop its entire cosmopolitan population, and the goddess progressively acquired supremacy over her male counterpart. From 118/117 bce the holder of the priesthood seems to have been an Athenian, who proclaimed himself hiereus tēs agnēs Aphroditēs (priest of the Pure Aphrodite). This title is an indication of the advanced process of Hellenization in which the goddess was by now involved. Lucian (second century ce) is attributed with the treatise "The Syrian Goddess," which provides a description of the cult and religious traditions related to the great sanctuary of Hierapolis-Bambyke. The goddess, although linked to her male counterpart Hadad and to a lower ranking figure of unknown identity, seems to be the undisputed protagonist of the cult and of relative mythical traditions. Assuming the identification of Hadad with Zeusconsidering that the numerous Semitic Baals and the major male deities of the numerous local pantheons tended to be assimilated with the king of the Greek gods or with the Roman Jupiter, by now perceived as his counterpartLucian also puts Atargatis on the same level as Hera. However, confirming the polyhedral nature of this divine figure, Lucian declares that "on the whole, she is certainly Hera, but she also has something of Athena, Aphrodite, Selene, Rhea, Artemis, Nemesis and the Fates" (De Dea Syria 32).

There is an evident sense of a "game of identification" between various divine figures, clearly perceived by contemporary peoples, as a tool for classifying and evaluating their functions and prerogatives when comparing the numerous national pantheons. The presence of phallic symbols in the Heliopolitan sanctuary, together with many other elements of the ritual praxis, shows the goddess's fundamental link with nature and fertility. The existence of a religious staff consisting of eunuch Galloi and of men and women who in the grip of obsession worshiped the goddess with singing, dancing, and the music of sacred instruments (De Dea Syria 43), indicates a cult with clear orgiastic traits, similar to that of the great Anatolian mother Cybele, with whom some ancient sources identify Atargatis. The marked astral and cosmic characterization of her personality (often identified with the constellation of Virgo), together with her peculiar traits as protectress of the polis and her identification with Fortuna and Tyche, portray a complex personality. This was the result of a long historical process that grew from the ancient local roots of a sovereign goddess of a city community to becomeaccording to the canons of Hellenistic cosmopolitanismthe figure of the omniparens (universal genetrix; mother of all) and omnipotent cosmic deity celebrated by Apuleius (second century ce).

In terms of the diffusion and significance of her cult in the Mediterranean regions, Atargatis took her distance from her original male counterpart, who alsoas Zeus or Jupiter Heliopolitanus and often bearing the name Optimus Maximusenjoyed a certain popularity under the Empire. The divine consort of another Syrian god, the Baal of the city of Doliche in Commagene (northern Syria), however, assumed a subordinate position to her companion, while enjoying the latter's great popularity in the imperial period (secondthird century ce) only by reflection. This figure is identified with Iuppiter Optimus Maximus and bears the localized title of Dolichenus. He has warlike but also celestial and cosmic attributes and a bride whom epigraphic and iconographic sources identify with Juno, or often Regina Juno or Santa Juno.

This assimilation fits perfectly into the general framework in question and shows how the major female figures in the Greek and Roman pantheons, which were by now extremely similar, provided specific parameters of reference that allowed many divine figures with different national origins to be received into the great Hellenistic cultural amalgam. Moreover, filtered by Hellenic and Roman influence, these figures acquire a supranational, cosmopolitan dimension and are often characterized in cosmic terms, assuming functions and prerogatives of many other female deities while never totally obscuring their primitive identity. Although her title identifies her with the bride of the highest Roman god, the iconographic type of the Juno of Doliche reveals its oriental origin in a number of characteristic elements. In parallel with her divine bridegroom, who is depicted standing on a bull's back, the goddess appears upright on an animal (not always clearly identifiable as bovine or cervine) in a long robe with her head covered by a veil, or sometimes wearing a diadem (jeweled headdress) or a calathos (a cylindrical cap). The scepter and the mirror are her typical attributes.


The Phrygian goddess of animals and mountains, Cybele was already known to the first Greek colonists on the coasts of Asia Minor and since the seventh to sixth century bce was included in the Greek pantheon under the name of Great Mother (Mēter Megalē) on the basis of her identification with Rhea, mother of the Olympian gods. The iconographic scheme that originated in this period would remain basically unchanged until the last manifestations of her cult, which became one of the most widespread in the Mediterranean world after its official introduction in Rome in 204 bce. In this solemn image of the goddess, she seated on her throne, often within a naiskos (shrine or small temple), with her veiled head surmounted by the polos, bearing the attributes of the sceptre, the patera (a libation bowl), and the timpanum (tambourine), and with a lion cub in her lap or accompanied by one or two lions in a heraldic position near the throne.

More or less Hellenized (also due to her relationship with Demeter) the Anatolian goddess does not lose the peculiar connotations of her personality and cult. Her individual characteristics are expressed in the names that refer to her Eastern origins (Berecynthian, Idaea, Cybele) and in the orgiastic forms of the rite, with a significant role given to women and its nocturnal connotations. In fact, the goddess has the prerogative of infusing obsession (mania ) both in the religious dimension of divine possession and in the destructive manifestation of pathological madness, which however she may also cure in her role of healing goddess. Above all, the presence of a male counterpart, Attis, the subject of a bloodthirsty cult involving the self-castration of a number of worshipers forming the group of the Galloi, shows the oriental roots of the mythicalritual system revolving around the Anatolian Great Mother.

The process of Hellenization of this system, which in the Classical period caused the figure of Attis and his bloody rites to be abolished, did not however achieve its radical transformation. In the early Hellenistic period in Greece, the young male counterpart of Cybele reemerged on a mythical and ritual level. His anthropomorphic representation displays the connotations of a superhuman figure linked to vegetation. He is the protagonist of a tragic event of death, redeemed by a promise of bodily incorruptibility and, above all, by the ritual evocation of the event itself. In this way, he becomes the subject of worship together with the Great Mother. The official introduction in Rome of the Metroac cult apparently supplants the Greek experience of it, because at the height of the military and political crisis caused by Hannibal's presence on Italic soil during the Second Punic War (218210 bce) the Senate turned to King Attalus of Pergamum as mediator at the sanctuary of Pessinunt, home of the Great Goddess. On arriving in the Urbs, the Black Stone, aniconic image of the goddess was housed in the temple of Victoria on Palatine Hill and then transferred to the sacred temple dedicated to her on the same hill, the center of the city's ancestral cults. The Hellenized dimension is present also in the figure of the Roman Magna Mater Idaea, adopted as national deity due to her links with the tradition of the city's Trojan origins as protectress of Aeneas, son of an Aphrodite perceived as homologous to the goddess Venus. In fact, the religious policy implemented by the public powers of Rome once again reflects the trends typical of the contemporary religious scene, whereby an oriental deity was introduced into the traditional religious structure and the aspects most suited to that structure were developed and its physiognomy remodeled to harmonize it with the other members of the pantheon.

At the same time, the new goddess does not lose her own identity, which in the case of Cybele would be affirmed strongly in the late Republic and early Empire when the Phrygian and mystic aspects of the cult reemerged. These aspects had been relegated to within the Palatine sanctuary, together with the figure of Attis and the eunuch Galloi, whereas the official space had been entirely occupied by the public festival organized by the aristocrats of the annual Megalesia games, which included the procession of the divine image and its immersion in the waters of the river Almo. The emperors Claudius (4154) and Antoninus Pius (138161) instituted the Phrygian festival cycle of March 1517, in which the story of Attis was publicly evoked with manifestations of mourning and joy and marked also by the bloody practices of the Galloi. Once the Metroac ritual was adopted as the official cult of the state, thereby protected and promoted by the emperors, this Roman festive cycle spread to many parts of the Empire. By 160 ce the entire Empire knew of the Metroac sacrificial rite in its dual form of the taurobolium (sacrifice of a bull) and criobolium (sacrifice of a ram) and was performed by city communities and private individuals for the health of the emperor and his family as an expression of devotion and loyalty toward the highest public authority. In the drastic evolution of lifestyle and religious feeling in subsequent centuries, the cathartic connotations of the taurobolium were accentuated, and it shifted from being a public rite performed for the salvation of the social community in the person of its highest representative to become an individual, private rite. Its aim was thus the purification and salvation of the worshiper.

Both in the forms of the festival cycle of March and in those of the bloody rite of the taurobolium, the Great Goddess, protagonist of the cult, together with her male counterpart, Attis, would maintain her position of importance up until the end of Hellenism. In the late fourth century ce she would unite in the taurobolium those representatives of the Roman aristocracy who had remained impervious to Christianization. From Vettius Agorius Praetextatus and his bride Fabia Aconia Paulina to many other members of the great Roman senatorial families, the tenacious loyalty to ancestral religious traditions would be given particular importance and attention through devotion to the Magna Mater Idaea, whose ancient Eastern personality is inextricably intertwined with the equally marked traits of her Hellenic and Roman manifestations.


The Egyptian goddess Isis is undoubtedly the figure that more than any other exemplifies the Hellenistic typology of a national deity assuming a cosmopolitan nature when coming into contact with similar personalities and under dominant Hellenic influence. Herodotos (c. 484between 430 and 420 bce) noted in his Histories that all Egyptians, independent of their innumerable local cults, venerated the couple of Isis and Osiris. For thousands of years they played a central role in Egyptian religion, due to their triple connection with pharaonic ideology, funerary practices and eschatology, and agrarian fertility.

In the light of the Greek interpretation, Osiris is identified with Dionysos because of his chthonic and agrarian aspects and especially the pathē (sufferings) embodied in his mythical story and cult, and Isis is identified with Demeter. This identification, however, only covers the aspect of her divine personality linked to fertility and maternity. Parallel to a progressive diffusion of her cult in Greece, Asia Minor, the islands of the Aegean and the West (first in Sicily and southern Italy and then throughout the peninsula and in the various regions of the Empire) in the Hellenistic period Isis's attributes and prerogatives underwent such extraordinary development that she became a panthea goddess. In his novel Metamorphoses, Apuleius (second century ce) defined her as "single Godhead (numen unicum ) adored by the whole world in varied forms, in differing rites and with many diverse names" (Metamorphoses 11, 5). In the prayer that the protagonist of the novel addresses to the bright moon rising from the waters of the sea over the beach of Cenchreae (Corinth), he invokes the Regina caeli (Queen of Heaven) by listing the main figures of the Greek-Roman pantheonall expressions of her multiform identity: Ceres honored at Eleusis, the caelestis (heavenly) Venus "worshipped in the island shrine of Paphos; or the sister of Phoebus now adored in the celebrated temples of Ephesus; or whether as Proserpine " (Metamorphoses 11, 5). He concluded: "By whatever name or ceremony or visage it is right to address thee, help me now in the depth of my trouble" (Metamorphoses 11, 5). In the reply of the epiphanic goddess, further details are added to the divine picture:

Thus the Phrygians, earliest of races, call me Pessinuntia, Mother of the Gods; thus the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me Cecropeian Minerva; and the sea-tossed Cyprians call me Paphian Venus, the archer Cretans Diana Dictynna, and the trilingual Sicilians Ortygian Proserpine; to the Eleusinians I am Ceres, the ancient goddesses, to others Iuno, to others Bellona and Hecate and Rhamnusia. But the Ethiopians together with the Africans and the Egyptians who excel through having the original doctrine, honour me with my distinctive rites and give me my true name of Queen Isis. (Metamorphoses 11, 15)

Deeply Hellenized but at the same time rooted in the ancient Egyptian tradition, this image of Isis Myrionyma (with ten thousand names) is most vividly expressed in the hymns of praise (aretalogies ). In these, the goddess declares her powers (dynameis ) and lists the benefits she has bestowed on humankind, configuring herself as a typical cultural heroine in line with the Hellenistic model of the euretēs (inventor of the fundamental human techniques and institutions) and euergetēs (benefactor). The Isiac aretalogies are attested by epigraphs in many places of the Hellenized world and by literary documents and probably derive from a single prototype in which ancient Egyptian concepts were elaborated in the light of a new religious vision typical of the Hellenistic period. The model of Isis's aretalogies is, in fact, attributable to the beginning of this period and was aimed at promoting diffusion of the cult of the goddess whose functional identity and iconography had by now become deeply Hellenized. After the goddess's genealogy and a list of her main cult centers, a list follows of her cosmogonic exploits (e.g., separation of the land from the sky, fixing the route followed by the stars, the sun and the moon) and of the benefits she bestowed on humanity (e.g., the abolition of cannibalism; the institution of public and family law; the invention of language, writing, and navigation; the institution of religious rites; and the definition of ethical laws). The listing of the numerous aretai presents a picture of Isis as a universal power, mistress of the cosmos in its natural and human dimension, and in some documents (e.g., Hymn from Andros, Hymn from Kyme, Metamorphoses ) sovereign of astral destinythe Heimarmene (fate) imposed on Hellenistic society as a dark and tyrannical force. This prerogative of the goddess is expressed in the frequent name of Tyche or Fortuna with which worshipers invoked her and in the iconographic attributes of the cornucopia and the rudder. Its liveliest representation is the story of Lucius narrated by Apeuleius in Metamorphoses. This trait explains the exceptional favor that Isis enjoyed in the entire Mediterranean world and represents the most typically Hellenistic aspect of her personality. In the variety of her attributes and her typology, the figure of Isisalthough rooted in a national traditionis a typical creation of Hellenism in the sense that she exemplifies its cosmopolitan aspects and at the same time satisfies individuals' needs for personal guarantees for the present and future. To this end, according to ancient Egyptian ideology, an essential role is played by the goddess in the mythicalritual framework associating her with her spouse Osiris and her son Horus. In the organic explanation of the second century ce Greek writer Plutarch (before 50after 120 ce), the Egyptian myth attributes Isis with the essential task of searching for the dismembered body of her spouse. On recomposing it, she celebrated the funeral rites, through which she made the great Osiris immortal. At the same time, Plutarch defines the salvific function of the goddess toward humanity:

The sister and wife of Osiris , nor did she allow the contests and struggles which she had undertaken, her wanderings and her many deeds of wisdom and bravery, to be engulfed in oblivion and silence, but into the most sacred rites she infused images, suggestions and representations of her experiences at that time, and so she consecrated at once a pattern of piety and an encouragement to men and women overtaken by similar misfortunes. (De Iside et Osiride, 27 as cited in Griffiths, 1970, pp. 2627)

The divine story contemplates suffering and death but also provides a positive solution in the reanimation of Osiris, who regains life and sovereignty, albeit in the kingdom of the underworld. To the eyes of the Greeks, who are aware of the religious experiences typical of the Greek mystery cults, the story becomes an exemplary model for contemporary men and women. Translated into ritual terms (the teletai ), it offers worshipers the hope of overcoming the difficulties and sufferings of human existence.

Plutarch's text thus draws a picture that is clearly illustrated in Book 11 of the Metamorphoses, namely, the presence in the Isiac cult of the initiatory and esoteric praxis of the mysteries, insofar as they are rites that place the worshiper in intimate contact with the deity through the ritual reevocation of a painful event that, however, has a positive outcome. The mystery componentabsent from the ancient Egyptian religious contextis the result of the undeniable influence of the Greek, probably Eleusinian model, as in other cults of oriental deities. In particular, at the beginning of the Hellenistic period in some Greek centers, Cybele, another great goddess involved in the process of Hellenization characteristic of the age, assumed traits typical of mystery cults. These would persist with different forms and methods up until the imperial period, when they are discussed by Christian authors such as Clement of Alexandria (150215) and Julius Firmicus Maternus (fourth century ce).

Insofar as they are subjects of a mystery cult resulting from the dense network of contacts with Greek religious influences and in particular with that of the Eleusinian Demeter to whom in various ways both are typologically related, the two goddesses, Isis and Cybele, express an important component of the great Hellenistic religious amalgam. They are, in fact, characterized by marked individualistic tensions, which on a religious level are reflected in the search for a more intimate and personal relationship with the deity, such as could be realized in initiatory and esoteric rites. At the same time, the Isiac cult is one of the most characteristic manifestations of the tendency to set up new community groups because it requires total devotion of the initiate. In exchange for the divine protection that broke the bonds of the blind Fortuna and introduced him into the secrets of the cult, the Lucius of Apuleius must dedicate to Isis his whole existence in a total relationship of personal religion. Although not definable in terms of conversion because it persists within the framework of special devotion for a single deity without excluding the other members of a polytheistic pantheon, this relationship nevertheless expresses a religious experience of significant intensity and personal commitment, different from that offered by the traditional practices of public cults.

A last characteristic of the Hellenistic Isistypical of numerous contemporary cults of female deities, yet in her case particularly significantis the extension and role of the female presence that without being either exclusive or preponderant is proportionally large, both in terms of worshipers and priestly staff. As is known, in the ancient world a connection often appears between female deities and female priesthoods, without however there being any exclusion of male priesthoods nor of priestesses in the cults of gods. In any case, both in the public forms of the cult exercised in the great Hellenistic temples and in private forms of religious associations that are often of a local nature, the role of the female priesthood is highly significant in the worship of Demeter, Artemis, Athena, Cybele, the Goddess Syria Atargatis, and Isis. The fact that a special web of relationships relates each of these divine figures in various ways to the life of women in their fundamental roles of wife and mother is equally important. Among these, Isis stands out once more as the Hymn from Kyme proclaims: "I am she who is called God by women I forced women to be loved by men" (as cited in Beard, North, and Price, 1998, vol. 2, pp. 297298).

See Also

Cybele; Hellenistic Religions; Isis; Roman Religion, article on the Imperial Period; Women's Studies in Religion.


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Giulia Sfameni Gasparro (2005)

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