Sponsored by: Archaeological Institute of America
From neopagans to feminists, many today think of Isis as a goddess of and for women. Given that Isis was a patron of childbirth and marriage, two activities closely associated with women in antiquity, this assumption is not entirely off the mark. Women also appear frequently in artistic depictions of the Isis cult, from wall paintings at Pompeii to gravestones in Athens. But women were largely excluded from priesthoods and other positions of power and were marginalized further through cult regulations. How, then, can we understand women’s experiences of Isis? In this talk, I bring together literary, epigraphic, and artistic evidence to examine the roles of women and femininity in Egyptian cults during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. I begin with a brief overview of the cults and their expansion throughout the Mediterranean. Next, I turn to a series of hymns used to worship Isis in this period that describe Isis’ character and powers, most of which emphasize her role as a patron of key aspects of women’s lives. While inscriptions from sanctuaries demonstrate how rarely women held positions of power, some women still found ways to impact Isiac communities through building projects and other benefactions. I then turn to visual media like painting and sculpture, where Isiac women appear frequently, either in the midst of performing rites or dressed in costumes that connect them closely with Isis. I argue that these images use women as symbols of the cults’ more unusual aspects, in keeping with negative descriptions of Isis devotees in Latin literature. This evidence paints a complex and dynamic portrait of the female experience of Egyptian religion, which relied on women to communicate its ideals, including exoticism and difference, to a broad audience while denying them power and status.