Isis - Isiac Initiation

Pagan Regeneration

A Study of Mystery Initiations in the Graeco-Roman World

By Harold R. Willoughby


Chapter VII

Isiac Initiation

The chief contribution of Egypt to the religion of the Roman Empire was the cult of Isis in the form of a Hellenized development of that ancient Egyptian religion. From very early times Isis and Osiris held a unique position in the religious thought of the Egyptian people. Herodotus noted in his day that "no other gods were worshiped in the same way by the whole of Egypt save only Isis and Osiris." The worship of other deities varied from place to place in different sections of the country. By comparison with these the related cults of Isis and Osiris were undiversified, and their hold on the religious loyalties of the Egyptian people remained more or less constant not only in different localities but in various ages as well. It is surely an impressive fact that in Graeco-Roman times the reformed and Hellenized cult of Isis functioned as vigorously as the antique Osirian religion had functioned in the times of the Pharaohs.


The various traditions gathering around the divine names of Osiris and Isis were summarized in connected form by Plutarch. In addition to Plutarch's convenient narrative, there are a number of Egyptian monuments that preserve fragments of the tragic tale. The oldest of these are a series of liturgical texts, hymns, prayers, and incantations from the walls of the pyramids of Sakhara. Quite apart from Plutarch's rendition of the story, it would be possible, from these pyramid texts, to reconstruct completely the Osirian legend. In its developed form, this tradition included many different strands. The essential elements of the tradition, however, were as follows: Osiris on earth had reigned as king over the Egyptians, "making them reform their destitute and bestial mode of living, showing them the art of cultivation, giving them laws, and teaching them how to worship the gods. Afterward he traveled over the whole earth, civilizing it." His wicked brother Set, or Typhon, plotted against him and succeeded in accomplishing his violent death. When Isis, his wife, heard of the terrible deed, she put on mourning and wandered distractedly far and wide searching for the lost body of her husband. After a long search she recovered the body and carefully embalmed it. Over the corpse she and her sister Nephtys joined in a lament that became classical--a type of the Egyptian lamentations for the deceased. With the aid of the faithful god Anubis, her son Horus, and Thoth, Isis performed certain magical rites over the body of Osiris which had the effect of revivifying the corpse and restoring her husband to life. Thereafter he was translated to the nether regions where he reigned as "Lord of the Underworld and Ruler of the Dead." Here he presided at the bar of judgment and assigned to the souls of the departed their proper reward for virtue or punishment for sin.

This brief summary of the Osirian tradition itself suggests that, in the religious thought of Egypt, Osiris was a dying and reviving god like Adonis and Attis and Dionyus, and as such a personification of the yearly vicissitudes of vegetable life in the ever recurrent struggle of life and death in nature. He was also an embodiment of the ideal Pharaoh and a personification of the righteous man who, facing the mystery of death, sought the assurances of religion regarding the future. So also Isis, like Demeter and the Magna Mater, was a mother-goddess personifying the power of life in nature and the unquenchable human hope for a final triumph in the conflict of life with death. She also embodied the beneficent influences of culture and religion; for she had taught men the arts and government and the mysteries.

Traditionally, the rites of the Osirian religion, like those of Eleusis, were established by the goddess-mother herself. Plutarch, again, was a recorder of this tradition. His account of the establishment of the Osiris cult was as follows:

“But the avenger of Osiris, his sister and wife Isis, who extinguished and put a stop to the madness and fury of Typhon, did not forget the contests and struggles she had gone through, nor yet her own wanderings, nor did she suffer oblivion and silence to envelop her many deeds of wisdom, many feats of courage, but by intermingling with the most sacred ceremonies images, hints, and representations of her sufferings of yore she consecrated at one and the same time both lessons of piety and consolation in suffering for men and women when overtaken by misfortune.”

In the ancient Egyptian calendar of religious feasts, with its many celebrations in honor of a variety of gods, the rites of Osiris held a place of singular honor. When Herodotus visited Egypt, he found that next to the most important native religious festival was the one in honor of Isis held in her great temple at Busiris in the Nile delta. The Greek historian showed great reverence for these rites and was very reticent about giving any precise information concerning them. He did, however, say this much: “There, after the sacrifice, all the men and women lament in countless numbers; but it were profane for me to say who it is for whom they lament.” Also in speaking of similar ceremonies at Sais, Herodotus gave but slight additional information and gave that very guardedly.

“There is also at Sais the burial of him whose name I deem it forbidden to utter in speaking of such a matter ... and there is a lake hard by, adorned with a stone margin and wrought to a complete circle. ... On this lake they enact by night the story of the god’s sufferings, a rite which the Egyptians call the mysteries. I could speak more exactly of these matters, for I know the truth, but I will hold my peace.”

The information that Herodotus records, scanty as it is, yet is sufficient to betray the general character of these religious celebrations. They were in the nature of a passion drama and they featured lamentations in which the spectators participated. The suggestion is an obvious one that the death and resurrection of Osiris constituted the subject matter of this drama and that the lamentations were the traditional lamentations of Isis for her husband.

Herodotus’ reserve about giving any detailed information concerning the Osiris festivals calls attention to a fact of some importance. Even in ancient Egypt the Osirian cult included both public rites and secret ceremonies as well. Certain things were done and certain explanations were made which were regarded as matters of great sanctity. Only privileged people were permitted to share them. Herodotus was so impressed by the sacred character of these revelations that he kept the secret conscientiously. One would hardly be justified, on this basis, in speaking of an Osirian initiation into a secret fraternity, perhaps. Nevertheless, there was a differentiation between the public and the private Osirian rites even in ancient Egypt, and this is an important distinction to keep in mind for the understanding of a significant development of Isiac ritual in Hellenistic times.

Osirian rites such as Herodotus mentioned were repeated at annual festivals at the great temples of the god in different parts of Egypt. These sacred dramas were performed for the benefit of Osiris himself, and a statue of the god formed the center of interest in the celebration. On a stela of the Twelfth Dynasty dated about 1875 B.C. a state official, Igernefert by name, recounted with some minuteness how he conducted “the ceremony of the golden chamber for the Lord of Abydos (Osiris).” Igernefert told of the preparation of various properties for the drama and of the part that he himself played in the performance. The scenes included first of all a procession of the followers of Osiris, with an attack by his enemies. The death of the god formed the second scene, to which Igernefert made allusion quite as guardedly as Herodotus. “I performed the great going-forth. I followed the god in his footsteps.” Then came the resurrection and final triumph of the god. “I avenged Osiris on the day of the great battle, I overthrew his enemies upon the river of Nedit,” declared Igernefert, referring to such a bloody struggle as that to which Herodotus also made allusion. Then the drama was brought to a joyful close by the return of the Lord of Abydos to his palace, i.e., the return of the image of the god to its temple.

Not only were there occasional celebrations of the Osirian drama such as this but in later times, especially, there were also daily commemorations of the passion and resurrection of the god. These were enacted in the chapels of the god and doubtless formed the secret part of the Osirian ritual. Bas-reliefs from temples and various ritual remains enable us to reconstruct the liturgical acts and recitations of these miniature passion plays. There was the search for the body of Osiris and the prolonged lament of Isis and Nephtys over the corpse. In response to their cries Horus, Anubis, and Thoth came and purified the body and prepared it for restoration to life. Next certain magical rites were performed. By means of the adze of Anubis the mouth, eyes, and ears of the corpse were opened, other members of the body were put into motion, and each organ was recalled to life separately.

Then, to insure resurrection, vegetable rebirth was represented by the germination of grain, and even an animal rebirth was simulated. The priest playing the part of Anubis assumed a recumbent position under the skin of a sacrificed animal. Here he symbolized the foetus in the womb, or, more specifically, Osiris being conceived anew. Coming out from under the skin, he typified Osiris being reborn. These rites completed, Osiris was alive once more. His image was crowned and adored and offerings were made to him. In these daily rites Osiris, represented by his image, passed through a ritual rebirth.

The question at once arises, Were the benefits of these rites extended to men, as well as to the god? In the Egyptian funeral ceremonies is found the answer to this question, for the burial rites of ancient Egypt were but Osirian ceremonies repeated according to the principles of sympathetic magic. The deceased man was the dead Osiris and at his funeral the sacred drama was re-enacted. His wife and sister played the parts of Isis and Nephtys. His son was Horus and his friends were the helping gods. Professional priests assumed roles not otherwise provided for. Upon the corpse of the dead man were performed the same rites that traditionally had been enacted over the dead Osiris. His mouth, eyes, and ears were opened and the ceremonies of vegetal and animal rebirth were repeated. Just as Anubis “passed under the hide” in order to effect the rebirth of Osiris, so the presiding priest “laid himself down under the hide of a cow in the land of transformation.” By the mimicking of birth when he issued from the skin it was believed that he accomplished the spiritual renaissance of the defunct. “He who renews life (after death)” was an epithet applied to the man thus favored. Such a man went to join his god on the plains of Aalu, where, if he so chose, he might himself become a god. Many a man so privileged was specifically called “Osiris” after his death. A familiar Egyptian text testifies most clearly to this future hope for one who had shared in Osirian rites; “As truly as Osiris lives,” so ran the text, “he also shall live; as truly as Osiris is not dead, shall he not die; as truly as Osiris is not annihilated, shall he not be annihilated.”

These Osirian funeral rites, however, were entirely in the interests of the dead, to insure them a rebirth to immortality. Was this grace ever granted to a living person, so that even before death he might be certain of the future benefits these powerful rites could assure? In the case of the Pharaoh this was done. During the Sed festival a ritual death and rebirth was enacted for the benefit of the royal personage himself. Only in later times and as a special favor were others granted this grace. Generally speaking, the advantages of ritual rebirth in Egyptian religion were conferred upon the dead and were confined to the future life.


Notwithstanding the clear suggestions of postmortem regeneration to be found in the Egyptian cult of Osiris, it is to a modification and further development of this ancient religion that one must turn to find clear examples of the spiritual rebirth of the individual during his lifetime. In the Hellenistic cult of Serapis and Isis, such experiences may be isolated. This new cult was but an adaptation of the venerable Egyptian religion to the spirit and needs of Hellenistic times. Hence it assumed that individualistic, universalistic character so typical of other contemporary religious movements. It welcomed to its membership non-Egyptians as well as Egyptians. Osirian religion had been a pure product of the Nile Valley. The new religion, itself a syncretism, did not know any geographical or racial distinctions. Other contrasts, more or less superficial, might be drawn which recorded in an external way the degree to which the old Egyptian religion was modified to meet the social needs of the Alexandrian age. The ancient system had centered in the god, Osiris; but in the reformed cult of Hellenistic times he was replaced to a considerable extent by a new divinity, Serapis, and popular interest was transferred to the more appealing personality of Isis. She dominated the Hellenistic cult quite as Demeter held supreme place in the Eleusinian mysteries, or the Magna Mater in those that emanated from Phrygia. In the ancient Osirian religion, the public ritual with its strong appeal to the masses was important. In the Hellenized worship of Isis, the significant ceremonials were those secret rites that had such deep meaning for the individual. These were only some of the ways in which the new cult showed adaptation to the very personal needs of individual religionists in the Hellenized world.

The inception of this significant reform has been concealed under an overgrowth of tradition and legend. These traditions, varying in detail, were summarized by two prominent writers of Roman times, Plutarch and Tacitus. The general purport of their accounts was to the effect that Ptolemy Soter, the first of the Macedonian rulers of Egypt, had a dream in which he saw a huge statue of Pluto, located at Sinope in Pontus. The king was commanded to bring this colossus to the growing city of Alexandria and install it there as the center of a new religion. It was a magnificent piece of craftsmanship, composed of gems and precious metals, the work of Bryaxis, the companion of Scopas. By stealth and diplomacy Ptolemy accomplished his purpose, and the colossus was installed with due pomp as the god Serapis in a magnificent temple, or Serapeum, especially built to receive it. According to both renditions of the story, Ptolemy had recourse to the assistance of Manetho, an Egyptian priest, and Timotheus, "one of the race of the Eumolpidae, who was invited from Eleusis to preside over the mysteries." By the collaboration of an Egyptian priest and an Eleusinian priest--so legend affirmed--Ptolemy was enabled to institute his new religion.

Whatever of historical truth or of fable may have been repeated by Plutarch and Tacitus, two points stand out clearly from the traditional background. In the first place the projection of the new cult of Serapis was but a part of Ptolemy's plan to bring about a fusion of races in his Egyptian kingdom; and in the second place the cult itself was adapted to this purpose, for it was a combination of Egyptian and Hellenistic elements.

The political purpose of this new cult was ill-disguised. It was intended to serve as one more cultural bond uniting the inhabitants of Ptolemy's Egypt. We cannot be sure that Alexander cherished the scheme of uniting his great world empire by the bonds of religion as well as by commerce and culture. It is perfectly patent, however, that Ptolemy purposed this very thing and gave his official patronage to the cult of Serapis for this very reason. From the first the new cult was intended to furnish a common religious meeting ground for the Greek inhabitants of Egypt and the natives also.

For this purpose nothing was better adapted than a modification of Osirian rites. Through centuries of history the masses of Egyptian people had shown a decided preference for the worship of the god Osiris, so that other Egyptian divinities were forced to include him in their cults. Recognizing their own Osiris in the new god Serapis, the natives of Egypt, as a rule, were ready to give him their adherence. The Greeks, on the other hand, had long since identified Osiris with their own Dionysus and Isis with Demeter. In the rites of the Egyptian divinities and the myths that clustered about them, they found strange correspondences with their own myths and rituals. Osiris had been torn to pieces even as their own Dionysus had been. Isis had mourned for him as Aphrodite had bewailed Adonis or the Great Mother had lamented her Attis, and she had sought for his body even as the sorrowing Mother of Eleusis had sought for her lost daughter. In the finding and restoration of Osiris, the Egyptians rejoiced even as the Eleusinian devotees shared the joy of their goddess in the restoration of Persephone. The resemblances between the Graeco-Oriental mysteries and the Egyptian cult of Osiris were many and salient, and the Egyptian religion easily lent itself to the process of Hellenization.

Consequently, the new religion of Ptolemy became, roughly, a compound of the old religion of the Pharaohs and the mysteries of Greece and Asia Minor. Whether or not Manetho the Egyptian priest and Timothetis the Eumolpid collaborated in the institution of this Hellenized Egyptian religion, the cult of Serapis and Isis was such a composite as would have been produced by such men. On a foundation Osirian and Egyptian was erected the shrine of Serapis which in externals, at least, was decidedly Hellenistic in character.


In order to estimate the extent to which the reformed Osirian religion was influential in the Graeco-Roman world, it is necessary to trace the missionary successes of this cult during the Hellenistic and early imperial periods. It was disseminated from the Serapeum at Alexandria in somewhat the manner that the Jewish religion spread from the temple at Jerusalem. In Egypt itself the new religion of the Ptolemies was readily adopted. The Egyptians had long been familiar with the process of changing the divine government of heaven in a manner paralleling the political changes on earth. So they acceded to the Serapis of Alexandria as they had previously accepted the Amon of Thebes. Moreover, they recognized the essential identity of their beloved Osiris with the new god Serapis. In the second century A.D. there were no less thin forty-two Serapeums in the Nile Valley. Egypt, then, was an effective missionary base for the Isiacists.

Because of the political prestige of the Lagides and the extensive commerce of Alexandria, the Hellenized religion of Isis quickly spread over the eastern Mediterranean world. King Nicocreon, of Cyprus, consulted the oracle of the Serapeum and, receiving a satisfactory response, ne introduced the cult into his island. Ptolemy I (323-285 B.C.) was responsible for the establishment of the cult in Athens where a Serapeum was built beneath the Acropolis. About the same time a Serapiast brotherhood was instituted it the Piraeus. Ptolemy Euergetes (246-221 B.C.) sent a statue of Isis to Seleucus Callinicus who built a sanctuary for it in Syrian Antioch. The next two hundred years saw lsiac brotherhoods established in Asian centers, such as Smyrna, Cyzicus, and Ephesus, and on the islands of Rhodes, Delos, and Tenedos, as well as in Thessaly and Thrace. A full century before Jesus of Nazareth was born, Egyptian sailors and merchants had propagated the cult of Isis all along the coasts of Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and among the Aegean Islands. When Paul begin his missionary work in these regions, he everywhere met with Isiac establishments that were already centuries old. Here the worship of the Alexandrian deities became so firmly rooted that even the political vicissitudes that befell the Ptolemies did not seriously affect it. Even to the last days of paganism, Isis remained a power in the eastern Mediterranean world.

In the Latin west even more than in the Greek east the Alexandrian cult proved itself genuinely popular. It was probably through the Campanian ports, Puteoli in particular, that the cult of Isis made its initial appearance in Italy. A city ordinance of Puteoli dated 105 B.C. made mention of a Serapeum in that city. It was not a new foundation, and the Isiac brotherhood itself must have been in existence there at least a half century earlier. The religion of Isis, then, antedated the arrival of Paul in Puteoli by at least two centuries. Perhaps at about the same time the first Isium of Pompeii was built. It is a safe conjecture that Isis worship came to Italy early in the second century B.C., during those stirring years of religious excitement following the arrival of the Magna Mater from Pessinus, and at the time when the dignified Roman Senate was trying to hold in check the excesses of the Dionysus cult.

About the middle of the first century B.C. the immigrant religion was subjected to fierce persecution in Italy. Five times during the years between 59 and 48 the Senate ordered the destruction of Isiac shrines. Yet so popular the worship of the Egyptian goddess that in at least one instance the consul himself had to undertake the work of destruction which he was unable to find a workman to do. Even the Christian advocate Tertullian had to admit that “the altars which the Senate had thrown down were restored by popular violence.” Again, after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, there was a natural reaction against things Egyptian, and as a consequence Isis banished beyond the pomerium. In A.D. 19, because of a real or pretended scandal involving a priest of Isis, the devotees of the goddess experienced a bloody persecution and were banished wholesale to Sardinia along with the Jews. Yet Isiaism, like Christianity later, seemed to thrive on persecution, and at no time during this period did the devotion of the masses to the Egyptian goddess perceptibly weaken. On the contrary, there is every indication that the history of the Isiac cult in Italy was the story of a really popular religion that triumphed even in the face of official opposition.

Contemporary Latin literature is rich in allusions that show the great influence of the Alexandrian religion in Italy at the beginning of the Christian era. Conspicuous among the devotees of Isis were the mistresses of men of letters in the Augustan age. Tibullus, sick in Corcyra and despairing of his life, wrote to his fiancee Delia to seek the aid of the Egyptian goddess to whom she was so devoted. Propertius, on the other hand, complained bitterly of his Cynthia's loyalty to Isis rather than to himself and did not hesitate to heap up words of reproach against the goddess. “Once more those dismal rites have returned to plague us,” he grumbled. “Now for ten nights Cynthia has sacrificed. A curse upon the rites which the daughters of Inachus sent from the warm Nile to the matrons of Italy!”

Ovid, despairing of his lady’s life, addressed his prayer directly to the goddess whom Corinna particularly adored: “O Isis .... by thy sistrums I pray thee .... turn hither thy countenance, and in one spare us both! For thou wilt give life to my lady and she to me.”

Seneca's nephew, Lucan, paid his respects to the worship of the Alexandrian divinities in his Pharsalia. So did Martial and Juvenal in their Satires, and though they had scant respect for the Egyptian religion, at least they witnessed to its immense popularity and the great loyalty of its adherents. Juvenal in particular described a touching scene that illustrates the devotion of a typical worshiper to the goddess Isis.

“In winter she will go down to the river of a morning, break the ice, and plunge three times into the Tiber, dipping her trembling head in its whirling waters, and crawling out thence naked and shivering, she will creep with bleeding knees right across the field of Tarquin the Proud. If the white Io shall so order, she will journey to the confines of Egypt, and fetch water from hot Meroe with which to sprinkle the Temple of Isis which stands hard by the ancient sheepfold. For she believes that the command was given by the voice of the goddess herself.” Citations such as these from first-century Latin literature bespeak a really great popularity for the Isis cult in the Roman world of that day.

With its place at Rome secure, the cult was in a strategic position to carry on its propaganda on an imperial scale. Lucan, who in his Pharsalia spoke of Isis and Osiris as enthroned in Roman temples, referred to them also as the deities of all the world. Plutarch, with his elaborate attempt to reinterpret the Isis-Osiris religion in philosophical terminology, is perhaps the most weighty witness to this wider influence of the Alexandrian cult; for Plutarch tried to do for the Egyptian gospel what Philo earlier attempted for Judaism, and what only a little later the author of the Fourth Gospel essayed to do for Christianity. He aimed to reinterpret the Egyptian religion in universal terms that should appeal to the philosophically minded.

Of the actual influence of the cult in Roman provincial areas even in the first century, there is plenty of evidence. Toutain is familiar with over a hundred different documents of various dates that attest the existence of Isiac communities scattered all over the Roman provinces. The extent of this Egyptian Diaspora in the mid-first century measures the advantage enjoyed by Isiaism over early Christianity in the matter of missionary propaganda. When Paul first conceived his stupendous scheme of world wide evangelization, he was chronologically far behind his Isiac competitors, and wherever he went in that gentile world he found that they had preceded him. In both the western and the eastern halves of the Mediterranean world, the Isis cult was widely known and genuinely popular before the Apostle to the Gentiles began his work.


Among other factors that accounted for the great popularity of the Isis religion in the Graeco-Roman world was the impressiveness of its rites. In the Hellenistic development of Isiaism, as in the ancient religion of the Pharaohs, both public and private ceremonials were included in the cult. Notwithstanding their public character, the former rites were of a kind to foster a feeling of intimacy on the part of the devotee with his goddess. The public ritual included a regular daily liturgy with matins at the beginning of the day and a benediction in the afternoon. During the latter part of the forenoon and the early part of the afternoon, Isiac shrines were left open, and the images of the goddess were exposed to the silent adoration of the worshipers. Prayer, meditation, and contemplative devotion were thus encouraged. The daily liturgy was brought to a solemn but joyful close with the chanting of hymns, the dismissal of the people, and the closing of the shrine. By services such as these, regular and somewhat elaborate, the faith of the people in the Alexandrian divinities was renewed from day to day.

In addition to the daily liturgy, there were public festivals at different seasons that were conducted with an elaboration of pageantry dear alike to the south European and to the Oriental. Most solemn, most stirring, and quite the most popular of these was the November festival celebrating the passion and resurrection of Osiris. It was a festival of great antiquity, directly elaborated from the dramatic performances at Abydos and elsewhere, in which, from the Twelfth Dynasty onward, the sufferings of Osiris had been reproduced. As in the passion play at Eleusis, the worshipers themselves participated actively in the sacred drama. When Isis mourned and sought for her husband, her devotees beat their breasts and shared her sorrow with an effusive display of grief. Again when the god was found, the worshipers joined in an equally extravagant demonstration of gladness. By this alternation of extreme sorrow and joy the devotees of Isis realized a sympathetic and highly emotional communion with their deity. In this respect the psychological influence of the November passion play of Osiris was strikingly like that of the spring festival of Adonis, or of the September drama at Eleusis.

In addition to these public ceremonies, there were rites which were private in character and fostered a very individualistic type of religious experience. Membership in the Isiac community, as in the other mystery cults, was contingent upon participation in certain prescribed initiatory rites, the details of which were kept strictly secret. These private ceremonies were a direct development from the esoteric rites of ancient Egypt, where the priests of Osiris reserved certain interpretations and ceremonies, and imparted them only on promise of secrecy. This condition obtained in the worship of Isis at Abydos and elsewhere. In the Hellenization of the cult, such private rites were readily adapted to purposes of initiation and were developed along lines similar to the rites of Eleusis. Tradition implied that Timotheus the Eumolpid was in part responsible for this development.

The most valuable, and almost the only source of information concerning these important rites is Lucius Apuleius' account of his own initiation at Cenchraea. By following his narrative through it is possible to trace, step by step, the procedure in Isiac initiations. One is impressed at the outset by the genuine eagerness of Lucius for the grace of admission to the order of Isis, an eagerness tempered by a distrust of his own ability to attain it. For - to quote Lucius’s own words - “I had learned by diligent inquiry that her obeisance was hard, the chastity of the priests difficult to keep, and the whole life of them . . . . to be watched and guarded very carefully.” While awaiting the desired privilege, Lucius lived the life of a recluse in the cloisters of the temple, attending reverently on the regular services of worship. Such a novitiate as this was apparently expected of those who desired initiation, and rooms were provided for them in connection with the temple where they lived with the priests in a sort of monastic community. The chief priest, in a kindly manner, restrained the urgency of Lucius “as parents commonly bridle the desires of their children.” He assured him that initiation was no light matter but that “the taking of such orders was like a voluntary death and a difficult recovery to health.” The pontiff urged him to await a sign from the goddess herself, and at the same time gave specific directions as to the preparatory abstinences to be observed. Lucius had not long to wait. In a vision of the night time the expected sign was vouchsafed to him and Mithra, the principal priest of Isis, was assigned to him as a mystagogue.

On the following morning the formal initiation rites began. The great priest produced “out of the secret place of the temple certain books written with unknown characters ... whereby they were wholly strange and impossible to be read by profane people,” and thence he interpreted to Lucius “such things as were necessary to the use and preparation of his order.” At the propitious time after the impartation of this instruction, Lucius, attended by a company of initiates, was brought to the place of baptism, and there, “demanding pardon of the gods,” the priest baptized him and “purified his body according to custom.” Christian writers knew of this Isiac baptism and made plain that a powerful efficacy was credited to it - indeed the selfsame effect of purification from sin and spiritual regeneration that Christians attributed to their baptismal rite. In the thought of the Isiac community, the waters of baptism were identified with the life-giving waters of the sacred Nile and these in turn with the waters of the primordial ocean whence all things, even the gods, had been created. Osiris himself had been reborn, after his passion, from the waters of the Nile. So for the initiate these sacred waters had a life-giving power, and Isiac baptism was in effect regarded as a regenerative rite that meant new life to the one who experienced it.

At the afternoon benediction on the day of baptism, the chief priest imparted to Lucius certain secret instructions and commanded him to observe various abstinences for a period of ten days. The ascetic prescriptions included an abstinence from meat, wine-drinking, and other pleasures of the flesh. Strict chastity was a particular point of insistence. It was this moral requirement particularly that made Lucius hesitate to apply for admission into the Isiac order. It was this requirement of purity also that made the erotic Latin poets rail so loudly against the Egyptian goddess. Plutarch, too, stressed in particular this feature of Isiac discipline. “By means of a perpetually sober life,” he affirmed, “by abstinence from many kinds of food and from sexual indulgence, Isis checks intemperance and love of pleasure, accustoming people to endure her service not enervated by luxury, but hardy and vigorous.” After a ten-day period of ascetic isolation of this kind, Lucius was in an impressionable state, sensitive to the full suggestiveness of the further initiatory rites.

On the tenth day at sunset the initiation was held. After the priest had presented gifts to Lucius according to ancient custom, the laity and the uninitiated were commanded to depart. Then the great priest took the candidate by the hand and led him to “the most secret and most sacred place of the temple” where the initiation ceremony itself took place. Here the curtain falls and Lucius refrains from telling us exactly what happened. He conscientiously kept his vow of secrecy. “You would perhaps demand, studious reader, what was said and done there: truly I would tell you if it were lawful for me to tell; you would know if it were convenient for you to hear; but both your ears and my tongue should incur the like pain of rash curiosity.” The curtain of secrecy, however, is but a thinly drawn veil intended to protect Apuleius and his readers from the charge of sacrilege; for he immediately proceeds to give a general impression of the ceremonies without describing a single rite or repeating a single formula. From this general characterization it is possible to get a fairly definite conception of what took place in the holy of holies of the Isiac sanctuary.

“Understand that I approached the bounds of death, I trod the threshold of Proserpine, and after that I was ravished through all the elements, I returned to my proper place; about midnight I saw the sun brightly shine; I saw likewise the gods celestial and the gods infernal, before whom I presented myself and worshiped them.”

These, figurative words of Lucius, taken in conjunction with the plainer words of the priest who characterized Isiac initiations as “a voluntary death and a difficult recovery of health,” make it practically certain that a ritual death and resurrection were the central features of the initiation ceremony. Since this was an Isiac initiation, the ritual could have been none other than an adaptation of the ancient Osirian rites that in Egypt from antiquity had been practiced on the living Pharaoh, on the mummies of the dead, and on the statues of the god. In remotest antiquity these rites, so the devotees believed, had been efficacious in causing the regeneration of Osiris after his passion; and now they were practiced on the initiate himself that he might realize communion with Osiris in this life and share in his immortality. In the secret of the sanctuary the initiate participated in a repetition of the ancient drama, himself the central figure, the new Osiris whom Isis, by her power, exalted to an immortal regeneration.

Back of Lucius’ figurative language, it is possible to distinguish the main events in the Osirian drama. At the beginning of the ceremony, the initiate approached the bounds of death. In other words, he assumed the role of the dead Osiris over whom the vivifying funeral rites were performed. Osiris, restored to life, had not returned to his earthly kingdom, but had gone to preside over the realm of the dead. So the initiate, having been treated as the dead Osiris and restored to life, “trod the threshold of Proserpine.” As Osiris he made an infernal journey and visited the realms of the departed. The admixture of solar imagery in Lucius’ description should not confuse us. According to contemporary cosmology, the sun each night visited the subterranean regions. In the rite of initiation, therefore, the votary as a new Osiris made both the infernal and the celestial journey like the sun. At midnight he saw the sun brightly shine in the realm of the dead, and likewise he mounted up into the heavens and saw the gods celestial as well as the gods infernal. In doing all this he was but playing the part of the dying and rising god Osiris in the salvation drama of the Isis cult.

It is superfluous to inquire just what tableaus were presented to the eyes of the initiate at this point or how the scenic effects were managed. A first-century imagination, habituated to simple stage effects, and stimulated by fasting, meditation, and special suggestion, was capable of conjuring up very vivid pictures on a comparatively simple basis. This was particularly true in the case of a pious believer like Lucius, with an abundance of faith and a strong predilection for mystical experience. For him the rite of initiation, however managed, had as its central significance a real death to the old mortal life, and a resurrection to a new eternal life, dramatically represented as an Osirian journey to the regions infernal and celestial.

How complete the regeneration effected by initiation was believed to be is suggested by the rites that took place on the following morning. At the conclusion of the usual morning office, Lucius was brought in “sanctified with twelve stoles.” His vestments were of fine linen embroidered with flowers, and from his shoulders there hung down to the ground a precious cope, the “Olympian stole,” covered with symbolical figures. In his hand a lighted torch was placed and on his head a garland of flowers “with white palm branches sprouting out on every side like rays.” Thus clothed, Lucius took his stand on a pedestal in the middle of the temple before the statue of the goddess herself, and when the curtains were drawn aside and he was exposed to public view, the faithful contemplated him with the admiration and devotion due a god. This was essentially a rite of deification, and Lucius with his Olympian stole, his lighted torch, and his rayed crown was viewed as personification of the sun-god. Even without his self-identification, one could easily have guessed it from the garments and emblems he wore, the rayed crown especially. He was now treated as Osiris-Ra, and his apotheosis was a fitting climax to his experiences of the night before when “at midnight he saw the sun brightly shine and saw likewise the gods celestial and the gods infernal.” Lucius was now more than man. Hitherto he had been treated as a human being. Now he was regarded as divine.

His initiation was brought to a close with a sumptuous banquet “celebrating the nativity of his holy order.” The feast was a joyous one like a birthday banquet and, coming at the conclusion of the initiation ceremonies, it served to accentuate the fact that Isiac initiation was believed to effect the complete regeneration of the candidate. If we may take the initiation of Lucius as a representative Isiac initiation of the early empire - and we are certainly justified in so doing - it is clear that from start to finish the initiate was made to feel he was passing through an experience that would transform his very being and make a new man of him. At the outset the priest characterized the rites as a voluntary death and a recovery of health. He assured Lucius specifically that Isis had the power to make men new-born individuals (quodam modo renatos), and thus to set their feet in the way of salvation. The rites themselves were cast in the form of a ritual death and a resurrection culminating in a celestial journey. And finally a birthday banquet marked the conclusion of the ceremonial. Figuratively, the Isiac initiation was represented as a process of regeneration and initiates were referred to as men who had been reborn (renati). This was the regular cult formula. Actually, the rites were believed to accomplish the transformation and divinization of human nature.


What were the main characteristics of the new life induced by this ritual regeneration? In the first place, it was a life of present security lived under the protection of a kindly mother goddess. To her devotees Isis assured long life and happiness here on earth. The goddess said to Lucius in a vision:

“You shall live blessed in this world, you shall live glorious by my guide and protection. And if I perceive that you are obedient to my commandment and addicted to my religion, meriting by your constant chastity my divine grace, know that I alone may prolong your days above the time that the fates have appointed and ordained.”

In order to know what assurance this sense of divine protection gave to the devotees of Isis, one needs only to read the pages of Apuleius or turn to Aristides’ fervid encomium of Serapis. Lucius addressed his goddess as the “holy and perpetual preserver of the human race, always munificent in cherishing mortals.” Similarly, Aelius Aristides, writing after the experience of a shipwreck from which he was saved, as he believed, through the intervention of Serapis, spoke of his god as the one who “purifies the soul with wisdom, and preserves the body by giving it health,” the one who “is adored by kings and private persons, by the wise as by the foolish, by the great as by the small, and by those on whom he has bestowed happiness as well as those who possess him alone as a refuge from their trouble.” The strong fervor of such devout religionists as these leaves no doubt that the experience of Isiac initiation gave real assurance to the devotees of the goddess as they faced the inevitable uncertainties of life.

For the future, initiation meant the certain hope of a happy immortality. Of Serapis the grateful Aristides declared that he was “the savior and leader of souls, leading them to the light and receiving them again … We can never escape his sway, but he will save us and even after death we shall be the objects of his providence.” Apuleius, secure under the present protection of Isis, regarded the future also with equanimity. In his account of the vision which gave to Lucius promise of a happy life here on earth, the author represented Isis as saying to her devotee concerning the future, “When after your allotted space of life you descend to Hades, there you shall see me in that subterranean firmament shining (as you see me now) in the darkness of Ackeron, and reigning in the deep profundity of Styx, and you shall worship me as one who has been favorable to you.”

Again and again on tombs of Isiac initiates this hope of a blessed immortality was recorded. The expression eupsuchei, “be of good courage,” was so often iterated as to become almost a motto of the Isiac religion. In figurative language, the craving for immortality was represented as a thirst for the refreshment of a drink of cold water - a natural metaphor for people living in a hot climate like that of Egypt. “May Osiris give you fresh water,” was a typical prayer which members of the Isis cult inscribed on the tombs of their loved ones. It is hardly necessary to multiply illustrations; for the most indubitable item of Isiac faith was this assurance of immortality. Reborn through the rite of initiation, the mystic believed himself born again to a superhuman life, the immortal life of the gods. Among the various assurances which the Alexandrian religion gave to seekers for salvation in the Roman world, this promise of immortality was most welcome.

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