The Roman Empire was constantly in motion. People, products, and ideas crisscrossed the Mediterranean at what must have seemed like lightning speed. One of these ideas was the worship of the Egyptian gods Isis and Sarapis, which first appeared in Greece in the late 4th century BCE. By the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), sanctuaries to the Egyptian gods had popped up in most of the Empire’s cities. Scholars like MJ Versluys and Caitlìn Barrett have seen the rise of these cults and the spread of Egyptian iconography as an instance of ancient globalization: a moment in which Egyptian religion becomes available across the Mediterranean world.
How did Isis and the other Egyptian gods get to Greece? The answer may lie in a long poem carved into a pillar on the sacred island of Delos. This hymn, often called the Chronicle of Sarapieion A, was found inside a small sanctuary dedicated to Sarapis. The early 3rd century BCE text describes how a priest from Memphis named Apollonios brought the cult from his homeland and founded it anew on Greek soil. According to the story, Apollonios received a command from the god Sarapis and brought the cult, with all its Egyptian customs, with him to Greece. When Apollonios died, his son Demetrios took over the priesthood and passed it on to his son, the second Apollonios. This second Apollonios then recounts how he built a new Sarapis sanctuary on land revealed to him in an oracle but faced legal opposition from outside enemies. Miraculously, Sarapis intervened and helped his devotees win in court.
The resistance Apollonios faced gestures towards the limits of global spread. Paradoxically, globalization also breaks apart cultures and groups. Though we often think of standardization as a key part of globalization, individual communities respond to new cultural ideas differently. My book, Isis in a Global Empire, examines how Greek devotees received, translated, and transformed Isis. Exploring a range of sculptural, architectural, literary, and epigraphic evidence, I argue that Greek devotees reformulated Egyptian deities by placing Isis and her companions deep into Greek myth-history, recreating the Nile within their sanctuaries, and depicting Egyptian deities in Greek artistic styles and materials. Their changes allowed devotees to identify closely with Isis, to the point that some devotees even dressed as the goddess in their funerary portraiture.
The result, I argue, was a novel form of minority Greek identity, one that looked outward into the Mediterranean and deep into the mythical past for definition. We can see this strategic adaptation in a later hymn dedicated to Isis in the 1st century BCE city of Maroneia in Thrace. That text offers a detailed account of Isis’ familial relationships, her powers, and her relationships with both Greece and Egypt. In that text, Isis is described as the daughter of Cronus, which would make her the sister of Olympian deities like Zeus and Hera. She is also credited with the signature achievements of gods like Athena (devising justice) and Hermes (inventing writing). Most importantly, the last preserved part of the hymn credits her with spreading agriculture throughout Greece via her relationship with the hero Triptolemos. This myth would place her in the center of one of Demeter’s key stories, first outlined in the writings of the 8th century BCE author Hesiod and celebrated in Demeter’s mystery rites at Eleusis. These texts, then, rewrite some of the foundational myths and characters of Greek literature and religion to insert Isis at the very center.
Link 1: (“Chronicle of Sarapieion A”): https://epigraphy.packhum.org/text/63784?&bookid=17&location=1699
Link 2 (“Maroneia in Thrace”): http://philipharland.com/greco-roman-associations/aretalogy-of-isis-mentioning-initiates-ii-i-bce/