Valentine's Day? Isis is *over* it

Updated: Feb 18

Isis was a goddess of love, fertility, marriage, healing, motherhood and more in ancient Egypt. Her cult prospered not only in Egypt but also became popular across the Roman Empire.

To judge by this wonderfully preserved terracotta figurine (or statuette? It's nearly 50 cm tall), Isis wasn't always thrilled with her role. She looks rather grumpy, perhaps because of the heavy headdress - a kalathos - a type of basket used in Greek art to denote fertility and abundance that becomes a common headdress of certain divinities in Egypt in the Greco-Roman period (roughly 330 BCE and later). On the front of the kalathos in relief is a sundisk surrounded by cow horns - a symbol that is typical of Isis in this period, and in earlier periods found on depictions of both Isis and Hathor. Unfortunately the findspot for this particular statuette is unknown, but figurines like this could show up in multiple contexts. We have marriage contracts from the 1st century CE from Egypt that list, among other dowery objects, such statuettes that were be placed among the household gods.

The Met website labels this figurine as "Isis-Aphrodite". The iconography, especially the hairstyle and aforementioned sun disk with cow horns, suggests Isis. The figure's nudity, however, suggests Aphrodite or perhaps better yet Astarte (the latter was frequently depicted in a nude, formal, frontal pose). Both Aphrodite and Astarte were associated with Hathor as well, another Egyptian goddess of love and sexuality, so we shouldn't exclude her either. Conceptions of divinity were very fluid in antiquity, especially in during the Roman Empire, and by the time of the 2nd century CE, Isis, Astarte, Hathor, and Aphrodite had overlapping spheres of power and responsibility. Without a label or further context, we really can't be sure what name(s) the owner used. The 2nd century CE novel Metamorphoses (aka the Golden Ass), by Apuleius, follows the trials and tribulations of Lucius on his quest to learn how to practice magic; along the way he joins the cult of Isis. In Book 11 he makes a last-ditch effort to get the goddess to help him; his prayers reveal that by this time Isis was identified with a number of different goddesses:

"Queen of Heaven, whether you are known as bountiful Ceres, the primal harvest mother, who, delighted at finding your daughter Proserpine again, abolished our primitive woodland diet, showed us sweet nourishment, and now dwell at Eleusis; or heavenly Venus, who at the founding of the world joined the sexes by creating Love, propagating the human race in endless generation, and worshipped now in the sea-girt sanctuary of Paphos; or Diana, Apollo’s sister, you who relieve the pangs of countless childbirths with your soothing remedies, venerated now at Ephesus; or dread Proserpine herself, she of the night-cries, who triple-faced combats the assault of spirits shutting them from earth above, who wanders the many sacred groves, propitiated by a host of rites; oh, light of woman, illuminating every city, nourishing the glad seed with your misty radiance, shedding that light whose power varies with the passage of the sun; in whatever aspect, by whatever name, with whatever ceremony we should invoke you, have mercy on me in the depths of my distress, grant good fortune, give me peace and rest after cruel tribulation." (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, beginning of Book 11)

The blending of different deities' characteristics is prevalent in artistic representations. Here is a more explicit example how the iconography of Isis and Aphrodite can be combined:

Aphrodite of Menophantos, 1st cent. BCE, in the Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Ht. ~1.85 m.

On the left is one of the many so-called "Venus pudica" - "modest Venus" types, which were popular in the Roman period. It is derived from the famous statue of Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles (Aphrodite and Venus of course just being the Greek and Latin names for the same goddess). On the right is a statuette of a goddess employing the Venus pudica type but with more drapery as well as a headdress characteristic of Egyptian Isis: a solar disk on top of two ears of wheat sticking out to the sides, surrounded by two horns and surmounted by two large feathers (sorry the photo is not high resolution). Incidentally, the bronze statuette was not found in Egypt but in Syria, at the site of Amrit, located on the coast of modern day Syria (ancient Phoenicia).

- JN