Egyptianism Appropriating "Egypt" in the "Isiac Cults" of the Graeco-Roman World Articles uri icon

publication date

  • December 2018

start page

  • 571

end page

  • 606


  • 1-4


  • 58

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0044-5975

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1588-2543


  • When dealing with Isis, Serapis and the other members of the so-called 'gens isiaca', scholars have hesitated whether to emphasize their (indisputable) historico-geographic origin in the Nile valley or their (no less indisputable) character as Graeco-Roman cults. We thus find these deities referred to as 'Egyptian', 'Graeco-Egyptian', 'Graeco-Roman', 'Greek', 'Roman' and, again, 'Oriental', 'Orientalized Roman', and so on. Each of these definitions is evidently partial, which is one reason for the growing preference for the less specific terms 'Isiac gods' and 'Isiac cults'. Yet even these elide the problem of how these cults were perceived in relation to Egypt. This article aims to challenge the terms of the conventional dichotomy between Egyptian and Graeco-Roman, by exploring the many specific contexts in which 'Egypt' was appropriated, for example, by institutions, intellectuals (e.g. 'Middle-' and Neo-Platonists), Christian apologists, late-antique encyclopedists, etc. Starting with the comparandum 'Persianism' recently highlighted in relation to the cult of Mithras, the paper will explore the various interests and aims involved in the construction of ideas of Egypt, which might even involve more than one 'Egyptianism' at the same time. Each of our nine suggested 'Egyptianisms' is the creation of numerous 'producers', who adapted what they knew of 'Egypt' ('foreign', 'exotic', 'other') to create their own religious offers. Our basic model is derived from the Erfurt project Lived Ancient Religions, which inverts the usual representation of ancient religion as collective ('polis religion', 'civic religion') in favour of a perspective that stresses individual agency, sense-making and appropriation within a range of broader constraints.