Egyptomania in Hellenistic Greece. The arrival of Isis in Hellenistic Greece
Photo: Sanctuary of ISIS in Delos
In 332 BC, Alexander the Great marched with his army into Egypt and the country became part of his empire. Through offerings to the local Egyptian gods and Greek gymnastic contests in Egypt, Alexander the Great acted as a reconciler between the Orient and West and as a disseminator of the Greek culture. The Greek city of Alexandria was founded and grew into one of the greatest commercial cities of the Mediterranean.
Through this campaign, and the prosperity the city had to offer, Greeks started to settle in Egypt causing a familiarity between the two cultures. This was increased during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander the Great’s successor that ruled Egypt between 323–285 BC, who tried to merge the two cultures even further by introducing the god Serapis, a deity invented and designed to have both Greek and Egyptian attributes, and therefore appealed to both the Greeks and Egyptians. The god Serapis became associated with the Egyptian goddess Isis and a new religious triad was formed consisting of Serapis, his wife Isis and their son Hippocrates. Due to this new triad, which was formed, Isis was often worshipped alongside Serapis in both Hellenistic Egypt and in Greece.
It is noteworthy that the first Isis temple in Egypt was not constructed until shortly before Egypt fell under Ptolemaic rule. This temple dates to the reign of Nectanebo II (360–341 BC), last native pharaoh of Egypt, who started the construction of an Isis temple in Behbeit el-Hagar in the Nile Delta and which was finished by the Ptolemies. When Egypt had become Ptolemaic, the Isis temple at Philae and the Serapeum at Alexandria were constructed during the reign of Ptolemy III in 247–221 BC.
Long before the Greek conquest of Egypt, from at least the Archaic to the Classical periods, the Greeks already had encountered Isis through trade with Egypt, particularly at Delos which had become an important trading port during the Hellenistic period.
Migrations from Greece to Egypt and of Egyptians to Greece also contributed to a familiarity to Isis in the Greek world. This can also be noted in Herodotus identification of Isis with the Greek goddess Demeter, which suggests that Greeks could recognize their own goddess Demeter in Isis and, through this, the Greeks linked themselves to the Egyptian cultural society.
Consequently, the interactions led to a Greek familiarity with Egyptian religion and that they were able to recognize their own gods in the Egyptian ones. This likely opened the pathway for Egyptian immigrants to start their own private cults in Greece.
The Greek familiarity to Isis led the Greeks to join the cult as well and Isis received an official status in the 3rd century BC which led to the construction of Isis sanctuaries across Greece. The inscription recording the regulations suggests a strong link between Egypt and the cult of Isis in Hellenistic Greece, and that the cult having to be, at least originally, as authentic as possible. Due to this, it is probable to assume the original cult of Isis was founded and performed by Egyptians and that the cult was modelled after Egyptian priestly initiations.
Perhaps the similarities between Isis and Demeter attracted Greeks to the cult, or perhaps Greeks who lived in Hellenistic Egypt brought back the newly founded cult of Serapis.
Apparent from the regulations, however, is that a connection between Egypt and the cult of Isis in Greece was important.
The Hellenistic sanctuaries in Greece a total of eleven Isis sanctuaries were erected in Hellenistic Greece across the Aegean islands, as well as mainland Greece. Out of these eleven sanctuaries one sanctuary dates to 4th century BC, seven to the 3rd century BC, two to the 2nd century BC and only one to the 1st century BC.