National Geographic : 1946 Nov
Worship of Isis FOUR TIMES within 10 years the Roman senate issued decrees for bidding the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis and commanding her statues to be overthrown and her shrines razed. Apparently the effort was futile, for, half a century later, the Emperor Augustus and, after him, Tiberius issued orders to suppress the cult. It steadily gained adherents, es pecially among the lower classes. At last, Caligula gave in to the in evitable. In A. D. 38 he decreed that an Isis temple should be built in the Field of M1ars; and later in the century Domitian converted this into one of the most splendid buildings in all Rome. The cult of Isis was there to stay, as long as paganism should last in the world. Whoever served the Greek Olym pian deities or the State divinities of Rome was promised kindly protection during mortal life, but he was given nothing to look forward to after death but wandering bloodless in the cheer less underworld of departed shades. On the other hand, he who faithfully followed Isis was promised immor tality and bodily resurrection like that of the Egyptian god Osiris. Never to die, no longer to be wretched, oppressed, and unhappy! Against a religion that held forth such prospects to its adherents, senate and emperor alike were powerless. The young woman standing on the topmost step in front of the shrine, with a fringed mantle about her shoulders and the sacred cobra on her forehead, is a priestess dressed as Isis. The bowl in her hands contains water from the sacred river, the Nile, and is so holy that even she may not touch it barehanded. On either side of her there stands an attendant priestess shaking the sistrum rattle traditional to this serv ice. At the foot of the stairway, the chief priest with the palm fronds of victory salutes the risen sun, while a woman fans the embers of yesterday's fire into fresh flame upon the altar, and a second priest with wands in his hands leads the singing of the morn ing hymn of adoration. This is the ceremony known as the Awakening of the God. Isis, in the guise of her holy statue, has been sleeping as one dead all night within her closed sanctuary. Now, at the sound of singing and the tinkle of her sacred rattle, she has awakened and stepped forth, in the person of her priestess, to greet the sun and to witness the return of life to her faithful votaries. In the fortunately surviving Latin tale The Golden Ass, more properly entitled Metamorphoses, Apuleius gives a vivid account of Isis worship. He describes a procession at Corinth in honor of the goddess on the annual occasion of the launching of her sacred ship to inaugurate the sailing season. First came the mummers, then a group of maidens dressed in white and strewing flowers. Bands followed, leading white-clad initiates-men and women, old and young, high and lowly -all shaking sistrum rattles. Next marched priests with upper bodies bare, heads shorn, and a sacred mark branded on their foreheads, and behind them elders carrying the tokens of the god-a lamp shaped like a golden boat, altars in miniature, etc. The gods themselves, disguised priests representing Anubis by a jackal's mask and leading a cow to signify Isis, brought up the rear where last of all was borne the Mystic Casket, containing what could not be shown.