Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.31

Reinhold Merkelbach, Isis regina - Zeus Sarapis. Die griechisch-aegyptische Religion nach den Quellen dargestellt. Stuttgart-Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1995. Pp. xxviii, 722, 9 colour plates, 35 drawings, 252 figures. DM/SFr. 245. ISBN 3-519-07427-3.

Reviewed by Reviewed by Angelos Chaniotis, Classics, New York University,

For a long time the study of Greek and Roman religion, especially in Germany, was characterized by the optimistic view that free of theoretical preconceptions and through an analysis of all surviving sources -- including survivals of ancient religious practices in European folklore -- one can penetrate 'the ancient mind' and comprehend what the Greeks and Romans felt and thought when they were worshipping their gods. The representatives of this scholarship -- among them great scholars, like Ulrich von Wilamowitz, Otto Kern, Karl Kerenyi, and Walter Otto -- could still justify their optimism with their exemplary, intimate knowledge of the source material, whether Greek, Latin, Oriental, or Egyptian. Epistemological developments, i.e., a more vivid preoccupation with questions of method and with interpretative models, along with an advancing specialization, sometimes accompanied by a deterioration of the knowledge of the diverse sources, has almost eclipsed this approach. Reinhold Merkelbach's discussion of the Egyptian cults in the Graeco-Roman world has a strong affinity with this scholarship of the first half of the century, not only because of the superb knowledge of the evidence manifest in the book, but also because of the straightforward, often aphoristic, manner of the presentation, the lack of a monumental apparatus of footnotes, and the audacious, sometimes too confident, attempt to put the countless tiny, seemingly insignificant fragments of evidence together in a coherent and harmonious, sometimes too coherent and harmonious, mosaic. In this book the author of both insightful and provocative contributions to the study of Graeco-Roman religion1 epitomizes the results of enquires over the past 35 years. The form of the presentation resembles an exegetikon, written not by a scholar who constructs a chain of arguments, but by a mystagogos who shares the secrets of his initiation into the world of the Hellenistic and Roman paganism with others.

The book opens with a general introduction to the Egyptian myths of Isis and Osiris and related Near Eastern and Greek traditions, i.e., the myths of Adonis, Kybele, Attis, Demeter, and Kore (pp. 3-55). The first part of the book (pp. 59-331) is a synthesis of what M. infers from the literary, papyrological, epigraphical, and iconographical sources about the cult of Isis and Sarapis from the dawn of the Hellenistic age to the end of paganism (ca. 300 BCE-400 CE). Finally, in the second part (pp. 335-484) M. elaborates upon his well known theory of the religious origin and function of ancient novels, interpreting several novels (Xenophon's Ephesiaca, Achilleus Tatius' story of Leukippe and Cleitophon, the Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri, and Apuleius' Metamorphoses) as religious texts closely connected with the Egyptian mysteries.

Although the two parts are closely connected -- the reconstruction of numerous rituals is based on information supplied by the novels, and, vice versa, the religious interpretation of the novels is supported by the analysis of the worship of Isis and Sarapis -- the first, and in my view most important, part of the book can be read separately.

This first part is a detailed and systematic description of the myths and rituals associated with the Egyptian gods among the Greeks and the Romans, from Herodotus to the destruction of the Serapeum at Alexandria (391 CE). In 160 small chapters M. illuminates a variety of aspects of the Egyptian cults using the numerous, random, ambiguous, and occasionally contradictory pieces of evidence. The subjects discussed include the deities and their myths, the relevant religious literature (the 'self-manifestations' of Isis, prayers, aretalogies, hymns, and texts related to the initiation of priests), the rituals, the sanctuaries, the cult personnel, the cult paraphernalia, the initiation ceremonies, divination and religious healing, the diffusion of the Egyptian cults,2 and their development (philosophical interpretation and remodeling, regression, destruction). The description is clear, written in a simple, straightforward style. Although M. did not intend to write a source-book, the reader is grateful that the main sources are given both in the original and in translation.3 Problems of interpretation are often (not always) stated, parallels for important religious phenomena are provided, though not consistently,4 and the discussion is supplemented with a basic (not full) bibliography.5 Most of all, M. should be praised for his effort to enrich the volume with references to the iconographical and archaeological evidence. The abundant illustration, with excellent photographs (9 of them in colour), and with very informative descriptions of the objects, buildings, and topographical plans render the volume a valuable tool for any student or teacher of ancient religion.

Here, I can only give only a few examples of M.'s numerous original contributions to the understanding of the Egyptian cults. Scholars interested in the role of 'performance' will certainly welcome his remarks on the use of 'theatricality' in the worship of Isis. Time and again M. draws attention to the representation of myths in small ritual plays, the impersonation of the gods by the priests, and the use of theatrical devices and machines in initiation rituals (esp. pp. 329-331, 342-347; cf. pp. 70, 96, 103, 211, 274, 283-286, 300f., 335, 338, 370, 572, 630, 661, 687).6 He detects reflections of initiatory practices in literary texts; declarations of innocence in Roman elegy (Lygdamus 5,1-14; 4,13-16; Tib. I 3,51-52; I 2,81-84), e.g., should be seen against a possible Egyptian religious background (p. 258), exactly as a passage in Menander's Dyskolos (ll. 765-770) probably reflects the tests initiates had to endure in initiatory rituals (p. 164 note 2). In another case M. uses a variety of sources (myths, a sarcophagus from Aricia, and several passages in novels) to reconstruct a "Sargritual", in which the initiate was originally dressed as a mummy or buried in a sarcophagus and then brought back to life (pp. 295, 328f., 571, 630f., 683, 743). M also convincingly associates a series of magical papyri with the cult of Isis and Sarapis7 and offers a convincing interpretation of a papyrus in Berlin (D.L. Page, Select Papyri, no. 96), which contains an aretalogy of Sarapis (pp. 217-219). The chapter dedicated to the initiation of Lucius in Apuleius' Metamorphoses (pp. 266-303) is full of original remarks, especially on parallels between the ceremonies described by Apuleius and other initiatory practices; the transformation of Lucius into a donkey, e.g., finds a striking parallel in a custom attested in various Christian communities: before the baptism the person had to wear a cilicium (the skin of a he-goat), a symbol of evil (p. 487); the mention of a threshold in the context of initiation (Metamorph. p. 283, 4-7: inferum claustra, finitae lucis limine) reminds of the role of the threshold of the underworld in 125th chapter of the Book of the Dead (p. 514); the hobbling of an initiate (Metamorph. p. 288,14-21) is a religious sign (p. 299 note 1 with parallels). Also notable are M.'s remarks on the Egyptian funerary rituals and the function of the door in ch. 25 of the Book of the Dead and his insightful remarks on the ancient notion of myths (pp. 25, 32, 38, 63).

The second part of the book is devoted to a thesis, first developed by K. Kerenyi and later elaborated by M., that the literary genre of the novel has its roots in aretalogies (p. 403); according to M. the stories of the aretalogists, originally narrated orally, were finally fixed in written form and read out; the recitations of professional aretalogists and the reception of their stories by their audiences contributed to the wide diffusion of their themes, which could reappear in different contexts and in many variations. Novels such as the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, Xenophon's Ephesiaka, the story of Leukippe and Kleitophon of Achilleus Tatios, and the Historia Apollonii regis Tyri were written for the worshippers of the Egyptian gods (p. 335). M. supports this view by pointing to the evidence for an allegorical interpretation of simple narratives in antiquity (pp. 336-339). He argues that the aforementioned works, too, should be read on two levels, the simple, unpretentious level of the narrative ("Oberflächesinn") and the allegorical level of the ritual ("Hintersinn", p. 335). On the narrative level, e.g., the story of Leukippe and Kleitophon evolves in three stages: a) The flight of the couple is followed by a series of adventures, a shipwreck, the capture of the heroes by pirates, the ostensible killing and mumification of Leukippe, the attempt of Kleitophon to commit suicide, and his rescue through the flood of the Nile. b) When arriving at Alexandria Leukippe is abducted by bandits and apparently decapitated, while Kleitophon is wounded on the thigh (like Adonis). c) Finally, in Ephesos, Kleitophon is first condemned to death for a murder he did not commit and then released, while Leukippe successfully passes a test of virginity. On the religious level these three stages of the story correspond to three stages of initiation. From the fact that the two heroes narrated their story in temples, M. extrapolates that these novels had their roots in real narratives of this type (p. 395). The evidence collected by M. for the role of short ritual plays, which imitated the peripeteias of Isis (Plut., de Iside 27: MIMH/MATA TW=N TO/TE PAQHMA/TWN), implies that during the initiation parts of the myths related to Isis were performed (p. 340). M., furthermore, isolates a long series of standard episodes and themes, which appear in the novels, and links them with motifs known from the myths of Isis (pp. 341-346): the heroes are drowned and resuscitated or buried in sarcophagi and brought back to life like Osiris; they are constantly searching for their loved ones like Isis; they face lawsuits like Horus (against Seth). Other typical scenes and motifs include the rescuing flood of the Nile, the travels on sea, shipwrecks, the assimilation of death and marriage, the unexpected rescue from dangers. Many elements are reminiscent of initiatory practices, such as the acceptance of new names and clothes, the participation in a common banquet, the role of oracles, the repeated tests, the silentium mysticum, and the use of a vocabulary borrowed from mystery cults (e.g., the words QA/RSEI, EU)QU/MEI, etc.). Furthermore, M. points to the setting of the novels: parts of the stories take place in temples; the cities mentioned in the novels are sacred places of Isis (Alexandria, Memphis, Koptos), others are cult centers of divinities which have at some point been assimilated with Egyptian deities (Artemis of Ephesos with Isis, Helios of Rhodes with Heliosarapis, Adonis and Astarte of Phoenicia with Osiris and Isis respectively); other places can be understood as symbols: the sea is a symbol of the dangers of life, the prison a symbol of the body (prison of the soul), the garden a symbol of harmony and order. Finally, the novels of Xenophon of Ephesos and the Historia Apollonii were deposited in libraries of temples, exactly as aretalogies or narratives of miracles (p. 220, 342). In more than 140 pages M. elaborates this idea with a meticulous analysis of the four novels.

This part of the book is full of stimulating remarks, which will be appreciated even by those who are reluctant to accept M.'s general interpretation of the novels. Among the gems of philological analysis hidden in this voluminous book I single out M.'s remarks on the aretalogical character of the episode of Habrokomas' rescue through the flood of the Nile (p. 599), on the parallels between the fables of the lion, the cock, the elephant, and the mosquito and Proclus' PERI\ TH=S I(ERATIKH=S TE/XNHS, VI 150, 7 ed. Bidez (p. 620), on the significance of the myths of Andromeda and Prometheus for the mysteries of Isis (p. 626), and on the letter written by Leukippe to Kleitophon, which -- with its series of asyndeta -- imitates the style of pass-words of mystai (p. 649, cf. p. 663).

Merkelbach's interpretation of the novels as mystery texts is not new. When this view was first presented 30 years ago, it faced a radical and almost unanimous rejection, although it has never been fully refuted with conclusive arguments.8 As Roger Beck has put it in a recent discussion of the relations between aretalogy and novel, "it is a difficult hypothesis to disprove because refutation involves establishing a set of essentially negative facts, that the "apparent deaths" in which the novels abound are not initiation experiences, that the pirates and brigands who fill their pages are not disguised fellow-initiates putting one to the test, and so on".9 The very premise of M.'s theory, i.e., that the novels are codified texts, with code-names ("Decknamen"), code-words, code-motifs, and riddles, makes its refutation practically impossible, since doubts concerning this approach can be easily dispensed with as failures to understand the code. Starting from this premise M. can argue, e.g., that Apuleius' introductory words (iam haec equidem ipsa vocis immutatio desultoriae scientiae stilo quem accessimus respondet. Fabulam Graecanicam incipimus. Lector intende: laetaberis) prepare his reader for the religious significance of the novel: "I will write in such a manner, that I will jump from one level of meaning ('Sinnesebene') to another; the reader should pay attention to which level is meant; he will enjoy decoding the various meanings" (p. 420).10 In order to disprove this assertion, one must exclude the possibility that Apuleius was writing in a code, which is virtually impossible.

The new book will not change things radically, particularly since M. does not confront directly the objections raised by his critics. Of course, today no scholar can seriously dispute the existence of a (or any) religious background in the novels, and this is certainly M.'s major contribution. In fact, a recent book by Carl C. Schlam even comes very close to M.'s views, in regarding Apuleius' Metamorphoses a work which concerns salvation through initiation into the mysteries of Isis.11 On the other hand, neither the evident religious background nor the striking similarities between the structure and the motifs of the novels and what we know or suspect about the worship of Isis automatically justifies the inference that the novels were written by initiates for perspective initiates. Therefore, M.'s view will continue to excite the controversy the author himself must have expected; how else can we explain the words which open the second part of the book? A)EI/SW CUNETOI=SI ("I will sing for those who will understand").

The worship of Isis and Sarapis in the Hellenistic and Roman World is anything but a neglected aspect of ancient religion, and not only the simple initiates into these studies but also the most faithful devotees of this subject find it difficult to keep track of the bibliography (12). It is equally difficult to find short discussions of the cults of Isis and Sarapis, which give a good picture of the sources, present the current status of the research, and state the problems of interpretation. Because of its size, its high (but in view of the abundant illustration not unreasonable) price, but also because of its provocative views, Merkelbach's book will not replace the books of R.E. Witt (Isis in the Graeco-Roman World, London 1971) and F. Solmsen (Isis among the Greeks and Romans, Cambridge, MA. 1980) as an introductory textbook. The value of the volume lies in the courageous effort to compile a coherent synthesis on a subject which has baffled generations of scholars, in the abundance of extremely instructive illustrations, in the countless original contributions, and in the bold interpretations which will stimulate current discussions on the mystery cults and the ancient novels.


1. I single out: Roman und Mysterium in der Antike, Munich-Berlin 1962; Isisfeste in griechisch-römischer Zeit. Daten und Riten. Meisenheim 1963; Die Hirten des Dionysos. Die Dionysos-Mysterien der römischen Kaiserzeit und der bukolische Roman des Longus, Stuttgart 1988; Abrasax I-III: Ausgewählte Papyri religiösen und magischen Inhalts, Opladen 1990-1992 (together with M. Totti).

2. On this subject see now S. A. Takács, Isis and Sarapis in the Roman World, Leiden 1994.

3. In a few cases M.'s translations are, however, disputable. EU)YU/XEI means "have courage" and not "breathe well (p. 36: "atme wohl"). I am not persuaded that M.'s translation of the well-known formulation of Julian (Or. IV p. 175 Hertlein) EI(=S ZEU/S, EI(=S A)I/DHS, EI(=S H(LIO/S E)STI SA/RAPIS as "Zeus, Hades, Helios sind in Einem Gott Sarapis" is preferable to the alternative "Zeus, Hades, and Helios Sarapis are one" (another alternative being "there is one Zeus, one Hades, one Helios Sarapis"); at any rate, the matter required some discussion (see most recently H. S. Versnel, Ter Unus. Isis, Dionysos, Hermes. Three Studies in Henotheism, Leiden 1990, pp. 232-237). M. follows the communis opinio (and the explanations of ancient commentators) that the epithet of Demeter Thesmophoros derives from thesmos, meaning "custom" (p. 52: "Bringerin der Gesetze"); however, this meaning of thesmos has been contested with strong arguments, e.g., by L. Deubner, Attische Feste, Berlin 1966 (2nd edition), p. 44f. (thesmoi = "things laid down"); cf. E. Simon, Festivals of Attica, Madison 1983, p. 19.

4. One regrets the omission of parallels, e.g., with regard to the association of wedding and initiation (p. 315) and the change of clothes in initiatory ceremonies (p. 526)

5. One is willing to overlook the lack of bibliography in the incidental reference to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (p. 93; see, e.g., the useful volume edited by H. P. Foley, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Princeton 1994), but omissions of bibliography are more regretable in the discussions of ancient pilgrimages in Egypt (pp. 178-187; see, e.g., E. Bernand "Pèlerins dans l'Égypte grecque et romaine", in M.M. Mactoux and E. Geny (eds.), Mélanges Pierre Lévêque. I. Religion, Paris 1988, 49-63.), the worship of the Nile (p. 196; cf. now D. Bonneau, "Continuité et discontinuité notionale dans la terminologie religieuse du Nil d'après la documentation grecque", in N. Fick and J.-C. Carrière (eds.), Mélanges Étienne Bernand, Paris, 1991, 23-35), the introduction of Isis' cult in Athens (pp. 121f.; see now R. R. Simms, "Isis in classical Athens", ClJ 84, 1988/89, pp. 216-221), or Hermes Trismegistos (pp. 453, 539ff.; see now G. Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, Princeton 1993). M.'s discussion of the Greek "Offenbarungsreden" of Isis (M. correctly avoids the misleeding term "aretalogies" or "hymns") would certainly have profitted from the study of H.S. Versnel "Isis, una quae es omnia" (Versnel pp. 39-95.) and L. V. Zabkar's analysis of the relation between the hieroglyphic hymns to Isis at Philai (3rd cent. BCE) and the Greek 'aretalogies' of Isis (Hymns to Isis in Her Temple at Philae, Hanover-London 1988, pp. 135-160.). M. underlines the Greek elements in these religious texts (p. 113, 119), although abkar has argued that the author of the original Greek composition derived a strong Egyptian element from sources easily accessible to him, like the hymns of Philai, translated some Egyptian phrases into Greek, and added typical Greek statements. M. probably could not take notice of F. Perpillou-Thomas, Fêtes d'Égypte ptolémaique et romaine d'après la documentation papyrologique grecque, Louvain 1993 and F. Coarelli, "La pompa di Tolemeo Filadelfo e il mosaico nilotico di Palestrina", Ktéma 15, 1990 [1994], 225-251. Coarelli argues that the representation of Alexandria in the mosaic of Praeneste, found in a shrine of Isis Fortuna, is related to the celebration of the Ptolemaieia.

6. The ritual plays, with the help of which the initiates experienced both the pains and the relief of initiation, bring to my mind the staging of a 30-minute trip into Hell-House in several Christian churches at Halloween (see New York Times, Sunday, October 27, 1996): the visitors are led through the Hell-House, where the torments of the 'faithless' (HIV positive homosexuals, abortionists, drug-addicts, etc.) are represented by hired actors. After this theatrical experience of hell, "suddenly, an angel appears and guides the visitors to the final room, which has soft lighting and music and sweet-smelling pot-pourri. This is Heaven, and God calls out: 'I so loved you that I gave my only begotten son'." Finally, the visitors sign cards proclaiming: "Tonight I have asked Jesus Christ into my life for the very first time." I am afraid that some ancient reports leave little hope that the ritual plays of the Isis worshippers were less insipid than their modern counterparts.

7. These magical papyri have already been discussed by M. and M. Totti in their collections Abrasax I-III: Ausgewählte Papyri religiösen und magischen Inhalts, Opladen 1990-1991: Abrasax I pp. 4, 20-34, 104-115, 127-222; Abrasax II pp. 56-76.

8. The basic problems of M.'s view are discussed by I. Stark, "Religiöse Elemente im antiken Roman", in H. Kuch (ed.), Der antike Roman, Berlin 1989, pp. 135-149, and R. Beck, "Mystery Religions, Aretalogy, and the Ancient Novel", in G. Schmeling (ed.), The Novel in the Ancient World, Leiden 1996, pp. 131-150.

9. Beck p. 147.

10. Apuleius' prologue and its relation to the rest of the book has been given considerable attention recently. To the works cited by M. one should add S.J. Harrison, "The Speaking Book: The Prologue to Apuleius' Metamorphoses", CQ 40, 1990, 507-513; A. Laird, Fiction, Bewitchment, and Story Worlds: "The Implications of Claims to Truth in Apuleius", in: C. Gill and T.P. Wiseman (eds.), Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, Austin 1993, 156-161.

11. The Metamorphoses of Apuleius: On Making an Ass of Oneself, Chapel Hill-London 1992. Cf. also J.R. Morgan's cautious appraisal of the views expressed in M.'s Roman und Mysterium, in J.R. Morgan and R. Stoneman (eds.), Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel on Context, London-New York 1994, p. 8.