Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.07

Martin Bommas, Heiligtum und Mysterium. Griechenland und seine ägyptischen Gottheiten. Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie.   Mainz am Rhein:  von Zabern, 2005.  Pp. 138.  ISBN 3-8053-3442-7.  €41.00.  



Reviewed by Peter Nadig, Historisches Institut der RWTH Aachen (cvr@rwth-aachen.de)
Word count: 1723 words

The German Egyptologist Martin Bommas (hereafter B.) has written a highly interesting and stimulating book on the impact of Egyptian deities on Greece and their subsequent adaptation in the Graeco-Roman world. The topographic focus of his study is on the Aegean, where those deities were transformed into the main characters of mysteries. The origins of these mysteries and the relevant literary and archaeological sources concerning them are investigated here. Already in the preface, B. gives a comprehensive introduction to his theme. Mysteries, as he points out, were a Greek invention despite the Egyptian roots of some of these ceremonies. Ritual, initiation, mystery (Geheimnis), myth, and a reference to the hereafter were part of all mysteries. By contrast, genuine Egyptian mysteries lacked the element of initiation. Therefore a personal otherworldly experience in the presence of a god during an initiation ceremony was unthinkable in Egypt. Here the divine could only be encountered in a festival as well as in prayer and death. Becoming an Osiris was therefore the aim of Egyptian funerary rites. On the other hand, the identification with Osiris, the principal deity of the netherworld, was not possible for Greeks, since Greek gods were not dead. In this regard the Isis mysteries provided a loophole: the initiate could become an Osiris in order to be found and saved by the goddess.

The first chapter "Egypt and the Trace of the mysteries" (pp. 5-31) gives a general overlook of Egyptian cults and deities from the Old Kingdom until Roman times that relate to the later Greek and Hellenistic mysteries. A main question concerns their existence in Egypt. B. starts by explaining the Greek word "mysteria" which originally was an umbrella term for several festivities. Herodotus employs this term for the "mysteries" of Eleusis (known since the 8th century BC) and of Samothrace, but also for conditions in Egypt, when he writes of the Sacred Lake of the temple at Sais (II, 171). Yet apparently out of religious awe Herodotus refuses to speak about the deity in that temple and thus uses "mystery" for things holy and hidden. B. clarifies the Greek perspective of the historian, as in Egypt there were no "mysteries" -- in the Greek sense -- and he explains the two Egyptian words for things secret or hidden: 1. "scheta" for secreted objects and certain rituals, and 2. "imn" for the hidden name of the deity. The three writing systems of Egypt posed another mystery for the Greeks. Here B. cites Apuleius' Metamorphoses XI, 22 and the aretalogy of Isis to indicate that Demotic script was of some importance for the mysteries outside of Egypt. A lengthy introduction to the Egyptian festivities for Osiris follows. They were among the most important celebrations since the time of the Middle Kingdom with Abydos as one of its main centers. Little is known of what B. terms the Abydos-mysteries. One aspect of these feasts was an expected advantage in the hereafter by participation in them -- quite similar to what was expected by the celebrants of Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries in later times.

Several subchapters deal with Isis in Pharaonic Egypt, her rites and myths, her role as healer and universal goddess-- especially as patron of seafaring -- as well as her rise in the Graeco-Roman world. Another part of this chapter is about the emergence of Serapis. B. sees this divinity as a new but not newly created god. Already existing or instantaneously developing syncretisms, primarily in the region around Memphis speeded the god's promotion. Here several theological forms of the god Apis can be singled out. A very important one is that of Osiris-Apis (Greek: Osorapis), which refers to the Apis bull who became an Osiris during the annual Sokar-Osiris-festival at the Nile inundation. B. refutes the idea that the name Serapis therefore derives from the Egyptian name Osiris-Apis, but looks for a common link between both deities. Osiris-Apis was an oracular god, whose oracle possibly permitted inquiries by foreigners since Dynasty 26. He suggests that the name Serapis might have derived from the Egyptian verb "sr" (to foretell, to pronounce) and Apis = ser/sarapis (i.e. Apis foretells [oracles]) (p. 25). Since the W of Wsir is not a vowel that can be dropped, Osiris-Apis cannot be the root. So the Egyptian festivals linked both cultures, while Osiris-Apis was aimed at the Egyptians and Serapis at the Greeks. Theologically Serapis could fit in as Apis as the deceased; i.e. Apis turned into Osiris, without being likened to Osiris, who as God of the "Totenreich" lacked the attributes the Greeks desired for this life. Subsequently Serapis could incorporate the aspects of Apis without those of Osiris by becoming a healer/savior-god and ideal replacement for the traditional partner of Isis in her outer-Egyptian presence. The chapter closes with an examination of the mythical background of the Isis-mysteries (Osiris-myth or solar cycle?) and why mysteries were needed. B. cites Plutarch (frg. 168) and Plato (Politeia 330D) to indicate that mysteries were designed to give help against the fear of advancing old age and subsequent death.

A short chapter two (pp. 32-34) outlines the beginnings of the Egyptian cults in the Aegean during the 4th century BC, beginning with Zeus-Ammon and sanctuaries in Piraeus and Halicarnassus.

The first high phase of the cults of Isis spreading in the Aegean (pp. 35-63) in the third century BC -- primarily under the Ptolemies -- is the theme of chapter three. B. investigates several Aegean locations: Eretreia, Thera (the significance of water in Egyptian cults), Thessaloniki, Priene (the introduction of the podium-temple), Cyme, Rhodes, and Delos. A large hymn -- a self-revelation of Isis found in the temple at Cyme -- is cited here. The version of this text was written in the 1st or 2nd century AD, but the Urtext of this aretalogy may date back to the 3rd century BC. The question of how Egyptian floor-plans may have inspired temple designs in the region is also examined.

The fourth chapter deals with the inner-Aegean expansion of Egyptian cults during the second century BC (pp. 64-78). In contrast to the previous century where Egypt was the starting point for the spread of Egyptian cults in the Aegean, most new foundations during that period were modest in size and of private nature. After giving a historical outline B. proceeds to cults in Macedonia (Thessaloniki and Amphipolis), Thessaly (here: Demetrias and Larisa), Boeotia, Thasos, Ionia, and Lydia. The chapter continues with a detailed look at the cults on several islands: Crete (the Isis-mysteries at Gortyn), Chalcis on Euboea, Chios, Samos, and Cyclades (Tinos). B. again turns to Delos, but this time as a base for the spread of Egyptian cults to Italy.

The first century BC -- an age of economic crisis and stagnation (pp. 79-85) is briefly outlined in chapter five. After an introduction to the political background of this period -- mainly the tensions between Rome and the Ptolemies from Ptolemy XI Alexander II until the conquest of Octavian -- B. summarizes the survival of Egyptian cults in that region. One focus is on the periptera-temple on the state market of Ephesus, which might have been a temple for Dionysos-Osiris, though the author doubts that it was used for Mark Antony as Dionysos-Osiris.

The following chapter covers the transition and formation of cults after the Roman annexation of Egypt until the end of the first century (pp. 86-90). The expansion of the cult of Isis had become insignificant at this point -- partly as a result of the economic instability of the previous century. B. does not blame the Roman annexation of Egypt, as the country itself was never a motor for the spread of those cults. Despite Augustus' critical stand on Egyptian religion, his ambition for divinity paved the way for the integration of Egyptian gods into the Roman pantheon under his successors. The chapter closes with a detailed summary of Roman fascination of things Egyptian until emperor Domitian before turning to the post-Hellenistic mysteries.

Chapter seven encompasses the second high phase of the spreading the cults of Isis during the second century AD (pp. 91-120). The attitude of the principate towards Egyptian gods from Domitian onwards often balanced between tolerance and Egyptophilia. The latter found a widespread expression in the cult of Antinoos, the favorite of Hadrian, who was deified after his death in the Nile. In his honour Hadrian even founded the city of Antinoopolis, where this "new" god was worshipped as Osiris-Antinoos. The cults of Isis in Macedonia, Phocis, Boeotia, Korinth [the temple of Kenchreai known as the temple of Isis in Apuleius' Metamorphoses Book 11], and Epidaurus are summarized here. The author also takes a detailed look at the Egyptian cult in Asia Minor, mainly Pergamum and Ephesus.

The decline of the cults of Isis in the 3rd and 4th century AD (pp. 121-132) and the spread of Christianity are the focus of the last chapter. B. begins with the persecution of the Christians during the third century, which peaked in the persecution by Diocletian starting in AD 303. A small paragraph explains the syncretism of Isis and Serapis with other gods and the imperial support of Egyptian deities in the city of Rome. Three examples of the competition between Christianity and the cult of Isis are illustrated in the travels of St. Paul in Macedonia, the sanctuary of Serapis-Helios in Miletus (the last major new foundation), and the transfer to Christian worship at Dion in Macedonia. B. then closes with the Christian persecution of pagan cults by highlighting the closing of the Serapeum in Alexandria, once the origin of the Hellenistic religion of Isis.

The book is designed in the usual fashion of 'Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie' and therefore contains countless and lavish photos of landscapes and objects -- several of which covering full or full double pages --, maps, and line-drawings, which highlight the authors conclusions and interpretations. There is hardly anything left to be desired, and what is there suitably illustrates the various subjects under discussion. The broad spectrum of the author, his use of Egyptian and classical sources -- archaeological and literary -- is to be highly commended. An appendix with a list of abbreviated literature and extensive endnotes concludes the book. Everyone dealing with the subject of Egyptian based mystery religions may benefit from taking a look at Bommas.

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