Egyptian perspectives: Memphites on the goddess Isis and the origins of civilization among Egyptians (first century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptian perspectives: Memphites on the goddess Isis and the origins of civilization among Egyptians (first century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 24, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=18564.

Ancient authors: Anonymous scribes or priests of Memphis, as well as others who copied or adapted the Memphite inscripton: RICIS 302/0204 = IKyme 41, from Kyme in Aiolis, first century BCE-first century CE (link to Greek); RICIS 113/1201 (supplement I), from Kassandreia in Macedonia, second century CE (link to Greek); IG XII.5 739 (link to Greek) = RICIS 202/180, from Andros island, ca. 31 BCE-14 CE; Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 1.27.3-5, from Nysa in Arabia; RICIS 114/0202 (link), from Maroneia in Macedonia, ca. 100 BCE (link to Greek). Compare the following that are not included here: RICIS 306/0201, from Telmessos, Lycia; RICIS 113/0545 (link to Greek), from Thessalonika, Macedonia; RICIS 202/1101 (link to Greek), from Ios island.

Comments: Several extant inscriptions aimed at outining  the attributes and achievements of the Egyptian goddess Isis (sometimes labelled “aretalogies”) derive directly or indirectly from a single model from Memphis, which would date to the first century BCE or earlier (see Moyer). In its original form (best represented by the Kyme version), Isis is presented speaking in the first person.

This post gathers some of this material together in order to highlight the ways in which such stories of native deities’ accomplishments and benefactions were, in part, a way of asserting the importance of the people who received these very benefits from their own deity. In other words, a superior native deity could serve as a proxy for a superior people, Egyptians in this case. Most importantly, the advancements that Isis brought, including introducing languages, writing, and agricultural production, were brought first to Egyptians themselves. Civilization begins with the Egyptians in this scenario. In this way, stories like this could be used to assert Egyptians’ antiquity and civilizational priority in competition with other peoples who might have similar stories about civilization beginning with them instead (on which see Bel-re’ushu’s Babylonian tale at this link).

At the same time, such originally Egyptian stories could be adapted by still others for quite different purposes. The inscription from Maroneia in Macedonia is the clearest case of cultural appropriation in a way that, in part, downplays the very priority for Egyptians which such hymnic material asserted. In the Maroneia inscription, the local Greek who set up the inscription had modified the sentiment of an Egyptian original in order to have the inscription culminate with Athens itself as a special recipient of Isis’ key benefactions.

Numbers in bolded square brackets refer to item numbers in the most extensive list of Isis’ attributes and achievements in the Kyme inscription. One can then find where items from the Kyme model appear again in other versions.

Works consulted: L. Bricault, Recueil des inscriptions concernant les cultes isiaques (RICIS) (Paris: de Boccard, 2005), also online (link); I. Moyer, “The Memphite Self-Revelations of Isis and Egyptian Religion in the Hellenistic and Roman Aegean,” Religion in the Roman Empire 3 (2017): 318-343 (link); W. Peek, Der Isishymnus von Andros und verwandte Texte (Berlin: Weidmann, 1930).

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Kyme in Asia Minor (first century BCE-first century CE)

Demetrios son of Artemidoros, also called Thraseas, from Magnesia on the Maiander made this dedication to Isis.

[2] This was copied from the monument (stelē) in Memphis which stands in front of the sanctuary of Hephaistos: [3a] I am Isis, (5) the ruler of all the land. [3b] I was educated by Hermes and [3c] I invented with Hermes sacred and public writing in order that everything might not be written in the same script. [4] I laid down laws for men and legislated what no one can alter. (10) [5] I am the eldest daughter of Kronos. [6] I am the wife and sister of king Osiris. [7] I am the one who discovered fruit for men. [8] I am the mother of king Horos. [9] I am the one who rises in the constellation of the Dog. [10] I am the one who is called goddess among women. [11] For me, the city of Boubastis (15) was built. [12] I separated earth from sky. [13] I pointed out the routes of the stars. [14] I arranged the course of the sun and moon. [15] I invented maritime activities. [16] I made justice strong. [17] I united woman and man. [18] I arranged for a woman to bring forth her unborn child into the (20) light after nine months. [19] I legislated that parents should be loved tenderly by their child. [20] I inflicted vengeance on those disposed without natural affection towards their parents. [21] I with my brother Osiris stopped the eating of human flesh. [22] I revealed initiations to men. (25) [23] I taught them to honour the statues of the gods. [24] I built sanctuaries of the gods. [25] I destroyed the government of tyrants. [26] I stopped murders. [27] I compelled wives to be loved by their husbands. [28] I made justice stronger than gold and silver. (30) [29] I legislated that truth should be considered beautiful. [30] I invented marriage contracts. [31] I assigned languages to Greeks and barbarians. [32] I made beauty to be distinguished from ugliness by Nature. [33] I made nothing more to be feared than an oath. [34] I handed over the man who plots unjustly (35) against others into the hands of the person plotted against. [35] I inflict vengeance on those who do unjust things. [36] I legislated for mercy to be shown to suppliants. [37] I have regard for those who defend themselves with justification. [38] On my account justice is strong. [39] I am mistress of rivers, winds and (40) sea. [40] No one is glorified without my consent. [41] I am mistress of war. [42] I am mistress of the thunderbolt. [43] I lull and trouble the sea. [44] I am in the rays of the sun. [45] I concern myself with the course of the sun. [46] Whatever I decide, this also is accomplished. (45) [47] To me all things yield. [48] I release those in fetters. [49] I am mistress of seamanship. [50] I make the navigable unnavigable whenever I decide. [51] I founded the walls and cities. [52] I am the one who is called Law-bringer. [53] I brought up islands out of the depths to the light. [54] I am mistress of storms (inundations?). [55] I conquer fate. [56] It is to me that fate listens. [57] Greetings, Egypt who nurtured me!

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Kassandrei in Macedonia (second century CE)

[The extant portions of this inscription differ from the Kyme version in only the opening dedication and the interposition of a few of the same words]

To good fortune. This was dedicated to Zeus Helios Sarapis and to Isis of countless names.

[2] This was copied from the monument (stelē) in Memphis which stands in front of the sanctuary of Hephaistos. [3a] I am Isis, (5) the ruler of all the land. [3b] I was educated by Hermes [3c] and I invented with Hermes sacred and public writing in order that everything might not be written in the same script. [4] I laid down laws for men and legislated what no one can alter. (10) [5] I am the eldest daughter of Kronos. [6] I am the wife and sister of king Osiris. [7] I am the one who discovered fruit for men. [8] I am the mother of king Horos. [9] I am the one who rises in the constellation of the Dog. [10] I am the one who is called goddess among women. [11] For me, the city of Boubastis (15) was built. [12] I separated earth from sky. [13] I pointed out the routes of the stars. [14] I arranged the course of the sun and moon. [15] I invented maritime activities. [16] I made justice strong. [17] I united woman and man. [18] I arranged for a woman to bring forth her unborn child into the (20) light after nine months. . . [remainder lost]

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Andros island

[This version, which is very difficult to translate, is a more free adaptation and expansion of the Memphite original, but some of the Memphite components are still identifiable].

(column 1) Linen-draped queen of Egypt, who with fruitful furrow cares for the ancient land (aguia), abundant with wheat, both sistrum-bearing Boubastis as well as Memphis, rejoicing in bundles of grain. (5) [2] There, a sacred law from pious kings sat as an immovable monument (stelē), a symbol of your sole queenship.

She addresses the subjects (laoi) who seek help as follows:

“I am Isis of the golden throne, whose sceptre is as strong as the fiery rays of the sun which were beaming on the nourishing land. (10) [3c] I discovered the secret symbols of letters from Hermes, and I engraved them with a stylus with which I carved an awe-inspiring sacred account (logos) for my initiates (mystai). What the people (dēmos) established for their common way of life was precisely woven from the depths of my mind.”

(15) [5] “I am Isis, eldest daughter of the supreme ruler Kronos, [6] most honoured wife of greatly admired Osiris, with whom I formerly delivered the same . . . womb (?) . . . that gave birth to us. I am Isis whose . . . braids of hair (?) . . .  bloom like the vine’s tendrils. I am Isis, whom the towering mind of a king, dreadful Ouranos, (20) helped while still . . . a child (?) . . ., [4] to bring laws to mortals that. . . no foolish thought will destroy (?) . . . [following four lines too fragmentary to translate, but there are references to preventing darkening and forgetfullness; to bearing stars; to illnesses of women, likely healed by Isis]. . . (25) [11] I grew tired . . . Boubastis.”

“I, Isis, in my great wisdom . . .[missing verb] Olympos (?), also darkening the moistened earth. . . . I am the one who likewise (?) . . . determined . . . the seasons (?), . . . [13] delineated a roaming path through the air amidst the . . . stars (?) on high. [14] I guided toward the celestial pole the curve of the angled moon, toward (30) the rays of the sun and Helios of the fiery horses, the leader with shining feet all around, so that through well-ordered courses, their axes may distinguish night from day with a spinning and back-and-forth movement which resounds. [50] I am the one who (35) first granted to men the ability to cross the sea. [16, 28, 38] I am the one who gave strength to justice. [30] I am the one who, at the beginning of the age, gathered woman together with men, and joyously led the newly born baby to the tenth lunar phase, perfect radiance of a flourishing work. (40) [19, 20] I am the one who educated the infants who, still at the breast, honour their parents in fear. With an angry frenzy, I warded off the heartless ones, pushing as far as the dwelling of bellowing Hades and the dark shroud of the pit. (45) [7] I am the guardian over wheat-producing land, [21] for I hate food acquired by the hands of man-destroyers [i.e. man eaters], meat which even bears lurking in their caves detest, meat which the howling wolf, rushing with strong hunger, hesitates. . .” [Column 2, lines 48-137, are too fragmentary to translate but do make reference to: celebrating, a mother devouring something, people with foolish pride, the goddess’ saviour role, the goddess facilitating the growing of the vine, introduction of honours for gods, introduction of marriage, granting of both barbarian and Greek languages, and other contributions of Isis].

(column 4, starting at line 138) “With my brother . . . Helios’ palace . . . and they call me his assistant. Moving through the celestial rings (140), I am carried along by his rays across the dazzling . . . heaven (?).  Whatever plans my mind perceives, I guide it all to completion. Whenever I nod my head, the one with authority bows down and cowers before our royal power. I loosed fate from its bonds.”

(145) “Amphitrite, loving clear weather, floats across the water in her black-prowed ship under the cold, filthy spray, when, with a smile reddening my happy face, I display sea-gray-armed Tethys. In the navigable depths, when my spirit stirs, (150) I rush through the waves on the untravelled, winding route, and I set everything in rapid motion with a dark flow. Pontos in his deep caves, bellows from his shrines. [50] The first on the deck of the boat, I guided the agile ship with swelling sails, riding over the swollen sea. Subduing the sea (155) with swift-flowing oars, Doris’ glorious progeny emitted a whirling chorus. Now my mind shook with amazement, eyes looking around the still unknown beating of oars.”

[4, 52] “I, Isis, surrounded the affluent, law-bringing (thesmophoros) kingdom with a circle of protection against war’s frigid cloud of hardships. (160) From their deep-dug roots, I lifted islands from the sea into light. I even raised mountains and stretched out plains for a foundation of fertile land fit for planting over firmly established heights, . . . pleasant (?) . . . for cattle sheds.”

(165) “Nereus was striking with his trident the roaring flow over the foamy waves, sparkling with foamy flowers, crashing against the even . . . rocks (?) . . . on the shores.  From my dewy brow, I squeeze an abundance of moisture on mother earth, darkening the ripening grape which gives pleasure. . .” [Lines 170-178 are too fragmentary to translate, but there are references to thunder and the Fates.].

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Diodoros of Sicily, Library of History 1.27.3-5 (mid-first century BCE)

(3) Now I am not unaware that some historians give the following account of Isis and Osiris: The tombs of these gods lie in Nysa in Arabia, and for this reason Dionysos is also called Nysaios. In that place there stands a monument (stelē) of each of the gods bearing an inscription in hieroglyphs. (4) The monument of Isis states:

[3a] I am Isis, the queen of every land, [3b] the one who was instructed by Hermes, and [4] whatever laws I have established, these can no man make void. [5] I am the eldest daughter of the youngest god Kronos. [6] I am the wife and sister of the king Osiris. [7] I am the one who first discovered fruits for humankind. [8] I am the mother of Horos the king. [9] I am she who rises in the star that is in the constellation of the Dog. [11] The city of Boubastis built by me. [57] Greetings, greetings, O Egypt that nurtured me.”

(5) And on the monument of Osiris the inscription is said to run:

“My father is Kronos, the youngest of all the gods, and I am Osiris the king, who campaigned over every country as far as the uninhabited regions of India and the lands to the north, even to the sources of the river Ister [Danube], and again to the remaining parts of the world as far as Oceanos. I am the eldest son of Kronos, and being sprung from a fair and noble egg​ I was begotten a seed of kindred birth to Day. There is no region of the inhabited world to which I have not come, dispensing to all men the things of which I was the discoverer.”

(6) This is the part of the inscriptions on the monuments that can be read, they say, but the rest of the writing, which was of greater extent, has been destroyed by time. However this may be, varying accounts of the burial of these gods are found in most writers by reason of the fact that the priests, having received the exact facts about these matters as a secret not to be divulged, are unwilling to give out the truth to the public. They did this on the grounds that perils overhang any men who disclose to the common crowd the secret knowledge about these gods.

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Maroneia in Macedonia (second-first century BCE)

. . . [first three lines very fragmentary]. . . may words of praise not be lacking in the face of the magnitude of your benefaction. Therefore this encomium entreats you, and praise for my face belongs to a goddess, not with a man. So, just as in the case of my eyes, Isis, you listened to my prayers, come for your praises and to hear my second prayer; for the praise of you is entirely more important than my eyes whenever, with the same eyes with which I saw the sun, I see your world. (10) I am completely confident that you will come again. For since you came when called for my salvation, how would you not come for your own honor? So, taking heart, I proceed to what remains, knowing that this encomium is written not only by the hand of a man, but also by the mind of a god. And first I will come to your family, making as the beginning of my praises the earliest beginnings of your family. They say that Ge (Earth) was the mother of all: you were born a daughter to her first. You took Sarapis to live with you, and, when you had made your marriage together, the world, provided with eyes, was lit up by means of your faces, Helios (Sun) and Selene (Moon). So you are two but have many designations among men. (20) For you are the only ones whom everyday life knows as gods. Therefore, how would the account of your praises not be unmanageable when one must praise many gods at the outset?

[3c] She, with Hermes, discovered writing; and of this writing some was sacred for initiates (mystai), some was publicly available for all. [4, 16, 28] She instituted justice, that each of us might know how to live on equal terms, just as, because of our nature, death makes us equal. [31] She instituted barbarian language for some, Greek language for others, in order that humanity might be differentiated not only as between men and women, but also between all peoples. [4] You gave laws (nomoi), but they were called “things laid down” (thesmoi) originally. (30) Accordingly cities enjoyed stability, having discovered not violence legalized, but law without violence. [19, 20] You made parents honored by their children, in that you cared for them not only as fathers, but also as gods. Accordingly, the favor is greater when a goddess also drew up as law what is necessary in nature. [57] As the place where you live, Egypt was loved by you. You particularly honored Athens within Greece. [7] For there first you made the earth produce food: Triptolemos, yoking your sacred snakes, scattered the seed to all Greeks as he traveled in his chariot. Accordingly, in Greece, we are keen to see Athens and in Athens, Eleusis, (40) considering the city to be the ornament of Europe, and the sacred place the ornament of the city. She determined that life should cohere from a man and a woman . . . [remainder lost].

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Source of translations: Translation of the Andros inscription by Harland in consultation with Bricault’s French translation in RICIS 202/180. RICIS 302/0204 from Kyme and RICIS 114/0202 from Maroneia translated by G. H. R. Horsley, ed., New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity (North Ryde, Australia: Macquarie University, 1981), no. 1, reproduced and adapted with his kind permission; C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (copyright not renewed, passed away in 1954), adapted by Harland.

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