"Each part of the world recapitulates, shares in and experiences the history of the world as a whole"
Fernand Braudel

Isis Nursing Horus

datation
664-332 BC
provenance
Nubia
area
period
materials
themes

Motherhood is honoured in most civilizations and images of “mother goddesses” have emerged from the prehistoric times. Among the images that inspired artists, one of the most popular was that of the mother nursing her baby. This statuette of rather coarse craftsmanship, shows the Egyptian goddess Isis in this aspect (Isis Lactans). Her head slightly cramped into her shoulders, Isis is shown seated on an archaic throne and wears a mid-length sleeve, ankle-length dress with bare feet. She wears a heavy wig, showing her ears and with two parts falling onto the chest. A Uraeus is protruding over her forehead. Placed on top of her wig, above of the Uraeus, she wears a round low hat (modius) adorned with Uraei which carries two cow horns enclosing a sun-disk: both are the general attributes of the goddess Hathor. The goddess has her arms folded; the left hand supporting the head of her son Horus sitting on her lap, whilst her right offers her breast to the young god. The child, represented naked, half-sitting half-lying, has his arms along his body and dangles his feet. The attitude of the group is more symbolic than realistic, especially when regarding the child.

From the Late Period and to the Greco-Roman era, numerous statuettes of this type were produced and disseminated far beyond the Nile Valley. Over time, the goddess Isis has become the most popular deity of the Egyptian pantheon. Her role as a faithful wife to Osiris and devoted mother to Horus earned her an exceptional destiny in the Mediterranean world. Protector of women and children, and also in the Ptolemaic period, as protector of sailors under the form of Isis of the Lighthouse of Alexandria (Isis Pharia). Indeed, her cult has spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Shrines dedicated to the goddess, called “Iseum”, have been found from as far as Gaul, Britain, Germany and Spain; and one of the best known is found at Pompeii.

The conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC and the later expansion of Roman territories in the Mediterranean world further strengthened the popularity of Isis worship with striking success. Most of the deities originating from the Orient, such as Osiris, Isis, Serapis, Mithra, and Cybele, appear to have been attractive for contemporaries because of their myths dealing with death and resurrection: themes which are also rooted in the underpinning worship of natural forces incarnated by the seasonal cycle. It is also suggested that the cult of Isis was accepted passionately by the lower classes in ancient Rome who were experiencing the deterioration and subsequent end of the Republic, as it matched the new sensitivity and spiritual needs of the time. Although Christianity was later to triumph in the Mediterranean world, oriental-born religions are considered as its precursors in this slow process of mental change. Like Christianity, most of the oriental-born cults offered individual relationship between the worshipper and the deity, irrespective of their social class, as well as attractive rituals that people of the lower classes could attend.

However, this cult was not confined to the lower classes since Roman emperors such as Caligula or Caracalla were also devoted to the cult or consecrated a temple.

In Nubia, Isis was integrated to the Meroitic Pantheon and one finds her image not only on walls of temples next to sovereigns but also in private funerary monuments. Further, she was also revered by the Nubians as the queen-mother. The worship of Isis began in the Meroitic period and extended into the X-Group. In many portraits of contemporary Nubian rulers, they are portrayed with the image of Isis.

The Cult of Isis continued late into the temple of Philae, particularly because of the popularity enjoyed by the goddess among the Nubian population, while Christianity was already reigning in Egypt. The temple will not be closed until the reign of Emperor Justinian in the middle of the 6th century AD. Later, representations of Isis suckling inspired the representation of Virgin and Child, the most common theme in Christian art.

The popularity of the Cult of Isis bears testament to the vibrant and cosmopolitan culture where people from different regions of the Mediterranean world found spiritual satisfaction in venerating the same deity.

see also