Fashioning Isis: Continuity and Change in Isis’ Dress Across Greece and Egypt

Throughout Ancient Egypt and Hellenistic Greece, the image of Isis was often invoked in funerary practices to ensure her benevolence in the afterlife. While some scholars have argued that “the form in which Isis was represented in art shows little material variation, and naturally is more Egyptian in character,”[1] in fact depictions of Isis varied greatly. An image of Isis from old kingdom Egypt looks very different from Isis on Grave stelae on the third century BC at Athens. This exhibit will compare the depictions of Isis in mortuary artistic works throughout Egypt and Greece with the hopes of elucidating some of the larger, more widespread beliefs about the afterlife in these societies. Inspired by middle-range theory, this exhibit attempts to  draw out some of the cultural values that might be gleaned from this archaeological evidence. Although images of Isis varied widely, there were certain symbols present on images of her that identified her. This exhibit will look  at uniformity and discontinuity in the fashioning of Isis: through her dress, hairstyle, and accessories. Many of these stylistic traits bore significance for Isis’ relationship to death and the afterlife. An understanding of the meaning behind the stylizations of Isis will help us understand not only the visual culture of Egyptian and Greek funerary belief, but funerary belief of these societies in general.

The knot in Isis’ dress is a near-universal characteristic in the images that depict her. In Egyptian depictions of Isis at burial sites, she is almost always depicted with a white dress and a knot beneath her bosom, which was often called the “isis knot” or the tyet. Figure 1 shows Isis, depicted in the book of the dead, with a tie at her waist. As Elizabeth Walters points out in her study on Attic Grave Reliefs, though, Greek depictions of Isis from the Hellenistic period also contained the knot below the breast in near universality[2]. Although other aspects of the depiction are quite different- the drapery and realism is distinctly Classical- the knot below the breast identifies the female figures as Isis. Although the knot takes different stylistic form, the ubiquity of the knot below the breast indicates that it was a symbolic form. The overlap of this symbol from Greece to Egypt is significant. The symbol in Egypt was explicit- the tyet was a symbol that carried meaning for Isis’ role in the afterlife. It is often translated to mean “welfare” or “eternal life.”[3] Indeed, Isis’ role in both the cults of Egypt and Greece dealt with welfare and eternal life.[4] Her worship in Greece promised its initiates eternal life after death, and in Egypt her image was invoked to promise a happy afterlife for eternity. The continuity of this knot, then, is perhaps a symbol of the continuity of this particular value in Isiac worship.

Figure 1: Isis, with Knot at Waist,  Book of the Dead
UC Davis Online Image Archive

Certain aspects of depictions of Isis were uniquely Egyptian, however, and represented uniquely Egyptian values. Figures 2 and 3 are reliefs of Isis at a funerary Chapel at Abydos. They show both the vulture crown with the throne symbol on top, and the crown of horns with a sun-disk in the middle. These headdresses both carry symbolic meaning that will illuminate our understanding of Isis’ role in the afterlife in Egypt. The headdresses, as Melissa Mair has pointed out in her study of the evolution of Isis iconography, were uniquely political In Egypt. The throne headdress was meant to indicate Isis’ status as Queen of Egypt. In both of these images from Abydos, we see feathers, too, adorning Isis’ headdress. Lucia Birnbaum has indicated that this represents the Egyptian concept of Ma’at, which was absent in Greek religion[5]. The throne headdresses, though not absent in Greek depictions, are much smaller and are often more agricultural in nature.[6] This is perhaps because of Isis’ association with demeter in Greece.  In Egypt, Isis was closely associated with royalty and Egyptian unification. However, as Yves Bonnefoy points out in his Encyclopedia entry on Isis, this characteristic was absent in understandings of Isis in the Graeco-Roman world[7]. Finally, Melissa Mair has given meaning to the sun-disk in Isis’ headdress of horns and a sun-disk as being directly related to the Egyptian concept of rebirth and regeneration. In all of these ways, aspects of Isis’ headdress as she is depicted in Egyptian iconography represent uniquely Egyptian themes.

Figure 2: Isis at Abydos with Sun-Disk Crown
1304 B.C., Dyn. XIX

Source: Artstor

Figure 3: Isis at Abydos at the Chapel of Seti I, wearing throne-crown.14th C BC.
Source: Artstor

 

Other aspects of Isiac iconography, however, are distinctly Greek and represent Greek ideals and traditions. Figure 4 shows a statue of Isis from Hellenistic Athens, and Figure 5 shows a late-Hellenistic athenian Isis. As communication increased between Greek and Egyptian society, overlap in religion allowed Isis to take on a new meaning for the Greeks around the third century BC. Hellenistic depictions of Isis are characterized by a more naturalistic treatment of her features. The style of the hair, in particular, was different: curly hair instead of the egyptian wig. Walter suggests, though, that the hair had symbolic meaning as well: she argues that the long hair represented the mourning locks, which were typical of the mourning rituals of Greek ceremony. Mourners would perform elaborately to display their grief at the death of a loved one[8]. Furthermore, the ears of corn held in figure 5 were characteristic of the Greek association of agriculture and the afterlife, particularly evident in the cult of Demeter [9]. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the corn becomes a symbol of human survival after death [10]. “a corn of wheat fall in to the ground and die, it abideth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” [11] These associations with agriculture and the afterlife would not have been present in Egyptian depictions of Isis because of this lack of mythological association.

Figure 4: Cultic Grave depiction of Isis from Hellenistic Athens,
3rd C BC
source: Walters

Figure 5: Depiction of Isis on Grave Stela, 2nd C BC
Source: Dion Museum (dated here)

This exhibit has attempted to highlight some of the details that are often overlooked in the varying depictions of Isis. Her imagery was not, as some have claimed, stable. In fact, the details of her representations, when closely analyzed, can be used to discuss larger themes in Greek and Egyptian funerary practice.


[1] Hastings, James, John A. Selbie, and Louis H. Gray. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. New York: Scribner’s, [195. Print

[2]Walters, Elizabeth J. Attic Grave Reliefs That Represent Women in the Dress of Isis. p. 5 Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1988. Print.

[3] Montonen, Sirpa. English Version of Jesus Chrestus. [S.l.]: On Demand, 2010. 23. Print

[4] Lesko, Barbara S. The Great Goddesses of Egypt. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1999.p. 185 Print.

[5] Birnbaum, Lucia Chiavola. Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers. San Jose: Authors Choice, 2001. Print. p. 19

[6] Dunand, Françoise, and Christiane Zivie-Coche. Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004. Print. 274

[7] Bonnefoy, Yves. Greek and Egyptian Mythologies. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992. Print. p. 246.

[8] Walter, 19

[9] Parker, Robert. Polytheism and Society at Athens. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print. p. 359

[10] Ibid, 359

[11] Ibid