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Isis in the Ancient World [Paperback]

by R. E. Witt
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 17, 1997 0801856426 978-0801856426 Reprint

Worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis dates as far back as 2500 B.C. and extended at least until the fifth century A.D. throughout the Roman world. The importance of her cult is attested to in Apuleius's Golden Ass, and evidence of its influence has been found in places as far apart as Afghanistan and Portugal, the Black Sea and northern England. The first study to document the extent and complexity of the cult's influence on Graeco-Roman and early Christian culture, R. E. Witt's acclaimed Isis in the Ancient World is now available in paperback.

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Editorial Reviews


Distinguished for its learning and its use of fascinating and little-known iconographic material... The importance of this study, both for the history of religions and of Graeco-Roman society, lies in the evidence, assembled and interpreted, of a widespread desire to worship a goddess who embodied maternal compassion and omnipotent wisdom.

(History Today)

This is in many ways a pioneering book by an author who knows how to use archaeological as well as literary evidence. It is an important contribution to an understanding of the religious attitudes of ordinary men and women who lived under the rule of the Caesars... [It is a ] well-written, well-planned, and finely illustrated work [that] contributes powerfully to our knowledge of significant aspects of the Graeco-Roman world.

(Times Literary Supplement)

Particularly stimulating is the attempt to assess the impact of the Isis cult on Christianity. Here Dr. Witt is able to deploy his wide knowledge of the religion of the Byzantine era and its sequel in Greek Orthodoxy, and he is also able to correct the severe underestimation of the moral appeal of the Isis cult which has hitherto prevailed among historians of Christianity.

(J. Gywn Griffiths Journal of Egyptian Archaeology)

About the Author

R. E. Witt (1903-1980) taught at Queen Mary's College, University of London, and is also the author of Albinus and the History of Middle Platonism.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press; Reprint edition (June 17, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801856426
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801856426
  • Product Dimensions: 2.3 x 3.4 x 0.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #666,362 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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71 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps the most interesting book I have ever read April 6, 2004
This book is extremely interesting if you have any questions about where Western religious traditions come from. This book clearly dispels the myth that the religion of Isis was merely some kind of fringe 'mystery cult'. It was instead the world religion of the Mediterranean before Christianity. Isis is not given enough credit by modern historians of religion. It was highly organized with its priesthood and liturgies. Abstinence from wine, porc and sex was required of priests for the sake of cleanliness. Bathing and ritual washing were performed several times a day. Hymns were sung at specified times; holy water from the Nile was sprinkled about; a baptism was performed when being initiated as a believer; Isis gave birth to Horus, who is really the earthly incarnation of the All-Father Osiris, on the 23rd of December, etc... Its evolution into/influence upon Christianity can be traced. In fact the dog-headed God Anubis is still worshipped as a saint on a Greek Island to this day; and the festival of Isis being carried to the sea-shore to bless the start of the sailing season, called the "Carrus Navalis" has turned into the "Carnival" that we see today all over the Mediterranean (a false etymology was thought up for it to explain it as the 'carne levare' when the original meaning for the celebration was forgotten). This book clearly shows how Christianity was hardly a rude intruder from an overlooked little corner of the world, and how it instead grew feeding upon the millennia of experience of Isis, first as official religion of Egypt under the pharaohs, and then extending to the entire Medditerranean and European worlds through the Ptolemies and through the Empire of Rome. In relgious anthropology, Isis is the 'missing link' between Christianity and paganism, proving that it was a very mild transition from the one to the other. I can hardly express how fascinating this book is.
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72 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE sourcebook for Isis Sleuths June 7, 1999
By A Customer
Witt's study of the Isis cult focuses primarily on her fame outside of Egypt, but his research is impeccable and always fascinating in its detail. Isis in Rome. Isis in Santorini. Isis in Gaul. Isis just about everywhere in the Mediterranean world. Witt does an excellent job when gathering information about her festivals, cult objects and practices, and her place in widespread popular piety as a precursor of the Vigin Mary figure. There's also info on the gods of Isis' Egyptian entourage--Osiris, Anubis, Horus, Nephthys--and their respective places in the cult outside Egypt. All in all, a marvelous and ample treatment of one of the ancient world's most influential and enduring religious traditions.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Resource March 9, 2009
This book is good as a research or academic book, not really as a book to sit down and read. It has amazing information and is incredibly well-researched and full of useful sources, but it is incredibly dry and can be boring at times. It wasn't what I thought it would be, but still worth the pruchase.
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