- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press; Reprint edition (June 17, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0801856426
- ISBN-13: 978-0801856426
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.8 x 8.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #159,726 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Isis in the Ancient World Reprint Edition
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"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)
From the Back Cover
This is the first study to document the extent and complexity of the cult's influence of Graeco-Roman and early Christian culture.
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Unfortunately, the book doesn't much discuss a lot of the puzzling questions about the Isis cult, like what exactly her followers meant when they said Isis was the same as other goddesses like Artemis or Aphrodite (though, to be fair, today's scholars are still trying to puzzle that one out). It also tends to treat the evidence uncritically and to take as given some outdated assumptions about the Isis cult. For instance, he thinks that the spread of Egyptian cults in Hellenistic times was deliberately driven by the Ptolemies, an idea that has now been abandoned. Writers in Roman times habitually accused cults they didn't like of sexual immorality: conservative Romans flung these accusations at exotic cults, Christians flung them at pagans, and Christian sects flung them at each other. Witt takes the accusations toward the Isis cult too seriously, though when discussing the genuine sexual imagery in the Isis cult he treats it rather sympathetically. His treatments of many other subjects, such as Isis' aspect as a healer, are also prone to errors and overstatements.
In the last chapter, Witt indiscriminately lists just about every similarity and point of contact between Christianity and Isis worship. Many are, or may be, genuine points where one influenced the other, while others are irrelevant. And perhaps most fundamentally, Witt assumes that imported cults like that of Isis were each trying to become the dominant one in the Roman world, but that goal was probably alien to all of them except Christianity. Overall, this book feels subtly out of date, a product of a generation of scholars—Witt was born in 1910—who didn't grasp the Isis cult or Roman religion in general as well as today's experts do.
What's frustrating is that no comprehensive look at the Isis cult has fully replaced this one. There have been two big waves of scholarship on Isis since Witt's book came out (the first in the 1970s, with this book near the beginning of the wave, and the second in the past 15 years), but most of what they've produced is not friendly to the lay reader. One of the exceptions is The Cult of Isis in the Roman Empire by Malcolm Drew Donalson, which is more up-to-date than Witt, though it's more superficial than I'd prefer. Les Cultes Isiaques Dans Le Monde Greco-romain is written by Laurent Bricault, who probably knows Isis studies better than anybody alive, but it's only useful if you read French, and because I don't, I can't review it.
If you've gotten the basics about Isis from somebody like Donalson or Witt, the first place to go for detailed academic studies is the series of Isis conference volumes: Nile into Tiber,Isis on the Nile, and Power, Politics and the Cults of Isis. The first two conference volumes, De Memphis à Rome and Isis en Occident, cover more basic territory than the later three, but they're mostly in French. Isis and Sarapis in the Roman World is also useful for countering some of the assumptions made by earlier scholars like Witt.
It seems to be also very much written from the perspective of a Western Christian and Freemason, which shows in some of the arguments, but which also leads some rather interesting links between the Isis-Cult and Early Christianity and especially Orthodox Marian Veneration.
Certainly worthwhile reading, not just for Isis, but possibly also as a model what may have happened between other aspects of paganism and Christianity in Late Antiquity.