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Isis in the Ancient World: from Egyptian myth to Mexican surrealism

This month Jo takes a look at the classic book ‘Isis in the Ancient World’ by Rex Witt, tracing the spread of the goddess’ worship across the ancient world with unexpected links to surrealist art in Mexico.

Ivory image of Isis made in AD C.6th Egypt later incorporated into the pulpit of Aachen Cathedral Germany © K.Kshetram

As an Egyptologist long fascinated by the ways in which ancient Egypt has shaped so much of modern life, one of my very favourite books has to be ‘Isis in the Ancient World’. A total revelation when I first read it some 30 years ago, it was published in 1971 and contains a wealth of rich detail since its author, Reginald (‘Rex’) Eldred Witt, was a somewhat unusual scholar - a classicist with an understanding of Egyptian history, he’s the perfect guide to follow when tracing the goddess’ journey from the pyramids of Egypt to the furthest outposts of the ancient world.

Isis in the tomb of Pharaoh Siptah (1197-1191 BC), facsimile by Barnsley-born Harold Jones

From her first appearance in ritual texts around 2500 BC as the relatively minor deity Aset, she went on to have supporting roles in a variety of scenarios - from the sister-wife of Osiris, mother of Horus and saviour of Ra, she cured the sick, raised the dead (below) and brought comfort and love to the masses. And with this mother, magician and inventor of mummification described as ‘more clever than a million gods’, she evolved dramatically over the next 2,000 years to gradually take over the identities and insignia of almost every other goddess in Egypt, claiming ‘I am the only one’ in texts at Edfu and even her hair worshipped in its own right at Koptos.

Isis resurrecting Osiris after mummifying his body, Philae Temple

And as her worship then spread across the Mediterranean world, her Egyptian name Aset was rendered ‘Isis’ by the Greeks who worshipped her as Isis ‘Myrionymos’ – ‘She of Countless Names’. Enthusiastically promoted by Egypt’s Ptolemaic-Greek rulers whose female pharaohs - including the great Cleopatra herself – claimed to be ‘Isis Incarnate’, they enhanced this role with the same elaborate hairstyles and black robes (below) as those adopted by Isis’ priestesses the Melanophores or ‘Wearers of Black’ (see July’s blog HIDDEN HISTORIES OF THE HAIR PIN starring CLEOPATRA & THE ‘WEARERS OF BLACK’ (

Isis’ statue in black and white marble, AD 100-150 © Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Certainly the reach of all-powerful Isis was enormous, for hers was a religion based on equality, on love and perhaps most significantly on tolerance. And extending out from the Nile Valley to the Greek cult centres at Delos, Eleusis and Delphi, Isis also reached into Arabia, Asia Minor and as far east as Afghanistan and west across to Spain and Portugal, Gaul and Germany. Even when Egypt was taken over by Rome in 30 BC, Isis’ powers had become so great she was honoured by successive emperors wishing to appear as her earthly partner Serapis (a later form of Osiris) and her image appearing on imperial coinage.

Worshipped as ‘the One who is All’ within temples both in Rome and around Rome’s empire, her influence was so profound some opted out of standard cremation in favour of the mummification Isis herself had invented as a means of achieving immortality for the soul. So among Rome’s mummified elite was Nero’s wife the empress Poppaea, the AD C.2nd ‘Grottarossa Girl’ discovered in 1964, plus mother and son Aebutia Quarta and Carvilius Gemellus (aka ‘the Mummy of Rome’), whose remains and burial goods - including a spectacular gold ‘hologram’ ring (Immortal Egypt (@immortal_egypt) • Instagram photos and videos) and a wig covered by a gold hair net - we were privileged to help study back in 2002 when their status as Isis worshippers was first discussed (see the documentary at:

Reconstruction of Aebutia with her elaborate hairpiece and golden net © GA&A Productions

Nor do we think it’s a coincidence that linen-wrapped embalmed bodies have even been found in Roman Britain, covered in a further layer of gypsum plaster and many within huge sandstone sarcophagi. And with the majority of such gypsum mummies found in Yorkshire, over 45 come from York itself, which was also home to the most northerly Egyptian temple ever built, honouring Isis and her consort Serapis.

For Isis’ popularity across such vast territories was based on her ability to bestow eternal life, and despite Rome’s conversion to Christianity in AD 380 under Emperor Theodosius, this ultimately continued. Indeed, it was Isis who was first hailed as ‘the great virgin’, the ‘mother of the god’ and ‘queen of the sky/heaven’, and as Witt astutely points out, the “veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary was certainly introduced at about the same time as Theodosius ordered the destruction of Pagan temples” in AD 391, after which Isis – and her images - still “survived in some very remarkable ways” (below).

Ivory image of Isis made in AD C.6th Egypt later incorporated into the pulpit of Aachen Cathedral Germany © K.Kshetram

So although this is no lightweight read, Witt’s wonderful volume remains my book of choice to which I go back again and again and recommend at every opportunity. It was my ‘Classic Book’ choice for the BBC History Magazine (below) and on Radio 4’s ‘A Good Read’ (at:, when fellow guest author Damian Barr really loved it whereas our host Harriett Gilbert absolutely did not!

Jo’s ‘Classic Book’ choice for the BBC History Magazine

It certainly made for some lively debate, as did our equally divided opinions on Harriet’s own choice of book ‘The Hearing Trumpet’ by surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Now I always admit to being no great reader of fiction (see our August blog EGYPTIAN FICTION: Mummies, murder & the Hyksos Invasion! (, and I’d certainly never heard of either the novel or its author, but I totally fell for her joyful crazy tale. Rightly described as ‘the occult twin to Alice in Wonderland’ complete with animal-headed characters, mummies, an army of bees and an all-action heroine aged 92(!), I immediately wanted to find out more about the author herself.

Leonora Carrington (and cat) in her studio © Estate of Leonora Carrington

A northerner born in Chorley to a wealthy mill-owning family in 1917, Carrington was a unique talent, a ‘rebellious soul’ whose dramatic life story set across France, Spain and Mexico could really be a novel in itself. A great advocate of women’s rights as well as their ‘legendary powers’, Carrington insisted that women should be seen as artists in their own right at a time very few were. And rightly dubbed the ‘last great surrealist’ who lived to the grand old age of 94, she created some of the most astonishing paintings and sculptures I’ve ever seen.

‘Adieu Amenhotep’ by Leonora Carrington, 1955 © Estate of Leonora Carrington

And while I still know virtually nothing about modern art, surreal or otherwise, I was amazed to discover just how much of Carrington’s unique work was inspired by ancient Egypt, one of her finest paintings – would you believe entitled ‘Adieu Amenhotep’ (above) – featuring the central themes of mummification, female magic and the multifaceted world of eternal Isis herself.

For ‘Isis in the Ancient World’ go to: Isis in the Ancient World by R. E. Witt ( For Jo’s review on BBC Radio 4 listen at: and for Leonora Carrington see:


Jo at Abu Simbel_edited.jpg

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