When I walked around the town of Benevento in southern Italy I could see that a lot of it had been rebuilt following heavy bombing in World War Two. However, every now and then I spotted a remnant of older history in the buildings- a half-buried statue or an ancient plaque.
I was even more fascinated to learn that Benevento used to be the site of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Iside (known as Isis in English but due to the current connotations of this name I will use the Italian version). I wanted to find out more about who this goddess was, why she was worshipped here and why there is very little left to see of the magnificent-sounding temple.
In ancient Egyptian beliefs, Iside is a goddess of fertility, marriage and love. She is also known for protecting travellers. She is often portrayed as a winged woman with cows’ horns that have a sun in between them. Her name means “throne” so she is alternatively shown with a throne-shaped headdress. Here she is depicted on the right next to Nefertari, wife of Rameses the Great.
As Romans expanded the empire in the early centuries AD, they discovered the gods worshipped by other cultures, and many were introduced into the range of gods venerated back at home. Emperor Domitian built the temple to Iside in Benevento between 88 and 89 AD, adorning it with several original Egyptian statues and ornaments, many of which were rediscovered underground during archaeological digs in 1903.
Between the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth century, the cult of Iside became one of the most popular in the Roman Empire, competing with Christianity. Temples to the goddess were also built in other cities including Pompeii and Rome. The prominence of her cult led to the striking of copper coins with the Roman emperor’s face on one side and a tribute to Iside on the reverse. However, around 395 AD, Emperor Theodosius ordered the complete suppression of all non-Christian cults.
According to historical records, the temple was destroyed so that its foundations and contents could be used to prop up newly constructed walls around 663, under orders of Barbatus, Bishop of Benevento, to protect the city against attack. Other parts of the construction were used for further building work in that period, burying the memories of the temple underground or merging them into new Christian structures.
The dig in 1903 uncovered many wonderful artifacts from the temple. These include Egyptian obelisks, one of which can be seen in the centre of modern Benevento.
Other objects originating from the temple are held in a special exhibition “Iside la scandalosa e magnifica” under the Palazzo del Governo in the centre of town. This is well worth a visit, offering 3-D visual shows explaining the cult of Iside. You can see some fascinating statues, including those portraying priests and priestesses who used to worship in the temple. There are some fine Egyptian baboon statues, who sadly had their noses chopped off by the Lombard Germanic tribe who settled here, and some well-preserved statues of the falcon representation of Iside’s son Horus, god of protection and war. There is even the head section of a statue of Iside, though the body is sadly lost.
Nearby in the UNESCO World Heritage site Church of Santa Sofia, you can also see columns that may have come from the Temple of Iside but were reused by the Lombards to build this structure in the 8th century. For more on this see here .
I like the way Iside the goddess is portrayed as a woman with many sides to her character. She is a strong mother but also a temptress, she is gentle and caring, but can also be aggressive and fearsome. She is the ideal wife, but she is also a powerful magician. Her legend is quite unusual–she married her brother, Osiris, for example. I noticed this Hymn to Iside in the Benevento exhibition, originally written on papyrus in the 2nd century BC. It was good to see the recognition of gender equality stretches that far back in time, even if we still haven’t managed to achieve it in practice.
HYMN TO ISIDE
Well skilled Goddess, honour of the female gender.
Lovely, you let sweetness reign in the assemblies,
enemy of hatred.
You reign in the Sublime and in the infinite.
You easily triumph over despots with your loyal advice.
It was you, you alone, who found your brother (Osiris),
You were able to manage the boat well and gave him
a burial worthy of him.
You want women to join men.
You are the Lady of the Earth
you have made the power of women equal to that of men.
Discovering all of these interesting facts about Iside and her influence in the ancient Roman empire reminded me that sometimes we need to search more deeply for the true origins of our culture. If we take things at face value, we will only hear about the sides of our heritage that have been promoted, and won’t hear about those that have been suppressed, and in some cases, literally buried underground.
In the same way that we have to be aware of powerful influences that manipulate how news is conveyed to us in current times, we must not forget that history is often presented to us in a way that most favours the powerful elements in our society. If we want to know the real history that interests and matters to us– we have to go and dig it up ourselves.
Iside nursing Horus, The Walters Art Museum
For further reading on Iside check out these blogs: