Black Priests of the Isis Cult

Image of the Week: This representation of an ancient religious rite was unearthed in the Roman city of Herculaneum.

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Given the close affinity of the black population with the Isis cult, the service of black priests at the sanctuary from a very early date seems beyond doubt. These dark-skinned officiants would then have moved out through the Mediterranean as the cult expanded during the Greco-Roman period. In the process they lent their image to the popular impression of this exotic religion. Along the way, of course, their ranks would have been joined by blacks already in the Diaspora. Still, a general association would have persisted between all blacks in the priesthood and the Egyptian homeland of Isis worship.

If perhaps not a true "snapshot" of the ritual itself, the scene of the Isis cult from Herculaneum provides valuable evidence of the involvement of blacks in Greco-Roman life and culture. As Frank Snowden has demonstrated, closely observed images of blacks as acrobats, bath attendants, singers and dancers and, in at least one case, a philosopher give testimony to the widespread, continual presence of black people in the cosmopolitan environment that was ancient Rome. To this cast of characters can reasonably be added that of the spiritual conductor of souls in the quest for immortality.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root's editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.