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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Roman, ceremony of Isis, circa 50-79, fresco. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy.

(The Root) -- This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

After being hidden from view for nearly two millennia, this engaging view of an exotic religious rite was unearthed in the well-preserved ancient Roman city of Herculaneum. As at Pompeii, its better-known neighbor, this well-to-do community had been covered by the disastrous eruption of the nearby volcano Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The relatively small image seen here was removed during the 18th century from an unspecified site within the town. It probably graced one of the formal spaces of a wealthy home rather than a temple. Created during the 30-year period preceding the eruption, the evocative glimpse of a mysterious religion would be enjoyed only a short while by the residents of the household before the vibrant life of the town was suddenly snuffed out.

From the time of its discovery more than two centuries ago, the scene has been interpreted as a rite of the goddess Isis, the focus of one of the leading mystery cults of the ancient Greco-Roman world. The wealth of references to the Egyptian origins of Isis worship in the scene -- such as the sphinx, the ibis and the palm tree -- as well as surviving ancient texts, convincingly support this interpretation.

The worship of Isis, a beneficent goddess of healing and succor and the consort of Osiris, had spread far beyond her native land by the time this painting was created. In Pompeii a sizable temple, adorned with many frescoes and statues, had been erected to the goddess. Although no sanctuary dedicated to her has yet been found in nearby Herculaneum, there is abundant evidence of her veneration in private homes.

The ceremony takes place within the precinct of a temple raised on a high flight of stairs. At its summit a white-robed priestly figure holds a small jar before the narrow, curtained portal of the sanctuary. The jar contains sacred water from the Nile, a reference to the moderating role of Isis in the annual inundation of Egypt by the great river. Recumbent sphinxes flank the landing.

Two other figures, dressed quite differently, stand at either side of the central figure. Each holds a sistrum, a type of rattle commonly used in the worship of Isis. The man at the right is plainly black, his gleaming bronze skin contrasting with the light-ochre pleats of his robe. Below, five priestly figures lead facing ranks of celebrants in a ritual of sacrifice and singing. Three of the priests are black and, like the one above them, have shaved heads and are dressed in pale-colored linen robes cinched at breast level.

In the lower-right corner of the fresco another black man sits, playing a long, slender, flutelike instrument. All of the black figures except the musician have been described as zakoroi, or senior attendants to the priest, who seemed to have served for certain specified terms of office.

The representation of black priests is reprised in another fresco from Herculaneum. It shows similarly dressed figures officiating at a ceremony dominated by a black man dancing within a shrine. Of similar format and style, it likely is a companion piece of our scene, recovered from the same site.

Scholarly investigation of these images has sought to determine just how accurately the rituals have been depicted. In the present inquiry, the focus can be narrowed to address the historical existence of black priests in the Isis cult. The pre-eminent Nile sanctuary of the goddess established far upstream on the island of Philae, near the northern border with Nubia, serves as an ideal starting point.

There was a long-standing involvement of the black civilization of Nubia with the worship of Isis. The first evidence of major construction at Philae dates to the time of the renowned black pharaoh Taharqa during the seventh century B.C. More than a millennium later, during the fifth century of our era, the right of unimpeded access to the temple of Isis at Philae was reaffirmed by the Romans to two of the major dark-skinned peoples living in this region, the Nobadae and the Blemmyes. Their worship at the site ended only when the Byzantine emperor Justinian forcibly suppressed the cult in the next century. 

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