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.

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

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. 

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.