Isis was an Egyptian goddess, the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus, the Egyptian sun god. The worship of Isis was introduced into Greece from Egypt in the 300s B.C., and rapidly became one of the most popular cults* in the Greek and Roman world. The philosopher and historian Plutarchgives us a very full account of her divinity in a treatise* on Isis and Osiris. As Plutarch explains, the Greeks early on identified Isis with Io, the daughter of the river god Inachus.
Both the Greek playwright Aeschylus, in his play Prometheus Bound, and the Roman poet Ovid are major sources for the myth of Isis as Io. Although their two stories differ on several points, in both versions Zeus (Jove in Latin), the king of the gods, is attracted by Io’s beauty, which makes Hera (Juno in Latin), Zeus’s wife and queen of the gods, jealous. Io is transformed into a young cow, and Hera commands Argus, a giant herdsman with 100 eyes, to watch over Io day and night to keep Zeus away from her. Although Hermes, the messenger of the gods, tricks Argus into falling asleep and kills him, Hera sends a fly to sting Io constantly so that she must continuously wander the earth to escape torment. Eventually, Io’s wanderings lead her to Egypt, where she is turned back into a woman and worshiped as the goddess Isis.
The cult of Isis was one of the most popular in Rome, and many temples dedicated to her were established throughout the empire. Her followers considered her the first of the gods and goddesses, the discoverer of life, and the savior of all lost souls. Priests from Egypt were invited to perform the rituals* and ceremonies of her cult. In the novel The Golden Ass, by the Roman philosopher* and orator* Apuleius, a character is turned into an ass by experimenting with magic but is returned to human form by praying to Isis. The final book of the novel describes in detail many of the rituals of the cult and emphasizes the character’s gratitude and complete devotion to the goddess. (See also Cults; Divinities; Myths, Greek; Myths, Roman; Religion, Greek; Religion, Roman.)
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* treatise long, detailed essay
* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* orator public speaker of great skill