The New Isis


There existed at Armant till the year 1861 an extremely interesting temple built by Cleopatra the Great in honour of the birth of her son Caesarion. This was completely demolished between the years 1861 and 1863 and the materials were taken and used in the construction of a sugar factory; but prior to that date, it had been visited and described by many travellers, and fortunately a number of drawings, plans and photographs of it were taken by them. We are engaged upon a reconstruction of this temple for publication and we should be very grateful for any help which your readers may be able to give us, to make this as complete as possible.

Robert Mond and Oliver Myers, Geographical Journal1

Caesarion’s birth was a triumph. It gave Cleopatra a new purpose – the preservation of her throne for her child and his descendants – and, as both dynastic and Ptolemaic tradition allowed mothers to rule on behalf of their infant sons, it freed her from the irksome obligation to remain married to a male co-regent. It is perhaps no coincidence that Ptolemy XIV died as soon as it became apparent that Caesarion’s future lay in Egypt rather than in Rome, and Josephus, for one, has no doubt that the young king was murdered: ‘She was also by nature very covetous, and stuck at no wickedness. She had already poisoned her brother, because she knew that he was to be king of Egypt, and this when he was but fifteen years old …’2

Josephus, consistently anti-Cleopatra and prone to sweeping statements, offers no proof in support of his allegation. But, biased though they are, his remarks do carry a certain ring of truth. It is tempting to develop a dramatic reconstruction – the young and inexperienced Ptolemy left behind in Alexandria while his sister makes a second diplomatic trip to Rome; Ptolemy discovering that, with Caesar dead, the people were prepared to support his solo rule; Ptolemy considering marriage with the deposed and still-popular Arsinoë IV; Ptolemy succumbing to temptation and declaring himself king; Cleopatra returning sooner than expected and dealing swiftly with the crisis. However, it is important to remember that the estimated average life expectancy for men who survived infancy in Ptolemaic Egypt was only thirty-three. To die at just fifteen years of age was sad, but it was by no means unusual.

Ptolemy XV Caesar, king of Egypt, was to play a major part in his mother’s propaganda. With a son by her side, Cleopatra VII could abandon any thought she might have had of adopting the role of a female king and could develop instead a powerful new identity as a semi-divine mother: an identity that had the huge advantage of being instantly recognisable to both her Egyptian and her Greek subjects. Divinity was nothing new. Cleopatra had become a goddess towards the end of her father’s reign, when she had been united with her brothers and sister as the New Sibling-Loving Gods. But now she was to be specifically identified with Egypt’s most famous single mother, the goddess Isis.

From the very dawn of the dynastic age, religion had been used to protect the position of the royal family. The belief in the king’s ability to ward off isfet (chaos) by maintaining maat (an untranslatable concept which is best understood as a combination of ‘rightness’, justice, truth and the status quo) ensured that, although individual kings were occasionally removed from power, there was never any real attempt to abolish the monarchy. This overwhelming need to preserve maat encouraged a slow, conservative approach to life. Experimentation was seen as dangerous and unnecessary – it might upset the gods and bring chaos – and it was both safer and more comforting to stick to the tried and tested ways. This conservatism is particularly obvious in official art, which, to the non-specialist, shows surprisingly little development from the beginning of the Old Kingdom until the end of the Ptolemaic age.

Maat the concept was personified in the form of Maat the goddess, the beautiful, truthful daughter of the sun god Re. Many dynastic scenes show kings standing with Maat, or offering a miniature squatting image of Maat to much larger gods. As both Maat and the queen consort were companions of the king, it was perhaps inevitable that their roles and appearances would become confused. Only the single feather of truth worn on her head distinguished Maat from the living queen. Official Egyptian art was never spontaneous, and this confusion was far from accidental. As the dynastic age progressed, Egypt’s queens developed a high public profile, an array of secular and religious titles, and a wide range of headdresses incorporating divine symbols such as the vulture crown, the double or multiple uraeus, the cow horns of Hathor, the solar disc associated with the sun gods and the tall, twin plumes associated with the gods Amen, Montu and Min. With both Hathor and Isis sporting near-identical headdresses, the blurring of the boundary between the mortal and the immortal intensified.

While the Egyptians compared their queens to goddesses, many early Egyptologists saw them as breeding machines and little else. An increasing awareness of the complexities of Egyptian thought over the past century has confirmed that the consort was in fact an essential feminine part of the complex theology of kingship.3 Yes, the consort was expected to produce a son and heir, but this was by no means essential. If necessary, an heir could be found in the harem, or could be adopted from an elite family. It was far more important that the consort be politically astute and theologically acceptable. She was expected to rule the country in her husband’s absence, and to participate in religious rituals that demanded a female celebrant. She might even, in the absence of an heir, be expected to rule Egypt as a female king. As the spouse of a semi-divine being, and the potential mother of a demigod, the dynastic consort was herself considered a source of religious and political power.

Egypt’s first ‘goddesses’ appear before her first kings and queens. Prehistoric cemeteries have yielded bone and ivory female figurines whose obvious pubic regions and breasts indicate that they are to be associated with sexuality, fertility and, perhaps, rebirth. Near-contemporary pottery is decorated with scenes of daily life and life beyond death. Water and boats feature prominently: there are animals, birds, men and boats sailing on rivers of wavy lines. Occasionally in these scenes we see a plump, obviously female figure accompanied by smaller-scale men. This woman is paralleled by small terracotta female figurines that, with simple, bird-like faces but well-defined breasts and hips, perform a strange dance with their arms curved above their heads. The faceless females belong to an age before writing. We cannot name them, but it seems that we are looking at Egypt’s original mother goddesses.

By 3100 we have both a royal name and a recognisable goddess. The Narmer Palette is a large slate votive palette recording the victories of a king whose two-symbol name is represented by the hieroglyphic signs of the catfish and the chisel: N’r Mr.4 The palette displays scenes of royal dominance and celebrates the triumph of order over chaos. On one face Narmer, wearing the white crown of southern Egypt, raises a club to smite an enemy who cringes at his feet. On the reverse Narmer, now wearing the red crown, marches with a troop of soldiers. Before him lie five decapitated victims of war, their heads placed neatly between their legs. Below, in a separate scene, Narmer takes the form of a bull to gore an enemy. Gazing down on both sides of the palette is the face of the cow goddess Bat, an ancient version of the mother goddess Hathor.

Egypt’s gods started life as independent totemic local deities. Soon they were linked by an intricate mythology designed to explain the otherwise inexplicable: matters that today we explain by science. To address the fundamental need for understanding, to explain creation and death, each priesthood devised a mythology featuring their own particular god. Hathor, Lady of Perfume, was celebrated as the daughter of the sun god Re; an uninhibited goddess of motherhood, music, love and drunkenness. In some tales she assumed the role of the Golden One to accompany Re on his daily journey across the sky. In others she was the gentle cow who suckled the king of Egypt. At Memphis she was the Mistress of the Sycamore, who sustained the dead with food and drink; at Thebes she became the compassionate Mistress of the West, who cared for the dying sun. But when she was roused, mild-mannered Hathor transformed into Sekhmet, the Powerful One. Sekhmet, an uncompromising lion-headed goddess who breathed fire and was armed with plagues and pestilence, was the protector of Egypt’s kings. From the reign of Narmer onwards, the cult of Hathor grew in importance until it became Egypt’s dominant female-based cult.

Isis, several centuries younger than Hathor, is first named as a protective goddess, ‘the Great Isis’, in the 5th Dynasty Pyramid texts, where she appears as one of the nine original gods (the Ennead) of Heliopolis. Her name, Aset in the original Egyptian, is represented by the sign of a throne, and Isis herself often appears with a small throne sign topping her crown. Alternatively Isis could be identified with the cobra or uraeus worn on the royal brow. This obvious connection between the goddess and kingship, both living and dead, would persist as long as the cult of Isis survived. As the dynastic age progressed, Isis grew in status and power, absorbing the roles, traditions and accessories of other Egyptian goddesses, including the once-dominant Hathor, so that by the start of the Ptolemaic age Hathor and Isis were virtually indistinguishable in appearance. Both were beautiful women who wore the tall cow horn and solar disc headdress, and both carried the sistrum or sacred rattle whose rhythms could stimulate the gods.

Outside Egypt the cult of Isis was spread by the sailors, merchants and travellers who regularly sailed around the eastern Mediterranean, using the Greek island of Delos, home to a flourishing cult of Isis, as a trading post. Herodotus, writing in c. 450, was tolerably familiar with the goddess:

All Egyptians use bulls and bull-calves for sacrifice, if they have passed the test for ‘cleanness’; but they are forbidden to sacrifice heifers, on the ground that they are sacred to Isis. The statue of Isis shows a female figure with cow’s horns, like the Greek representations of Io…5

Just as she had absorbed Hathor, Isis gradually assimilated the attributes and appearance of several Greek goddesses. The earth mother Demeter, the wise Athene, the sister-consort Hera, the virgin huntress Artemis and, most particularly, the beautiful and loving Aphrodite all donated aspects of their mythology, allowing Isis to develop into a versatile, powerful, universal goddess with an appeal strong enough to make her, in the first century AD, a serious rival to the growing cult of Christianity.6 The first apparent reference to a cult of Isis in mainland Greece comes from Piraeus, the port of Athens, and pre-dates Alexander’s arrival in Egypt. The next, more firmly established reference dates to the second century BC. In Rome, the first temple to Isis was raised on the Capitoline Hill inc. 80. It was destroyed almost immediately, then quickly replaced. Successive temples were destroyed (and subsequently rebuilt) in 58, 53, 50 and 48 and in AD 19. Meanwhile, the official Roman attitude to Isis was both cautious and inconsistent. Julius Caesar refused the priesthood of Isis permission to enter Rome, yet the triumvirate permitted a sanctuary dedicated to the gods of Egypt, Isis included, in 43.

This Graeco-Roman Isis was a healer, a wise woman and a powerful magician. She could cause the River Nile to flood and, undying herself, could bring the dead back to life. She was both the queen of heaven and the fertile soil of Egypt. In the dark night sky she twinkled as the bright star Sothis (Sirius or Sepedet). In Alexandria Isis Pelagia (Isis of the Sea) protected the sailors entering and leaving the safety of the harbour; outside the city, Isis Medica cured the sick in her temple-hospitals. But Isis’s most celebrated role was that of the faithful wife and compassionate mother. The elaborate story of Isis, her husband-brother Osiris and their son Horus is one of Egypt’s most ancient and intricate myths, but no original version survives. To read the story – and we always have to remember that this is just one, late, version of an often repeated tale – we have to turn to Plutarch’s masterpiece, Of Isis and Osiris. Plutarch based his interpretation on stories preserved in the oral tradition, and on fragments of original Egyptian myths preserved in the writings of earlier classical writers. He dedicated it to Clea, a priestess in the cult of Isis at Delphi:

Many years ago the sky goddess Nut bore two sons, Osiris and Seth, and two daughters, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris was good and true but Seth was troubled and angry, and his birth caused Nut great pain as he forced his way into the world through her side. Osiris ruled Egypt as king with his sister-wife lsis. Osiris taught men how to plant crops, obey laws and worship the gods, while Isis taught women the secrets of weaving, baking and brewing. With Egypt at peace, Isis ruled Egypt alone as Osiris travelled the world, beguiling the people with his songs and his poetry.

Seth was unhappy. His heart was consumed with jealousy and he had determined that his brother must die so that he might take his place. He planned a magnificent banquet. The food stands were piled high with meat. There was every kind of fowl and fish, pyramids of bread and sweet cakes, heaps of fresh vegetables and succulent fruit, and jars of fine wine and strong beer. Seth had invited seventy-two friends to his banquet, but the guest of honour was his brother Osiris. The guests drank and ate and drank again. Finally, Seth signalled to his servants and a long, narrow chest was carried into the banqueting chamber. Carved from the finest wood, the chest was inlayed with bands of gold and silver and decorated inside and out with ebony, ivory and precious stone. Here was a new game. Whoever could fit inside the chest could keep it. The guests rushed forward and attempted to squeeze into the narrow space. But none fitted. Then the slender Osiris stepped forward to take his turn. He lay down in the chest: it was a perfect fit. Instantly, Seth slammed the lid shut and shot the bolt home. The chest had become Osiris’s coffin. Seth dragged the chest to the mouth of the Nile and threw it in.

News of the tragedy reached Isis in her palace at Koptos. Refusing to forget Osiris, Isis spent many years wandering the length and breadth of Egypt hoping to find news of her vanished husband. Eventually she heard a rumour that the chest had washed ashore in the faraway land of Byblos. Here it had lain against a young cypress tree, which had grown to envelop the chest so that Osiris became completely hidden within its trunk. The tree had been felled and had been used to hold up the roof in the great pillared hall of the palace of the king of Byblos.

Isis left Egypt to become nursemaid to the younger son of the queen of Byblos. At night, when no one could see, she set the baby at the centre of a ring of immortal fire so that he might gain eternal life. She turned herself into a bird to fly round the pillar that still held Osiris. And as she flew, she gave great cries of grief. Her cries woke the queen, who rushed to the hall. Seeing her child in the flames, the queen gave a scream of horror. This broke the spell. Isis regained human form and, taking the pillar from beneath the roof, cut into its wood to reveal the coffin. The discarded remains of the pillar would be venerated for ever in the temple of Isis at Byblos.

Isis took the coffin and set sail for Egypt so that she might bury Osiris in his own land. But Seth, hunting in the moonlight, stumbled across Osiris lying in his coffin in the Egyptian desert. Furious, he hacked his brother into pieces, which he flung far and wide. Isis and the jackal-headed god Anubis searched high and low, recovering the scattered parts until only the penis was missing. This would never be found, for the greedy Nile fish had eaten it.

Isis, the divine healer, equipped her husband with a replica penis, bandaged him, then sang the spell that would bring him back to a semblance of life. Transforming herself into a bird, she hovered over her husband’s restored body, flapped her wings and breathed air into his nose. Her magic was very poweful; nine months later she bore Osiris a son. As Osiris retreated to the afterlife to become king of the dead, Isis fled with the baby Horus to the papyrus marshes. Here she protected her son with her potent magic until he was old enough to challenge his uncle and claim his inheritance.7

The Isis of this tale is the ideal wife for any man, be he king or commoner, and she is the ideal role model for any queen. She is beautiful, wise, faithful and fertile. While things go according to plan, she remains modestly in the background, supporting her husband and attending to the domestic tasks that are traditionally the wife’s lot. When her husband dies, she grieves for him. But we should not underestimate her. Isis is cunning and well versed in magic, and she is quite capable of independent action should the need arise. It is she who poses the greatest threat to Seth’s ambition. Her healing powers, in particular, are unsurpassed, magic being an important aspect of the Egyptian healer’s training. While Osiris takes a sabbatical to travel the world it is Isis, and not Seth, who is left to rule in his absence; the tradition of the wife deputising for the husband is a well-documented one, and we have examples of women from all walks of life directing their absent husbands’ affairs. When Osiris departs to the land of the dead, it is Isis who rules on her infant son’s behalf.

Osiris quickly came to symbolise all of Egypt’s dead pharaohs. They, mummified like their new sovereign, became eternal kings in the shadowy afterlife, while their successors, the Horus kings, ruled the living Egypt. And, as Isis was the mother and protector of Horus the living king, she naturally became the mother of all of Egypt’s living kings. Two- and three-dimensional images of Horus sitting on his mother’s knee may therefore be ‘read’ as images of the living king sitting on his throne, while images of Isis suckling Horus (or his late variant Harpocrates) may be read as images of any and all Egyptian queens suckling their sons. Conversely, any image of an Egyptian queen with her son may be interpreted as an image of Isis with Horus. Soon after Caesarion’s birth, mother and son were featured on the bronze Cypriot coin already mentioned (page 61). The obverse of this coin shows Cleopatra carrying a sceptre and wearing the raised diadem known as a stephane, a Hellenistic symbol of divinity. Caesarion is an indistinct, featureless blob at his mother’s breast. This is not Cleopatra the queen, but Cleopatra the mother goddess Isis/Aphrodite, suckling the infant Horus/Eros. The reverse of the coin features the double cornucopia, symbol of never-ending fertility, and the legend ‘of Cleopatra the Queen’ (Kleopatras Basilisses).

No equivalent Egyptian coin was issued, but reliefs carved in the Armant birth house associate Cleopatra with Rat-tawi (Female Sun of the Two Lands; a late form of Hathor) and Caesarion with the infant Harpre-pekhrat (Horus the Sun, the Child; a late version of Horus/Harpocrates). We have already noted Cleopatra’s presence, either in body or in spirit, at the installation of the Buchis bull of Armant. Now we find her building a birth house (mammisi) within the precincts of the Armant Montu temple. Cleopatra’s birth house was a temple dedicated to the celebration of Harpre’s nativity, a birth which native theology linked both to the daily rebirth of the sun and to the cyclical renewal of kingship. During Ptolemaic times birth houses took the form of a small chapel with an antechamber and a flat roof that could be used for ritual purposes, surrounded by a columned walkway. At Armant the central chapel included an outer hall, an inner hall and a birth room.

An inscription on the Armant birth-house wall provided Cleopatra with an Egyptian-style titulary, including a cartouche (the oval loop enclosing royal names) and a female Horus name (the first part of the traditional king’s titulary) which classifies her as a female king: ‘the female Horus, the great one, mistress of perfection, brilliant in counsel, Mistress of the Two Lands, Cleopatra Philopator’. Ptolemaic kings bore five formal names or titularies, based on the traditional New Kingdom model (Horus name; Two Ladies name; Golden Horus name; prenomen; nomen) plus a sixth name, a translation of the king’s Greek epithet. The last traditional name, the nomen, was the king’s personal name, introduced by the phrase ‘Son of Re’. The penultimate name, the prenomen, was the name by which his subjects knew him. Both the nomen and the prenomen were written within a cartouche. All five names were used on formal occasions, but when a shorter name was required it was acceptable to use just the nomen and prenomen. By the Ptolemaic period this custom had undergone a slight change and the nomen alone sufficed. This was preceded, not by ‘Son of Re’ but by ‘pharaoh’, literally ‘Great House’.8

A cartoon-like series of drawings decorating the inner walls of the Armant birth house showed the birth of Harpre in the presence of divine midwives, the goddess Nekhbet, the god Amen-Re and Cleopatra. The mother of the child is clearly identified as Rat-tawi, but his father is not obvious. Given the situation of the birth house, he should be Montu, but the preserved hieroglyph appears to be that of Amen (divine father of, among others, the earthly kings Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III, Ramesses II the Great and Alexander the Great). Nearby, seated on a couch, two identical cow-headed goddesses each suckle a baby. These identical infants have been identified as Harpre and Caesarion, whose cartouche appears throughout the birth house. In an age eagerly anticipating the arrival of a saviour on earth, Caesarion has clearly been born a god. An educated Egyptian ‘reading’ the scene might also understand that Caesarion, like Horus before him, is a god destined to avenge his assassinated father. Unfortunately the Armant temple was substantially dismantled during the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius, when its stone was reused in a monumental arch. Later, blocks from the temple would be incorporated into a church and a sugar-cane factory. Cleopatra’s images are fortunately preserved in the form of line drawings made by Napoleon’s scholars following his invasion of Egypt, and by the pioneering nineteenth-century Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius.


Scenes from the sanctuary of the now-demolished Armant temple, recorded by Lepsius (Denkmäler IV, 60a and 59b). Above: the divine mother gives birth to ‘Horus the sun, the child’ in the presence of Amen-Re, Nekhbet and Cleopatra VII. Below: multiple versions of the goddess Hathor suckle a newborn king: the young god of the temple, or the infant Caesarion? The confusion is deliberate.


The 30th Dynasty temple of Hathor at Dendera had been substantially redesigned by Auletes, who started building works on 16 July 54 and died just four years into the programme. Work at the temple continued throughout Cleopatra’s reign and was eventually finished a decade after her death. Here, on the outer rear wall of the temple, we find the above life-size double scene of Cleopatra and Caesarion mentioned in Chapter 2 (page 65). Mother and son are offering to a line of gods. In the left-hand scene they offer to Osiris, his sister-wife Isis and their son Harsiesis; in the right-hand scene they offer to Hathor, her son Ihy/Harsomtus and the Osirian triad (Osiris, Isis and Horus). Hathor, in this context, may be read as a representative of female royal power and solar authority, while Isis represents the universal mother. Between the two lines of gods, in the middle of the wall, is the head of Hathor, the main goddess of the temple complex.

Ptolemy Caesar, as king, takes the dominant role in the offering scene, a role which Cleopatra has previously denied both Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV and which she reverses in the accompanying text, where she is mentioned before Caesarion. The texts, we may assume, follow actual practice, while the illustration follows the time-honoured Egyptian tradition that will always place a ruling king ahead of his supportive mother. Nevertheless, tradition or not, it seems reasonable to assume that Cleopatra approved the temple artwork. Dressed in a long kilt and double crown plus ram’s horns, Caesarion stands in front of his mother to make an offering of incense to the gods. Above Caesarion hover the protective deities Horus (left-hand scene) and the vulture goddess Nekhbet (right); immediately behind him stands a tiny male figure, his ka or spirit. Standing behind her son’s ka, Cleopatra wears a tight sheath dress, tripartite wig and a modius with multiple uraei, solar disc, cow horns and double plumes. She carries a sistrum and the stylised necklace known as the menyt which is associated with Hathor, and she does not have a ka figure. Work on this entirely Egyptian scene started in 30, the year that both Cleopatra and Caesarion died, and was continued under Octavian. The message is not a subtle one. Hathor the mother goddess of the Dendera temple is a single parent: the partner of Horus, who lives in his own temple many miles away at Edfu (Greek Apollinopolis Magna). Each year, at the Festival of the Beautiful Union, the cult statue of Hathor would process to the river and sail to Edfu. Here she would reside in the temple with the father of her child for fourteen days, before returning by river to Dendera. Parallels between the earthly triad of Cleopatra, Caesarion and the absent Caesar, and the divine triad of Horus, Hathor and Ihy/Harsomtus are clear. Meanwhile, at Edfu, scenes carved into the temple walls, and the annual celebration of the victory of Horus over his father’s killer Seth, served to hammer home the message of the avenging royal son.

The Dendera Cleopatra is a deliberate mixture of queen, mother and goddess. In 1873 the novelist and journalist Amelia B. Edwards hired the Philae – a large flat-bottomed dahabeeya boat – and embarked upon a lengthy, leisurely cruise along the River Nile. Four years later she published an eminently readable account of her travels.9 Visiting Dendera, she despaired at the damage wrought by the early Christians, who had hacked away at the stonework in an attempt to erase all trace of the temple’s pagan gods:

…one can easily imagine how these spoilers sacked and ravaged all before them; how they desecrated the sacred places, and cast down the statues of the goddess … Among those which escaped, however, is the famous external bas-relief of Cleopatra on the back of the Temple. This curious sculpture is now banked up with rubbish for its better preservation, and can no longer be seen by travellers. It was however, admirably photographed some years ago by Signor Beati; which photograph is faithfully reproduced in the annexed engraving. Cleopatra is here represented with a headdress comprising the attributes of three goddesses; namely the vulture of Maut [Mut] (the head of which is modelled in a masterly way), the horned disk of Hathor, and the throne of Isis … It is difficult to know where the decorative sculpture ends and portraiture begins in a work of this epoch. We cannot even be certain that a portrait was intended; though the introduction of the royal oval in which the name of Cleopatra (Klaupatra) is spelt with its vowel sounds in full, would seem to point that way …


There was a good reason why Miss Edwards could not see the famous Cleopatra portrait in situ. It did not exist. The ‘queen’ beneath the complicated crown (a vulture headdress topped by a modius crown with multiple uraei, a solar disc, cow horns and the ‘throne’ symbol of Isis) was actually the goddess Isis herself. The Cleopatra cartouche was a modern enhancement, added to a plaster cast of the original scene by an enterprising curator at Cairo Museum.10 Unfortunately, Miss Edwards had allowed her assumed knowledge to influence her perceptions:

Mannerisms apart, however, the face wants for neither individuality nor beauty. Cover the mouth and you have an almost faultless profile. The chin and the throat are also quite lovely; while the whole face, suggestive of cruelty, subtlety and voluptuousness, carries with it an indefinable impression not only of portraiture, but of likeness.

A good description of Cleopatra perhaps, but less appropriate for the healing mother goddess Isis.

The classical authors are agreed that Cleopatra occasionally dressed in the ceremonial robes of Isis. Quite what these robes might have been is not made clear. The traditional Egyptian Isis, as seen at Dendera, wore a simple white linen sheath dress, an assortment of jewellery, a heavy tripartite wig and either her ‘throne’ sign or the vulture headdress, modius, double plumes, cow horns and solar disc borrowed from Hathor. This image may be compared with a marble statue recovered from Alexandria and dated to the mid-second century AD (and now in the Graeco-Roman Museum, Alexandria) which shows a Hellenic Isis wearing a wig of corkscrew curls, a crown composed of a solar disc, cow horns and double plumes, and a flowing woollen chiton or robe covered with a rectangular mantle or shawl tied with a distinctive knot which, as a symbol of magical power, had come to symbolise the goddess. A colourful Graeco-Roman Isis is described in The Golden Ass, written by Lucius Apuleius in c. AD 155. Here, in Adlington’s 1566 translation, Isis, Queen of Heaven, appears to Lucius in a dream:

I purpose to describe her divine semblance, if the poverty of my humane speech will suffer me, or her divine power give me eloquence thereto. First shee had a great abundance of haire, dispersed and scattered about her neck, on the crowne of her head she bare many garlands enterlaced with floures, in the middle of her forehead was a compasse in fashion of a glasse, or resembling the light of the Moone, in one of her hands she bare serpents, in the other, blades of corne, her vestiment was of fine silke yeelding divers colours, sometime yellow, sometime rosie, sometime flamy, and sometime (which troubled my spirit sore) darke and obscure, covered with a blacke robe in manner of a shield, and pleated in most subtill fashion at the skirts of her garments, the welts appeared comely, whereas here and there the starres glimpsed, and in the middle of them was placed the Moone, which shone like a flame of fire, round about the robe was a coronet or garland made with flowers and fruits. In her right hand shee had a timbrell of brasse, which gave a pleasant sound, in her left hand shee bare a cup of gold, out of the mouth whereof the serpent Aspis lifted up his head, with a swelling throat, her odoriferous feete were covered with shoes interlaced and wrought with victorious palme.11

Robert Graves’s 1950 more down-to-earth translation of this same text clarifies the description to a moon-disc crown held in place by twin snakes (evolved cow horns?), and a multicoloured robe with an embroidered hem of fruit and flowers covered with a pleated black mantle tied in an Isis knot. Plutarch confirms this: ‘the robes of Isis are variegated in their colours, for her power is concerned with matter which becomes everything and receives everything, light and darkness, day and night, fire and water, life and death.’12Faced with a choice of two very different costumes, it seems likely, then, that Cleopatra would choose the dress, either Greek or Hellenistic, which would best suit her intended audience.

The Ptolemies never neglected Egypt’s traditional temples. Their support for the native priesthood ensured that the elite Egyptians were in turn able to support the artists and craftsmen who preserved Egypt’s cultural heritage. Kings continued to maintain and restore the cult temples of the state gods, while the elite used their wealth to build stone tombs and commission statues and stelae just as their predecessors had always done, but everything now had a distinct Hellenistic twist. The walls of the elite tombs show Greek-inspired figures participating in traditional Egyptian scenes and accompanied by hieroglyphic texts. The temples which the Ptolemies raised, rebuilt or substantially enhanced at Philae (Ptolemies II and VIII), Edfu (Ptolemies III, VIII and XII) and Dendera (Ptolemy XII) were based on ancient beliefs and designs, yet are instantly recognisable today, even to the non-expert, as Ptolemaic. Their walls are decorated with an increasing amount of hieroglyphic text, almost as if the priests realised the need to preserve their heritage in stone. It is ironic that these, Egypt’s atypical but best-surviving temples, heavily influenced by contemporary Hellenistic architectural thought, have to be used to reconstruct the rituals conducted in Egypt’s ‘purer’ and now vanished dynastic temples.

Their obvious interest in the native gods earned the Ptolemies valuable propaganda points and encouraged national stability. Thebes was far less likely to rebel if the influential priests were happy with their lot. But this was not necessarily their primary consideration. The Ptolemies ran Egypt outside Alexandria as a profitable business and their decision to invest in the temples was a part of their wider decision to keep the traditional bureaucracy functioning. For many centuries the cult temples of the state gods had played an important role in Egypt’s redistributive economy. The system was a simple but effective one. The crown both generated its own income (farming its own lands, operating mines, quarries and workshops, etc.) and collected taxes and rents in both coin and kind. This income was used to pay the crown’s expenses, and any surpluses were stored in the large warehouses within the local palace complexes, where they offered a shield against future bad harvests. Part of the royal income was used to provide offerings to the local temples. Here the god, in the form of a statue, lived in the sanctuary. He was served by priests who cared for him as they might care for a child: he was roused in the mornings, washed, dressed, fed, entertained, fed again and put to bed at night.

The temple, the house of the god, was the one place where the mortal could communicate with the divine, but this communication could be achieved only via the king and his deputies. It was, in theory, the king and the king alone who supplied the god with regular offerings of food, drink, clothing, incense and recitations. The god was capable of accepting or rejecting these offerings, but he could not physically consume anything. His leavings were therefore redistributed among the temple staff (essentially, they paid the temple staff), with any surpluses being stored in the temple warehouses, which also housed the revenue from the temple’s assets. These assets, for a prosperous temple, might include land, peasants, mines, workshops and ships which, distributed throughout Egypt, were either owned outright or leased from the crown. The temple priests administered and accounted for these assets and the gods paid tax on their income and duty on the goods that they manufactured in their workshops. An investment in Egypt’s temples was therefore a thinly disguised investment in the Egyptian economy and it comes as little surprise to find Ptolemies VIII and XII, kings whose reigns were characterised by uncertainty and civil unrest, donating generously to the traditional gods. Cleopatra lacked the time and resources to be the great temple builder that her father had been. However, as well as completing her father’s work at Edfu and Dendera, she built the now-demolished birth house in the Armant temple of Montu, and the barque or boat shrine of Geb at Koptos. She also, as we noted in Chapter 2 (pages 42–3), showed an interest in Egypt’s bull cults.

The dynastic Egyptians had embalmed a wide range of animals (including fish, mice, snakes, crocodiles and bulls) prior to burial in dedicated animal cemeteries. However, during the Late and Graeco-Roman periods, at a time when the traditional Egyptian culture was threatened by foreign influences, interest in the animal cults blossomed. Diodorus Siculus tells the story of one Roman unfortunate, lynched for inadvertently offending against Graeco-Egyptian superstition:

… Once, at the time when Ptolemy [XII] their king had not yet been given by the Romans the appellation of ‘friend’ and the people were exercising all zeal in courting the favour of the embassy from Italy which was then visiting Egypt and, in their fear, were intent on giving no cause for complaint or war, when one of the Romans killed a cat and the multitude rushed in a crowd to his house, neither the officials sent by the king to beg the men off nor the fear of Rome which all the people felt were enough to save the man from punishment, even though his act had been an accident. And this incident we relate, not from hearsay, but we saw it with our own eyes on the occasion of the visit we made to Egypt.13

Greeks and the Romans, misreading the situation, dismissed the animal cults as a primitive form of animal worship. The theology was, as we might expect, far more complicated. The ‘animal’ aspect of a god represented his or her essential nature expressed in easily recognisable terms. To show Hathor as a cow stressed her placid, nurturing nature; it did not mean that Hathor was to be imagined looking or behaving exactly like a cow, and nor did it mean that each and every cow was to be equated with Hathor. Most of Egypt’s deities could be depicted in several equally valid ways, and in many cases a god’s appearance was dependent upon context. Thoth, the scribe of the gods, for example, could appear as either a baboon or an ibis, while Amen of Thebes, who normally appeared in human form, could also be represented by the goose or the ram. Hathor could appear either as a beautiful woman or as a cow. If she was required to participate in a set-piece scene, to sit on a throne to receive an offering, or to rattle a sistrum, she had to have the conventional female body that would allow her to perform these actions – but there was no reason why that human body could not be topped by a cow’s head complete with horns and a crown. Realism was never an issue: in all their work, Egypt’s artists set out to convey the essence of their subjects and, in a land where words were pictures and pictures were words, the image of a cow-headed woman told its own story.

It was perhaps inevitable that animals specifically linked to gods would become imbued with an aura of divinity. Initially only a few animals from each species were singled out. While some temple geese may have symbolised Amen within the precincts of the Karnak temple, for example, most dynastic geese were bred as food. Gradually, however, the idea developed that any animal from a ‘sacred’ class might have its own divine attributes, and Egypt’s temples came to resemble informal zoos. The temple of Thoth at Hermopolis Magna became a sacred safari park, with hundreds of baboons and thousands of ibises wandering around, while the Bubastis temple of Bast was soon overrun with cats. At death these temple animals were mummified, packed into miniature coffins or purpose-made pots, and interred in their thousands in galleries in the nearby desert cemeteries.

The Apis bull, the living embodiment of the Memphite creator god Ptah, had been revered from the beginning of the dynastic age, but little is known of his cult before the New Kingdom, when the 19th Dynasty Khaemwaset, priestly son of Ramesses II, constructed the ‘lesser vaults’, an underground gallery to house the Apis burials in the Sakkara cemetery. The cult grew in popularity until, by the Ptolemaic period, it had assumed a huge significance. By now the bulls were being buried in enormous stone sarcophagi in the ‘greater vaults’, the focus of modern tourist visits to the Memphite Serapeum. At a time when standards of human mummification were declining, increasing attention was being paid to the mummification of sacred animals, and the dead Apis underwent a sixty-eight-day stay in an embalming house in the precincts of the Ptah temple, followed by a series of elaborate rituals (including a journey to the sacred temple lake and a visit to the tent of purification, where the opening of the mouth ceremony was performed) leading to the funeral on the seventieth day. The Ptolemies made a financial contribution to these expensive ceremonies, with Cleopatra donating 412 silver coins plus food and oil at the death of the Apis, son of the cow Ta-nt Bastet.

The Memphite Serapeum lies in the sacred animal cemetery in the Sakkara necropolis, to the north-west of the step pyramid built by the 3rd Dynasty king Djoser. This is a complicated site incorporating a ruined Ptolemaic temple complex, a sphinx-lined processional avenue, a temple built by the Late Period king Nectanebo, and a series of sacred-animal catacombs and cemeteries including the galleries dedicated to the Apis bulls. The Isis cows, the mothers of the Apis bulls, had their own cemetery nearby, with the last cow being interred during Cleopatra’s Year 11. Further catacombs were dedicated to ibis, baboon and falcon burials, while the neighbouring Anubeion (dedicated to the jackal-headed god of mummification, Anubis) and Bubasteion (dedicated to the cat goddess Bast) housed dog and cat burials. The scale of these animal interments is extraordinary: excavations at Sakkara have so far yielded an estimated four million ibis mummies and 500,000 hawks, plus many domestic artefacts and papyri which make it clear that the Ptolemaic Serapeum was a living community with accommodation for priests and lay workers, a palace for the frequent royal visits, and a library and archive second only to the Great Library of Alexandria.

A curious Ptolemaic construction, the exedra, built along the processional avenue of the sphinxes close by the Serapeum entrance, has yielded a semicircular podium displaying seated statues of the more important Greek philosophers and poets. The statues are unlabelled and in a poor state of preservation, but various experts have identified Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle among the figures. Nearby, lining the avenue, is a collection of statues and reliefs connected with the cult of Dionysos: the young Dionysos riding various wild animals; peacocks bearing grapes; mythological creatures including female sphinxes and sirens. The age of the exedra is uncertain, with some scholars dating it as early as the reign of Ptolemy I, others as late as the reign of Ptolemy XII. Its purpose is equally obscure, although there has been some speculation that the Greek sages and Dionysiac beasts may have been charged with guarding the entrance to the original Egyptian burial place of Alexander the Great.

Parallel to the native temples and the animal cults were the Hellenistic temples and the new royal cults, which were primarily designed to appeal to Egypt’s Greeks. The Ptolemaic interest in royal divinity was by no means a new phenomenon. Egypt’s living kings had long been recognised as mortals transformed by the powerful coronation rituals into demigods. At death, mummification made them fully divine. Rising into the heavens, they would twinkle as undying stars in the velvet night sky, sail across the heavens in the flaming sun-boat of Re, or descend to the underworld to rule at one with the king of the afterlife, Osiris. Egypt’s last native king, Nectanebo II, had been profoundly interested in his own divinity. But he lived in difficult times, his throne constantly under threat from the Persians. He set out to prove his piety by building and restoring the cult temples of the state gods; this was a traditional and very obvious means of bringing maat to chaos, establishing links with Egypt’s glorious past, raising finances and boosting national morale.14 Within the temples Nectanebo placed royal statues which had their own priesthoods and were financed by their own endowments. For the first time, it seems, Egypt’s kings were considered worthy of sharing the houses of the gods. Nectanebo simultaneously emphasised his own role as the one true pharaoh by promoting the image of Nectanebo the Falcon: a direct reference to the falcon god Horus, who represented all of Egypt’s living kings. Following the 343 Persian invasion led by Artaxerxes III, Nectanebo fled Egypt, probably heading south, to Nubia. He left behind the impression of a mysterious, semi-legendary figure whose mythology grew with time. Nectanebo appears in The Alexander Romance as a wily magician who befriends Olympias of Macedonia. Aware of the queen’s penchant for snakes, Nectanebo turns himself into a serpent, sleeps with the queen and fathers Alexander the Great. Thus Alexander, son of Nectanebo, was justified in claiming the throne of Egypt.

Alexander appreciated the importance of Egypt’s gods and the priests who served them. The Alexander Romance tells us that Alexander chose to be crowned King of Upper and Lower Egypt by Egyptian priests in the temple of the creator god Ptah of Memphis. This – if true – was a wise move. His conspicuous coronation, an abbreviated version of the traditional Egyptian ceremony, made clear Alexander’s acceptance of the time-honoured rituals and responsibilities of Egyptian kingship while demonstrating the priesthood’s acceptance of Alexander as king. Lest there be any doubt over his sincerity, the new king selected a throne name, Meryamen Setepenre (Beloved of Amen, Chosen of Re), that confirmed his commitment to the Egyptian pantheon. Impressive, and very public, sacrifices in the temples of Memphis and nearby Heliopolis followed. Traditional Greek-style games were held at Memphis, while, 400 miles upriver, the walls of the splendid new barque shrine in the Luxor temple were carved with images of Alexander offering to the gods of his new land. Shown in profile, shaven-headed, bare-chested and dressed in a kilt and crown, the Greek Alexander was indistinguishable from all the pharaohs who had gone before.

Alexander counted Zeus among his remote ancestors, and his mother had for many years dropped strong hints that her son was no ordinary boy. Traditional Greek theology, however, did not accept that a living person could be divine. Now, following his Egyptian coronation, Alexander was officially semi-divine in Egypt, where he was recognised as the son of Amen-Re, father of all of Egypt’s kings. But to be half divine was not enough. Soon after his coronation ceremony Alexander made a 300-mile trek across the Libyan Desert to consult the oracle of Zeus-Ammon in the remote Siwa Oasis. Zeus-Ammon was a ram-headed hybrid of the Greek Zeus and the Egyptian Amen, tinged with more than a hint of the native Libyan god who had originally been celebrated at Siwa. Worshipped in the Egyptian style, Zeus-Ammon was essentially a Greek oracle famed for his accurate pronouncements. After eight days wandering in the desert – contemporary histories tells us that he was guided on his way by friendly crows and a succession of talking snakes, and sustained by unexpected rains – the weary Alexander arrived at the temple and entered the sanctuary with the chief priest, leaving his entourage outside. No one knows what questions Alexander asked; indeed, no one knows how he asked them or how the god responded. But the whole world soon knew how the chief priest had greeted Alexander as the son of Zeus-Ammon himself. The living Alexander was definitely, undeniably, divine.

Ptolemy I developed the link between the royal family and the gods by promoting the cults of Serapis and Alexander, and by instigating a Ptolemaic programme of temple building and restoration which, initially confined to northern Egypt, soon spread southwards. Ptolemy II took things further. His incestuous marriage with his sister mirrored the unions of Osiris and Isis and Zeus and Hera, and led directly to the deification of his late parents. Ptolemy I and Berenice I, descendants of both Dionysos and Heracles, were to be worshipped together as the Theoi Soteres (‘Saviour Gods’). The royal ancestor cults, a new and entirely Graeco-Egyptian focus for worship, were to prove an effective means of channelling the loyalty of the elite of Alexandria and the southern city of Ptolemais Hormou, whose sons were happy to serve as eponymous priests for a year and whose daughters were eager to become priestesses in the cults of the deified queens. Outside the Greek cities the royal cults were quietly absorbed into the traditional theology, as many other gods had been before.

In 272/1 the Ptolemies acquired an enhanced divinity, as Ptolemy II and Arsinoë II were officially designated living gods. Together they became the Theoi Adelphoi (‘Brother-Sister Gods’). Arsinoë II, sister-wife of Ptolemy II, was queen consort of Egypt for less than seven years. Within the royal family she entirely supplanted her husband’s divorced first wife, Arsinoë I, and at Karnak we can see her stepson Ptolemy III making offerings to the dead Arsinoë II as if she had been his birth mother. A gold coin issued between 285 and 246 made Arsinoë the first Egyptian queen to be featured on her husband’s coinage. She was also the first Ptolemaic queen to be shown accompanying her husband as he offered to the gods, the first to wear the double uraeus which distinguished her from her predecessor, Arsinoë I, and the first to design her own Egyptian-style crown: an elaborate combination of the king’s red crown (the crown of Lower or northern Egypt), a solar disc, two tall feathers, the cow horns associated with Hathor and Isis, and the ram horns associated with Amen. The crown, which somewhat resembles the one worn by the earth god Geb, suggests an interest in Egypt’s dynastic history and, maybe, some understanding of traditional Egyptian solar theology, which is reinforced by references to Arsinoë as a ‘daughter of Amen’ and ‘daughter of Shu’. A colossal granite statue of Arsinoë recovered from the Gardens of Sallust, Rome, shows her as an entirely Egyptian queen with a now-vanished crown and a double uraeus still on her brow. The statue inscription confirms that she is:

The princess, inherent; daughter of Geb, the first, the daughter of the bull, the great generosity, the daughter of the king, sister and spouse, woman of Upper and Lower Egypt, image of Isis, beloved of Hathor, Mistress of the Two Lands, Arsinoë, who is beloved to her brother, beloved of Atum, Mistress of the Two Lands.15

Arsinoë’s image, both Greek- and Egyptian-style, living and posthumous, spread throughout the Ptolemaic empire on coins, cult vases, statues and reliefs, while back home her name was celebrated in the growing number of towns named, or renamed, Arsinoë. By 256 the reclaimed land of the Faiyum had been renamed the Arsinoite nome, and Arsinoë, assisted by the crocodile god Souchos, had become its patron deity. An early death, in c. 270, had merely enhanced Arsinoë’s status. She was posthumously deified as an individual in her own right, with her personal cult based at Alexandria, where she was served by a priestess known as the basket-bearer (kanephoros). As temples were raised with shrines to both the deified Arsinoë and Arsinoë as half of the Theoi Adelphoi, the canny Ptolemy taxed Egypt’s vineyards to pay for his sister’s new cult. Arsinoë was now one of the Sunnaoi Theoi (‘Temple-Sharing Gods’), and her statue was officially placed beside that of the main deity in all of Egypt’s Greek and Egyptian temples. The Mendes Stela, recovered near Cairo in 1871, shows a scene of Ptolemy II, accompanied by his second wife and son, offering to a ram, to the gods of Mendes and to the deified Arsinoë. The text beneath details the dead queen’s metamorphosis into a goddess:

His Majesty [Ptolemy II] decreed that her image be erected in all the temples. This pleased the priests, for they were aware of her noble attitude towards the gods, and of her excellent deeds to the benefit of all the people … Her name was proclaimed as the beloved of the Ram, the goddess Philadelphos, Arsinoë.16

Arsinoë’s association with sacred rams (an association with the god Amen and the divine Alexander the Great rather than a specific ram cult) is confirmed by coins which show her with a ram’s horn discreetly curling around her ear. Our best preserved images of the deified queen come from the Philae temple. Here just one scene, in Room V, shows Arsinoë standing alone to receive an offering from her husband. In other scenes she appears as the companion of Isis. Arsinoë wears a sheath dress, a full wig, a vulture headdress and her own red crown. She carries a sceptre and the ankhsign of life. She is entirely Egyptian in appearance and virtually identical to Isis. Two and a half centuries after Arsinoë’s death, Cleopatra VII would occasionally don Arsinoë’s personal crown and display the double cornucopia, the Greek horn of plenty, on the reverse of her coins and on at least one of her (assumed) statues. As the double cornucopia was already strongly identified with Arsinoë II, being found on her coins, statues and vase images, Cleopatra’s choice of symbols suggests that she was deliberately identifying herself not only with Isis, but also with the politically powerful and still-popular Arsinoë II, who was herself identified with Isis.

Arsinoë II clearly had an enormous influence on the developing political and religious role of the Ptolemaic queen. Cleopatra I expanded the role further, drawing on the traditional Egyptian theology which allowed a mother to serve as regent for her infant son by establishing the tradition of the queen regent. Born a Syrian princess, Cleopatra outlived her husband Ptolemy V (died 180), and ruled alongside her son Ptolemy VI. She became a goddess in her own lifetime, taking the title Thea, and was the first queen to mint her own coins. Her reign marks another substantial increase in the power of the Ptolemaic women, and a corresponding decrease in the power of the Ptolemaic men.

In 168 the goddess Isis spoke in a dream to Hor of Sebennytos, who recorded his dream on an ostracon. This was discovered in modern times in the ruins of the Sakkara Serapeum, where Hor had lived and worked in the ibis shrine of Thoth:

I was told in a dream: Isis, the great goddess of Egypt and the land of Syria, walks upon the face of the waters of the Syrian sea. Thoth stands before her and takes her hand. She has reached the harbour at Alexandria. She says ‘Alexandria is safe against the enemy. Pharaoh resides within it with his brethren. His eldest son wears the crown. This son’s son wears the crown after him. The son of the son of the son of this son wears the crown after him, for a great length of days. The proof of this is that the queen bears a male child.17

The Egyptians were famed throughout the ancient world for their oracles and their dream interpretations. Hor’s dream, however, needs little in-depth analysis. It illustrates the general acceptance of a strong link between the goddess Isis and the mortal queen who is destined to become the mother of the next Horus king. In this case the queen in question is Cleopatra II, daughter of Cleopatra I and, at the time of the dream, sister-wife of Ptolemy VI. Isis was only half correct in her prophecy. The Ptolemaic dynasty would indeed continue, but the sons born to Cleopatra II would all die untimely deaths and it would be Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra III, who maintained her line.

The late second century BC saw the royal house plagued by near-disastrous inter-family strife as brother kings Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VIII competed for the throne. This dynastic uncertainty had the effect of strengthening rather than weakening the role of their queens, with Ptolemy VIII in particular realising that an association with a powerful divine consort could only enhance his own position. As consort to Ptolemy VI, Cleopatra II earned the respect of the Alexandrians and achieved a status approaching political equality with her brother. As consort to Ptolemy VIII she was challenged by her daughter Cleopatra III, who was also married to Ptolemy VIII. Ptolemy favoured the younger Cleopatra, yet was unable to strip his sister of her power, and his simultaneous queens became known as Cleopatra the Sister and Cleopatra the Wife. As an abandoned wife, Cleopatra II claimed sole rulership of Egypt as Clepatra Thea Philometor Soteira (Cleopatra the Mother-Loving Goddess, the Saviour).

Cleopatra III was, even by Ptolemaic standards, a particularly ruthless woman. On 18 February 142 she gave birth to her stepfather’s son, a rival to her half-brother born to Cleopatra II. The day was considered a particularly auspicious one, as it was also the birth date of the new Apis bull. Cleopatra was rewarded with a string of religious promotions and, in 140, marriage. Even before she became queen, Cleopatra was given a personal divinity. Following her marriage she became the living embodiment of Isis. The earlier Ptolemaic queens Arsinoë II, Berenice II, Arsinoë III and Cleopatra I had each, to a greater or lesser extent, been associated with Isis as the mother of Horus. This, however, was very different. Cleopatra III was totally identified with the goddess in all her aspects: queen and goddess essentially became one. The new cult was served by a male priest known as the ‘Holy Colt of Isis Great Mother of the Gods’; this was a significant development, as earlier queens’ cults had been served by priestesses. Cleopatra was by now the most divine of the Ptolemaic queens. Yet her role as Isis incarnate was apparently not enough. Following the death of Ptolemy VIII she awarded herself three further cults intended to reflect specific aspects of her divine persona. Records now make reference to priestesses known as the ‘crown-bearer’ (stephanophoros), the ‘torch-bearer’ (phosphoros) and the priestess of ‘Queen Cleopatra, the Mother-Loving Goddess, the Saviour, Mistress of Justice, Bringer of Victory’. To modern eyes this is incomprehensible: why would the all-powerful Isis wish to add to her already boundless divinity? No explanation is offered, but it seems that Cleopatra may simply have wished to ensure that her priestesses outranked the individual Alexandrian cult priestesses of her predecessors: the ‘basket-bearer’ of Arsinoë II, the ‘victory-bearer’ (athlophoros) of Berenice II and the priestess of Arsinoë III.

A century after the death of Cleopatra III, Cleopatra VII used a combination of ancient Egyptian and recent Ptolemaic tradition to develop her own powerful divinity. Slowly but steadily, she rewarded herself with religious titles. In 36 she became the Thea Neotera (Younger Goddess, a title which suggested an association with Cleopatra Thea, daughter of Ptolemy VI and highly successful queen of Syria. Two years later she was formally proclaimed the Nea Isis (New Isis), a title that distinguished her from the earlier Ptolemaic incarnation of Isis, Cleopatra III, while linking her to her father, the New Dionysos. The cult of Cleopatra-Isis was to prove popular throughout Egypt, and long after the introduction of Christianity a statue of the goddess queen was still being maintained on Philae Island. A graffito scribbled by Petesenufe, Scribe of the Book of Isis, in AD 373 tells us, ‘I overlaid the [wooden] figure of Cleopatra with gold.’

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