Worship of this Egyptian goddess spread from Egypt to England

Egyptians adored Isis, divine protector of the dead, for two millennia before her cult spread beyond the Nile to the rest of the Roman Emprie.

In this 13th-century B.C. mural from the tomb of Horemheb in the Valley of the Kings, the goddess Isis wears a headress of cow horns and a sun disk.
DEA/G.SIOEN/GETTY IMAGES

Archaeologists working in London in 1912 might have been surprised. When they discovered a first-century A.D. Roman jug bearing the inscription “Londini ad fanum Isidis—London, next door to the Temple of Isis.” Best known as an Egyptian goddess, finding signs of Isis worship so far from North Africa might seem odd. But this goddess proved popular enough to transcend her original Egyptian centers of worship and expand to all corners of the known world.

Isis was loved by ancient Egyptians for her fierce devotion to her husband Osiris and her son Horus. Her cult first began to spread around the Mediterranean following the establishment of Hellenist rule in Egypt in the fourth century B.C. Then as Roman power expanded, worship of Isis went even farther afield.

By the second century A.D., the Roman writer Apuleius would glorify her as the “mother of stars, the parent of seasons, and the mistress of all the world.” Yet while she meant many things to many cultures across the Roman world, her roots lie in a very specific place and time: the Nile Delta at the dawn of ancient Egyptian history. (In ancient Egypt, women rulers kept society stable in times of trouble.)

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