Sex in the Worship of Isis

The cult of Isis has for some time been understood to be a religion of sexual immorality.  This view is the result of ancient Roman writers, such as Juvenal, Catullus and Josephus, whose writings include complaints that women within the cult are of easy virtue.  Josephus (AJ, 18.3.4) tells the story of a man who wanted to have sex with a worshipper of Isis.  He pretended to be the god Anubis, who was often worshipped with the goddess, and came to her in the temple of Isis.  Apparently when the Emperor Tiberius found out he had the priests executed and the statue of Isis thrown in the river.  However, the shear gullibility of the participants and the lack of any other evidence suggests that the veracity of this story is doubtful.  And when one put the complaints of these writers in context one finds that their complaints stretch to bring all women, or all non-traditional temples, within their scope of moral decay (@ 1. a)









Isis with Harpokrates and Anubis.  Isis 35


Heyob shows that other writers of the same period have provided  us with evidence that the cult of Isis was in fact quite strict in ensuring the continuing chastity of its members as part of the rites of the cult.  Herodotus (2.64) tells us how strict the Egyptians were about keeping their temples undesecrated.  Worshippers were not allowed to have intercourse in temples or enter a temple after  intercourse, without washing.  Priests, as well as ordinary worshippers, all had to follow strict rules of chastity.  To get well, Tibullus' (1.3.25-26) Delia ritually purifies herself by washing so she may come cleanly to a "clean" bed.  Propertius (2.33.2) complains that he is without the services of his mistress Cynthia as she is required to undergo ten days of chastity in service to the goddess.  And the famous Lucius from Apuleius' Metamorphoses (11.19) fears initiation because he has heard how hard it is to keep chaste, as is required by the rituals of becoming an initiateAlso, unlike other mystery cults, there were very few phallic symbols in the cult of Isis.  Symbols like the sistrum, processions, shaved heads, linen clothes, prayers, water and incense, appear puritan and severe.  While the precincts of the temples of Isis were probably not always as pure as Isis could have wished, the cult itself cannot be seen as sexually immoral (@ 1. b).


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