One of the things I’ve been looking at lately is the continuity between the ancient Egyptian nature and worship of Isis and its later expression when Her religion spread throughout the Greco-Roman world.
There are many such points of continuity, in my opinion, but one that caught my attention recently is Isis’ enduring expression as a Lady of Light.
The ancient Egyptians held Festivals of Lights in which the entire town or city would light oil lamps that would burn throughout the night—entirely equivalent to our own stringing of lights at Halloween or Yule. (My imagination sees Egyptian neighbors vying with each other over elaborate displays of lights.)
The historian Herodotus (5th century BCE) writes about such a Festival of Lights at Sais, the city of Neith. He says:
“At the times when they gather together at the city of Sais for their sacrifices, on a certain night they all kindle lamps many in number in the open air round about the houses; now the lamps are saucers full of salt and oil mixed, and the wick floats by itself on the surface, and this burns during the whole night; and to the festival is given the name Lychnocaia (“Lamp Lighting”). Moreover those of the Egyptians who have not come to this solemn assembly observe the night of the festival and themselves also light lamps all of them, and thus not in Sais alone are they lighted, but over all Egypt: and as to the reason why light and honour are allotted to this night, about this there is a sacred story told.”
—Herodotus, Histories, Book II, Chapter 62
There were Festivals of Light at the New Year and on the five epagomenal days that led up to it. On these days, the birthdays of Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys were celebrated and lights were placed in tombs for the dead. If we can judge by Herodotus’ statement, then other Festivals of Lights were celebrated in which Egyptian homes were illuminated as well as tombs.
I read somewhere that the “sacred story” attached to the Sais festival was that the lights were to assist Isis in Her search for the body of Osiris, but so far I haven’t found confirmation on that. It might just be a scholar’s best guess. I’ll let you know what I find out.
In the meantime, lets leap forward about 800 years and move from Egypt to Rome.
The 4th-century-CE Calender of Philocalus lists a festival called the Lychnapsia Philocaliana on August 12th. As you may be able to guess, it was a lamp-lighting festival. The scholars who have studied it seem reasonably certain that it was an Isis festival because a.) the August 12th date of this lamp festival is at roughly the same time as the great Egyptian Festival of Lights at the epagomenal birthdays of the Deities, b.) Isis was extremely popular in Rome and anything Egyptian would have been considered Isiac as well, and c.) there are “Egyptian Days” designated on the calendar several days before and several days after the Lychnapsia.
Furthermore, the theory is that the August 12th date (due to some calendrical calculations with which I will not bore you) corresponded to the 4th epagomenal day—and the 4th epagomenal day is the birthday of Isis.
So there you are. In 354 CE, at Mediterranean latitudes, Isiacs could celebrate the birthday of Isis by the lighting of lamps in Her honor. Next month, modern Isiacs can do the same—perhaps by lighting candles and even putting them on a birthday cake for Her, thus joining today’s traditions with ancient ones. (Want to know when Sirius rises in your area so you can time Her birthday locally? Click here.)
Such interpretations and updating of our traditions is precisely what we human beings have always done. It enables us to connect with the richness of the past and to have traditions that continue to make spiritual and emotional sense to us.
If this scholarly theory about the birthday of Isis is correct, during those 800 years from 5th-century-BCE Egypt to 4th-century-CD Rome, the form of the Isis lamp-lighting rite no-doubt changed, the language changed, the images of the Goddess changed, and yet the essence of the festival was retained: the birth of Isis was celebrated with illuminations. In Egypt, these lamps may have illuminated the paths of the dead or kept the chaos of the end of the year at bay until a brand new light—the light of Sirius, the Star of Isis—rose to signal the arrival of the New Year. Hundreds of years later, in Rome, the lamps may have been symbols of the illumination brought by Isis to the souls of Her initiates and devotees or the Divine Light She shone upon them every day. What do the illuminations of Isis mean to you today and how will you celebrate?