Let’s talk a bit about the Isis aretalogies.
The aretalogies are those first-person statements in which the Goddess details Her many accomplishments and gifts to humankind. Here’s an except from one in case you need a little reminder:
I am She that riseth in the Dog Star.
I am She that is called Goddess by women.
For me was the city of Bubastis built.
I divided the earth from the heaven.
I showed the paths of the stars.
I ordered the course of the sun and the moon.
I devised business in the sea.
I made strong the right.
I brought together woman and man.
I appointed to women to bring their infants to birth in the tenth month.
I ordained that parents should be loved by children.
I laid punishment on those disposed without natural affection toward their parents.
I made with My brother Osiris an end to the eating of men.
I revealed mysteries unto men.
The word “aretalogy” is, as you may be able to tell, Greek. Arete means “virtues” and logy is from logos, “word,” so aretalogy is “speaking about virtues.” In aretalogy, the Deity is usually speaking in the first person about Her or His own virtues. But that’s not always so. For instance, the Aretalogy of Maronea is not spoken by the Goddess Herself, but by someone whom She healed. In Her honor, he speaks of Her virtues.
Isis is one of the few Deities for Whom we have quite a number of aretalogies. As with many Things Scholarly, there are disagreements about which of these documents should be considered aretalogies, so there’s no canonical count. But we can think in terms of six to ten. (That does not count the many, many hymns to the Goddess.)
The existing copies of these important documents are all written in Greek and date (we think) from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd or 3rd century CE. Some of the scholars who have studied them have looked for ancient Egyptian precedents for the ideas in them, others believe them to be purely Greek in origin. Dieter Muller, a German Egyptologist who studied the texts extensively, took 56 phrases that refer to Isis in the aretalogies and tried to trace them to their sources. He concluded that nine were, in both form and content, Egyptian in origin, seven were Egyptian but expressed in a Greek way, 24 were of Greek origin, and 16 uncertain, but possibly Greek. Another scholar, Jan Bergman, traced each of the statements to an original Egyptian concept claiming that the statements cannot be properly understood unless placed in context with Memphite religion and the relationship between the Egyptian Deities and Egyptian royalty. Louis Zabkar, an Italian-born Egyptologist who studied the hymns to Isis at Her Philae temple, believes that the Philae hymns contributed to the content of the aretalogies. In a epilog to his book about Isis’ Philae hymns, Zabkar takes another look at Muller’s work and expands the number of Egyptian-original aretalogical statements to 23, making them almost equal to the number of Greek-original statements. More recent scholars, too, have traced more and more of the self-statements to Egyptian originals.
Two of the aretalogies (from Kyme & Andros) state that they were copied from a stele “before the temple of Hephaestus [that is, Ptah] at Memphis.” Scholars thus sometimes refer to this as the M-text and believe that it could be the original from which all the other aretalogies were either copied or developed.
Some researchers have suggested that the thoughts of a famous Greek atheist contributed to the content of the Isis aretalogies. His name was Prodicus and he was a Greek philosopher (5th century BCE). His idea was that the gods were not divine at all, but were instead brilliant human beings from a primordial time who were so beneficial to humankind that people deified them. We usually hear of this idea tied to the name of a Greek mythographer named Euhemerus (4th century BCE). In fact, we even give it his name: euhemerism. But Euhemerus most likely got the idea from Prodicus.
Euhemerism was one of the ways the ancient Pagan Deities survived in the Christianized West. Since They (or they) were merely human beings, their myths could be retold—and even be used to teach “Christian” virtues. This definitely happened with Isis. (Isis Magic details some of the ways the story of Isis remained a part of the culture during this time.)
But what does all that have to do with the aretalogies? Some scholars (Fritz Graf; Albert Henrichs) suggest that this type of Prodican euhemerism—especially in relation to the cultural gifts of the Deities—was going on in the Eleusinian cults at that time. And, since Isis and Demeter were being equated, the Eleusinian euhemerism was applied to Isis and shows up in the Isis aretalogies. You can see it strongly in the Maronea aretalogy, which may be the oldest of these Isiac documents that we have. (It does not, however, explain the “I-am” structure of the Kyme aretalogy, which is very unlike a Greek hymn and much more similar to the starker statements of Egyptian hymns.)
Now, it’s not that the Eleusinians who took up some of Prodicus’ ideas were atheists themselves. We could say that they were merely adopting one of the memes of their day. They liked the idea of their Deity being the source of important aspects of culture and incorporated it.
Some scholars believe the Isis aretalogies were created as propaganda to help spread the gospel of Isis throughout the Mediterranean. At least to some extent, that’s probably so. But there are other ideas, too. I’m reading an article right now that argues they were read aloud as part of initiation into the Mysteries of Isis. To me, the argument isn’t persuasive due to the strict secrecy of the Mysteries. If the aretalogy was recited as part of the key epiphany of the Goddess in Her Mysteries, it would likely have been kept secret rather than carved in stone and set up before the temple of Ptah in Memphis. But it’s a very intriguing idea nonetheless.
Interestingly, we have a dedication from the island of Delos made to Isis and Anubis by an “aretalogos.” If there was a regular priestly function as a Speaker of Aretalogies, perhaps the recitation of an aretalogy was part of the standard worship of the Goddess rather than part of Her Mysteries. Another suggestion is that they were read during Her great feasts.
Whether PR or liturgy, it seems most likely that both Egyptian and Greek elements formed the conceptual basis of the Isis aretalogies. Memphis was one of the places where Egyptian and Greek ideas came together, and apparently without rancor. Here, key religious ideas of both Egyptians and Greeks blended, and could have resulted in the M-text.
But I wonder whether personal elements could have figured into the creation of the aretalogies as well. At least some of you have had Her speak to you in this way, telling you of Her arete in first person. It is a powerful experience; not likely to be forgotten. Perhaps you’ve even written it down to commemorate it.
For, as She has always done, Isis can speak directly to our hearts, telling us Who She Is, and especially Who She Is for us right now.