Isis in the Ancient World Paperback – 17 Jun 1997
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Distinguished for its learning and its use of fascinating and little-known iconographic material... The importance of this study, both for the history of religions and of Graeco-Roman society, lies in the evidence, assembled and interpreted, of a widespread desire to worship a goddess who embodied maternal compassion and omnipotent wisdom.(History Today)
This is in many ways a pioneering book by an author who knows how to use archaeological as well as literary evidence. It is an important contribution to an understanding of the religious attitudes of ordinary men and women who lived under the rule of the Caesars... [It is a ] well-written, well-planned, and finely illustrated work [that] contributes powerfully to our knowledge of significant aspects of the Graeco-Roman world.(Times Literary Supplement)
Particularly stimulating is the attempt to assess the impact of the Isis cult on Christianity. Here Dr. Witt is able to deploy his wide knowledge of the religion of the Byzantine era and its sequel in Greek Orthodoxy, and he is also able to correct the severe underestimation of the moral appeal of the Isis cult which has hitherto prevailed among historians of Christianity.(J. Gywn Griffiths Journal of Egyptian Archaeology)
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This is the first study to document the extent and complexity of the cult's influence of Graeco-Roman and early Christian culture.See all Product Description
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Unfortunately, the book doesn't much discuss a lot of the puzzling questions about the Isis cult, like what exactly her followers meant when they said Isis was the same as other goddesses like Artemis or Aphrodite (though, to be fair, today's scholars are still trying to puzzle that one out). It also tends to treat the evidence uncritically and to take as given some outdated assumptions about the Isis cult. Although it's hard to point to particular problematic sections, one example is the last chapter, where Witt indiscriminately lists just about every similarity and point of contact between Christianity and Isis worship. Many are, or may be, genuine points where one influenced the other, while others are pretty much irrelevant. Overall, this book feels subtly out of date, a product of a generation of scholars—Witt was born in 1910—who didn't grasp the Isis cult or Roman religion in general as well as today's experts do.
What's frustrating is that there's no comprehensive look at the Isis cult that's replaced this one. There have been two big waves of scholarship on Isis since Witt's book came out (the first in the 1970s and the second in the past 15 years), but most of what they've produced is not friendly to the lay reader. One of the exceptions is The Cult of Isis in the Roman Empire by Malcolm Drew Donalson, which is more up-to-date than Witt, though not as much as I'd like. Les Cultes Isiaques Dans Le Monde Greco-romain is written by Laurent Bricault, who probably knows Isis studies better than anybody alive, but it's only useful if you read French, and because I don't, I can't review it.
If you've gotten the basics about Isis from somebody like Donalson or Witt, the first place to go for detailed academic studies is the series of Isis conference volumes: Nile into Tiber, Isis on the Nile, and Power, Politics and the Cults of Isis. The first two conference volumes, De Memphis à Rome and Isis en Occident, cover more basic territory than the later three, but they're mostly in French. Isis and Sarapis in the Roman World is also useful for countering some of the assumptions made by earlier scholars like Witt.
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