The Later Development of Egyptian Religion

PRIOR to the suppression of their religion by the Christians, the priests of Egypt travelled the known world. The extent of their influence may be seen in the widespread worship of the gods of Egypt beyond its borders. The Egyptian Mysteries spread to Greece and later to Rome and from there to the whole of the Roman Empire. A temple to the goddess Isis, known as the Iseum, was erected in Pompeii in 105bce. The Emperor Caligula built another in Rome, where she was worshipped for almost 500 years.

In the time of the Ptolomies (332bce - 30bce), the priests of Alexandria created a synthetic religion. They combined elements of the Greek and Egyptian faiths, uniting the mysteries of Eleusis with those of Egypt. They created a composite god whom they named Serapis (by joining together elements of Osiris and Apis) as a consort for Isis, and renamed Horus Harpocrates. Together, Serapis, Isis and Harpocrates formed a trinity of gods suitable for acceptance by the peoples of both Greece and Rome. The trinity was usually joined by the dog-headed Anubis, representing Hermes-Mercury.

The emperor Domitian rebuilt and enlarged a temple dedicated to Isis in 92ce. She was considered one of the principal goddesses of Rome in the first century before the Common Era. Her worship extended throughout Europe and the North of Africa. To date evidence has been discovered in Spain, France, Germany, Holland and Britain. In Britain her altars were built by the soldiers of the Sixth Legion, who were stationed in York.

With the passage of time the purity of the Egyptian religion declined, being influenced by the beliefs already present in Europe. Its form changed, the rituals became more important than the doctrines which inspired them. The Egyptian Mystery schools of Alexandria did however influence both the cabbala and the Koran.

Examples of the outcropping of Egyptian belief through the veneer of present-day Christianity are many and varied. There is the traditional reverence of the medieval witch for the cat and the goat, both of which had a prominent place in Ancient Egypt. Indeed the cat still has a special place in the lives of many, quite distinct from any other domestic animal. The customs associated with the bringing in of the harvest have close links with Osiris. The swallow, sacred to Isis, is held in great esteem throughout Europe. In Germany and France it is thought to arrive, flying from Paradise, on 25 March, the feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin. (The feast of Isis was held at the time of the Spring Equinox. Horus, a solar god, was born at the Winter Solstice, and ceremonies marking the death of Osiris, the harvest god, were held at the Autumn Equinox.) When Christianity finally displaced the earlier religion many believers simply transferred to the Virgin Mary the attributes of Isis, and to the child Jesus those of Horus. The links between Judaism and Christianity and Egyptian religion, however, are many and varied.