Ancient History Sourcebook:
Lucius Apuleius (c.155 CE):
Isis, Queen of Heaven
The cult of Isis was one of the most important of the empire
wide cults in the later empire, and perhaps its greatest monument
is in Lucius Apuleius very strange novel, The Golden Ass. Here
Isis appears to Lucius, and claims to be all goddesses. We see
here the workings of an intense religious syncretism. Isis is
here the Queen of Heaven, and principal of all the gods and goddesses.
When I had ended this prayer, and made known my needs to the Goddess,
I fell asleep, and by and by appeared unto me a divine and venerable
face, worshipped even by the Gods themselves. Then by little and
little I seemed to see the whole figure of her body, mounting
out of the sea and standing before me, and so I shall describe
her divine appearance, if the poverty of my human speech will
allow me, or her divine power give me eloquence to do so.
First she had a great abundance of hair, dispersed and scattered
about her neck, on the crown of her head she wore many garlands
interlaced with flowers, just above her brow was a disk in the
form of a mirror, or resembling the light of the Moon, in one
of her hands she bore serpents, in the other, blades of corn,
her robe was of fine silk shimmering in divers colors, sometime
yellow, sometime rose, sometime flamy, and sometimes (which sore
troubled my spirit) dark and obscure, covered with a black robe
in manner of a shield, and pleated in most subtle fashion at the
skirts of her garments, the welts appeared comely, whereas here
and there the stars peaked out, and in the middle of them was
placed the Moon, which shone like a flame of fire, round about
the robe was a coronet or garland made with flowers and fruits.
In her right hand she had a timbrel of brass, which gave a pleasant
sound, in her left hand she bore a cup of gold, out of the mouth
whereof the serpent Aspis lifted up his head, with a swelling
throat, her sweet feet were covered with shoes interlaced and
wrought with victorious palm.
Thus the divine shape breathing out the pleasant spice of fertile
Arabia, disdained not with her divine voice to utter these words
"Behold Lucius I am come, thy weeping and prayers has moved
me to succor thee. I am she that is the natural mother of all
things, mistress and governess of all the elements, the initial
progeny of worlds, chief of powers divine, Queen of heaven, the
principal of the Gods celestial, the light of the goddesses: at
my will the planets of the air, the wholesome winds of the Seas,
and the silences of hell be disposed; my name, my divinity is
adored throughout all the world in divers manners, in variable
customs and in many names, for the Phrygians call me Pessinuntica,
the mother of the Gods: the Athenians call me Cecropian Artemis:
the Cyprians, Paphian Aphrodite: the Candians, Dictyanna: the
Sicilians , Stygian Proserpine: and the Eleusians call me Mother
of the Corn. Some call me Juno, others Bellona of the Battles,
and still others Hecate. Principally the Ethiopians which dwell
in the Orient, and the Egyptians which are excellent in all kind
of ancient doctrine, and by their proper ceremonies accustomed
to worship me, do call me Queen Isis. Behold I am come to take
pity of thy fortune and tribulation, behold I am present to favor
and aid thee. Leave off thy weeping and lamentation, put away
thy sorrow, for behold the healthful day which is ordained by
my providence, therefore be ready to attend to my commandment."
Lucius Apuleius: Metamophoses or The Golden Ass.
Book 11, Chap 47. Adapted by Paul Halsall from the translation
by Adlington 1566 in comparison with Robert Graves translation
of 1951. Complete version online at ESERVER - http://eserver.org/books/apuleius/bookes/eleven.html
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© Paul Halsall May 1998