Dispelling the myth #3 – Herodotus, Cambyses, and Egyptian religion

Isis became the most important goddess of the later periods of Egypt’s history. She became more accessible to commoners through the funerary texts, and subsequently became more important than Osiris. Isis took on the attributes of other deities, and from the New Kingdom, instead of the traditional throne hieroglyphic sign that spelled her name, she was shown wearing the cow horns and sun disc normally attributed to the goddess Hathor. Statuettes of Isis nursing Horus, such as MMA 04.2.443 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were common in the first Persian Period, and display this iconography.

MMA 04.2.443 Statuette of Isis nursing Horus (Metropolitan Museum of Art online collections database).


By the Ptolemaic Period at the Temple of Philae, the prominent goddesses Mut, Hathor, Sekhmet, Nekhbet and Neith had merged into Isis. Leading up to this peak in Isis’ popularity, and indeed during the first Persian occupation, the statuettes of Isis nursing the child Horus were made to celebrate the goddess’ role as the mother and protector of her child, and were an extremely common theme in Late Period statuary.

Isis was also venerated in her role as protector, caring for the deceased, as can be seen in the iconography of a funeral stele from the first Persian period found at Saqqara.

Funerary stele from Saqqara (Mathieson et al. 1995, 27 and Plate V).

In the upper register of this stele, Isis is shown in her more ‘traditional’ role, caring for the deceased with her sister, Nephthys. This is a common genre of scene in Egyptian funerary art and can be seen, with slight differences, on other contemporary stelae, and also in tombs, such as that of Siptah, the 19th dynasty pharaoh.

Scene from KV47 (Theban Mapping Project, Corridor C images).

While the stele assists in showing that Isis’ popularity was sustained and continued to grow, it also provides evidence of a Persian impact upon Egyptian religion that the other evidence discussed does not feature. Combined with the typically Egyptian genre of the upper register are some distinctly Persian features such as the depiction of the male in the lower register and the throne on which he is sitting. Particularly noteworthy is the winged sun disc in the lunette, which is believed to be a representation of Ahura Mazda, a Persian deity, in the form of the Faravahar, as seen in the art of Persepolis, a palace built by Darius I in Persia.

Carved image of Faravahar at Persepolis (Wikimedia Commons).

Evidently while upholding the traditional Egyptian religious beliefs and practices, the Persians were able to combine them with their own beliefs, creating visual effects that appear Egyptian until they are more closely scrutinised.

The Persians were able to successfully retain Egypt as a part of their immense empire for over 120 years, and when examining the artefacts from the period it is evident that much effort was directed towards respecting the traditional religious beliefs and practices. In terms of the state religion, the Egyptian cult of Neith was continued and she remained in her Saite appointed place as head of the pantheon at her cult centre of Sais. Contrary to the reports of Herodotus, the Apis cult was sustained, and there is a wealth of evidence to support that Cambyses, Darius I and Xerxes respected the rituals associated with this long-term cult.

Focussing on the lower levels of society provides evidence for practices that were not only continued, but actually increased in popularity during the first Persian occupation – the bronze votives indicate increased personal worship of the sacred Apis bull, a custom that had been growing in popularity since the Second Intermediate Period. Similarly, the cult of Isis continued to climb towards its Graeco-Roman peak, and evidence of the contribution to the ‘hundreds of thousands’ of statuettes of the goddess nursing her divine son comes from the 27th dynasty.

While the majority of the evidence indicates that the religious beliefs and practices of Achaemenid Egypt were a continuum of the traditions set in place by the preceding Saite dynasty, artefacts such as the stele from Saqqara show that the Persians were able to draw in their own beliefs, combining them with those of the native Egyptians in order to achieve a somewhat subtle hybrid of religious iconography.

The Persian kings recognised that to effectively rule Egypt, they must successfully assume the role of pharaoh, and that a necessary part of this feat was to respect and support the Egyptian religious beliefs and practices. By continuing the cult practices and rituals, the kings received support and co-operation from figures such as Udjahorresnet in order to avoid rebellion. While they were not able to completely put aside their own beliefs causing them to ‘bleed’ into the native beliefs, as in the case of Ahura Mazda, the subtle and unobtrusive manner by which the Persian religious features combined with the Egyptian enabled the native beliefs and practices to continue unhindered.

Next week: Why did Hatshepsut choose to use two statues of maned sphinxes at her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri?


Wilkinson, Richard. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames and Hudson.

Lesko, Barbara. 1999. The Great Goddesses of Egypt. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Thomas, Susanna. 1999. “A Saite Figure of Isis in the Petrie Museum.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 85: 232-235.

Mathieson, Iain. et al. 1995. “A Stela of the Persian Period from Saqqara.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 81: 23-41.

Briant, Pierre. 2002. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Translated by Peter T. Daniels. WinonaLake: Eisenbrauns.

Theban Mapping Project. Images for KV 47 (Siptah): Corridor C. Available from: http://www.thebanmappingproject.com/sites/browse_kvimages_615.html. Accessed 17 07 2011.



3 comments on “Dispelling the myth #3 – Herodotus, Cambyses, and Egyptian religion

  1. It seems that Herodotus was once overly venerated and may have fueled arguments for those who at times wished to furnished oversimplified theses. But, while we can’t take Herodotus on faith, I do believe it well to remember that the Greeks demonstrated tremendous affinity and empathy for Egyptian beliefs, and true understanding is always founded upon an appreciative posture. The behavior of the Persians toward Egypt could have been pragmatic, as with the US after the conquest of Japan. There was no great appreciation for Shinto beliefs on the part of the American government, but to completely set aside the Emperor (rather than simply his claim to divinity) could have resulted in a catastrophic war of attrition with the civilian populace. The purport of Herodotus’ statements may have actually been a rare expression of the hushed Egyptian voice. If I had not had an Egyptian girl friend for some years, I would never have suspected the animosity that most Egyptians felt toward Mr. Mubarak. The cow as an attribute of Isis is at its most pronounced when Thoth replaced the severed head of the goddess when she lost it to the blade of Horus for intervening in the conflict with Set. Somehow, when nothing else will do, the love of Isis has a magical way of keeping conflicting interests emulsified. But, as peaceful inclusive Egyptian capitulation again and again gave way to foreign monotheistic pressures, the personality of Isis expanded into a sort of monotheism of its own, you know? The fashion of late seems to axiomatically dismiss Herodotus but, science sometimes bears him out, like the widely unbelieved account of Mt. Vesuvius by Pliny the Younger. I think Herodotus was a man who reported what he saw and what he heard, and the tendency to regard his accounts with much suspicion will eventually prove to be one more swinging pendulum of academic consensus.

    • Thank you for your comments.

      I’d just like to reiterate that I am not trying to discredit Herodotus at all – as I already stated when I replied to the comments that were posted on the first part of this series, much of what Herodotus tells us is accurate.

      All that I present here is my own opinion, which may or may not be right – after all, when dealing with a civilisation that can no longer speak for themselves, who is to say that any of us are correct?

  2. […] the Late Period, Isis was a leading goddess in Egypt.  She held powers of magic, protection, healing, seafaring, motherhood, eternal life, and more.  […]

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