Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Transformation of Pharaonic deities to household gods in Roman Egypt

The iconography and style of depictions of Horus and other traditional Egyptian deities were influenced by Hellenistic and, later, Roman traditions of representation, often combining trappings of power in ways that are striking to modern observers.

"Roman period depictions of  the falcon-headed Horus have been  found  in  a  variety  of   materials  throughout  the  empire,  from  Egypt  to  Oxfordshire.  Usually  dressed  in  Roman  military costume, falcon-headed Horus is sometimes depicted on horseback, but more often standing, while seated figures are rare. Although smaller figures may have been dedicatory, larger stone and metal sculptures were probably objects of  public or private devotion." - Polychromy in Roman Egypt: A study of a limestone sculpture of the Egyptian god Horus by Joanne Dyer, Elisabeth R. O"Connell, and Antony Simpson.

Sir Harold Bell observes, "...a new religion, whether introduced by a conquering people or established as the result of a religious reform, never quite obliterates the beliefs and customs existing before its appearance.  Some of these beliefs and customs linger on underground, and so far from disappearing entirely with the passage of time they may even acquire new vitality as the first impulse of the new creed dies away." 

Opposing the traditional “decline of paganism/triumph of Christianity” model most often used to describe the Roman period in Egypt, David Frankfurter, in his text, "Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance",  argues that the religion of Pharaonic Egypt did not die out as early as has been supposed but was instead relegated from political centers to village and home, where it continued a vigorous existence for centuries.

Even though the Roman emperor Augustus introduced restrictions on Egyptian temples that lead to their economic decline, the worship of traditional Egyptian deities continued in the domestic sphere including the consultation of oracles during the first three centuries of Roman occupation.

Frankfurter points to the continuing role of priests in Egyptian society despite the decline of religious institutions and the use of hieroglyphs for religious and administrative record keeping. Their charismatic leadership, their ritual expertise, and their knowledge of healing and guidance was still valued by the people since the day to day needs of the people - fertility, safety, and health of both individuals and their livestock - did not change.  Only their collective identity as it related to their religious systems evolved. This was accomplished with new divine names and the introduction of Roman iconography. Although divination under Roman administration could be accomplished by any literate individual who could read the sacred texts, no longer encoded in hieroglyphs but written in Coptic Egyptian or Greek, the fact remained that the most literate individuals were still the priests. Religious authority simply shifted from places and buildings to texts and persons in the form of independent "holy men." This resulted in the domestic worship of traditional deities up to the 5th century CE. 

Early Egyptian Christianity was eventually able to capitalize on this existing religious infrastructure. Frankfurter observed that Biblical texts and Christian lore were used not for their ideological content but for oracles and grimoires (magical texts) so what is described in the Coptic texts as the demonization and defeat of local spirits are not victories of one ideology over another but, rather, merely ritual innovations. 

Archaeologist point to the dozens of figurines found in Roman Period burials as evidence of this evolution in Egyptian worship. I find the figurines of Horus depicted in Roman armor to be among the most interesting. I think the ancient Egyptians would have identified the parallel between Horus, the son of Osiris, with Augustus and his descendants as sons of the deified Julius and hence the blending of iconography, especially with the introduction of the Roman emperor cult empire-wide during the reign of Augustus.  I also think it interesting that spectroscopy studies of the terracotta sculpture of Horus in Roman attire at the British Museum revealed the figure's chiton was painted green, the color of rebirth in the ancient Egyptian tradition.  However, the pigment was composed of celadonite, a common green pigment found in Roman art, but virtually unknown in dynastic Egypt. 

For those of you interested in examining this topic further, I would suggest exploring the posts and databases of "The Coptic Magical Papyri: Vernacular Religion in Late Roman and Early Islamic Egypt" project.  This ongoing scholarly effort is a five-year research project (2018-2023) under the direction of the Chair of Egyptology at  Julius Maximilian University Würzburg.  A team  consisting of Korshi Dosoo (research group leader), Edward O. D. Love, and Markéta Preininger are studying the corpus of Coptic  “magical texts” – manuscripts written on papyrus, as well as parchment, paper, ostraca and other materials, and attesting to private religious practices designed to cope with the crises of daily life in Egypt. There are about five hundred of these texts which survive, dating to between the third and twelfth centuries of the common era. Their website points out these documents address " the realities rather than the ideal of religious practices and beliefs as they were experienced and carried out in daily life. They provide rich information about the experiences of people from the periods they document – the transitions from traditional Egyptian religion to Christianity and Islam, the diffusion and interaction of different forms of Christianity (“gnostic” and orthodox, Miaphysiste and Dyophysite, cults of saints and angels), and conceptions of the human and divine worlds – how human experiences such as happiness and success, suffering and sickness, love and conflict were understood and negotiated."

Their English-version website is available here:

If you wish to read the full research paper Polychromy in Roman Egypt: A study of a limestone sculpture of the Egyptian god Horus, it is  available from: 

Limestone seated figure of the Egyptian falcon god Horus wearing Roman military dress, from Egypt, Roman period, Roman Empire: Power & People, Leeds City Museum, UK courtesy of Carole Raddato

Limestone seated figure of the Egyptian falcon god Horus wearing Roman military dress, from Egypt, Roman period, courtesy of the British Museum.

Reconstruction of the pigments detected on the Limestone seated figure of the Egyptian falcon god Horus wearing Roman military dress, from Egypt, Roman period, now in the collections of the British Museum.

Roman period copper-alloy figure of the Egyptian god Horus, standing and wearing a nemes headdress and military costume now in the collections of the British Museum, courtesy of the museum.

Bronze figurine of Horus attired as Roman emperor with radiate crown suggestive of Sol Invictus, 2nd century CE, now in the collections of The Louvre in Paris. Image courtesy of the museum and Wikimedia Commons.

Shallow dish with high relief figures of Isis and falcon-headed Horus in Roman attire, possibly 2nd century CE, Egypt now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The curator there points out the feathered neck of the Horus figure suggests disintegration of pharaonic conventions for combining animal and human figures.

Egyptian relief of the God Horus in Roman style armor fighting the evil God Seth in crocodile form, 4th century CE, now in the collections of The Louvre in Paris, image courtesy of the museum.

Bronze figurine of Horus in Roman armor wearing the crowns of upper and lower Egypt at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston courtesy of the museum.


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