The Center for Tebtunis Papyri logoMagic, Medicine and Science header

 

This is an archived exhibit of The Bancroft Library, University California, Berkeley.

Bancroft Library logo

 

A Town Full of Gods

 

Illustrated Demotic FragmentSoknebtunis was not the only deity worshipped at Tebtunis. As indicated in the declaration of priests and revenues (P.Tebt. 298), priests were also responsible for the cults of "Isis, Serapis, Harpocrates, and the associated gods." Besides the officiated cults of temples, communities, households, and individuals participated in the cults of a variety of other deities. Objects such as stelae, statues, figurines, plaques and amulets excavated from the cemeteries and dwellings of ancient Tebtunis attest to the richness and variety of religious life there.

Ancient Egyptian religion offered hundreds of regional gods whose characteristics overlapped, resulting in mutual identification. In one aspect of traditional pharaonic religion, Isis, together with her husband/brother Osiris and her son Horus, could represent a paradigm of dynastic succession. The rule of Egypt would pass from the dead king, represented by Osiris, to his son, the living king represented by Horus. Isis as queen and mother would guarantee a smooth succession and stable political environment. In the Ptolemaic period Osiris was supplemented by the Ptolemaic deity Serapis and the young Horus was often depicted as Horus-the-child, Greek Harpocrates. At Tebtunis Isis was assimilated with the the Egyptian fertility goddess Renenutet; a small temple was dedicated to her just outside the Soknebtunis temple.

Egyptians, Greeks and Romans likewise tried to understand one another's gods in relation to the deities they knew from their own traditions. In this fashion, Isis was assimilated to the Graeco-Roman goddess of sexuality Aphrodite/Venus, or to goddesses of fertility and abundance such as Greek Demeter. Isis absorbed or was equated with so many other divinities that she acquired a universalistic character.

 

 

Limestone stela of Isis-Thermouthis Limestone stela of Isis-Thermouthis
Roman period (1st century BCE – 4th century CE)

An ancient Egyptian cobra goddess, Renentutet was associated with fertility and was special nurse and protector of the pharaoh. In her manifestation as Thermouthis, she was combined with Isis, mother of Horus, who also was regularly depicted nursing. This stela depicts Isis-Thermouthis nursing Horus-Sobek as a baby crocodile.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–20299

 

Painted plaster votive plaque of the goddess Isis Painted plaster votive plaque of the goddess Isis
Roman period (1st century BCE – 4th century CE)

This fragmentary plaque in Hellenistic style originally depicted Isis nursing her infant son, Harpocrates. She can be recognized by her characteristic hairstyle, veil and fringed shawl. It was discovered in the Roman town.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–20448

 

Small marble torso of Aphrodite or Venus Small marble torso of Aphrodite or Venus
Roman period (1st century BCE – 4th century CE)

The depiction of Greek Aphrodite Anadyomene ("Rising from the Sea") or the Roman "Birth of Venus" was a popular theme in sculpture. This example was discovered in the Roman town.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–20350

 

Illustrated Demotic Fragment Illustrated Demotic Fragment
Ptolemaic period (3rd BCE – 1st centuries BCE)

This recently discovered fragment demonstrates the opportunities awaiting researchers and students in Berkeley's papyri collection. It contains an as yet unedited demotic (Egyptian language) text and three illustrations. The dwarf god Bes was the protector of children and pregnant women. The composite god Tutu (here with a leonine body) is identifiable by his name written below his image; his protection was especially sought against disease. The human and bovine group was identified recently as Mithras slaying the bull. The cult of Mithras was a "mystery" religion of uncertain origin; popular in the Roman period, there is little evidence to support its origin before the first century CE and it was never particularly prominent in Egypt. The group might simply depict a priest leading a bull to sacrifice.


P.Tebt. frag. 13,385

 

Woman with tambourine and camel from Roman town Woman with tambourine and camel from Roman town Woman with tambourine and camel from Roman town
Roman period (1st BCE – 4th century CE)

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–20336, 6–20340

 

 

 

orans figure from Roman tomb mounted Harpocrates dog from Roman tomb Seated orans figure, mounted Harpocrates, and dog from Roman tombs
Roman period (1st BCE – 4th century CE)

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6–20323, 6–20324, 6–20328