Buried in 20 feet of volcanic ash in 79 A.D., the “Great Mother,” Aset, or Isis, is still rising from the ashes in Pompeii. Two women, an archaeologist and a biologist, studying excavations at the prehistoric Temple of Isis in Pompeii, found evidence that private rituals to appease Aset occurred in the Roman empire shortly before Mount Vesuvius erupted.
According to The Science Times, it’s “the first archaeozoological examination of an Isis temple in Italy.” However, the Temple of Isis was discovered in the 18th century, one of the first discoveries in 1764. Paintings and sculptures are now at the Museo Archaeologico in Naples, many of which have depictions of Egyptian deities (see picture above.)
Video about the Temple of Isis in Pompeii by Martin Faulks:
The remains of charred birds suggest priests were conducting rituals to appease the Goddess known as the “Great Mother” in Greece over the downsizing of the temple.
“Archaeologist Chiara Corbino from the Institute of Heritage Science in Italy explains that the ritual may have been conducted by three Isis priests within one day. It may have been done to placate the deity over the temple’s shrinking,” reported the Science Times.
Winged Goddess Aset and Ritual Birds
Aset is often depicted with wings like an angel, and the rituals involved many winged birds, which may have been eaten during the rituals. Thus, the evidence shows birds were part of Aset worship outside of ancient Egypt. It’s known that people throughout the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean, from England to Afghanistan, worshipped her. Previously, similar sacrificial remains were found in Greece, Spain and Germany.
“The study of Pompeii is the first archaeozoological investigation of an Isis sanctuary in Italy,” said Sabine Deschler-Erb, a historian and archaeologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
For context, they studied ancient frescoes depicting birds like the sacred Ibis. One fresco from Herculaneum near Pompeii shows the Ibises alive at the foot of a burner and a priest dressed as the protective Egyptian deity Bes doing a ritual dance.
Other frescoes depict Oriris with snakes, including a snake in a tree, much like the story of the Garden of Eden. It’s fascinating to see the two snakes associated with the Staff of Hermes alongside the tree. However, since nothing was written down, it’s not clear what they knew about the esoteric meaning. They may have known the original meaning of the symbols or the deeper knowledge may have been lost in translation or taken literally.
Still, others show the Egyptian Apis bull, a priestess wearing the mask of Anubis (image above) and an unusual depiction of Harpocrates or Horus with a priest also carrying two staffs much like Hermes or Thoth (see picture below).
There are so many clear influences from ancient Egypt here.
Remains of Birds at the Temple of Aset
The remains of charred birds include:
- Turtle doves
“This work confirms that bird sacrifice was an important part of the Isis rituals,” the authors wrote in the study.
Aset, Thoth and Their Greek Counterparts
Also, they found evidence of pigs and two clams. According to Phys.org, the frescoes were likely painted after A.D. 62, when an earthquake destroyed the temple.
Thousands of birds were mummified in Egypt between 650 and 250 B.C., including Ibises offered to Thoth, depicted as having an Ibis head, some say a metaphor for wading in the cosmic waters. His Egyptian name Djehuty translates to “he who is like the ibis.” His Greek counterpart is Hermes, also depicted at the Temple with winged feet.
Meanwhile, Aset, Isis, or Eset is the Greek form of an ancient Egyptian word for “throne.” Her headdress has a throne shape which can be paired with the opposite inverted shape on the head of Goddess Nepthys, symbolic of death, while Aset may represent birth. Thus, symbolic aspects of each other and life’s full-circle journey.
Nephthys is one of the goddesses depicted on the temple walls in a depiction of the reception of Io by Isis. The paintings are said to have “themes of salvation and liberation.” Meanwhile, the horns seen here are also symbols, possibly of finding divine enlightenment, much like depictions of Moses with horns.
Birds and Their Lofty Symbolic Meaning
Possibly, Aset’s Greek counterpart could be Hera, Cybele, or Aphrodite, as the cultures incorporated and adapted the stories. As the stories were assimilated into new cultures, the original meaning or intent could change as well as the look of the figures.
The Goddess in ancient Egypt was often symbolically represented as the Egyptian vulture, while Horus, Aset’s human child, was depicted as a falcon.
Curiously, some historians suggest that since birds were sacrificed at the temple and not cows, it indicates Asest wasn’t “an important god in Roman worship.” However, remains of cattle and fish were found with those of birds at a site in Spain. According to another archaeologist, the similarity of the rituals may indicate communication between the worshippers. At any rate, some Egyptian goddesses were symbolically depicted as cows.
Birds are metaphors for higher beings rising above the earthly material realm. Thus, the animal depictions aren’t literal but ways to teach advanced spiritual concepts. However, the winged beings are much like depictions of angels, although the mainstream may call her a “bird deity” followed by a “cult.”
Romans Decide to Destroy the Temples
Later in 54 BCE and 30 BCE, the Roman senate issued proclamations to destroy the temples and bring more control to the state. However, there was resistance, and the temple was rebuilt after the earthquake anyway. It was one of the only ones wholly repaired.
“The inclusion of women as priests, the devotion to fertility and procreation, and the intrigue of the initiation rites proved to be attractive qualities to the female citizens of Pompeii,” wrote author Cassidy Meyers.
Worshipping Aset or Isis was open to people of all walks of life with women having equal status to men. All could find equal redemption and salvation. And the ancient stories influenced many cultures and the dominant world religions practiced today.
“Epigraphic and literary sources show that women, children, slaves, freedmen, traders, veterans, soldiers, officers, low and high municipal officials, and members of the imperial family’ all adhered to the cult of Isis.”
Here is a video by TED-Ed about Isis or Aset and the story of the seven scorpions.