Throughout the ages, Greece and Egypt enjoyed countless interactions, mainly after the New Kingdom period (c.1550–1069 BC). We can find numerous references to Egypt in Classical Greek literature, while Egyptian influences on Greek culture, religion and literature remain visible throughout antiquity. This article will explore some of the Greco-Egyptian literature extant in papyri and inscriptions, with particular focus on the religious influence of Egypt in Late Antiquity. Of course, the topic of Greco-Egyptian interaction reaches far beyond the scope of a single article. So I will take a selective approach, by analysing a few examples from Greek hymns to the Egyptian goddess Isis.
Greece and Egypt share a long and complex history of mutual interaction in the past. One might think of the trade between the Minoans (later taken over by the Mycenaeans) and the Egyptians. Although there is no mention of Egypt in the oldest Greek literary accounts, i.e. the Homeric epics, it is far from absent in Greek culture. In one version of the Trojan myth, Helen was abducted not to Troy, but to Egypt, where she stayed waiting for her husband Menelaus, while Paris takes a ghostly simulacrum of her back to his fatherland. Euripides elaborates this version of the myth in his play Helen (412 BC).
Similarly in mythology, Io, the daughter of Inachus (the mythical founder of Argos), was driven in her madness to Egypt, where Zeus impregnated her with his breath. She then gave birth to her son Epaphus, who was stolen by the Curetes. Egypt also occurs in the myth of Danaus and his daughters: the great-grandsons of Epaphus are Danaus and Aegyptus, and the daughters of Danaus, the Danaids, when forced to marry the fifty sons of Aegyptus, murdered them. Their escape from Egypt and arrival in Argos was described by Aeschylus in his Suppliants (463 BC). Also, the poet Bacchylides (518–451 BC), one of the canonical Nine Lyric Poets, writes:
χρυσῷ δ’ ἐλέφαντί τε μαρμαίρουσιν οἶκοι,
πυροφόροι δὲ κατ’ αἰγλάεντα πόντον
νᾶες ἄγουσιν ἀπ Αἰγύπτου μέγιστον
πλοῦτον· ὣς πίνοντος ὁρμαίνει κέαρ.
Then gleam his houses with gold and ivory
And wheat-laden ships bring him
great wealth from Egypt o’er the sunny sea;
Such is the dream of him that drinks trans.
(Bacchylides 20B, 13–16, trans. J. M. Edmonds.)
These lines come from a dithyramb in praise of Alexander, the son of Amyntas – Alexander I of Macedon. Also known as “Alexander the Philhellene”, he ruled the kingdom of Macedonia between 497 and 454 BC. Ships are here said to bring great wealth from Egypt; grain was of course one of the chief Egyptian exports. But Egyptian wealth was not merely material: according to tradition, many of the sages of Archaic Greece travelled to Egypt to acquire wisdom and gain that ancient culture’s learned traditions.
According to Herodotus (1.30), and Plutarch (Solon 2.4) as well, the Athenian statesman, legislator and poet Solon (c.630–560 BC) went to Egypt to learn from that country’s priests. Similarly, Pythagoras of Samos (570–495 BC), the polymathic founder of Pythagoreanism, was believed to have visited there for the same reason. Similar claims have been made for Thales of Miletus (c.626/3–548/5 BC), Eudoxus of Cnidus (390–340 BC), as well as the most famous of all Atheni’an philosophers, Plato (428–348 BC). In Book 2 of his Histories, Herodotus describes Egyptian geography, history, and customs at some length – even if the reliability and accuracy of his account admittedly might be thought questionable in some respects.
Naucratis, situated in the Nile Delta, is the oldest Greek colony on Egyptian soil, founded by Milesian traders around the 7th century BC. Indeed, Herodotus mentions (2.152–4, 163) the presence of a Greek diaspora among the Egyptians. According to him, Ionian and Carian mercenaries were brought by Psammetichus I (663–609 BC), who granted them land with the right to settle, in exchange for their service. Their communities were located near Pelusium.
Herodotus also mentions a Greek diaspora that Pharaoh Amasis II (570–526 BC) moved to Memphis with another group, referred to variously as the Hellenomemphites or the Cariomemphites, depending on their place of origin. At first, both the Hellenomemphites and Cariomemphites lived in a district called Hellenion. Although members of this diaspora tried initially to maintain their own discrete cultural identity, by degrees the Greeks began to assimilate and intermarry with the local population.
By the time of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), they were essentially indistinguishable from the surrounding native Egyptian population. Yet at least some of the Hellenomemphites appear to have maintained some contact with mainland Greeks: fragments of Greek literary works, such as the Persae of Timotheus of Miletus (446 357 BC) have been found among the debris of their places of burial. Among the less literary texts to have survived on papyrus are spells and curses, such as the Curse of Artemisia, dated to the 4th century BC, written in the Ionian dialect of Greek. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after the Macedonian general Ptolemy I Soter (367–282 BC) secured the Egyptian throne for himself and established the Ptolemaic dynasty (305–30 BC) a new wave of Greek immigrants settled throughout Egyptian territory.
Egypt, whether under Ptolemaic or Roman rule, remained a bilingual or even multilingual country, as was inevitable, given the range of its ethnic diasporas. With the advent of the Ptolemies’ rule, Greeks immigrated to Egypt in increasing numbers; one notable result was the Coptic language, a synthesis of Demotic Egyptian and Ancient Greek. The Ptolemies favoured Greek over Ancient Egyptian: the kings mainly spoke Greek and used interpreters to address the population. Such eccentrically philhellenic policies allowed Alexandria to develop into a vibrant cultural centre; throughout the rest of Egypt, Greco-Egyptian bilingualism became common, as did intermarriage between Egyptians and Greeks. This seems to have been a largely rural phenomenon: by contrast, the metropolis of Alexandria remained solidly Greek. Yet even there the Greek language underwent significant development in phonology and (to a lesser extent) morphology and syntax, as can be seen in surviving papyri.
The sands of Egypt have helped preserve a great deal of Greco-Egyptian literary evidence. At Oxyrhynchus alone, around half a million papyri have been recovered, allowing us access to an immense range of miscellaneous documents featuring everything from Classical literature, through accounts of legal disputes, and magical writings, to explorations of Christian theology and spirituality. But can we call these texts Greco-Egyptian?
We obviously cannot regard a manuscript of Archilochus’ elegies, Sappho’s lyrics, or Apollonius’ Argonautica as “Graeco-Egyptian” just because they were found in Egypt: these are merely Greek texts that were probably copied locally. On the other hand, a Greek hymn to Isis or Serapis surely ought to be referred to thus, if it has a visible relationship to Classical Egyptian hymns, religion or culture generally. Indeed, in this context, the Hymn to Isis written by Mesomedes of Crete (2nd cent. AD) is quite controversial. For, although it is addressed to an Egyptian goddess, the hymn should not properly speaking be considered Greco-Egyptian, because Mesomedes treats Isis as he would any Greek deity, associating her with Demeter. 
Hymns are especially abundant among surviving Greco-Egyptian texts, not least hymns known as “aretalogies”, especially in honour of Isis, and sometimes Serapis. An ‘aretalogy’ is a poem (or hymn in prose) written in praise of some divine figure’s deeds. Most Greco-Egyptian examples seem to be written in prose, with only a few composed in a meter; even so, they all maintain authentically hymnic traits.
The oldest of these is the Maroneia Aretalogy, dated to 100 BC. One of the longest aretalogies written to Isis is over 150 verses long, and was found inscribed on a tablet that was discovered on the island of Andros (one of the Cyclades), and now resides in its archaeological museum. The hymn was composed in dactylic hexameters which combine the Doric, Homeric and Aeolic dialects of Greek. (See Peek (as n.5) 79–83.)) The hymn is a first-person description in the voice of Isis: she describes the deeds she has done and the good she provided for the world she governs. Although this Isis aretalogy is heavily indebted in formal and generic terms to the Greek hymnic tradition, it mentions other Egyptian gods such as Osiris, and Egyptian places of worship such as Bubastis. These Egyptian religious beliefs are expressed here in Greek terms and within Greek literary conventions. Despite a being Greco-Egyptian poem, this aretalogy also has some Roman background, owing to the association of Isis and Osiris with the sun and moon, respectively. Such an association seems to be poorly attested in Classical Egyptian culture and mythology.
Another aretalogy to Isis (SEG 9:192) is composed in iambic trimeters and dated to the 2nd century AD. It praises Isis as the greatest goddess, presenting her as a primordial being responsible for the good state and condition of the world. This hymn was found in the ruins of the Telesterion (Great Hall) of Isis in Cyrenaica. Unfortunately, the text is not fully preserved, with only 23 verses surviving. The poem addresses both Isis and Serapis, especially the former. Like the Andros hymn, this text elaborates creatively on the first-person narrative style present in other aretalogies, avoiding the repetitive litany style used in other Isis aretalogies. Here even the stars do not begin their celestial journey until they receive the command from Isis to do so:
Οὐδ’ ἄστρα γὰρ φοιτῶσι τὴν αὐτὴν ὁδόν,
ἂν μὴ ἐξ ἐμοῦ λάβωσιν ἐντολ[ὰς πάρος].
And for the stars do not walk their path
until they received commands from me before. (SEG 9:192, my translation)
Other notable aretalogies dedicated to Isis have been found in Cymae, Ietica, and Nysae. Although found in different places around the Mediterranean, these texts bear many similarities in structure and style, as well as some identical verses. The aretalogies come in the form of a litany, often in the first person, with heavy, near constant repetition of ἐγὼ εἰμὶ (egō eimi, “I am”) or a similar expression in the appropriate tense and mood at the beginning of each line. The Cymaea Aretalogia consists of 57 verses, the Ietica Aretalogia of 30, while the Nysaea Aretalogia can boast only nine lines.
These poems seem to be depend on a common source, although their inter-relationship is unclear. Whatever the realities of composition, none is a particularly original poem; they are merely formulaic hymns of praise to the goddess for the great deed she has performed for humanity and the entire cosmos, at all possible levels.
At this point, let us move from aretalogies to other hymnic texts that differ in style. An excellent example of this is the Oxyrhynchus hymn to Isis in P.Oxy.1380, only partially preserved. The author praises Isis’ deeds by addressing her directly, as we may see in the following verses:
Κυρία Ἶσι, μ[ε]γίστη θεῶν, πρῶτον ὄνομα, Ἰοῖ Σῶθι· τὸ μεταίωρον κρατεῖς κ[αι] ἀμ[έ]τρητον· ἐ[πι]νοεῖς καὶ τὰ [.]. ν[..]θωτα ὑφῆναι· σὺ καὶ τὰς σώα[ς γυ]ναῖκας ἀνδράσι συνορμισθ[ῆν]αι θέλις· οἱ πρέσβεις ἅπαντες ἐ[ν] Η[. .]κτω θύουσι.
Lady Isis, greatest of the gods, first of names, Io Sothis; you rule over the mid-air and the immeasurable; you devise the weaving of…; it is also your will that women in health come to anchor with men; all the elders at [E…ctus] sacrifice. (142–50, trans. B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt)
A very odd poem, of which only ten verses survive, is a hymn to Anubis from Cius in Asia Minor written around the 1st century AD. The poem was composed in dactylic hexameters in “Koine”Greek, the demotic form of Greek that was common throughout the Roman Empire and served as the language of the New Testament. Although the hymn begins with an address to the god Anubis, it soon shifts towards praise of Isis. It is an excellent example of Greco-Egyptian syncretism, since the Egyptian gods connected to the myths of Isis are given precise Greek equivalents.
It should be noted that there occur in the text some inconsistent syncretisms in Isis’ birth and upbringing. According to the Egyptian birth myth of Isis, her father was Geb, the primordial earth deity, while her mother was Nut, the sky-goddess. Nut bore Isis, Osiris, Set, Nephthys, and – according to some accounts – also Horus, on the primordial ocean, represented by the goddess Nunu. But in the Greek hymn Isis is born from Uranos, the Greek male sky deity, similarly on the waves of the primordial ocean. The hymn ascribes Uranos his Orphic epithet Εὐφρονίδης, which allows the reader to assume that the hymns portray the sky god as male. Thus the reader is confronted with a significant change in the account of Isis’ birth: according to the Egyptian myth, she was born of a sky goddess, while in the Greek version, she is born of a sky god.
The last group I want to address consists of four Hymns by “Isidorus” that were discovered in Narmouthis (now Medinet-Madi), a complex of ruins near the Fayum Oasis. The poems were inscribed on four pilasters by the entrance of the temple of Isis, probably written in the early 1st century BC. Three of the four are hymns dedicated to Isis, the triad worshipped there, and the last is a poetic encomium praising Amenemhat III, the sixth king of the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom, who founded Narmouthis during his reign (1860–1814 BC). Isidorus composed all four hymns in a language that is close to Koine, implementing some vocabulary of the Doric, Ionic and Homeric Greek dialects; the first and third are composed in dactylics hexameters, the second and fourth in elegiac couplets. Isidorus invokes Isis as a saviour goddess who provides a good harvest for her worshippers. The religious background focuses on vegetational cycles, cosmic order, the Nile, and the growth of crops:
σοῦ τε χάριν συνέστηχ’ ὁ πόλος καὶ γαῖα ἅπασα
καὶ πνοιαὶ ἀνέμων καὶ ἥλιος ὁ γλυκυφεγγής.
σῆι δυνάμει Νείλου ποταμοὶ πληροῦνται ἅπαντες,
ὥρηι ὀπωρινῆι, καὶ λαβρότατον χεῖθ’ ὕδωρ
γαῖαν πᾶσαν ἔπι, ἵν’ ἀνέγλιπος καρπὸς ὑπάρχῃ.
Because of you heaven and the whole earth have their being; and the gusts of the winds and the sun with its sweet light. By your power the channels of Nile are filled, everyone, at the harvest season and its most turbulent water is poured on the whole land that produce may be unfailing. (1.9 – 13, trans. V. Vanderlip.)
This passage is one of many in the three hymns where Isidorus praises Isis for her governance, grace, and the growth of plants.
I have sought in this piece to draw attention to the historical interactions that occurred between the Greeks and Egyptians, from the Archaic Greek period onwards. As these gained momentum during the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, the convergence of the two cultures resulted not only in the establishment of an important cultural and literary centre in Alexandria, but also in a distinctive literary current that amalgamated the Greek literary tradition with Egyptian culture.
This collision of two cultures becomes prominent in literary accounts, such as papyri, inscriptions, and, most notably, the hymnic texts authored by Greeks in honour of Egyptian deities, particularly Isis. It is evident how Greek poets, on encountering Egyptian culture, sought to incorporate its elements into their own poetry. Their works are testimonies to the evolving religious and social landscape, which was was shaped by the clash of two pointedly different cultures. Greco-Egyptian literature, although not the only locus of cultural encounters in Egypt – as magical and Christian texts are also important witnesses – is a vital source for how Greek and Egyptian culture, religion, and society evolved through their mutual interactions.
Marc-Thilo Glowacki holds a degree in Classical Philology and Theology from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, and he is presently a student of General Literature. His academic pursuits are centred around the realms of Greek religion, philosophy, and astrology, with a concurrent focus on Patristics. He has a keen interest in the fields of cosmology, sacrificial themes, and the intricate intersections between religion and astrology.
J. Dieleman & I. Moyer, “Egyptian literature,” in J.J. Clauss & M. Cuypers (edd.), A Companion to Hellenistic Literature (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester/Malden, MA, 2010) 429–47.
F.C. Grant, Hellenistic Religions: The Age of Syncretism (Liberal Arts Press, New York, 1953).
R. Merkelbach, Isis Regina – Zeus Sarapis: Die griechisch-ägyptische Religion nach den Quellen dargestellt (B.G. Teubner, Leipzig, 1955).
I. Rutherford (ed.), Greco-Egyptian Interactions: Literature, Translation, and Culture, 500 BCE – 300 CE (Oxford UP, 2016).
D.J. Thompson, “The Ptolemies in Egypt,” in A. Erskine (ed.), A Companion to the Hellenistic World (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester/Malden, MA, 2005) 105–20.
S. Torallas Tovar, “Greek in Egypt,” in E.J. Bakker (ed.), A Companion to the Ancient Greek Language (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester/Malden, MA, 2010) 253–66.
|⇧1||See for instance R.I. Hicks, “Egyptian elements in Greek mythology,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 93 (1962) 90–108.|
|⇧2||Since Zeus so keenly desired Io, Hera, his wife, was driven to jealousy and transformed Io into a heifer. She was then put under the watch of the hundred-eyed Argus, who was later slain by Hermes. Cows were highly regarded among the Egyptians, as Hathor went into heaven as a cow and then became the wife of Ra, the sun-god. Hathor was later identified with Isis, which might have played some role in the development of the Greek myth.|
|⇧3||Mesomedes is a troublesome author among the Late Antique Greco-Roman poets due to many problems with the authorship of his poems. We know he was a poet on the court of emperor Hadrian (ruled AD 117–38) and there are few accounts on his life. Although considered spurious, the Hymn to Isis is often ascribed to him. On the poetry of Mesomedes see T. Whitmarsh, “Cretan Lyre paradox: Mesomedes, Hadrian and the poetics of patronage,” in B.E. Borg (ed.), Paideia: The World of the Second Sophistic (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2004) 359–77), and E. Bowie, “Greek poetry in the Antonine age,” in id., Essays on Ancient Greek Literature and Culture, (Cambridge UP, 2023, 283–319). On the Hymn to Isis of Mesomedes, see R. Merkelbach, Isis Regina – Zeus Sarapis: Die griechisch-ägyptische Religion nach den Quellen dargestellt (Teubner, Leipzig, 1955). Some of his texts are available in M. West, Ancient Greek Music (Oxford UP, 1994) and J. Regenauer, Mesomedes. Übersetzung und Kommentar (Peter Lang, Frankfurt-am-Main, 2016).|
|⇧4||On the Maroneia Aretalogy, see D. Papanikolaou, “The Aretalogy of Isis from Maroneia and the question of Hellenistic ‘Asianism’,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 168 (2009) 59–70. There is a French translation available in L. Bricault, Recueil des inscriptions concernant les cultes isiaques (De Boccard, Paris, 2005).|
|⇧5||Text and further information on the topic are available in W. Peek, Der Isishymnus von Andros und verwandte Texte (Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, Berlin, 1930). A French translation is available in Bricault (as n.4.|
|⇧6||It is difficult to determine whether the association of Isis and Osiris with the sun and the moon is a feature originating from Egyptian tradition or a Greco-Roman variation. In the light of Classical Egyptian mythology, it seems that this process occurred more during the Ptolemaic rule and the subsequent Roman rule in Egypt, considering that Isis is here linked with the moon. Classically Re was the Sun-god, but there are some references to his being linked with Osiris. Plutarch, despite being a Greco-Roman author, does not associate Isis and Osiris (in his De Isidi et Osiride)with the moon and the sun; in the case of Osiris, he even distinguishes him explicitly from the sun. See further G. Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology (ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA, 2002) and G. Hart, The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses (Routledge, London, 2005).|
|⇧7||IK Kyme 41, a city in Asia Minor, not to be confused with Cumae in Italy.|
|⇧8||Unfortunately, it seems that there is no English translation of the poem. For further information on it, see D. Magie, “Egyptian deities in Asia Minor in inscriptions and on coins,” American Journal of Archaeology 57 (1953) 163–87, and W. Peek (as n.5) 140–1.|
|⇧9||This is probably a Greek version, according to which Isis bore her child of Osiris when still in the womb of Nut; see G. Hart (as n.6) 110, and Plutarch De Isid. 356a–b.|
|⇧10||Orphicorum Fragmenta, frr. 109, 111, 131 Kern.|
|⇧11||On the style of Isidorus, see C.A. Faraone, “The stanzaic architecture of Isidorus Hymns 2 and 4 (SEG 8.549 and 51),” Classical Quaterly 62 (2012) 618–32.|
|⇧12||See further, V. Vandelip, The Four Greek Hymns of Isidorus and the Cult of Isis (American Studies in Papyrology 12, American Society of Papyrologists, Toronto, 1972).|