A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY
The conversion of pagans to Christianity took a long time. Worship of the goddess Isis seems to have been among the cults that lasted the longest. Early clerics tried to gently win converts by assimilation, and pagan images sometimes found their way into Christian churches. It is easy to see how either of these pagan statues of Isis nursing her son could have easily been reused to represent the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. An Isis statue, similar to one of these, still existed in the church of Saint Germain des Pres up until the 17th century. However, sometime between 1680 to 1741 Pierre Bretonneau, the Jesuit bishop of Paris, ordered the preserved statue removed and publicly destroyed because he disapproved of its pagan origins.
Wood and Plaster with Roman Roof Tiles
Temple to Jupiter
Ancient Roman City
Paris 100 - 300 AD
Stone and Brick with Roman Roof Tiles
Temple to Mercury
Isis and Harpocrates Vatican Museum
Isis nursing Horus
Walters Art Museum Baltimore
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Museum of Antiquities
Carved and Painted
Exterior and Interior Columns
With Roman and Egyptian Designs
The Seine has been used to transport goods up and down the river since Neolithic times. The Gallic tribe that lived in the area called the river and the goddess who protected it Sequana. Most of the residents lived on what is now called the Ile de Citi or along the banks of the river. Downstream at Bercy archaeologists have found the remains of seven large canoes which attest to well-established trading on the river.
The Roman invasion of Gaul, in 50 BC, brought profound changes to the area. It was changed from a small, tribal community into a thriving Roman military town. The city was given the Latin name of Lutece Parisorium and the river was called the Seine. Trade increased as the population grew bringing with it people and goods from all over the Roman Empire. For a view of Gallo-Roman Paris, visit Paris.culture.fr (Paris, A Roman City).
By 300 BC Lutece had a bridge from the island to the right and left bank, paved streets, and a highway which led to Rome. It could boast of having a forum, basillica, theater, arena, baths, palaces, and aqueducts. Roman buildings were constructed of limestone, brick and mortar, and clay tile instead of the wood and rush used by the local tribes.
The city also had four temples which were devoted to Roman, Greek, and Egyptian gods. One temple, inside the forum, was dedicated to Rome and the deified emperor Augustus. Two were dedicated to gods Jupiter and Mercury. The temples may have looked similar to those built in Tawern and Schwarzenecker, Germany.
The last temple was devoted to the worship of the goddesses Isis and Ceres. Isis is an Egyptian goddess who brought her husband Osiris back to life and gave birth to their son Horus. Consequently, she is most often associated with the belief in life after death and the hope of immortality. She has many of the attributes of earthly women as can be seen in Isis statues which usually portray her as a loving mother nursing her infant son.
The goddess Isis was generally worshiped by women although men could also be found among her followers. Temple buildings were used for worship, hospitalization, and sanctuary. Priests led most of the private rituals but priestesses could also serve as helpers. Processions were an integral part of the public ceremonies.
The religion was frequently criticized and censored by Roman emperors, including Augustus, as being foreign and secretive. In spite of this Isis worship spread throughout the entire Roman Empire. How, one can wonder, did it get to Gaul and Lutece in particular? Perhaps it came along with the wives of the Roman military officers and soldiers assigned to Lutece.
The goddess Isis was known for her suffering. She had experienced family betrayals, the death of her husband, and single parenthood. Yet she triumphed over adversity and lived a good life in spite of her loss. Isis religion also promised women the hope of a better and happier life in the after world where they would be able to make their own choices and lead their own lives. In an era when women, in general, had very little control this must have been very appealing.
HOLY WATER FROM NILE RIVER
offered women so
comfort, caring, and
hope. Isis embodied
the womanly qualities
of daughter, sister,
wife, and mother. She
was both strong and
weak. She was a very
It is difficult to
know if Gaulish
women embraced Isis
with the same
reverence as Roman
women. Rome only
required citizens to pay
homage to its gods and
accepted many local
deities, but Lutecian
Isis statues look very
Worship at the Temple of Isis and Ceres appears to have lasted for at least four hundred of years until the downfall of the Roman Empire and the introduction of Christianity to Gaul. By 500 AD many pagan religious sites had been torn down and replaced with Christian churches. In the vicinity of Paris the temples to Isis, Mercury, and Mars still stood but several Christian churches had been built on or near other pagan sites.
On the right bank were chapels to Saint Anne, Saint Pierre and Saint Mederic, Notre Dame of Bois and Saint Opportune, and the Martyrs of Montmartre. On the island were the small churches of Saint Denis of Chartres and Saint Denis of Pas. On the left Bank there was the church of the Holy Trinity and Saint Benoist. However, in 509 AD the Temple to Isis and Ceres was still intact. Most Roman buildings had been destroyed and land reverted to forests.
In the late 5th century Rome was struggling to manage and govern the empire which lead to a scaling back of military forts in smaller cities like Paris. With no Roman troops to secure the city it became a prime target for invasion. Paris is one of the many Northern French cities that was resettled by a Gaulish tribe of Franks who migrated to Paris from across the Rhine River in Germany .
There are no official records of when the Temple to Isis and Ceres was abandoned or demolished. However, in 542 AD the Frankish king Childebert I constructed a church at the site. It was dedicated to the Holy Cross and Saint Vincent. He built the church to enshrine the stole of Saint Vincent, a relic Childebert I acquired after a victorious battle in Spain.
The combination of the goddesses Isis and Ceres created a spiritually powerful pair. They shared many traits in common. Both were goddesses of fertility, motherly relationships, and rebirth. In art and literature Ceres is usually portrayed with a cornucopia full of food or a shaft of wheat.
Ceres, the Roman version of the Greek goddess Demeter, was adopted and renamed by the Romans in 493 BC during a devastating famine. She is believed to have taught humans how to grow, plant, harvest, store, and prepare grain. Ceres was the patron goddess of people involved in agricultural production, management, and importation. Her Festival of Cerealia was celebrated from April 12th to April 19th.
Ceres protected women during their transition from girlhood to womanhood and from unmarried life to married life and motherhood. To honor Ceres a torch made of may wood was carried on the wedding night to light the brides' way to her new home. A sacrifice to Ceres, usually a pig, was made on the brides' behalf.
It was the goddess Ceres who maintained the boundary between the living and the dead. The goddess was honored at funeral rites with sacrifices. She helped deceased people find their way into the underworld so their shade would not haunt the world of the living.
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Temple to Isis and Ceres
Paris Left Bank 509 AD
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In 558 AD his son, Clovis I, replaced the Church of the Holy Cross and Saint Vincent with the Church of Saint Germain-des-Pres (Saint Germain-in-the-Fields). It was dedicated to the first canonized bishop of Paris. The church you see today occupies only a small portion of the land owned by the great Abbey of Saint Germain-des-Pres. It stretched all the way to the Seine River.
As I enter the front doors of the church I see wooden doors that open onto a small chapel. The chapel looks similar to a Roman forum. It is two stories high with arched windows, tiled floor, and wood ceiling. Excavation of the walls reveals pillars that are typical in this kind of Roman building.
On the floor in a corner to my left is a slab of stone. Engraved on the stone slab are these words: this is the presumed place of the tomb of Saint Germain Eveque of Paris who died in 576 AD.
The site of the Temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis and Roman goddess Ceres was important to the Roman people of Paris. It is likely both men and women attended rituals at the temple. However, these goddesses and the temples associated with them were known throughout the Empire as places dedicated to the spiritual well being and physical health of women.
In this temple women could participate in religious rituals, pray for fertility, and seek help for physical ailments. When the Roman legions left Paris the pagan city fell into the hands of Christian rulers. Even though they replaced this temple devoted to female goddesses with a Christian church dedicated to male saints I still see images of women in the church today.
Statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, Saint Genevieve, and Saint Joan and images of other sainted women painted on the walls remind me that our womanly power of belief and sacrifice has not been destroyed or diminished. In the main church I see many votive candles burning brightly at their shrines. There are several women reverently kneeling in prayer at the alter railing. Time has gone by but we obviously still hold our own on earth and in heaven.