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This webpage reproduces the Introduction to
Isis and Osiris


published in Vol. V
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1936

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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(Vol. V) Plutarch, Moralia

 p3  Isis and Osiris

Translator's Introduction

Plutarch's knowledge of Egyptology was not profound. It is true that he once visited Egypt,1 but how long he stayed and how much he learned we have no means of knowing. It is most likely that his treatise represents the knowledge current in his day, derived, no doubt, from two sources: books and priests. The gods of Egypt had early found a welcome in other lands, in Syria and Asia Minor, and later in Greece and Rome. That the worship of Isis had been introduced into Greece before 330 B.C. is certain from an inscription found in the Peiraeus (I.G. II.1 168, or II.2 337; Dittenberger, Sylloge3, 280, or 5512), in which the merchants from Citium ask permission to found a shrine of Aphrodite on the same terms as those on which the Egyptians had founded a shrine of Isis. In Delos there was a shrine of the Egyptian gods, and in Plutarch's own town they must have been honoured, for there have been found two dedications to Serapis, Isis, and Anubis,2 as well as numerous inscriptions recording the manumission of slaves, which in Greece was commonly accomplished by dedicating them to a god, who, in these inscriptions, is Serapis (Sarapis). An idea of the widespread  p4 worship of Egyptian gods in Greek lands may be obtained from Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, vol. II pp379‑92, where the cults of Isis are listed.

Another source of information available to Plutarch was books. Herodotus in the fifth century B.C. had visited Egypt, and he devoted a large part of the second book of his History to the manners and customs of the Egyptians. Plutarch, however, draws but little from him. Some of the information that Plutarch gives us may be found also in Diodorus Siculus, principally in the first book, but a little also in the second. Aelian and, to a less extent, other writers mentioned in the notes on the text, have isolated fragments of information which usually agree with Plutarch and Diodorus. All this points to the existence of one or more books, now lost, which contained this information, possibly in a systematic form. As a result, Plutarch has many things right and some wrong. Those who are interested in these matters may consult Erman-Grapow, Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache (Leipzig, 1925‑1929), and G. Parthey's edition of the Isis and Osiris (Berlin, 1850).

One matter which will seem very unscientific to the modern reader is Plutarch's attempts to explain the derivation of various words, especially his attempt to derive Egyptian words for Greek roots; but in this respect he sins no more than Plato, who has given us some most atrocious derivations of Greek words, especially in the Cratylus; nor is it more disastrous than Herodotus's industrious attempts (in Book II) to derive all manner of Greek customs, ritual, and theology from Egypt.

In spite of minor errors contained in the Isis and  p5 Osiris, no other work by a Greek writer is more frequently referred to by Egyptologists except, possibly, Herodotus. Connected information may, of course, be found in histories of Egypt, such as those of Breasted and Baikie.3

The work is dedicated to Clea, a cultured and intelligent woman, priestess at Delphi, to whom Plutarch dedicated also his book on the Bravery of Women (Moralia, 242E-263C, contained in vol. III of L. C. L. pp473‑581). It is, no doubt, owing to this that the author, after he has unburdened himself of his information on Egyptology, goes on to make some very sane remarks on the subject of religion and the proper attitude in which to approach it. This part of the essay ranks with the best of Plutarch's writing.

The MS. tradition of the essay is bad, as may be seen from the variations found in the few passages quoted by later writers such as Eusebius and Stobaeus; yet much has been done by acute scholars to make the text more intelligible. It may not be invidious to mention among those who have made special contributions to the study of this work W. Baxter, who translated it (1684), and S. Squire, who edited it (1744). Many other names will be found in the critical notes.

The essay is No. 118 in Lamprias's list of Plutarch's works, where the title is given as an account of Isis and Serapis.

The Editor's Notes:

1 Moralia, 678C.

2 Cf. Collitz, Sammlung der griechischen Dialektinschriften, vol. I pp149‑155.

3 All the Greek and Roman sources for the religion of the Egyptians will be found conveniently collected in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, Parts I. and II. (Bonn, 1922‑1923).

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