The excavation at the major sanctuary of the Egyptian goddess Isis, which lies to the south of the Theatre in the archaeological site of ancient Messene, continued in 2022 with funding by the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation. The excavation focused on an in-depth investigation of the variously sized halls on the southern side of the building complex; these halls are attached to a subterranean gallery, the cryptoporticus, shaped like a huge Π and covering an area of approximately 1,600m2.

The worship of Isis and the sanctuary in ancient Messene

Since the time of Alexander the Great, cold rationalism had began to undermine the Olympian religion which no longer warmed the hearts of defenceless mortals. In post-Alexandrian times the boundaries of city-states were no longer observed, giving way to an open, cosmopolitan society of ecumenical scale. Joined within the borders of the vast kingdom were many peoples of the Orient whose varied religious beliefs exerted a strong influence, while new deities of solace, like Isis, had taken a foothold on the Greek peninsula already since the 4th c. BC. The worship of this great Egyptian goddess, sister and wife of Osiris and mother of Horus, had been adopted and gradually introduced in Greece by the active and restless mariners and traders of Euboea and Messene, who had dealings with Ptolemaic Alexandria up to the time of queen Cleopatra—an ally of the Messenians in the battle of Actium in 31 BC, as well as throughout the Roman empire.

The dominant principle in the Cabeiri Mysteries of Thebes and, mainly, Samothrace was the primal “birth of man”, Adamas, while in Dionysian mysteries it was “man’s rebirth” after a symbolic, fictitious death where the “holy communion” with the flesh and blood of Dionysus Zagreus, played a key role. The main teaching in the worship and mysteries of Osiris and Isis was the belief in death, resurrection and the total control over the destiny and the soul of humans. In the Egyptian tradition associated with the worship of Isis, the souls of the dead are shown suckling the breast of the goddess in an act of “breastfeeding from the eternal source of florid milk”. The initiates to the mysteries of Isis and Osiris were first baptised in the waters of the Nile (which is what the waters in all Isis sanctuaries stood for) and then taken along dark, labyrinthine subterranean halls that symbolised the chambers of Hades, such as the huge rooms that our excavation gradually brings to light at the colossal sanctuary of Isis in ancient Messene. A priest led the initiates into a luminous room that symbolised the “home of the blissful”. The priest then whispered the following words:

“Here you are at the subterranean threshold of Persephone; to understand the afterlife and your current state you had to go through the realm of death. You must learn to defy the darkness in order to enjoy the light”.

Isis is often identified with deities of the Greek Pantheon such as Demeter and Aphrodite, while Osiris, defeater of death, is identified with Dionysus. Osiris personified the champion of Civilisation and acted as a symbol of Resurrection, hence his role in the mystical rites next to Isis was of the greatest importance.

The size, the quality and the architectural originality of the sanctuary of Isis and Serapis in ancient Messene, the variety and complexity of its spaces, the artistic merit of individual elements like the mosaics or the elaborate opus spicatum in the monumental courtyard by the southern entrance leave no doubt as to the uniqueness of this ambitious and costly project and its importance for the Messenian capital, the politically and financially powerful families of the landed gentry or, indeed, for all the inhabitants who participated in the celebrations, the mystical rites and the purification baths that were offered in its underground galleries and halls.

Petros Themelis