This the beginning of what I imagine will be an interesting research project. I’ll add in all the sources soon, my apologies for not having them in here.


The Cult of Isis

The Cult of Isis was very popular in Ancient Rome. It likely first appeared around the 3rd century BCE. Despite repeated attempts to suppress it, the cult remained popular and was eventually legitimized. At some point, Isis appears to have merged with Venus in Rome, not a totally uncommon thing to happen.

In the Cult of Isis all were equal. This made it a favorite for the lower class, slaves, and meretrices. Although people of all social classes followed her, many have claimed that the overwhelming majority of meretrices were devotees of Isis (Aset in Egyptian) if not priestess. As the cult’s secrets remain mostly hidden/lost it is difficult to say for sure.

Gold finger-ring with Isis and a snake’s head.
Roman 1st century CE (©The Trustees of the British Museum)

Anklets

The anklet has a long history in Egypt, worn by all genders represented. However, they seem to be exclusive to women in Rome. This could be attributed to jewelry being considered effeminate and the male Roman citizen being confined to a ring or two, maybe a torc, and possibly a bracelet.

The anklet is another item that is strongly associated with the Cult of Isis and the Isis/Venus connection. Anklets have a long history in Egypt and less of a long history in Greece (they likely where other places as well). With the conquering of Egypt by Alexander the Great and the Hellenization that was brought with Ptolemy (Macedonian) and the formation of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, there would have been some crossover influences. The love of snakes and Aphrodite brought from Greece and Egyptian gods and goddesses, including Isis, in Hellenistic jewelry.

An interesting side note, Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh of the Ptolemaic line and often fashioned herself as Isis. The Romans, or at least some vocal ones *cough Pliny cough* referred to her as Regina meretrix (i.e. The Harlot Queen or Queen of Whores ).

The Metropolitan Museum (Public Domain)

The anklet appears the same in every depiction I’ve seen. It is a simple gold band, likely round, hollow, and not completely closed. It is found on the ankle of Venus statues (likely a merging of Venus and Isis), mistresses and meretrices. I wonder if in the archeological records these may have been filed under upper arm bands. 

Images from Pompeii

With the combination of Venus and Isis, the large following of the meretrices, and images showing them wearing it, the idea that the anklet was a religious symbol of the devotee of Isis is a strong likelihood.

The anklet was worn on the right just below the calf (as I have found while testing it that any lower and it impinges on the ability to walk without severe pain). One painting shows two on each ankle. This painting is believed to be the mistress of Alexander the Great painted as Venus. This could be a status symbol. Think fancy shoes, wearing expensive/elaborate shoes has, for a long time (even now), been a sign of status. It shows that you were wealthy enough that you didn’t have to walk. 

Body Chains

Body chains also are associated with Isis/Venus along with a thigh snake band. Like previously stated, snake jewelry came to Egypt via Greece. The cross body chains as often associated with Isis/Venus and images of women, either as a goddess or as a meretrix.

Isis in a Social Context

Since the worship of a Goddess was un-Roman, especially for men. I believe this painting found a brothel wall in Pompeii is actually to make fun of just that. Note the body chain and anklet. albeit the anklet is on the other leg which could be a “dis” to the followers who no doubt worked there or the image was reversed. It is also quite possible that it had a double meaning. The Roman men seeing it as being a follower of a Goddess is subservient (very bad in Roman culture) and for those that worked there, as Roman men being less than the Isis and her followers.

The reason that cunnilingus was considered bad is that speech was so important to Roman men. To perform this act with someone considered “less” would be to be smudge the mouth and thus speech. We can only speculate what happened behind close doors.

The Isis Shawl

In art and sculptures, Isis’ followers, or perhaps just her priestesses, wore a shawl knotted in the front that had a fringe . This is thought to represent the knot on the front of the Tyet (see below).

to wear the shawl you have a corner of 5-7 yards of fabric over your left shoulder, with the end in the front. You then wrap the fabric around your body much like you would for the palla but you go around again and then bring the other corner over your right shoulder. Pull the excess fabric in the front up and tie the two corners together under it or if the fabric is thin enough, you can include it in the knot. The knot should sit in between your breasts or just above.

Other Possible Symbols

The Tyet (one of its many spellings), as seen above, translates as the Isis knot, or the girdle of Isis. It is, as you may have suspected, the symbol of Isis or rather Aset, her Egyptian name (Isis is the Hellenized version). Her amulet reaches far back into Egypts past and she may in fact be the longest running mother goddess of all time. I have found no evidence that her followers or priestess in Rome wore the Tyet but it also doesn’t seem implausible.

Often found in the color red. My photo.