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2014 October Egyptomania at the Edward Worth Library

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Cults, Hieroglyphs, and Egyptomania at the Edward Worth


For three thousand years the ancient Egyptian civilisation existed under various dynasties from the 4th millennium BCE until the invasion of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Isis was one among many of the ancient Egyptian Gods. Pharaohs favoured different Gods over the millennia but every pharaoh was the reincarnation of the God Horus, the son of Isis. Isis was often depicted nursing Horus and was the symbol of Motherhood. Her tears shed over the God Osiris were said to have caused the annual flooding of the Nile – one of the most important features of Egyptian economy and landscape. Her resurrection of Osiris associated her with rebirth. Isis was an eternal and incorruptible Mother-Goddess [1]. The Isiac mystery cult has enchanted many for five millennia.

Nothing is known of the Isiac Bembine tablet, reproduced in this book, from the time it was created until the early sixteenth century. And nobody knows when Cardinal Pietro Bembo, for whom it is named, acquired it. These mysteries are minor however compared to those the tablet represents – hieroglyphs and ancient knowledge. The earliest mention of the tablet refers to the sack of Rome in 1527 when Bembo reportedly hired a locksmith to secure the tablet in his safe along with his copy of Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica [2]. True or not, this story shows the value placed upon the tablet and ancient Egyptian artefacts.

Although Egypt fell to the Greeks in 332 BCE, and to the Romans at the Battle of Actium 31BCE, the influence of the cult of Isis long outlived the ancient civilisation and knowledge of its complex hieroglyphic writing. The pages of this book of the month depict the cult of Isis and represent the story of not one, but two, influential revivals of ancient Egyptian culture.


Such is the strength and appeal of the cult of Isis that while its mother civilisation decayed it spread throughout Hellenistic Greece and the Roman Empire. It incorporated elements of, and became associated with, the existing Greek and Roman pantheons[3]. The cult of Isis was a mystery cult and its secrets and rituals were known only by its initiates. Hugely popular in Roman times, temples to Isis were found as far away from Egypt as London. The Bembine tablet, depicted on the pages of this book, was believed to be an Egyptian artefact when rediscovered in the Renaissance. It is now assumed to be a product of the Roman revival of ancient Egyptian culture from the first century CE. This date was ascribed because the Bembine tablet is of similar design to other Roman cult of Isis objects found in Herculaneum and Pompeii [4]. The recognisable attributes of Isis can be seen in the central panel of the tablet and it was most likely used by her worshippers. While the panels demonstrate some knowledge of Egyptian theology they lack accuracy or a deep understanding of Egyptian culture.  For example the vases are not of Egyptian type; there is a bearded Sphinx with hooked wings inconsistent with Egyptian iconography; the hairstyles curled at the bottom unlike Egyptian styles; and there is a “liberal interpretation” of the Sema Tawy – the symbolic unification of Upper and Lower Egypt [5].


Why were the Romans ignorant of the subtleties of ancient Egyptian iconography? By the first century CE knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture and hieroglyphs had begun to disappear. The Library of Alexandria burned down in 47BCE at great loss. Greek writing began to supplant Egyptian from the start of the Ptolemaic period and by the first century CE the Egyptian language had evolved into Coptic and combined with Greek letters for its written form instead of hieroglyphs. By the time the Bembine tablet was made, hieroglyphs were only superficially understood and eventually understanding of hieroglyphs was completely lost. Contradicting this loss of ancient Egyptian knowledge, was the growing prominence of the cult of Isis in Rome. Comprehension of hieroglyphic script and its use in cult of Isis imagery were not synonymous. The meaning of hieroglyphs was fading but they remained in the visual iconography of the cult of Isis. Alongside the cult was Roman Egyptomania which is traced in the wealth of artefacts remaining. Egyptian imagery was prized for its stylized appearance. The remains of the great ancient Egyptian civilisation impressed Roman emperors who saw their own empire as the natural successor to Egypt’s. Emperors transported obelisks to Rome and Roman artisans created artefacts such as the Bembine tablet in the Egyptian style[6]. As Rome declined, traces of its Egyptomania were left behind. In particular, as Isis worshippers converted to Christianity, the Mother-Goddess Isis had a large influence on the early Roman Christian church and the prominence of Marian worship[7].

In the fifth century CE Horapollo wrote Hieroglyphica, a Greek translation of almost 200 hieroglyphic symbols. Knowledge of hieroglyphs had almost all but been forgotten and Christianity was quickly becoming the dominant religion. The scholar Horapollo possibly learnt hieroglyphs with the last of the Egyptian priests. The text is not very accurate but displays some knowledge of hieroglyphs [8]. In time Hieroglyphica was lost along with much of the civilisation it represented. In the seventh century Arabs captured Egypt and few from Europe ventured there in the middle ages. But Hieroglyphica was to return and bring forth a new Egyptomania revival.


The active rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman civilisation in the Renaissance also revealed artefacts from the even older Egyptian civilisation. In 1419 Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica was rediscovered on the island of Andros in Greece and brought to Italy. It was first published in 1505 by the famous scholar-printer Aldus Manutius and a Latin translation by Filippo Fasanini followed in 1517 [9]. Hieroglyphs were considered to be solely ideographic writings and the challenge of deciphering their meaning excited Renaissance scholars[10]. The rediscovery of Horopollo’s text spurred on a trend for emblematic imagery. Alberti’s Architettura suggested use of emblematic decoration of columns, rooms, medals, coins and arches.  Francesco Colonna was inspired by hieroglyphs to create his own emblems in his work Hypnerotomachia, one of which, the dolphin and anchor, was adopted by Aldus Manutius as his printer’s mark. Vasari and other artists incorporated elements of hieroglyphs into their works which were heavily laden with layers of emblematic meaning [11]. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 led scholars to eventually piece together that the mystery of hieroglyphic meaning was figurative, emblematic and phonetic simultaneously. By that time Renaissance art and literature was famous for its esoteric and layered meanings influenced by the mystery of hieroglyphs and had set the future course of European humanities.


The very first printed reproduction of the Bembine tablet was published in 1559 and Edward Worth owned a second edition copy. His ownership of this and other texts on ancient Egypt show a sustained interest in the Egyptian revival into the eighteenth century. The book contains no written description or attempt to explain the imagery other than on its title page. The title page merely states that the tablet depicts ancient Egyptian rituals and belongs to the Bembo museum, then in the hands of Torquati Bembo (Cardinal Pietro Bembo’s son). It notes that Vico Enea of Parma carried out the engravings, Jacobi Franci of Venice published it in 1600, and it was dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. Readers were left to their own devices as to the meaning of the depictions on the tablet. The lack of text can be interpreted in many ways. Most simply, the meaning of the tablet was not known. Hieroglyphs still posed a mystery and Horapollo’s text was of no real help in trying to translate the hieroglyphs on the tablet. The rituals of the cult of Isis were largely a mystery as in Greek or Roman times there was a great deal of secrecy surrounding the cult. The book contained no explanations therefore, because none were available. But there was more to it than this: the mystery the tablet presented was part of the appeal of the book. It was engraved and published for a learned audience interested in the Renaissance culture of emblematic art, philosophy, and writing saturated with layers of meaning. From the time of the ancient Greeks it was believed that Egypt possessed ancient wisdom[12]. There was a hermetic belief in the Renaissance that the ancient Egyptians held lost knowledge of God and that divine mysteries were depicted through each element of hieroglyphic imagery. One needed only to decipher it to regain that knowledge. By not publishing any accompanying explanations the publisher allowed the book’s owner to initiate conversations on its meaning, and endlessly peruse and speculate with their learned colleagues – a favourite pastime of Renaissance scholars.


The Bembine tablet became an important ‘Egyptian’ artefact to Renaissance scholars. All those interested in hieroglyphs came to see it and wrote about it. Just as the Romans who made the Bembine tablet experienced Egyptomania, so too did the Renaissance scholars who rediscovered it. Egypt was relatively inaccessible in the Renaissance and, as in ancient Roman times, the city of Rome became the focal point for revived Egyptomania. The excavation of ancient Rome provided plentiful Egyptian and Egyptianized artefacts for scholars to examine. The ancient Egyptian civilisation was examined through these artefacts and through the eyes of ancient Greek and Roman writers. Popes, the new emperors of the Roman domain, raised the obelisks from the ruins of civilisation in key locations throughout the city. Just like the Roman Emperors before them, popes used these bastions of ancient civilisation to symbolise their own power. The meaning of the hieroglyphs on the obelisks and artefacts such as the Bembine tablet teased just beyond reach. The secrecy surrounding the cult of Isis led to the belief that ancient Egyptian priests depicted divine knowledge in these symbols. The Bembine tablet became a central object for those who believed in an ancient lost knowledge. Some studied it to regain the lost knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs – others believed in a profound divine mystery hidden in the images. The Bembine tablet influenced the re-emergence of mystery cults such as the Roscrucian Brotherhood, the Freemasons and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Even after hieroglyphs were finally deciphered these cults maintained the belief that the ancient Egyptians were enlightened and their script contained esoteric knowledge of God revealed only to the initiated[13].


[1] James Stevens Curl, Egyptomania: The Egyptian Revival: a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste (Manchester, 1994).

[2] Liana De Girolami Cheney, ‘Giorgio Vasari, Allegory of Avarice or Allegory of the Seven Deadly Sin’ in Southeastern College of Art Conference Review 2001, 14 no. 1, p.6.

[3] James Stevens Curl, The Egyptian Revival Ancient Egypt as the Inspiration for Design Motifs in the West, (Oxford, 2005).

[4] Egyptian Museum of Turin,

[5] Museé du Louvre, Egyptomania L’Egypt dans l’art occidental 1730-1930, (exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1994).

[6 James Stevens Curl, The Egyptian Revival Ancient Egypt as the Inspiration for Design Motifs in the West, (Oxford, 2005).

[7] James Stevens Curl, The Egyptian Revival Ancient Egypt as the Inspiration for Design Motifs in the West, (Oxford, 2005).

[8] Brian Curran, The Egyptian Renaissance, The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt in Early Modern Italy, (Chicago, 2007).

[9] Daniel Stolzenberg, Egyptian Oedipus, Athansius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity, (Chicago 2013).

[10] Karl H. Dannenfeldt, ‘Egypt and Egyptian Antiquities in the Renaissance’, Studies in the Renaissance, Vol. 6 (1959).

Brian curran, The Egyptian The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt in Early Modern Italy Renaissance, (Chicago, 2007).

[11] Mario Praz, Studies in Seventeenth-Century Imagery, (1964).

[12] James Stevens Curl, The Egyptian Revival Ancient Egypt as the Inspiration for Design Motifs in the West, (Oxford, 2005).

[13] W. Wynn Westcott, The Isiac Tablet of Cardinal Bembo, Its History and Occult Significance, (1887).


Text by Neasa McGarrigle, B.A. (TCD), M.Sc. (Oxon); Candidate for Ph.D, Trinity College Dublin.

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