Commentary on: Thousand Suns

By Lily Grainger

Cristiano Cardone’s investigation into the presence of Isiac cults in Naples, the historic context of these cults and the understanding of these cults through an esoteric and gender lens produces an original and fruitful piece of research into a pervasive element of culture that appears to have been largely disregarded amongst critical circles. 

The research of this essay is set within the context of mythology and stories that are influential over wider culture in Naples. The focus of the essay, however is not this culture of literary mythology, but a hidden cult that seems to have been largely disregarded but permeates the very culture of Naples. 

Cardone clearly divides the essay into three investigations that culminate in his research and this structure is explicitly stated in his introduction. The essay widely follows this established structure as follows: the esoteric influences in Naples, the impact of Egyptian dieties and finally the significance of gendered perceptions. The first section of the essay explored the esoteric influence on Naples of the so-called Alexandrine mysteries, focusing on the combination of deities ranging from Greek and Egyptian to the influences of Neoplatonic and Judaism. Cardone evaluates the overall societal impact this had and evaluates one of the influences being the converging between upper and lower classes rather than being characterised by elitist exclusivity. By establishing the tendency of fusion between these cultures, Cardone can analyse the cult of Isis-Orisis in relation to society and how impactful the influence of it was, establishing that it focused on rebirth and purification. The elements of fusion are explained by Cardone as being partially as a result of the way it spread from Egypt into Naples, explaining that the cult of Isis was one of the most widely popular. Cardone offers possible explanation for the existence of the cult, one being the movement of merchants and their activity from Alexandria to Naples, another that being the use of the Delos in the Cyclades islands as a trading post and constructing a commercial hub based on this model in Pozzuoli. Cardone evaluates both of these possible influencing emphasising it was likely a combination of the two rather than one being solely responsible. Despite the cult being known throughout the society, Cardone reinforces the tendency for the rites and initiations for the cult to be characterised by secrecy and the way in which it was monitored by authorities to ensure it was removed from politics.

A crucial distinction made by Cardone that should be highlighted for its significance is that the essay traces the history and development of one particular strain of the cults of Isis, that existing specifically in Naples, and that the same cult in other geographical locations likely had different influences on the cult itself. Acknowledging this distinction simultaneously clarifies Cardone’s subject and reinforces the possibility of advanced research into other geographical strains of the cult. 

Cardone, at this early stage in the essay begins to establish the gendered nature of the deity describing a statue – ‘Corpo di Napoli’ and the fluidity with which the statue simultaneously represents femininity and masculinity. This is expanded upon in a later stage of the essay. 

The essay continues by exploring the impact of the Egyptian deity Isis and the influence of Egyptian culture over the cult that is established in Naples. This repeatedly takes the form of representative symbols particularly regarding the treatment of the dead, namely laying personal items on gravestones and shared techniques of mummification and the use of the Neapolitan red horn simultaneously representing phallus and the maternal womb. Symbolism and naming systems are repeatedly significant in esoteric practise and in terms of gender when particular symbols become representative of femininity and masculinity so Cardone represents the links between these elements cohesively. 

Whilst Cardone acknowledges the tendency for multiple cultures to suffuse in their representations of deities, it is crucial that the essay iterates that Catholicism appropriates these symbols and rituals. This identifies that appropriation of symbols holds a much different cultural significance to the synthesis of particular cultural symbolisms. It would be interesting to see this linguistic difference explored to a greater detail, namely if it is considered a positive or negative. 

Cardone goes on to investigate the importance of literature in the cults, particularly what they reveal about the secret rituals involved as well as the general framework surrounding worship. This literature is a central source in the essay and is effective as a contemporary reflection of culture. 

After this, Cardone clearly establishes a new section of the essay by evaluating the extent to which cult practices describes thus far are unique to the Naples strain of Isaic cults. The essay addresses this by comparing similar cults in Greece. One of the key differences identified is the lack of having a basic ethos, a sanctuary, and being in a commercially flourishing place. Another key element Cardone explores is the gender proportion of cult members, evaluating that they were predominantly males and participation from women as fluctuating geographically. 

There is a definite shift after this section of the article that turns towards a more gendered understanding of the goddess Isis, which although mentioned previously was not afforded a full analysis until this section. Gender is considered two-fold: the characteristics of Isis as a feminine deity; the characteristics of the city of Naples and the wider cultural influence of Isis. Cardone acknowledges Isis’ cultural position as having a womb that receives and gives life, distinctly feminine attributes but also a representative of movement and knowledge. Rather than being blurred, Cardone implies this is as a result of the fusion between the two. 

One vital shift in the Naples iteration of the cult identified by Cardone is the increasing secretive nature of the rituals and rites and the essay identifies that this splitting of public and secret reflected Isis’ character. I believe this is a key identification for the relationship between Isis and Naples itself. An interesting parallel drawn by Cardone is the likening of Isis to the phases of sun and moon particularly in the fusion between Egyptian and Greek. Although not explicitly described by Cardone, this tendency towards the fusion of dualities permeates the pairings of feminine and masculine, Greek and Egyptian and moon and sun. Following this, Cardone explores the symbolic position of water as a means of purification, sighting the Nile as representative of Isis. Cardone’s tendency to liken physical and geographical elements to characteristics represents an interesting fusion. 

The sources used are a combination of literary and historical, as well as considering other contemporary researching peers to evaluate and drive forward Cardone’s thesis. A large number of these sources are Latin and Cardone should be commended on the translation of Mario Buonconto from Italian to English. Cardone also explores archaeological evidence tracing the geographical threads of other cults beyond Naples. This situates Naples as an epicentre of this particular cult. This archaeological evidence is centred around buildings holding particular functions and monuments as symbolic proof. Cardone also evaluates the importance of sources such as Plutarchan myth tradition to investigate notions of gender. Using a combination of sources strengthens the argument presented.

Cardone concludes the essay by stating Isis’ femininity can be likened more to the modern-day woman than the contemporary. This conclusion is interested but doesn’t seem to be explored in any depth which is disappointing. The essay seems to theorise the importance of fluidity between feminine and masculine, so this assertion was unexpected. It would be interesting to see it explored. 

Overall, this essay is enjoyable to read and presents an innovative study of the presence of the Isiac cult in Naples that should be commended.

Read the full paper here.

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