Myrithis and the Egyptian Rose
On a recent trip to Portland my husband purchased a book for me entitled, "Pageant of the Rose." The book is a compilation of historical references and lore associated with the rose by subject. The first chapter was about the rose and romance. A few paragraphs into the chapter the author mentioned a female, Egyptian magician/priestess named Myrithis, who belonged to the cult of Isis. The author described the ceremonial articles of magic that were found at Myrithis' tomb, but there was no mention of love or romance.
I did a search for Myrithis on the Internet and other than the name of the archeologist, Albert Guyet, who discovered her small crypt from within a Christian Coptic necropolis, there were very few references to her. The only single reference work is a monograph that was written by the archeologist and published only in French. I did find out that Myrithis' mummy had been on display in a prominent museum in Paris, the Guimet, but there is no mention of her when I visited their web site. I found one artistic, conceptual rendering of her as she would have appeared when she was alive. The statue to the left is Greek.
Isis veneration originated and was very popular in Egypt for at least 1,000 years. Its practices and rituals eventually became popular in Greece and Rome during the Greco-Roman period, beginning around the 5th-4th Century B.C. Of particular interest is that Venus, the planet, which is both a morning and evening star, was considered sacred to the followers of Isis. After Sirius, Venus is the brightest star in the sky. Venus as a planet has an interesting motion around the Sun -- at least from Earth's point of view. Egyptian priest/astronomers had observed this cycle for what may have been millennia. At various times of the year Venus is a morning star and at various times of year the planet is an evening star. This happens because Venus is closer to the Sun than we are and appears to be either moving ahead of the Earth or behind the Earth relative to our motion. This pattern produces a 5-pointed star in the sky.
The priests and astronomers of that time in Egypt associated the appearance of the star Sirius and, quite possibly Venus, with the inundation of the Nile and the consequent fertility of the Nilotic soil. There was a correlation in the minds of the Egyptian people that the presence of Venus in the summer sky signaled fertility and growth. At some point, they must have also associated the elegance of Venus' pattern in the sky with magical properties, and the importance of the number five.
Myrithis worshiped Isis and practiced magic. Among her grave goods were rosebuds, rose petals, wreaths and garlands. Her ceremonial mantle was embroidered throughout with five-petaled roses. I was intrigued because the majority of the Egyptian land mass is desert. With the exception of the Nile and a handful of oases, the land is desert. Could there have been a native species rose? As it turned out, there was a rose, Rosa ricardii, that had been introduced into Egypt around the 8th Century B.C., probably from Syria, or more likely, Phoenicia (Rosa phoenicia) - modern day Lebanon. Rosa ricardii rose is a single, five-petaled rose that is very fragrant. It did eventually become "extinct" in Egypt. This rose plant can be purchased from specialty rose sites on the Internet.
Without going into the complexity of Egyptian religion and magic, at some point the rose overtook the role of the sacred lotus flower in Isis theology because of its association with the planet Venus and the five-pointed star. The images of priestesses of Isis show them dressed with a scarf tied at the center of her breastbone into a knot resembling a rose. Rose oil and rose incense was used by priestesses of Isis during funeral ceremonies in the belief that being exposed to the scent of the burning incense induced a mystical state -- the soul of the departed merged into the smoke.
After the introduction to Egypt of Rosa gallica during the Greco-Roman period, by the Greeks and Romans, roses also became part of the Egyptian economy through rose farming, commissioned by the Romans to supply the Roman public. When the Greek dynastic family of the Ptolemies took political control of Egypt in the 4th Century B.C., they also followed the cult of Isis knowing it would give them greater validity among the native Egyptians. In fact, Cleopatra, a Ptolemy, had the sails of her barge seeped in rosewater -- less likely because it was Isis' flower but more because of her obsession with the fragrance.
It's possible Myrithis was practicing Isis worship concurrent with the introduction of Christianity in the Coptic community where her remains were found. I just need to find a translation of the original monograph.