The Greek Ptolemies ruled Egypt from the late fourth to late first centuries BC, and Aphrodite was among the most widely worshipped of all the Greek goddesses in Egypt at that time. In the interests of furthering the integration of the Egyptian and Greek cultures, the dynasty’s first ruler, Ptolemy I Soter, enthusiastically promoted Greco-Egyptian syncretisation. As such, there developed a fusion of the Egyptian and Greek pantheons and Hellenization of some of the more popular Egyptian gods. The most significant of these was the merging of Aphrodite with Isis, a union that drew on the fertility aspects of both goddesses, as well as their passionate and formidable characters. The Isis-Aphrodite cult combined the roles of Aphrodite as the goddess of love and fertility with the magical powers of Isis as the goddess of rebirth and agricultural abundance. The popularity of this cult resulted in an array of images of the new goddess in a range of media, intended for both dedication and personal worship in temples, sanctuaries, and public spaces. Aspects of Isis are evoked in the present bust, namely, her long, corkscrew curls, arranged in the semblance of a traditional Egyptian hairstyle. A square-shaped depression in the crown of her head would once have held a sun-disk, one of Isis’ most prominent attributes, and it is likely that a veil was once also affixed. The head was most probably inserted into a separately made bust or body, and traces of pigment demonstrate that it was once brightly painted.
The sculpture’s primary identification with the aforementioned goddesses does not rule out an association with the ruler cult, a manifestation of the powers of goddess and queen. The affiliation of Ptolemaic queens with Aphrodite is attested throughout the dynasty: Arsinoë II (316-270 BC) and Berenike II (267-221 BC) were both likened to and associated themselves with Aphrodite, as well as her Egyptian form Hathor, and with Isis; and Cleopatra III introduced a new cult in 107 BC, that of ‘Cleopatra-Aphrodite’. Ptolemaic queens also show a preference for the long ringlets of the Isis hairstyle, which was officially worn by queens for the first time late in the reign of Cleopatra I (205-176 BC).
The cult of Aphrodite enjoyed a popularity and reach that transcended time and cultures for millennia. This magnifcent work is testament to the goddess’ revered status and her enduring power to captivate her beholder many centuries therafter.