Of all the Gods, Greek or Egyptian, most connected to Ptolemy Soter were Isis and Serapis. The Egyptian Osar-Apis (or Osiripis, Userhapi, Asar-Hapi), was in the Greek called Serapis (or Sarapis, Zaparrus). While building Alexandria, Ptolemy had a dream. He saw a large statue that commanded him to bring to bring it to Alexandria. Ptolemy did not recognize the statue in his dream. He discussed it with his friends, trying to discover the identity of the mysterious statue. One of them, Sosibius, said that in Sinope there was a statue of Pluto that perfectly matched Ptolemy’s description of his vision. Ptolemy sent two men, Dionysius and Soteles, to get the statue. Plutarch says that while they are on their way, a storm blows them off course and they become lost and discouraged. A dolphin appeared by the prow and led them to their destination. When they got there, they manage to steal the statue, with more divine help1.

Although recognized as a statue of Pluto, we are told that two priests, Timotheus the Heirophant of the Eleusisan Mysteries, and an Egyptian scholar called Manetho of Sebennytos, convinced Ptolemy that he was the God Serapis.So Plutarch tells us:

It certainly did not bear this name when it came from Sinope, but, after it had been conveyed to Alexandria, it took to itself the name that Pluto bears among the Egyptians, that of Serapis. Moreover, since Herakleitos the physical philosopher says, “The same are Haides and Dionysos, to honor whom they rage and rave,” people are inclined to come to this opinion. In fact, those who insist that the body is called Haides, since the soul is, as it were, deranged and inebriate when it is in the body, are too frivolous in their use of allegory. It is better to identify Osiris with Dionysos and Serapis with Osiris, who received this appellation at the time when he changed his nature. For this reason Serapis is a god of all peoples in common, even as Osiris is; and this they who participated in the holy rites well know2.

Tactius, however, says that Ptolemy’s dream was really of “a youth of singular beauty and a more than human stature”. What ever the truth, the statue was bought to Alexandria and renamed Serapis. The Greek and Egyptian priests who both claimed it was Serapis lend weight to the belief on both sides. Serapis had been a relatively minor Deity in the Egyptian New Kingdom (appox. 1570-1065 BCE). Osar-Apis was what the sacred Apis bull was called after his death. When the Apis died, he was mummified and entombed with great honors. In the Underworld he was identified with Osiris, just as the Pharaoh was. Eventually all the dead came to be identified with Osiris, rather than just the Pharaoh. One of the most common titles of Osiris was “Bull of the West” (the Western Lands is the land of the dead in Egyptian belief).

The Apis bull was a God incarnate, a harbinger of fertility, prosperity, and healing, and connected with the Nile. Bulls, one of the most sacred animals in Egypt, were greatly revered as symbols of strength, virility, and fighting spirit. Bulls are one of the most useful animals in an agrarian society, being used to plow the fields where grain grows. So the connection to fertility, food, and life is a natural one. Apis was considered one of the kindest, most beneficent Deities. He was a guardian of children, and any child who smelled the breath of the bull was thought to have the power to tell the future. Sometimes the Apis was himself used as a form of divination. He was asked a question, and then offered food. If he rejected the food it was a bad omen, if he ate it that was a good omen. OriginallyApis was considered a manifestation of Ptah, the creator God of Memphis, Who brings the world into being through sacred words of power. But early on, the Apis began to be associated with Osiris, the dying and resurrecting consort of Isis. The mother of the Apis bull was called the Hesis of Hesat cow (or less often, the Isis cow).

There were a few smaller bull cults, including one centered in the town of Armant. This bull had to be all white with a black face. He was called Buchis, and was linked to Ra, Osiris, and Montu. The Buchis bull and his mother were also mummified and laid to rest in a special cemetery called the Bucheum.

In pre-Ptolemaic Egypt, the cult of Osar-Apis was primarily centered in Memphis, which is where the Apis bull lived out his life and was buried. But by an account in Tactius Serapis was claimed as the local God of Rhakotis, the small Egyptian village that was located near or at the site of the future Alexandria. The Greeks believed that Apis was the son of Zeus and the river-nymph Io, who had been turned into a heifer and driven to Egypt by Hera. There in Egypt, she gave birth to Zeus’ son, who the Greeks called Epaphos, the first Apis bull3.

After Ptolemy’s dream, Serapis was adopted as the patron of Alexandria and the Ptolemaic dynasty in general. He formed a bridge between Greeks and Egyptians, so they both payed homage to the same great God. To the Greeks Osiris was most often seen as the Egyptian face of Dionysos, but as Serapis He came to incorporate aspects of Zeus and Haides, even taking patronage of the Sun from Helios, and healing and dream incubation from Asklepios! He was addressed as lord of the universe, life, death, and the afterlife.

He is heavily bearded, looking a lot like Zeus, except He wears the modius crown of grain. (In the movie Agora, one of the Christian leaders publicly mocks Serapis as a God wearing a flowerpot on head) He’s often shown with a royal scepter and holding the chain of Kerberos, the three-headed dog who guards the underworld in classical Greek belief. Sometimes he is also depicted with the curved ram’s horns on the side of His head, linking Him to Zeus Ammon.

Some scholars say that Ptolemy Soter completely invented Serapis. This is obliviously not true, as Osar-Apis was worshiped in Egypt long before Ptolemy, even if He was an obscure Deity at the time. However, it is fair to say that Ptolemy did reinvent the cult for a mixed Greek and Egyptian audience. Serapis was soon associated with Isis and Harpokrates (the Greek name for Horus the Younger, Heru-sa-Aset).

Under Ptolemy III the famous Serapeum of Alexandria was built. The Serapeum was a huge complex of buildings and gardens, one of the largest in the ancient world. It was considered one of the most beautiful Temples in the world, and become a great site of pilgrimage. In the complex was a library that contained 300, 000 scrolls, which was considered to be a daughter library of the Great Library of Alexandria.

Since many residents of Alexandria were sailors and traders, worship of Serapis and Isis was quickly spread abroad. Jeremy J. Baer (aka “Ursus”) in his essay The History of Serapis, tells us that:

..We find cults of Isis and Serapis formed as private associations throughout many major port towns of the Mediterranean, with official temple cults erected not long thereafter. Egyptian slaves sold in foreign markets often carried the cult with them to new lands. Interestingly enough, foreign merchants and slave traders were just as likely to adopt the cult, for they found in Isis and Serapis universal deities with powers to grant great boons.

Serapis …. in cult shared powers of some of the Greek healing gods. He could also be identified with Dionysus-Sabazius as another resurrected vegetation deity. His consort Isis could be linked with the Greek Demeter or Greek Aphrodite. These identifications helped the cult of Isis and Serapis spread to other Hellenes throughout the Mediterranean4.

Among modern Pagans Serapis is usually, but not always, honored beside Isis. Together They are a powerful pair, symbolic of life in it’s purest and truest forms. Among Serapis’ gifts are healing, peace, fertility, prophetic dreams and oracles, and favor in the afterlife. In total, the Deities He is equated with are Osiris, Apis, Agathos Daimon, Dionysos, Haides, Asklepios, Helios, Zeus, Pan.His symbols are the modius crown, cornucopia, throne, scepter, lightning-bolt, kerberos, snakes, bull, ship, wheat, beer, grapes.

1Plutarch. Moralia. 984 A – B.

2Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris. 361 F – 362 E

3 Nonnus. Dionysiaca. 32.65


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One Response to Serapis

  1. Pingback: God of the Month Club: Apis, the Living Bull-God of Egypt | Temple of Athena the Savior

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