One of the Gods of this month is Apis, the living bull-God of Memphis. According to the Greco-Egyptian historian Manetho, the worship of the Apis goes back to nearly 3,000 BCE, to the 2nd Dynasty of the First Kingdom of Egypt. The Apis bull was a God incarnate, a harbinger of fertility, prosperity, and healing, and connected with the Nile. His worship is one of the most ancient, and most likely was originally related to the fertility of grains and herds, but also of masculine power and vigor. 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 of Deities. He was in particular a guardian of children, and any child who smelled the breath of the bull was thought to have the power to tell the future. 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.
The mother of the Apis bull was called the Hesis or Hesat cow (or less often, the Isis cow). When the new Apis bull was identified, He was moved to Apieion sanctuary, next to the temple of Ptah in Memphis. The Apieion had a large chamber for the Apis bull and another for His mother. Both of them were given only the finest feed, never had to work for the rest of their lives, and the Apis had a harem of the best cows. Only the most important, honored guests were allowed into the sanctuary to meet the bull. But there was a window built into the chamber, called a “Window of Appearance”, through which the Egyptians could view the Apis from the respectful distance. At special times of the year, for specific festivals, the Apis would leave the Apieion and be an important part of the religious processions, alongside the priests, priestesses, musicians, dancers, and standard-bearers.
Apis and Ptah, Apis and Osiris
Originally Apis was considered a manifestation of Ptah, the creator God of Memphis, Who brings the world into being through sacred words of power. He was called the “Ba (Soul) of Ptah” and “Herald of Ptah” and “the renewal of the life” of Ptah. Ramses III called Him the “August Son of Ptah” and the “Beautiful Soul” of Ptah. He was also called described as “high of horns, beautiful of names, far-seer and wide-ranger1.”
Eventually Osiris absorbed the functions of Ptah, creating a joint form of Ptah-Seker-Osiris, and so the Apis become to be associated instead with Osiris. After being syncreticzed with Osiris, the Apis took on jobs associated with the lord of the dead. The bull gained the title “The Living Deceased One”, and if a person was under His protection, it was believed that the soul of the dead gained control over the winds of the afterlife. The deceased Apis was also believed to carry the soul of dead to the Field of Reeds, one of the choice domains of the afterlife, which is what is depicted in this picture here ==========>
When the Apis died, he was mummified and entombed with great honors in the necropolis at Saqqara known as the Serapeum. In the Underworld he was identified with Osiris, just as the Pharaoh was. Osar-Apis was what the sacred Apis bull was called after His death. 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).
In pre-Ptolemaic Egypt, the cult of Osar-Apis was also primarily centered in Memphis, which is where the Apis bull lived out His life. But by an account in Tactius, Serapis (Greek transliteration of Osar-Apis) 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.
The Apis and the Pharaoh
The bull became a symbol of the Pharaoh when Upper and Lower Egypt was united under Narmer. So as bulls began to personify the Pharaoh, The Apis came to be connected to rulership. The Apis is sometimes depicted with the solar disk between His horns, the symbol of the Pharaoh, of Ra, and sovereignty. The virility and fertility of the Apis and Pharaoh are one and the same, and the Apis is a symbol of the Pharaoh’s strength, courage and fighting spirit. The Pharaoh, who acted as a kind of bridge between the world of the Gods and the world of men, had to be able to channel the strength and fertility of the Apis so that Egypt could prosper. In fact, the Pharaoh was called the “Victorious Bull”, and the “Strong Bull of His Mother Hathor”, which is also a title given to several Gods.
At the Sed festival, the Pharaoh was beloved to absorb the power of the Apis bull by walking with Him in the procession. This was sometimes called the “Race of the Apis Bull” or “Running With the Apis”. It was so important that it was mentioned in the famous Palermo Stone.
There were a few smaller bull cults, including one centered in the town of Armant in the region of Hermonthis. This bull had to be all white with a black face. He was called Buchis, and was the manifestation of the falcon-headed war-God Montu. To a lesser extent He was linked to Ra and Osiris. Reflecting His connection to Montu, a war-God, the Buchis bull sometimes engaged in fights with other bulls. The Buchis bull and His mother were also mummified and laid to rest in a special cemetery called the Bucheum. There are generations of Buchis bulls buried here.
Mnevis, the bull of Heliopolis, was also known as the Kemwer, meaning the “Great Black”. As the name suggests, He was usually completely black. As you may have guessed, since His cult was based in Heliopolis, the Mnevis bull was associated with Ra. What is interesting is that there is a possibly He was also associated with the lunar God Min as well. There is not much information about the Mnevis cult, unfortunately. Only two Mnevis burials have been discovered, both dating to the New Kingdom. Each bull had its tomb. Their burial rooms also included a set of Canopic Jars, much like was used for human mummification in Egypt. However, since these jars were empty, they were both likely included for symbolic or ritualistic reasons.
The Apis as Living God
The worship of the Apis continued in the Greco-Roman age, under both the Ptolemies and the Romans. In the Roman times the Apis had its own special guard, a liktor. The worship of the Apis actually continued up until about 400 CE. Of course, the deceased Apis Who joined with Osiris to become Osar-Apis was Hellenized to become Serapis and taken as the patron God of the Ptolemies and of Alexandria. I’m not going to go into Serapis, as I’ve already written a little about Him here. This post is about Apis as a separate Entity. Apis doesn’t get much attention in the modern Pagan community. This might be due to lack of knowledge about Him, but I think there could be something else at it’s heart.
The Apis bull was a God incarnate, not a spirit in the sky, but a living, breathing God that would eat, bleed, and shit. This can be hard for modern people to understand. Monotheism has taught us to think of Divinity as something “up there”, outside themselves, disembodied, pure intellect or soul. Blood and piss and dirt, the acts of eating and excreting and mating, are seen as dirty and filthy. Even as Pagans, this worldview can hard to excise. While some of us are now lucky enough to be second-generation or even third, most Pagans and Polytheists are still converts, which means that we are still dealing with monotheist thought processes that we have internalized. This is something that we must work to
In April when we studied White Buffalo Calf Woman, here, from the Lakota Native American tradition, I mentioned that the way the Lakota revere the birth of a white buffalo reminded me of the Apis bull. It’s interesting that both the Egyptians and the Lakota, two cultures on opposite sides of the world, saw a manifest Divinity in a living bull (or heifer. In the Lakota tradition it the sacred buffalo can be of either sex). The Egyptians saw the bull as so sacred that there were three (THREE!) separate bull-cults where a God was believed to incarnate Himself within the bull.
Sadly, in today’s expression of Paganism, there is no way to revive this cult in its fullness. Not yet. Maybe, one day, when our traditions have grown, when Paganism can sustain its cost, when there are priests and priestesses willing to devote themselves to caring for a new Apis. There can be a day when we are not a “fringe” religion anymore, if we are brave and outspoken and stand our ground. That is what we are building towards, bringing the Gods and Their worship back into the world again, on a large-scale. I wish that I could live to see it, but I most likely will not. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing. Most things that are really worth doing are not easy, and do not yield quick results. We can still worship the Apis, even if He is not yet incarnated in physical form. I believe He still exists, that His immortal spirit is not so easy to stamp out as the physical body that He occupies. But I’d love for there to be an actual revival of His physical cult one day, if the Fates would be so kind.
1 Nonnus. Dionysiaca. 32.65