[Excerpted from the author’s class “Olympos in Egypt: An Introduction to the History of Alexandria, the Ptolemies, and Greco-Egyptian Spirituality.”]
Ptolemy I, or Ptolemy Soter, ruled Egypt from 323 to 285. He was born in 367 or 366 BCE in Makedonia, meaning he would have already been in his early 40s when he became Pharaoh of Egypt. He ruled for thirty-eight years, so he was in his early eighties when he died. In 285 he gave up rule to his son, who had been co-regent for three years. He died three years after he retired.
Ptolemy was so loved that the poet Theokritos sang this of him:
With Zeus begin, sweet sisters, and end with Zeus when ye would sing the sovereign of the skies: but first among mankind rank Ptolemy; first, last, and midmost; being past compare. Did not the son of Lagos accomplish whatever his mind could dream up, dreams which no man hath had before? Zeus doth esteem him among the blessed immortals; in the sire’s courts his mansion stands. And near him Alexander sits and smiles, the turbaned Persian’s dread1.
Ptolemy had been a boyhood friend of Alexander, although almost ten years older than him. He may have been taught in the school of Aristotle alongside Alexander. His mother was Arsinoe, a noble of Makedonia, and his father was usually said to be her husband Lagos. However, some people said that Ptolemy was an illegitimate son of Philip, which would have made him Alexander’s half-brother. Ptolemy fought alongside Alexander, and more than once saved his King’s life in battle2, even exposing a plot on Alexander’s life3.
When Alexander ordered his men to marry Persian women in 324, only one year before his death, Ptolemy was given a noblewoman named Artakama4. She was the sister of Alexander’s mistress, Barsine, but there are no further references to her. Like most of Alexander’s men, Ptolemy most likely divorced his Persian bride after Alexander’s death – he had married only out of loyalty to Alexander, not love or any choice of his own.
When Ptolemy returned to Egypt, he was not yet named Pharaoh. At that time he was still a satrap under the rule of Philip Arrhidaeus, Alexander’s older half-brother, and Alexander IV, infant son of Alexander and Roxane. Philip Arrhidaeus was technically king. The infantry wanted someone of Alexander’s blood to rule, and threatened to revolt against the generals if Arrhidaeus was not put on the throne. The first fight for succession was between Perciddas, commander of the cavalry, and Meleager, commander of the phalanx. Perciddas wanted to wait until Roxane gave birth, to see if Alexander’s child was a boy. Meleager, like his men, thought that Arrhidaeus, as the closest living male relative, should be king. They came to a compromise: Arrhidaeus would rule for the time being, and then if the child was a boy, they would rule together.
However, he was a mere figurehead for the generals, starting with Perciddas and going through many others. Plutarch tells that Arrhidaeus had become physically and mentally disabled after Alexander’s mother Olympias poisoned him as a child, in an attempt to clear the way to the throne for her own son. Like so many other stories about Olympias, there is no proof this ever happened. Alexander was apparently very fond of his brother, and took him with him on his campaigns, although he was never in any kind of command and may have never fought at all. Arrhidaeus was eventually killed in the political struggles after Alexander’s death, on Dec. 25, 317 BCE.
Ptolemy stole the body of Alexander, in an attempt to honor his wishes to be buried in Egypt. It was also a Makedonian tradition for the new king to bury his predecessor, so Perdiccas saw this as a grab for power and declared war on Ptolemy. In 321 BCE Perdiccas tried to attack Ptolemy. But Perciddas was unable to invade Egypt, losing as many as two thousand men to drowning when he attempted to cross the Nile. He was forced to retreat, and the episode so badly damaged his reputation that he was killed that night in his tent by two of his subordinates. Even before he was killed, a hundred of the commanders revolted and went over to Ptolemy’s side. When Ptolemy heard what had happened, he crossed the Nile himself to give much needed supplies to Perciddas’ army. He had fought with many of these men, after all, just a few years before. In return he was offered Perdiccas’ position as Regent, but he turned it down. Ptolemy was never tempted to risk everything in pursuit of total power, but in his wisdom stuck with Egypt.
Alexander’s son was killed in 311 BCE, leaving Ptolemy with control of Egypt all to himself. Although he had been acting as Pharaoh to the Egyptian people for many years, he was now addressed by the title of King by other Greek lands. Ptolemy is pictured in both Greek and Egyptian dress. He actively promoted the Egyptians cults and sought to create a synthesis of the two societies.
Although the many successors (who were called the Diadochi) of Alexander fought off and on for forty years, Ptolemy did his best to stay out of the affairs of the others. Except to defend Egypt when necessary, Ptolemy concentrated his energy on rebuilding rather than fighting with the successors. He did not retain his land or holdings in Greece, and he didn’t seem to care or dispute their seizure. Ptolemy was a cautious strategist. He only joined the coalitions against certain of the Diadochi when it appeared that one, such as Antigonus, had the ambition and possible ability to destroy them all. He also sent men to assist the island of Rhodes when it was under siege by Demetrius. Ptolemy controlled Cyrenaica, Cyprus, and Palestine as well, for a time. Although he lost and regained Cyprus and Palestine at different times, he never lost control of Egypt. Ptolemy was strongest there, and Egypt is a hard land to invade, surrounded on all sides by merciless desert.
Ptolemy continued to build the city of Alexandria according to Alexander’s original plans. He built the city’s walls, countless Temples, and the tomb/temple of Alexander and established a priesthood of Alexander, which would become one of the most important priesthoods in the city. He began the work on the famous Pharos lighthouse, which would be completed during his son’s reign. The Pharos would become one of the seven wonders of the world. He connected the island of Pharos to the mainland by a causeway, as Alexander had planned, and it became one of the sides of the Alexandrian harbor. He patronized the mathematician Euclid, and invited the philosopher Strabo to tutor his son. He founded the great Library of Alexandria and the Mouseion (Temple of the Muses), both great centers of learning and culture. At it’s height the Library was said to house 700,000 scrolls5!
Ptolemy, driven by zeal and the great desire for the furtherance of learning, collected with no less care, a similar Library for the same purpose at Alexandria, about the same period. When by dint of great labor he had completed it, he was not satisfied, unless, like the seed of the earth, it was to go on increasing. He therefore instituted games to the Muses and Apollo, and in imitation of those in which wrestlers contended, he decreed rewards and honors to the victorious in literature6.
Ptolemy even resorted to piracy to gain rare books for his library:
The precious texts were safe-guarded in the Athenian state archives and were not allowed to be lent out. Ptolemy however was able to persuade the governors of Athens to permit him to borrow them in order to have them copied. The enormous sum of fifteen talents of silver was deposited in Athens as a pledge for their safe restitution. The King thereupon kept the originals and sent back copies, willingly forfeiting his pledge7.
There were books on Zoroastrianism8, histories of foreign places such as Babylonia9, and as Ptolemy II Philadelphus was in contact with one of the greatest Kings of India, Asoka, there may have even been Buddhist texts in the Library at that point. In the first class I stated that the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek under Ptolemy Soter; it turns out that there is some dispute as to which Ptolemy had them translated. I’m going to quote H. Jeremiah Lewis’ opinion on this subject:
It should be noted that there is some disagreement as to when this happened, and whether it was Ptolemy Soter or his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus who ordered the translation. The 2nd century Letter of Aristeas asserts that it was the son. Augustine (City of God 18.42-43) and Epiphanios (On Weights and Measures 3-11) agree with him, while Jerome (Preface to the Pentateuch) and Justin Martyr (Apology 1.31) insist it was the first Ptolemy. Of course, Justin says that Ptolemy sent to King Herod for the translation – which is about 300 years off the mark – meaning that he was probaly taking the ancient world’s eviqulent of crack when he wrote that. Scholars believe it is unlikely that the translation was undertaken by Philadelphus as Aristeas suggests, since Demetrios sought refuge at Soter’s court, but fell out of favor with Philadelphus and was killed shortly after he took the throne. (Diogenes Laertios L.5.78) Since Aristeas also gets other details of early Ptolemiac history wrong, it’s safe to assume that Soter is the one responsible for translating the Hebrew scriptures into Greek10.
Even though he was the ruler of a rich land, Ptolemy had simple tastes. He did not live in luxury. But he was a generous man, known for giving lavish gifts.
Ptolemy, son of Lagos, owned no more than was required for everyday use; and he used to say it was more kingly to enrich than to be rich11.
Ptolemy Soter was plain in his manners, and scarcely surpassed his own generals in the costliness of his way of life. He often dined and slept at the houses of his friends; and his own house had so little of the palace, that he borrowed dishes and tables of his friends when he asked any number of them to dine with him in return, saying that it was the part of a king to enrich others rather than to be rich himself. – S. Rappoport, History of Egypt.
He fed the Makedonian soldiers not under his command, from his own pocket:
On the next day when their was an assembly of soldiers, Ptolemy came, greeted the Makedonians, and spoke in defense of his attitude; and as their supplies had worn short, he provided at his own expense grain in abundance for the armies and filled the camp with the other needful things12.
Ptolemy wrote his own account of his experiences alongside Alexander, known for its plain and straightforward style of writing. The whole document has itself been lost, but served as a main source of Arrian’s history of Alexander, and so quotes and sections of Ptolemy’s history survive through Arrian’s writing.
Neither did Ptolemy have a puffed up ego; he could take a joke at his own expense. Ptolemy was once making fun of a pedant — commoner (?) for his ignorance, and asked him who the father of Peleus was. The pedant retorted that he would tell him after Ptolemy told him who the father of Lagos (Ptolemy’s father) was. This was a jest at rumors of Ptolemy’s illegitimacy. Everyone in the court was indignant, but Ptolemy told them, “If it is not the part of a king to take a jest, neither is it to make one13.”
Ptolemy was so loved that after his death in 382, he was declared a God and given the worship of a Heros like Alexander.
Now the rhyton was earlier called a horn; and it appears to have been manufactured first under the orders of King Ptolemy Philadelphus, that it might be used as an attribute borne by the statues of Arsinoe. For in her left hand the queen carries that sort of object filled with all kinds of fruit, the artists thus indicating that this horn is even richer in blessings than the horn of Amaltheia. Theoces mentions it in his Ithyphallic Versesthus: “All we artists have today celebrated with sacrifice the festival of Salvation;* in their company I have drunk the double horn and am come into the presence of our dearest king14.
*Xen. Anab. Iii. 2. 8. But here the Saviour Gods are Ptolemy I Soter and Berenice.
Ptolemy had three children with Berenike: one son, Philadelphus, and two daughters, Arsinoe II and Philotera. (He had four or five children by his first wife, and three by an Athenian courtesan, Thais.) Philadelphus, who succeeded him, was born in 308 BCE, took the throne when his father retired in 285, and ruled as Pharaoh of Egypt for almost forty years, till January 28th, 246 BCE., when he died.
Ptolemy’s son was called Philadelphus because, in the tradition of the Egyptian royal families, he married his sister Arsinoe. This scandalized the Greeks and Makedonians, who had a strong prohibition against incest. To the Egyptians, this was not only to be expected, but celebrated. It’s easy for us moderns to judge this practice by our own social mores, but it was a different time. While they were still living they declared themselves living Gods, and they were called the Theoi Adelphoi, “the Brother-Sister Gods”. Ever after the Ptolemies would be worshiped as God-kings in the Egyptian manner.
Philadelphus was a great ruler, who continued his father’s work of uniting the Egyptian and Greek peoples. It was under Philadelphus’ reign the Pharos lighthouse Soter had begun was finished.
“In all the qualities which make a good ruler, Ptolemy Philadelphos excelled not only his contemporaries, but all who came before him so that even today, after so many generations, his praises are sung for the many evidences and monuments of his greatness of mind which he left behind him in different cities and countries. That is why acts of more than ordinary munificence or buildings on an especially great scale are proverbially called Philadelphian after him. … To put it shortly, as the house of the Ptolemies was highly distinguished, compared with other dynasties, so was Philadelphos among the Ptolemies. The creditable achievements of this one man almost outnumbered those of all the others put together, and, as the head takes the highest place in the living body, so he may be said to head the kings.” – Philo, Life of Moses 2.29-30
Modern Worship of Ptolemy Soter
While doing the research and writing for this class, I repeatedly found myself more and more drawn to Ptolemy Soter on a personal level. I turned to my friend, H. Jeremiah Lewis, whose book I’ve been referencing, and asked him some questions about his worship of the Ptolemies. His response was rather lengthy, but I’d like to share some of it with you, so you can get an idea what modern worship of the Ptolemies looks like (the full essay is available online here).
I asked him how he worshiped the Ptolemies, Soter in particular. His response was that although it was a straight-forward question, the answer is a bit complicated. The worship is very different depending on which Ptolemy he worshiping, if it’s only for one of them or as a family collectively, if it is a festival simply to honor them or if there is a particular goal such as promoting fertility or establishing order, or if it’s alongside other Gods. Dionysos and Aphrodite have special connections to the dynasty, and so will have different results than something for the whole pantheon, as They draw out different aspect of the Ptolemies’ personalities then other Gods. He also identifies four different aspects of Ptolemy Soter he has experienced:
Then there’s the fact that just as the gods have different forms or aspects that they may choose to reveal to us at any given time, so do the Ptolemies – and Soter in particular. Roughly there are four of them, though one should not assume that these exhaust the totality of his being or that they are mutually exclusive. They have a tendency to blur into each other during the course of an encounter, though whichever is most dominant tends to influence how I engage with him.
The God-King: In this form Soter is a deified monarch with very little humanity left about him. It’s almost as if he’s an image on a temple wall come to life: wise, powerful, strong, almost indistinguishable from the gods themselves. He embodies the spirit of kingship itself and everything that a good Pharaoh aspires to be. He tends to be distant, serene, aloof and fills you with a mixture of awe, reverence and more than a little fear. You are very much conscious of standing in the presence of something divine, something more than human, something radiating awesome and unimaginable power, something that would be terrible if not for the deep gentleness and benevolence of his spirit. He is absolutely just and pure, intolerant of misdeeds and personal weakness. You’d better have your shit together when you come before him in this form because he’ll make you acutely aware of every imperfection if you’re not.
The Neos Dionysos: The Ptolemies were descended from the god and especially devoted to his cult. They embodied all of his qualities and several seemed to live entirely in his mythical shadow. A Hindu might say that they were an avatar of Dionysos, the god made flesh on earth. Many of the Ptolemies themselves claimed to be the New Dionysos. Soter, however, wasn’t one of them. The Dionysian aspects of their kingship only became prominent with Philadelphos and it wasn’t until the reign of Philopator that this term was even coined. That’s not to say that Soter didn’t worship the god or that Dionysian imagery played no part in his royal ideology – there is ample evidence in support of both points – but Soter was also, unquestionably, less of a Dionysian monarch than his descendants, especially since he tended more to favor the cults of Zeus and Herakles and modeled his rule after them. It may seem strange, then, to include him in this category, but when I’ve encountered the Neoi Dionysoi (or whatever the plural of the term would be) in ritual he’s definitely been among them. Not as prominently as Philadelphos, Philopator, Auletes or Marcus Antonius, to be sure, but he nevertheless stands among them at their head, as is only fitting for the founder of the Dynasty. In terms of cultus the Neoi Dionysoi are a host of spirits resembling the god, sharing in his attributes, powers and personality as well as well as being distinct forms or masks through which he may manifest. Sometimes they appear all together as one being, like Dionysian nesting dolls stacked inside each other. Other times they are distinct but form a troop or choir accompanying the god in his eternal revels. When Soter is among them he appears lighter, friendlier, more jubilant and, well, human – though it is his Dionysian qualities that are foremost. Lusty, laughing, dancing, drunk and joyous. This is my favorite side of him, but it’s also the one I encounter least often. Of course it’s not all fun and games – this is Dionysos we’re talking about! – because there’s also a solemnity and darkness beneath the mirth, and above all a concern with fertility and especially the fertility of vegetative life through the process of death, decay and rebirth. Their revelry has a purpose: to awaken the dormant powers within the earth and stimulate growth and new green life once more.
Ancestral spirit: This is the form Soter takes when he is among the dead collectively. He is not one of the impotent and mindless shades of Haides – he’s more like the powerful ancestral spirits of traditional African and Egyptian religion who dispense wisdom, luck and potency when appeased but send illness, death and calamity when ignored. This form is very different from the others I’ve encountered. It’s much less personal, to the point where it can be difficult to distinguish him from the other spirits. He’s more a force or power than anything, driven by hunger and craving attention. But not personal attention, since there’s little that’s personal left to him. It’s blood and dance and offerings of food and alcohol and attention for all the dead that he desires, and he is just one among many. A host of souls continuing to influence this world from beyond the grave. The dead are dark and strange and hungry but they show great kindness to those who feed them. They are especially effective in healing illness, sending prophetic dreams and increasing one’s luck.
Ptolemy Soter himself: This is probably the form that I’ve encountered least often, but in some ways it’s left the greatest impression on me. This is just Ptolemy the son of Lagos. Not the king, not the god, not the living image of Dionysos or the great ancestral spirit – but the man. A man born in the hinterlands of Greece many centuries ago, who spent most of his life on the battlefield, who loved his wives and mistresses, who wanted only the best for his children and looked back with pride on the incredible things he’d done and seen over his eighty-plus years. He was a man of keen intellect, though not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. He was interested in figuring out how things worked – but only if that knowledge had a practical application. Others could spend time with their heads in the clouds – he was too busy keeping his men alive or governing a country. He was a stern patriarch, a man of honesty, integrity and uncompromising moral convictions. A hard man, disciplined and frugal. He didn’t shun wealth, but he believed that it should be used properly, never allowing it to corrupt one’s character or be pursued as an end unto itself. He demanded much of those around him – especially his children – but demanded even more of himself. He was interested in other cultures, especially when it came to their religious beliefs, but in the end he was a deeply conservative soul who believed in the inherent superiority of his people and their traditions. He’s like your grandfather. Someone who came through the Great Depression, fought in WWII and Korea and had the scars and stories to show for it. Hard, but not cruel; kind, but not doting. Set in his ways, a little crabby, but with a ready smile and a booming, infectious laugh. Full of solid practical advice – whether asked for or not – and more than a little nostalgic, frequently going on about how much better things were back in his day, yet grudgingly impressed by the progress we’ve made in certain areas. Over all, a wise and good man you’d do well to listen to.
So, now that I’ve probably told you more about the different ways I’ve encountered Ptolemy Soter than you ever wanted to know, I suppose I should actually attempt to answer the question you put to me, namely how I worship the Ptolemies. Well, when the god-king aspect is most prominent my style of worship isn’t much different from what I offer to the other deities. I set up a shrine, light some incense and candles, pour libations, offer food, recite hymns and prayers, etc. Beforehand I cleanse myself properly, wear my finest clothing and a garland. It’s all very formal and by the book. In fact, sometimes I adapt the Egyptian prayers to the deified king or use the royal formulas found on Ptolemaic temple walls, or the works of the Alexandrian court poets (Kallimakhos, Theokritos, Poseidippos, etc.) if I haven’t composed my own hymns and prayers for the occasion. I often use the official titles and honorifics associated with the cult of the Ptolemies, in both Greek and Egyptian. There are a number of activities associated with particular festivals but these are too complicated – and in some instances too personal – to go into here as part of a general overview.
Likewise if I’m dealing with the Ptolemies in their capacity as ancestral spirits I’ll employ the traditional Greek or Egyptian methods for honoring the dead. The main difference here is in what’s offered – for instance a mixed libation of milk, wine, honey and oil – and in how the offerings are handled. I may bury the offerings instead of just leaving them out and when I do so I write my prayer or request on a card and either inter it with the offerings or burn it.
The only unique feature that I feel warrants discussion at this point is the trance-possession that often takes place when I am dealing with their more Dionysian aspects. I allow them to come through and “ride” me in the manner of the Haitian lwa. This can take a variety of forms ranging from mere “shadowing” where I am in complete control of my body and senses but feel them somewhere in the back of my consciousness, communicating with me or showing me certain things on up to full possession where they are manipulating my body and speaking through my mouth and I’m pretty much just along for the ride in my own body or completely unaware until I return to myself. There’s plenty of things that can happen between these two extremes and it’s usually somewhere in the middle, a mixture of the two: I’ve only experienced what I’d consider total possession a handful of times now, and always on very special occasions. What transpires during these states and how they’re brought about aren’t things I really feel comfortable sharing in such a public forum. It’s enough to state that they are possible and happen with some regularity. In fact they’ve been known to happen even when I wasn’t intending to go that deep or had even planned to be working with them at that time. Lately the Ptolemies often show up when I’m doing stuff with either Dionysos or Spider – especially when I’m dealing with both of them together.
1Theokritos. Idylls 17
2Plutarch. Moralia. 327 B, 344 D.
3Alexander’s Itinerary. 41. xciii
5Ammianus Marcellinus. Roman History. 22:16:15.
6Vetruvius. On Architecture. 7.4.
7 Galen, In Hippocr. De Nat.Hominis 1.44 ff
8Pliny. Natural History. 30.3-4
10H. Jeremiah Lewis. Balance of the Two Lands: Writings on Greco-Egyptian Polytheism. Nysa Press. Page 230.
11Plutarch. Moralia. 181 F
13Plutarch. Moralia. 458 A – B.
14 Athenaeus XI. 497 b – c