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The Hellenistic-Egyptian god Serapis and his attributes.

Serapis (Latin spelling, or Sarapis in Greek) was a syncretic Hellenistic-Egyptian god in Antiquity. His most renowned temple was the Serapeum of Alexandria.[1] Under Ptolemy Soter, efforts were made to integrate Egyptian religion with that of their Hellenic rulers. Ptolemy's policy was to find a deity that should win the reverence alike of both groups, despite the curses of the Egyptian priests against the gods of the previous foreign rulers (i.e Set who was lauded by the Hyksos). Alexander the Great had attempted to use Amun for this purpose, but he was more prominent in Upper Egypt, and not as popular with those in Lower Egypt, where the Greeks had stronger influence. The Greeks had little respect for animal-headed figures, and so a Greek-style anthromorphic statue was chosen as the idol, and proclaimed as the equivalent of the highly popular Apis.[2] It was named Aser-hapi (i.e. Osiris-Apis), which became Serapis, and was said to be Osiris in full, rather than just his Ka (life force).



The earliest mention of a Serapis is in the disputed death scene of Alexander (323 BC).[3] Here, Serapis has a temple at Babylon, and is of such importance that he alone is named as being consulted on behalf of the dying king. His presence in Babylon would radically alter perceptions of the mythologies of this era, though fortunately it has been discovered that the unconnected Babylonian god Ea (Enki) was titled Serapsi, meaning king of the deep, and it is possibly this Serapsi which is referred to in the diaries. The significance of this Serapsi in the Hellenic psyche, due to its involvement in Alexander's death, may have also contributed to the choice of Osiris-Apis as the chief Ptolemaic god.

According to Plutarch, Ptolemy stole the cult statue from Sinope, having been instructed in a dream by the unknown god, to bring the statue to Alexandria, where the statue was pronounced to be Serapis by two religious experts. One of the experts was of the Eumolpidae, the ancient family from whose members the hierophant of the Eleusinian Mysteries had been chosen since before history, and the other was the scholarly Egyptian priest Manetho, which gave weight to the judgement both for the Egyptians and the Greeks.

Plutarch may not however be correct, as some Egyptologists allege that the Sinope in the tale is really the hill of Sinopeion, a name given to the site of the already existing Serapeum at Memphis. Also, according to Tacitus, Serapis (i.e. Apis explicitly identified as Osiris in full) had been the god of the village of Rhakotis, before it suddenly expanded into the great capital of Alexandria.

The statue suitably depicted a figure resembling Hades or Pluto, both being kings of the Greek underworld, and was shown enthroned with the modius, a basket/grain-measure, on his head, since it was a Greek symbol for the land of the dead. He also held a sceptre in his hand indicating his rulership, with Cerberus, gatekeeper of the underworld, resting at his feet, and it also had what appeared to be a serpent at its base, fitting the Egyptian symbol of rulership, the uraeus.

With his (i.e. Osiris') wife Isis, and their son (at this point in history) Horus (in the form of Harpocrates), Serapis won an important place in the Greek world,[4] reaching Ancient Rome, with Anubis being identified as Cerberus. In Rome, Serapis was worshiped in the Iseum Campense, the sanctuary of the goddess Isis located in the Campus Martius and built during the Second Triumvirate. The Roman cults of Isis and Serapis gained in popularity late in the first century thanks to the god's role in the miracles that the imperial usurper Vespasian experienced in the city of Alexandria, where he stayed prior to his return to Rome as emperor in 70 AD. From the Flavian Dynasty on, Serapis sometimes appeared on imperial coinage with the reigning emperor. The great cult survived until 385, when a Christian mob destroyed the Serapeum of Alexandria, and subsequently the cult was forbidden by the Theodosian decree.

The early Alexandrian Christian community appears to have been rather syncretic in their worship of Serapis and Jesus and would prostrate themselves without distinction between the two.[5] A letter inserted in the Augustan History, ascribed to the Emperor Hadrian, refers to the worship of Serapis by residents of Egypt who described themselves as Christians, and Christian worship by those claiming to worship Serapis, suggesting a great confusion of the cults and practices:

The land of Egypt, the praises of which you have been recounting to me, my dear Servianus, I have found to be wholly light-minded, unstable, and blown about by every breath of rumour. There those who worship Serapis are, in fact, Christians, and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are, in fact, devotees of Serapis. There is no chief of the Jewish synagogue, no Samaritan, no Christian presbyter, who is not an astrologer, a soothsayer, or an anointer. Even the Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is forced by some to worship Serapis, by others to worship Christ.[6]


See also


  1. ^ "Of the Egyptian sanctuaries of Serapis the most famous is at Alexandria", Pausanias noted (Description of Greece, 1.18.4, second century AD), in describing the Serapeion at Athens erected by Ptolemy on the steep slope of the Acropolis: "As you descend from here to the lower part of the city, is a sanctuary of Serapis, whose worship the Athenians introduced from Ptolemy."
  2. ^ According to Sir J.G. Frazer's note to the Biblioteca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, 2.1.1: "Apollodorus identifies the Argive Apis with the Egyptian bull Apis, who was in turn identified with Serapis (Sarapis)"; Pausanias also conflates Serapis and Egyptian Apis: "Of the Egyptian sanctuaries of Serapis the most famous is at Alexandria, the oldest at Memphis. Into this neither stranger nor priest may enter, until they bury Apis" (Pausanias,Description of Greece, 1.18.4).
  3. ^ Reported from Arrian, Anabasis, VII. 26.
  4. ^ In his Description of Greece, Pausanias notes two Serapeia on the slopes of Acrocorinth, above the rebuilt Roman city of Corinth (2.4.5) and one at Copae in Boeotia (9.24.1).
  5. ^ Otto Friedrich August Meinardus, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (American University in Cairo Press), 2002, p. 143, ISBN 9774247574A.
  6. ^ Firmus et al. 8 Historia Augusta 8.



1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SERAPIS, the famous Graeco-Egyptian god. The statue of Serapis in the Serapeum of Alexandria was of purely Greek type and workmanship - a Hades or Pluto enthroned with a basket or corn measure on his head, a sceptre in his hand, Cerberus at his feet, and (apparently) a serpent. According to Plutarch, Ptolemy Soter stole it from Sinope, having been bidden by the unknown god in a dream to bring him to Alexandria. On its arrival the statue was pronounced to be Serapis by two experts in re]igiou,5 matters: the one the Eumolpid Timotheus, the other the Egyptian Manetho. This story may not be true (some contend that Sinope as the provenance of the statue originated in the hill of Sinopeion, i.e. place of Apis (?), a name given to the site of the Serapeum at Memphis), but there is little doubt that Ptolemy Soter fixed the iconic type to serve for the god of the new capital of Egypt, where it was soon associated with Isis and Harpocrates in a triad. His policy was evidently to find a deity that should win the reverence alike of Greeks and Egyptians. The Greeks of that day would have had little respect for a grotesque Egyptian figure, while the Egyptians were more willing to accept divinity in any shape. A Greek statue was therefore chosen as the idol, and it was proclaimed as the anthropomorphic equivalent of a much revered and highly popular Egyptian beast-divinity, the dead Apis, assimilated to Osiris. The Greek figure probably had little effect on the native ideas, but it is likely that it served as a useful link between the two' religions. The god of Alexandria soon won an important place in the Greek world. The anthropomorphic Isis and Horus were easily rendered in Greek style, and Anubis was prepared for by Cerberus. The worship of Serapis along with Isis, Horus and Anubis spread far and wide, reached Rome, and ultimately became one of the leading cults of the west. The destruction in A.D. 385 of the Serapeum of Alexandria, and of the famous idol within it, after the decree of Theodosius, marked the deathagony of paganism throughout the empire.

It is assumed above that the name Serapis (so written in later Greek and in Latin, in earlier Greek Sarapis) is derived from the Egyptian Userhapi - as it were Osiris-Apis - the name of the bull Apis, dead and, like all the blessed dead, assimilated to Osiris,. king of the underworld. There is no doubt that Serapis was before long identified with Userhapi; the identification appears clearly in a bilingual inscription of the time of Ptolemy Philopator (221-205 B.C.), and frequently later. It has, however, been contended by an eminent authority (Wilcken, Archiv fitir Papyrusforschung, iii. 249) that the parallel occurrence of the names Sarapis and Osorapis (Userhapi) points to an independent origin for the former. But doublets, e.g. Petisis-Petesis, are common in Graecisms of Egyptian names. The more accurate form is then generally the later, found in documents written by Greeks in familiar intercourse with Egyptians, the less accurate is traditional from an older date in the mouths of pure Greeks and Hellenists, and is used in literary writings. Thus Sarapis would be the literary and official form of the name; it might be traditional, dating perhaps from the reign of Amasis or from the Persian period. We know that in Herodotus's day, and long before, the discovery of the new Apis was the occasion of universal rejoicing, and his death of universal mourning. The ancient Serapeum (Puserhapi) and the name Userhap would be almost as familiar to early Greek wanderers in Egypt as the Apieum and Apis itself.

But why was a Plutonic Serapis selected rather than another god to furnish the Egyptian element to the chief divinity of Alexandria? According to one account in Tacitus, Sarapis was the god of the village of Rhacotis before it suddenly expanded into a great capital; but it is not very probable that temples were erected to the dead Apis except at his Memphite tomb. Alexander had courted Ammon. But Ammon had little hold on the affections of the Egyptian people. He was the god of Ethiopia and the Thebais which were antagonistic to the progressive north. On the other hand, Osiris with Isis and Horus was everywhere honoured and popular, and while the artificer Ptah, the god of the great native capital of Egypt, made no appeal to the imagination, the Apis bull, an incarnation of Ptah, threw Ptah himself altogether into the shade in the popular estimation. The combination of Osiris and the Apis bull which was found in the dead Apis was thus a most politic choice in naming the new divinity, whose figure represented a god of the underworld wearing an emblem of fruitfulness.

The earliest mention of Sarapis is in the authentic death scene of Alexander, from the royal diaries (Arrian, Anabasis, vii. 26). Here Sarapis has a temple at Babylon and is of such importance that he alone is named a being consulted on behalf of the dying king. It would considerably alter our conception of the dead Apis if we were to find that a travelling shrine of his divinity accompanied Alexander on his expedition or was set up for him in Babylon. On the other hand, the principal god of Babylon was Zeus Belus (Bel Marduk), and it is difficult to see why he should have been called Sarapis on this occasion. Evidence has, however, been found to prove that Ea, entitled Sarapsi, "king of the deep (sea)," who was also great in learning and magic, had a temple in the city (Lehmann in Beitrlige zur alten Geschichte, iv. 396). It seems unwarranted to make this Sarapsi= Sarapis travel to Sinope and thence to Alexandria as the type of the Egyptian god; but whether or no the Egyptian appellation Sarapis was applied to express the Babylonian Sarapsi, the part it played in the last days of Alexander may have determined the choice by which the Egyptian Osiris-Apis supplied the name and some leading characteristics to the god of Alexandria.

See Isis; A. Bouch&Leclercq, Histoire des Lagides, i. (1903), ch. iv.; J. G. Milne, History of Egypt under Roman Rule (1898), p, 140; G. Lafaye, Histoire du culte des divinites d'Alexandrie hors de l'Egypte (Paris, 1884). (F. LL. G.)

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Proper noun

Serāpis (genitive Serāpidis); m, third declension

  1. Serapis, an Egyptian god.


The genitive may also be formed as Serāpis.

Related terms

  • Serapeum
  • Serapicus

See also


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