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The Cult of God Serapis in Egypt and the Greek World

two roman statues, woman on the left and man on the right, wearing a jar on his head, a sceptre and with a dog
Persephone as Isis and Pluto as Sarapis (with Cerberus), Marble, 2nd century AD, AM Heraklion. Credit: Zde / CC BY-SA 4.0.

The cult of Serapis in Egypt arose during Ptolemy I’s reign and would become one of the centers of Ptolemaic soft power in the East and West alike.

Serapis (Greek: Σέραπις) was a Greco-Egyptian god introduced in Alexandria of Egypt in around 300 B.C. by Ptolemy I. Ptolemy built several temples of Serapis throughout the empire.

The pagan world was an inclusive one, where the single cults could fall into or out of favor. The rise of a specific cult never excluded the adoration of previous gods and formed a Pantheon that united millennia of pagans. Gods evolved to better fit daily life, and their cults changed over time. Syncretism was a tendency in religion that would lead to fewer gods overall with some gods being forgotten over time.

An Egyptian god

The god was depicted as a Zeus-like figure, with a beard like Hades. He sat on his throne with a scepter in hand and carried a vase on his head as a symbol of fertility, according to Egyptian tradition. Next to the god was a three-headed dog like Cerberus. The dog had certain traits in common with Asclepius, to the point of being associated with healing and medicine. His sacred animal was the bull Api, a part of Egyptian religion at the time.

An Egyptian line drawing of the god Sarapis, drawn as an anthropomorphic Egyptian-style bull with a round Sun headdress and a sceptre with a hook and a whip in hand
Serapis according to an Egyptian depiction. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A modern god

As the first Greek pharaoh struggled to have his Egyptian subjects accept him as such, Ptolemy adapted Egyptian and Greek religions to suit his empire in the making. There were shifting religious sensibilities in the region with strong monotheistic religions such as Judaism arising. Serapis was the Lord of the Universe, the Underworld, fecundity, healing, and the Sun, accepting elements of the cults of Isis and Osiris and making it closer to Greek sensibility. This made Serapis similar to the Olympic gods so to say.

Based on Plutarch’s writings and in particular his De Iside et Osiride, it seems that the god (or at least his image) came from Sinope. In this Greek colony on the Black Sea, there was a temple dedicated to a Semitic deity Ea, known as Sar-Apsi (“Lord of the depths”). 

The oracle of such a god was, according to Arrianus, consulted by Alexander the Great’s generals when the king was ill in Babylonia. The similarity of the names Sarapsi and Osorapis (from Osiris and Api), popular in Memphis, must have pushed Ptolemy I to choose this as a name for his new god. Here, the god was adored atop a hill named Sen-Hapi, rendered as Sinope in Greek. His statue was kept here in Asia Minor, and a temple was erected in Alexandria. 

The spread of the cult

This all-encompassing divine being was an acceptable compromise for the multiethnic city of Alexandria, the capital city of Ptolemaic rule. The success of this new deity wasn’t immediate, but it spread through the Mediterranean, soon reaching the Roman Empire along with the cult of Isis, making the two deities popular with the Romans as well. After Christianity became the cult of the empire, pagans continued to venerate Sarapi and Isis, and the two figures became similar to the ones of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

For this reason, it wasn’t viewed very positively by the Senate, as it was seen as something akin to religious fundamentalism. In the Roman empire, followers were often initiated in secret, and especially to the mysteries of Isis. Throughout the Roman empire, the cult was ultimately seen with mistrust but wholly accepted, and, in Rome alone, there were around nine temples dedicated to Isis and Serapis. 

Bronze miniature statue of Serapis, depicted with a serpent body and a human head, with a shocked and stupefied expression and eyes painted white
Serapis in a Corynthian miniature, dated 200 A.D. circa. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to Ptolemaic religious politics, the cult continued to grow and spread, substituting major Egyptian deities like Osiris and Anubi, and joining a Greco-Egyptian pantheon along with Harpocrates, an incarnation of Horus. Serapis ultimately absorbed the identity of several different Egyptian and Greek gods, including Helios, Dionysus, Hades, and Zeus. The complementary cults of Isis and Serapis remained very popular with Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks until around the 3rd century A.D.

Destruction of cult

For many, the cult of Serapis and its songs, lights, bells, and processions represented transformation of the figure of the savior-God Osiris into a monotheistic God, almost identical to the Christian God. Like the Christian God, Serapis was a scapegoat, and every year, a ritual involved sacrificial lamb. This should not be too surprising, as the intention behind the religion itself was to find common ground between several different Babylonian-Semitic, Egyptian, and Greek traditions and myths as old as civilization itself. 

The Babylonians already had the myth of a Virgin Mother Goddess that gave birth without the need for male intervention. The original myth saw the mother giving birth, growing the child, mating with him, killing him, and having him be reborn. Often, these myths and stories remained virtually unchanged for millennia, competing with each other for political power.

In 313, the emperor Constantine I, along with his eastern counterpart Licinius, issued the Edict of Milan, which granted religious toleration and freedom for Christians, but the cult remained strong in the Roman Empire as well as through the Greco-Egyptian world. It remained strong until 385, when Christians destroyed the Serapeum of Alexandria.

The cult of Serapis had been forbidden by the Edict of Thessalonica, issued in 380 A.D. by Theodosius I, making Nicene Christianity the religion of State for the Roman Empire. It condemned Christian creeds, such as Arianism, as heresies and authorized their punishment as the ramblings of “foolish madmen.” Theodosius was driven by his wish to pacify Constantinople in a religious and political way in order to establish it as his imperial residence. The Edict of Thessalonica was subsequently incorporated into Book XVI of the Theodosian Code and was the milestone of the official Christianization of the Roman Empire. It was a first secular move to establish some kind of religious orthodoxy.

As much as Christianization was a forced passage in both the Roman and Greek world and as the religion shifted to becoming a part of a political and social organization, it still absorbed aspects of late Hellenistic paganism in order to spread and become popular. After all, Hellenistic paganism had itself fed off the encounter with Semitic monotheism, and its Babylonian roots must have spoken to late pagans who adored Serapis and Isis and also subscribed to many common myths.

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