Sunday, July 1, 2012


(Sarapis) Serapis has presented a riddle for Egyptologists. His worship originated among the Ptolemies, the transplanted Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt from their capital at Alexandria in the wake of Egypt’s conquest by Alexander the Great, and was subsequently adopted and promoted by the emperors of Rome. But Serapis remained, paradoxically, an Egyptian God worshiped in the company of other Egyptian Gods from one end of the Roman Empire to the other, but almost entirely by non-Egyptians. As the consort of Isis, Serapis became a fixture of the international Isis cult. In this role, Serapis displaced Osiris for many foreign devotees. Serapis is depicted in fully Hellenistic style as a bearded, robust man enthroned with the sign of a modius, or grain measure, on his head. The grain measure symbolizes allotting the portion deserved. Serapis is a God of miracles, destiny, healing and the afterlife, often fused with the Greek God Zeus or the Roman God Jupiter, extending the notion of sovereignty to include dominion over fate. Occasionally, for reasons unknown, a bust of Serapis sits atop a colossal right foot. Serapis and Isis may also be depicted as two snakes.

It is generally thought that Serapis derives from the Egyptian Osiris-Apis, the Osirianized form of the Apis bull, but the situation is complicated. Greeks and Egyptians alike affiliated Serapis more and more with the native cults over time, and the identification of Serapis with Osiris-Apis was clearly an official one; hence a chapel of Serapis catering to Greek pilgrims was installed at Memphis within the temple complex of Osiris-Apis. The cults remained, however, as a practical matter, separate. The canonical account of the origin of Serapis is told by Plutarch in his On Isis and Osiris (28), which relates that Ptolemy Soter (323-282 BCE) saw in a dream a certain colossal statue, of which he had no prior knowledge, in Sinopê, a city on the southern coast of the Black Sea. The statue spoke to him, urging him to have it brought to Alexandria. Making inquiries, the king learned that such a statue did indeed exist in Sinopê. The statue having been obtained by whatever means, it was brought to Alexandria. This statue, according to Plutarch, showed the God accompanied by a Cerberus dog and a serpent, and was therefore identified as a statue of Pluto by experts Ptolemy consulted, but “took to itself the name which Pluto bears among the Egyptians, that of Serapis,” (362 A). However, Plutarch himself connects Serapis, not with Osiris-Apis, but with Osiris simply, stating that Osiris “received this appellation at the time when he changed his nature,” (362 B) that is, when he was resurrected. Thus Plutarch, although aware of much of the theology surrounding the Egyptian Apis cult—for instance, that “we must regard Apis as the bodily image of the soul of Osiris,” (362 D)—is seemingly either unaware of or unimpressed by a direct derivation of the name of Serapis from ‘Osiris-Apis’, and says that in his opinion, “if the name Serapis is Egyptian, it denotes cheerfulness and rejoicing, and I base this opinion on the fact that the Egyptians call their festival of rejoicing sairei,” (362 D) an etymology most likely spurious. Plutarch states as well that Serapis is “a God of all peoples in common, even as Osiris is; and this they who have participated in the holy rites well know,” (362 B).

The story placing the origins of Serapis in Sinopê, on the other hand, is by no means without support (see Stiehl 1963 27f). Perhaps most significantly, the philosopher Diogenes (404-323 BCE), a native of Sinopê, is quoted as having said, upon learning that the Athenians had given Alexander the Great the title of “Dionysus,” that “You might as well make me Serapis,” (Diogenes Laertius VI. 63). The obscurity surrounding the origins of Serapis is also indicative, however, of what is most distinctive about the God: Serapis is presented as a truly international deity. Aside from the question of his identity with Osiris or with the Osirianized form of the bull who is himself the living soul of Osiris on earth, Serapis expresses a universality implicit in the nature of Osiris all along insofar as the latter embodied what is essential to all mortals as such.

Stiehl, Ruth. 1963. “The Origin of the Cult of Sarapis.” History of Religions Vol. 3, No. 1: 21-33.

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