Serapis In Egyptian mythology, Greek name for the composite god made up of the god Osiris, called Ser in Egyptian, and the sacred bull of Memphis, Apis. The date of the introduction of the cult of Serapis is disputed by scholars. Some believe it was the artificial creation of either Ptolemy I or Ptolemy II, who used the cult of Serapis in an attempt to blend the existing Egyptian concepts with those of the Greeks who settled in Egypt after the conquest by Alexander the Great. It was an attempt to give both segments of the population a common religious heritage. Serapis was worshipped by Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians at a common shrine. In the Roman Empire his worship, along with that of Isis, rivaled all other Mediterranean cults. In art Serapis was portrayed as a bull-headed man wearing a solar disk and the uraeus between his horns and holding symbols associated with Osiris.
Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow – Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante
When the Macedonian Greeks conquered Egypt, they were faced with a tremendous spiritual divide between themselves and the Egyptians they now ruled. In an attempt to bridge this chasm, Ptolemy I, the first Ptolemaic pharaoh, instituted the cult of Serapis, an attempt to merge Greek and Egyptian religious traditions. Serapis derives from Osirapis, which combines the names of Egyptian deities Osiris and Apis. The two already had spiritual links, so the basis of Serapis’ nature was Egyptian but the iconography used to represent him was Greek.
The Greeks preferred deities in their own image and mocked deities in the form of animals or hybrid creatures. (Apis is a bull.) Serapis conformed to the image of a Greek god, closely resembling Hades. A local spirit called Osirapis may already have been worshipped at Rhakotis prior to Greek rule. Rhakotis was the Egyptian village, later renamed Alexandria, which became the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt. Although the cult of Serapis was initially artificial, the spirit soon took on a life and personality of his own. He became extremely popular. Serapis is a spirit of birth and death; his concerns are fertility and the afterlife.
His temples were healing shrines, and miracle cures were attributed to him. He was worshipped in conjunction with Isis. Veneration of Serapis was not limited to Egypt. The Roman army carried veneration of Serapis as far away as Britain. Ironically, the one group who did not embrace Serapis was the indigenous Egyptian population. Alexandria was a Greek city within Egypt. Serapis’ main shrine, the Serapeum, was the center of spirituality in that city. It was a lavish, gilded temple and housed a magnificent library, an annex of the Great Library of Alexandria. Serapis was the focal point of a Mystery Tradition.
The Neo-Platonist, Olympius, servant of Serapis, declared that devotion to the deity brought bliss. (He foretold the fall of the Temple of Serapis but participated in its defense.) In June 391, Emperor Theodosius I banned Pagan practice. Alexandria was notorious for civil disobedience: a substantial body of Pagans barricaded themselves inside the Serapeum, aggressively defending it against besieging Christians. The emperor ordered the Pagans to leave; declared Christians killed in the altercation to be martyrs, and donated the Serapeum to the Church.
Serapis is depicted as a large man with a Greek hairstyle and full beard. He may wear Greek robes or nothing at all. Statues resemble Hades. He may be accompanied by Cerberus. He was also sometimes envisioned as a snake with a bearded human head. In his guise as Time Lord, Serapis was depicted with the beasts of time: the wolf of the past, the lion of the present, and the dog of the future.
He holds a scepter and is crowned with a grain measure.
A Serapeum is a temple of Serapis. The primary Serapeum was in Alexandria, but there were others. The Serapeum of Canopus, Egypt, destroyed in 391 evolved into the Shrine of Saints Cyrus and John, most popular of the Silverless Physicians. Others shrines were in Memphis, Pergamon, Delos, and York in England.
- Egyptian Mythology
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.