Serapis: Graeco-Egyptian God of Healing, Fertility, and Unity
During the early reign of Ptolemy I Soter in Egypt, one of his major goals was to unify the Egyptians and Greeks under one religion. His idea was to invent or promote a god out of notable Egyptian and Greek gods, and thus the Graeco-Egyptian god Serapis rose to wide acclaim and worship.
According to archaeological evidence, Serapis was widely accepted by the people. His influence stretched beyond Egypt. The worship of Serapis predominantly lasted from the third century BC to the later part of the fourth century AD, when it was banned by the Roman emperor Theodosius I.
This deity was viewed as a symbol of unity, as the Ptolemaic Dynastic rulers successfully used his worship to bring the Egyptians and Greeks together in a way that no political alliance could ever do.
The Birth of Serapis
When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, his generals decided to divide and share his empire amongst themselves. One of the generals, Ptolemy I Soter, received the land of Egypt as his share, which brought forth the start of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Before then, the Persians had been in control of Egypt before Alexander conquered them and made the land his.
Like Alexander, Ptolemy I had a plan to ensure that Egypt embraced their new Macedonian rulers. And there was no better tool to use than religion. However, his plan to make Egypt a melting pot of all cultures was quickly met with some challenges.
The Egyptians worshiped the same gods as they’d been doing for many millennia. The new Macedonian ruler of Egypt realized that his Egyptian subjects would have rejected the idea of a new god. Therefore, he came up with the idea to create Serapis, who was a mix of two Egyptians called Osiris and Apis, as well as the Greek god Zeus.
Osiris was a highly-respected god in ancient Egyptian culture. A green-skinned god, Osiris was said to have been murdered by his brother Set and later resurrected by his wife Isis and her sister Nephthys. When he came back to life, he realized that he had no place on earth and decided to descend into the underworld, where he reigned as king of the afterlife. As a result, Osiris became the symbol of death, afterlife, as well as rebirth.
Apis was also another important Egyptian deity who was associated with Osiris. Initially a fertility god, he became a messenger for the Egyptian god Ptah and his incarnate. Apis was believed to have manifested himself as a bull while alive and was linked to Osiris when it died. This association led to the formation of the cult of Osirapis.
Ptolemy’s infusion of the deity of Zeus was an attempt to merge both Egyptian and Greek cultures. Zeus was the king of the Greek gods and was famous for being the father of many other well-known gods and goddesses, including Athena, Hermes, Ares, and Apollo.
According to the famous Greek historian Plutarch, Ptolemy’s plan to create or elevate the worship of his version of Serapis was for the people to have a “god of all peoples in common.” Serapis was a blend of the very powerful gods that were in turn believed to be the embodiment of the afterlife, healing, the sun, and the earth’s energy.
Serapis was linked to the great mother goddess Isis through her husband Osiris, and this helped the people, especially the Egyptians, embrace Serapis. His association with this deities also expanded his influence and veneration as a patron god of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.
Depiction of Serapis: Appearance & Attributes
Serapis’ appearance was like that of a Greek man clothed in Grecian clothes. He had a stylish Greek hairstyle and sported a full beard. He also usually had a sheaf or a corn modius placed on his head to represent his association with fertility and wealth.
In other depictions, he appeared as a serpent, which represented his relationship to the underworld (i.e. the realm of Egyptian god Osiris), fertility and rebirth.
In some artworks, he was also depicted holding a curved ram’s horns, while other depictions showed him with Cerberus, a three-headed dog who stands guard at the gates of the underworld (i.e. Hades) in Greek mythology.
Serapis had other attributes. Aside from incorporating the features of Zeus, Ptolemy added features of other Greek deities like Hades, Helios, Dionysus, and Asklepius to the new god. The latter was the Greek god of medicine and prophecy.
These additions helped Serapis develop a set of rich attributes, however, he was best recognized for being the god of fertility and the underworld through his association to Dionysus, Hades, and Osiris.
Although Serapis was a blend of Egyptian and Greek gods, his make up was mostly Greek, as seen in his appearance with a full beard. There were very few Egyptian gods that were depicted with full beard. The Egyptian god Bes is one of the few gods that ancient Egyptians portrayed with a full beard.
The Cult of Serapis and the Serapeum
The birth of Serapis brought about the cult of Serapis and the god had a large following that extended beyond Egypt. Ptolemy decided to build a Serapeum, which was a temple dedicated to the new god.
The Serapeum was also an extension of the Great Library of Alexandria, which Ptolemy had been constructing in a bid to make the Egyptian city of Alexandria the center for acquiring knowledge. His son and successor, Ptolemy II, added more features to the Serapeum during his reign.
Other temples honoring Serapis were scattered throughout Egypt, including in places like Memphis, which was the home of sacred Apis bull. The Serapeum, for example, located in Canopus, was known for healing the sick. Archaeological evidence also suggests that Serapis might have been worshiped in Roman Britain. In 1770, a foundation stone meant for the Temple of Serapis was discovered in Yorkshire.
Significance of Serapis during the Roman Era
Also, it’s possible that Serapis had been one of the three gods who had a temple dedicated to them by the Roman ruler Emperor Nero. However, that could have been a political move for the emperor in a bid to showcase his empire’s power.
Eventually, the cult of Serapis gained more following during the reign of Vespasian, especially after the emperor credited his success to the god while living in Alexandria. The Roman ruler’s ascent to power established the Flavian Dynasty and from that time onward, Serapis appeared on Roman coins.
The Fall of Serapis
In Alexandria, Egypt, the cult of Serapis remained strong until the 4th century, when it was attacked by Christians led by Pope Theophilus of Alexandria. The cult survived the first attempts until the Roman emperor, Theodosius the Great banned pagan religious practices.
Just how widespread was the worship Serapis?
Though he wasn’t the most popular Egyptian god of his time, Serapis still exerted a lot of power and influence. His influence extended beyond the Egyptian borders, stretching into Britain, Rome, North Africa, and even Asia Minor. He was connected to the afterlife and rebirth, and was also known to be a savior who granted his followers eternal life.
Notable Facts about Serapis
It is very likely that the worship of Serapis existed long before the Ptolemaic Dynasty. What we do for a fact is that Ptolemaic rulers were the ones responsible for elevating their version of Serapis to national prominence in Egypt.
Below are some other facts about Serapis:
Some historians believe that the story of Serapis inspired the writers of the Synoptic Gospels, whose works gave similar yet varying accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. Serapis shares several attributes with Jesus Christ. However, this fact has been rejected by Christians.
According to some historians, it’s possible that Serapis existed before Ptolemy invented him. Before Alexander the Great’s death, there had been a Babylonian god called Sarapsis and the dying king was known to have invoked the name of Sarapis before dying. However, it’s also possible that it could have been a linguistic mix up.