Serapis (Σέραπις, later form) or Sarapis (Σάραπις,
earlier form) is a Graeco-Egyptian god. The cult of
introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of
Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and
Egyptians in his realm.
The god was depicted as Greek in appearance, but with Egyptian
trappings, and combined iconography from a great many cults,
signifying both abundance and resurrection. A serapeum (Ancient Greek
serapeion) was any temple or religious precinct devoted to Serapis.
The cultus of
Serapis was spread as a matter of deliberate policy by
the Ptolemaic kings, who also built an immense serapeum in Alexandria.
However, there is evidence which implies that cult of
before the Ptolemies came to power in
Alexandria – a temple of
Sarapis (or Roman Serapis) in Egypt is mentioned in 323 BC by
Plutarch (Life of Alexander, 76) and
Arrian (Anabasis, VII, 26,
2). The common assertion that Ptolemy "created" the deity is derived
from sources which describe him erecting a statue of Sarapis in
Alexandria: this statue enriched the texture of the Sarapis conception
by portraying him in both Egyptian and Greek style. Though Ptolemy
I may have created the cult of Sarapis and endorsed him as a patron of
the Ptolemaic dynasty and Alexandria, Sarapis was a syncretistic deity
derived from the worship of the Egyptian
Osiris and Apis (
Apis = Oserapis/Sarapis; Coptic: ⲟⲩⲥⲉⲣϩⲁⲡⲓ) and
also gained attributes from other deities, such as chthonic powers
linked to the Greek
Hades and Demeter, and benevolence linked to
Serapis continued to increase in popularity during the Roman period,
Osiris as the consort of
Isis in temples outside
Egypt. In 389, a Christian mob led by the
Patriarch Theophilus of
Alexandria destroyed the Alexandrian serapeum, but the cult survived
until all forms of pagan religion were suppressed under Theodosius I
1 About the god
4 See also
6 Further reading
7 External links
About the god
This pendant bearing Serapis's likeness would have been worn by a
member of elite Egyptian society. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.
"Sarapis" was the most common form in Ancient Greek until Roman times,
when "Serapis" became common.
His most renowned temple was the
Serapeum of Alexandria. 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 (e.g. 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 anthropomorphic statue was
chosen as the idol, and proclaimed as the equivalent of the highly
popular Apis. It was named Aser-hapi (i.e. Osiris-Apis), which
became Sarapis, and was said to be
Osiris in full, rather than just
his Ka (life force).
Bronze votive tablet inscribed to
Serapis (2nd century)
The earliest mention of a Sarapis occurs in the disputed death scene
of Alexander (323 BC). Here, Sarapis has a temple at Babylon, and
is of such importance that he alone is named as being consulted on
behalf of the dying king. The presence of Sarapis in
radically alter perceptions of the mythologies of this era: the
unconnected Babylonian god Ea (Enki) was titled Shar Apsi, meaning
"king of the Apsu or "the watery deep"", and perhaps he is the one
meant in the diaries. His significance 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 in
Asia Minor, having been instructed in a dream by the "unknown god" to
bring the statue to Alexandria, where the statue was pronounced to be
Sarapis by two religious experts. One of the experts was of the
Eumolpidae, the ancient family from whose members the hierophant of
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 be correct, however, 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
expanded into the great capital of Alexandria.
High Clerk in the Cult of Serapis, Altes Museum, Berlin
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. The statue also had what appeared to be a serpent
at its base, fitting the Egyptian symbol of rulership, the uraeus.
With his (i.e. Osiris's) wife Isis, and their son
Horus (in the form
Serapis won an important place in the Greek world. In
his 2nd-century AD Description of Greece, Pausanias notes two Serapeia
on the slopes of Acrocorinth, above the rebuilt Roman city of Corinth
and one at Copae in Boeotia.
Serapis figured among the international deities whose cult was
received and disseminated throughout the Roman Empire, with Anubis
sometimes identified with Cerberus. At Rome,
Serapis was worshiped in
the Iseum Campense, the sanctuary of
Isis built during the Second
Triumvirate in the Campus Martius. The Roman cults of
Isis and Serapis
gained in popularity late in the 1st century when Vespasian
experienced events he attributed to their miraculous agency while he
was in Alexandria, where he stayed before returning to Rome as emperor
in 70. From the
Flavian Dynasty on,
Serapis was one of the deities who
might appear on imperial coinage with the reigning emperor.
The main cult at
Alexandria survived until the late 4th century, when
a Christian mob destroyed the
Alexandria in 385. The
Theodosian decree of 380 implicitly included the cult in its general
proscription of religions other than approved forms of Nicene
Head of Sarapis, 1st Century B.C.E., 58.79.1 Brooklyn Museum
Head of Serapis, Carthage, Tunisia
Oil lamp with a bust of Serapis, flanked by a crescent moon and star
(Roman-era Ephesus, 100-150)
Statuette possibly of
Serapis (but note the herculean club) from
Head of Sarapis (150-200)
Head of Serapis, from a 12-foot statue found off the coast of
Serapis on Roman Egypt, Alexandria, Billon Tetradrachm
Serapis (Roman-era Hellenistic terracotta, Staatliches Museum
Ägyptischer Kunst, Munich)
Serapis Bey, the Ascended Master in charge of the Ascension Temple
Greeks in Egypt
^ "Sarapis" in The New Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago:
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 15th edn., 1992, Vol. 10, p. 447.
^ Stambaugh, John E. (1972). Sarapis Under the Early Ptolemies.
Leiden: E. J. Brill. pp. 1–13.
^ Youtie, H. 1948. “The Kline of Sarapis”. The Harvard Theological
Review, vol 41, pp. 9–29.
^ Consulting the unabridged Lewis and Short Latin lexicon shows that
"Serapis" was the most common Latin version of the name in antiquity:
Serapis. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short.
A Latin Dictionary on
Perseus Project. Lewis, Charlton; Short, Charles (1879). A Latin
Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 1630. A
Latin Dictionary. p. 1678. On the Internet Archive.
^ E.g. CIL 03, 07768; CIL 03, 07770; CIL 08, 12492. All known
occurrences can be found at
^ "Of the Egyptian sanctuaries of
Serapis the most famous is at
Alexandria", Pausanias noted (Description of Greece, 1.18.4, 2nd
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."
^ 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,
^ Reported from Arrian, Anabasis, VII. 26.
^ Pausanias 2.4.5 and 9.24.1.
Borgeaud, Philippe; Volokhine, Yuri (2000). "La formation de la
légende de Sarapis: une approche transculturelle". Archiv für
Religionsgeschichte (in French). 2 (1).
Bricault, Laurent, ed. (2000). De Memphis à Rome: Actes du Ier
Colloque international sur les études isiaques, Poitiers –
Futuroscope, 8–10 avril 1999. Brill. ISBN 9789004117365.
Bricault, Laurent (2001). Altas de la diffusion des cultes isiaques
(in French). Diffusion de Boccard. ISBN 2-87754-123-1.
Bricault, Laurent, ed. (2003).
Isis en Occident: Actes du IIème
Colloque international sur les études isiaques, Lyon III 16-17 mai
2002. Brill. ISBN 9789004132634.
Bricault, Laurent (2005). Recueil des inscriptions concernant les
cultes isiaques (RICIS) (in French). Diffusion de Boccard.
Bricault, Laurent; Veymiers, Richard, eds. (2008–2014). Bibliotheca
Isiaca. Editions Ausonius. Vol. I: ISBN 978-2-910023-99-7;
Vol. II: ISBN 978-2-356-13053-2; Vol. III:
Bricault, Laurent; Versluys, Miguel John; Meyboom, Paul G. P., eds.
(2007). Nile into Tiber: Egypt in the Roman World. Proceedings of the
IIIrd International Conference of
Isis Studies, Faculty of
Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11–14 2005. Brill.
Bricault, Laurent (2013). Les Cultes Isiaques Dans Le Monde
Gréco-romain (in French). Les Belles Lettres.
Bricault, Laurent; Versluys, Miguel John, eds. (2014). Power, Politics
and the Cults of Isis: Proceedings of the Vth International Conference
Isis Studies, Boulogne-sur-Mer, October 13–15, 2011. Brill.
Hornbostel, Wilhelm (1973). Sarapis: Studien für
Überlieferungsgeschichte, des Erscheinungsformen und Wandlungen der
Gestalt eines Gottes (in German). E. J. Brill.
Merkelbach, Reinhold (1995).
Isis regina—Zeus Sarapis. Die
griechisch-aegyptische Religion nach den Quellen dargestellt (in
German). B. G. Teubner. ISBN 3-519-07427-3.
Pfeiffer, Stefan (2008). "The God Serapis, his Cult and the Beginnings
of the Ruler Cult in Ptolemaic Egypt". In McKechnie, Paul; Guillaume,
Philippe. Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his World. Brill.
Renberg, Gil H. (2017). Where Dreams May Come: Incubation Sanctuaries
in the Greco-Roman World. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-29976-4.
Smith, Mark (2017). Following Osiris: Perspectives on the Osirian
Afterlife from Four Millennia. Oxford University Press.
Takács, Sarolta A. (1995).
Isis and Sarapis in the Roman World. E. J.
Brill. ISBN 90-04-10121-7.
Tallet, Gaëlle (2011). "Zeus Hélios Megas Sarapis: un dieu égyptien
'pour les Romains'?". In Belayche, Nicole; Dubois, Jean-Daniel.
L'oiseau et le poisson: cohabitations religieuses dans les mondes grec
et romain. PUPS. ISBN 9782840508007.
Thompson, Dorothy J. (2012). Memphis Under the Ptolemies, Second
Edition. Princeton University Press.
Vidman, Ladislav (1970).
Serapis bei den Griechen und Römern
(in German). Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3111768236.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Serapis.
E. R. Bevan: The House of Ptolemy, Chapter. II
James Grout: "Temple of Serapis", part of the Encyclopædia Romana
"Immoralities of the Gods: Of the fugitive
Serapis chased from Sinope
to Alexandria", by Theophilus of Antioch
"Greco-Egyptian Mythology: The Alexandrian Synthesis"
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