A Modern Festival for Serapis

Jeremy J. Baer

Though it may be the relatively limited resources open to me, I have trouble finding references to festivals for Serapis. The Discovery of Osiris, which occurred in the Roman Empire from October 28th – November 3rd, seems to have been more a part of the cult of Isis than Serapis. Likewise, cult adherents of Serapis, particularly musicians, participated in another festival to Isis that happened on March 5th. The only festival exclusively to Serapis I have found is called the Serapia; it happened on April 25th and may have been to commemorate the giant temple dedicated to the god by Roman emperor Caracalla. Details on this festival are lacking.

There is however no reason why a modern festival to Serapis could not be developed, so long as it would seem something the god would appreciate. To that, we would have to look to ancient sources, and fortunately there are enough sources to give us a taste of what the worship of the god was like.

Religious associations throughout the Hellenistic world were quite common, and often had a kind of central meal in honor of their presiding deity. This seems to have been true of Serapis as well; there are various invitations recorded to a celebratory feast in the god’s honor. Clearly, food should be part of his worship.

Apuleius makes it clear that the cult of Serapis included sacred musicians who performed in the god’s honor. These musicians were active not only in the temples of Serapis, but also in the joyous procession of Isis that transpired in the Spring. Thus, festive music is at home in the god’s worship.

Finally, there was a pronounced solar aspect in the worship of Serapis. In Egypt it was thought the sun god Ra nightly journeyed into the Underworld, where he mystically united with Osiris. Serapis too was often conflated with solar deities such as Helios and even Mithras. By the time of Caracalla the Romans knew him less as a god of the underworld and more a god of the sun (a nice counterpoint to Isis, who was seen as a lunar deity in the Greco-Roman world).

Obviously then, it would not be amiss for a festival of Serapis to transpire on at a time when one could appreciate the warmth of the sun. The ancient Serapia, which fell on April 25th, might not have had anything to do with the sun, but in the Northern Hemisphere at least the date is usually spring like enough for most latitudes. Alternatively, a festival to Serapis might conceivably take place on the Mid Summer Solstice, which is still celebrated with folk practices in many European countries, and which Neopaganism has appropriated as a major holiday.

Finally we must remember what Serapis was. He was the principle god of Alexandria. He was a god of healing and dreams, a god of fertility and agriculture. He was the lord of the dead, savior of the living, and architect of human law and culture.

The following is a suggested festival to Serapis-Helios, Serapis in his solar aspect.

Time: The midsummer solstice, near sunset.
Place: outside if the weather is suitable, indoors if not.
Items needed: an image of Serapis (can be printed off online), candles, incense, water, musical instruments, food and drink, a table and pedestal.

Arrange an altar to Serapis. The altar should be on a table or pedestal. It should contain an image of Serapis, at least one candle, an incense burner, and an empty bowl. It may also be decorated with flowers and food. An image of Isis and other Egyptian deities such as Anubis would not be out of place.

The participants should be dressed in colorful and festive attire. They should form a processional from some point away from the altar. If space is limited, they can circumambulate around the altar as required. The newer or lower ranking members of the group should be up front, with the presiding officers or priests in the back.

If any members are musicians, they should play a celebratory tune during the procession. If there are no musicians, then someone carrying a portable radio or CD player with a festive song should suffice.

Once at the altar, the music should cease. The lay members should stand respectfully silent. The presiding officer or priest should approach the altar with any attending officers or assistant clergy. The candle or candles should be lit.

At this point one must invoke Serapis with a prayer or hymn. There are numerous ancient hymns to Osiris available in translation that may suffice. Alternatively, one may construct one’s own specifically to Serapis.. It should invoke the major elements of the gods. The following is only a suggestion:

Serapis, great god of Alexandria. Lord of Eternity and Judge of the Dead. You taught men the useful art of agriculture, that they might feed themselves. You gave them laws and culture that they might no longer live in chaos. You taught them the sacred rites of religion that they might honor the gods. You send dreams of prophecy, and you cure the sick with miracles. The souls of the virtuous drink cool water at your feet in the Underworld, and in the sky you cast down warm rays over the world. Serapis, god of the sun, light our way!

May you be delight in these offerings of fire and water. May you bless this group assembled to feast in your honor.

Pour the water reverently into the bowl, and light the incense.

At this point the feast should begin. Eat, drink and be merry, but remember to thank the god for the gifts of life.

The preceeding has simply been a bare bones suggestion to a modern celebratory ritual. It is for individuals and individual groups to foster their own relationship with this mighty deity, and construct the details that work best for them.

 

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