The History of Serapis

Jeremy J. Baer

Egyptian and Ptolemaic Origins

In Memphis the Apis bull was the most sacred of animals, and  something of a national mascot for all Egypt. In life the animal  was considered a manifestation of the creator deity Ptah. But in  death the creature was considered as embodying Osiris. When the  animal died it was treated as if Osiris had died, and was given  lavish rites due its station.

We therefore cannot repeat an old and now demonstrably false adage  that Ptolemy Soter invented the god Serapis, for the conflation of Osiris with the Apis bull was an ancient Egyptian tradition.  However, we might be able to say with somewhat more truth that  Ptomely Soter reinvented the cult, or at least gave it new marketing for a new audience.

Accustomed as they were to Homeric deities and beautiful  anthropomorphic depictions of said gods in art, what the Greeks (and  later Romans) objected to most in Egyptian religion was its inherent  animal fetish. The Greeks who theoretically were in awe of Egypt’s ancient and mysterious legacy were most often in practice derisive of  its animal headed deities. Thus if Ptolemy were to promote an Egyptian cult to his Greco-Macedonian companions, iconographically the deity had to be rendered more aesthetically pleasing to Hellenic sensibilities. Serapis was often portrayed as a benign Pluto, with elements of other deites such as Dionysus and Zeus.

The refashioned cult of Serapis did indeed begin to pentrate into the Hellenic psyche. Under Ptolemy III a Serapeum was built in Alexandria that quickly became one of the largest and most prestigious sanctuaries in Antiquity. In this large complex of  buildings, which included an annex to the famous Library of Alexandria, the cult practiced incubation – sleeping to obtain divinely inspired dreams, usually a prophecy as to how to cure an illness.

Serapis thus resembled Pluto iconographically, was linked mythologically with Osiris as lord of the underworld, and in cult shared powers of some of the Greek healing gods. He could also be indentified with Dionysus-Sabazius as another resurrected vegetation deity. His consort Isis could be linked with the Greek Demeter or Greek Aphrodite. These identifications helped the cult of Isis and Serapis spread to other Hellenes throughout the Mediterranean.

Journey to Rome

Sailors, traders and emmigrants from Alexandria did much to further the spread of the cult. We find cults of Isis and Serapis formed as private associations throughout many major port towns of the Mediterranean, with official temple cults erected not long thereafter. Egyptian slaves sold in foreign markets often carried the cult with them to new lands. Interestingly enough, foreign merchants and slave traders were just as likely to adopt the cult, for they found in Isis and Serapis universal deities with powers to grant great boons.

Serapis made a home fairly early at Delos, one of Apollo’s island sanctuaries. It seems there was even some rivalry between these two gods of healing, not least of which is because the cult of Serapis was linked with Ptolemaic imperialism.

From the slave trade at Delos, Serapis and Isis spread to the Italian ports. In importance and prestige Isis always seemed to eclipse her consort. The conservative Republican senate treated the cults with suspicion and did not allow them to be permitted within the sacred city limits. Private chapels to the gods were ordered destroyed – but they were quickly rebuilt by the faithful. The cults were increasingly practiced not only by Greco-Oriental slaves and emmigrants, but by native Italians as well.

With the memory of Cleopatra in mind, who had proclaimed herself Isis on earth, Augustus was not keen on officially promoting any Egyptian cult in Rome, and in fact discouraged it. Yet within the house of the imperial family one can see paintings with a strong Egyptian theme! Tiberius was no hypocrite; he despised the cult and in fact strongly persecuted it after a sex scandal involving the cult became public.

Imperial Ascendance

Caligula was descended through Marc Antony, and perhaps it is not suprising a touch of Alexandrian devotions remained with the family. Caligula’s chamberlain was an Egyptian who perhaps assisted the emperor in the study of the cult’s mysteries. Caligula had a temple to Isis built on the Field of Mars.

From now on the Nilotic gods would be at home on the Tiber. The Flavian and Severan dynasties became duly enamored with the Nilotic cults. Vespasian claims to have been proclaimed emperor by an oracle from Serapis, and with the deity’s help performed a healing “miracle.”

But it was not until Caracalla that Serapis finally moved out under an Isiac shadow. The emperor erected a special cult to Serapis as god of healing and issued coins with his likeness. After a retreat to the Serapaeum at Alexandria , he was bestowed with the title philosarapis, or beloved of Sarapis. The zenith came when Caracalla constructed a gigantic temple to Serapis which seems to have dwarfed that to Captoline Jupiter, who had for centuries been officially the patron god of Rome. The Serapia of April 25th may have been to celebrate the commemoration of this temple.

By Caracalla’s reign Serapis was increasingly equated with such other deities as Mithras and Helios, and became a solar and sky deity. Mithraeum in Caracall’s baths show such syncretic insciptions. The number of Egyptian slaves serving in the imperial household seems to have been large. From Emperor to slave the religion of Serapis thrived. There was no port in the empire where it did not spread, but always it was linked to that of the Isiac cult. Apuleius does however inform us that the Mysteries of Serapis were separate from
that of Isis.

The related cults of Isis and Serapis would remain a major religious force in the Roman empire until their outlaw by Christian emperors. In many ways, the destruction of the Serapeum at Alexandria signified the death of paganism in Antiquity.

Robert Turcan. Cults of the Roman Empire
Geraldine Pinch Egyptian Mythology
Apuleius The Golden Ass



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