Serapis (Egyptian name User-Hep) was a Greek-Egyptian syncretic deity whom Ptolemy I declared patron of Alexandria and official god of Egypt and Greece for the purpose of culturally linking the two peoples.

According to a text of Tacitus, Sarapis was the god of the nearby town of Racotis before it became part of the great capital of Alexandria; but it is unlikely that temples dedicated to the dead Apis were built, except in his Memphite tomb, the Serapeum of Saqqara.

Alexander had promoted the cult of Amon, but this enjoyed little affection among many Egyptians, since he was the god of Kush and the Thebans, who were antagonistic to the more modernized Delta. On the other hand, Osiris, Isis and Horus were revered and popular everywhere. And while Ptah, the craftsman, god of the great native capital of Egypt, was not attractive, the ox Apis, considered an incarnation of Ptah, had relegated Ptah himself. The combination of Osiris and the ox Apis, represented by the image of Apis dead, combined all the elements of a wise political choice for the character of the new deity, whose image represented a god of the underworld with characteristics of fertility.

The earliest mention of Sarapis is found in the narrative of Alexander’s death, taken from the royal diaries (Arrian, Anabasis, VII. 26). According to it, Sarapis has a temple in Babylon and is of such importance that he is mentioned only when the dying king is consulted. It would considerably alter our conception of dead Apis if we were to discover that a portable shrine of the divinity accompanied Alexander on his expedition, or prepared for him in Babylon.

On the other hand, the main god of Babylon was Zeus Belus (Baal Marduk) and it is difficult to imagine that he would have been assimilated to Serapis on this occasion. However, it is known that Ea, also called Sarapsi, the god of the deep ocean, of learning and magic, had a temple in the city. It seems unlikely that this Sarapsi-Sarapis was adopted in Sinope and from this city was taken as the origin of the Egyptian god, in Alexandria; but regardless of whether the Egyptian name of Sarapis really comes from the Babylonian Sarapsi, the importance that this had in the last days of Alexander could have determined the choice of the Egyptian Osiris-Apis to provide the name and some of the main characteristics to the god of Alexandria.

Syncretic deity

Ptolemy’s intention was probably to find a deity that would win the respect and veneration of the Hellenes and the Egyptians, intensely traditionalist, whose priests had repudiated the previous foreign dynasties reigning over Egypt, provoking strong resistance.

It is unlikely that the Greeks would have accepted a zoocephalous divinity, in the Egyptian manner, while the Egyptians would have been more willing to accept any aspect for this god. A typical Greek icon was therefore chosen, which was proclaimed the anthropomorphic equivalent of a much venerated Egyptian divinity, the ox Apis, assimilated to Osiris, god of the underworld (Duat). The Greek figure probably had little influence on the religious ideas of the Egyptians, but perhaps served as a useful link between the two religions.

Thus, Serapis is an exemplary case of syncretic divinity in which cultic practices of different origin are synthesized in a new image. Although the concept of syncretism was first described in the 17th century A.D., syncretic practice must have been common in Greek religion in Hellenistic times. The Greeks had long recognized the oracle of Amun at Siwa as a manifestation of Zeus. The Greco-Roman syncretic cults of the Persian deity Mithras and the Egyptian Isis are widely documented.

The statue of Serapis, which was in the Serapeo of Alexandria, was of a distinctly Greek type and workmanship. There he appeared with the iconic attributes of Hades, crowned with the modius, that is, a basket or grain meter -emblem of the underworld-, carrying a scepter; at his feet the can Cerberus and a serpent.

According to Plutarch, Ptolemy Sóter stole the image in Sinope (present-day Sinop in Turkey, a city located on the shores of the Black Sea, off the Crimean coast) when this unknown god ordered him, in a dream, to take it to Alexandria; although probably the supernatural origin of the new cult was propagated from the official temples established in the city.

When the image arrived in Alexandria, two priests, experts in religious matters, determined that it was Serapis. The advisors were chosen by Ptolemy; one of them was Timothy, one of the Eumolpides, an ancient family from whose members the hierophants of the Eleusinian mysteries had been chosen since time immemorial. No Greek could have offered a more resounding proof of authenticity. The other was the learned Egyptian priest Manetho.

Plutarch’s account may not fit the facts; some scholars argue that the ascription of the statue to Sinope is actually a deformation of the name Sinopeion or “place of Apis”, a name given to the hill where the Serapeum of Saqqara was located, next to Memphis. There is no doubt, however, that it was Ptolemy Soter who fixed the iconography for the god of the new capital of Egypt, who was associated with Isis and Harpocrates configuring a triad.

It is understood that the name ‘Serapis’ – thus written in late Greek and Latin and ‘Sapis’ in classical Greek – derives from the Egyptian name Userhapi, a contraction of Osiris-Apis, the name of the ox Apis assimilated after his death to Osiris, king of the underworld. There is no doubt that Serapis was early identified with Userhapi; the assimilation is clearly perceived in a bilingual inscription of the time of Ptolemy IV Philopator (221 – 204 BC) and often later. However, it has been claimed that the parallel existence of the names Sarapis and Osorapis (however, doublets, such as Petisis-Petsis, are common in Hellenized Egyptian names.

The most correct form is usually the later one, found in documents written by Greeks closely related to the Egyptians, while the least accurate is the traditional form, used by pure Greeks in literary texts, corrupted by their poor knowledge of Egyptian culture. Thus, Sarapis would be the literary and official form of the name; it could be the traditional one, dated perhaps in the reign of Amasis or from the Persian period. We know that in Herodotus’ time and even earlier, the discovery of a new Apis ox was an occasion for universal rejoicing, while its death was an occasion for universal mourning. The ancient serapeo (Puserhapi) and the name Userhapi would be almost as familiar to early Greek travelers in Egypt as were those of Apieum and Apis.

The patron god of Alexandria quickly gained a prominent place in the Greek world. The human representations of Isis and Horus were easily adapted to Greek imagery, while Anubis was accepted thanks to the classical Greek image of the Cancerberus. The cult of Serapis – together with Isis, Horus and Anubis – spread throughout the Hellenistic world, reaching Rome as well. In turn, the Roman army of Alexander Severus (who appears on some coins in front of an image of Serapis) took the cult of this deity to the farthest reaches of the Empire. The cult of Serapis thus became one of the main cults of the West, retaining popularity until the time of Julian the Apostate. The destruction of the Serapeus of Alexandria and its famous image in 391 A.D. or 392 A.D., after the decree of Theodosius, marked the final decline of paganism throughout the Empire.

Serapis was worshipped primarily as a god of healing. His temples were linked to busy oracles that interpreted dreams.


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  3. a b G. Hart: The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. Londyn, Nowy Jork: Routledge, 2005, s. 29-31. ISBN 0-415-36116-8.
  4. ^ “Apollodorus identifies the Argive Apis with the Egyptian bull Apis, who was in turn identified with Serapis (Sarapis)”;[3] 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”.[4]
  5. 1 2 Rainer Hannig: Großes Handwörterbuch Ägyptisch-Deutsch : (2800 – 950 v. Chr.). von Zabern, Mainz 2006, ISBN 3-8053-1771-9, S. 1252.
  6. Hölbl Günther. A History of the Ptolemaic Empire. — London — New-York, 2001. — P. 99
  7. ^ M. Damiano-Appia, Dizionario enciclopedico dell’antico Egitto e delle civiltà nubiane, pag. 171.
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