Platonism, Paganism and Early Christianity


Serapis Religion of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt


Bust of the God Sarapis. Marble (2nd Century A.D.) from Roman Carthage, now in the Louvre Museum, Paris


In the late 4th century B.C., the first Macedonian pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy I Soter (367-283 B.C.), decided to produce a supreme deity that would be acceptable to both the local Egyptian population, and the recent influx of Greek immigrants and visitors.  Ptolemy I declared this new god, named Serapis, to be the principal god of both Egypt and Greece. Ptolemy hoped a common religious base would unify the two peoples and ease tension within the country.

The Cambridge Ancient History tells us the following concerning this deity:

... What were the real motives of Ptolemy Soter in introducing the cult of Sarapis as the official cult of his new state side by side with that of Alexander, we do not know. Did he think that he could find in it common ground for the fusion of Greeks and Egyptians in one mass of subjects to one king and worshippers of the king’s god; did he wish like Ikhnaton long ago to create a god for his empire, just as Philopator tried the same thing by bringing into prominence the cult of his mystical ancestor Dionysus? We do not know; one thing is clear, this god Sarapis became the true symbol of the new religiosity and the changed outlook of the new ‘Greeks’ in Egypt.

For the Egyptians Sarapis had been and probably remained their god of the under-world. Osiris under the slightly changed name of the dead Apis became Osorapis, whom they had long worshipped at Memphis. The temple of Sarapis built by the Ptolemies at Memphis was just such a scene of Egyptian cult as the temples at Thebes, Edfu, Kom-Ombos and the rest. But this Egyptian deity became dear to the Greeks of Egypt as well and took the chief place at Alexandria: scarcely as an Egyptian, rather as a new great mystical god, whose theology and whose ritual were worked out in concert by Timotheus the expounder of the Eleusinian mysteries, and the hellenized Egyptian priest and scholar Manetho, a god in whom were united for the Greek both the ancient Egyptian theological wisdom and all the mysticism of the new Greek religion: the mysticism of Zeus and Pluto, of the Sun and Asciepius, and perhaps even more that of Dionysus Zagreus. For him a consort was found in the equally mystic Isis and her divine son Horus (Harpocrates), who took the place of Anubis, Isis with the thousand names and the limitless mystic power, the apotheosis of maternal love and the personification of the mystic female principle. It is no wonder that this god, concentrating in himself the religious aspirations of the new Greek world, was never an artificial god, a god of politics’. Ptolemy Soter did not create him, he only gave him statues, temples and ritual. And to him reached out the souls of believers from all sides.

In a letter to Apollonius (P. Cairo Zen. 59034), one of Sarapis’s new servants tells the dioiketes that the will of his lord Sarapis has caused him to do all he could to raise a temple to Sarapis in his sea-coast home. Such servants of Sarapis, deeply convinced of his divine power, were the cloistered anchorites, Macedonians and Greeks, in the Sarapeum at Memphis. It may be doubted whether the cult of Sarapis went far towards uniting the religion of Greeks and Egyptians. Their views of it were so different. But for the Greeks he became one of the gods who attracted their souls like the Great Mother in Asia Minor, the Sun in Syria, Mithras in Asia Minor, Sabazius in Thrace; this was true not only in Egypt but far outside throughout the new Greek world. ...

Cambridge Ancient History (First Edition - 1928, Fourth Printing - 1969), Volume VII, pages 145-146, from an article entitled "Ptolemaic Egypt" by M. Rostovtzeff, Professor of History, Yale University.

The attributes of Serapis were both Egyptian and Hellenistic. The aspects of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris were united with the Apis Bull a major aspect of the god Ptah (who the Greeks identified with their god Hephaestus).  The syncretism of these two deities was given the name Serapis.  This new deity was usually depicted as an anthropomorphic Greek god not dissimilar to standard depictions of the supreme Greek god, Zeus. Serapis became very popular and his cult quickly spread from its center in Alexandria to all of Egypt and finally to the entire Eastern Mediterranean area.

The Romans conquered Egypt in 30 B.C. and continued official governmental support of the Serapis cult.  By the 2nd century A.D., even many members of the Christian community in Alexandria appears to have become worshippers of both Serapis and Jesus and would prostrate themselves without distinction between the two (see letter of Emperor Hadrian cited below).

 Commentary on the Serapis Religion by the Ancient Greek and Roman Writers

1)  Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-120 A.D.) tells us the following in his essay on Isis and Osiris, at pages 69-73:

Ptolemy Soter saw in a dream the colossal statue of Pluto in Sinopê, not knowing nor having ever seen how it looked, and in his dream the statue bade him convey it with all speed to Alexandria. He had no information and no means of knowing where the statue was situated, but as he related the vision to his friends there was discovered for him a much travelled man by the name of Sosibius, who said that he had seen in Sinopê just such a great statue as the king thought he saw. Ptolemy, therefore, sent Soteles and Dionysius, who, after a considerable time and with great difficulty, and not without the help of divine providence, succeeded in stealing the statue and bringing it away. When it had been conveyed to Egypt and exposed to view, Timotheus, the expositor of sacred law, and Manetho of Sebennytus, and their associates, conjectured that it was the statue of Pluto, basing their conjecture on the Cerberus and the serpent with it, and they convinced Ptolemy that it was the statue of none other of the gods but Serapis. It certainly did not bear this name when it came for Sinope, but, after it had been conveyed to Alexandria, it took to itself the name which Pluto bears among the Egyptians, that of Serapis. Moreover, since Heracleitus the physical philosopher says, "The same are Hades and Dionysus, to honour whom they rage and rave," people are inclined to come to this opinion. In fact, those who insist that the body is called Hades, since the soul is, as it were, deranged and inebriate when it is in the body, are too frivolous in their use of allegory. It is better to identify Osiris with Dionysus and Serapis with Osiris, who received this appellation at the time when he changed his nature. For this reason Serapis is a god of all peoples in common, even as Osiris is; and this they who have participated in the holy rites well know.

It is not worth while to pay any attention to the Phrygian writings, in which it is said that Serapis was the son of Heracles, and Isis was his daughter, and Typhon was the son of Alcaeus, who also was a son of Heracles; nor must we fail to condemn Phylarchus, who writes that Dionysus was the first to bring from India into Egypt two bulls, and that the name of one was Apis and of the other Osiris. But Serapis is the name of him who sets the universe in order, and it is derived from "sweep" (sairein), which some say means "to beautify" and "to put in order." As a matter of fact, these statements of Phylarchus are absurd, but even more absurd are those put forth by those who say that Serapis is no god at all, but the name of the coffin of Apis; and that there are in Memphis certain bronze gates called the Gates of Oblivion and Lamentation, which are opened when the burial of Apis takes place, and they give out a deep and harsh sound; and it is because of this that we lay hand upon anything of bronze that gives out a sound. More moderate is the statement of those who say that the derivation is from "shoot" (seuesthai) or "scoot" (sousthai), meaning the general movement of the universe. Most of the priests say that Osiris and Apis are conjoined into one, thus explaining to us and informing us that we must regard Apis as the bodily image of the soul of Osiris. But it is my opinion that, if the name Serapis is Egyptian, it denotes cheerfulness and rejoicing, and I base this opinion on the fact that Egyptians call their festival of rejoicing sairei. In fact, Plato says that Hades is so named because he is a beneficent and gentle god towards those who have come to abide with him. Moreover, among the Egyptians many others of the proper names are real words; for example, that place beneath the earth, to which they believe that souls depart after the end of this life, they call Amenthes, the name signifying "the one who receives and gives." Whether this is one of those words which came from Greece in very ancient times and were brought back again we will consider later, but for the present let us go on to discuss the remainder of the views now before us.

2)  Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 A.D.) in his Histories, Book 4, Chapter 17, pages 81-84 relates a story concerning the Roman Emperor Vespasian and Serapis, that occurred when the Emperor was in Alexandria in the year 69 A.D. The story reminds me of the tale told about the visit of Alexander the Great to the shrine of the god Ammon at the Oasis of Siwa, Egypt in 331 B.C. Tacitus tells us the following:

Page 81. In the course of the months which Vespasian spent at Alexandria, waiting for the regular season of summer winds when the sea could be relied upon, (1) many miracles occurred. These seemed to be indications that Vespasian enjoyed heaven's blessing and that the gods showed a certain leaning towards him. Among the lower classes at Alexandria was a blind man whom everybody knew as such. One day this fellow threw himself at Vespasian's feet, imploring him with groans to heal his blindness. He had been told to make this request by Serapis, the favourite god of a nation much addicted to strange beliefs. He asked that it might please the emperor to anoint his cheeks and eyeballs with the water of his mouth. A second petitioner, who suffered from a withered hand, pleaded his case too, also on the advice of Serapis: would Caesar tread upon him with the imperial foot? At first Vespasian laughed at them and refused. When the two insisted, he hesitated. At one moment he was alarmed by the thought that he would be accused of vanity if he failed. At the next, the urgent appeals of the two victims and the flatteries of his entourage made him sanguine of success. Finally he asked the doctors for an opinion whether blindness and atrophy of this sort were curable by human means. The doctors were eloquent on the various possibilities. The blind man's vision was not completely destroyed, and if certain impediments were removed his sight would return. The other victim's limb had been dislocated, but could be put right by correct treatment. Perhaps this was the will of the gods, they added; perhaps the emperor had been chosen to perform a miracle. Anyhow, if a cure were effected, the credit would go to the ruler; if it failed, the poor wretches would have to bear the ridicule. So Vespasian felt that his destiny gave him the key to every door and that nothing now defied belief. With a smiling expression and surrounded by an expectant crowd of bystanders, he did what was asked. Instantly the cripple recovered the use of his hand and the light of day dawned again upon his blind companion. Both these incidents are still vouched for by eye-witnesses, though there is now nothing to be gained by lying.

Page 82. This deepened Vespasian's desire to visit the holy house of Serapis, for he wished to consult the god on matters of state. He had everyone else excluded from the temple, and went in alone, fixing his mind on the deity. Happening to glance round, he caught sight of a leading Egyptian named Basilides standing behind him. Now he knew that this man was detained by illness far from Alexandria at a place several days' journey distant. He inquired of the priests whether Basilides had entered the temple that day. He also inquired of those he met whether he had been seen in the city. Finally he sent off a party on horse, and ascertained that at the relevant time he had been eighty miles away. Thereupon he guessed that the vision was a divine one and that the reply to his query lay in the meaning of the name Basilides.

Page 83. Where the god Serapis came from is a problem which has not yet been brought before the attention of the public by Roman writers. The Egyptian priests give the following account. It concerns Ptolemy, the first Macedonian king of Egypt, who did much to develop the country. While he was engaged in providing the newly-founded city of Alexandria with walls, temples and religious cults, he dreamed that he met a young man of remarkable beauty and more than human stature, who instructed him to send his most trusty courtiers to Pontus to fetch a statue of himself. This, he said, would cause the kingdom to prosper, and whatever place gave the image shelter would become great and famous. Thereupon, continues the account, this same youth appeared to ascend into heaven in a blaze of fire.

These signs and wonders impelled Ptolemy to reveal the nocturnal vision to the Egyptian priests whose practice it is to interpret such things. As they knew little of Pontus and foreign parts, he consulted an Athenian of the clan of the Eumolpidae, one Timotheus, whom he had brought over to supervise ritual, and asked him about the nature of this worship and the identity of the god. Timotheus got into touch with regular travellers to Pontus and from them found out that the country contained a city called Sinope, near which was a temple long famous in the neighbourhood and dedicated to Jupiter Dis. The identification was borne out, they added, by the presence nearby of the statue of a goddess commonly described as Proserpina. But Ptolemy was just like a king: though easily upset, on recovering his nerve he showed himself keener on pleasure than religion. Thus he gradually put the matter out of his mind and devoted himself to other business. But in the end the same vision appeared before him, now in a more terrifying and urgent aspect and threatening both king and kingdom with ruin unless its orders were obeyed. Then Ptolemy had ambassadors and gifts assembled for an approach to King Scydrothemis, the then ruler of Sinope, instructing his envoys as they embarked to visit the shrine of Pythian Apollo. The travellers were granted a favourable passage and an unambiguous answer from the oracle. They were to go on their way and bring back the image of Apollo's uncle, leaving that of his sister where it was.

Page 84. On reaching Sinope, they addressed the offerings, requests and instructions of their king to Scydrothemis. The latter found it hard to make up his mind. At one moment, he was frightened of the divine will, at another terrified by the threats of his people, who opposed the transaction; and often he found the gifts and promises of the deputation tempting. In this way three years passed by without any diminution in Ptolemy's enthusiasm and appeals. The status of his ambassadors, the size of his fleet and the weight of his gold were ceaselessly augmented. Then a dreadful apparition confronted Scydrothemis in a dream, forbidding him to delay further the purposes of the god. When he still hesitated, he was vexed by all manner of disasters, by plague and by the manifestation of a divine wrath which became daily more grievous. Then he called his people together and explained to them the orders of the deity, his own vision and that of Ptolemy, and their ever growing afflictions. The common folk, turning a deaf ear to their king and jealous of Egypt, staged a sit-down strike around the temple in self-defence. At this point, the story became even more impressive, telling how the god embarked of his own accord upon the fleet, which was moored by the coast. Then comes the remarkable account of their sailing into Alexandria after completing the long voyage in only three days. A temple worthy of a great metropolis was built in the quarter called Rhacotis, where there had long been a chapel dedicated to Serapis and Isis.

Such is the favourite version of where Serapis came from and how he reached Egypt. I am aware that some authorities hold that he was brought from the Synan city of Seleucia during the reign of the third Ptolemy. Yet another story speaks of the initiative as coming from the same Ptolemy, but makes the original home of the god Memphis, a city once famous as the capital of the Old Kingdom. As for the identity of the god, he is equated by many with Aesculapius because he heals the sick, by some with Osiris, who is the oldest deity known to the Near East, by not a few with Jupiter owing to his all-embracing powers. But the prevailing identification of Serapis as Prince Dis is based on the attributes clearly portrayed in his statues, or esoteric lore.

3)  A letter included in the Augustan History, written in about 131 A.D. by the Emperor Hadrian (ruled from 117 to 138 A.D.) to his brother-in-law, Servianus, refers to the worship of Serapis by many people who consider themselves to be Christians or Jews, suggesting a great intermixing of cults and practices in Alexandria.  An English translation of this letter appears in the book entitled: History of Letter Writing By William Roberts, pages 356-357 as follows:

The Egyptians, whom you are pleased to commend to me, I know thoroughly from a close observation, to be a light, fickle, and inconstant people, changing with every turn of fortune.  The Christians among them are worshippers of Serapis, and those calling themselves bishops of Christ scruple not to act as the votaries of that God.  The truth is, there is no one, whether Ruler of a synagogue, or Samaritan, or Presbyter of the Christians, or mathematician, or astrologer, or magician, that does not do homage to Serapis.  The Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is by some compelled to worship Serapis, and by others, Christ.  It is a race of men, of all the most seditious, vain and mischievous.  The state is powerful, rich, and abounding, and of so active a disposition, that no one is allowed to live without occupation.  Some are glass-blowers, some paper-makers, some weavers of thread.  All are professors of some one art or other.  The blind, and those who have the gout in their feet or hands, find something to do.  There is one God whom all worship (Serapis) both Christians, Jews, and Gentiles.  I wish this place maintained a better character, worthy of its rank as the first city in Egypt. I have made great and liberal grants to it.  I have restored to it its ancient privileges; I have laid it under much obligation by immediate benefits; and after all, as soon as I had left this people, they began to calumniate my son Verus, and I reckon you heard what they have said concerning Antinous.  I wish them no further harm, than that they may live upon their own chickens, hatched on their own dunghills, according to that disgusting practice of theirs, which it is disagreeable even to allude to.

I have sent you some of those variegated cups so remarkable for their diversity of colors, in different lights, which were given to me by a priest of the temple, and are now dedicated to you and my sister, which I wish you to exhibit when you entertain your friends on festival days.  Take care they do not fall into the hands of our little Africanus, to use them as he pleases.

I am not surprised by the Emperor Hadrian's letter.  My own research, presented elsewhere in this website, indicates that many aspects of the New Testament Jesus story are actually adaptations taken from the Isis - Osiris - Horus myths.  Indeed, as far back as the Renaissance, there have been scholars who asserted that many of the rituals and teachings of Christianity are derived from the belief system associated with the Egyptian-Greek god Serapis.  The investigative journalist and writer, Philip Coppens (b. 1971) has said that the Renaissance scholar, Marisilio Ficino (1433-1499) held such beliefs.  The following is quoted from his web page entitled Ficino: The high priest of the Renaissance:

The religion of Serapis was a wisdom cult, which means it must have had a body of literature. But what was that body of literature? Both the Serapis Cult and the Hermetic literature are dedicated to the Egyptian god Thoth, the Greek Hermes, from which the Hermetic literature takes its name. When Champollion translated the hieroglyphic script in the 19th century, he stated that the Corpus contained the ancient Egyptian doctrine. According to two prominent scholars, Bloomfield and Stricker,* the Corpus Hermeticum was indeed the “bible” of the Egyptian mystery religion of Serapis. Interestingly, this is exactly what Ficino himself believed. ... Ficino realised that Christianity was a slightly modified continuation of the cult of Serapis. ...  

*I have attempted to locate these references to Bloomfield and Stricker.  I can find nothing re Bloomfield; however I did find one reference to the Dutch Egyptologist Bruno Hugo Stricker (1910-2005). In his article entitled "The Corpus Hermeticum" which was published in the Journal Mnemosyne IV Ser. 2 (1949), at pages 79-80, Stricker states that:

"The hermetic doctrine is the esoteric doctrine of the Egyptian priesthood."


Commentary on the Serapis Religion by Modern Scholars

My research on the Serapis Religion to date (September 2009) indicates that there is a dearth of modern scholarly comment on the subject and nothing that would support a conclusion that the Hermetic writings were in any way specifically associated with the god Serapis.  A search of the database revealed only two books concerning the Serapis religion - both very old but available online: 1) Serapis (1885), by Georg Moritz Ebers (1837-1898) - this is actually a historical romance novel by this well-known German Egyptologist; and 2) The Worship of Mithras and Serapis (published in 1864, 108 pages) by Charles William King (1818-1888) - this book is really an excerpt from a longer work entitled The Gnostics and Their Remains, Ancient and Mediaeval which is basically a book about monuments and the artifacts, particularly jewelry, of the various Gnostic groups and Serapis worshippers.

My cursory review of the Ebers novel did not disclose anything of scholarly note  to add to this web page.  However, the King book (at pages 64-68) did provide some useful information as follows:

The next great family of monuments are those connected with the worship of Serapis, that mysterious deity, who under his several forms, during the first and second centuries of the empire, had entirely usurped the honours of his brother Jupiter, and reduced him to the rank of a mere planetary genius. Unlike the generality of the deities who figure on the Gnostic stones, Serapis does not belong to the primitive Egyptian Mythology. His worship was, it may be said, only coeval with the city of Alexandria, into which it was introduced from Sinope by the first Ptolemy, in consequence of the command, and the repeated threats, in case of neglect, of a vision. After three years of fruitless negotiation, Ptolemy at last obtained the statue from Scythotherius, king of Sinope ; the citizens refusing to let it go, a report was spread that the god had found his way spontaneously from the temple down to the Egyptian ships in the harbour. The prevalent opinion amongst the Greeks was that it represented Jupiter Dis (Aidoneus), and the figure at his side, Proserpine. The latter the Egyptian envoys were ordered by the vision to leave in situ. Another story was that the statue had been introduced later, and from Seleucia, by Ptolemy III., but this rests on slighter authority. It was Timotheus, an Athenian Eumolpid, and hence by hereditary right royal diviner, who had indicated Pontus as the abode of the unknown divinity that had appeared in a dream to the king, and bid him send to fetch himself without telling where. The figure of the apparition was youthful, which tallies but ill with the majestic maturity of the Sinopic god (Tacitus, Hist. IV., 84). ...

Speedily did Serapis become the great god of his new home, and speculations as to his nature busied the ingenuity of the philosophers of Alexandria down to the latest times of Paganism ; every conflicting religion also endeavouring to claim him as the grand representative of their own idea. Macrobius has preserved one of the most ingenious of these materialistic interpretations (Sat. I., 20).

"The city of Alexandria pays an almost frantic worship to Serapis and Isis; yet all this veneration they prove is but offered to the Sun under that title, both by their placing the corn-measure upon his head, and accompanying his statue by the figure of an animal with three heads. Of these, the central and the largest is a lion's; that which rises on the right is a dog.s, in a peaceful and fawning attitude ; whilst the left part of the neck terminates in the head of a ravening wolf. All these animal forms are connected together by the wreathed body of a serpent, which raises his head up towards the god's right hand, on which side this monster is placed. The lion's head typifies the Present, because its condition between the Past and the Future is strong and fervent. The Past is signified by the wolf's head, because the memory of all things past is snatched away from us and utterly consumed. The symbol of the fawning dog represents the Future, the domain of inconstant and flattering hope. But whom should Past, Present, and Future serve except their author? His head crowned with the cakzthus typifies the height of the planet above us, and his all-powerful capaciousness, since unto him all things earthly return, being drawn up by the heat that he emits.  Moreover, when Nicocreon, king of Cyprus, consuited Serapis as to which of the gods he ought to be held, he thus responded:

A god I am such as I show to thee,
The starry Heavens my head, my trunk the Sea,
Earth forms my feet, mine ears the Air supplies,
The Sun's far-darting, brilliant rays, mine eyes.

Hcnce it is apparent that the nature of Serapis and of the Sun is one and indivisible. Isis, so universally worshipped, is either the Earth, or Nature, as subjected to the Sun. Hence the goddess's body is covered with continuous rows of udders,' to show that the universe is maintained by the perpetual nourishment of the Earth or Nature."

In the second century the syncretistic sects that had sprung up in Alexandria, the very hot-bed of Gnosticism, found out in Serapis a prophetic type of Christ as the Lord and Creator of all, and Judge of the living and the dead. For the response to Nicocreon shows that the philosophers at least understood by Serapis nothing more than the " Anima Mundi," that spirit of whom universal Nature was the body, holding the doctrine of the "One harmonious whole Whose body Nature is, and God the soul."  Thus at length Serapis had become merely the idea of the Supreme Being, whose manifestation upon Earth was the Christ.

In this manner are we to understand the curious letter of Hadrian to his friend Servianus, preserved by Vopiscus (Vita Saturnini):

"Those who worship Serapis are also Christians ; even those who style themselves the bishops of Christ are devoted to Serapis. The very Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is forced by some to adore Serapis, by others to adore Christ. There is but one God for them all; him do the Christiana, him do the Jews, him do all ,the Gentiles also worship."

There can be no doubt that the head of Serapis, marked as the face is by a grave and pensive majesty, supplied the first idea for the conventional portraits of the Saviour. The Jewish prejudices of the first converts were so powerful that we may be sure no attempt was made to depict His countenance until some generations after all that had beheld it on earth had passed away.

Nevertheless the importance so long attached to the pretended letter of Lentulus to the Roman Senate, describing his personal appearance, induces me to insert a literal translation of the chief part thereof, although its monkish Latinity clearly stamps it for a clumsy forgery of some medieval divine; yet, incredible as it may seem, a learned man like Grynaeus has been so dazzled by his pious desire for ita authenticity as to persuade himself that Lentulus, a Senator and a distinguished historian, could have written in the exact phraseology of a Franciscan preacher.

"Lentulus, governor of the people of Jerusalem, to the Senate and Roman People, greeting. There has appeared in our times, and still exists, a Man of great virtue named Christ Jesus, who is called hy the Gentiles a 'Prophet of Truth,' whom his own disciples call the 'Son of God;' raising the dead, and healing diseases. A man, indeed, of lofty stature, handsome, having a venerable countenance, which the beholders can both love and fear. His hair verily somewhat wavy and curling, somewhat brightish and resplendent in its colour, flowing down upon his shoulders, having a parting in the middle of the head after the fashion of the Nazarenes. A forehead flat and full of calmness, without wrinkle or any blemish, which a slight tinge of red adorns. The nose and mouth beyond all blame. Having a beard full and ruddy, of the colour of his hair, not long, but forked; his eyes quick (variis) and brilliant. In reproof terrible ..." (Grynaeus, Orthodoxia, vol. i. p. 2.)

The colossal statue of Serapis was formed out of plates of different metals artfully joined together, and placed in a shrine crowning the summit of an artificial hill ascended by a hundred steps; a style of temple totally different from the native Egyptian or Grecian model, but exactly agreeing with that of the Hindu pagoda, as the famous one of Siva at Tanjore. The popular belief was that to profane this statue would be the signal for heaven and earth to fall into their original chaos; a notion bearing testimony to what was the idea this idol embodied. Finally, however, though his worship had been tolerated long after that of  the other gods of Egypt was abolished, this wonderful colossus was broken to pieces by "that perpetual enemy of peace and virtue" the Archbishop Theophilus, in the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I.

A review of what is available from other online books provides a few useful quotes concerning this syncretic deity; they are presented below:

1) The following passages are taken from the book entitled The History of Magic, Volume 1, (published 1856) by the distinguished German physician, Joseph Ennemoser, at pages 246-249:

Another, no less celebrated, divinity was Serapis, who is by some confounded with Osiris. He was particularly in great renown among foreigners; and he maintained his influence over men much longer than any other of the gods. Several temples were sacred to him in Egypt, and, at a later time, in Greece and Bome. According to Jablonski, four and-twenty temples were dedicated to him, of which those at Memphis, Canopus, and Alexandria, were the most celebrated.

Serapis originally meant, according to Sprengel, Kilometer, or Nile measure, or the Lord of Darkness, because the rise of the Nile was traced to the Egyptian horizon; he was therefore the symbol of the sun below the horizon. Serapis was called by the Greeks Osiris, Jupiter Ammon, Pluto, Bacchus, and Esculapius; and he was particularly venerated for his healing powers in the neighbourhood of Athens and Patrae. One of the most celebrated temples was at Canopus, and another at Alexandria. In the temples of Serapis, as well as in those of Isis, a statue was generally erected with its finger on its lips, representing Silence. This silence does not probably mean, as Varro imagines, that none were to speak of these divinities being mortal, but that the secrets of the temple were to be preserved. "In this temple," says Strabo (xvii. 801), "great worship is performed, many miracles are done, which the most celebrated men believe, and practise, while others devoted themselves to the sacred sleep." Eusebius calls Serapis the prince of evil spirits—of darkness (Praparat. Evang. 4), who sits beside a three-headed monster, which represents in the centre a lion, on the right a dog, and on the left a wolf, round which a dragon winds, whose head the god touches with his right hand.

At Canopus, Serapis was visited by the highest personages with great veneration ; " and in the interior were all kinds of sacred pictures, pourtraying miraculous cures." Still more celebrated was the temple at Alexandria, where the sacred or temple-sleep was continually practised, and sick persons were entirely cured. It was here that a blind and a lame man received the revelation that the former was to be touched by the spittle, and the latter by the foot, of the Emperor Vespasian, and, according to the accounts of .Strabo and Suetonius, they were thereby cured (Sueton. in Vespas. c. 7). Tacitus tells the story in the following manner (Histor. lib. iv. c. 8):

"When Vespasian was at Alexandria many miracles occurred (miracula multa evenere), by which the particular affection and inclination of the gods towards Vespasian was evident. A common person, a well-known blind man of Alexandria, came to the emperor, on his knees, by advice of the god Serapis, imploring aid with tears. He begged the former to touch his eyes with his spittle. Another, who was lame in one hand, also begged, by advice of Serapis, that the emperor would touch him with his foot, and the sole of his foot.

"But Vespasian laughed at first—was enraged; and feared, when they pressed him, to be called vain; but at length he was moved to hope by their prayers, or by the advice and caresses of others. At length he inquired of the physician whether such blindness and lameness were to be cured by human means. The physicians were of various opinions, and said that the power of sight was not entirely gone if the hindrances could be removed. According to Suetonius, there was no hope of cure by any means (rem ullo modo successuram) ; but the emperor made the attempt before the assembly, and the result was successful. The other might regain the use of his hand if some healing power were used; that this divine mission might have been reserved for the prince; and, lastly, that the renown would belong to the emperor, while the disgrace of failure would fall upon the sick man. Vespasian, therefore, in belief that everything was possible to his good fortune, executed the command of the oracle with a joyous countenance, before a large assembly. The lame man regained the use of his limb, and daylight appeared to the blind. The spectators were unanimous concerning the truth of the cures; and the sceptical were confounded."

Apis was another divinity, worshipped under the shape of a spotted ox. Several temples were sacred to him, of which that at Memphis was the most celebrated. Here YEsculapius is said to have acquired his skill. Apis is, however, also considered to have been Serapis, as well as that the temples of Osiris, of Serapis, and Apis, were the same, though under different names. For after the death of Osiris, when his body was to have been buried, an ox of remarkable beauty appeared to the Egyptians, who regarded it as being Osiris, and therefore worshipped him in the form of Apis—Apis in Egyptian meaning ox. Augustin (De civitate, Kb. xviii.) says, that Apis was a king of Argos, who went to Serapis in Egypt, and was regarded after the latter's death as the greatest Egyptian god. Pliny (lib. iii. c. 46) says as follows:—" In Egypt, an ox, which they call Serapis, receives divine honours. He has a brilliant white spot on the right side, which begins to increase with the new moon. According to Herodotus, he is quite black, with a square mark on the forehead, the figure of an eagle on his back, and, besides a knot under the tongue, has double hairs in his tail. He can only reach a certain age, according to Pliny, when the priests drown him, and seek for another to succeed him, with lamentations. After they have found one, the priests lead him to Memphis, where the oracle predicted of the future by signs and symbols. They prophesied from the various movements and actions of the ox, giving him consecrated food. From his inclination to take or refuse this the oracles were drawn. Thus, for instance, he pushed away the hand of the Emperor Augustus, who shortly afterwards lost his life. Apis lives in great seclusion; but when he breaks loose, the lictors drive the populace from his path, and a crowd of boys accompany him, singing verses to his honour, which he appears to understand."

As Jablonski says, the worship of Apis was clearly in Egypt but a symbolical representation having reference to the effect of natural causes. Phtha was the eternal spirit, the creator of all things, and his symbol is the ethereal fire, which burns day and night. The human mind is but a reflection of this fire, which rises above all stars and planets, and illuminates men to the knowledge of futurity. Clemens of Alexandria (Stromat. lib. i.) says that Apis, a king of Argos, built Memphis, and that the Egyptians worshipped him, on account of his numerous benevolent actions, as a deity. His tomb was called Sorapis. ...

2)  The following is taken from A Classical Dictionary: Containing an Account of the Principal Proper Names by Charles Anthon (published 1891), page 1213:

Serapis or Sarapis, a celebrated Egyptian deity. There would appear to have been two of that name, an earlier and a later one. I. The earlier Serapis, we are assured by Plutarch, was none other than Osiris himself. ( Sid., c. 28 ) Diodorus Siculus makes the same declaration (1,8) ; and in the writings of Martianus Capella we find both these names assigned to one god : " Te Serapim filus, Mimpif tencratur Qtirim." (Hymn, ad Sol.) The same inference may be drawn from the connexion of the name of Serapis with that of lais. He is frequently mentioned by ancient authors as the consort of Isis goddess, which shows that they regarded Serapis as another title of Osiris. Diogenes Laertius, Clement of Alexandrea (Strain., 5, p. 45), and Macrobius (Sal. 1, 20), to whom we might add many other authors, speak of Isis and Serapis as the great divinities of the Egyptians. Yet the same authors make some distinction between Osiris and Serapis. Thus, Pluurcb asserts that Serapis was Osiris after he had changed his nature, or after he had passed into tbe subterranean world ; and it is apparently in conformity with the idea that Diodorus calls him the Egyptian Pluto. (Horpocr., p. 85.) Jablonski, after having regarded Osiris as simply the orb of the sun, obtains an easy explanation of the nature and distinction of Serapis. The latter, according to this author, represented the sun in the winter months, after he had passed the autumnal equinox, and had reached the latter days of his career; or the solar Osiris, after be had entered upon the period of his decrepitude in tbe month of Athyr. Osiris then descended to the shades, and it was at this era that he became Serapis. (Prichord. Analysis of Egyptian Mythology, p. 89, «}j.) —II. Another and later Egyptian deity, whose statue and worship were brought from Sinope to Alexandria, during the reign of Ptolemy Soter. A curious passage in Tacitus (Hist., 4,83) gives us tbe legend connected with this singular affair. The worship of this Serapis had not been confined to Sinope, but had spread along the coasts of the Euxine, and the deity was regarded by mariners in this quarter as the patron of maritime traffic. His fame had even travelled eastward, and a temple anciently raised to him in Babylon was repaired and adorned by Alexander. Ptolemy's object in bringing the worship of this divinity to Egypt appears to have been, that the blind superstitions directed in that country against a seafaring life might be counteracted by other superstitions of a more useful tendency. In what way his worship was blended with that of the earlier Serapis we are unable to say. Possibly there were some general points of resemblance in the attributes of the two deities, and some accidental similarity in name. Be this as it may, however, the worship of the latter Serapis soon merged with that of the earlier Osiris, and Jupiter-Serapis became the great divinity of Alexandria. (Compare Creuzer, Dionysus, p. 183, teqq.)

3)  The following is taken from A Handbook of Egyptian Religion by Adolf Erman (published 1907), pages 217-218:

The first influence that made itself felt appears to us to-day to have been the work of an able man who acted as a connecting link between the king and the clerics. At the court of the first two Ptolemies lived Manetho, a priest of Sebennytus in the Delta; one of those people whose education was conducted on two entirely different lines, very similar to the upbringing of the modern effendi, who has studied in Paris. In order to acquaint his employers with the history of their new country, Manetho compiled a Greek history of Egypt, a melancholy piece of bungling which, however, he contrived to invest with an air of authority by his attitude of criticism towards Herodotus.

When the king beheld in a dream the dark god of Sinope,  who bade him convey his statue to Egypt, it was Manetho who with the Greek Timotheus knew how to interpret this marvel correctly. The god who thus hankered after Egypt was at home there, even though his appearance was entirely different on the Nile and on the Black Sea. The bearded, wavy-haired god of Sinope was none other than Wser-hap, the deceased sacred Apis bull, whose grave was so greatly venerated by all people, and Wserhap, or as he is called in Greek, Serapis, was thus a god equally sacred both to Greeks and Egyptians, the true god for the empire of the Ptolemies. There is no doubt that the other priests accepted this explanation, for the Osiris Apis from this time ranked among the greatest gods of Egypt. That he was originally only a dead sacred bull was forgotten and he was confused with Osiris until finally Serapis became nothing more than the Greek name for the Egyptian god of the dead. His sanctuary near the Apis tombs was eventually decorated with statues of fabulous beings and of Greek philosophers; perhaps these last had now come to be regarded as having derived their wisdom from Osiris.


The Destruction of the Serapis Religion

When Constantine I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, he still permitted the other religions to exist, although without the state funding that now was given to the orthodox Christians exclusively.  His successors continued this policy until the accession of the Emperor Theodosius I to the throne in A.D. 379.  On 27 February of the year 380/381 (380 by the Julian calendar, 381 by the Gregorian), he promulgated the infamous Cunctos Populus Edict which not only outlawed all non-Christian religious practices but also all Christians sects which did not adhere to the Nicene Creed as professed by the Bishops of Rome and Alexandria!  Thus commenced a systematic persecution of all non-orthodox Christians and, subsequently, all the Pagans in the Empire.  This policy of bigotry and intolerance was continued thereafter, not only by the Emperors but also by the Papacy up to and through the time of the religious wars of the European Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries.  An English translation of this edict is as follows:

It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our Clemency and Moderation, should continue to profess that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition, and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.

Codex Theodosianus XVI.1.2

Initially, Theodosius applied the edict to non-orthodox Christians and was fairly tolerant of the pagans, for he needed the support of the influential pagan ruling class at Rome and elsewhere. However, within a few years, he also began to persecute the pagans with great severity. His first attempt to inhibit paganism was in 381 when he reiterated Constantine's ban on animal sacrifice. In 384 he prohibited haruspicy on pain of death, and unlike earlier anti-pagan prohibitions, he made non-enforcement of the law by Magistrates into a crime in and of itself!

In 388, Theodosius sent prefects to Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor for the purpose of breaking up pagan associations and the destruction of their temples. In 389, he declared that all Pagan feasts that had not yet been changed into Christian ones were now to be workdays. In 391, he reiterated the ban on blood sacrifice and decreed that "no one is to go to the sanctuaries, walk through the temples, or raise his eyes to statues created by the labor of man."  Temples that were thus closed could be declared "abandoned." Accordingly, Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria immediately applied for permission to demolish the Serapeum site and cover it with a Christian church. This type of action received general sanction, and the mithraea of many pagan temples were converted into the crypts of new 5th century churches throughout the entire Roman Empire. Theodosius personally participated in some of these actions by Christians against major Pagan sites up until the time of his death in 395.

One of the most significant acts of anti-pagan violence was the destruction of the gigantic Serapeum Temple complex in Alexandria (including its great library) by soldiers and local Christian citizens in 391. The great English historian Edward Gibbon in Volume I, Chapter 28 of his monumental work entitled The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire provides this description:

The temple of Serapis at Alexandria

In this wide and various prospect of devastation, the spectator may distinguish the ruins of the temple of Serapis, at Alexandria. Serapis does not appear to have been one of the native gods, or monsters, who sprung from the fruitful soil of superstitious Egypt. The first of the Ptolemies had been commanded, by a dream, to import the mysterious stranger from the coast of Pontus, where he had been long adored by the inhabitants of Sinope; but his attributes and his reign were so imperfectly understood, that it became a subject of dispute whether he represented the bright orb of day, or the gloomy monarch of the subterraneous regions. The Egyptians, who were obstinately devoted to the religion of their fathers, refused to admit this foreign deity within the walls of their cities. But the obsequious priests, who were seduced by the liberality of the Ptolemies, submitted, without resistance, to the power of the god of Pontus: an honourable and domestic genealogy was provided; and this fortunate usurper was introduced into the throne and bed of Osiris, the husband of Isis, and the celestial monarch of Egypt. Alexandria, which claimed his peculiar protection, gloried in the name of the city of Serapis. His temple, which rivalled the pride and magnificence of the Capitol, was erected on the spacious summit of an artificial mount, raised one hundred steps above the level of the adjacent parts of the city, and the interior cavity was strongly supported by arches, and distributed into vaults and subterraneous apartments. The consecrated buildings were surrounded by a quadrangular portico; the stately halls and exquisite statues displayed the triumph of the arts; and the treasures of ancient learning were preserved in the famous Alexandrian library, which had arisen with new splendour from its ashes. After the edicts of Theodosius had severely prohibited the sacrifices of the Pagans, they were still tolerated in the city and temple of Serapis; and this singular indulgence was imprudently ascribed to the superstitious terrors of the Christians themselves: as if they had feared to abolish those ancient rites which could alone secure the inundations of the Nile, the harvests of Egypt, and the subsistence of Constantinople.


Its final destruction, A.D. 391

At that time the archiepiscopal throne of Alexandria was filled by Theophilus, the perpetual enemy of peace and virtue; a bold, bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and with blood. His pious indignation was excited by the honours of Serapis; and the insults which he offered to an ancient chapel of Bacchus convinced the Pagans that he meditated a more important and dangerous enterprise. In the tumultuous capital of Egypt, the slightest provocation was sufficient to inflame a civil war. The votaries of Serapis, whose strength and numbers were much inferior to those of their antagonists, rose in arms at the instigation of the philosopher Olympius, who exhorted them to die in the defence of the altars of the gods. These Pagan fanatics fortified themselves in the temple, or rather fortress, of Serapis; repelled the besiegers by daring sallies and a resolute defence; and, by the inhuman cruelties which they exercised on their Christian prisoners, obtained the last consolation of despair. The efforts of the prudent magistrate were usefully exerted for the establishment of a truce till the answer of Theodosius should determine the fate of Serapis. The two parties assembled without arms, in the principal square; and the Imperial rescript was publicly read. But when a sentence of destruction against the idols of Alexandria was pronounced, the Christians sent up a shout of joy and exultation, whilst the unfortunate Pagans, whose fury had given way to consternation, retired with hasty and silent steps, and eluded, by their flight or obscurity, the resentment of their enemies. Theophilus proceeded to demolish the temple of Serapis, without any other difficulties than those which he found in the weight and solidity of the materials, but these obstacles proved so insuperable that he was obliged to leave the foundations, and to content himself with reducing the edifice itself to a heap of rubbish, a part of which was soon afterwards cleared away, to make room for a church erected in honour of the Christian martyrs. The valuable library of Alexandria was pillaged or destroyed; and near twenty years afterwards, the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice. The compositions of ancient genius, so many of which have irretrievably perished, might surely have been excepted from the wreck of idolatry, for the amusement and instruction of succeeding ages; and either the zeal or the avarice of the archbishop might have been satiated with the rich spoils which were the reward of his victory. While the images and vases of gold and silver were carefully melted, and those of a less valuable metal were contemptuously broken and cast into the streets, Theophilus laboured to expose the frauds and vices of the ministers of the idols: their dexterity in the management of the loadstone; their secret methods of introducing an human actor into a hollow statue; and their scandalous abuse of the confidence of devout husbands and unsuspecting females. Charges like these may seem to deserve some degree of credit, as they are not repugnant to the crafty and interested spirit of superstition. But the same spirit is equally prone to the base practice of insulting and calumniating a fallen enemy; and our belief is naturally checked by the reflection that it is much less difficult to invent a fictitious story than to support a practical fraud. The colossal statue of Serapis was involved in the ruin of his temple and religion. A great number of plates of different metals, artificially joined together, composed the majestic figure of the deity, who touched on either side the walls of the sanctuary. The aspect of Serapis, his sitting posture, and the sceptre which he bore in his left hand, were extremely similar to the ordinary representations of Jupiter. He was distinguished from Jupiter by the basket, or bushel, which was placed on his head; and by the emblematic monster which he held in his right hand; the head and body of a serpent branching into three tails, which were again terminated by the triple heads of a dog, a lion, and a wolf. It was confidently affirmed that, if any impious hand should dare to violate the majesty of the god, the heavens and the earth would instantly return to their original chaos. An intrepid soldier, animated by zeal, and armed with a weighty battle-axe, ascended the ladder; and even the Christian multitude expected with some anxiety the event of the combat. He aimed a vigorous stroke against the cheek of Serapis; the cheek fell to the ground; the thunder was still silent, and both the heavens and the earth continued to preserve their accustomed order and tranquillity. The victorious soldier repeated his blows: the huge idol was overthrown and broken in pieces; and the limbs of Serapis were ignominiously dragged through the streets of Alexandria. His mangled carcase was burnt in the amphitheatre, amidst the shouts of the populace; and many persons attributed their conversion to this discovery of the impotence of their tutelar deity. The popular modes of religion, that propose any visible and material objects of worship, have the advantage of adapting and familiarising themselves to the senses of mankind; but this advantage is counterbalanced by the various and inevitable accidents to which the faith of the idolater is exposed. It is scarcely possible that, in every disposition of mind, he should preserve his implicit reverence for the idols, or the relics, which the naked eye and the profane hand are unable to distinguish from the most common productions of art or nature; and, if, in the hour of danger, their secret and miraculous virtue does not operate for their own preservation, he scorns the vain apologies of his priests, and justly derides the object and the folly of his superstitious attachment. After the fall of Serapis, some hopes were still entertained by the Pagans that the Nile would refuse his annual supply to the pious masters of Egypt; and the extraordinary delay of the inundation seemed to announce the displeasure of the river-god. But this delay was soon compensated by the rapid swell of the waters. They suddenly rose to such an unusual height as to comfort the discontented party with the pleasing expectation of a deluge; till the peaceful river again subsided to the well-known and fertilising level of sixteen cubits, or about thirty English feet.


horizontal rule

Home Philo of Alexandria Clement of Alexandria Origen of Alexandria Saint Augustine Pseudo-Dionysius Serapis Religion Liberal Arts Giorgio de Santillana Tilton Family