The ancient Egyptians
and Greeks worshipped Serapis (also spelled Sarapis), a Greco-Egyptian deity of the Sun first encountered at Memphis, where his cult was celebrated in association with that of the sacred Egyptian bull Apis (who was called Osorapis when deceased). He was thus originally a god of the underworld but was reintroduced as a new deity with many Hellenic aspects by Ptolemy I Soter (reigned 305–284 bce), who centred the worship of the deity at
The Serapeum at Alexandria was the largest and best known of the god’s temples. The cult statue there represented Serapis as a robed and bearded figure regally enthroned, his right hand resting on Cerberus (the three-headed dog who guards the gate of the underworld), while his left held an upraised sceptre. Gradually Serapis became revered not only as a Sun god (“Zeus Serapis”) but also as a lord of healing and of fertility. His worship was established in Rome and throughout the Mediterranean, following the trade routes and being particularly prominent in the great commercial cities.
The cult of Serapis was pushed forward during the third century BC on the orders of Greek Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm. A serapeum (Koinē Greek: Σεραπεῖον 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. Serapis continued to increase in popularity during the Roman Empire, often replacing
Osiris as the consort of
Isis in temples outside Egypt.
Serapis was depicted as Greek in appearance but with Egyptian trappings, and combined iconography from a great many cults, signifying both abundance and resurrection. Though Ptolemy I may have created the official cult of Serapis and endorsed him as a patron of the Ptolemaic dynasty and Alexandria, Serapis was a syncretistic deity derived from the worship of the Egyptian Osiris and Apis and also gained attributes from other deities, such as chthonic powers linked to the Greek Hades and Demeter, and benevolence linked to Dionysus.
There is evidence that the cult of Serapis existed before the Ptolemies came to power in Alexandria: a temple of Serapis in
Egypt is mentioned in 323 BC by both 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 Serapis in Alexandria: this statue enriched the texture of the Serapis conception by portraying him in both Egyptian and Greek style.
In 389, a Christian mob led by Pope Theophilus of Alexandria destroyed the Serapeum of Alexandria, but the cult survived until all forms of pagan religion were suppressed under Theodosius I in 391.
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