Marble bust of Serapis wearing a modius
Name in hieroglyphs


Koinē Greek: Σέραπις
Major cult centerSerapeum of Alexandria

Serapis or Sarapis is a Graeco-Egyptian god. A syncretic deity derived from the worship of the Egyptian Osiris and Apis,[1] Serapis was extensively popularized in the third century BC on the orders of Greek Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter,[2] as a means to unify the Greek and Egyptian subjects of the Ptolemaic Kingdom.

The cultus of Serapis was spread as a matter of deliberate policy by subsequent Ptolemaic kings. Serapis continued to increase in popularity during the Roman Empire, often replacing Osiris as the consort of Isis in temples outside Egypt. Alongside his Egyptian roots he gained attributes from other deities, such as chthonic powers linked to the Greek Hades and Demeter, and benevolence derived from associations with Dionysus.


Serapis was depicted as Greek in appearance but with Egyptian trappings, and combined iconography from a great many cults, signifying both abundance and resurrection.

The Greeks had little respect for animal-headed figures, and so a Greek-style anthropomorphic statue was chosen as the idol, and proclaimed as the equivalent of the highly popular Apis.[a] It was named Userhapi (i.e. "Osiris-Apis"), which became Greek Sarapis, and was said to be Osiris in full, rather than just his ka (life force).

This pendant bearing Serapis's likeness would have been worn by a member of elite Egyptian society. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

The cult statue of Serapis that Ptolemy I erected in Alexandria enriched the texture of the Serapis conception by portraying him in a combination of both Egyptian and Greek styles.[5] The statue suitably depicted a figure resembling Hades or Pluto, both being kings of the Greek underworld, and was shown enthroned with the modius, a basket / grain-measure, on his head, since it was a Greek symbol for the land of the dead. He also held a sceptre in his hand indicating his rulership, with Cerberus, gatekeeper of the underworld, resting at his feet. The statue also had what appeared to be a serpent at its base, fitting the Egyptian symbol of rulership, the uraeus.


Originally Demotic wsjr-ḥp, ("Osiris-Apis"), the name of the deity is derived from the syncretic worship of Osiris and the bull Apis as a single deity under the Egyptian name wsjr-ḥp. This name was later written in Coptic as ⲟⲩⲥⲉⲣϩⲁⲡⲓ Userhapi; Greeks sometimes used an uncommon form Sorapis (Koinē Greek: Σόραπις), slightly closer to the Egyptian name(s).

The earliest mention of a "Sarapis" occurs in the disputed death scene of Alexander (323 BCE),[6] but it is something of a mixup: The unconnected Babylonian god Ea (Enki) was titled Šar Apsi, meaning "king of the Apsu" or "the watery deep",[b] and Ea as Šar Apsi seems to be the deity intended in the description of Alexander's death. Since this "Sarapis" had a temple at Babylon, and was of such importance that only Sarapis is named as being consulted on behalf of the dying king, Sarapis of Babylon appears to have radically altered perceptions of mythologies in the post-Alexandrian era. His significance to the Hellenic psyche, due to the mention in the story of Alexander's death, may have also contributed to the choice of the similar-sounding Osiris-Apis as the chief Ptolemaic god, even if the Ptolemies understood that they were different deities.

Bronze votive tablet inscribed to Serapis (2nd century)

Sarapis (Σάραπις, earlier form) was the most common form in Ancient Greek until Roman times, when Serapis (Koinē Greek: Σέραπις, later form) became common.[8][c][10]

A serapeum (Koinē Greek: σεραπεῖον serapeion) was any temple or religious precinct devoted to Serapis. The most renowned serapeum was in Alexandria.[d]

Serapis cult history

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 BCE by both Plutarch[12] and Arrian.[13]

Ptolemy I Soter made efforts to integrate his new Egyptian subject's religions with that of their Hellenic rulers. Ptolemy's project was to find a deity that would win the reverence of both groups alike, despite the curses the Egyptian priests had chanted against the gods of the previous foreign rulers (e.g. Set, who was lauded by the Hyksos).[e] The common assertion that Ptolemy "created" the deity is derived from sources which describe him erecting a statue of Serapis in Alexandria.[5]

High cleric of the cult of Serapis, Altes Museum, Berlin

According to Plutarch, Ptolemy stole the cult statue from Sinope in Asia Minor, having been instructed in a dream by the "unknown god" to bring the statue to Alexandria, where the statue was pronounced to be Serapis by two religious experts. One of the experts was of the Eumolpidae, the ancient family from whose members the hierophant of the Eleusinian Mysteries had been chosen since before history, and the other was the scholarly Egyptian priest Manetho, which gave weight to the judgement both for the Egyptians and the Greeks.

Plutarch may not be correct, however, as some Egyptologists allege that the "Sinope" in the tale is really the hill of Sinopeion, a name given to the site of the already existing Serapeum at Memphis. Also, according to Tacitus, Serapis (i.e., Apis explicitly identified as Osiris in full) had been the god of the village of Rhakotis before it expanded into the great capital of Alexandria.

With his (i.e. Osiris's) wife Isis, and their son Horus (in the form of Harpocrates), Serapis won an important place in the Greek world. In his 2nd-century CE Description of Greece, Pausanias notes two Serapeia on the slopes of Acrocorinth above the rebuilt Roman city of Corinth, and one at Copae in Boeotia.[14]

Serapis figured among the international deities whose cult was received and disseminated throughout the Roman Empire, with Anubis sometimes identified with Cerberus. At Rome, Serapis was worshiped in the Iseum Campense, the sanctuary of Isis built during the Second Triumvirate in the Campus Martius. The Roman cults of Isis and Serapis gained in popularity late in the 1st century when Vespasian experienced events he attributed to their miraculous agency while he was in Alexandria, where he stayed before returning to Rome as emperor in 70 CE. From the Flavian Dynasty on, Serapis was one of the deities who might appear on imperial coinage with the reigning emperor.

Like many pagan cults of its time, the cult of Serapis declined during the rule of Theodosius I as the emperor, a Christian, implemented religious laws to restrict paganism across the empire. The main cult at Alexandria survived until the late 4th century, when a Christian mob directed by Pope Theophilus of Alexandria destroyed the Serapeum in Alexandria some time around 391 CE, during one of the frequent religious riots in the city.

Ancient theories regarding the origin of Serapis

The origins of Serapis has been the source of speculation by both Jewish and Christian philosophers in ancient times. Tertullian in early 3rd century AD believed that belief in Serapis was inspired by Patriarch Joseph who was chief administrator of Egypt.[15] The same opinion is also sounded in the Talmud.[16]

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ "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]
  2. ^ In the Babylonian Talmud a "Sar Apis" is mentioned as an idol believed to have been named after the biblical Joseph.[7]
  3. ^ Consulting the unabridged Lewis and Short Latin lexicon shows that "Serapis" was the most common Latin version of the name in antiquity.[9]
  4. ^ "Of the Egyptian sanctuaries of Serapis the most famous is at Alexandria", Pausanias noted[11] in the 2nd century CE, while describing the serapeion erected by Ptolemy at Athens, on the steep slope of the Acropolis: "As you descend from here to the lower part of the city, is a sanctuary of Serapis, whose worship the Athenians introduced from Ptolemy."
  5. ^ Alexander the Great had attempted to use Amun for the same purpose, but Amun was more widely known in Upper Egypt, and not as popular in the more Mediterranean-oriented Lower Egypt, where international Hellenistic culture influenced Egyptians more, and where the foreign resident Greek population was larger.



  1. ^ Youtie, H. (1948). "The kline of Serapis". The Harvard Theological Review. 41: 9–29. doi:10.1017/S0017816000019325. S2CID 154333290.
  2. ^ "Sarapis". The New Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 10 (15th ed.). Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 1992. p. 447.
  3. ^ J.G. Frazer's note to 2.1.1 of the Biblioteca of Pseudo-Apollodorus
  4. ^ Pausanias. Description of Greece. 1.18.4.
  5. ^ a b Stambaugh, John E. (1972). Sarapis Under the Early Ptolemies. Leiden: E. J. Brill. pp. 1–13.
  6. ^ Arrian. Anabasis. VII. 26.
  7. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zara. p. 43a.
  8. ^ Suda. sigma, 117.
  9. ^ Serapis. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary on Perseus Project.
    Lewis, Charlton; Short, Charles (1879). A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 1630. ISBN 978-0-19-864201-5 – via Internet Archive.
    A Latin Dictionary. 1879. p. 1678. ISBN 978-0-19-864201-5 – via Internet Archive.
  10. ^ For example, see Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) 03, 07768; CIL 03, 07770; CIL 08, 12492.
    All known occurrences can be obtained from a search at Clauss, Manfred; Kolb, Anne; Slaby, Wolfgang A.; Woitas, Barbara (eds.). "Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss / Slaby (EDCS)". Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt.
  11. ^ Pausanias. Description of Greece. 1.18.4.
  12. ^ Plutarch. Life of Alexander. 76.
  13. ^ Arrian. Anabasis. VII, 26, 2.
  14. ^ Pausanias. Description of Greece. 2.4.5, 9.24.1.
  15. ^ Ad Nationem, book II, ch. 8
  16. ^ Tractate Avoda Zara, folio 43, p. A
  17. ^ Dani, Ahmad Hasan; Harmatta, János (1999). History of Civilizations of Central Asia. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 326. ISBN 978-81-208-1408-0.


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