Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The cult of Serapis: Visions and Portents

Serapis, sometimes spelled Sarapis, is a Graeco-Egyptian deity promoted during the 3rd century BCE by Ptolemy I Soter as a means to unify Greeks and Egyptians in his realm.  Alexander the Great had attempted to use Amun for this purpose, but he was more prominent in Upper Egypt, and not as popular in Lower Egypt, where the Greeks had stronger influence. Ptolemy built an immense temple to the god in Alexandria which became known as the Serapeum.  

However, there is evidence the cult of Serapis existed before the Ptolemies came to power in Alexandria as a temple of Serapis in Egypt is mentioned in 323 BCE by both Plutarch (Life of Alexander, 76) and Arrian (Anabasis, VII, 26, 2).  In descriptions of Alexander's death, a temple of Serapis is said to have existed in Babylon at the time and Serapis was considered so important,  he alone is named as being consulted on behalf of the dying king.  Some scholars point out, though, that a Babylonian god named Ea (also referred to as Enki) was titled Šar Apsi, meaning "king of the Apsu" or "the watery deep", and perhaps he is the one meant in the diaries.

Plutarch claimed Ptolemy stole the cult statue of Serapis from Sinope in Asia Minor after being  instructed in a dream by the "unknown god" to bring the statue to Alexandria.  There, a member of the  Eumolpidae, the ancient family from whose members the hierophant of the Eleusinian Mysteries had been chosen, proclaimed it to be Serapis. Tacitus, however, stated that Serapis had been the god of the village of Rhakotis before it expanded into the great capital of Alexandria.

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.

Whatever its origins, by the second century Serapis was well ensconced in both the Greek world and throughout the Roman Empire.  Pausanias notes two Serapeia on the slopes of Acrocorinth, above the rebuilt Roman city of Corinth and one at Copae in Boeotia. 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 CE when Vespasian experienced a vision while visiting the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria where he was securing Egypt's grain supply before returning to Rome triumphantly as emperor in 70 CE. Later, Vespasian  was confronted by two laborers, who were convinced that he possessed a divine power that could work miracles. From the Flavian Dynasty onward, Serapis was one of the deities who sometimes appeared on imperial coinage with the reigning emperor.

High Clerk in the Cult of Serapis, 230 - 240 CE,  at the Altes Museum, Berlin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Ophelia2.

A fragmented statue of Serapis with a modius on the head, depicted as Pluto, next to him is standing the three headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the Hades, from the Roman Villa of Chiragan, 3rd - 4th century CE at the Musée Saint-Raymond in Toulouse, France, courtesy of Carole Raddato.  

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