(Sarapis) Serapis has presented a riddle for Egyptologists. His worship originated among the Ptolemies, the transplanted Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt from their capital at Alexandria in the wake of Egypt’s conquest by Alexander the Great, and was subsequently adopted and promoted by the emperors of Rome. But Serapis remained, paradoxically, an Egyptian God worshiped in the company of other Egyptian Gods from one end of the Roman Empire to the other, but almost entirely by non-Egyptians. As the consort of Isis, Serapis became a fixture of the international Isis cult. In this role, Serapis displaced Osiris for many foreign devotees. Serapis is depicted in fully Hellenistic style as a bearded, robust man enthroned with the sign of a modius, or grain measure, on his head. The grain measure symbolizes apportionment. Serapis and Isis may also be depicted as two snakes. Occasionally, for reasons unknown, a bust of Serapis sits atop a colossal right foot. On this, see in general Dow & Upson 1944; there may also be a connection to the motif of the Nile’s inundation as flowing from the sandals or feet of Amun or other Gods, on which see Gabolde 1995, in which one could see the phenomenon of water welling up in footprints on marshy ground. The foot(print) hence would be a virtual symbolic double for the modius, both representing destiny, whether through the volume of the harvest, in the case of the modius, or through the volume of the inundation, for the foot(print). Serapis is a God of miracles, destiny, healing and the afterlife, often fused with the Greek God Zeus or the Roman God Jupiter, extending the notion of sovereignty to include dominion over fate.

It is generally thought that Serapis derives from the Egyptian Osiris-Apis, the Osirianized form of the Apis bull, but the situation is complicated. Greeks and Egyptians alike affiliated Serapis more and more with the native cults over time, and the identification of Serapis with Osiris-Apis was clearly an official one; hence a chapel of Serapis catering to Greek pilgrims was installed at Memphis within the temple complex of Osiris-Apis. The cults remained, however, as a practical matter, separate. The canonical account of the origin of Serapis is told by Plutarch in his On Isis and Osiris (28), which relates that Ptolemy Soter (323-282 BCE) saw in a dream a certain colossal statue, of which he had no prior knowledge, in Sinopê, a city on the southern coast of the Black Sea. The statue spoke to him, urging him to have it brought to Alexandria. Making inquiries, the king learned that such a statue did indeed exist in Sinopê. The statue having been obtained by whatever means, it was brought to Alexandria. This statue, according to Plutarch, showed the God accompanied by a Cerberus dog and a serpent, and was therefore identified as a statue of Pluto by experts Ptolemy consulted, but “took to itself the name which Pluto bears among the Egyptians, that of Serapis,” (362 A). However, Plutarch himself connects Serapis, not with Osiris-Apis, but with Osiris simply, stating that Osiris “received this appellation at the time when he changed his nature,” (362 B) that is, when he was resurrected. Thus Plutarch, although aware of much of the theology surrounding the Egyptian Apis cult—for instance, that “we must regard Apis as the bodily image of the soul of Osiris,” (362 D)—is seemingly either unaware of or unimpressed by a direct derivation of the name of Serapis from ‘Osiris-Apis’, and says that in his opinion, “if the name Serapis is Egyptian, it denotes cheerfulness and rejoicing, and I base this opinion on the fact that the Egyptians call their festival of rejoicing sairei,” (362 D) an etymology most likely spurious. Plutarch states as well that 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,” (362 B).

The story placing the origins of Serapis in Sinopê, on the other hand, is by no means without support (see Stiehl 1963 27f). Perhaps most significantly, the philosopher Diogenes (404-323 BCE), a native of Sinopê, is quoted as having said, upon learning that the Athenians had given Alexander the Great the title of “Dionysus,” that “You might as well make me Serapis,” (Diogenes Laertius VI. 63). The obscurity surrounding the origins of Serapis is also indicative, however, of what is most distinctive about the God: Serapis is presented as a truly international deity. Aside from the question of his identity with Osiris or with the Osirianized form of the bull who is himself the living soul of Osiris on earth, Serapis expresses a universality implicit in the nature of Osiris all along insofar as the latter embodied what is essential to all mortals as such.

Dow, Sterling & Frieda S. Upson. 1944. “The Foot of Sarapis.” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan.-Mar): 58-77.
Gabolde, M. 1995. “L’inondation sous les pieds d’Amon.” Bulletin de l’Institute Français d’Archéologie Orientale 95: 235-258.
Stiehl, Ruth. 1963. “The Origin of the Cult of Sarapis.” History of Religions Vol. 3, No. 1: 21-33.

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15 Responses to “Serapis”

  1. Leonard George said

    Thank you for generously sharing all of this knowledge. Question: Do you think that those two marvellous crowned snakes in the Catacombs of Alexandria could represent Isis and Serapis, or is it more likely that they are two images of Agathodaimon?

    • henadology said

      That’s awfully difficult to say; the symbolism on that tomb is so richly layered, masterfully syncretic, and in some cases idiosyncratic, that no definitive answer may be possible. In particular, the juxtaposition of kêrykeion, thyrsos, Egyptian double crown, and gorgoneion is otherwise unattested, as far as I know.

  2. Many thanks for this article, which I read with much interest. I have been looking in the Realencyclopadie “Sarapis” article for stuff like this, and it gives a couple of bilingual inscriptions where Osiris-Apis is rendered “Serapis” on the Greek side.

    • henadology said

      Thank you for your interest. There’s no doubt that after the fact, the identification of Serapis with Osiris-Apis becomes standard. The question that I am concerned with could perhaps be concisely stated in this fashion: What is there of Apis in Serapis, aside from the attractive etymology? The question, however, might require a theological, rather than a historical or philological response.

  3. These are reasonable questions, I agree. I think the only way to proceed is to review all the primary sources, and see just what is data and what is a modern inference from it.

  4. Is Serapis represented by the centipede? Is he also represented as a donkey headed god

  5. Greetings!
    Do you know maybe, where I can find out more about connection between Serapis and foot or feet? I saw lamps in shape of a foot and feet, that can be connected with cult of Serapis. Any help would be appreciated.
    Thank you!

    • henadology said

      Try “The Foot of Sarapis”, by Sterling Dow & Frieda S. Upson, in Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 1944), pp. 58-77.

  6. […] Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemies, the Macedonian Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt from 305 BCE until Rome conquered Egypt in 30 BCE, continued the promotion of Isis, as well as Her new consort Serapis. (You can read more about Serapis in Edward Butler’s excellent article here.) […]

  7. Clay said

    How would one worship Serapis? Along with the calendar and everything. Like what days are best to celebrate him?

  8. Hope said

    I am submitting this comment on behalf of my girlfriend. Recently she begun to feel a deep connection to Serapis. I am curious if you could assist by recommending any writings, articles or generally providing any resources for us to take a look at to further study on and learn about the god. I especially ask if there are books you you might think are good for this. Thank you and best regards.

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