Sarapis, or Serapis, is the King of all the Dead and a God of the afterlife, healing, miracles, fertility, destiny, and abundance, resurrection, and through association with Zeus, sovereignty, and fate as well. He is often depicted Greek in appearance, but with Egyptian trappings; bearded and crowned with a modius, a basket/grain-measure, on his head, which represents the allotting of fair share, the land of the dead, destiny, fertility and copiousness. In the “Nicocreon oracle” preserved by Macrobius, Serapis described himself in these words: “The starry heaven is my head, the sea my belly, my ears lie in the aether, and the bright light of the sun is my clear piercing eye.”
Discovery of Serapis
Serapis was already widely known as Hades, but usually worshiped as Plouton. As Serapis, however, it is said that before the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt adopted Serapis as its patron deity that He had already revealed himself and became known to the people of the city Sinopê. He was referenced by several natives to the city, such as the cynic Diogenes (404-323 BCE), who upon hearing that Athens had given Alexander the Great the title of Dionysus, responded: “You’d better make me Serapis.”
However, Serapis became much more extensive known when the first Ptolemaic Pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy Soter (r. 305-282 BCE), came into contact with the God. (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 28). It is said the God reached to the Pharaoh through a dream, where Ptolemy was approached by an enormous statue; one he hadn’t known of prior. The statue spoke to the Pharaoh and urged Ptolemy to have it brought to Alexandria and a temple built for Him. Without any information about the statue’s whereabouts, he began an investigation and described the form of the divinity that came before him to his friends. Soon, a traveler came forth and stated having seen such a statue and detailed its whereabouts. This statue sat in Sinopê, a city in northern Anatolia that lay on the southern coast of the Black Sea. Once receiving this intelligence the King was initially reluctant, since he doubted that the people of Sinopê would ever consent to have a statue of their God taken, and he didn’t wish to make enemies of an important trading ally of the Black Sea. Initially refusing, he became blind from the light of the divine and was inflicted with horrible dreams. Finally relenting, he sent forth two trusted ambassadors to negotiate with Sinopê to give their statue, with a promise of wealth in exchange for the statue. The people of Sinopê rejected this offer, however as the empty-handed diplomats were about to begin their long journey home, the God intervened and through a miracle transported His own cult statue from the temple unto the fleeing ship. The God helped the diplomats go back home through a considerable distance in under three days.
Upon arrival of the statue, it was placed in the grand temple that Ptolemy constructed for it in Rhakotis, an Egyptian pre-Alexandrian settlement. Religious experts of both Greek and Egyptian origins were called in to give their judgment and determine the proper means of worshiping this God now being provided a home in Alexandria. One of these experts was Timotheus, a Greek from Athens who belonged to the Eumolpidae, the family of priests who were responsible for overseeing the Eleusinian Mysteries, and Manetho, a Greek-speaking Egyptian from the city of Sebennytos who served as a priest in Heliopolis and wrote a record of Egyptian religion and history in Greek to assist in guiding his King in his new duties as Pharaoh. These exceptionally skilled and wise men, informed in all the sacred lore of their peoples, determined that through the statue’s symbolism, with the deity accompanied by a serpent and a Cerberus dog, and could identify the statue as that of Plouton, however “took to itself the name which Plouton bears among the Egyptians, that of Serapis” (362 A).
Serapis quickly became a highly significant deity and served as the patron deity of Egypt during the Ptolemaic era, and His worship would spread across much of the known Greek world too, being granted recognition in Athens during the mid-third century BCE – only about a mere generation after His Egyptian temple was founded. Following the Ptolemaic dynasty’s fall, His cult spread even further across the Roman Empire, usually in conjunction with the cult of the Maiden, Isis. By the later Imperial Roman era, His worship stretched from Afghanistan all the way to Britannia. In the 4th century ACE, Emperor Julian wrote himself as divinely sanctioned by Serapis for his right to the imperial throne in his letter to the people of Alexandria.
Miracles of Serapis
Serapis is said to have performed an abundant amount of miracles, some the most notable being:
- The divine sanctioning of Emperor Vespasian (r. 1 July 69 ACE – 23 June 79 ACE) onto the Imperial throne through favorable omens and instances where Serapis granted the to-be-Emperor the ability to heal others.
- Healing the eyesight of Demetrios of Phalerum.
- Cases where He saved people at sea.
- The saving of a Roman Soldier from peril at sea.
- Allowing people caught in a sea storm to see port miraculously just as the ship was about to be destroyed.
Role in the cosmos
The part of Serapis in the cosmos is that of the uplifter of souls who are granted henosis; to lift the souls of who have achieved a discarnate existence and are ready to ascend into the Intelligible World and thus free them from the Realm of Generation. He is also called Plouton, meaning “wealth,” because as lord chthonic deity He has control over the treasures of the earth.
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