Like today, religion was an important aspect of the lives of people in ancient civilizations. The gods Osiris, Horus, and Hathor are known gods of the ancient Egyptian religion. Aphrodite, Zeus, Heracles, and many others are popular gods and goddesses of the Greek culture and Greek mythology. When Ptolemy I ruled over Egypt in the 3rd century, he wanted both cultures of people to bond and come together in an aspect that seemed to be impossible to agree upon, and that was religion.
Originally the god was named Osiris-Apis (Apis being a bull deity worshiped in the Egyptian mythology. Ptolemy claimed that this new god would have the high status of Apis and Osiris, including the same qualities as these gods) and it was turned into Serapis. According to text by Plutarch, Ptolemy seized a cult statue from Sinope to be taken to Alexandria, where it was concluded that this was a statue of Serapis by religious experts, one being the Egyptian priest Manetho, who is most important to Egyptologists and archaeologists alike for his History of Egypt, which gives an accurate chronology of the reign of the Egyptian pharaohs and rulers.
The Greeks weren’t as associated with animal headed gods as the Egyptians were, so Ptolemy wanted this god to have the head of a human. In this ivory head of Serapis, founded in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 2nd century A.D, the piece represents both the Greek and Egyptian characteristics. The bust illustrates obvious Greek features, such as the structure of the face (strong jaw, slender nose, caved in eyes) the curly beard and long tousled hair that was quite common in the portraiture of the Romans and in Greek picture. Adorned on his head is a modius, a basket and grain measure. The modius is a part of the Greek culture, which symbolized the land of the dead. Usually within the hand of Serapis would be a sceptre, which illustrated the ruling of Cerberus, gatekeeper of the underworld.
While in looks this ‘king of the deep’ gives the appearance of a Greek god, the characteristics resemble Egyptian gods such as Osiris and Apis. During Roman occupied Egypt in 2nd century A.D, Serapis held an equivalent to the gods Osiris and Isis. Below is a statue of Serapis found in the area of Alexandria and existed during the rule of Cleopatra VII, the last known pharaoh of Egypt as their own independent civilization. This Serapis head and modius can be seen on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, California in the traveling exhibition entitled ‘Cleopatra: The Exhibition’. The same detailed recessed eyes and tousled hair can be seen in the Serapis statue above.
While Zeus and Horus are one of the most popular gods in the Greek and Egyptian mythos, Serapis is not only interesting visually and obtains a fascinating back story, the god created by Ptolemy I means the unifying of two cultures and religions.