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Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 138

[Pg 306]

The worship of animals continued unabated during the Hellenic period; it is even probable that this phase of the Egyptian religion had become more pronounced under the Greek rule, for Strabo, writing in the time of Augustus, asserts that statues of sacred animals had practically displaced those of the gods. The sacred Ram (Khnemu) of Mendes was worshipped both by conquered and conquerors, as was the Apis bull and the sacred crocodile, and it would seem that the temple revenues were at times increased by the displaying of these animals to the curious gaze of strangers.

Fusion of Greek and Egyptian Ideas

Meanwhile Greek and Egyptian ideas were becoming more and more completely fused. As already mentioned, Amen was identified with Zeus, Isis with Demeter, Hathor with Aphrodite, Osiris with Pluto, Set with Typhon, Bast with Artemis, and Horus with Apollo. This feature was very strikingly exemplified in the god Sarapis,[4] a deity equally reverenced by the Greeks and the Egyptians. Sarapis, as the former called him, or Asar-Hapi, as he was known to the latter, was a name compounded from Osiris and Apis. So early as the beginning of the New Empire these two deities—Apis, the sacred bull of Mendes, and Osiris, the 'Bull of the West'—had been to some extent identified, and finally the Apis had been given the attributes of a god of the underworld. To the Greeks, it would appear, Sarapis was the form taken by the deceased Apis bull. Tradition assigns the identification of Sarapis with Pluto to the reign of Ptolemy Soter. Plutarch gives the following version of the legend.

[Pg 307]

The Legend of Sarapis

"Ptolemy, surnamed the Saviour, had a dream wherein a certain colossean statue, such as he had never seen before, appeared unto him, commanding him to remove it as soon as possible from the place where it then stood to Alexandria. Upon this the king was in great perplexity, as he knew neither to whom the statue belonged nor where to look for it. Upon his relating the vision to his friends, a certain person named Sosibius, who had been a great traveller, declared that he had seen just such a statue as the king described at Sinope. Soteles and Dionysius were hereupon immediately dispatched in order to bring it away with them, which they at length accomplished, though not without much difficulty and the manifest interposition of providence. Timotheus the Interpreter and Manetho, as soon as the statue was shown to them, from the Cerberus and Dragon that accompanied it concluded that it was designed to represent Pluto, and persuaded the king that it was in reality none other than the Egyptian Sarapis; for it must be observed that the statue had not this name before it was brought to Alexandria, it being given to it afterward by the Egyptians, as the equivalent, in their opinion, to its old one of Pluto."

Another version of the tale asserts that the people of Sinope would not consent to part with the statue of their god, whereupon the statue of its own accord set sail for Alexandria, which it reached at the end of three days. But whatever the means by which Ptolemy contrived to bring the statue to Egypt, there is no doubt that his provision of a god which could be worshipped both by Greeks and Egyptians, without violation of the principles of either, was a diplomatic move which was justified in its results. In the temples[Pg 308] Sarapis was figured as a mummy with a high crown and plaited beard; or, as Asar-Hapi, he was represented as a bull, with the solar disk and uræus between his horns. In the small figures which were worshipped privately, however, he is shown in human shape, bearded and curly-haired after the Greek fashion.

If Sarapis was one of the most important of Egyptian deities of this period, Horus the Child (the Greek Harpocrates) was one of the best-loved. In the early centuries of the Christian era he is shown as a child, sometimes seated in a lotus-blossom, sometimes in a ship, or again enthroned as a follower of the sun-god; frequently he carries a cornucopia or a jar. It is as a child that he was loved and worshipped by the people, with whom he seems to have been a universal favourite. Another popular deity was Isis, some of whose forms were decidedly Grecian. She was the goddess of Alexandria and patron of sea-faring, the Aphrodite of the Greeks and the Isis of the Egyptians, and at times she is confused with Hathor. She and Osiris are also figured as serpents, though the god of the dead is more often represented in his Sarapis form, ruling in the underworld and accompanied by Cerberus. Another deity who became popular during the Hellenic period, though formerly occupying a very obscure position in the Pantheon, was the god Bes, figured as an armed warrior, still, however, retaining his grotesque character. A figure borrowed, doubtless, from Christianity represents Isis and Horus in a posture strongly reminiscent of the Madonna and Child.


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