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Myth Monday - One More Underworld God

By October 29, 2012

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Sarapis isn't mentioned by the Classical period's Greek authors, since he only became a major god during the Hellenistic period (336 or 323-31 B.C.). That doesn't mean the Ptolemies -- the successors of Alexander the Great who ruled Egypt during the Hellenistic period -- created him. He was mentioned before. Menander (c. 344- c. 291 B.C.) names him in a comedy ("How holy is the god Sarapis!"). Known, yes, but he wasn't an important god for any Greek polis.

From the fourth century B.C., Sarapis became associated with the Greek underworld god Pluto, yet he was also associated with fertility. Where the normal Greek Underworld god Hades was rarely invoked, the same cannot be said for this Egyptian-based counterpart. He was patron god in Alexandria, whose library and museum's founder, Demetrius of Phalerum, was supposed to have been cured of blindness by the god's miraculous healing. He was a savior god in general. He also appeared in dreams and gave oracles.

Sarapis' origins have been disputed since antiquity. The Roman historian Tacitus (Histories IV.84) writes:

"The God himself, because he heals the sick, many identified with Aesculapius; others with Osiris, the deity of the highest antiquity among these nations; not a few with Jupiter, as being supreme ruler of all things; but most people with Pluto, arguing from the emblems which may be seen on his statues, or from conjectures of their own."
Complete Works of Tacitus. Tacitus. Alfred John Church. William Jackson Brodribb. Sara Bryant. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. 1873.

Others, like Cyril of Alexandria (fl. 4th C. A.D.) associated Sarapis with the Egyptian Underworld god Osiris and the Apis bull of Memphis (an animal revered as a manifestation of the god Ptah, depicted with horns, sun disk and uraeus, whose festivities angered Cambyses when he was trying to expand the Persian Empire in Africa 3.1.27 ff). The conjoined name Osiris + Apis appears in Greek documents before Alexander's conquests in the form Osorapis or Oserapis. The association between the two is because an Egyptian dead, like the dead Apis bull, became an Osiris.

Sarapis' Iconography

A mature, curly-haired, bearded Sarapis is usually shown seated on his throne, wearing a chiton and himation (or nude) with a basket (modius or kalathos), symbolizing fertility, on his head, spear or sceptre in hand, and a three headed dog, symbolizing his chthonic association, beside him. His type of beard and mustache help distinguish him from Zeus. He is often shown with five locks of hair on his forehead.


His temple at Alexandria, the Serapeum was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Plutarch alleges that Ptolemy I built it in response to a dream, importing a statue of the god from Sinope to Alexandria, where advisers identified it with Pluto. Memphis already had a cult of Sarapis, so this dream origin is controversial, as well as cliché.

The Serapeum was destroyed by Christian zealots in the late fourth Century.

"In 391. Bishop Theophilus led his militant congregation in an attack on this temple, said to be the largest in the ancient world, and burned it to the ground."
Europe Greece, Rome, The Celtic Lands, Northern and Eastern Europe," A Dictionary of World Mythology Arthur Cotterell Publisher: Oxford University Press Print Publication Date: 1997
Where it once stood is now Diocletian's Column (Pompey's Pillar) southwest of city center.



  • Chapter 16 "The Religious System at Alexandria," by Françoise Dunand; A Companion to Greek Religion, Edited by Daniel Ogden; Blackwell Publishing Ltd.: 2007.
  • Sarapis Under the Early Ptolemies By John E. Stambaugh
  • Reconstructing the Serapeum in Alexandria from the Archaeological Evidence Judith S. McKenzie, Sheila Gibson and A. T. Reyes The Journal of Roman Studies , Vol. 94, (2004), pp. 73-121
  • Material on the Cult of Sarapis Dorothy Kent Hill Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens , Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1946), pp. 60-72
  • Jona Lendering: Apis Bull

Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?
  22. Pandora's Box
  23. Achilles and His Heel
  24. Hercules and His Labors
  25. The First Humans
  26. The Death of Pentheus
  27. Greek Ghosts
  28. One More Underworld God
  29. A Norse God of Winter
  30. "Why Is Gold Called Sif's Hair?"
  31. How Much Do You Know About Athena?
  32. How Much Do You Know About Artemis?
  33. Zeus vs Kronos

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