Alexandria – the breeding ground of cults

Religious fusion in Ancient Egypt

Jesus Never Existed – The Imaginary Friend

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Kenneth Humphreys


20.11.11

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An empire of religious syncretism, 4th-1st centuries BC.

While Rome waged a struggle with Carthage, the Ptolemies were masters of the eastern Mediterranean.

For 300 years Greek-Egyptians ruled an empire of religious syncretism, a period in which notions of a superhero godman gestated, subsequently to be historicized by the Christians.

 

 

 

 

 

Horus – An original Light of the World

eye-of-horus

 

 

 

''Early Mystery-Religion was syncretistic… The Persian Mithra-cult was at least partially egyptianized; the Egyptian Isiac cult largely Hellenized.'

– S. Angus, The Mystery Religions, p20.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Jewish" horned altar – for the god Serapis!

Greek island of Delos, centre of the Ionian Confederacy, 3rd century BC.

 

And for the god Yahweh?

"And Adonijah feared because of Solomon, and arose, and went, and caught hold on the horns of the altar."

– 1 Kings 1.50.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Syncretic overload –
A god with everything

Tyche (Fortuna) – traditionally wears a mural crown – representing the walls of the city guided by the goddess. But here she also wears the headdress of Isis, complete with her crescent moon.

In her left arm she holds the horn of plenty (symbol of a bountiful harvest) and in her right hand she holds a rudder (guiding fortune and dominion over the sea),

She also wears the wings of Nike (Victoria), the goddess of victory, and the deerskin of Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of wine.

Around her right arm coils a serpent, an attribute of the goddess Hygieia (Salus), one of the daughters of the healing god Aesclepius.

Just how much more holy can a girl get?

(Early Imperial period. Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horus becomes Roman, Christian, changes name to Jesus...

Horus Romanised
Horus Romanised, with military cloak and cuirass.

 

 

 

 

Gods go into the mix

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Apis, was the god of Memphis.

A bull was chosen for the distinctive marks on its body and was considered to have been born by a virgin cow impregnated by the local creator god Ptah.

The local trinity was Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.

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Apis

 

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Osiris

Osiris was a major Egyptian deity and king of the Underworld.

He began his long career as a god of agriculture and nature during the 5th dynasty (2465 - 2323 BC).

 

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Dionysus
Greek god of agriculture and wine

 

 

 

The Greek god Hermes, showing Eastern influences (Petra).

Trajan's road from Aqaba brought Indian religious ideas as well as spices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Foot

Colossal marble foot from 2nd century Alexandria – possibly from Serapis (British Museum)

 

 

 

The "Holy Family"? The Whole Nativity Sequence, Luxor 1700 BC !

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antinous: 'Appeared After Death'...

Obelisk to Antinous (2nd century, Rome), commemorates 'Osiris-Antinous the Just'

The epitaph records that Antinous 'appeared after death in dreams'.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roman period – 1st - 4th century AD

Cremation Out!

The portraiture affixed to their mummies shows Roman clothes and jewellery but stylistically is Greek.

Egyptian mummy, Roman/Greek corpse.
Faiyum, Egypt (3rd century AD)

 

 

 

 

Hedging Their Bets

A funereal plaque honouring both Greek and Egyptian myth:

Above, pure pharaonic – Anubis, Isis, Nephthys readying a corpse for the afterlife.

Below, pure Greek – Hades abducts Persephone, Artemis with bow, Athena with lance, Aphrodite

Catacombs of Kom el-Shoqafa (Mound of Shards) 1st century AD.

 

 

 

Sceptic notes the charlatans

Plotinus, the 3rd century Neo-Platonist philosopher travelled throughout Greece, Syria, Egypt and India, observing in particular religious practices. He recorded how readily the myriad priests drifted into fraud, faked 'miracles' and amendments of the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At first glance, the Egyptian pantheon presents a bewildering array of gods having little in common with the Christian godman. But properly understood many Egyptian deities were city or regional "variations on a theme", gods whose fortunes rose or fell with the outcome of human power struggles and dynastic change. Triumphant priests merged useful aspects of a fallen rival's deity with their own favoured god.

This process of absorption, assimilation and adaptation continued throughout the Greek, Roman – and Christian eras. Though the basic Christ legend was formulated by apostate Jews, with their expectations of a conquering messiah, and pagan converts, with their fables of dying/reborn sun gods, Egypt provided Christianity with ideas NOT found in the Old Testament: immortality of the soul; judgment of the dead; reward and punishment; a triune god. The ancient religion of Egypt infused the nascent faith of Christ with much of its creed.

 

Conjuring up Christianity

Following the breakup of the empire of Alexander the Great, his general Ptolemy (323-282 BC) took possession of Egypt, Palestine and Cyprus. Alexandria, his capital, built on a spit of land unaffected by Nile floods between Lake Mareotis and the Mediterranean, traded the wealth of Egypt with the Greek world to the north and east. The great port became the hub of commerce between Europe, Asia, India and beyond. Settlers arrived from more ancient Greek cities, bringing Hellenic culture with them. Ptolemy himself encouraged artists and scholars from all nations to continue their work in his cosmopolitan city and, with royal patronage, Alexandria became the intellectual capital of the ancient world. A new syncretic culture emerged. Along with the trade goods into Alexandria flowed every philosophy and creed known to man. Into this most cosmopolitan of cities religions mingled and mixed and borrowed freely from the ancient faith of Egypt itself. Accessible even today, the catacombs of Alexandria graphically illustrate the cultural fusion of the Roman era – Greek sarcophagi, guarded by Egyptian gods, in Roman military uniform!

 

A Syncretic Tradition

The Greeks create a universal God:

The Greek general Ptolemy styled himself as an Egyptian pharaoh and took the title "Soter" ("Saviour"). As the astute ruler he understood the political value of an official religion. A single, composite deity, one god, one all-embracing system of belief, might unify the diverse, often antagonistic peoples of his polyglot empire and strengthen their devotion to the god's earthly representative – himself.

The first Greek pharaoh wanted a single, composite god to bring together his diverse subjects. In a 'classic' example of the process of syncretism, the character and characteristics of several earlier gods were rolled into one, the god Serapis.

Of all the Pharaonic–Greek gods Serapis survived the longest, well into the Roman period.

In fusing the character of so many earlier gods into Serapis the practice of virtual monotheism was established in Alexandria over several hundred years.

The new god embodied aspects of many earlier deities, including the Egyptian Osiris and Apis and the Greek Dionysus and Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld. The Ptolemies intended that the new god should have universal appeal in an increasingly cosmopolitan country. In consequence, Serapis had more than 200 localised names, including (according to correspondence of Emperor Hadrian) Christ!

In the 3rd century BC, the worship of Serapis became a State sponsored cult throughout Egypt. With the Roman conquest, the cult spread throughout the Empire.

Such a god, to enjoy universal acceptance and devotion, would necessarily possess all the powers and aspects of earlier ones. To create that grand synthesis – in a process that anticipated the actions of the Roman Emperor Constantine several centuries later – Ptolemy put all the resources of the state behind the promotion and sponsorship of an official cult. Major temples of the god were built at Alexandria and Memphis. The Serapeum in Alexandria itself blended Egyptian gigantism with the grace and beauty of Hellenic style. The Serapeum grew into a vast complex, one of the grandest monuments of pagan civilization.

 

Serapis at Petra

Serapis - a Greco-Egyptian "Zeus"

"This fortunate usurper was introduced into the throne and bed of Osiris." (Gibbon)


A composite god, Serapis took on aspects of Osiris, king of the Underworld, and Apis, the cow-god sacred to Memphis. The basket (or 'Bushel') on the head of the god indicated a plentiful harvest.


Honoured by Rome

"Vespasian ... crossed over to Alexandria, so as to be able to control the keys to Egypt. There he dismissed all his entourage and entered the Temple of Serapis, alone, to consult the auspices and discover how long his reigh would last. There he was granted a vision ... "

– Suetonius, Vespasian, 7.

"As Vespasian sat on the Tribunal, two labourers, one blind, the other lame, approached together, begging to be healed. Apparently, the god Serapis had promised them in a dream that if Vespasian would consent to spit in the blind man's eyes, and touch the lame man's leg with his heel, both would be made well. Vespasian had so little faith in his curative powers that he showed great reluctance in doing as he was asked; but his friends persuaded him to try them – in the presence of a large audience, too – and the charm worked."

– Suetonius, Vespasian, 7.

 

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A syncretic funereal tradition

Syncretism – The Greeks of Egypt Go Native

From the reign of the first Ptolemy in the 4th century BC the Greeks planted Hellenic culture in Egypt. But far from Hellenizing this ancient land, to a great extent the Greeks were Egyptianized by the conquered. This process accelerated after the Roman takeover when the Greeks lost their dominant position.

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Death rites

Oil lamp

Within the lamp, the Greek goddess Aphrodite bathes. Guarding the portal, Greek columns but with cobras and Horus-head capitals!

(Alexandria, 2nd century BC).

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Sarcophagus

(Foreground) A Greek sarcophagus (vines and satyrs of Dionysus) with Egyptian backdrop (Anubis, Horus and Thoth).

(Catacomb of Kom el-Shoqafa, Alexandria)
 

 

Out of Egypt

"In their hidden character the enigmas of the Egyptians were very similar to those of the Jews."

Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, v7 iii p56.


In their first two centuries, the followers of Christ had no particular images of their god. Emerging as they did from Judaism they disdained "idol worship." They were even accused of being atheists. But once the break with Judaism was complete the Christ worshippers rapidly made up the deficiency by adapting for Christian use pagan images, rituals, sacred sites, and symbols.

This process occurred most energetically in Egypt, a land awash with religious iconography. From the 3rd century AD onwards, Egyptian Christian – 'Coptic' – art displayed a syncretistic and fused tradition – Roman, Greek and Pharaonic – with a Christian veneer. Such art faithfully reflected a deeper truth: the regurgitation of ancient religious belief in the new guise of 'Christianity.'

 

Trinity and Saviour God

"The works of art, the ideas, the expressions, and the heresies of the first four centuries of the Christian era cannot be well studied without a right comprehension of the nature and influence of the Horus myth."

– W. R. Cooper, (The Horus Myth in its Relation to Christianity, p49)


Isis
was part of a sacred triad. The Egyptians deified so-called 'emanations' of the supreme, unknowable godhead, typically grouping them into trinities (in fact, a whole hierarchy of trinities). Thus Isis-Osiris-Horus, Amun-Re-Mut-Khons, Atum-Shu-Tefnut-Mahet, etc., etc., reigned for forty centuries, an eternal, evolving godhead. Crucially, the Egyptian priests linked the gods directly to their ruling kings:

'Throughout the 4000 years of Egyptian history every Pharaoh was the incarnation of the youthful Horus, and therefore the son of Isis, the Goddess Mother who had suckled and reared him. At death ... as Osiris he held sway over 'Those Yonder' in the shadowy kingdom of the dead.'

– R. E. Witt (Isis in the Ancient World, p15)


Thus the 'Father' and 'Son' were inseparable, were of 'one essence,' the same stuff in continuous metamorphosis.The pharaohs stepped into the trinity on Earth (as Horus) and became the heavenly element (as Osiris) after death. In the endless cycle Isis functioned as sister, wife and mother, a sort of 'holy spirit', keeping the whole thing going.

 


Where Did They Get Their Ideas From?

Horus Rising

Harpakhrad

Harpakhrad: Horus the wonder boy sucks his thumb

Horus, originally a sky god (hence the falcon's head) became one of the most important of Egyptian gods. Over time Horus absorbed the characteristics of many other deities.

As his cult spread north from Upper Egypt Horus took numerous local names. As Haroeris he became the God of Light; as Harmakhis he became the God of Dawn; As Harpakhrad he was 'Horus the child'. He succeeded to the leadership of Re by merger, becoming Re-Horakhty.

Along with his new identities Horus became more fully humanised, represented on Earth first by the pharaoh and later, by the hero of the Christian myth.

young Horus

A young, humanoid Horus (note side lock of hair) crushes two crocodiles (evil) underfoot.

The statuette is incised with spells against snakes, scorpions etc.; water poured over it became holy water.

In the legend, Horus was baptized with water by Anubis.

isis-mary

Horus was traditionally depicted as having the body of a man with the head of a falcon or hawk. However syncretism during the Greco-Roman period (and a distaste for animal worship) meant the god became fully humanoid, a boy child, indeed, for Isis – otherwise known as Mary.

Horus on horse-back

(Egypt, 4th century AD)

Here, Horus crushes Seth – the murderer of his father, Osiris – represented as a crocodile.

 

Christian Horus

(Egypt, 7th century tapestry)

Horus Saint

(Egypt, 18th century)

The image of Horus on horse-back was unknown in Egypt before the Greek era. But the myth was ancient: Good conquers Evil.

In 'Coptic' Christianity, though the artistry had degenerated, the story remained the same. "Horus' is now a Christian and the bad guys are the pagans.

Thoroughly Christianised in later centuries, the crocodile became a 'dragon,' the god a Christian knight.

 

Regurgitated fables, reused symbols, recycled sacred space

"Without his mother Isis the child Horus could not have existed.

It is in the light of this fact of Egyptian mythology that we must regard emergent Christianity's struggle, so bitterly fought at Alexandria, against what was then its most stubborn and insidious foe."

– R. E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, p279.

 

 

 
 
Isis with Child
Isis with Child

 

Isis
Isis – original

 


Where Did They Get Their Ideas From?

Mother and Child – "Isis Myrionymos"

Isis: "Queen of Heaven". Ancient female deity, in time absorbing most characteristics of cow-headed sky goddess Hathor (hence, Isis also has horns and sun disc). Sister/wife to Osirus – 'first king of Egypt' – and sister to Seth, the sun eating serpent god.

Sibling rivalry (Cain and Abel?) led Seth to dismember Osiris. Isis fled with infant Horus from the fury of Seth; she found and breathed rebirth and immortality back into the pieces of Osiris. Protected by Isis, Horus remained safe and grew up to be king.

Isis personified laudable feminine virtues which she passed on to 'Mary'. Like the Blessed Virgin, Isis succoured women in labour, showed mercy to the distressed, gave a 'light' to the dying, protected sailors, guarded chastity, and assured fertility and healing.

Roman edition of Isis

Roman edition of Isis, with Horus child
20 BC


Mary Isis

Um ... Now who is this?

Greek edition of Isis

Greek edition of Isis

"The transition from the paganism for which the name Isis stood was a stealthy and insensibly prolonged blending ..."

– R. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, p274.

 

Roman Egypt: Ancient Melting Pot

With Rome's annexation of Egypt in 30 BC, the Greeks lost their position as a the country's ruling elite. Now bureaucrats but not rulers, increasingly the Greeks adopted the mores of the native Egyptians. The Egyptian Greeks, who traditionally had believed in immortality only of the soul, abandon cremation and adopted Egyptian mummification – in the optimistic belief in a resurrection of the body, a notion that fed into early Christianity.

The Egyptians, always at the bottom of the social hierarchy, were taxed even more by the Romans than by the Greeks. Worse yet, with the whole country reduced to the personal fiefdom of an absentee landlord called 'caesar', they were bereft of their pharaonic god-king. Deeply religious, they were forced into a religious revisionism to find a new godhead for their ancient 'theology'.

In reaction (perhaps, resistance) to the Romans, traditional religious interpretations became more 'democratised.'

"The Egyptians reasoned that if it was the fate of the god Osiris to be resurrected after death, then a way could be found to make it the fate of man, too... The bliss of immortality that had formerly been reserved only for kings was then promised to all men... "

– Lewis Brown (This Believing World, p84)


Into the heady mix went the Jews, for centuries a volatile minority, especially in Alexandria. Infused by emigres after the fall of the Temple in 70, the whole Jewish community had been decimated following the rebellion of 115-117, but then a new wave of Jewish migrants and slaves arrived in Egypt after the war in Palestine of 132-135.

Among all these displaced and disorientated races moved the agents of diverse cults and 'mystery religions', competing for membership and stealing each others ideas. The most successful cult of all – the supreme example of syncretism – was Christianity.

 

Pax Romana

Coptic 'tradition' has it that Jesus spent his childhood in Egypt – and that the 'Nativity' occurred in the Fayum at Ahnas (Heracleopolis Magna), which just happens to have been a cult centre for Arsaphes, son of Isis! The 'Flight to Egypt' in Matthew, was probably written into the story by the Church of Alexandria – it appears in none of the other gospels and contradicts the return to Nazareth.

The Palestinian fantasy of a Jesus Christ was endemic in the religious milieu of Egypt when Constantine gave the Faith its seal of approval. In the hands of 4th century bishop Athanasius, the key aspect of the Egyptian god/human interface – "Begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father" – entered Christian theology. Athanasius wrote:

"The Word, then, visited that Earth in which He was yet always present...
Coming as God and as Man
... Revealing Himself, conquering Death, and restored to life."

– On the Incarnation.


Thus the religion of the Pharaohs was recast in Christian form – theology, iconology and the whole glorious paraphernalia of priestcraft.

 

The Romans create a God: Antinous

"For Antinous the full-scale apparatus of a cult was to be brought into being with temples and priests, images and altars, oracles and mysteries, games and a carefully developed myth. His was the only non-imperial head ever to appear on the coinage."

– R. Lambert (Beloved and God, p147)


Hadrian, a deeply pious man, interpreted the drowning of his lover in religious terms. According to Egyptian tradition, the death in the Nile had been a 'saving sacrifice', ensuring the continued well-being of Hadrian himself. The corpse of Antinous was not cremated but embalmed.

Shortly after, in the 130s AD, the worship of Antinous became a State sponsored cult throughout the empire. Meanwhile, Christian scribes were writing their gospels ...

Antinous:
Nice Greek boy...

Lover of the Emperor Hadrian, drowns in the Nile in 130. He is deified by the distraught Hadrian who has an entire city – Antinoopolis – built in his honour.

 

More about Antinous
... becomes Roman god

 

... becomes Egyptian god
 

 



... becomes Christ

The cult of Antinous was folded into a more determined Christianity in the 4th century.

4th century Antinous, with Cross in one hand – and the grapes of Dionysus in the other!

(Stele from Antinoopolis, Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

6th/7th century Coptic Christ
Clothed – but compare to Antinous above!

 

 

And the Christians Destroy A God ...

The huge statue of Serapis and his temple were torn down by a rampaging Christian mob in 391, making way for the new tenant – Jesus Christ.

 

 

Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, stands on top of the sanctuary of Serapis(whose head is visible lower left), inviting a monk opposite to throw stones

(4th century Alexandrian World Chronicle)

 

Sources:
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain (Flamingo. 1998)
Michael Walsh, A Dictionary of Devotions (Burns & Oates, 1993)
Dom Robert Le Gall, Symbols of Catholicism (Editions Assouline, 1997)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
Norman Cantor, The Sacred Chain - A History of the Jews (Harper Collins, 1994)
R. E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World (John Hopkins UP, 1971)
Alison Roberts, Hathor Rising-The Serpent Power of Ancient Egypt (Northgate, 1995)
Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin, 1993)
Barbara Watterson, The Egyptians (Blackwell, 1997)
P. H. Newby, Warrior Pharaohs (Faber & Faber, 1980)

 

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Copyright © 2004 by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no material herein is sold for profit.