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
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 in that part of the world. 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
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.
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.
the Pharaonic–Greek gods Serapis survived the longest,
well into the Roman period.
the character of so many earlier gods into Serapis the
practice of virtual monotheism was established
in Alexandria over several hundred years.
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!
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"
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
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.
A syncretic funereal tradition
Syncretism – The
Greeks of Egypt Go Native
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.
Within the lamp,
the Greek goddess Aphrodite bathes. Guarding the
portal, Greek columns but with cobras and Horus-head
(Alexandria, 2nd century BC).
(Foreground) A Greek
sarcophagus (vines and satyrs of Dionysus) with Egyptian
backdrop (Anubis, Horus and Thoth).
of Kom el-Shoqafa, Alexandria)
Out of Egypt
hidden character the enigmas of the Egyptians were
very similar to those of the Jews."
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.
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
and Saviour God
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,
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
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?
the wonder boy sucks his thumb
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.
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.
the legend, Horus was baptized with water by
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
4th century AD)
Horus crushes Seth – the murderer of his
father, Osiris – represented as a crocodile.
7th century tapestry)
of Horus on horse-back was unknown in Egypt before
the Greek era. But the myth was ancient: Good
the artistry had degenerated, the story remained
the same. "Horus' is now a Christian and the bad guys are the pagans.
Christianised in later centuries, the crocodile became a 'dragon,'
the god a Christian knight.
recycled sacred space
his mother Isis the child Horus could not have existed.
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 – original
Where Did They Get Their Ideas From?
and Child – "Isis
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.
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.
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
edition of Isis, with Horus child
Um ... Now
who is this?
edition of Isis
transition from the paganism for which the name
Isis stood was a stealthy and insensibly prolonged
– 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.'
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... "
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
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.
'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
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:
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.
the religion of the Pharaohs was recast in Christian form – theology,
iconology and the whole glorious paraphernalia of priestcraft.
Romans create a God: Antinous
"For Antinous the
full-scale apparatus of a cult was to be brought into being with
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)
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.
after, in the 130s AD, the worship of Antinous became
a State sponsored cult throughout the empire. Meanwhile,
Christian scribes were writing their gospels ...
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.
becomes Roman god
becomes Egyptian god
The cult of Antinous was folded into a more determined
Christianity in the 4th century.
century Antinous, with Cross in one hand – and
the grapes of Dionysus in the other!
from Antinoopolis, Staatliche Museen, Berlin)
century Coptic Christ
Clothed – but
compare to Antinous above!
And the Christians Destroy A God ...
huge statue of Serapis and his temple were torn down by
Christian mob in 391, making way for the new tenant – Jesus
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)
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,
Norman Cantor, The Sacred Chain - A History of the Jews (Harper
R. E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World (John Hopkins UP, 1971)
Alison Roberts, Hathor Rising-The Serpent Power of Ancient Egypt (Northgate,
Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin, 1993)
Barbara Watterson, The Egyptians (Blackwell, 1997)
P. H. Newby, Warrior Pharaohs (Faber & Faber, 1980)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
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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.