Commentary on Hymn XX: To Antinous and Serapis

Great Serapis, Osiris-Apis, Wesar-Hapi-Ankh,
whose Son is Anubis who is also Hermes,
bless your grandson, beautiful Antinous,
he who is one with Osiris, enthroned with the gods
of Egypt, and bless his worshippers, we who honor
the Greek ephebe who died in Egypt, him to whom
Bes and Djehuty gave a city, whom Hathor suckled,
to whom Harpocrates whispered the secret.
Hail, Osirantinous, the one who is made perfect,
who perfects his worshippers, triumphant in the West,
radiant on high, bringing red blossoms out of the black mud,
and hail to you, Serapis, grandfather of Antinous,
both of you the meeting-place of many gods.

Head of Serapis at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

I was in college when I first read R.E. Witt’s Isis in the Ancient World. Originally titled Isis in the Greco-Roman World, it has stayed in print because it is a classic, really: a study of how the Egyptian goddess became an international deity worshipped as far away as Britain and in Rome itself. When Dion Fortune’s Sea Priestess said, “All the gods are one god, and all the goddesses are one goddess,” she was talking about Serapis and Isis. Fortune wasn’t wrong; there was a point in history where Isis had been syncretized with just about every goddess in every region of the empire. Her epiphany to the unfortunate Lucius is the climax of Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass.

As Isis’ cult spread outside of Egypt, Osiris was transformed (with a bit of a boost from the Ptolemies) into Serapis, a synthesis of Osiris and Apis the bull-god. Osiris’ two sons, Horus with Isis and Anubis with Nephthys (in at least some versions) became Harpocrates, a Greek’s best guess at pronouncing Heru-pa-kraat, Horus-on-the-horizon, and Hermanubis, the jackal-headed, caduceus-bearing messenger and psychopomp who seems to have been Christianized as St. Christopher. Harpocrates was depicted as a boy wearing a side-lock of hair and putting his finger to his lips, both symbols that stood for childhood in Egyptian art. (If you’ve ever seen The Ten Commandments, Yul Brynner fetchingly sports the side-lock in the early part of the film.) To Greek interpreters, however, the finger on the lips implied silence before the Mysteries, keeping the sacred secret.

Antinous is connected more obviously to Serapis than to Isis because Serapis himself is a transformation of Osiris. He is depicted as a bearded man crowned with a kind of basket for grain and bearing the bident, the two-pronged staff or weapon proper to the underworld god known as Hades, Pluto, or Dis Pater. He is often accompanied by the three-headed Cerberus. He is the underworld god as benevolent father, giver of grain, guardian of a peaceful afterlife, consort of the goddesses who traverses all worlds, rather than as distant and scary lord of the dead.

Serapis fuses Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultus in much the same way that Antinous does, which has prompted Antinous’ devotees to call Serapis the grandfather of the beautiful boy. He also happens to be my favorite paternal deity, the father god I trust when I need a dad. I have more than once stood before the image of him in the photograph and prayed and felt, despite the damage to the idol, the benevolent power of the god.

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