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.

Lord, come and save us

I have more than once heard pagans talk about how their Christian parents, teachers, or pastors talked about being saved, and they never knew what they were being saved *from*. If I’d grown up in a church that talked a lot about life as dangerous, about the possibility of hell, about divine wrath–something Episcopalians are noticeably not big on–I’d probably have come to ask the same question eventually: What’s so dangerous? What am I being “saved” from?

It took me a ritual initiation and five decades of maturity to come up with an answer for that question. image005

In November of 2017, I flew to Seattle from the other side of the country to put myself in the hands of people I’d only met on the internet and undergo initiation into the Mysteries of Antinous. Through the ritual actions of a very capable group of witches and devotees of the god, I underwent an experience of death and revival that changed me on a deep level. Nothing I had experienced before or since has been so terrifying and so exalted. I came out of it with a magnified trust in the Beautiful God that when I die, I will be welcome on his Barque of Millions of Years.

Some time later, it occurred to me that Christian baptism was supposed to do the same thing: To put an end to the initiate’s old life, bring them through the underworld, and induct them into a new life as the god. On a day in Seattle, Washington, I became Antinous. Theoretically, on February 13th in the year of my birth, I had already become Christ.

If you attend the liturgy of the Easter Vigil in a Roman Catholic or Episcopal church nowadays, you will see something that approximates what adult converts to Christianity experienced in Jerusalem in the fourth century C.E. There will be fire kindled in the darkness, and a procession that carries the light of that fire forward and spreads it around. There will be stories told of the whole history of the world, from the creation recorded in Genesis up to the time of Jesus. There will be blessing of waters and a ritual conjunction of the fire and the water. There will be a great deal of chanting, a sudden illumination, the dazzle of white vestments, baptism followed by a joyful celebration of the Eucharist.

The Paschal Triduum from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday is an initiation rite that sends the converts on the same journey as Jesus: to be arrested, tried, and executed, to descend into the underworld, to free the prisoners there, to lead them into a new life. Every person baptized becomes the resurrected Christ, living from the divine life. The readings weave in the history of the Hebrew people as told in the Old Testament so that baptized also become members of a community who went through the waters of the Red Sea together and were led by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of flame, embodied in the Paschal candle.

Christianity was a school or sect within Judaism that mutated first into a mystery cult, then into a state religion. Like the cults of Isis or Mithras, Bacchus or Orpheus, it promised contact with exotic (i.e., not Roman) deities, secret pathways through the afterlife, and a post-mortem existence that was at least as satisfying as earthly life, if not more so. Before any of those deities brought their cults into Rome, Greeks and Romans, too, had streamed to Eleusis every autumn for hundreds of years to partake of the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone and be assured of a pleasant station in the afterlife.

All of these mystery cults promised salvation. Jesus was not the only deity called “Soter”, savior, in Greek. The savior gods were the rescuers who promised a good afterlife to those who underwent their mysteries. What were people seeking to be saved from? Death. Death without a destination.

What happens if you don’t prepare for death ahead of time, if you don’t undergo a mystery and find a place with a particular god? I’m not going to tell you that I know! What I do know that is that both Norse cosmology and Greek cosmology have a place for people who just die, and haven’t deserved either punishment or special reward, and don’t know the secret handshakes and the passwords. In the North, the vast majority of the dead wind up in Helheim, where the table is set only with bread and water, but there is food for all and room for them. In Greece, Hades was called the Receiver or Host of Many, and the greatest part of his domain was Asphodel, where the shades of the dead lived a thin and insubstantial life.

Perhaps the uninitiated dead wind up somewhere that’s a shadow, a two-dimensional version of mortal life, an okay place to hang out until, one way or another, you get tired of it. Perhaps reincarnation is a kind of recycling; perhaps it’s a way to advance spiritually; perhaps it’s both. I tend to think that some people degenerate so much, morally, spiritually, that they cease to be human; maybe they simply get snuffed out like a candle that has burned down all the way, maybe some of them get punished for harming others.

I don’t feel at all certain of what happens to other people after death, nor do I need to. I do have faith that I have a place with Antinous, and with Jesus, too, and that the gods bring those they love to be with them.

A prayer for Rhodophoria



Beautiful Aphrodite, hear me.
Gracious Venus, hear me.
Flora and Rosa, kindliest of nymphs, hear me.
Great Isis, who art all goddesses in yourself, hear me.
Today we come carrying roses for those who died of love.
Not those like Tristan and Isolda, pining for each other
after their adulterous affair was interrupted,
nor those sad women who were killed
by men who claimed to love them,
but wanted rather to possess them.
Today the devotees of Antinous come before your altars
carrying roses for those who died because of
whom they chose to love, and because
they wanted to dance.
They wanted to dance in freedom, in joy, in celebration,
in love, in lust, in the fullness of everything that means
life: And they were shot to death.
Victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting,
may you be remembered:
A rose for Jean Carlos Nieves Rodriguez, 27, and
a rose for Stanley Almodovar III, 23, and
a rose for Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32, and
a rose for Luis Daniel Conde, 39, and
a rose for Juan Pablo Rivera Velazquez, 37, and
a rose for Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40, and
a rose for Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33, and
a rose for Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37, and
a rose for Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35, and
a rose for Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21, and
a rose for Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49, and
a rose for Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24, and
a rose for Franky Jimmy De Jesús Velazquez, 50, and
a rose for Juan Chavez-Martinez, 25, and
a rose for Jerald Arthur Wright, 31, and
a rose for Antonio Davon Brown, 29, and
a rose for Miguel Angel Honorato, 30, and
a rose for Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25, and
a rose for K.J. Morris, 37, and
a rose for Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34, and
a rose for Frankie Hernandez, 27, and
a rose for Akyra Monet Murray, 18, and
a rose for Joel Rayon Paniagua, 31, and
a rose for Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24, and
a rose for Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan, 24, and
a rose for Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25, and
a rose for Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25, and
a rose for Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26, and
a rose for Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22, and
a rose for Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33, and
a rose for Paul Terrell Henry, 41, and
a rose for Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35, and
a rose for Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25, and
a rose for Amanda Alvear, 25, and
a rose for Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30, and
a rose for Angel Luis Candelario-Padro, 28, and
a rose for Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31, and
a rose for Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26, and
a rose for Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19, and
a rose for Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25, and
a rose for Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25, and
a rose for Darryl Roman Burt II, 29, and
a rose for Cory James Connell, 21, and
a rose for Martin Benitez Torres, 33, and
a rose for Luis S. Vielma, 22, and
a rose for Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20, and
a rose for Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36, and
a rose for Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22, and
a rose for Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32, and
a rose for every dead lover
who just wanted to dance.