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Join us on this spoken narration of key visual elements in four works of art included in VMFA’s audio tour of Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities.
Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities represents the results of one of the most captivating underwater archaeological excavations of all time. Conducted by Franck Goddio and the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology, this extraordinary exhibition is comprised of some of the most remarkable artifacts discovered in the submerged ancient cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, mighty trade centers, where Egyptian and Greek cultures merged in art, worship and everyday life.
Join us on this spoken narration of key visual elements in four works of art included in VMFA’s audio tour of Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities.
A queen in black stone, Cleopatra III (?)
Granodiorite. H. 220 cm
Second century BC, Heracleion National Museum, Alexandria (SCA 283) –IEASM excavations
Greco-Roman style of the Ptolemaic period; the queen in black stone carries the traditional robe identifying the sovereign queens to Isis.
Just over seven feet high and carved from dark grey stone, this statue of a queen is a formidable presence. Due to the wear and tear of over 2,000 years, the statue is cracked in certain places and missing some pieces. However, despite these damages and with some conservation help, the queen is still standing tall. Her left foot is firmly planted slightly ahead of her right, she is looking directly ahead, and her arms are straight along her sides. Her pose is not relaxed, instead it is filled with intense purpose. This, in combination with her height, gives her a commanding strength that even time could not diminish.
Let’s start with her head. She is wearing a crown to indicate her queenly status. Fixed in the middle of its slim band is a cobra, rearing as if about to strike. This crown rests snugly over her head of tight ringlet curls, which fall just over her shoulders and rest like bangs over her forehead. She is missing part of her nose, and her mouth is closed in a neutral position. Where her eyes would be, there are dark, empty holes. Their eerie hollowness indicates that some other material, now long lost, would have been used to replicate her eyes.
Let’s shift our focus to the statue’s middle. There is a very visible crack along her collar bone, and just below it is the faint neckline of her dress. This dress drapes and falls in a way that seems to defy the solid stone it is carved from, creating the illusion of a sheer, delicate, incredibly lightweight fabric that clings to the Queen’s body. There are two parts to this dress. The neckline is part of a slip-like, base layer. This slip does not have a right sleeve, but the left sleeve ends halfway down the outside of her upper arm and then drapes at an angle to fall just below the inside of her elbow. On top of this slip is another piece of fabric that appears to be just as lightweight and gauzy. It wraps around her back, so that the two ends of the fabric meet down the front of her body. Somehow, part of this fabric also wraps under her left armpit, around her upper back, and caps her right shoulder before coming down to join the two meeting ends in a knot that rests over the Queen’s sternum. This knot creates a ripple effect in the dress, causing the fabric to fall away from the knot’s tension in graceful, drooping arcs that gently hug and emphasize the curves of the Queen’s body. The dress’s flow is interrupted only briefly by a large crack that runs across her hips. This crackline also cuts through the Queen’s arms, resulting in the disappearance of both her forearms. Her hands, however, are still intact and curl into fists, tight at her sides. Her right fist holds an ankh; the Egyptian symbol for life. It is shaped like a capital T topped with a tear-drop shaped loop. Her left fist holds an ancient musical instrument called a sistrum. It has an arched frame secured onto a handle and strung through the frame are thin strips, usually made of metal, that would make noise when shaken. Both the ankh and the sistrum, each light and easy enough to hold with one hand, press close against the outside of the Queen’s thighs. Fairly small in size, neither is long enough to reach her kneecaps, and it is difficult to see either object when looking at her straight on.
Traveling further down the statue, the section of her legs from just below the knees to just above the ankles is now missing. However, two (metal?) pipes act as stand-ins, connecting the top portion of the statue to the Queen’s smooth and weathered bare feet, which rest solidly on a rectangular base. This base’s corners might once have been sharp, but they have since been worn to rounded edges. The final glimpse of the Queen’s dress is the surviving hem pooling elegantly around her left ankle and right toes. Despite her marks of age, she continues to exude the power and majesty of her time.
Our first stop is this larger than life-size statue. What does it feel like to stand in front of her? Ancient Egyptians knew at once that they were in the presence of a queen who had power and commanded respect. Focus your attention on the top of her head and take a moment to observe her crown. Do you notice the rearing cobra on it? This is called a uraeus. The cobra symbolized that the gods themselves had granted the kings and queens of Egypt authority to rule over the land and its people. It was a symbol worn only by gods, goddesses, and royalty.
While this queen’s identity is a mystery, we do know she was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Ptolemies were not Egyptians; they were actually a family of Macedonian Greeks who ruled Egypt from the late fourth century through the first century BC. Ptolemy the first, the founder of the dynasty, took control of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. He declared himself pharaoh in 305 BC. The Ptolemies worked hard to establish their legitimacy as rulers and to gain favor with the people of Egypt.
This statue, like so many works of art, tells many stories. One of these stories is how the rulers of Egypt, including the Ptolemies, deliberately associated themselves with gods and goddesses. In the case of this sculpture, the queen is presented as Isis, one of the most popular Egyptian goddesses. Isis was the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and magic. These elements all come together in one of Egypt’s most important myths-the death, dismemberment and rebirth of Osiris-which is explored later in this exhibition.
Another story the statue tells us is one of artistic tradition. In this single statue, the artistic traditions of both Egypt and Greece are combined. Notice what this queen is wearing and the way her dress is draped around her body and fastened with a large knot in the center of her chest. This is called an Isis knot, which identifies her with the goddess Isis. Take a look at her hands, and you might notice that she is holding two objects. In her left hand, the queen holds a musical instrument, called a sistrum, which was used in festivals to celebrate Isis, providing another connection between her and the goddess. In the queen’s right hand, she holds the ankh, a symbol of life and eternal life which was made possible by Isis when she resurrected the god Osiris. While these are all Egyptian elements, her hair, hanging down in ringlets, is typically Greek. And the dress, even with its Isis knot, was made popular under the Greek Ptolemies.
But why portray a queen as a goddess? What does it mean to associate a mortal with a deity? Throughout Egypt’s long history, Egyptian royalty had always used divine symbols to demonstrate their right and power to rule. Pharaohs, in particular, served as intermediaries between the divine and mortal worlds and helped maintain the order of the universe. Although the Ptolemies were Greeks, they were eager to reassure Egyptians that they, too, were legitimate rulers sanctioned by the gods. Works like this statue show how the Ptolemies appealed to both their Greek and Egyptian subjects.
Graywacke, 90 cm.
XXVI dynasty, reign of Amasis (570-526 BC) Saqqara, tomb of Psamtik.
Egyptian Museum, Cairo (CGC38884 and 38358).
These two magnificent sitting statues of Isis and Osiris, hewn out of a splendid greywacke with a satin polish were discovered by A. Mariette in 1863 in Saqqara, south of the Unas causeway, in the tomb of the “Superior of the seal, superior of the palace”, Psamtik, a contemporary of King Amasis. With her high Hathor crown with a disc on a modius, the goddess shows a slender silhouette with a navel groove, elegant proportions emphasized by her sheath dress framed by her hands on her knees, the right one holding the sign of life. Her regular face with wide eyes modelled into a sensual softness is further enhanced by the long smooth panels of her tripartite uræus wig. Osiris appears in the same style and from the same workshop, with a high atef crown with uræus, and a braided beard , with hands crossed over his chest holding the nekhakha fan (up r) and the heka scepter (l), his body totally enveloped in moulding cloth which defines his limbs.
These seated figures of Isis and Osiris are in practically perfect condition, making it difficult to believe that they are around 2,500 years old. Though they are separate figures set side by side, they were clearly made to be a pair. Each one is around three feet tall and carved out of a dark grey stone called Greywacke. Not only that, they also mirror and complement one another in design. And they are aesthetically stunning.
Both Isis and Osiris are seated on simple cube-like thrones without armrests. The thrones slope effortlessly into low backs that only come up to the figures’ hip bones. Out of each short back rises a tall, skinny column just shy of being shoulder-width for the figures. These columns run all the way to the top of isis and Osiris’ crowns. Each throne and figure is also supported from the bottom with a stone base. Each base is 4 to 5 inches high and the same width as the cube-shaped thrones. Lengthwise, however, they stretch forward to support the figures’ feet, and the front ends are curved, giving them a tombstone-like shape. Engraved in the center of each base’s outside edge is a band of hieroglyphs that travel all the way around the base. The inscription on Osiris’ base refers to him as “he who resides in the west.” The inscription for Isis calls her “mother of the god, great in magic, mistress of the two lands.”
Let’s take a moment to concentrate on Isis. If you are facing these statues in the gallery, Isis is on the left, seated to the right of Osiris. She is sitting tall and straight and looking directly ahead. Her arms bend at the elbow to echo her seated position, allowing her forearms to rest easily along her thighs. Her left hand is palm down with fingers extended so that her fingertips end at the bend in her left knee. Her right hand is closed, and in her fist she holds the loop of an ankh, the Egyption symbol for life. The ankh’s loop is connected to a capital T shaped base that follows the line of Isis’s leg and ends at the bend in her right knee. Her feet, complete with well-defined toes and toenails, are planted evenly on the ground, closely side by side without touching.
Though the label copy mentions Isis wearing a sheath dress, the statue’s appearance would lead you to believe that she is wearing a skirt formed to the lower half of her slender body. This skirt or dress has no crease lines except for the seated bend of her waist, and it smoothly and tautly connects both legs just above her ankles with no sign of a hemline. To the viewer, Isis’s upper half appears topless. A wig-like headdress falls like thick hair down her back and splits evenly over her left and right shoulders to rest on top of each breast, almost shielding them from view. This headdress cuts neatly across the middle of her forehead, rests at her temples like sideburns, and then tucks behind her ears before draping down like hair. At the center of her forehead, over the headdress, is a uraeus – the head of a rearing cobra. This uraeus connects up to the bowl-shaped base of her crown. Two large cow horns rise out of the center of this base, and a perfectly shaped disc rests snugly between them. The expression on her face is soft and peaceful with a small, close-lipped smile.
Now, let’s focus on Osiris. Like Isis, Osiris is also slender in form and sits straight and tall while looking directly ahead. Unlike Isis, he is wrapped in what appears to be a shroud that smoothly covers his entire body except his head and hands. His elbows point out to the sides, allowing his left fist to rest on his lap against his belly button and his right fist to rest against his chest just below his sternum. There are two slits in his shroud from which his hands have escaped to rest freely against his body. Osiris holds two objects to symbolize his royal authority. His left fist holds a crook – a small staff that curves into a hook at the end. It rests across Osiris’s body with its base held over the center of his stomach while the hooked end settles against his left shoulder. His right fist holds a flail. Its handle bends at a 45 degree angle as it rises past his grip. It continues at this angle all the way to the edge of his right shoulder at which point three strands drop from the tip of the handle. The middle of each strand is accentuated by three bead-like details.
Let’s move further up to Osiris’ head. Similar to Isis’s headdress, his crown cuts across the middle of his forehead and rests at his temples like sideburns. However, instead of draping down like hair, his crown rises in a tall cylinder shape that narrows near the top before ending with a rounded bulge. Running down the center of the crown is a snake, ending with its rearing head at the middle of Osiris’s forehead. The crown is accented on either side by a strip that mirrors the crown’s profile. Each strip is etched crosswise with thin, precise, evenly-spaced lines and is meant to represent an ostrich feather. Osiris’s face holds the same peaceful, close-lipped smile as Isis.
One of the most magnificent things about these two figures is their smooth finish. Carved from stone hardly seems like a suitable way to describe them. They look more like they were sculpted from butter. Their polished surfaces gleam under the gallery lights and look as smooth as silk. It is difficult to tear the eye away from them, and they may leave the viewer wondering what tools and techniques were used 2,500 years ago to create such perfection.
Egyptian religion was ever-changing and developed over more than three thousand years with different gods rising to prominence in different periods. The statues in front of you were made during the Late Period and depict two of the most important gods: Osiris and Isis.
One recurring model for Egyptians was the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. This central concept is associated with the gods Osiris, Isis and Horus, known together as the Osirian Triad. Osiris was the oldest of four siblings born to Geb, god of the earth, and Nut, goddess of the sky. As the first born, Osiris became the first king of Egypt. He established laws and taught the people about agriculture and how to honor their gods. Meanwhile, his brother, Seth, grew jealous. He locked Osiris in a box and threw it into the Nile. Isis, their sister and Osiris’s wife, found the box and hid it in the marshes. But this was not enough to stop Seth. He found Osiris, cut him into fourteen pieces, and scattered his brother’s body across the Egyptian world. Isis searched all over, and once she found all the pieces, she reassembled them into the first mummy. With her magic and the help of their sister Nephthys, she resurrected her husband and conceived a son, named Horus. Afterwards, Osiris became lord of the netherworld and Horus became his heir on earth.
These statues of Isis and Osiris were found in the tomb of a royal official from the 6th century BC. Sitting on a throne, Osiris wears the white crown of Upper Egypt with the uraeus, or rearing cobra, in the center. In his hands are a crook and flail, both symbols of royal authority. The inscription around the base of the sculpture refers to Osiris as he “who presides in the west,” the direction of the setting sun where Egyptians located the netherworld.
Isis also sits on a throne. She wears a sun disc between two cow horns, which is the crown of Hathor, the ancient cow-headed goddess. In her right hand she holds an ankh, a symbol of life. The inscription calls Isis “mother of the god, great in magic, mistress of the two lands.” Through her great magic, Isis conquered death, conceived a child, and was queen in both the land of the living and the netherworld. By including these statues in his tomb, the royal official invoked the power of the gods to ensure his place in the afterlife.
The myth of Osiris reflects fundamental Egyptian beliefs about the cyclical nature of the cosmos and their understanding of the yearly agricultural cycle. For this reason, Osiris was not only honored as lord of the netherworld but also as a fertility god. The religious ceremony known as the Mysteries of Osiris, practiced throughout Egypt, came at the end of the flood season and was performed to ensure a plentiful harvest, dynastic continuity on earth, and the balance of the cosmos.
The simulacrum of the “Osiris vegetans” in his falcon-headed sarcophagus
Sarcophagus: painted sycamore. L:61.5 cm. “Pseudo-mummy” : soil and grains. L. 50cn. Eighth to seventh century BC. Tehneh el-Gebel (Egyptian name Mer-nefer, near Minieh in Central Egypt).
Egyptian Museum, Cairo (JE 36539 ,nr. 5022 )
If not for the size, one might mistake this Osiris Vegetans for an actual human mummy. Though it is made in the likeness of the god Osiris, it is only about one and a half feet long and consists of soil and grain. Osiris Vegetans mummies were made annually during the celebration of the Mysteries of Osiris in order to ensure Egypt’s fertility. This Osiris Vegetans rests snugly in a two foot long sarcophagus, the top half of which has been suspended above the bottom half to provide the best possible view of both the sarcophagus and the vegetans figure.
Let’s start with the sarcophagus, which is carved from sycamore. Its head has the face of a falcon with a sharp, triangular beak connected to a strong brow-line that juts out slightly above large, round beady eyes. The eyes are painted black, and each one is underscored with a design also painted in black. This design runs horizontally from the temple to the inner corner of the eye, connecting two downward-pointing, triangle-like shapes that reach towards the neck on either side of the falcon’s face. The tip of the outer triangle, extending down from the temple, curves inward on each side so that it almost touches the tip of the inner triangle, extending down from the inner corner of the eye. Aside from the eyes and these designs, the face is gilded in gold. This falcon head is wearing an Egyptian headdress, also carved from wood. It is painted blue and has the appearance of a structured wig that drapes down from the top of the head and splits evenly over the right and left shoulders to rest on the upward slope of the sarcophagus’ rounded chest. Traveling further down the sarcophagus, the chest slopes back down toward the ankles before jutting up sharply to represent the feet. The sides of the sarcophagus glide smoothly, without any limb definition, from the shoulders to the heels. A thick wooden base emphasizes the bottom of the feet, which would allow the sarcophagus to stand solidly up and down. Except for the headdress and the gilding on the face, the outside of the sarcophagus is painted a matte black that has been chipped and scratched here and there over time. Accenting the top of the sarcophagus are three vertical lines of hieroglyphs painted in white. The middle column of hieroglyphs runs from the base of the throat to the toes and is outlined on either side by a thin white line. The other two columns run from the right and left shoulders down to the right and left ankles.
The bottom half of the sarcophagus, which cradles the vegetans figure, reveals that the matte black exterior does not extend to the interior which remains the natural tan color of the sycamore. It also allows a view of the sarcophagus’ rim, which is a few inches thick with a groove carved in its center. Placed into this groove on the left side of the sarcophagus are two thin, rectangular pieces of wood sticking up about an inch. One is at the sarcophagus’ head, and the other is located at what would be the thigh. Empty slots appear in other places along the rim’s groove, hinting that there might have been more of these wooden splints spaced out around the sarcophagus. The appearance of these splints suggests that they were used to securely connect the top and bottom halves of the sarcophagus.
Now let’s shift our focus to the actual Osiris vegetans mummy which is covered in a thin tan cloth that almost perfectly matches the tan of the sycamore that surrounds it. Placed over the cloth on the mummy’s face is a black painted mask most likely carved from wood. This mask consists of a face as well as a crown. The crown rises in a tall cylinder shape that narrows near the top before ending with a rounded bulge. Running down the center of the crown is an unpainted, wooden snake that connects to an unpainted band running straight across the middle of the mask’s forehead to disappear behind the ears. At the point that the snake’s body connects with this band, the snake’s head rears straight up to create the stylized form that the ancient Egyptians called a uraeus. The crown is accented on either side by a long, thin strip of unpainted wood meant to represent ostrich feathers. As for the mask’s face, the eyes are both open and staring straight ahead. The mouth is curved into a soft, close-lipped smile.
Let’s turn our attention to the mummy’s body. A black painted hand sits on top of the tan shroud as though it was able to emerge from a slit in the cloth. The hand’s closed fist holds what could be a flail, also painted in black. The long, straight handle of this flail extends diagonally up towards the mummy’s right shoulder and then drops sharply at a 45 degree angle to come to an end just a few inches to the right of the hand. Carvings in the painted wood of the angled half of this object indicate the beaded strands that would hang from the handle of a real-life flail. A very close look reveals what might be the thin handle of a crook running up alongside the handle of the flail before ending in a very small hook. Both the crook and the flail are ancient Egyptian symbols of royal authority.
Further down the mummy’s body is a phallic protuberance. It is around this rising protuberance, as well as other spots around the chest and feet, that the cloth shroud has ripped and formed holes. These rips and holes present viewers with a glimpse of the material that lies beneath, which appears hard and black. Barely perceptible crack lines along this material’s surface give it the look of a protective outer shell, almost like a varnish of some kind. It is in these details that this Osiris Vegetans, made of soil and grain, has been so remarkably preserved for over 2500 years, providing us with insight into some of the ancient traditions surrounding the Mysteries of Osiris.
This is a corn mummy, not the mummy of a person or an animal. Corn, or grain, mummies were created annually during the Mysteries of Osiris to ensure the agricultural fertility of the land of Egypt.
Egypt was wholly dependent on the yearly flooding of the Nile river. During the summer, the river overflowed and brought nutrient rich black silt to the banks of the Nile. After the waters receded, farmers planted their crops in the renewed, fertile land. The land’s cycle of life, death and rebirth paralleled the myth of Osiris’s life, death, and rebirth. Each year, Egyptians re-enacted this myth in the Mysteries of Osiris during Khoiak, the last month of the flooding season.
This religious festival was the most important event of the sacred calendar. Celebrations of the Mysteries took place inside the temples and consisted of secret rituals that the priests performed on behalf of the pharaoh himself. Every temple and sanctuary in Egypt had a special chapel set aside for the worship of Osiris and his Mysteries.
Corn mummies, like this one, are called “Osiris vegetans,” which means “Osiris who animates or invigorates.” Each Osiris vegetans was ritually made by priests using barley seeds and soil wrapped in linen. They were formed in the shape of Osiris as the first mummy, and the face was shaped out of blackish-green wax, colors that symbolized life for the Egyptians.
During Khoiak, priests spent several days in the temple making the Osiris vegetans. They used special instructions as well as special instruments, like moulds made of gold.
Once completed, the Osiris vegetans was placed into a large stone basin and watered daily with ritual ladles known as simpula, examples of which you can see in a nearby case. The figure was watered until it started to sprout and was then dried in preparation for the next part of the festival. Osiris vegetans was an essential deity that ensured the land’s fertility. Just as Osiris’s rebirth was part of the divine cycle of death and renewal, so the sprouting of the Osiris vegetans ensured the annual renewal of the land of Egypt.
But not every part of the Mysteries of Osiris took place behind closed doors. There was also a public aspect to the celebration. On the 22nd of Khoiak, the newly-made, sprouted, and dried Osiris vegetans figure left the temple in a procession of 34 sacred boats, or barques, lit by 365 lamps. The procession started at the Temple of Amun-Gereb in Thonis-Heracleion and, using canals and waterways, travelled throughout the city. When the figure returned to the temple, it took the place of the Osiris vegetans from the previous year. Then, on the 29th of Khoiak, the previous year’s vegetans figure was taken by boat to Canopus, where it was interred in the temple of Osiris. This was known as the Great Navigation. The final rituals, performed after this journey, remain a mystery to this day.
Until the discoveries at Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, most of our knowledge about the Mysteries of Osiris came from literary texts and tomb and temple decorations. The underwater excavation of these cities has opened up not only our understanding of this important religious ceremony but also the rituals and objects that were a part of it.
By the Late Period, the Mysteries of Osiris were widely celebrated in Egypt, including in the Nile Delta where Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus once stood. The Ptolemies embraced the celebration of the Mysteries. Like the Egyptian pharaohs that came before them, these Greek rulers connected themselves to Osiris, Isis, and Horus and honored traditional Egyptian religion even as they introduced new gods, like Serapis explored later in this exhibition.
Basalt. H. 190 cm. Second Century AD> Serapeion of Alexandria.
Greco-Roman Museum, Alexandria (GRM 351)
This magnificent divine incarnation, presented naturalistically, and set off by a perfect
polish, has been modeled by a craftsman who handled with virtuosity the balanced weight of a body powerful on its legs, which are here detached of any intermediary support. This statue of the bull god Apis had been discovered at the entrance to the underground galleries of the Serapeion of Alexandria. The Greek dedication on the pillar indicates that it was consecrated by the emperor Hadrian (117 – 138): “[To the great god] Serapis and to the deities with him in the temple, for the health of the emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus […]”. According to Plutarch, the Apis bull was ‘the most honored among the sacred animals in Egypt”, certainly because in the most ancient periods, this fertility symbol transmitted its procreative power to the pharaoh and guaranteed the prosperity of the Two Countries. In the Late Period, the image of the Apis bull bearing the mummy of the deceased increasingly appeared on coffins and bas-reliefs. A legend relates that Horus went in search of pieces of the body of Osiris, and at the end of this voyage he transformed into the Apis bull to carry the divine limbs to Memphis and rebuild the god in his fullness. He had saved the remains of the dead god and as such moved any deceased person to his last home that he may be reborn in the Afterlife. Down on earth, and in the old capital of Memphis, the sacred ruminant was solemnly enthroned in his sanctuary, received religious privileges and a harem of heifers, produced oracles and came out during the solemn processions to provide everyone with an opportunity to approach the god. Before that, specialists among the priests had searched through the countryside and inspected every stable in their search for an animal bearing the sacred signs that identified it as a divine bull. Its black coat had to show a white triangle on its front, an eagle on its neck and a white spot in the shape of a crescent moon on one flank. Both Heredontus and Plutarch say that Apis had been conceived out of a heifer inseminated by a ray of Selene’s moon. The lunar character was linked to the Late Period assimilations of Apis. “the great black bull’ with Osiris. When it died , “the living image of Osiris” was mummified in complicated embalming rituals. Its corpse was then transported on a richly decorated barque to the laments of Isis and Nephthys before it was carried down in great pomp into the caves of the Serapeion, where it would join all the preceding incarnations of the god. In Ptolemaic and Roman times, the Apis bull was venerated in the Alexandrian Serapeion, which the Egyptians called the ‘temple of Osirapis”, like the one at Canopus. In the great sanctuary of the Hellenistic city, ‘most of the priests professed that the name Sarapis is composed of Osiris and Apis, with the intention of explaining to us that with this exegesis Apis should be considered to be the corporal image of the soul of Osiris’. Throughout the Roman period, Apis remained associated with the cult of Serapis masses , the visible god that was always reborn at Memphis, and so often derided by the Church Fathers, became a symbol of the resistance against triumphant Christianity. In
362, Julian the Apostate had a new Apis searched for. In 398, the poet Claudian spoke with nostalgia of the processions in Memphis, where “the last living god” had moved.
You are standing in front of a realistic, life-size statue of a bull. This is not just any bull, however, this is the god Apis. He is a representation of not only one of the oldest and most important cults of Ancient Egypt but also one of the few true animal cults. This statue of Apis stands on a thin rectangular base, which adds a couple inches to his impressive stature. At the head, he is an imposing height of just over 5 feet, his body stands between three and three and a half feet tall, and lengthwise, he measures nearly six feet. He is carved entirely from basalt, a dark grey stone, and his smooth, polished surface gleams under the gallery lights.
This Apis statue exudes an air of stoic strength. His right, front hoof is placed ahead of his left while his back left hoof is placed ahead of his right. All four hooves are firmly planted, providing an added sense of power and stability. At his backside, the bull’s tail hangs straight and relaxed. It gets thinner as it nears the end where the stone is carved to resemble a life-like bunch of hair. There is a slender stone support bridged between the thin part of the lower tail and the bull’s rear. Another support, in the shape of a rectangular pillar, rises from the middle of the rectangular base. Gradually narrowing as it rises, the top of the pillar connects directly to the middle of the bull’s underbelly. There is a small, square stone placed In front of this pillar on the left side of the bull. It has a Greek inscription carved into it that mentions Roman Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Egypt in 130 AD.
Let’s turn our attention to the front of the Apis statue. A large flap of skin begins just under his chin, expands out in front of his chest, and then slims again before disappearing between his front legs. The stone has been carefully carved to depict realistic crease lines in the bull’s skin around this excess flap as well as around the joint areas. Directing our focus up to the bull’s face, his eyes are slightly downcast. His large nostrils have been carved out to give them life-like depth, making it easy to imagine that he might take a sharp inhale at any moment. His head is facing forward with his nose pointing down just enough to allow his long forehead with its square-shaped top to be directed straight ahead. The smoothness of the bull’s nose gives way to small, delicately carved curls that start between his eyes, follow the arch above his eyebrows, and then twist and coil all the way to the top of his head. His horns protrude three or four inches from either side of the top of his square forehead and curve upward with the tips curving slightly inward. Just below the base of the horns, and set a little further back, are the bull’s ears. They stick straight out from the sides of the bull’s forehead and bend like short tubes to allow their oblong openings to face forward. Like the nostrils, the inside of the ears are carved out, enhancing their realistic look. The length from ear tip to ear tip is around one and a half to two feet. At the top of the bull’s head, resting between his horns, is a thin disc that measures about one foot in diameter. Rising out of the top of the bull’s forehead to accent the center of the disc is a uraeus, the head of a rearing cobra, indicating his power and authority as the god Apis.
We are looking at a representation of one of the oldest and most important cults in Egyptian religion. This colossal statue of the Apis Bull was discovered in a large temple in Alexandria called a Serapeum. Apis was a manifestation of the creator god Ptah, who was also the patron god of Memphis, one of Egypt’s earliest capitals. Although this statue was created in the Roman period, the Apis Bull was worshipped as far back as the beginning of the Dynastic Period around 3000 BC. In Memphis, his cult was connected to the cult of the living pharaoh.
The Apis Bull was a living animal and one of the very few true animal cults in ancient Egypt; other gods had attributes of animals, but Apis was actually a bull. Priests searched the land for Apis, looking for a bull with special markings. He was black with a white square on his forehead and marks resembling the wings of a hawk or vulture on his back. The hairs on his tail were divided into two bunches and beneath his tongue was a scarab-shaped lump. Once such a bull was found, he was taken to Apis’ temple in Memphis where priests dedicated to his care tended to him until his death.
This life-size statue shows Apis crowned with the sun disc and uraeus between his horns. The sculpture is naturalistic and supported by a pillar with a Greek inscription that mentions the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his visit to Egypt in the year 130 AD.
Apis was a powerful deity who interpreted dreams, made prophecies, and participated in various ceremonies. Because of these powers, pilgrims from all over Egypt visited his temple. When Apis died, his death was announced throughout the land, and people mourned him almost as if they were mourning the death of a pharaoh. Each incarnation of Apis was mummified and buried in a large stone coffin at the sacred cemetery of Saqqara. The deceased bull became Osiris-Apis, while priests searched far and wide for the next living Apis bull.
While new gods were introduced into Egypt, Apis remained prominent. Even Alexander the Great recognized the god’s power and importance and made sacrifices to the living Apis. Later, the Ptolemies brought the cult to their capital of Alexandria.