The Hellenistic Period of history was marked by a number of Greek kingdoms that vied for power after the death of Alexander the Great, with Egypt being among the most powerful. Egypt under the Ptolemy Dynasty, descendants of Ptolemy the First, Soter1, one of Alexander’s generals, was a very tightly-regulated society. The Greek minority ruled over a much larger Egyptian population, but apart from the coastal areas, they rarely intermingled. Instead, they carefully engineered Egyptian society for maximum agricultural output in order to fund their wars with other Hellenistic kingdoms, particularly the Seleucids.
The coastal regions of Egypt had a comparatively larger Greek population and the Ptolemies invested a lot in developing these communities, particularly at the city of Alexandria, in order to develop a uniquely “Ptolemaic” culture that was essentially Greek but enhanced with Egyptian “exoticness”.
For example, the Ptolemies heavily proselytized the Egyptian deity Isis, who was already beloved by the Egyptian people, and soon Isis had a major cult following throughout the Hellenistic world. Followers across the Mediterranean viewed her as a kind of mother-savior goddess, master of magic and secret knowledge, etc. Increasingly she took on characteristics that made her something of an “uber-goddess” among an already crowded field of goddesses across the Hellenistic world.
But the Ptolemies decided that Isis needed a partner, so they basically made up one named Serapis or Sarapis. Sarapis was a god created during the reign of the first Ptolemy, Ptolemy I Soter. Greeks living in Ptolemaic Egypt already worshipped a syncretic Egyptian deity that combined Osiris (Isis’s original consort) and the bull Apis based in the city of Memphis. As the Greeks already worshipped Zeus in the form of a bull, this probably wasn’t so far-fetched, and syncretic deities were a common religious pattern in Egypt. So for example Re-Horakhty, an alternate form of the God Horus. The name of this deity also evolved over time from Osor-Hapi, then Oserapis, and finally Sarapis.
What made the deity “Ptolemaic” was that the Ptolemies adopted this syncretic deity as the patron deity of their dynasty. The intended audience wasn’t so much Egyptian, since they already had a pretty venerable religious tradition, and weren’t overly enthusiastic in adopting the culture of their Hellenistic overlords, but rather Greeks living in Egypt, and abroad.2 Alexandria, which was a major center of the new Greco-Egyptian culture of Ptolemaic Egypt, was the new center of worship and an elaborate temple was built called the Sarapeum.
Greek engineers were hired to build and design strange wonders at the Sarapeum. According to Michael Grant in From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World, the temple included sites such as an iron statue of the god of war, Ares, launching toward a lodestone (read: magnetic) statue of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, with hidden wires and everything in a passionate embrace. Hydraulics caused trumpets to blare, altar fires to burst “miraculously” and even an image of Sarapis to fly out and greet audiences. It was straight out of a 1940’s B-movie, but was designed in the 4th century BCE!
In time Sarapeum temples sprang up in other parts of Hellenistic world too, such as Italy and Asia Minor, and writers of the time spoke of miraculous cures, oracles, etc. Isis and Sarapis were the “Brangelina” of the Hellenistic religious world for a time.
But, like all things, worship of Sarapis and Isis faded into history. Few people now have even heard of Sarapis, let alone know anything about the wave of religious devotion to Sarapis that swept the Hellenistic world at the time. Still, it’s amazing to think that one man could for a time dream up a syncretic deity like this, and not only establish a cult in his home territory, but even gain the mass-marketing appeal necessary to establish temples abroad too.
The parallels to modern cults, both religious and cults of personality, and how easy it is to manufacture a deity and convince many people to pin their hopes on it is striking, and a good lesson for us all perhaps.
1 The Ptolemies had an unusual naming scheme for their monarchs since every monarch had the name Ptolemy or Ptolemaios (Πτολεμαῖος .. the “P” was pronounced”). What distinguished one Ptolemy king from another was their nicknames. Ptolemy I was named “Soter” (savior), Ptolemy II was nicknamed “Philadelphus” (who loves his sister) … an allusion to marrying his sister Arsinoe II. Inter-marriage was very common between the Ptolemies in keeping with Egyptian tradition, apparently. Ptolemy III was named “Euergetes” (benefactor) and so on. Historia Civilis pokes fun at this naming scheme a few times in this video.
2 Michael Grant also points out that this was a way for the Ptolemies to counterbalance the religious power of cult centers at Memphis among other places in Egypt.