Serapis And Isis: Religious Syncretism In The Greco-Roman World

Religious syncretism, a fusion of traditional Greco-Roman and Egyptian cults, became popular during the Hellenistic Period. Deities that were established or gained prominence during this period were Isis and Serapis.

Apr 5, 2021By Danielle Mackay, BA Classical Studies and Linguistics, MA Classical Studies
the goddess isis
The Goddess Isis, by Armand Point, 1909; with a Roman marble bust of Serapis, c. 2nd century CE


After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Greek world entered a period of expansive trade and the spread of Hellenistic ideals across the Mediterranean. At the center of this novel way of life was the Egyptian city of Alexandria, which embodied a new world of religious syncretism. Alexandria was a hub of trade, technology, and academia, with its most intriguing export being the Egyptian religion. The Egyptian goddess, Isis and the Hellenistic god, Serapis, became symbols of Greco-Roman and Egyptian religious syncretism. The fusion of these religious beliefs marked the overall syncretism of the Hellenistic and Roman Period. This article will explore how Isis and Serapis became the epitome of religious syncretism in Greece and Rome.


The Beginnings Of Religious Syncretism In The Greco-Roman World

queen nefertiti and isis
Queen Nefertari being led by Isis, ca. 1279–1213 BCE, via MoMa, New York


Religious syncretism is the fusion of diverse religious beliefs and ideals. Alexander the Great’s seizing of Egypt from Persian control signified the Classical period’s end and the beginning of the new Hellenistic age. Throughout his campaigns and conquests, Alexander used religion as a unifying force between his empire and the territories he conquered. Despite the tension and conflict between Alexander’s empire and the Persians, he honored their customs and religion. Alexander also offered sacrifices to the local deities and donned the garments of the areas he conquered. When Alexander died in 323 BCE, Ptolemy, son of Lagos, succeeded him as the pharaoh in Egypt and established the Ptolemaic dynasty that lasted until Augustus’ defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 33 BCE. Ptolemy strengthened his rule in Egypt by promoting the cults and worship of the Egyptian deities, while introducing Greek deities to the Egyptian people.


Serapis And Hellenistic Syncretism

roman bust serapis
A Roman marble bust of Serapis, c. 2nd century CE, via Sotheby’s


The most notable deity of Greco-Egyptian religious syncretism is Serapis or Sarapis. Serapis is a union of Greek chthonic and traditional Egyptian Gods. He became associated with the Sun, healing, fertility, and even the Underworld. Later, he would be celebrated as the symbol of the universal god by the Gnostics. The cult of Serapis reached the height of its popularity under Ptolemaic rule. Tacitus and Plutarch suggested that Ptolemy I Soter brought Serapis from Sinope, a city on the Black Sea coast. Ancient authors identified him with the underworld god Hades, while others asserted that Sarapis was an amalgam of Osiris and Apis. In iconography, Serapis was depicted in anthropomorphic form, with a voluminous beard and hair topped by a flat cylindrical crown. 


During the Ptolemaic period, his cult found its religious center at the Serapeum in Alexandria. In addition, Serapis became the patron of the city. Most scholars agree that, as a chthonic god of abundance, Serapis was established to unify the Greek and the Egyptian religion during the Hellenistic period. 

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Roman Religion Before Isis

roman statue serapis
A Roman Statue of Serapis with Cerberus, attributed to Bryaxis, 3rd century BCE, via National Museums Liverpool


The worship of Serapis continued well into the Roman period. The Roman Imperial period also witnessed the introduction of Roman deities into the syncretized religious culture of Egypt and Alexandria. Like the Greek religion, the Roman one was based on reciprocity and guided by pietas or piety. The relationships formed between the individual and the deity manifested in cult rituals and prayers performed to keep the reciprocal relationship balanced. In Greco-Roman society, cults fulfilled a social purpose by bonding individuals to their community through shared religious worship. Yet, many of these cults were restricted to classes or families, often reserved for the upper echelons of Roman society. Mystery cults, however, were open to all and selected freely by individuals. Within mystery cults, initiated individuals would experience a unique personal relationship with their deity. As a response to communal popular worship and ritual, mystery cults allowed the cultivation of an individual bond between worshippers and gods. By the 3rd century BCE, Rome had already accepted at least one novel cult into its religious community, namely the cult of Cybele.


A Roman Marble bust of a dual-faced Serapis, c. 30 BCE-395 CE, via The Brooklyn Museum, New York 
A Roman Marble bust of a dual-faced Serapis, c. 30 BCE-395 CE, via The Brooklyn Museum, New York


After the Roman annexation of Egypt, Roman religious ideas from Rome were able to infiltrate the Alexandrian community. The Roman army acted as a disseminator of Egyptian and Greco-Egyptian religious beliefs, as Roman soldiers often adopted local Egyptian cults and spread them throughout the Empire. The Romans imposed new roles on Egyptian deities that replaced their traditional ones. The most prominent example of this phenomenon was the development of the Isiac cult into a mystery cult. 


Isis And The Religious Syncretism Of The Roman Period

egyptian bronze figure of isis
An Egyptian Bronze Figure of Isis with Horus, 26th dynasty c. 664-525 BCE, via Sotheby’s


In the ancient Egyptian religion, Isis (Aset or Eset for the Egyptians) was the wife and sister of Osiris and the mother of Horus. She was famous for searching and reassembling the body parts of her husband, Osiris. It is from this act that she became associated with healing and magic. After her religious syncretism into the Greco-Roman world, she took on roles ascribed to other Greco-Roman goddesses. Isis became the goddess of wisdom, a lunar deity, overseer of seas and sailors, and many others. 


Her most important role, however, was as the chief deity of a popular mystery cult. This mystery cult was best attested by Apuleius’ late 2nd century CE Latin novel, The Golden Ass. As part of this religious syncretism, she became the companion of god Serapis. Tthis relationship with Serapis did not dislodge Osiris from mythology and ritual, even though Isis and Serapis appeared together in iconography as symbolic of a royal family.  


the goddess isis armand point
The Goddess Isis, by Armand Point, 1909, via Sotheby’s.


Isis’ new position in the pantheon, as well as her role as a mother and wife, attracted more women to her cult than any of the other Greco-Roman deities. In Ptolemaic Egypt, female rulers such as Cleopatra VII would style themselves as the ‘new Isis’. By the first century CE, the cult of Isis had become recognized in Rome. The Isiac cult’s success can be attributed to the cult’s unique structure that did not promote what the Romans believed to be a social behavior like the cult of Cybele or the Bacchanalia


The Mysteries Of Isis


The Mysteries of Isis were first established in Egypt in the 3rd century BCE. The cult incorporated ritual practices such as initiation rites, offerings, and purification ceremonies modeled on the Greco-Roman mysteries of Eleusis. Despite being a cult founded by Hellenistic peoples, the mysteries’ liturgy was firmly cemented in ancient Egyptian beliefs. The Isiac mysteries, like many others, claimed to guarantee a blessed afterlife for initiates. People went to Isis, hoping that she would become their savior and allow their souls to live happily in the afterlife. 


According to Apuleius’ account of the rites, Isis herself would choose who was worthy of becoming an initiate. The goddess would appear to these individuals in a dream, and only then could they begin their initiation journey. Once someone received the goddess’ invitation, they headed to the temple of Isis. There, the goddess’s priests would receive them and read the ritual procedure from a sacred magical book. Before the individual could undergo the ritual, they first had to be ritually purified. Purifications included being washed by a priest and asking the goddess’ forgiveness for past transgressions.


After ritual purifications, the individual was given a clean robe, and upon presenting the goddess with offerings, they entered the temple. The ancient sources are unclear about what exactly happened inside the temple during the initiation rites because the events were meant to be secret. However, scholars have speculated that some variation of the Eleusinian mysteries initiation ritual took place, which climaxed in the revelation of a bright fire at the temple’s center. Other scholars suggest that the rites may have included a re-enactment of Osiris’ death and Isis’ role in the myth. But we will never know for sure what happened in the temple. Once the initiation was complete, the new cult member was revealed to the other members, and they would indulge in a three-day banquet and feast. They now were holders of the secrets to the mysteries of Isis.  


Other Examples Of Religious Syncretism

gilt bronze head sulis minerva
Gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva, c. 1st century CE, via The Roman Baths, Bath


Religious syncretism did not only occur between Greco-Roman and Egyptian deities but extended throughout the Roman Empire. Sulis Minerva was a prime example of Roman and British religious syncretism. In Bath, Sulis was a local British goddess of the thermal springs. Yet after her syncretism with the Roman Minvera, the goddess of wisdom, she became a protector goddess. Around 130 curse tablets addressed to Sulis have been found in her temple in Bath, indicating that the goddess was invoked to protect the cursed individual. 


Gallo-Roman (between Gaul and Rome) syncretism included the god Apollo Succellos and Mars Thingsus. The Gallic god Succellos was also successfully syncretized with the Roman god of the forest, Silvanus, to become Succellos Silvanus. Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of Zeus, became a mystery cult deity known as Jupiter Dolichenus, incorporating Syrian elements into his worship. 


The Roman period expanded on the already established tradition of religious syncretism from the Hellenistic period. Many more deities were fused into the Greco-Roman pantheon from across the ancient world – including Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Levant. The system of religious syncretism of Greco-Roman and Egyptian religions allowed Egypt’s inhabitants to contact and worship multiple deities. These new religious values and ideals led to spiritual enlightenment and a new way of worshipping. Individuals could now develop a unique relationship with their gods. Through this, they could also gain insight and a guarantee to a blessed afterlife through salvation. This new type of religious belief, based on salvation, would become the foundation of the empire’s new religion – Christianity.

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By Danielle MackayBA Classical Studies and Linguistics, MA Classical StudiesDanielle is currently completing her MA in Classical Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa. She earned her BA degree in Classical Studies and Linguistics and completed her studies of the Ancient Greek language as well as Latin. Her research focuses on Ancient Greek Religion and Mythology, specifically found in Late Antiquity Egypt, with a focus on the god Dionysus.