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SerapisHellenistic

Serapis was a deity created by fiat for political convenience. When the Macedonian empire conquered Egypt during the heady reign of Alexander the Great, it proved difficult to integrate Greek and Egyptian culture. Religion was a particular sticking point: the animal-headed & multitudinous gods of Ancient Egypt struck the Greeks as barbarous and primitive. Likewise, the Greek gods, who cared little for humans (and even less about what happened to them in the afterlife) struck the Egyptians as cold. Ptolemy I, Alexander’s satrap who came into control of the Egyptian part of the empire realized that this was a dangerous tension, and so during the 3rd century BC he proclaimed a new god, Serapis, who combined elements of Greek and Egyptian deities (although some ancient sources suggest that worship of Serapis existed before, at least in some form, and Ptolemy merely stylized and popularized him).

Serapis (Late Antique ca. 2nd Century BC)

Serapis (Late Antique ca. 2nd Century AD)

Serapis took the form of a powerful Greek nobleman with a fulsome beard, a modius upon his head, a forked scepter in his hand, and the dog of the underworld, Cerberus, at his feet. Sometimes a serpent was depicted beneath Serapis. Serapis was meant to combine the Egyptian gods Osiris, death lord of the underworld, and Apis, a mighty bull god of fertility, but soon the new deity acquired characteristics of Hades and Demeter as well (who were also deities of the underworld and fertility, respectively). Serapis thus stood for the mystical death/resurrection cycle of living things. He shepherded the dead to a comfortable land beyond while simultaneously bringing life and fecundity to the world of the living.

 

Triptych Panel with Painted Image of Serapis (Egypt, about A.D. 100, encaustic)

Triptych Panel with Painted Image of Serapis (Egypt, about A.D. 100, encaustic)

Serapis became very popular in the Greco-Roman world. During Roman times he was often portrayed as the consort of Isis (whose cult was extremely fashionable and beloved throughout the Roman sphere). Great temples—Serapeums—were built throughout Egypt and beyond to venerate the cosmopolitan international deity. Yet Serapis did not transition out of classical antiquity very well. Christians had their own deity of death and resurrection (who had uncomfortable parallels with the older god), and one of the defining moments of transition between the classical and Christian eras was the destruction of the Alexandrian Serapeum in 389 AD. Later, Renaissance classicists and scholars were drawn to the Olympian pantheon with their gripping moral dramas, but not to the perplexing syncretic figure. Yet numerous statues and artworks are left to testify to the age of Serapis, when the societies of the ancient Mediterranean world blended together (as did their deities of the underworld).

Bust of Serapis (Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC, stored in the Serapaeum of Alexandria)

Bust of Serapis (Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC, stored in the Serapaeum of Alexandria)

 

Octavia as the Tyche of Corinth (from the collection of the Museum of Corinth)

Octavia as the Tyche of Corinth (from the collection of the Museum of Corinth)

In Hellenic culture, Tyche was the sacred goddess of a city’s destiny.  Confusingly, each different city worshipped a different tutelary version of the goddess, however Tychewas always the same goddess–a daughter of Aphrodite by Hermes (or possibly a daughter of an Oceanic titan by Zeus).  Tyche represented the fortunes of a city in a time when cities were frequently destroyed by famine, war, or disaster—so she was regarded as a fickle goddess.  Her emblem was a crown in the shape of a city’s walls and parapets.  In time she evolved into the Roman goddess of Fortuna—a goddess of luck and chance (whom many poets reviled as a fickle harlot).  Even after the decline of the Roman principate in the west, Fortuna was a common theme of medieval literature and song.

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Tyche’s crown—otherwise known as the mural crown–went on to acquire a different (though related) significance.  As the Romans swept through the Mediterranean world conquering city after city and state after state, the Roman army was often put in the position of besieging walled or fortified cities.  This was a profoundly dangerous task, as the defending army had the upper hand until the walls were stormed or breached.  The first Roman soldier to climb the wall of an enemy city and place the Roman standard atop it was rewarded with the mural crown (“corona muralis”).  The corona muralis was the ultimate reward for bravery (and fortune) and was regarded as second in martial honor only to the grass crown presented to a general who had saved an entire army.   Unlike the grass crown, which was made of, well, grass, (or the laurel crown presented to a victorious general) the mural crown was made of solid gold and thus had an immediate practical value as well as being a symbol of tremendous bravery.

Modern medals just aren't the same

Modern medals just aren’t the same

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