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One of Ferrebeekeeper’s most popular posts of all time was a short essay on the kingly crowns of ancient Egypt: the hedjet, the ancient white (vulture) crown of upper Egypt; the deshret, the red (bumblebee) crown of fertile lower Egypt; and the khepresh, the blue battle crown worn by the pharaoh when he mounted his war chariot to smite the kingdom’s enemies in person!  Immediately below are some little refresher pictures to show these three crowns (plus, if you want to know more about them, you could always read the original article).

This is already a lot of crowns, especially considering that the three were combined in various ways (and mixed with various other royal regalia) for sundry ceremonial purposes–and yet there were other crowns in ancient Egypt worn by beings even more important than the pharaoh.  Today’s post concerns a prime example–the “atef”, the ostrich crown of Osiris.  In the mythology of ancient Egypt, Osiris played a central role as the first pharaoh, the king of the underworld and the lord of death, rebirth, agriculture, and mummification.   His all-important story (death at the hands of his wicked brother and reincarnation thanks to his loving wife) was the central myth of ancient Egypt, which informed people about the afterlife.  As a pharaoh and the eternal ruler of the underworld, Osiris wore a kingly crown, but the underworld is neither upper nor lower Egypt (nor is it a battle as such) and so the atef crown of Osiris is a whole different crown–a knobbed version of the white hedjet of upper Egypt with symbolic rainbow ostrich feathers rising around it.  There is a schematic digital representation of the atef at the top of the post, and here is a 3300 year old painting of it:


Osiris portrayed on a wall frieze from the tomb of Nefertari (c. 1295-1255 B.C.)

The two ostrich feathers respectively symbolized truth and justice (the nearly identical feather of Maat is one of the most important religious symbols of Egypt–with a nearly identical meaning).  The bulbous central crown was sometimes pictured as a classic white hedjet (as in the image from Nefertari’s tomb above) and sometimes portrayed as a rainbow hedjet surmounted by an astrological-looking cardioid of gold and midnight blue (as in the crown Osiris wears below).


“Wow” you are probably thinking.  “There were so many crowns in ancient Egypt! Were there still more?”  Of course there were!  However the answers start getting murkier as we move to other rulers (and other crowns).  Come back to Ferrebeekeeper to find out more (or, you know, Google it, and find out all you can bear to know.






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)


Osiris, Enthroned, Judging the Dead

Writing about the ancient Egyptian gods of the underworld brings a dilemma:  unlike the Greeks or the Chinese, the Egyptians loved the gods of the dead.  They believed the afterlife would be a delightful paradise where virtuous souls would be free to pursue their favorite pastimes with friends and family for eternity [coincidentally, does this sound familiar to anyone?].  The ruler of the underworld, Osiris, was one of the most cherished Egyptian gods and he has some claims to primacy within their pantheon.  As god of agriculture, Osiris made grain grow after it was planted and he annually brought life to the Nile (upon his death, he gave his fertility to the river—see the story below).  After being killed, he came back to uncanny magical life with even greater power and he offers a doorway to the glories of the next realm.

To the Egyptians, the god of evil and chaos was the slayer of Osiris—his brother Set, the Lord of the Red Desert.  Set was god of the lands beyond the fertile Nile river bed.  He ruled the scorpion-haunted wastes where no crops would grow, where sand storms and flash floods materialized swiftly out of the baking land.  Like many Egyptian gods, Set has the head of an animal, yet scholars are unsure what that animal is: Egyptologists simply refer to it as the Set animal.

What is that thing? A Rabbit? An Aardvark?

He sometimes also appears as a black pig, a crocodile, or a hippopotamus.

Set slew his brother Osiris in order to gain sovereignty over Egypt.  He then cut the body into pieces which he cast far and wide.  Osiris’ dutiful wife, Isis, gathered the pieces (except for one critical piece which had been thrown into the Nile and eaten by a catfish) and magically reassembled them.  Thoth and Anubis then embalmed Osiris who became the deathless ruler of the next realm.  Osiris’ son, the falcon-headed Horus, took vengeance for his father by reclaiming his throne and castrating Set.  Set was exiled into the desert to become the evil god of drought, dryness, and sandstorm.

Set, as envisioned by a contemporary artist (I think he's carrying a mace rather than a spoon, but, who knows, maybe he's about to attack a pasta salad)

Of course all of this is stereotyping—the civilization of ancient Egypt has a long history.  Osiris and Set were venerated by dynasties and political factions which were very different from each other during their 3,600 year run.  All sorts of changes, hybridization, and confusing paradox crept into their tale.  Archeology seems to indicate that Set was the principal deity of the desert people of Upper Egypt (the dry southern uplands).  When these desert warriors conquered all of Egypt, they adapted the gods of fertile Lower Egypt and made their own deity an outcast.  Nevertheless, worship of Set endured throughout dynastic history.  Set was feared by all and held in particular esteem by the desert folk living at the boundaries of agricultural society.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

July 2020