Polytheism as Expressed by the Serapeum

The Serapeum, or subterranean Apis tombs, is today hardly discernible above the desert waste under which it lies. But it's history is very revealing.

S. Douglas Waterhouse,  Graduate Student, Chicago, Illinois

Almost none of the antiquity remains found in Egypt can give the visitor quite the same feeling of painful polytheistic aware­ness as the ancient bull cemetery of Memphis. Though it is a place of awe and fascination, it may often impart to the modern tourist a feel­ing of instinctive aversion or embarrassment. For it was here, at Sakkara on the western des­ert banks of the Nile, that the sacred Apis bulls of Egypt were interred and mummified with abnormal pomp and ceremony.

The Serapeum, or subterranean Apis tombs, is today hardly discernible above the desert waste under which it lies. Its inclined passage-entrance is too modest to prepare one adequately for the vast vaults that lie in still darkness beneath. Once the visitor is inside, however, halls of startling magnitude branch out, giving the appearance of immense caverns. One gallery alone measures as long as 640 feet. 1 As one walks within these halls, large side chambers appear, their depths reaching down from six to eight feet below the central corridor floors. And within the side chambers are found the astound­ingly immense granite coffins, of superb work­manship, which were provided for the last rest­ing place of the Apis. Twenty-four of these were found in the third gallery. They average 13 feet in length, 11 feet in height, and 7 feet 8 inches in breadth, and weigh not less than 65 tons apiece, "magnificent specimens of the engineer­ing skill of the ancient workers who transported these vast blocks from Aswan to Memphis, a distance of almost 600 miles."

The tomb vaults date back to the time of Amenhotep III (c. 1412-1375 B.c.), or perhaps earlier, down to the Roman period. The earlier tombs are square chambers, hewn here and there in the rock. But in the time of Ramses II (1299. 1232 B.C.) a subterranean gallery, about 110 yards long, was hewn out and flanked by some 40 chambers, each of which was walled up after receiving the remains of a sacred bull. In the reign of Psamtik I (663-609 s.e.) a new gallery was excavated upon a much more extensive scale, and additions were made to it from time to time by the Saitic and Ptolemaic monarchs. In later times of Christianity and Arab con­quests, the Serapeum lay forgotten. Ravaged by robbers and the vicissitudes of the centuries, it lay hidden under the desert sand until its chance discovery by the French in 1851.3

The Serapeum brings to the fore that strange link the Egyptians gave between divinity and actual beast. In its vaults the decadence of ani­mal worship may gain a horrible concreteness. In the Apis bull we deal, not with a species considered sacred, but with one individual iden­tified by certain marks, not as the incarnation, but as the divine servant of the god Ptah.' As each successive Apis died it was buried with all the reverence and splendor due to a deity. In later history the Apis was identified with the god of the underworld, Osiris, and was called Osiris­Apis. The Greeks corrupted this name into Ser­apis, giving the name Serapeum to the now-famous bull tombs.'

History of Animal Worship

A study of the Serapeum inevitably leads to a study of the history of animal worship. In Egypt it is interesting because it disproves the evolutionary theory that religion started out as a "crude" animal cult, later to develop into "transitional forms," eventually to evolve into the anthropomorphic gods of a more enlight­ened age. This theory ignores the fact that the earliest divine statues that have been preserved represent gods in human shape. Conversely, we find to the very end of Egypt's independence that gods were believed to be manifested in animals. The goddess Hathor appears, for instance, as a cow. Yet in the earliest extant de­piction found of her, she is represented with a human face, cow's horns, and cow's ears.' Thus, instead of evolving into higher realms, the Egyp­tian religion grew more and more debased with the passing of time. This fact is becoming in­creasingly evident to historians. H. Frankfort has stated:

It is wrong to say that the worship of animals is a survival from a primitive stratum of Egyptian re­ligion. . . . Any treatment of the sacred animals which stresses their local or political significance at the expense of their religious importance flies in the face of the evidence. . . . In Egypt the animal as such, irrespective of its specific nature, seems to possess religious significance?

The Bible indicates that certain animals were originally used by mankind in sacrificial offerings to direct minds to the great Sacrifice! It is thus significant to observe that "bloody" sac­rifices were conducted in archaic Egypt. Even as late as the time of King Khufu (or Cheops, the great pyramid builder) of the fourth dynasty (third millennium B.C.), animals were slaugh­tered freely.' But it may also be noticed that already the baleful influence of pantheism was beginning to be felt. Two of the royal cattle of Khufu, for example, are depicted with their names compounded with that of the divine pharaoh, while a third bears Khufu's Golden Horus name." By the time of Moses (i.e., in the fifteenth century B.G.), pantheism had devel­oped so far that those very animals that were once used for sacrificial purposes were now con­sidered to be too sacred to harm. It may be re­called that when the pharaoh of the Exodus offered the Israelites permission to sacrifice in Egypt, they refused to accept such conditions. Said Moses, "It is not meet . . . : lo, shall we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians be­fore their eyes, and will they not stone us?" (Ex. 8:26). Ellen G. White interestingly com­ments:

The animals which the Hebrews would be re­quired to sacrifice were among those regarded as sacred by the Egyptians; and such was the reverence in which these creatures were held, that to slay one, even accidentally, was a crime punishable with death. It would be impossible for the Hebrews to worship in Egypt without giving offense to their masters?'

By identifying the infinite God by an image and then by a beast or a reptile, the Egyptians opened the way for further depravity. As in­dicated above, not only did the people hold that certain species of animals revealed them­selves as sacred and divine, but they went to such extremes as to embalm each of the sacred animals at death and to bury them ceremoni­ously.' The Egyptian divinities came to be most frequently conceived in a variety of animal forms: the god 'Mendes as a ram, Sobek as a crocodile, Thoth of Hermopolis as an ibis, Horus as a falcon or sparrow hawk, while his adversary Seth was given the form of some kind of fabulous beast." By contemplating and wor­shiping their own conceptions, the Egyptians unwittingly accomplished Satan's purpose of de­stroying the knowledge of God. Religion came to consist largely of attempts to placate the spirits.Results of the Ten Plagues

The Long-suffering One, however, did not leave Egypt in complete darkness. As early as the time of Joseph—

God overruled events . . . so that the knowledge of Himself should be given to the people of Egypt.. . . The Israelites in Egypt . . became prosperous and wealthy, and such as were true to God exerted a wide-spread influence.14

The ten plagues themselves were not given pri­marily as a curse but as a blessing. Each judg­ment cursed the Egyptians through the very objects they had worshiped." It was by this divine means that Egypt was given evidence of the power of Jehovah. Pharaoh and his people probably looked in horror as their sacred ani­mals were in turn killed by murrain (Ex. 9:3), smitten by boils (verse 10), or slain by the judgment of hail (verse 25).

The results of the plagues must have been profound on Egyptian religious thought, and we find evidence that the pharaoh who sur­vived the Exodus turned away his attention from the discredited current pantheon of Egypt to seek out remotely ancient and new gods for worship." Pharaoh Ikhnaton, a later contem­porary of Joshua, was evidently so influenced by the impact of the plagues that in his twelfth year he surprisingly sacrificed his country's sa­cred animals.17 This gesture toward monotheism undoubtedly hastened his own downfall, for in the same year this famous king lost much of his previous influence." Such groping for light was a rare exception to a pantheistic rule of de­grading spiritual darkness.

Interestingly, though the ten plagues had convinced the Hebrews of the fallacy of wor­shiping the diversified gods of Egypt, they still refused to give up the revolting, senseless ani­mal-symbols of the Nile Valley. At the foot of Mount Sinai a molten calf was made to repre­sent the living Jehovah. "These be thy gods, O Israel," it was monolatrously proclaimed, "which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" (Ex. 32:4). No, the Israelites would not bow down to the repudiated divinities around them, but their concept of deity had become warped by association with the heathen. The Hebrews had become so blinded to the power, majesty, and glory of the Infinite One, that they stooped to represent Him as a beast. Success was nearly in Satan's hands when the chosen people of God so readily destroyed the efficacy of worship.

The pantheistic influence of Egypt on Israel did not end at Sinai. Jeroboam I, on returning from exile, caused the northern tribes to sin by again representing Jehovah as a golden calf (1 Kings 12:28-30). As king after king of the northern kingdom perpetuated this evil, Jeho­vah most probably came to be regarded by many as merely an image of gold. Eventually the sin grew until it evidently became a curse that led to the Assyrian conquest and the con­sequential dispersion of the ten tribes. It is no wonder that the Bible again and again con­demns those monarchs who "cleaved unto the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which made Israel to sin" (2 Kings 3:3).

Peculiarly, Egypt was the only prominent na­tion of the ancient Near East that gave such decided deference to the beast of the field. In Western Asia, instead of doing away with the sacrificial system that God had appointed, Sa­tan perverted this divinely ordained service so as to obscure its true meaning. Canaanite sacrificial ritual was consequently much more diver­sified than Israelite. Many more animals were employed as offerings." Even the extremes of human sacrifice were not unknown (2 Kings 3: 27). Obviously, the divine institution of Isra­elite ritual practice made direct borrowing from the heathen unnecessary.

In viewing the Serapeum, the visitor is ap­palled by the thought of the great amount of workmanship that went into this massive me­morial of religious insipidities. Row upon row of oversized stone coffins lie in mute splendor. Yet there is something of value here, even as there is for the historian who is able to gather from the Apis steles chronological data of the utmost importance, for in its grand silence it bears witness that the complicated play of hu­man events is under divine control. Amid the false religions that have in the past covered the world, God has not let His light be permanently hidden; He still guides the affairs of this earth.


1 James Baikie, A Century of Excavation in the Land of the Pharaohs (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1925), p. 22.

2 Ibid.

3 The New International Encyclopedia, (2d ed.), vol. 20, p. 718.

4 H. Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), pp. 10, 11.

5 Baikie, op. cit., p. 19.

6 G Frankfort, op. ca., p. 11.

7 Ibid.

8 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 333, 334.

9 Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1894), p. 287.

10 William C. Hayes, The Scepter of Egypt (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953), p. 63.

11 White, op. cit., p. 266.

12 George Steindorff and Keith C. Steels, When Egypt Ruled the East (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1942),

13 Ibid, p. 137

14 White, op. cit., p. 332. 1,

15 Ibid. p. 333.

16 Shortly after the ten plagues, Thutmose IV had the neg­lected Great Sphinx uncovered from the sand and repaired for purposes of worship. It was significantly at this same time also that the monotheistically worshiped god, Aton, appeared for the first time in history. Arthur E. P. Weigal, The Life and Times of Akhnaton Pharaoh of Egypt (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1911), p. 22; Alan W. Shorter, "Historical Scarabs of Thuthmosis IV and Amenophis III," The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 17:23, 1931.

17 H. Frankfort, "Preliminary Report on the Excavations at Tell El-'Amarnah, 1926-7,' The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 13:214, 215, 1927.

18 John A. Wilson, The Burden of Egypt (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 231, 232.

19 William Foxwell Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1942), p. 92.

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S. Douglas Waterhouse,  Graduate Student, Chicago, Illinois

January 1958

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