Bronze statuette of Apis, Late Period

Bronze statuette of Apis, Late Period
Period:Egypt, Late Period, Late Period
Dating:656 BC–332 BC
Origin:Egypt, Lower Egypt
Physical:8cm. (3.1 in.) - 310 g. (10.9 oz.)

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  This bronze sculpture of a bull represents the god Apis, portrayed as a bull with a solar disk between its horns, protected by an uraeus (cobra).

Apis Bull
Immensely popular throughout Egyptian history, the cult of Apis was not that of all bulls, but rather of a special, carefully chosen individual animal. Apis (Hapi in Egyptian) was a live bull kept in the temple of Ptah, in Memphis. More than a sacred animal, Apis was the tangible, living, breathing expression of a primary god that could not be directly experienced in daily life. Apis served as an intermediary between humans and an all-powerful god (originally Ptah, later Osiris, then Atum). Through Apis, Egyptians could talk to the god, and even ask questions. The movements of Apis, interpreted as oracles, were thought to reflect the response of the god.

Within a complex religious system that might have felt far too abstract to the average Egyptian, Apis brought much comfort to the people as a god they could see and touch.

The Life and Death of Apis
The Egyptians’ quest for a new Apis was not unlike that of today’s Tibetans for a new Dalai Lama: when the Apis bull died, trained priests scoured the country to find his successor. According to Aelian, they looked for a bull that matched a list of twenty nine physical attributes, some of which were recorded by Herodotus:
“Apis is the calf of a cow which is never afterwards able to have another. The Egyptians say that a flash of light descends upon the cow from heaven, and this causes her to receive Apis. This Apis-calf has distinctive marks: it is black, with a white diamond on his forehead, the image of an eagle [in fact, the vulture goddess] on its back, the hairs on his tail double, and a scarab under its tongue. . .”

Once they found a bull that reasonably matched the description, they took him to Nilopolis (south of Heliopolis) for forty days feeding. Apis Diodorus wrote:
“… During the forty days, none but women are admitted to see him, who being placed full in his view, pluck up their coats and expose their person. Afterwards, they are forbidden to come into the sight of [Apis]. . .”

Then, on a full moon, Apis was moved to a barge with a golden arbor, and brought to his sanctuary in Memphis, at the southern end of the Temple of Ptah. Apis was enthroned in an elaborate ceremony, led out of the hall through the eastern (rising sun) door, and finally presented to the people massed outside for their first glimpse of the newly reincarnated god.

In his sanctuary, Apis was cared for attentively. He was fed the best foods, slept on luxurious bedding, given hot baths, massaged, and perfumed. Every day, he was allowed to frolic for a while in the attached courtyard, watched by believers who hoped to communicate with Ptah and find answers to their burning questions by interpreting his moves as oracles. Between his pen and the courtyard were two chambers, and his entering one or the other provided simple yes/no answers. Strabo wrote:
“Into this court they set Apis loose at certain hour, particularly that he may be shown to foreigners; for although people can see him through the window in the sanctuary, they wish to see him outside also; but when he has finished a short bout of skipping in the court they take him back again to his familiar stall.”

As befits his rank, Apis was provided with a harim of cows, presented to him occasionally. The mother of Apis—called Isis—was kept in a separate sanctuary nearby, where she received equally attentive care.

Strangely, the animals offered in sacrifice to honor Apis were other bulls, selected with extreme care, as recounted by Herodotus:
“Bulls are considered the property of Apis, and therefore tested in the following way: A priest appointed for the purpose examines the animal, and if he finds even a single black hair upon him, pronounces him unclean; he goes over him with the greatest care, first making him stand up, then lie on his back, after which he pulls out his tongue to see that, too, it is "clean” according to the recognized marks… He also inspects the tail to make sure the hair on it grows properly; then, if the animal passes all these tests successfully, the priest marks him by twisting round his horns a band of papyrus, which he seals with wax and stamps with his signet ring. The bull is finally taken away, and the penalty is death for anybody who sacrifices an animal which has not been marked in this manner.”

The sacrifice of a bull to Apis was not something Egyptians took lightly. Those present felt they had to atone for the killing by beating themselves in penitence while the sacred parts were incinerated.

Apis’ birthday was celebrated in a seven-day festival during which he was brought out of his sanctuary and led in processions through the city, accompanied by a choir of singing boys. Early evidence of this tradition comes from the Palermo Stone.

The Apis bull was usually allowed to die of old age. But Ammianus Marcelinus claimed that if a bull lived much longer than 25 years (and presumably was too feeble to perform his function) priests would “retire” him by drowning. When Apis died, the news spread considerable sadness throughout Egypt. In the Late Period, a national 60-day mourning was decreed, during which pious Egyptians kept their heads shaven and only ate vegetables. The corpse of Apis was taken out through the western (setting sun) door, and prepared for a spectacular funeral. Evidence suggests that his flesh was eaten in a ritual, then his head and bones were preserved (covered in bitumen). His remains were placed in a richly decorated coffin, and taken to the lake of the kings, along with two mourners and Nile priests. Apis bulls, like all Osirian dead, were buried with their canopic jars, and even sometimes their shawabtis, often bull-headed.

The Pyramid Texts suggest that there was already an Apis cemetery in Memphis during the Old Kingdom, but it still remains to be discovered. For now, the earliest known Apis tomb dates back to the reign of Amenhotep III of Dynasty 18. Later, during the reign of Ramesses II (Dyn. 19), his son Kha-Em-Wast commissioned a gigantic collective tomb for future Apis bulls. This consisted of a long gallery carved in the rock, serving numerous side chambers, each holding the tomb of an Apis. Stelas recorded the life of each bull. Six hundred years later, King Psamtik commissioned another gallery. Together, they are over 1200 feet long, 18 feet high, an 10 feet wide. Some of the granite outer sarcophagi in the tombs weigh over 70 tons. This massive design, and the systematic walling in of each tomb after burial were intended to discourage tomb raiders. But sadly, when French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette discovered the galleries in 1851, all tombs but for one were found plundered in antiquity. In the one intact tomb were two massive wooden sarcophagi, housing bituminous lumps containing bull bone fragments and gold jewelry with the name of Ramesses II and Prince Ka-Em-Wast. Mariette dubbed this extensive complex The Serapeum after the large temple of Serapis that once rose above it, of which nothing remains. Another set of Catacombs further North, the Iseum, held mummies of the mothers of Apis.

Apis and the King
Arguably the most famous predynastic artifact, the Narmer Palette, shows the king as a bull destroying a fortified city and goring the enemy. Indeed, predynastic iconography is replete with associations between bulls and royal power, and the title Victorious Bull appears early in the royal protocol.

The chosen bull, like the king, officially became a living god during his enthronement ceremony. Vandier (1944) notes that such a ceremony could only be bestowed upon a living Horus. And in fact, “Living Horus” was part of an Apis bull titulary, as it was part of the king’s titulary.

Even more striking is the prominent role played by the Apis bull during the Sed Festival. This extraordinarily important festival, often translated as jubilee because it was theoretically held on the 30th anniversary of the king’s reign, was a ritual display of the king’s vigor, in which the king strode the perimeter of a symbolic representation of his land. Although this was clearly a celebration focused on the king, he literally had to share the stage with Apis, as shown in a block from the Temple of Karnak where Queen/King Hatshepsut is shown striding with Apis. Earlier, the pyramid texts record that King Niuserre of Dyn. 5 had to go to the Apis sanctuary during his Sed Festival.

Like the king, Apis was a living god. Like the king, Apis eventually died. And so, like the king, Apis became Osiris upon his death. The funerary rites granted to the Apis bull were second only to those given the king. The death of an Apis prompted sixty days of national mourning (seventy days for a king), and the pomp of an Apis funeral was akin to that of the king. Ions (1969) notes that in 547 BC, King Amasis ordered for the dead Apis a red granite sarcophagus that exceeded anything ever done before, even for a king.

The origins of Apis
Bulls in general were probably worshipped as a symbol of strength and fertility in prehistorical Egypt, as they were in Sumer and Elam. But as a state-sponsored theology took form, it is likely that the popular sentiment towards all bulls was cleverly channeled towards one individual bull controlled by the state, and associated with a god recognized by the state—more specifically with the city god of Memphis, then capital of Egypt. Sayce (1903) compares this to Islam, when Mohammed incorporated elements of existing fetish worship into Islam by recognizing the sanctity of the “black stone” of the Kaaba.

This “invention” of Apis occurred early in dynastic history. Manetho claimed that the cult of Apis was started during the reign of Kakau (Ra-Neb), second king of Dynasty 2. The Palermo Stone, however, gives evidence of Apis being worshipped earlier, in the reign of King Den of Dynasty 1. Eberhard Otto found further evidence of Apis in Dynasty 1 from a drawing on an early pottery sherd. Vandier (1944) alludes to further archeological evidence of Apis in Dynasty 1 at the tomb of Hemaka, and notes that the names of Dynasty 1 queens—Khenet-Hep and Ni-Maat-Hep—contain the name of Apis.

The German Egyptologist Sethe hypothesized that Apis (Hapi in Egyptian) may have been named after a particularly fertile species of duck, which would explain the duck determinative sign often following Apis’ name in hieroglyphs. The close similarity with the name of Hapy, god of the Nile, can hardly be a mere coincidence.

This worship of the species may even have persisted as a popular tradition into historical times. Sayce (1903) suggests that since any bull might have become the habitation of Ptah, it was appropriate to treat the whole species with respect.

While Apis may have initially been associated with the god Min, the first well documented association of Apis with a “major” god was with Ptah, god of creation. Apis was named Herald of Ptah, The New Life of Ptah, He that Raises Truth to the Fair-Faced God (Ptah). Later, as the cult of Osiris became prominent (around Dynasty 11), Apis became Life of Osiris, Who Gives Life, Health, and Strength to the Nostrils of the King, and his identification to Ptah eventually became secondary to his connection with Osiris. Starting with Dynasty 18, a new connection with Atum, god of the setting sun, was developed.

The dead Apis, having become an Osiris, was worshipped as a god of agricultural fecundity and the afterlife. When the Greeks took over Egypt, they translated the name of the dead Apis as “Osorapis,” which lead to a confusion, and eventually an amalgam with their own god Serapis, who was worshipped according to Greek tradition in the Serapeum in Alexandria. Both gods came to be worshipped together at the bull necropolis in Saqqara that we now call the Serapeum.

Other sacred bull cults existed in dynastic Egypt, notably that of Mnevis in Heliopolis and Bakha in Hermonthis, but none rivaled the widespread popularity through the ages of the cult of Apis.

Bibliography (on Apis Bull)

Andrews, Carol
1994 Amulets of Ancient Egypt. University of Texas Press, Texas.

Bard, Kathryn A., and Steven B. Shubert
1999 Encyclopedia of the Archeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge, London, United Kingdom. (712-16)

Bleeker, C. J.
1967 Egyptian Festivals; Enactments of Religious Renewal. E. J. Brill, Leiden, Netherlands. (32,100)

Budge, E. A. Wallis, Sir
1969 The Gods of the Egyptians or studies in Egyptian Mythology (unabridged republication of the 1904 edition by the Open Court Publishing Company). Dover Publications, New York, NY. (II:346-51)

Guirand, Felix
1968 New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Crescent Books, New York, NY. (44)

Hart, George
1986 A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, United Kingdom. (27)

1996 The Histories ((Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola)). Penguin Books, London, UK. (3:29)

Hornung, Erik
1982 Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and The Many (translation of Deir Eine und die Vielen, 1971). Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY. (136-37)

Ions, Veronica
1969 Mythologie Egyptienne (Translation of the 1968 edition by the Hamlyn Publishing Group). ODEGE, Paris, France. (123)

Morenz, Siegfried
1973 Egyptian Religion. Methuen, London, United Kingdom. (20,246)

Petrie, W. M. Flinders
1972 Religious Life in Ancient Egypt. Cooper Square Publishers, New York, NY. (10,187)

Sauneron, Serge
2000 The Priests of Ancient Egypt. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY. (103,160)

Sayce, A. H.
1903 The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia. T and T Clark, Edimburgh, United Kingdom. (111,206)

Vandier, Jacques
1944 La Religion Egyptienne. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, France. (221-25)

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