Saturday, February 24, 2018

The god Serapis in Egypt

The god Serapis was probably first introduced in Egypt by Alexander, although it was Alexander’s successor Ptolemy I (r. 323-283 BCE) who helped popularize the god there by bringing the god’s statue from Sinope (a city on the Black Sea in present-day Turkey, east of Istanbul) to Alexandria, where Greeks were beginning to settle. Ptolemy also established the Alexandrian library and the world’s first university with a medical school. (Segerberg, p. 99)

The route from Sinope to Alexandria.
The route from Sinope in the north to Alexandria in the south.

Legend holds that Ptolemy told his advisor — Timotheos of Eleusis, or, "the Eumolpid" (Rose, p. 108; Cumont, p. 51) — that he dreamed of a statue with a serpent at its feet — the serpent having three heads of dog, wolf, and lion — and a corn measuring pot as a hat. His advisor identified the image as the famous statue of Serapis, and Ptolemy felt it might unify the Egyptians and Greeks in Alexandria as well as incorporating the Babylonian religion. Despite three years' of resistance from the people of Sinope who did not want to part with it, the statue "magically" took itself by boat and installed itself in the new temple, called the Serapeum or Serapeion, in Alexandria. (Rosenbloom)

The earliest statues of Serapis from the Ptolemaic period did not have the hat. The hat appears in statues from the later Roman period. (Source: University College London) Eleni Vassilika writes: “The most popular cult image of Serapis shows him draped and regally enthroned, wearing his corn-basket kalathos-crown over thick wavy locks, with the triple-headed beast Cerberos seated at his side. The crown associated the god with the fruits of the earth, and the beast, possibly confused with the Egyptian jackal deity Anubis, was related to the god’s role as conveyor of the dead.” (Vassilika, p. 104) The kalathos is also known as a modius. “At the time of the Antonines,” Cumont wrote, referring to the Roman imperial rule from 138-180 CE, “there were forty-two Serapeums in Egypt.” (Cumont, pp. 74-75)

The name “Serapis” came from either Asar-Hapi (the Egyptian names for Osiris-Apis) or possibly the Chaldean deity Sar-Apsi. Chaldea was in southeastern Mesopotamia, northwest of the Persian Gulf.

Serapis, like Osiris, in Egypt was understood to be the brother/husband of Isis. He was believed to be the resurrection of the creator Ptah, who was ritually slaughtered, mummified, cremated, and then, in the form of the Apis bull, entombed. Apart from these broad associations, there are no surviving specific myths about Serapis.

Poems in honor of Serapis were written by the philosopher Demetrius of Phalerum who credited the god with curing his blindness. (Cumont, pp. 74-75) "Serapis’ blessing was sought for children and the sick, and he was regarded as a Saviour who spoke through oracles and in one’s dreams." (Vassilika, p. 104)

The Christian patriarch Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, together with the Roman emperor Theodosius, axed the statue and torched the Serapeum in 391 CE, representing, in Rosenbloom's words, "the final destruction of paganism in Rome’s once tolerant empire." (Cumont, pp. 84-85; Rosenbloom) "An excellent evocation of this moment, when a syncretistic and sophisticated culture is nearly completely harassed out of existence by the rising single-minded zealotry, can be found in Georg Ebers’s 1885 novel Serapis [PDF], published in English translation [by Clara Bell, from the German] in New York the same year.” (Rosenbloom)

Ebers has Theodosius order the destruction of the idols in Alexandria and continued worship (or failure to report it) punishable by a fine of 15 pounds of gold. He has the Christian deacon Eusebius incite supporters:

"Not our grandsons, no, but our own children will ask: Who — what was Serapis? For he who shall be overthrown is no longer a mighty god but an idol bereft of his splendor and his dignity. * * * The ruined edifice of the Serapeum, the masterpiece of Bryaxis laid in fragments in the dust, and thousands of wailing heathen!" (Ebers, p. 216, 219)

Meanwhile, thousands of followers of Serapis gather in the vast, doomed temple. Damia, an elder woman who follows the old Egyptian gods, preaches her way:

“If, when Serapis falls, the universe does not crumble to pieces like a ruinous hovel, then the wisdom of the Magians is a lie, the course of the stars has nothing to do with the destinies of the earth and its inhabitants, the planets are mere lamps, the sun is no more than a luminous furnace, the old gods are marsh-fires, emanations from the dark bog of men’s minds — and the great Serapis...But why be angry with him? There is no doubt — no if nor but...” (Ebers, pp. 261-262)

In the novel, the high priest of Serapis is named Olympius, “famous now for his learning” (p. 108).

"On a platform of rocks and mighty masonry rose a structure of wonderful magnificence and beauty, so brilliantly illuminated by the morning sun that its noble proportions and gorgeous colors showed in dazzling splendor and relief. Over the gilt dome bent the cloudless blue of the African sky, and the polished hemisphere shone, as radiant as the sun whose beams it reflected. Sloping planes for vehicles, and flights of steps for pedestrians led up to the gates. The lower part of this wonderful edifice — the great Temple of Serapis — was built to stand forever, and the pillars of the vestibule supported a roof more fitted to the majesty of the gods than to the insignificance of mortals ; priests and worshippers moved here like children among the trunks of some gigantic forest. Round the cornice, in hundreds of niches, and on every projection, all the gods of Olympus and all the heroes and sages of Greece seemed to have met in conclave, and stood gazing down on the world in gleaming brass or tinted marble. Every portion of the building blazed with gold and vivid coloring; the painter’s hand had added life to the marble groups in high relief that filled the pediments and the smaller figures in the long row of metopes. All the population of a town might have found refuge in the vast edifice and its effect on the mind was like that of a harmonious symphony of adoration sung by a chorus of giants.

"All hail! Great Serapis! I greet thee in joyful humility, thankful that Thou hast granted to my old eyes to see Thy glorious and eternal temple once again!” murmured Karnis in devout contemplation." (Ebers, pp. 18-19)

One of Serapis' followers "had been accustomed to regard the Serapeum as the very heart of the universe — the centre and fulcrum on which the balance of the earth depended; to her, Serapis himself was inseparable from his temple and its atmosphere of magical and mystical power." (Ebers, pp. 193-194)

”The head of Serapis was the eternal Mind; in his broad breast slept the Soul of the Universe, and the prototypes of all created things; the world of matter was the footstool under his feet. All the subordinate forces obeyed him, the mighty first Cause, whose head towered up to the realm of the incomprehensible and inconceivable One. He was the sum total of the universe, the epitome of things created; and at the same time he was the power which gave them life and intelligence and preserved them from perishing by perpetual procreation. It was his might that kept the multiform structure of the material and psychical world in perennial harmony. All that lived — Nature and its Soul as much as Man and his Soul — were inseparably dependent on him. If he — if Serapis were to fall, the order of the universe must be destroyed ; and with him : The Synthesis of the Universe — the Universe itself must cease to exist.

But what would survive would not be the nothingness — the void of which her grandmother had spoken; it would be the One — the cold, ineffable, incomprehensible One! This world would perish with Serapis; but perhaps it might please that One to call another world into being out of his overflowing essence, peopled by other and different beings.” (Ebers, p 195)

An underground sanctuary to Serapis was described as follows:

" which the adepts were required to go through certain severe ordeals before they were esteemed worthy to be received into the highest order of the initiated — the Esoterics. The halls and corridors which she now went through, and which she had never before seen, were meagrely lighted with lamps and torches, and all that met her eye filled her with reverent awe while it excited her imagination. Everything, in fact — every room and every image — was as unlike nature, and as far removed from ordinary types as possible, in arrangement and appearance. After passing through a pyramidal room, with triangular sides that sloped to a point, she came to one in the shape of a polygonal prism. In a long, broad corridor she had to walk on a narrow path, bordered by sphinxes; and there she clung tightly to her guide, for on one side of the footway yawned a gulf of great depth. In another place she heard, above her head, the sound of rushing waters, which then fell into the abyss beneath with a loud roar. After this she came upon a large grotto, hewn in the living rock and defended by a row of staring crocodiles’ heads, plated with gold; the heavy smell of stale in- cense and acrid resins choked her, and her way now lay over iron gratings and past strangely contrived furnaces. The walls were decorated with colored reliefs: Tantalus, Ixion, and Sisyphus toiling at his stone, looked down on her in hideous realism as she went. Rock chambers, fast closed with iron doors, as though they enclosed inestimable treasures or inscrutable secrets, lay on either hand, and her dress swept against numerous images and vessels closely shrouded in hangings." (Ebers, pp. 273-274)

A British military ship named HMS Serapis launched in 1779 and was captured in 1781 by an American captain, John Paul Jones, whose own ship sank and who famously shouted, when things looked dimmest, “I have not yet begun to fight!” The ship was transferred to the French Navy in 1782. (Source: A page on, accessed 29 Dec 2003, that no longer exists)


Osborn Segerberg, Jr. The Immortality Factor. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc. 1974. Segerberg added: “The dynastic Ptolemies defied the ancient taboo and permitted dissection of human bodies.”

H. J. Rose. Religion in Greece and Rome. New York: Harper and Row, 1959. Originally published as Ancient Greek Religion (1946) and Ancient Roman Religion (1948), London: Hutchinson and Co., Limited.

Franz Cumont. The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism. Authorized translation. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1911.

Eleni Vassilika. Greek and Roman Art

Eric Rosenbloom. "Serapis on the Liffey." 2003. Accessed Feb. 24, 2018.

"Memphis: Plaster head of Serapis," University College London, 2002, accessed 24 Feb 2018.

Georg Ebers. Serapis. Translated from the German by Clara Bell. New York: William S. Gottsberger, 1885.

Further reading

Stambaugh, John E. Sarapis under the early Ptolemies. Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1972.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Abdul Hamid II, last Ottoman Sultan

Abdul Hamid (Abdul "The Damned") left a $1.5 billion estate. He was known to be corrupt and had hidden money in multiple places. He had four legal wives and 400 other wives. He abdicated and was exiled to Salonica in 1909, was placed in house arrest in his palace in 1912, died in 1918, and, after a five-year legal battle, $50 million was given to nine of his widows and thirteen of his children.

He preferred blonde, slim, tall Circassian slave girls with small feet, and was repulsed by "American and French women". An article in the Cincinnati Enquirer (April 20, 1930) said: "He was extremely generous to his Circassian beauties. If they displeased him, or age was beginning to take toll of their beauty, he did not bundle them up in a sack and dump them Into the Bosphorus." Instead, he would either give the woman to a Pasha (along with a generous sum of money) or let her live out her life in luxury in the harem. The chief eunuch was also well compensated; he left a $2 million estate.

However, despite this penchant for human rights, the article described him as "one of the world's wickedest men, and the most abject of cowards. He had all the cruelty of a Nero, without the courage." He was also paranoid: "While strolling through the Imperial gardens, Abdul Hamid came upon his workman who was on his knees planting some flowers. As soon as the gardener realized who was behind him he rose quickly to salute his sovereign. The Sultan, mistaking the movement for an attempt on his life, whipped out his revolver and shot the man dead."

Of his 1909 exit:

"In the night he was being made ready for the trip to Salonica he fell to the floor in a wild convulsion. When he recovered consciousness he sent word by his chief eunuch to the harem that all who wished to join him in exile should make ready to follow him at once. It was a veritable bedlam into which the messenger walked, for the women were running about and screaming like a pack of wild animals. As soon as the official explained the object of his call, silent weeping replaced the shouting and screaming....And when the gates of Yildiz Palace swung open to permit Abdul Hamid and the women to depart from the scenes of their former glories for a prison in Salonica, the street mobs openly jeered and scoffed at their one-time ruler."

Akhenaten, Pharaoh of Egypt: A eunuch?

Amenhotep, Divine Ruler of Thebes (also known as Amenophis IV), ascended the throne in 1358 BCE and ruled for 17 years. This was the 18th dynasty in Egypt's New Kingdom period.

"I am not really interested in Akhenaten himself," wrote Dominic Montserrat, "but in why other people are interested in him and find his story relevant and inspirational when he has been dead for three and a half thousand years." (Montserrat, p. 2) "He has become a simulacrum, an endlessly repeated copy with no original. His immortality lies precisely in what is not there." (Montserrat, p. 184)

"To the early scholars in the field Akhenaten was a disguised female or a eunuch form the south (at a time when such were still common) the perspicacious classicist Toynbee his sun-cult was a prototype of the Roman imperial Sol Invictus of the 3rd century..." (Redford, p. 4)

Contrasting with the violence of his predecessors, Akhenaten's motto was Ankh em maet, Live in truth (or harmony). During his rule, maet began to be spelled phonetically, rather than with the hieroglyphic of a squatting goddess.

He changed his name to Akhenaten five years into his reign. As Redford explained, during a planned move to the Akhetaten site, Akhenaten decided to break with the worship of Amun as king of the gods. That god's name was made anathema. Akhenaten's public inscriptions referencing his name were blotted out, objects weredefaced, and people named after Amun (including the king himself) were required to change their names. Hence Amenophis (meaning Amun is satisfied) became Akh-en-aten (meaning something like giving power or aid to the sun).

The typical king's title, "the good god," was changed to "the good ruler." He rejected idolatry and said God was formless and transcendental. His god's name was Re-Herakhte and he was manifested in the sunlight that came from Aten, the sun. The sunlight brought the ankh of life to the nostrils of the royalty. The sun was no longer a personal deity to him. Freud argued that monotheism originated with Akhenaten. (See Freud's essay "Moses and Monotheism," which in turn inspired Kahlo's painting "Moses".) Note, however, that just because he represented only one god doesn't indicate what he may have personally believed.

He built a capital city at Tell el-Amarna, but it was quickly abandoned after his death.

His predecessor Amenophis III had also been known by the same name, minus the "Divine" (Amenhotep, Ruler of Thebes). Amenophis III buried the Apis bull which incarnated Ptah. Akhenaten, for his part, promised to bury the Mnevis bull, sacred to the solar worship at Heliopolis, in the eastern hills. (Aldred, p. 43)

In the reliefs at the rock tombs at Amarna, Aldred writes, "Akhenaten is represented with the same elongated neck, broad hips, swelling breasts and plump thighs as Nefertiti. Since he occasionally wears a long clinging robe similar to a woman's gown, figures of the king have often been confused with those of the queen..." Eugene Lefebure, a French scholar near the turn of the twentieth century, believed that Akhenaten, like Hatshepshut, was a woman dressed as a man. Others, after Elliot Smith's hypothesis in 1907, believed he had a pituitary problem known as Fröhlich's Syndrome leading to hypogonadism, a particular fat distribution, and a failure to develop sexually. Aldred points out that Akhenaten had multiple wives, a harem, six daughters with his chief queen Nefertiti, and sexual relations with those daughters, as was customary. The appearance of him in these reliefs may therefore be more of an innovation in artistic style than a scientific representation of him. Aldred calls it "not the least of the enigmas which his reign has bequeathed us."

Modern interpretations are tricky to impose. "The gay versions are misogynistic in that they write the prominent women of Akhenaten's family out of the plot; the others recall Orientalist porn of the nineteenth century, in which pansexual Eastern potentates had sex with everybody imaginable." (Montserrat, p. 10) Glass's Akhenaten opera — in which the character is stripped to reveal sexually ambiguous body — was first performed in 1985. "In the London and New York productions, the singer who played Akhenaten, Christopher Robson, wore an elaborate bodysuit with certain attachments that took three hours to get into." (Montserrat, p. 181)

"There is now a broad consensus among Egyptologists that the exaggerated forms of Akhenaten's physical portrayal...are not to be read literally....These [contradictory] attributes render the king literally suprahuman, a divine body which goes beyond human experience." (Montserrat, p. 48)


Cyril Aldred. Akhenaten: King of Egypt. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1988.

Donald B. Redford. Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Dominic Montserrat. Ahkenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt. London/New York: Routledge, 2000.

Further reading

Naguib Mahfouz, Dweller in Truth [al 'A'ish fi al-haqiqa], mentioned by Montserrat.

Perceptions of eunuchs in Claudian's 'In Eutropium'

Claudian wrote In Eutropium (Against Eutropius) to denounce the prominent eunuch by that name. Eutropius was a Roman consul in the late fourth century CE and Claudian acknowledges him as the third founder of the city after Byzas and Constantine (2.83), but that doesn't stop Claudian from making pejorative references to eunuchs as "half men" (1.171, 2.22). Jacqueline Long writes, “Any androcentric culture would find emasculation a natural invective tactic.” (Long, p. 122) Claudian depicts Eutropius as greedy, a stereotype of eunuchs that may have formed from the assumption of the displacement of lust for sex toward lust for money. A spin on the meaning of a eunuch’s childlessness — namely, that it leaves him emotionally stunted and not learning how to bond or serve others (rather than affording an opportunity for displacement of the tendency to bond and serve) — appears in Claudian’s words: “a eunuch is moved by no devotion, nor does he fear for family and children,” (1.83-88, as quoted by Long, p. 135).

Much of the criticism is not just abstract, but sensory:

“The figure of the eunuch makes an irreconcilable antithesis with all the honors Eutropius achieves. Creating a vivid sensory impression that will remain in the audience’s mind is the imagery’s most important task. An example of its effect, with supporting details further elaborated, is given by the contrast of the slavish, effeminate, shameless, sagging, filthy, whining, bibulous eunuch’s impersonation of a triumphator.” (Long, p. 121)

Claudian asked sarcastically, "Have we ever seen a temple built or altars raised to a eunuch god?" Of course we have — the Egyptian god Osiris. This point of Claudian's does not stand up to scrutiny.

Furthermore, within Claudian's poem, Cybele watches the self-mutilating Curetes dance. See also Luc. 1.559-63; after this section, there is mention of Bellona and Cybele’s self-mutilating priests. (Long, p. 110)

In "Don Juan: Dedication," George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824) used the term "intellectual eunuch" to complete the metaphor of the adoration of a sultan in Stanza XI. In Stanza XV, the words "emasculated" and "Eutropius" appear, associating castration with servitude.


Jacqueline Long. Claudian's In Eutropium: Or, How, When, and Why to Slander a Eunuch. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Elagabalus, 3rd century Roman emperor: A eunuch?

Was the Roman emperor Elagabalus castrated?

His full name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (born 204 CE, ruled 218-222 CE). He was better known as Elagabalus or by a spiritualized version of that name, Heliogabalus, helios being Greek for "sun." He was a sun-worshipper who participated in the taurobolium and possibly was castrated or infibulated (genitally pierced). His goal was to unite all Roman religions, but this was not achieved during his reign that lasted merely three years and nine months.

The 12-century Michael Glycas said that the emperor asked surgeons to castrate his husband Hierocles and construct female genitalia for him, while the 12-century John Zonaras said that the emperor requested such a surgery for himself. (Lascaratos and Kostakopoulos, p. 234)

Regarding his possible castration, Georges Duviquet wrote: “Il alla agiter sa tête avec les prêtres châtrés de Cybèle, se liant comme eux les parties génitales, observant toutes leurs coutumes; puis il emporta, our le déposer dans le temple de son dieu, leur trésor sacré.” (Duviquet, p. 51) An endnote to this comment added: “Genitalia devinxit. Saumaise et Gruter proposent defixit pris dans le sens d’enlever, arracher. On a vu dans Aurélius Victor qu’Héliogabale, s’étant coupé les parties génitales, abscissis genitalibus, se consacra à la Mère des dieux.” (Duviquet, p. 286) Duviquet included a diagram of a statue that shows Heliogabalus with intact genitalia. (Duviquet, p 55)


"Operations on Hermaphrodites and Castration in Byzantine Times (324-1453 AD)." John Lascaratos and Athanastos Kostakopoulos. Urologia Internationalis 1997; 58:232-235.

Georges Duviquet. Héliogabale. Paris: Société du Mercure de France, 1903.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Chief Eunuch character in 'Women of All Nations' (1931)

The 1931 farce "Women of All Nations" has a Turkish harem scene with a eunuch character (the man in the turban) played by Sam Baker.

Today the film can be viewed on YouTube split into five parts. Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 The scenes with the eunuch are in Part 4 and Part 5. Two minutes into Part 4, the Marines travel to "a Mediterranean port." The music and costumes appear to be Turkish. A man in a turban, proudly identifying himself as "the chief eunuch," arrives to deliver a handwritten message from his "mistress."

He enters the room meowing like a cat, on instructions from his mistress who knew that her boyfriend would recognize the affectionate call and would turn around, allowing the eunuch to identify him. The actors in Women of All Nations speak in a variety of badly exaggerated accents; the eunuch character speaks in an African-American accent of the sort popular in minstrel shows, although a real Chief Eunuch would have been taken from the Sudan as a boy and then grown up in Turkey, so his accent is definitely inaccurate. The character of Prince Hassan, played by Bela Lugosi, "swears in Hungarian" (according to Michael J. Weldon in Psychotronic). Also, since the Ottoman sultanate fell after the end of World War I, the depiction of the court would have been a few years outdated by 1931.

Baker also appeared in the serial "Lost City." The screenshots below are from the opening credits of Lost City's Chapter 1.

Eunuchs in 'In the Land of the Lion and Sun' (1883)

In the Land of the Lion and Sun, or Modern Persia is Dr. Charles James Wills' 1883 travel memoir. The book is hundreds of pages, and the word "eunuch" appears only several times. These two excerpts are noteworthy. Page numbers are from the 1893 Ward, Lock and Bowden, Ltd. version.

“I was handed over to a white eunuch, who seemed to be troubled with all the ills that flesh is heir to, and who grunted and grumbled a good deal as he led me towards the part of the house set apart for the habitation of the ladies.

After passing through several yards and passages, we came to a low door with a curtain. My guide entered, and raised the curtain, previously shouting ‘Bero! Bero!’ (Be off, be off).

* * *

The eunuch now returned, seated himself on the ground at my side...

* * *

After talking to the eunuch for some minutes, in which the old fellow evidently was calling these very gushing ladies to order, they suddenly plumped down on their knees in front fo me, and compelled me to feel both their pulses, look at both their tongues, examine their throats, and a second time to feel their pulses at the other wrist.

As I understood very little Persian, and neither they nor the eunuch anything but that language it was very difficult to make out what was the matter. One thing was very certain — they looked upon the whole matter as a very good joke; and seemed inclined to torment the eunuch and make great fun of me." (pp. 38-41)

And here:

...the ragamuffin attendants on the royal ladies always used to shout “Begone,” “Be off,” and their postilions would always drive as close as possible, and pass one as if they wished a collision, or to take a wheel off.

The custom of the kūrūk is dying out. It used to be death for any man to be in the neighbourhood of the royal wives when on their numerous outings. The people always fled, or stood with faces to the wall ; and Europeans, when they saw the eunuchs' procession approaching, and heard the cry of "Gitchen" (Turkish "Begone"), to avoid unpleasantness and possible rows, used to turn down the first street. A very eccentric Austrian, the Baron Gersteiger Khan (the latter title being, of course, a Persian dignity ; for many years instructor to the Persian army, and at last general; principal officer of engineers, and constructor of roads, in which latter work he has really left some striking marks of his success), on meeting the ladies when he was on foot, turned his face to the wall like a native, and as each carriage passed, deliberately saluted from the back of his head. This delighted the ladies, and they informed the Shah. The Shah sent for Gersteiger, and made him repeat his salutes, and after laughing a good deal, gave him a handsome present. (p. 370)