What was the Apis Bull and why was it worshiped in ancient Egypt?

Apis Bull: An Important Sacred Animal in Ancient Egypt. Image: Statue of Apis from the 13th dynasty of ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians were known for worshiping many gods, most of whom were represented by various animals such as cats, dogs, and bulls. For example, the goddess Bast (or Bastet) was seen as a cat goddess that protected the home from evil spirits. It’s a known fact that polytheism in ancient Egypt went as far back as the Early Dynastic Period. The Apis bull was indeed one of the most prominent deified animals throughout the history of Egypt. In addition to being a symbol of fertility and rebirth, Apis was seen as a deity that embodied most of the state’s cultural values. He was a symbol of fertility and rebirth.

Did you know?

In ancient Egypt, he was called Api, Hep or Hapi. The name Apis is of Greek origin. Despite the similarities in their names, Apis is not the same as Hapi/Api, who was a river deity.

Origin of Apis

Unlike some of the other Egyptian gods, Apis did not have a clear origin story, but it is believed that his worship existed as far back as the Predynastic Period (around 6000-3150 BC).

Initially, Apis was a fertility god and was first linked to the creator god, Ptah. By the Early Dynastic Period (around 3150-2613 BC), Apis was also linked to Hathor, who was one of the most powerful Egyptian goddesses. During that period, a king’s power was linked to the bull, and it was around that same period the cult of Apis began to sprout.

The Cult of Apis

From the Ptolemaic Period (315 BC to 30 BC) to the Roman Period, the cult of Apis thrived and though several other gods grew popular in other regions or throughout Egypt, Apis remained extremely popular.

The cult performed a ritual called The Running of Apis, which was done to fertilize the earth. During that ritual, a bull would run into the temple in Memphis, which was then the capital of Egypt. The act of the bull running symbolized the fertility of the entire land of Egypt.

While alive the Apis Bull was associated with the god Ptah; however, upon death, the bull deity became Osirapis as he merged with the god Osiris, the ruler of the afterlife. As result, it was believed that Apis was the representation of balance and eternity. Image: The sacred procession of Apis Osiris by F.A. Bridgman

Appearance & Depiction

Apis appeared in the form of a striding bull, with a solar disc and uraeus between its two horns. During the Late Period of Ancient Egypt (c. 527-332 BC), he appeared as half man – half bull, with a human body and bull’s head. Considered very important symbols, both the uraeus and solar disc represented the pharaoh’s power in this life and the afterlife.

There were specific features that the bull needed to be/have:

  • Black in color

  • A white triangular mark on its forehead

  • White marks along its back designed as a hawk or vulture’s wings

  • A white mark on its side in the shape of a crescent

  • Double hairs on its tail, and

  • A lump located under its tongue designed like a scarab

A bull found with these unique features was instantly recognized as Apis; however, it was acceptable to have fewer of the features. The bulls usually found tended to have at least the white forehead mark and the scarab-designed lump under its tongue.

Read More: 12 Major Ancient Egyptian Symbols and their Meanings

How did the ancient Egyptians worship the Apis Bull?

The chosen bull was sent to Memphis, where it was placed in the temple together with its mother, which Egyptians affectionately called Isis Cow. In some cases, the goddess Hathor was seen as Apis’s mother.

Many Egyptians and other worshipers would then travel to Memphis to worship Apis. On special occasions like festivals and royal coronations, the bull was released in a room with different gates. Items like foodstuffs and other symbols were placed in the other rooms beyond the gate, and its worshipers would ask the bull questions regarding their future. The room that the bull would enter provided the answers for their questions.

After the ritual was offered, the bull was allowed to freely roam around its chamber while the people worshiped it. The Egyptians were not deterred by the mortality of the bull since they knew that the spirit that dwelt in the animal was immortal.

One of the most prominent festivals in which the bull played a crucial role was the Heb-Sed Festival, which honored kings who had reigned for thirty years. During the celebration, the king was required to perform certain acts to prove that he was physically capable of serving the people, as well as the gods. Because of the bull’s association to the power of the king, the sacred animal was made to walk beside the king to show that it favored the king.

Read More: 10 Famous Ancient Egyptian Religious Festivals

Apis Bull Rituals: Death & Replacement

As part of tradition, a bull would only be ceremonially killed after 25 years provided it had no illnesses or accidents. The priests would eat certain parts of the bull with the rest of its carcass sent to the temple at Memphis for embalming. The loss of the bull was treated as a period of national mourning, receiving the same treatment as a deceased king or noble person.

The embalmed bull was then buried at the Serapeum in a chamber constructed by Khaemweset, who was the son of King Ramesses II. Khaemweset was a High Priest of Ptah, so it’s likely that he oversaw the burial of bulls.

Despite being in good shape, the bulls were killed to ensure that it rejoined Osiris in the underworld. This process also symbolized the cycle of birth, death and resurrection. While alive, the bull represented Ptah (life). In death, it was known as Osirapis because of its union with Osiris. With the bull dying while fit, it ensured that the new bull would look exactly as the previous had.

Read More: The Ancient Egyptian Story of Isis and Osiris

Birth of Serapis

As part of their efforts to unite Greek and Egyptian cultures, Ptolemaic rulers promoted the deity Serapis, which was a combination of the features of Osiris, Apis and Zeus. Image – Bust of the Hellenistic-Egyptian deity Serapis

When the Ptolemaic Period started, the first king, Ptolemy I Soter, decided to merge Apis with other Greek and Egyptian gods, including Zeus and Osiris to create a new god called Serapis. He did so with the intention of uniting the Greeks and Egyptians through religion. This move by Ptolemaic rulers in Alexandria proved very successful, as the two cultures mixed so well, turning the city of Alexandria into the greatest cultural hub of the Hellenistic era.

Read More: 12 Greatest Ancient Egyptian Cities

Invasion of Egypt, Christianity, & Decline of Apis Worship

Around 525 BC, Persian King Cambyses II invaded Egypt. Cambyses reportedly killed the Apis bull before its time and fed its carcass to dogs. It’s said that this act made the Egyptians dislike dogs – animals they had highly regarded previously. However, some historians have disputed this event, stating that Cambyses respected Egyptian culture and would have never committed such an atrocity.

But it was still possible for Cambyses to have managed to invade Egypt by using their own beliefs as their weakness. During the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BC, the Persian king had his army officers gather several stray cats and painted depictions of the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet on their shields. During the battle, the Egyptians refused to attack the cats out of the fear that Bastet would turn against them.

After killing the Apis bull, Cambyses declared himself king of Egypt, marking the start of a new era. Eventually, Cambyses would pay for his actions. According to the renowned Greek historian Herodotus, the king accidentally stabbed himself while mounting his horse one day. It was believed that the incident happened at the same place where he slaughtered the Apis bull. Persian king is believed to have later died from the infection he sustained from the blade.

Through all these events, the cult of Apis still thrived. However, it fell apart when Christianity began to spread in the 4th century AD. Christian zealots destroyed many ancient Egyptian temples, including the Serapeum, a temple dedicated to Serapis and Apis. And by the 5th century, the cult of Apis no longer existed as Christianity had become the most dominant religion.

READ MORE: Life and Reign of Theodosius I, the Anti-Pagan Roman Emperor

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