How gods merge

The extent of my ignorance impresses me. I will take gargantuan quantities of ignorance to my grave with me. As I toured the evocative and beautiful Sunken Cities exhibition at the British Museum, I was appalled that I didn’t know that after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt all the Ptolomaic pharaohs who followed, including Cleopatra were Macedonian-Egyptians.


The exhibition has some wonderful exhibits found at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Egypt. The Greek-Egyptian city of Thonis-Heracleion, which flourished around 300 BC, fell into the sea some 1300 years ago and was rediscovered only 20 years ago. Only a tiny fraction of all that is there has been excavated, but already there are great treasures.

There are statues of kings, queens, and gods that are 5 metres high, but there are also smaller statues, including this magical and erotic one of Arsinoe II from 300BC. This is made of stone, and yet her dress seems to be see-through. Beside her was a much larger statue of the Dark Queen.



Some of the statues were so well preserved that I needed convincing that they weren’t modern copies.

Perhaps the new knowledge that will stay with me was how Egyptian, Greek, and Roman gods merged.

Serapis, who featured a lot in the exhibition, was a god of abundance and resurrection created by Ptolomy I to bring together his Greek and Egyptian subjects. Serapis’s statues are Greek with Egyptian accessories. He has many of the characteristics of Osiris, the most popular of the Egyptian gods, and sometimes Serapis replaces Osiris as the husband of Isis. Dionysus is the Greek version of Osiris. The cult of Serapis flourished in the Roman Empire, even reaching London, but all the statues were destroyed and the cult suppressed when Christianity arrived.


Osiris also became a joint god with Antinous, the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, after Antinous drowned in the Nile. I know about Antinous, more as a boy and a man than as a God, after reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. He was also a constellation of stars until the constellations were formalised by the International Astronomical Union in 1930.



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