Ancient Travellers

A Greek Egyptian ‘Priest’ in Copenhagen

The marble face of an old man peeks from a corner in a Copenhagen museum. Archaeologist Sabine Neumann identifies him as an Egyptian religious specialist serving both a Greek community and his native gods.

He looks towards the visitors from his corner in the Glyptotek in Copenhagen. Large experienced eyes, once with painted-in pupils, but now gazing emptily as if lost in deep contemplation. His weathered face, his sunken cheeks, bushy eyebrows, the deep lines that wind their way across his forehead all betray a venerable age, clearly visible since the sculptor lay down his chisel more than 2000 years ago, but aided considerably by the passing of time which has roughened the marble face in places and robbed him of his nose and most of both ears.

Aging Man (IN 2032), Photo: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

He was probably from Athens, in the first century bce, but his age and shaved head suggest that he was also Egyptian and member of a small, but very important, group of religious experts who occupied special positions in sanctuaries around the Greek world.

Even before Alexander set out on what would become his conquest of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (and Egypt as one part of it), Egyptian gods had been worshipped among the Greeks. But it was in the period following Alexander’s death that the Greeks gained a keener interest in Egyptian cults and sanctuaries for Sarapis, Isis , Anoubis and Harpokrates became part of the cultic landscapes in many parts of the Greek world.

In many cases, it seems, the cult was carried by Egyptians who crossed the Mediterranean and settled in the Greek cities. An inscription found in a sanctuary on the small Aegean island of Delos relates how the Egyptian god Sarapis first arrived in the island around the turn of the third and second centuries bce in the luggage of a man named Apollonios:

The priest Apollonios inscribed the following at the command of the god: Apollonios, my grandfather who was of priestly stock, came from Egypt with his gods and continued to celebrate his rituals according to the ancestral tradition and he lived, it is thought, to be 97 years. My father Demetrios succeeded him and worshipped in the same way and because of his piety he was honoured by the god with a bronze statue which is now dedicated in the sanctuary of the god. He was 61 years. When I (Apollonios) inherited the sacred objects and devoted myself carefully to his cult, the god told me in my sleep that a Sarapeion should be dedicated to him and that he must not be in a rented building like before. He said that he would find himself a place where he should be set and that he would point it out, and he did. The spot was full of rubbish and advertised for sale on a little notice in the agora. As the god wanted, the purchase was made and the sanctuary quickly built in just six months.

Syll.3 663.1-20

At Delos, as in other places, Sarapis soon became popular and by the time the island came under the control of the Athenians in the second century bce, a great sanctuary for the Egyptian gods Isis, Sarapis and Anoubis had been constructed (the so-called ‘Sarapeion C’, one of three sanctuaries for Egyptian gods on the island). Each year, the Athenians elected a priest from among themselves who took charge of the sanctuary for a year. During his tenure, the priest was expected to manage the sanctuary; look after its finances, register dedications made by visitors and generally keep order. But he was also responsible for carrying out the sacrifices for the gods in a correct manner and at the appointed time, even if he had no particular expertise in the Egyptian matter of sacrificing.

The remains of ‘Sarapeion C’ on Delos. © Soto, Irene: Ancient World Image Bank (New York: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 2009-) https://www.flickr.com/photos/34561917@N04/5182309685/ used under terms of a Creative Commons Attribution license.

In Egypt priesthood ran in certain families who passed it down through the generations. These priests were cultic specialists initiated and educated in the often complicated rituals and the sacred script of the Egyptian gods. They stood out with their shaved their bodies and wore white linen robes – a level of commitment which few if any Greek priests would probably consider for their one-year term.

The priests shave themselves all over their body every other day, so that no lice or any other foul thing may come to be upon them when they minister to the gods; and the priests wear garments of linen only and sandals of papyrus, and any other garment they may not take nor other sandals; these wash themselves in cold water twice in the day and twice again in the night; and other religious services they perform (one may almost say) of infinite number.

Herodotus 2.37 (trans. Goodley 1920)

Accordingly, the Athenians felt a need for their annually elected priest of the Egyptian gods to have the support of a real expert – someone well-acquainted with the rites of the gods and with the right cultic credentials; that is: an Egyptian. 

Egyptian religious experts – sometimes known as aretalogos or ‘expounder of wonders’ – are known to have served in several Greek sanctuaries of Egyptian gods. They were never afforded the title ‘priest’, that was reserved for the annually elected (Greek) priests, nevertheless they performed a crucial role in for the cult and received some recognition. Statues like the portrait in the Copenhagen Glyptotek, were set up in honour of Egyptian priests in several places across the Greek world and attest to their presence as well as the reverence with which they were regarded by the communities they served. The portraits conform to a certain type: invariably they are old and with shaved heads, and in a sense therefore the person begins to fade from the portrait and blend in with the perceptions, expectations and perhaps prejudices of his surroundings who seem to have seen in him first and foremost an Egyptian and ‘priest’. Familiar and foreign at the same time.

%d bloggers like this: