1902 Encyclopedia > Apis


APIS, a sacred bull worshipped at Memphis from the earliest period, having probably been introduced into the religious system as early as the 2nd dynasty by the king Kaiechos, who instituted the worship of Apis and the bull Mnevis.

Apis bull god statue

Apis, the ancient Egyptian bull god worshipped at Memphis

His name in hieroglyphs was Hapi, and meant "the hidden," as he had to be discovered amidst the cattle, which was done by certain diacritical marks. According to the hieroglyphic inscriptions which accompany his form, he was the second birth or living incarnation of the god Ptah, the Egyptian Hephaestos or Vulcan. Apis is first mentioned and appears in the monuments of the 4th dynasty. The two bulls Apis and Mnevis are considered to have respectively represented the moon and sun, and seem both to have been buried at Memphis.

He was supposed to have been born of a virgin cow, rendered pregnant by a moonbeam or a flash of lightning. The mother of Apis, according to Strabo, had a part of the temple of the Apis reserved for her use; and the hieroglyphic inscriptions record a prophet or priest attached to her service. On the monuments she shares the honours of the bull, and is represented under the attributes of Athor as a goddess with a cow’s head. This cow had her especial name, these animals having each a separate appellation. According to the Greek writers Apis was the image of Osiris, and worshipped because Osiris was supposed to have passed into a bull, and to have been soon after manifested by a succession of these animals. The hieroglyphic inscriptions identify the Apis with Osiris, adorned with horns or the head of a bull, and unite the two names as Hapi-Osor, or Apis Osiris. According to this view the Apis was the incarnation of Osiris manifested in the shape of a bull. But besides this title, the monuments style Apis the son of Ptah, who was supposed to be his father by the sacred cow, or the second life of Ptah. Other monuments, indeed, declare him to have had no father, and to have been Onnophris or Osiris, but this conflict of ideas must have arisen from his material and spiritual nature, uniting the soul of Osiris or Ptah mystically with the sacred animal. Besides the mother of the Apis, a cow was annually exhibited to him decorated with the same insignia -- that is, a disk between the horns and a housing on the back, to judge from the insignia found on the bronze figures of the Apis -- and then slaughtered the same day, for no issue of the divine animal was permitted to exist.

According to other authorities several cows were kept in the Apeum on the announcement of the birth of an Apis, the sacred scribes and priests proceeded to verify the characters of the calf. The marks of the Apis were a black coloured hide, with a white triangular spot on the forehead, the hair arranged in the shape of an eagle on the back, and a knot under the tongue in shape of a scarabaeus, the sacred insect and emblem of Ptah, a white spot resembling a lunar crescent at his right side. These marks have been supposed to be for the most part certain arrangements of the hairs of the hide as seen in some animals. A house was built to the calf Apis facing the east, in which for four months he was nourished with milk. When he had grown up he was conducted, at the time of the new moon, to a ship by the sacred scribes and prophets, and conducted to the Apeum at Memphis, where there were courts, places for him to walk in, and a drinking fountain. According to Diodorus, he was first led to Nilopolis, and kept there 40 days, then shipped in a boat with a gilded cabin to Memphis, and he was there allowed to be seen for 40 days only by women, who exposed themselves to him. Like all the sacred animals his actions were oracular, and he had two chambers, his passage into one of which was deemed fortunate, and into the other unlucky. Thus the licking the garments of a visitor was supposed to prognosticate a tranquil but short life, and his refusal of the food offered to him by the hand of Germanicus, the approaching death of that hero. The actions of the children who played around his shrine or accompanied his processions were also considered oracular. The day of his birth was kept as an annual festival.

His life was not allowed to exceed 25 years, and should it have attained that maximum reckoned from the date of his enthronisation, the Apis was killed and thrown into a well, in which the priests asserted he had precipitated himself. This well was known to no one, and no one was allowed to reveal the place of burial. If the Apis died before the 25 years he received a splendid burial at Memphis in the Serapeum, for after death he was called the osor-hapi, or Serapis. This funeral was expensive; his body was placed in a barge, and accompanied by a procession of a Bacchanalian character, passing through the brazen doors of Memphis. As universal joy prevailed at his discovery, so his death threw all Egypt into a general mourning, and every one shaved off his beard. This mourning continued till the discovery of another Apis.

His birthday was celebrated by an annual feast, the natales Apidis, of seven days’ duration, during which it was supposed the crocodiles were innocuous, and a silver cup was thrown on the occasion into a certain part of the Nile, which was considered a flux of Apis. This festival coincided with the rise of the Nile.

On the mummy coffins an Apis is often seen on the foot-board of those of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. bearing on the back the mummy of the deceased to the sepulcher. The discovery by M. Mariette of the Seraoeum at Memphis described by Strabo has thrown great light on the worship and history of the Apis, the mode of burial, and the sequence of the bulls. (See SERAPEUM.)

The oldest Apis mentioned was one of the reign of Amenophis III., and he was followed in the 18th dynasty by bulls which had died in the reigns of Tutankhamen and Horus. There was a succession under the 19th dynasty, commencing with Seti or Sethos I., besides three which died in the 16th, 26th, and 30th years if Rameses II., and three others, the dates of whose deaths are unknown. Under the 20th dynasty there was an Apis which died in the 26th year of Rameses III., one in the reign of Rameses IX., others of the date of Rameses XI. And XIV., and four others whose dates are not determined, besides three more which died under the 21st dynasty. Of bulls deceased in the 22nd dynasty, there is one of the 23rd year of Osorkon II., another of the 14th year of Takellothis I., and a third of the 28th year of Sheshank or Shishak III.

It is not till the reign of this monarch that the dates connected with the Apis become of chronological importance. On the sepulchral tablet of the Apis which was born in the reign of Shishak III., is found the formula of the date of the birth and inauguration of the bull. It was born on the 20th of the month Payni, in the 28th year of the king’s reign, and enthroned on the 1st of Paophi of the same year, having died in the 2nd year of the king Pamai, and been buried on the 1st of the month Mechir of the same year. It had attained the age of 26 years. Three other bulls died in the 4th, 11th and 37th years of Shishak IV. Important statements like these show the intervals of time which elapsed between the regnal years of different kings, and check the chronology of the 22nd and subsequent dynasties, but owing to unfortunate lacunae the chronology of Egypt is conjectural, and not positive till the reign of Tirhakah. The dates of the other Apis are, one which died on the 5th of the month Thoth, in 6th year of Bekenrenf, or Bocchoris, another of the 2nd year of Shabak or Sabaco, and that buried on the 23rd Pharmouthi of the 24th year of Tirhakah, 730 B.C. The dates of the other bulls prior to the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, 332 B.C., are: one born in the 26th year of Tirhakah, enthroned on the 9th Pharmouthi, the same year deceased, in the 20th year of Psammetichus I., and buried on ! the 25th Paophi, of the 23rd year of Psammetichus; another deceased in the 52nd year of the same king; a third born in the 53d year of Psammetichus I, enthroned on the 12th of Athor of the 54th year, deceased on the 6th of Paophi, and buried on the 10th Choiak of the 16th year of Necho, having lived 16 years 7 months and 17 days; another born on 7th Paophi of the 16th year of Necho, enthroned 9th Epiphi of the 1st year of Psammetichus I., died on the 12th Pharmouthi of the 12th year of Apries, and buried the 21st Payni of the same year, aged 17 years 6 months and 5 days; another born in the 5th year of Amasis, inaugurated on the 18th Payni of the same year, died on the 6th Phamenoth, was buried on the 15th Pashons of the 23rd year of the same king, aged 18 years and 7 months. The Apis which died after this, and of which a sarcophagus was found dated in the 4th year of Cambyses, is the one supposed to have been killed by Cambyses on his return from Aethiopia. Another born in the month Pharmouthi of the 5th year of Cambyses, died in the 4th year of Darius, and was buried on the 2nd Pashons of the 5th year of darius, and had lived upwards of 7 years. It is the Apis of Darius, alluded to by Polyaenus, for the successor of which Darius offered 100 talents as a reward to the fortunate discoverer. Another Persian king Ochus is said to have killed and eaten an Apis, 338 B.C. The death of an Apis soon after the death of Alexander the Great, 323 B.C. is also recorded. The sepulchral tablets in the demotic characters according to M. Brugsch, record the birth of an Apis in the month of Phamenoth, in the 29th year of Ptolemy Euergetes I., 231 B.C., which died in the 51st year, 179 B.C.; and another older, probably of Ptolemy Philadelphus II., 253 B.C.; another of the 14th year of Ptolemy Epiphanes IV., 211 B.C.; another in the 20th year of Ptolemy IV., 185 B.C.; another in the 17th year of Ptolemy Philometor VII., 164 B.C.; and another born in the 53d year (118-117 B.C.) of Ptolemy Euergetes II., died 15 years old, 103 B.C., in the reign of Ptolemy XI. In the Roman times the discovery of an Apis in the reign of Hadrian, 121 A.D., caused a tumult at Alexandria; and the last known Apis is that brought to the Emperor Julian II., 362-363 A.D., after which the Apis disappears from Egypt altogether.

The Apis was embalmed at great cost, but the operation consisted in preparing with bitumen the skull and a few of the principal bones of the bull made up into an appropriate shape. The second genius of the Karneter, or Egyptian Hades, was also called Hapi or Apis, but he was quite distinct from the bull god and the son of Osiris. His type was that of a human mummy with the head of a Cynocephalus ape. Bronze native figures of the Apis are not uncommon, and those of stone are occasionally found, but porcelain ones are extremely rate.

Lepsius, "Ueber den Apiskreis," Zeitsch. D. Morgenl. Gesellsch. vii Bd. 1853; Brugsch, Ibid.; Mariette, Le Sérapéum de Memphis, 1857; Jablonski, Pantheon, ii. (S. B.)

The above article was written by Samuel Birch, D.C.L., LL.D., Keeper of the Egyptian and Oriental Antiquities, British Museum, up to 1885; Rede Lecturer at Cambridge, 1876; author of History of Ancient Pottery, The Papyrus of Nashkem, Cypriote Inscriptions, and other works on archaelogy.

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