A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Did the Greeks borrow Egyptian gods?

February 10, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

I was watching a special on Egyptian gods today, and this question came up. When one society conquers another (as when the Greeks conquered the Egyptians), usually elements of the conquered society are incorporated into the conqueror's. Are there any Greek gods that came out of the Egyptian conquest?

Guest contributor Fierra replies:

Depends what you mean. There are several aspects to your question: Were elements of Egyptian society incorporated into Greek society? Were any Egyptian gods incorporated into the Greek pantheon? Did this only take place amongst the Greeks living in Egypt, or among those Greeks back in Greece too? What evidence do we have and how reliable is it?

Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 BC, but there had been Greek contact with Egypt before then. Ionians and Carians are known to have served as mercenaries in the armies of Psammetichus I in the seventh century BC on campaigns in the Nile valley and Naucratis was declared a Greek free-trade zone by the pharaoh Amasis in 560 BC2. The Greek mercenaries and traders spread stories back home about Egypt and gave Egyptians things Greek names, such as the Nile estuary being called a delta after the shape of the Greek letter. The word Egypt itself may have come from Homer's Aigyptos, a Hellenization of the word Hikuptah ("mansion of the soul of Ptah"). This was an alternative name for the city of Memphis, the capital of Egypt at that time; Ptah was its patron god.

The Greeks assumed the Egyptian gods were the same as their own gods, but in different form. This seems odd, since although Greek gods are often associated with certain animals and are frequently shown changing into animal form (especially Zeus), they are never depicted as being animal-headed and human-bodied, the standard form for the Egyptian gods. Zeus was identified as Amun (or Ammon or Amen-ra, depending on how you translate it into English), the chief Egyptian deity in the ancient Egyptian period. Amun was the Egyptian sun god, and was often depicted with a ram's head. In fact, it was at the oracle of Zeus-Amun in the desert that Alexander would consult several centuries later during his conquest of Egypt. Apollo was identified with the Egyptian sky and sun god, Horus, who was depicted with a falcon's head, whereas Apollo's animal was the dolphin and his bird the crow.

Despite the differences, the early Greeks accepted that the Egyptian gods were their gods, merely having different names and appearances. Did they believe the gods revealed themselves differently to different peoples? Were the Greeks so homesick that they wanted to believe that their gods accompanied them in some form, so they would feel more at home? Or did they believe their gods were all-powerful and present everywhere, regardless of form? It's impossible to say. Herodotus claims that Amon is shown with a ram's head in memory of a trick he (Zeus) played on Herakles (Hercules) [2.42] and provides reasons for the differences between several other sets of Greek and Egyptian gods. He also claimed that the parents of many Greek heroes and demi-gods came from Egypt.

This transference of deities occurred in other cultures too. For example, the Romans in Britain identified their goddess Minerva with a local water goddess near Bath, both of whom were associated with wisdom. They called the combined goddess Sulis-Minerva. Whether that was done for religious reasons, i.e., the Romans believed the two to be the same goddess, or for political reasons, i.e., to keep the local tribes happy, is unknown. However, Sulis was not worshipped back in Rome or in the empire outside of Britain (except possibly as part of the Sulivae, triple mother goddesses in Gaul).

The same was true of the Egyptian-Greek hybrid gods - they seem to have been worshipped solely by Greeks living in Egypt, without influencing religious practice back in Greece. That would seem to suggest Egyptian influence on Greek religious beliefs was minor. But there is reason to believe otherwise.

The first known written accounts by Greeks of Egypt are from Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 510 BC) and Herodotus of Helicarnassus (c. 450 BC). The former work is lost, but is said to have contained only geological and botanical information, so no religious or cultural contamination could have resulted from its being read back in Greece. Herodotus spent at least three months traveling in Egypt, penetrating at least as far as the first cataract on the Nile, and dwelt on the history, lives, religion and wonders of Egypt in his second book, Euterpe.

His discussion of Egyptian religion bears directly on your question. Herodotus mentions Egyptian gods frequently, but very often by the Greek equivalent names rather than the Egyptian names transliterated into Greek. The reason for this is that he "was obsessed by the idea that the Hellenes derived from Egypt, not only many of their religious observances, but also the gods themselves." For example, in 2.586 he says, "The Egyptians were also the first to introduce solemn assemblies, processions, and litanies to the gods; of all which the Greeks were taught the use of by them. It seems to me a sufficient proof of this that in Egypt these practices have been established from remote antiquity, while in Greece they are only recently known."

The next surviving Greek account of Egypt is the General History by Diodorus Siculus, who wrote in Roman times, around 59 BC. He too ascribes the religious origins of the Greeks to the Egyptians, but since he draws heavily on Herodotus that's unsurprising.

Turning from the written accounts (which can be inaccurate or biased; the history sections of both Herodotus and Diodorus are inaccurate in many respects), we can look to archaeology for more information. We can tell from burial customs and indications of religious activities that in the early period of Greek interaction in Egypt (seventh century BC onwards), native and foreign traditions existed side by side without any overlap. This is particularly evident in Greek tombs in Egypt containing "Hadra vases" - urns for cremation ashes named for the southeastern quarter of Alexandria where many were found. Since the mummy was important in the Egyptian concept of the afterlife, cremation was unthinkable for them.

However, it seems clear Alexander the Great made an effort to unite the two cultures. This can be seen in Greek-Egyptian burial chambers after 332 BC, which often have a floor plan akin to that of Greek houses, but combine Greek and Egyptian architectural features, decoration and religious motifs. Some think the Greeks did not understand Egyptian motifs and were only paying lip service to the idea of unity. Later, however, during the reigns of the Ptolemaic pharaohs, more merging of the gods of the two cultures took place. A new god, Serapis, was "created" in the city of Alexandria, combining the features of Osiris and Apis but having the appearance of Zeus. He was popular in Alexandria and his worship spread throughout the Mediterranean region, but he was much less popular in the rest of Egypt.9

During the same period more Greeks adopted Egyptian funerary customs, most notably in the Faiyum area, 37 miles southwest of Cairo. Faiyum is a fertile depression in the Libyan Desert surrounding the Birket Qarun lake. It was settled by Greeks from 332 BC onwards as the Ptolemaic pharaohs rewarded their veterans with land grants. Temples to local variants of the crocodile god Seth have been found in many Greek cities in the area, and one was even named in his honour - Crocodilopolis10.

In 1887, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, sometimes called the father of modern Egyptology, discovered a Roman cemetery in the Faiyum region. Upon exhumation, it was found that the bodies were mummified and the faces covered with wooden panels bearing portraits of the deceased, both traditional Egyptian practices. But Petrie noted that the portraits had a distinctly Greek look, and the clothing and jewelry in them dated many of the bodies to the fourth and third centuries BC, when the area had a large Greek population. While we can't be certain, the quality and presumed cost of the work suggest that the mummies were members of the Greek upper class rather than local Egyptians, who were mostly hired to do farm work. Greek veneration of Egyptian gods and adoption of Egyptian funerary customs argue that locally at least the Greeks had appropriated elements of the culture they had conquered.

Saying the same of mainstream Greek culture is a harder argument to make. Traditional Greek burial practices were very different, as were many Greek religious practices and beliefs, notwithstanding superficial similarities and the claims of Herodotus and a few other authors. That's not to say the Egyptian gods were unknown on the Greek mainland. An inscription found in the port of Athens, Piraeus, records the presence there of a temple to Isis/Osiris in 333 BC, before Alexander's conquest of Egypt. Furthermore, whether or not the Greeks embraced Egyptians gods, the Romans certainly did. Isis worship spread throughout the Roman empire as a result of conquest and trade. A temple was dedicated to Isis in Rome itself just after Julius Caesar's assassination, and from that time onward Isis became, according to Josephus, "a leading goddess of the Mediterranean world." At least one Egyptian deity thus enjoyed a long afterlife, even if Greek culture wasn't necessarily her primary vehicle.

References:
Alan Gardiner, The Egyptians, 1961.
Joachim Willeitner, "Tomb and Burial Customs After Alexander the Great," in Egypt - The World of the Pharaohs, Regine Schulz and Matthias Seidel, eds.
Herodotus, The Histories, translated by George Rawlinson, published as The Persian Wars, 1942.
Gardiner, op. cit. Gardiner, op. cit. Herodotus, op. cit. Diodorus Siculus, General History, Book 1, c. 59 BC.
Willeitner, op. cit. Ulrich Luft, "A Different World - Religious Conceptions," in Egypt -The World of the Pharaohs, op. cit.
Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin, Ancient Egypt - An Illustrated Reference To The Myths, Religions, Pyramids And Temples Of The Land Of The Pharaohs, 2003.

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