Apis is the Greek name for a sacred bull from Egyptian mythology revered from prehistoric times. The first traces of his worship are represented on rock engravings, he is then mentioned in the texts of the Pyramids of the Old Empire and his worship lasted until Roman times. Apis is a symbol of fertility, sexual power and physical strength.
Representation and hypostasis
The god Apis is first represented by a bull with black coat spotted in places with white marks which, according to a precise code, made it possible to distinguish it from its congeners. In its anthropomorphic form, it is represented by a man dressed in the chendjit with a head of a bull whose horns enclose a solar disk. The latter is sometimes endowed with an uraeus. His physical embodiment was venerated throughout the country in the form of a living bull which the priests selected according to divine signs which he wore. He was then taken to Memphis and kept in an Apieum near the great temple of Ptah, of which he was also an incarnation.
In Memphis, Apis is first the herald of the god Ptah, the creator, then is associated with his bat. From the New Kingdom, he is also associated with the god Re, life, and begins to be represented carrying the solar disk between his horns. At his death, the Apis was assimilated to the god Osiris under the name of Osiris-Apis and is associated with the funeral cult. Thus, in the Late Period it is found represented on the sarcophagi as a bull carrying the mummy of the deceased on the back, and accompanying him to his tomb. During the Greco-Roman period, his funerary form of Osiris-Apis will be assimilated (notably in Alexandria) to the gods Pluto and Apollo in the form of the god Serapis. Hence the name of the tomb of the Apis, the Serapeum. The Apis was therefore chosen according to very strict criteria (perhaps twenty-nine), the main ones being: a black coat; double tail hairs; a white triangle on the forehead taking the form of an inverted delta; a falcon-shaped sign with wings spread over the back; a sign in the shape of a scarab under the tongue. Her mother was said to have been fertilized by lightning, and once identified with her sacred calf she was also venerated in Memphis where she shared the life of rites and offerings due to her rank as mother of the God. We also know that when the priests found the new Apis, he was generally only a year old. Once identified, he was built in the field where he lived a stable facing the rising sun and fed there for forty days, during which only the priests could approach him and present offerings to him. Once the prescribed time had elapsed, he was led with great fanfare by a procession of one hundred priests to the city of Nilopolis where he was welcomed in the city temple. He stayed there for four months during which all the women who wanted to could visit him in order to obtain his favors and a pledge of fertility.
These ceremonies were the occasion of great rejoicings in all the country which came to address its homage to the new Apis. At the end of these four months the bull and the hundred priests left the city and went to Memphis during a sumptuous procession down the Nile. We must imagine then along this course of fifty kilometers, the whole people amassed on the banks of the river cheering the procession of boats which accompanied the sacred barge in which the divine animal was sheltered, and throwing offerings in the river, in order to attract the blessing of the gods on Egypt. Arriving in the great metropolis of Lower Egypt which is the main place of worship of the god, the procession then took the path of the temples, stopping at each station specially prepared for the occasion in order to receive its blessing there. The city must have been buzzing and offerings poured in from everywhere. The bull was officially introduced into the temple of Ptah where he was to meet the great god of the city in the depths of his sanctuary. Then, he was finally taken to the temple which was reserved for him, only to leave it during precise religious ceremonies which punctuated the year of the ancient Egyptians, such as the great New Year celebration, on the occasion of the arrival of flooding. According to the testimony of historians of classical antiquity, once a year we presented to the god in his temple a heifer in order to satisfy his sexual ardor, heifer which was the same day ritually slaughtered and given as an offering to the gods. It is from this time that the oracle of the god Apis who was returned to his temple is widely distributed. The god who had his sacred stable there, which the Greeks baptized with the generic name of secôs, was presented to the pilgrims and according to his movements answered their questions in the affirmative or the negative. In Roman times this oracle could also be expressed through children who played in the temple or in front of the sanctuary, and responded to it with their expressions, gestures or exclamations, interpreted and translated by the priests of Apis to the devotees who were present at the scene.
Death and funeral worship
The accounts of Greek and Roman historians who approach the question of the cult of Apis, often refer to a sacrificial practice concerning the Apis. According to these testimonies and their time, the god could not live beyond twenty-five years5. This time would have been prescribed in the sacred Egyptian texts themselves. Once this age was reached, the priests would have led the animal to the banks of the Nile or in a basin specially provided for this purpose and would have drowned it there in order to respect literally the writings and the myth. This ritual killing ending the life of the sacred bull could identify him with the destiny of Osiris who died the first time of drowning at the hands of his own brother the god Seth6. For Pliny the Younger, this figure of twenty-five years corresponded to astronomical calculations linked to the combined cycle of the sun and the moon, of which the Apis was the embodiment.Anyway, legend has it that at its dead, the Apis is reincarnated in one of its fellows, whom the priests were instructed to find immediately. Thus, only one bull was worshiped at a time. The death of the Apis bull was a major event and that led to a national mourning of seventy days, the time of his mummification. The embalming of the bull was the subject of a complex ritual, known by a long Papyrus from Vienna whose first column is in Zagreb. The funeral of Apis was lavish; embalmed, it was placed in a sarcophagus and buried in the Serapeum of Saqqara, a grandiose common tomb fitted out in the New Empire and continuously enlarged thereafter until the last Ptolemies. The mother of Apis was also entitled to preferential treatment, and was buried in a special necropolis not far from the Isum of Saqqara. The bull continued to receive worship after his death in the form of the god Osiris-Apis. The Greeks assimilated it to the god Serapis and the cult was exported first to Alexandria then across the Mediterranean in the main cities of the Hellenistic and then Roman world. During the Roman period, the Serapeum of Alexandria is reputed to have also contained catacombs intended for the burial of the sacred bulls and in fact we have not yet found the trace of the burials of the Apis beyond the last lagids.