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Definition: Apis from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(ā'pĭs), in Egyptian religion, sacred bull of Memphis, said to be the incarnation of Osiris or of Ptah. His worship spread throughout the Mediterranean world and was particularly important during the time of the Roman Empire. See also Serapis.


Summary Article: Apis from Encyclopedia of African Religion

In Ancient Egypt, the Apis bull was the calf of a cow that was never able to have another calf. It was a calf with distinctive features that made it remarkable and unique. For example, the apis bull was black with a white diamond on its forehead, an image of an eagle on its back, two white hairs on its tail, and a scarab beetle mark under its tongue. Such a bull had to be special in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians. They thought that a flash of lightning had to strike the cow in such a way that the cow conceived a calf with the distinctive marks. This was enough for them to see this calf as a mark of something uniquely sacred. It had been sent from heaven by the deity to interact on Earth with humans.

Nothing persuaded the Egyptians that this was a coincidence; everything suggested to them that this was a divine plan, and they articulated the nature of the bull as a part of their theology. Like the Mnevis and the Buchis bulls, the Apis bull was an Earthly appearance of god. Throughout Kemet's history, there had been animals that had interceded between humans and the deities; there had even been animal representations in stone, wood, and metal of deities, but this was different. Here in the living flesh was an animal that was the incarnate of a god, living and acting like a bull among humans, but being himself divine. This idea would not be seen again until it was seen in human form with Jesus, who was considered flesh that became god. This entry looks at the origins of Apis worship, the major festival, and the priestly process of finding new bulls to take the place of Apis.

Figure. Bronze statuette group of the king before the Apis bull. From Egypt. Late Period, after 600 BC. The Apis bull was sacred to the god Ptah of Memphis. Only one Apis bull existed at a time, unlike other sacred animals.

Source: British Museum/Art Resource.

Origin of the Idea

The Apis bull concept may have originated in Nubia. We know that it was worshipped in the Nile Valley long before it became associated with a particular deity. However, in Egypt, the Apis bull was Ausar on the Earth in full manifestation. Ausar was worshipped as the god of the Dead and resurrection at the end of the Old Kingdom. By then, Apis had been worshipped in Nubia and Egypt since at least the first dynasty. Some authors think that the Apis bull might be predynastic, a position that seems quite probable given the data regarding its presence at the first dynasty. Later, as Mnevis was Ra-Atum, so Buchis was Ra, and Apis the resurrected Ausar. These three bulls selected for their special markings and physical characteristics were gods on the Earth.

When the Apis died, he was mourned, ritualized, mummified, and buried with the same pomp and pageantry that one associated with the death and burial of a per-aa. Plutarch claims that the Apis bull was worshipped because the people believed him to be Ausar. This black bull, the mighty bull, the Great Black One, was Apis-Ausar, the soul of Ausar. Sacrifices to the Apis bull had to be made with oxen that were of uniform brown or white color; they could have no blemish on their hides. The Great Black One had to have clean, unblemished animals for the sacrifice to be acceptable.

The ancient Egyptians kept the Apis bull in Mennefer, the capital city and chief religious center in the north of the country. In this city, Per-aa Psammaticus built a grand court with columns of 12 cubits in height in which the bull was kept prior to being paraded in public for the people to see and behold the living Ausar. Psammaticus also built two stables that were connected to the court of the Apis bull. These two stables for the animal or animals had a vestibule where the people could come to see the Apis and the mother of the Apis.

The Great Festival to the Black One

The ancient Egyptians believed that it was necessary to honor the Apis bull outdoors to establish a connection between the people and the real living Ausar. During this great festival, which lasted for 7 days, multitudes of believers would come from far distant towns and villages to get a glimpse of the Apis bull.

Masses of people would gather in Mennefer from every possible place to honor the Apis, to see the Apis with their own eyes, and to be healed if possible by just touching those who had seen the bull. Those who were sick, infirmed, or otherwise afflicted with psychological or physical problems would congregate in the city for the 7-day festival. Priests and priestesses in multicolored clothes made of animal skins and linens would lead the sacred Apis bull in a solemn procession through the streets of Mennefer so that the people could see with their own eyes the god in the flesh. Parents would put their children forward, often lifting them high so they could see over the crowds, in the hope that their children would smell the bull. It was thought that if a child smelled the bull, that child would have the power of predicting the future. Such a gift would serve the child and his family well, thus the intense desire to see and smell the Apis bull.

The priests who kept the court and temple of the Apis bull also ran the oracle of Apis. Those people who wanted to consult the living image of Ausar could, with the proper permission, be allowed to ask the Apis bull for his opinion. If the bull were consulted, food would be offered to him, and if the food was accepted, then the omen was good; but if the bull rejected the food, then the omen was bad.

A New Apis

Because bulls did not live forever, the priests who attended the Apis had to be ready to search for another bull with the proper signs once the Apis died. Some have argued that the priests usually killed by drowning the Apis once it reached 25 years of age. A major funeral was held for the bull. It was then mummified, and the sarcophagus was taken by sledge through the town with the priests dressed in leopard skins wailing and sobbing to their god.

When the new bull was discovered, it was taken to the City of the Nile and kept for 40 days, during which time priestesses were the only ones who could go near the bull. When the time was completed, the bull was transported to Mennefer on a boat with a golden cabin made especially for the Apis. When the new Apis appeared, the people greeted it with as much joy as they had shown sorrow for the loss of the last Apis bull. All is restored and the Great Black One lives forever as Ausar lives forever.

See also

Animals

Further Readings
  • Armour, R. (2004).. Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt. Cairo: American University Press.
  • Hornung, E. (1996).. Conception of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Asante, Molefi Kete
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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