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Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Religious and funerary beliefs

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Apis Bull

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
Religious and funerary beliefs

Author(s):
David Elisabeth

This large limestone statue represents the Apis bull, one of the most
important sacred animals in Egypt. It was considered to be the earthly
form of the god Ptah, and its black and white coat bore distinctive markings. The solar aspect of the god is evoked on the statue by the disk between the animal's horns, with the uraeus cobra rearing up in the center of the sun. When the sculpture was discovered, it was entirely painted.

No Ordinary Animal

Auguste Mariette found the statue in a chapel leading to the
processional way of the Serapeum, between two sanctuaries
constructed by the kings Nectanebo I and Nectanebo II. Apis is
represented at an amble, with the two left legs leading - this is not the
gait of any ordinary bull! All that remains of the paint that originally
covered the statue are a few blackish marks on the flanks. The powerful
and austere sculpture is characteristic of animal statuary from the Late
Period.

Living the Life of a God

The animal, considered to be the living manifestation of the
god, was the only sacred bull alive at any given time. It had to have split
hairs on its tail; a scarab shape under its tongue; and a black and white
coat (no reddish hair). In addition, it had to have a triangular mark on its forehead; a patch representing a bird of prey in flight on its shoulders;
and a crescent moon on its flank. Once the bull was found, it was taken
to the Apis sanctuary, where it enjoyed a pampered life, in the company
of its mother. In the same way as humans, it was mummified when it died, and the viscera were kept in canopic jars. The animal was placed in a large stone sarcophagus situated in an underground chamber, in the necropolis of
the sacred bulls. Votive steles were placed nearby; today, these form a
valuable source of documentation, particularly for establishing
chronologies (see N 406).

The Serapeum and the Cult of Apis

This underground funerary complex, described by Greek
travelers and known as the Serapeum, was unearthed by the French
Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, from the 1850s onward. It is located in the
necropolis of Saqqara, not far from the ancient city of Memphis, near
present-day Cairo. The cult of the Apis bull has been known since the
start of the Egyptian civilization, but the oldest known tombs date from
the New Kingdom, under the reign of Amenophis III, circa 1390 BC. The
oldest tombs on this site - which was closed in the fourth century when
Christianity became the official state religion - have yet to be
discovered.

Bibliography

G. ANDREU, M. H. RUTSCHOWSCAYA, C. ZIEGLER, L'Egypte au Louvre, Hachette, Paris, 1997, p. 200-201, notice n 101.

Technical description

  • Apis Bull

    Late Period, Thirtieth Dynasty, 378-341 BC

    Saqqara, Serapeum

  • Sculpture in the round, limestone

    H. 1.26 m; L. 1.76 m; W. 0.48 m

  • Gift of the Egyptian government, as part of the policy of dividing archaeological finds, 1852

    N 390

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Animals and gods
    Room 19

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