Statue of Harpocrates

Marble statue of Harpocrates, who was adapted by the Greeks from the Egyptian child god Horus, represented the newborn sun, rising each day at dawn. Harpocrates meaning “Horus the Child”, was the god of silence, secrets and confidentiality in the Hellenistic religion developed in Ptolemaic Alexandria.

In Egyptian mythology, Horus was the child of Isis and Osiris. Osiris was the original divine king of Egypt, who had been murdered by his brother Set (by interpretatio graeca, identified with Typhon or Chaos), mummified, and thus became the god of the underworld. The Greeks melded Osiris with their underworldly Hades to produce the essentially Alexandrian syncretism known as Serapis.

Statue of Harpocrates
Statue of Harpocrates. Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum, Alexandria.
Photo: M. Mounir

In Roman Egypt, Harpocrates continued to be a significant figure, although his worship and symbolism underwent some changes compared to earlier Egyptian and Hellenistic periods. Harpocrates, also known as Horus the Child, was a deity associated with silence, secrecy, and protection in ancient Egyptian religion.

During the Roman period, Harpocrates was often depicted as a young boy with his finger placed over his lips, symbolizing silence and discretion. He was considered a guardian of secrets and a protector against evil forces. In Roman Egypt, Harpocrates was sometimes assimilated with the Greek god Eros, resulting in a fusion of their attributes and symbolism.

Harpocrates was worshipped in various contexts, including private households and temples. His cult was particularly popular among individuals seeking protection, especially in matters related to secrecy, personal relationships, and hidden knowledge.

While the specific practices and beliefs surrounding Harpocrates in Roman Egypt may have varied, his significance as a deity associated with silence, protection, and secrecy remained prominent. The worship of Harpocrates in Roman Egypt reflects the continuation and adaptation of ancient Egyptian religious traditions within the broader Roman cultural and religious landscape.

Among the Egyptians, the full-grown Horus was considered the victorious god of the sun who each day overcomes darkness. He is often represented with the head of a Eurasian sparrowhawk, which was sacred to him, as the hawk flies high above the Earth. Horus fought battles against Set, until he finally achieved victory and became the ruler of Egypt. Thereafter, the pharaohs of Egypt were seen as reincarnations of the victorious Horus.

“Horus on the Crocodiles” steles depicting Heru-pa-Khered standing on the back of a crocodile and holding snakes in his outstretched hands were erected in Egyptian temple courtyards, where they would be immersed or lustrated (purified) in water; the water was then used for blessing and healing purposes as the name of Heru-pa-Khered was itself attributed with many protective and healing powers.

From Sidi Bishr, Alexandria. Graeco-Roman, Roman Period, 2nd century AD. Now in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum, Alexandria.