Not all of the gods and goddesses of Greek culture were worshipped in Greece itself.
Throughout ancient history, Greek culture expanded through trade, colonization, and conquest. From the Peloponnesian Peninsula and the islands near it, the Greek world expanded to include Italy, North Africa, Asia Minor, and parts of the Near East.
One of the greatest sources of the spread of Greek culture was the military success of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian’s campaigns brought greater Greek influence to Egypt, Persia, and even as far as India.
Alexander’s campaigns ushered in the Hellenistic Era in Greek history. Although many places he conquered did not remain under Greek control for long, others were brought into the Greek world.
One of these was Egypt, where a culture existed that was already thousands of years old by Alexander’s time. The last ruling dynasty of Egypt, the Ptolemies, were descendants of one of Alexander’s most loyal generals.
Greek rule in Egypt created a fusion of cultures. Art, literature, and religion from the Hellenistic Era blend Egyptian and Greek traditions to create a unique Hellenistic culture.
Sometimes, this fusion resulted in the creation of new gods. One example of how Greek and Egyptian influences created an unexpected new deity was Harpocrates, the Hellenistic god of silence.
Harpocrates was not a god of archaic or classical Greek mythology. His cult did not develop until the Hellenistic era, a time at which Greek colonies and settlements abroad flourished.
His cult was primarily centered on Alexandria, the capital city of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. Founded by Alexander the Great, the city served as a center of Hellenistic Greek culture in the Nile Valley.
Harpocrates was depicted as a young, boyish god with his fingers to his lips. He was often shown with the clothing and hairstyle of a young Egyptian boy rather than the manner in which Greek youths were usually pictured in art.
The way in which Harpocrates was depicted likely depended in part on the intended audience. In mostly Hellenistic circles he was shown in a more traditionally Greek way, but native Egyptians were more likely to show him as one of their own.
Harpocrates was inextricably linked to Egypt. His mother was said to be the queen goddess of Egyptian religion, Isis and his father was another Hellenistic deity called Serapis.
Isis had a strong cult following in both Greece and Rome, so it was not entirely unique for her to be cast as the mother of a youthful god. This relationship, however, made it clear that Harpocrates was native to Egypt rather than Greece.
There were only a few myths that involved Harpocrates, and most of these centered around his mother.
It was said, for example, that Isis invented sails because she was searching for her son. She attached them to her boat so she could sail up and down the Nile more quickly when he was missing.
The location of Harpocrates had been kept from his mother, which was an example of his powers. He was the god of silence and secrecy.
Harpocrates held his fingers to his lips to caution others to silence. He implored his followers to keep quiet about things that were said in confidence.
The god of silence was tied to Egypt not only because his cult was centered there. He was a direct result of the native influence on Hellenistic culture.
Harpocrates was not invented by the Greeks who settled in Egypt. He was an interpretation of an important native god of the region.
The name Harpocrates came from the Egyptian Heru-pa-khered, or Horus the Child.
In Egyptian mythology, Horus was the only child of Isis and Osiris. He had been conceived after his father’s death and had taken Osiris’s place as the king of kings in Egypt.
Hellenistic Greeks had merged the figures of Osiris, who became the king of the Egyptian Underworld, and their own Hades. The result was a uniquely Ptolemaic god, Serapis.
The family relationship that had originally existed between Osiris, Isis, and Horus was preserved in the lineage of Harpocrates. Although the gods were reimagined, the Hellenistic god of silence was still the child of Isis and the Underworld’s ruler.
Harpocrates, however, was a very different type of deity than Horus. He was obviously not a direct interpretation of the Egyptian god.
Horus was a king and the personification of the rising sun. This powerful figure had little in common with the boyish god of secrecy.
The imagery of Harpocrates, however, was still taken directly from that of Horus. As Horus the Child, the Egyptian god was shown as a young boy seated on his mother’s lap.
The images of Harpocrates that had a more Egyptian style are nearly indistinguishable from those of Horus the Child. He is depicted as both a young boy and an Egyptian king.
Both gods also used the same gestures. Just like Harpocrates, Horus the Younger often held a finger to his mouth.
In Egyptian art, the size of a figure was a reflection of its importance rather than its age or physical structure. Gods were larger than nobles, while servants and slaves were diminutive.
By using a clear physical sign of youth, in this case a finger to the mouth, it was made clear that Horus’s size was due to his youth rather than insignificance. He was smaller than the figure of Isis that often held him because he was a young child, not because he was subservient to her.
When Hellenistic Greeks adopted Isis into their belief system, they noticed the child she often held. They did not immediately associate him with the royal sun god Horus, however.
In their culture, holding a finger to one’s lips was used to indicate a need for silence, just as it is in many cultures today. When they saw the child Horus using that gesture, they mistakenly believed that it had the same meaning.
From this misunderstanding came the idea that the child god Isis held was a god of silence. When they were told the god’s name, they Hellenized it to Harpocrates.
Harpocrates was a god of silence and secrecy. He was venerated primarily in Egypt, specifically around the city of Alexandria, during the Ptolemaic Dynasty.
The Ptolemies were descendants of a Macedonian general who had served under Alexander the Great. Left in charge after his conquest of Egypt, Ptolemy I became a Pharaoh who brought Greek culture to the Nile Valley.
Harpocrates was a result of the cultural fusion that took place in Hellenistic Egypt. Although he was worshipped by the Greek-speaking people of Alexandria, his imagery and mythology were taken from Egyptian sources.
The child-god originated with Egyptian images of Horus. Not understanding that Horus the Child was a common theme in Egyptian art, the Greeks believed that the infant god must have been different from the royal sun king they saw venerated elsewhere.
Harpocrates took his name from the Egyptian title for Horus the Child. Because the Greeks recognized Isis as a powerful goddess, her relationship to the new Hellenistic god was maintained.
The young-looking god of the Greeks had a much different role than Horus, however. This was due to a cultural misunderstanding.
In Egypt, a finger held against a figure’s mouth was a symbol of youth. In Greece, it was an appeal for silence.
Hellenistic Greeks thus imagined Harpcrates as a god of silence. He had dominion over things said in confidence and secrets, a departure from his Egyptian origins.