Serapis on the Liffey

by Eric Rosenbloom
copyright 2003

was I not rosetted on two stellas of little egypt?
 (Finnnegans Wake, p. 551) 

In the year of our lord 391, the year of Rome 1144, the giant and beautiful statue of Serapis in Alexandria was destroyed by the order of Theodosius, emperor of Rome, and Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria. The Serapeum in which it was enthroned — a grand temple described by many travellers as one of the wonders of the world and containing a renowned hospital, a branch of Alexandria’s famed library, an observatory, and incubation booths in which devotees could sleep to receive healing or instructive dreams — also was torn down and its contents looted. After the recent triumph of the orthodox church over Arianism (which soon, however, re-emerged in Islam), this marked the final destruction of paganism in Rome’s once tolerant empire.

Alexandria, built by Alexander in 332 B.C. as an expansion of the old Egyptian town of Rhacotis, contained many temples besides the Serapeum, with which it was identified. After seeing the plans marked out, Alexander left for Persia, never to return alive. His mausoleum was built at the intersection of the two main streets. Another famous temple, the Caesareum, was distinguished by two obelisks, or stelae, which are now called “Cleopatra’s Needles” and found in London (by the Thames) and New York City (in Central Park). They were originally erected by Tuthmosis III in Heliopolis, or Anu, near Cairo. Phoenix Park, site of the residence in turn of viceroy, chief secretary, governor-general, and president of Ireland, outside of Dublin was nicknamed Healiopolis after the first governor-general of the Irish Free State in 1921, Tim Healy, and it too sports an obelisk, the Wellington monument.

Under the Ptolemies, Alexandria became the center of Hellenism as well as Judaism. Under Roman rule, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony dallied there with Cleopatra, and Caracalla massacred thousands for some satires published while he was wintering there. Alexandria gave birth to Arianism (the doctrine that Jesus was god-like but not god himself) as well as to its determined enemy, Athanasius. The philosopher Hypatia flourished there as astronomer, physicist, mathematician, musician, and virgin (she would repel importunate lovers by showing them her menstrual rags); she was dragged to the Caesareum and stripped, killed with tile shards, dismembered, and burned by the christian mob in 415. The “Rosetta Stone,” which provided the key to understanding hieroglyphics, was discovered in a nearby district (”had not I rockcut readers, hieros, gregos and democriticos?” — Finnegans Wake, p. 551).

When Ptolemy I sought to unite the Egyptians and Hellenes under his rule, he dreamed of a great statue. One of his councillors, it is said, recognized the statue as that of Serapis, worshipped by the people of Sinope on the Black Sea. After three years of their refusing to part with their god, the statue itself took ship to Alexandria and installed itself in the newly constructed temple, to be unveiled as the new god of the city. In fact, Serapis is a Hellenized Asar-Hapi, or Osiris-Apis, the resurrected form of the creator-god Ptah. Ptah was ritually killed, mummified, burned, and entombed as a bull, in which form he was called Apis (or Hapi or Hepi). In this state, he partook of the Osiris fertility cycle to become immortal. Serapis wore a flowerpot-shaped corn measure on his head, and at his feet was a serpent with three heads: a dog, a wolf, and a lion. Serapis essentially replaced Osiris as brother and husband of the great mother Isis, much as HCE takes over the role of Finnegan in James Joyce’s book.

Like Egypt’s eras of pharaoh, hellene, and monotheist, three eras in Ireland may be distinguished: those of celt, christian celt, and roman. The middle period in both places was its golden one. Between Patrick’s establishment of the church of Ireland after his arrival in 432 and the end of the Irish church’s independence in 1132, the island was prominent in medieval scholarship and religion — “the island of saints and sages” — and shone in the book and decorative arts. The Book of Kells, for but one notable example, was produced during this time. The 700-year period is very close in length to the 713 years of Alexandria’s Hellenism, and it began not long after the other’s end.

In Finnegans Wake, Finnegan, who falls at the bottom of the first page (p. 3), is associated with both pre-christian Irish hero Finn Mac Cool (who was killed in 283) and ancient Egypt. (For the latter, see Mummeries of Resurrection: The Cycle of Osiris in Finnegans Wake, by Mark Troy.) Earwicker sails in to Dublin (p. 29) to take his place, just as Serapis was claimed to have done. As Serapis is a modern form of Asar-Hapi, so Earwicker is a new Finnegan (i.e., Finn again) — in a new suit of clothes — to bring in a new era, to build a new city on the same river, and he is wed to Finnegan/Osiris’s eternal bride: Issy/Isis/ALP. When Earwicker is brought down it is by the agents of another empire following in his wake, as popes in Rome had urged the British Normans to claim Ireland (which they did in 1172, after invading in 1169) and had ordered the destruction of Serapis in Alexandria. Earwicker’s ship is called ”The Bey for Dybbling” (p. 29), referring to the conquest of Egypt by the Ottomans in 1517, bey being the title of an Ottoman governor. “Serapis Bey” was one of Helena Blavatsky’s mystical teachers of theosophy. And there was HMS Serapis in the American Revolution, whose captain offered to let John Paul Jones surrender after the initial blasts but who, after a continued fierce battle, later surrendered himself, after which Jones’s ship sank and he took over the Serapis.

An excellent evocation of this moment, when a syncretistic and sophisticated culture is nearly completely harassed out of existence by the rising single-minded zealotry, can be found in Georg Ebers’s 1885 novel Serapis [click here for 850-KB PDF file], published in English translation in New York the same year. The story follows a family of travelling singers, led by a man who spent his fortune reviving the theater at his home in Sicily, borrowing on its success and then losing everything when heathen theater was at last banned. They have at last come to Alexandria, where he had met his wife when they were students. They have a son, Orpheus, a very pretty neice, Dada, and another young woman, Agne, along with her 6-year-old brother, who they had bought to save from a soldier after their parents were killed. Agne is a Christian (though Arian), but they meet a merchant’s family who want her to sing “Isis’s Lament” (“Come to the one who loveth thee ...”) with their daughter, Gorgo, at the upcoming festival in the Serapeum.

An old friend of the singer’s, the philosopher Olympius, is also in town to organize the festival to inspire the remaining heathen to be strong against the christian and to rise in “revulsion.” They are all staying with the merchant (who is nominally christian to stay in business). The merchant’s sister is a fervent christian, along with her son who has fallen in love with Dada. Agne adores Orpheus. And Gorgo is in love with her childhood friend and neighbor, Constantine, who is now leader of the Roman troops. Agne runs away and discovers that being Arian is just as bad in this town as worshipping Isis. Dada runs away with another singer who hopes to make a lot of money with her beauty and talent, but she doesn’t like him. She took Agne’s brother with her, who takes her into a church to hear the singing and for relief from the heat . . .

Meanwhile the order to destroy the Serapeum comes. The heathen mobilize but take their revels too far during the night-long vigil, disgusting Gorgo. Before dawn, a torrential thunderstorm scares everyone into thinking the end of the world is indeed come, but then it passes and the Romans start battering the wall. When the Romans are victorious, Constantine orders his men to destroy the statue of Serapis, but they are all too scared. Constantine himself, not knowing that Gorgo is watching, starts the process himself. Although she thinks it entirely vile to destroy such a work of art, she sees that it is painful for Constantine, too. As a distraction, a horse race is scheduled for the same day, and it features a climactic contest between the champion heathen and Dada’s christian lover, who of course wins. Soon the news of Serapis’s destruction arrives and a riot ensues.

The old singer, his wife, and his son Orpheus die defending the Serapeum, while the merchant nearly kills himself with poison. Agne becomes a recluse in the wilderness to save Orpheus’s soul that they may be joined in heaven. The other lovers become models of christian tolerance and love in contrast to the predominant opportunistic zealotry.

Like Joyce, Ebers curses the destructive forces of history but accepts that eras change, usually in a violent way. And in even those times of upheaval, the eternal human dramas of power and love continue. These dramas may even temper, give meaning to, the pain of mortal change, and may diminish the awe with which we view the organized might that is the instrument of so much painful transition. As in Joyce’s all-embracing tale of life-in-death, Ebers has Olympius liken Jesus to Osiris, Mary to Isis. After the destruction of Serapis, most of Alexandria — heathen, jew, and christian alike — wondered if the Nile would flood again. Their anxiety increased when the inundation did not begin when it normally should have, nor for some time after. But it did arrive, and the cycle of fertility continued.

... she stood as Hebe, offering nectar to the gods
— as Nausicae, listening to the tale of Odysseus
— and as Sappho, singing to her lyre.
 (Serapis, p. 84)


The doctrine of metempsychosis compels the immortal soul through a series of necessary lives before it can reunite with the divine, or that which it loves. Joyce calls attention to the doctrine in Ulysses, and it may be said to be the author's primary technique in Finnegans Wake. In Serapis Gorgo’s grandmother brings it up: “... as the rain-drop fallen from a cloud rises again and is re-united to its parent vapor. Then — for there may be a metempsychosis — your songful spirit might revive to inform a nightingale ...” (p. 263).

Gorgo’s own philosophical thoughts, presented on pages 194-195 of Ebers’s book (New York: Gottsberger, 1885), also are remarkably compatible with what we may presume to be Joyce’s aesthetic:

... This Mind with its vitality — a life not of time but of eternity — could stir or remain passive as it listed; it included a Plurality, while the One was Unity, and forever indivisible. ... And just as the eternal Mind proceeded from the One, so, in the third place, did the Soul of the universe proceed from the second; that Soul whose twofold nature on one side touched the supreme Mind, and, on the other, the baser world of matter. This was the immortal Aphrodite ...

    The head of Serapis was the eternal Mind; in his broad breast slept the Soul of the Universe, and the prototypes of all created things; the world of matter was the footstool under his feet. ... He was the sum total of the universe, the epitome of things created; and at the same time he was the power which gave them life and intelligence and preserved them from perishing by perpetual procreation. It was his might that kept the multiform structure of the material and psychical world in perennial harmony. ... If he — if Serapis were to fall, the order of the universe must be destroyed; and with him: The Synthesis of the Universe — the Universe itself must cease to exist.

    But what would survive would not be the nothingness — the void of which her grandmother had spoken; it would be the One — the cold, ineffable, incomprehensible One! This world would perish with Serapis; but perhaps it might please that One to call another world into being out of his overflowing essence, peopled by other and different beings.

Compare Finnegans Wake, page 4: “The oaks of ald now they lie in peat yet elms leap where askes lay. Phall if you but will, rise you must ....” Gorgo herself (or Georg Ebers) may be seen on the eighth line of page 3. We may see Joyce’s “point of order” — on which he endlessly puns — in Gorgo’s grandmother’s vision of nothingness on page 190 of Serapis: “A queer sort of giant — smaller than the mathematical point of which we were speaking, and yet vast beyond all measurement.” Also the microcosmic role of HCE: “The house of Serapis was a whole world in little ... what marvel then, that the heathen should believe that with the overthrow of Serapis and his temple, the earth, nay the universe itself must sink into the abyss?” (Serapis, p. 236) When Gorgo’s grandmother dies, she imagines she is drowning, reminiscent of ALP’s disappearance into the ocean (the unformed chaos between creations): “It is the water! rising — it is up to my knees. I am sinking — help! save me! help!” (p. 263) She had earlier envisioned the collapse of the Serapeum (pp. 187–188): “Then a cry rose up from all nature, as though every star in heaven, every wave of ocean, every leaf of the forest, every blade in the meadow, every rock on the shore and every grain of sand in the measureless desert had found a voice; and this universal wail of ‘Woe, woe!’ was drowned by rolling thunder such as the ear of man had never heard, and no mortal creature could hear and live.” This thunder rolls through Finnegans Wake in the ten giant thunder words (two of them in the first chapter: pp. 3 & 23), and the universal lament may be echoed on page 4: “Ualu Ualu Ualu! Quaouauh!”

A few other correspondences tantalize. Both books use the rare term “dove’s gall,” a realist’s mockery of the common belief that pigeons have no bile (FW, p. 21, S, p. 22). There is a barrel of herring: In Serapis (p. 197), a singer gets a good deal and brings one home to the rage of his wife. “They would not get to the bottom of the barrel and eat the last herring, she asserted, till they were a century old.” To which he replied that with such nutritious food they could in fact expect to live so long. In Finnegans Wake (p. 538): “My herrings! The surdity of it! Amean to say. Her bare idears, it is choochoo chucklesome. Absurd bargain, mum, will call. ... Will ate everadayde saumone like a boyne alive O.” Page 289, footnote 6: “Harring man, is neow king. This is modeln times.” Page 7: “So that meal’s dead off for summan, schlook, schlice and goodridhirring.” From herring to whoring: “To them the whole heathen world was the “great whore [of Babylon]” (S, p. 156). And so ALP is often called a whore as an adept in the arts of life: “O, wasn’t he the bold priest? And wasn’t she the naughty Livvy?” (FW, p. 204); “She’d bate the hen that crowed on the turrace of Babbel ... Throwing all the neiss little whores in the world at him!” (pp. 199–200).

Both books include an amusing story about a tailor. Ebers describes a lame tailor who, jealous of his black wife, hid her shoes whenever he had to go out (pp. 95–96). Joyce relates (pp. 311–332) the story of a tailor’s difficulties in making a suit for a hump-backed Norwegian captain who is at the same time a suitor for the tailor’s daughter. On page 537, HCE defends and denies buying a black mistress. Both books use horse racing as emblematic of the eternal struggle between brothers. Both recall the story of Sappho leaping to her death: On page 368 of Serapis Dada compares her passion to Sappho’s, and on page 159 of Finnegans Wake Nuvoletta, like a “rain-drop fallen from a cloud,” leaps from her tower into the river, but one of the innumerable tears with which Isis floods the Nile each year to renew its fertility.

And compare this passage of Agne’s infatuation with Orpheus (S, p. 39):

She was so happy when she was with him, and never happier than when it was her fortune to sing with him, or to his admirable accompaniment on the lute. When she could succeed in forgetting herself completely, and in giving utterance by her lovely voice to all that was highest and best in her soul, he, whose ear was no less sensitive and appreciative than his father’s, would frankly express his approval, and in these moments life was indeed fair and precious.

with the scene between Tristan and Isolde (FW, pp. 384–385):

... the onliest one of her choice, her bleaueyedeal of a girl’s friend ... that mouth of mandibles, vowed to pure beauty ... when she murmurously, after she let a cough, gave her firm order, if he wouldn’t please mind, for a sings to one a dozen of the best favourite lyrical national blooms in Luvillicit ... in the fair fine night, whilst the stars shine bright, by she light of he moon ...

In every tale there’s another, “and that’s the he and the she of it” (FW, p. 213). Though worlds are destroyed by force, hatred, and history (and the victors themselves, as Gibbon says, “insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals,” and as Joyce described the encounter in Finnegans Wake between archdruid Berkeley and saint Patrick (pp. 611–612), “the conversion of S. Patrick by Ireland”), that in which two lovers had not met must also end when they join in creating a new one.