What is Greek in Tebtunis? Religion

It has long been a matter of debate how far Greek culture and language penetrated into the rural society of Egypt after Alexander the Great’s conquest of the country in the fourth century BCE, and to what degree this shaped village life during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. As one of the best documented sites of Egypt and of the entire ancient world, Tebtunis can help us answer these questions.

A good starting point is religion. Greek cults entered Egypt long before Alexander the Great and the subsequent arrival of Greek military settlers in the Fayum region, where Tebtunis is located.

We know from Herodotus that already in the fifth century BCE a system of correspondence existed between Greek and Egyptian gods.

Here are only a few examples:

Dionysos = Osiris

Demeter = Isis

Apollo = Horus

Aphrodite = Hathor

Zeus = Amun

Typhon = Seth

Hermes = Thoth

This system remained active throughout both the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, which makes it quite difficult to tell a Greek deity from its Egyptian equivalent. By the first century CE Tebtunis exhibited a particularly Hellenized culture, which is also reflected in religious practices. Next to the local cult dedicated to Soknebtunis (‘Sobek, lord of Tebtunis’), the crocodile god, several religious cults are attested, including those of Harpokrates and of Herakles Kallinikos.

Sobek facing a Ptolemy

Sobek (the crocodile god) facing a Ptolemy

Harpokrates embodies the encounter between Greek and Egyptian religion: he was the Greek infant god or god of silence, to be identified with the Egyptian Horus the child. In the first century CE at Tebtunis there was an association dedicated to Harpokrates, to which the head of the local notary office Kronion also belonged. Kronion’s names, incidentally, was derived from Kronos, the Greek god associated with Soknebtunis.


Horus the child

Herakles Kallinikos (‘the beautiful victor’), on the other hand, was the Greek god of the athletic competitions, and the presence of his cult at Tebtunis confirms that there was a large Hellenic (or Hellenized) group among the village population.