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Ptolemaic bronze Harpocrates as the child Horus (Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon)

In late Greek mythology as developed in Ptolemaic Alexandria, Harpocrates (Ancient Greek: Ἁρποκράτης) is the god of silence, secrets and confidentiality. Harpocrates was adapted by the Greeks from the Egyptian child god Horus. To the ancient Egyptians, Horus represented the newborn Sun, rising each day at dawn. When the Greeks conquered Egypt under Alexander the Great, they transformed the Egyptian Horus into their Hellenistic god known as Harpocrates, a rendering from Egyptian Har-pa-khered or Heru-pa-khered (meaning "Horus the Child").


In Egyptian mythology, Horus was conceived by Isis, the mother goddess, from Osiris, the original god-king of Egypt, who had been murdered by his brother Set,[1] and thus became the god of the underworld. The Greeks melded Osiris with their underworld god, Hades, to produce the essentially Alexandrian syncretism, Serapis.

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 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. All the Pharaohs of Egypt were seen as reincarnations of the victorious Horus.

Stelae 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 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.

Isis, Serapis and their child Harpocrates (Louvre Museum)

In the Alexandrian and Roman renewed vogue for mystery cults at the turn of the millennium — mystery cults had already existed for almost a millennium — the worship of Horus became widely extended, linked with Isis (his mother) and Serapis (Osiris, his father).

Bronze statuette of Harpocrates, Begram, Afghanistan, 2nd century.

In this way Harpocrates, the child Horus, personifies the newborn sun each day, the first strength of the winter sun, and also the image of early vegetation. Egyptian statues represent the child Horus, pictured as a naked boy with his finger on his chin with the fingertip just below the lips of his mouth, a realization of the hieroglyph for "child" that is unrelated to the Greco-Roman and modern gesture for "silence". Misunderstanding this sign, the later Greeks and Roman poets made Harpocrates the god of silence and secrecy, taking their cue from Marcus Terentius Varro, who asserted in De lingua Latina of Caelum (Sky) and Terra (Earth)

"These gods are the same as those who in Egypt are called Serapis and Isis,[2] though Harpocrates with his finger makes a sign to me to be quiet. The same first gods were in Latium called Saturn and Ops."

Ovid described Isis:

"Upon her Isis' brow stood the crescent moon-horns, garlanded with glittering heads of golden grain, and grace of royal dignity; and at her side the baying dog Anubis, dappled Apis, sacred Bubastis and the god who holds his finger to his lips for silence sake."[3]

File:Harpocratic Eros Louvre Myr805.jpg
Harpocratic Eros, terracotta figurine made in Myrina, c. 100–50 BCE. (Louvre Museum)

Inexpensive cast terracotta images of Harpocrates, suitable for house shrines, are found scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Thus Augustine of Hippo was aware of the iconic gesture of Harpocrates:

"And since in practically all the temples where Serapis and Isis were worshiped there was also a figure that seemed to enjoin silence by a finger pressed against its lips, Varro thinks this had the same meaning, that no mention should be made of their having been human beings"[4]

Martianus Capella, author of an allegorizing textbook that remained a standard through the Middle Ages recognized the image of the "boy with his finger pressed to his lips" but neglected to mention Harpocrates' name: "... quidam redimitus puer ad os compresso digito salutari silentium commonebat". The boy was identified, however, as Cupid in glosses,[5] a syncresis that had already resulted in the figure of Harpocratic Cupid (illustration, right).

Plutarch wrote that Harpocrates was the second son of Isis and that he was born prematurely with lame legs. Horus the Child became the special protector of children and their mothers. As he was healed of a poisonous snake bite by Re he became a symbol of hope in the gods looking after suffering humanity.[6]

Another solar cult, not directly connected with Harpocrates, was that of the Unconquered Sun, Sol Invictus.

20th century reference

From the 1920s through the 1950s, Harpo Marx performed pantomime and wore either a curly red or curly blonde wig in character. His brother Groucho jokingly said he named himself in honour of Harpocrates, as a god of both silence and childhood, or childish joy. In truth he was named Harpo because he played the harp.[7]

Modern occultist uses

Modern occultists display his image, loosely connected now with Hermetic gnosticism. Typically, "Harpocrates is the Babe in the Egg of Blue that sits upon the lotus flower in the Nile". He may be termed the 'god of silence' and said to represent the higher self and be the 'holy guardian angel' and more in similar vein, adapted from Aleister Crowley's often-reprinted Magick.

Many Discordians consider Harpo Marx to have been a contemporary avatar of Harpocrates. Because of this, Discordians often invoke Harpocrates as a trickster god or god of humor in addition to his classical attribution of god of silence.[8]

Cultural uses

Roses, a symbol strongly associated with Harpocrates, can sometimes be seen painted or else plastered upon boarders around the ceilings of rooms intended for the use of the receiving of guests, as a sign that topics disscussed within the room are not to be discussed or else repeated outside of the room and other outside parties.

Further reading

  • Malaise, Michel (2005). Pour une terminologie et une analyse des cultes isiaques (in French). Académie Royale de Belgique. ISBN 2-8031-0217-X. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

See also

External links


  1. The Hellenes, by interpretatio graeca, identified Set with Typhon, or Chaos.
  2. Only by interpretatio romana; in actuality Serapis was a syncretic Hellenistic-Egyptian creation disseminated by Roman imperium, and Isis was linked in Egyptian culture with Osiris.
  3. Ovid, Metamorphoses 9:688 - 9:692.
    aut stetit aut visa est. inerant lunaria fronti
    cornua cum spicis nitido flaventibus auro
    et regale decus; cum qua latrator Anubis,
    sanctaque Bubastis, variusque coloribus Apis,
    quique premit vocem digitoque silentia suadet;
    (Metamorphoses on-line)
  4. Augustine, City of God, XVIII.
  5. Dale Kinney, "Spolia from the Baths of Caracalla in Sta. Maria in Trastevere" The Art Bulletin 68.3, September 1986:379-397, "Isis and Serapis in medieval mythography" p. 391 note 73.
  6. "Egyptian Mythology", Geraldine Pinch, p. 147, Oxford University Press US, 2004, ISBN 0-19-517024-5
  7. Marx, Harpo; Rowland Barber (1988). Harpo Speaks!. New York, NY: Limelight Editions. ISBN 0-87910-036-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Hine, Phil (1999). Prime Chaos. London: Chaos International Press. ISBN 0-9521320-0-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Franz Cumont, The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, Dover Publications, 1956.
  • Harry Thurston Peck, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898: "Harpocrates."
  • David Sacks, Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet, Random House 2003.