The Curious Case of Cambyses and the Apis Bull

The Persian king Cambyses has a bad reputation. He has come down in Western histories as a prototypical mad emperor: arrogant, violent, and contemptuous. The centerpiece of this narrative is his treatment of the Egyptian Apis bull, but the evidence does not match up with the stories that have come down to us.

Cambyses ruled the Persian Empire from 530 to 522 BCE. Under his rule, Persia expanded westward to conquer Egypt. Egypt was a valuable prize for Persia, phenomenally rich and well organized, with strong trade connections to the larger Mediterranean and Africa. The Persian conquest of Egypt went swiftly and easily. Holding the territory was another matter.

The Persian Empire was the largest empire in the world, indeed the largest empire that had ever existed up that that point in world history. Persia owed a large part of its success to a policy of cultural accommodation. Conquered peoples were left alone to follow their own cultures, speak their own languages, and worship their own gods; Persian culture was not imposed on them. Persian kings took steps to ensure continuity of local traditions and present themselves according to local ideals and expectations.

Cambyses followed this same policy in Egypt. He officially ruled as pharaoh under the Egyptian name Mesutire and he carried on the traditional religious and military activities of Egyptian kingship. Among those activities was providing for the Apis bull.

Egyptians believed that an aspect of the god Ptah came to Earth in the shape of a black bull, known as Apis. Apis was cared for in a special temple and lived a life of luxury. When one Apis bull died, it was believed that the spirit of Ptah was born again in another calf, somewhere in Egypt. The death of an Apis bull was therefore an occasion of important ritual: the old bull became identified with the spirit of the god Osiris and had to be mummified and ceremonially interred, meanwhile the hunt was on up and down the Nile for the next calf to be born with the proper signs. Since the new Apis bull could not be born until after the previous one’s death, properly recording and commemorating the event was crucial. The finding of the new Apis was also the occasion for a major religious festival, which was joyously celebrated throughout Egypt.

An Apis bull died during Cambyses’ time in Egypt. The precise timing of its death and the ceremonies for its burial are not entirely clear, but it was given a full and proper burial under Cambyses’ authority, as attested by the inscription on its sarcophagus:

Horus, Uniter of the Two Lands, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever! He has made a fine monument for his father Apis-Osiris with a great granite sarcophagus, dedicated by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever, in perpetuity and prosperity, full of health and joy, as King of Upper and Lower Egypt eternally!

Translation by Amélie Kuhrt, The Persian Empire (London: Routledge, 2007) 4.13

The cult of the Apis bull was closely connected to kingship in Egypt and this inscription shows Cambyses fully engaged in his role as Egyptian pharaoh. He associates himself with the royal falcon god Horus and shows filial deference to both the sun god Re and to the spirit of the dead Apis bull. Whatever Cambyses may have personally believed, he was making sure that his public behavior was irreproachable as a king of Egypt.

Which makes it strange to turn back to the Greek sources and find a dramatically different account of Cambyses and the Apis bull:

When Cambyses returned to Memphis [after an unsuccessful military campaign in the south], Apis (whom the Greeks call Epaphus) appeared in Egypt. When Apis appears, the Egyptians at once don their best clothes and hold a celebration. Seeing this, Cambyses was convinced that they were celebrating his misfortunes, so he summoned the rulers of Memphis. When they came before him he demanded to know why the Egyptians were behaving in this way, which they had not done before, just when he was returning having lost so much of his army. They answered that a god had appeared, one who only came to them after long stretches of time, and that it was the custom for all Egyptians to rejoice on such an occasion. Cambyses replied that they were lying and he put them to death for it.

He next summoned the priests, who told him the same thing. He replied that if a tame god had come to Egypt, he would know about it. He then ordered the priests to bring Apis before him, so they fetched him. Apis, or Epaphus, is a calf born of a cow which then cannot become pregnant again. The Egyptians say that a ray of light from heaven strikes the cow, and this is how Apis is conceived. The calf called Apis has these signs: he is black with a white triangular mark between his eyes and the shape of an eagle on his back, the hairs of his tail are double, and there is a beetle-shaped mark under his tongue.

When the priests led Apis in, Cambyses—who was a little disturbed in the head—drew his dagger and stabbed Apis, aiming for the belly but hitting the thigh. Laughing, he said to the priests: “Are these your gods, fools, of flesh and blood who can feel the bite of iron? This is a fitting god for Egyptians, but I will teach you to make a laughingstock of me!” Saying this, he ordered the priests whipped and any other Egyptians celebrating to be killed. So the festival ended and the priests were punished. Apis lay in the temple wasting away from the blow to his thigh. When he had died of the wound, the priests buried him in secret without Cambyses’ knowledge.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.27-29

My own translation

How did Cambyses go from a king properly honoring Apis to a tyrant mocking and killing him? The answer is: Egyptian resistance.

No matter how much Cambyses tried to behave like a traditional Egyptian pharaoh, he wasn’t one. Egypt had a strong sense of national culture, with a strain of isolationism. There were also internal conflicts within Egypt that the Persians did not manage with much success. Over time, as resentment against Persian rule built up, the memory of Cambyses the conqueror was adapted to suit Egyptians’ attitudes towards contemporary Persians. By the time Herodotus was traveling in Egypt asking questions about history—about a century after Cambyses—popular opinion had thoroughly rewritten the king’s reputation.

Herodotus and other Greek and Roman historians had no idea about Cambyses’ actual behavior in Egypt, and their own anti-Persian prejudices inclined them to accept any negative story about a Persian king. Thus Cambyses the arrogant bull-stabber became a fixture of Western history, even though he was only ever a figment of lurid anti-Persian rumor.

Image: Funerary stela for an Apis bull, photograph by Rama via Wikimedia (found Serapeum of Saqqara, currently Louvre; 643 BC; painted limestone

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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