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Silence is Golden? Analysing the Changing Nature of Harpocrates

Harpocrates, the Greek form of the Egyptian Hr-pA-Xrd (Horus The Child), was a deity who had existed since the beginnings of Egypt but only came to occupy an unusual and prominent theological position during the Greco-Roman period, being co-opted and enthusiastically worshipped despite a fundamental misunderstanding of his true nature. In analysing various iterations of the god from the literary and archaeological record, we shall chart how Harpocrates looked and was felt to be significant by the Egyptians, along with how and why this dramatically changed during the Greco-Roman period, as worship of Harpocrates spread across the Mediterranean.

Humble Beginnings: Horus the Child in The Predynastic Period Horus the Child was one of the forms of Horus, the son of Osiris, who is commonly represented in his adult form as a man with a falcon head. Horus is first mentioned during the Old Kingdom, referred to in the Pyramid texts (Ca. 2350 BC) as, "Horus-the-Child with his finger in his mouth.” [1] Egyptian representations of him during the dynastic period are few and far between, but he is generally represented frontally, as a nude boy with his finger in his mouth, the Egyptian hieroglyph for child and symbol of his youth. The side-lock on his head also emphasises his age. He wears a range of the available crowns associated with Egyptian royalty, likely instigated to differentiate him from other Old Kingdom non-royal family portraiture, which depicts children in a very similar fashion. [2]

Other common visual types for Horus the Child include representations with his parents, Isis and Osiris. Indeed, the image of Horus being nursed by Isis became a popular iconographical type from the 7th Century BC onwards, likely referring to Isis' protective role for the family. [3] He is also represented alongside Hathor, Bast, Neith, Maat, Thoth etc.

Significance of Horus the Child


While the iconography of Horus the Child is well-established, the significance of the god is very difficult to pin down due to the murky evidential corpus pre- Greco-Roman dominance. In some cases, specific compositions tell us about certain dimensions of the god. For example, amulets depicting Horus crouching on a lotus flower represent his aspect as a sun god, the lotus symbolising his daily rebirth and renewal of power and offering hope to devotees of the same in the afterlife. [4]

Similarly, during the 26th Dynasty, Horus comes to be depicted on cippi (Egyptian stelai) as a naked child standing on two crocodiles, often with the protective deity Bes carved above his head, holding a range of animals including but not limited to turtles, lions, and scorpions. [5] This composition refers to the scene in the foundational Egyptian mythic cycle when Horus is saved by Thoth having been poisoned by Seth, and in doing so transfers his power to subjugate animals. Thus, Horus the Child has a protective, healing function when featured on such Cippi. [6]

stone stele showing horus with sidelock and holding a lion and ram. Hieroglyphics around
Magical stela or cippus of Horus. 332–280 BC. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 20.2.23. Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1920

Horus the Child’s broader function is more difficult to ascertain, but an answer may lie in the foundational myth of Osiris, his role transmitted most fully by Plutarch in his Moralia. Horus was born from a sexual union between Isis and the deceased Osiris, being raised in secret among the lotus pads until he was old enough to confront his father’s killer, Seth. The combat between the two was fierce, with Horus losing an eye which was later restored, but ended in Horus’ victory and the restoration of order. Horus is thus presented as a dutiful son who protects his parents, values that align well with the Egyptian social order and may have informed the worship of the god. [7]

The Birth of Harpocrates: Worship in Greco-Roman Egypt

Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BC, the country fell under the rule of the Greeks, before being swallowed by the Romans at the end of the 1st Century BC. The huge numbers of Greco-Roman migrants that came into the country following this took a keen interest in native religion. Osiris, Isis, Horus, and later Serapis were deities of especial popularity, with Isis and Harpocrates remaining prominent right up until the triumph of Christianity. [8]


Worshipped chiefly in Fayum but also to some extent in Philae, Harpocrates’ popularity skyrocketed during this period, with thousands of terracotta statues in all shapes and sizes dedicated to the god. Harpocrates is shown in a variety of guises, riding pack animals, striking various poses, and even occasionally depicted as an elderly man. On the higher end of the scale, a few large, high-quality bronze statues of the god have also been found, likely dedicated by wealthy patrons and perhaps based on a now-missing cult statue of the god. [9] The uniting factor for this new class of evidence is that the god comes to be depicted more naturalistically, in keeping with Greco-Roman artistic conventions. [10]

There are many other iconographic developments that hail the evolution of Horus the Child into Harpocrates. A few Egyptian elements remain, the crowns he frequently wears becoming reduced in size and affixed to his forehead, eventually transforming into a lotus flower or a cirrus (tuft of hair). The finger that was originally in his mouth comes to be pressed firmly to his lips, indicative of his new function that will be discussed later. [11]

Other than these features, Harpocrates the god is located firmly within the Greco-Roman visual language, depicted either nude or standing with a himation, with a mass of curls that are frequently tied with a ribbon. He often holds the cornucopia, a symbol of prosperity and abundance, and can also be represented with wings, grapes, a mace, or various animal skins. This has led some scholars to associate him with other gods in the Greco-Roman Pantheon, such as Amor, Dionysus, and Heracles, but these connections are not always wholly satisfactory. [12]

The Changing Significance of Harpocrates


“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” (Ovid. Met. 9.688 - 9:692)

While many of the aformentioned objects associated with Horus the Child persist into the Greco-Roman period, presumably in line with the Ptolemaic dynasties’ desire to present themselves within pharaonic tradition, these new images almost demonstrate how Harpocrates’ significance (at least in the later Hellenistic and Roman period) begins to deviate considerably from the established pattern. A fundamental misunderstanding of his iconic gesture meant that the god was no longer the archetypal child but was lauded in the ancient source tradition as the god of secrecy and silence. [13] One can assume that within the geographical bounds of the Greco-Roman world, Harpocrates was largely understood in these terms. The Imperial period also saw a further expansion of his religious role within the Egyptian pantheon, including syncretisms with Heracles, the Ram of Mendes, Min, and Sobek. [14]

terracota statue showing standing harpocrates holding a basket
Terracotta statuette of Harpocrates. Ca. 2nd Century AD. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 89.2.2002. Credit Line: Gift of Joseph W. Drexel, 1889

Harpocrates Outside Egypt


Egyptian deities had spread to the Greco-Roman world via traders and priests long before the 3rd Century BC, for example with Macedonia in the 4th Century BC. However, Ptolemaic holdings in Cyprus, Cyrene, and other Greek islands, combined with the connected nature of the later Roman Empire, allowed word of Harpocrates to spread, with statues and shrines of the god being found as far away as Britain. [15] The level of preservation on Delos, for example, allows us to see how Harpocrates was worked into the religious life of a cosmopolitan Greek island. Here, Harpocrates is becomes included in groups with Serapis, Isis, and Osiris but is also closely associated with Apollo and Heracles as children. [16] Lamps depicting Harpocrates have been found across the Empire and especially North Africa, with bronze statues similar to those from Egypt found in Lebanon and Afghanistan. [17]




Horus the Child/Harpocrates is therefore a deity that endures through time and across cultures, maintaining some of his defining attributes and yet being represented distinctly within the Egyptian and Greco-Roman visual records. From relative obscurity during the Old Kingdom, Harpocrates becomes widely venerated from the 3rd Century BC until the rise of Christianity, surpassing many of the previously prominent Egyptian dieties and travelling far beyond the bounds of his native Egypt. His significance is multifaceted and consistently shifts with the times. Healer, fertility symbol, solar deity, keeper of secrets, Harpocrates’ significance is malleable and dependant on the composition, audience, or even the kind of artefact he features in. He is both a product and emblematic of the fluid nature of religion during this time.


Written by Ella Wakefield





Cooney, J. D., 1972, “Harpocrates, the Dutiful Son.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art59(10), 284–290.


El-Khachab, A. M., Some Gem- Amulets Depicting Harpocrates Seated on a Lotus Flower," JEA 57.


Cristea, Ş., 2013, “Egyptian, Greek, Roman Harpocrates – A Protecting and Saviour God” in Moga, I. (ed.), Angels, Demons and Representations of Afterlife within the Jewish, Pagan and Christian Imagery. Editura Universităţii Alexandru Ioan Cuza.


Musée du Louvre (Paris), Ridder, A. D, & Catala., 1913, Les bronzes antiques du Louvre. Ernest Leroux.


Pinch, G., 2004, Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introductions. Oxford.


Plutarch, & Griffiths, J. G., 1970, Plutarch’s de Iside et Osiride; edited with an introd., translation and commentary by J. Gwyn Griffiths. University of Wales Press.


Swan Hall. E., 1977, “Harpocrates and Other Child Deities in Ancient Egyptian Sculpture.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt14, 55–58. 


Roussel, P., 1915-1916, Les Cultes Égyptiens à Délos du III e au 1er siècle av. J.-C. Paris/Nancy.


Rowland, B., 1966, Ancient Art from Afghanistan : Treasures of The Kabul Museum. The Asia Society.


Tran Tam Tinh, V., 1971, Le Culte des Divinités Orientales à Herculanum, Brill, Leiden


Wolf. W., 1957, Die Kunst Agyptens. Stuttgart.


[1] Pyramid Texts 663-4; Cooney 1972, 288; Swan Hall 1977, 55.

[2] Wolf 1957, figs. 130, 150; Swan Hall 1977, 56.

[3] Tran Tam Tinh, 1971, 18-21; Cristea 2013, 74.

[4] El-Khachab 1971, 133; Cristea 2013, 78.

[5] Swan Hall 1977, 56; Pinch 2004, 16-21; Cristea 2013, 75.

[6] Cristea 2013, 75.

[7] Cooney 1972, 290.

[8] Cooney 1972, 284.

[9] Ridder 1913; Cooney 1972, 287.

[10] Cooney 1972, 286-8; Swan Hall 1977, 57.

[11] Cooney 1972, 288; Cristea 2013, 82.

[12] Cooney 1972, 290; Cristea 2013, 82.

[13] Var. De Lingua Latina 5.10; Plut. Mor. 68.378C; Cat. Poems, 102; Aug. civ. Dei. 18.5; Erasmus. Adages 4.1.52.

[14] Griffiths 1970, 430-44.

[15] Roussel, 1915-1916, 239-240; Cooney 1972, 287.

[16] Cristea 2013, 79.

[17] Rowland 1966, fig. 1; Cristea 2013, 77.



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