In the seventh and sixth centuries BC, the settlement of traders and mercenaries from the Aegean world in the Nile Delta raised the problem of the relative identities of the different gods, leading to the association/assimilation of the incoming deities with local gods, together with their practices of worship and ritual. Indigenous religion and Greek religion were neither competitors nor antagonists, newcomer deities were identified with Egyptian deities. To the interpretatio graeca of Egyptian deities there replied the interpretatio aegyptiaca of Greek deities: Amon was Zeus, Hera was Mut, Khonsu was Heracles, Osiris, Isis and Horus were Dionysus, Demeter and Apollo... and vice versa.
The Canopic region perhaps gives more than anywhere else an idea of these dual conceptions where myths and legends mingled, enlaced and reinvented themselves to "soften the impact". The saga of Heracles found particular and surprising resonance in the religious world of the old Egyptian god Amun, "the hidden", the god of Thebes and "king of the gods." Similarly, the Osirian myth saw itself adapted to serve as a framework for the Trojan epics, at the forefront of which was the eponymous legend of Canopus.
Gods, Goddesses and Pharaohs
Among the remaining buildings on the Thonis-Heracleion site is a pharaonic style temple on whose threshold stood three pink granite colossuses: a Ptolemy, his royal wife (SCA 279, 280), and an extraordinary representation of Hapi, the god personifying the Nile flood (SCA 281). Many objects were found in the ’sacred’ area: statues and fragments of statues, ritual utensils and bronze figurines, coins, ceramics, etc. The age of most of these artefacts ranges from the fourth to the first century BC, and gives an idea of the wealth of the temple in the time of the Ptolemies. Some objects, especially the imported ceramics, reveal human activity at the site since the sixth century BC. Others, more spectacular, like the Decree of Nectanebo, a double of the Naucratis stele represent the Egyptian Late Period (SCA 277).
At Canopus, excavations have revealed the existence, between the main temple and the Christian architectural complex, of a discharge area where statues were thrown, probably to be discarded and the material reused. This sculpture of the time of the last native dynasties (SCA 167, 168) or even older (SCA 166), and the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, is remarkable for its quality.
The statues of gods, goddesses and pharaohs, of queens and citizens, as well as many sphinxes, allow to consider the fate of the temples of the Canopic region. They allow us to see the complex history of creation and destruction of these temples, as well as the diversity of the meaning and use of these images within the sanctuaries. The most important statues were studied by Professor Jean Yoyotte (Honorary professor at the Collège de France) (SCA 208, 279, 280 , 453 , 454, 455), Prof. John Baines (Oxford University) (SCA 281), Prof. Robert RR Smith (University of Oxford) (SCA 842 ), Prof. Zolt Kiss (Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology) (SCA 167, 165, 166, 168, 169, 171, 202, 204, 205, 206, 282, 283, 452, 455, 460, 461, 607). The entire statuary of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus has been the subject of a doctoral thesis defended in 2010 at the University of Oxford: E. S. Libonati, Egyptian Statuary from the Abuqir Bay: Ptolemaic and Roman finds from Herakleion and Canopus, DPhil. Thesis, University of Oxford. In addition, the stele of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II (SCA 529), discovered at Thonis-Heracleion which established ritual honours in favour of the Ptolemaic ruler and enumerated the benefits with which Pharaoh had filled Egypt, its gods and its inhabitants, was published by Christophe Thiers (C. Thiers, La Stèle de Ptolémée Évergète II à Héracléion, OCMA Monograph 4, Oxford, 2009).
Worship and rites
While traders paid customs duty at Thonis-Heracleion, they did not fail to also give offerings to the gods. These modest objects reveal the religious world and beliefs of the sailors and boatmen. The vestiges of their donations dot the bottom of the harbour basins: small votive anchors, miniature vases and amphorae, amulets, etc. (SCA 370, 371, 923, 938, 939, 1009, 1077). They are moving evidence of fulfilled vows and offerings to Gods to enable a healthy and safe voyage. To this world of professional maritime travel, where hopes and fears, superstitions and poetry mingle incessantly, excavation has added – more official in nature but just as exceptional – a temple with its statues – occasionally colossal –, its statuettes (SCA 198, 393, 522, 895, 927.962, 968, 973, 974, 975, 981, 990, 997, 1021, 1041, 1087, 1001, 1002, 1006), and its battery of cult objects. The many temple utensils – incense burners, braziers, lamps, libation vessels, situlae etc., reveal the importance of worship and rites (SCA 216, 223, 227, 239, 296, 385, 390, 391, 392, 406, 407, 476, 566, 580, 581, 586, 896, 897, 899, 900, 904, 906, 911, 912, 916, 928, 931, 934, 940, 941, 951, 961, 964, 977, 984, 985, 986, 1016, 1023, 1025, 1028, 1044, 1045, 1048, 1056, 1060, 1086, 1054-1061, 1057, 1058). They are the materialization of the liturgical tasks recorded for the servants of the gods on the walls of the shrines. Ritual deposits and instruments of worship were also found in the canal that linked the docks to the western lake, crossing Heracleion to arrive at Canopus (SCA 220, 395, 397, 478, 579, 908, 909, 931, 936, 1014, 1032, 1029, 1034, 1042, 1044, 1062, 1063, 1064, 1071, 1095). They show the sacred character of this great way, used especially during ceremonies held between the two shrines in honour of Osiris (SCA 411, 926, 952, 982, 1004, 1013, 1031).