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OSIRIS . Osiris is the Greek form of the name of the Egyptian god Wsjr, king of the afterworld. The Egyptian god Wsjr was often represented by a throne and an eye. He did not live with the other gods but among the dead, and therefore the Greeks identified him with Hades, as Plutarch (c. 46after 199 ce) did in his On Isis and Osiris.

By the time of the Pyramid Texts (third millennium; fifth and sixth dynasties), the Egyptians believed that King Osiris once reigned in their land and was killed by his brother Seth. His corpse was saved and revified by his sister-wife Isis, his sister Nephthys, and other gods. Osiris's life continued in the next world, where he became king of the dead. The myth was the origin of rituals to preserve the deceased pharaohs. His was the prototypical death, and Osiris adopted the name Khentimentu (or Khentamenthes, Foremost of the Westerns).

According to the Greek version of the myth related by Plutarch in On Isis and Osiris, Typhon (the Greek name of Seth) had a beautiful coffin made to Osiris's exact measurements and, with seventy-two conspirators at a banquet, promised it to the one who fit it. Each guest tried it for size, and of course Osiris fit exactly. Immediately Seth and the conspirators nailed the lid shut, sealed the coffin in lead, and threw it into the Nile. The coffin was eventually borne across the sea to Byblos, where Isis, who had been searching for her husband, finally located it. After some adventures of her own, Isis returned the body to Egypt, where Seth discovered it, cut it into pieces, and scattered the pieces throughout the country. Isis, however, found all the pieces (except the penis, which she replicated), reconstituted the body, performed the rituals to give Osiris eternal life, and founded his cult. The principal version of the story cited by Plutarch does not reveal how Isis gave birth to her son Horus, but according to the eighteenth-dynasty Hymn to Osiris and the iconography of several Egyptian monuments, she conceived Horus by the revivified corpse of her husband. The death of the god is often described by the Egyptian texts as a drowning at the end of a combat against Seth. Plutarch tells the story of the previous adultery of Osiris and Nephthys, Seth's sister and wife, the consequent birth of Anubis, and the wrath of Seth. The Pyramid Texts mention the "magic" acts performed by the gods to keep Osiris alive. Isis protected him with her wings, and Horus gave him an eye of his own to eat (Faulkner, 1969, nos. 579, 585).

Although Seth challenged the legitimacy of Isis's son, the gods decided in favor of Horus. The Contendings of Horus and Seth, preserved on a late New Kingdom papyrus and on a fragment of a Middle Kingdom one, indicates that Re, the chief god, favored Seth, but all the other great gods supported the cause of Horus. In the actual contest Horus proved himself the cleverer god. Horus succeeded and avenged his father without completely destroying Seth, toward whom Isis showed pity.

From the netherworld, Osiris granted the gifts of fertility and abundance to the earth and people. Droughts and the infertility of deserts were unavoidable as the god Seth was untamed, but the rituals in honor of Osiris assured the return of water and fertility.


Rituals of great political value included the balming, mummification, "opening of the mouth," and burial of the pharaohs to transform them into new beneficent gods following the Osirian pattern. The Pyramid Texts (e.g., nos. 219, 684) identify the dead pharaohs with Osiris and the living ones with Horus. The main purpose of the rituals was to keep the god alive, to preserve his vital might even in the realm of the dead. The condition of the god was sometimes described as asleep. In the Middle Kingdom period (21601580 bce) the burial rituals of nobles identified them with Osiris, and during the New Kingdom period (15801090 bce) the assimilation was widespread among the people. Relatively poor people could buy a cheap edition of the essential funerary texts in which their names were associated with Osiris. The name of the dead often included the name of Osiris before the personal name because he or she was like the god.

During the Middle Kingdom, Osiris's prevailing iconography was as a mummy bearing a wig, a crook, a flail, and sometimes a crown. Plutarch recorded in On Isis and Osiris that his body was dark. Later he was depicted lying on a lion-shaped bed flanked by Isis and Nephthys and backed by Anubis, the divine embalmer. In the Book of the Dead, Osiris is chairman at the soul's trial, when the heart of the dead is weighed.

One of the oldest centers of the Osirian cult was Abydos, where the kings of the earliest dynasties were buried and where many New Kingdom nobles were buried and represented face to face with Osiris. The Ramessides built many monuments in his honor. Here he was identified with the jackal god Khentimentu. His appellation "Lord of Busiris" witnesses an ancient cult location at Busiris, whose name signifies "house of Osiris." Osiris was identified with the funerary god Anedjti, but it is possible that Anedjti is simply the local name of Osiris. Memphis, Philae, and many other places pretended to keep a piece of the dismembered body of Osiris. His birth from Geb and Nut and his kinship to Isis, Seth, and Nephthys claim the ancient influence of the Heliopolite theology, in which he was one of the nine great gods of the Ennead.

Although each Egyptian district had its own specific cult, the rituals for Osiris were performed everywhere under pharaonic control. The most important one was the fall ritual in the month of Khoiak. At Dendera, twenty-three biers with various local forms of Osiris were venerated in the course of the local festival in Khoiak. People prepared mummiform figures molded from sand and barley that were later watered and allowed to germinate. Many mummiform figurines containing grains of corn or barley, most of them ithyphallic, have been discovered in excavations, and many images of Osiris show cornstalks sprouting from his corpse. In his honor the djed pillars, which were thought to represent the backbone of Osiris, were raised. In Abydos and Edfu the statue of the god was treated by the priests with secret substances, covered with a ram's skin, and kept in a special container. The idol of Osiris was also brought in the Neshmet ship. The papyrus Salt deals with those ceremonies. Plutarch, as evidenced in On Isis and Osiris, knew the Osirian Pamylia festival, which included a procession in which the phallus of the god was celebrated. That festival was celebrated in Alexandria in August to celebrate the birth of Osiris. Herodotos (c. 484between 430 and 420 bce) notes that at Sais, near a lake, some nocturnal performances called mysteria (mysteries) were organized. Diodorus (first century bce) states that secrets surrounded the truth about Osiris's death. Noise was forbidden by him as a god of silence, and his burials were often surrounded by inaccessible precints (Assmann, 2001, p. 254). Herodotos identifies Osiris with Dionysos, and his opinion that the phallic processions of Greek Dionysiac festivals could have been influenced by Egyptian Osirian ceremonies has found modern acceptance (Burkert, 2002). In the Hellenistic Age (c. 200 bce), Osiris also became the god who taught viticulture (Diodorus 1,1718).

The motif of Osiris's life among the dead was specified and expanded in the solar character assumed by Osiris before the Amarna period (c.1370c.1325 bce). He was in fact joined to Amun-Ra. The Book of the Dead mentions "Osiris of sun-disk"; the Abydos stela of Ramses IV (twelfth century bce) knows Osiris and Ra as "joined souls in the Dat (the realm of dead)." The mixed iconography of the Osirian mummy with the ram's head of Amun represented the joint nature of the gods. Osiris was therefore thought of as the sun during the night, when it visited the realm of dead, and his role as savior was bound to the vicissitudes of the sun. In this evolution there is no precise opposition between the solar theology of Heliopolis and chthonic religion as it has been thought (Kees, 1941).

Osiris's connections with the creator god Atum were strong. The lion-shaped funerary bed and the ram-shaped tool by which the mouths of the dead were opened were symbols of Atum. From the twenty-first dynasty, Osiris could be substituted as king and judge of the dead.

According to Plutarch's On Isis and Osiris, the fall festivals occurred when the days became shorter, the nights grew longer, and the level of the Nile began to recede. The fertility of the Egyptian earth depended on the Nile's inundation, and the cyclic burial and revival of Osiris were connected with the Nile's yearly phases. The inscription on the Shabaka's Stone (end of the eighth century) connects Osiris with the inundation of the Nile and its fructifying waters. The first century ce Egyptian priest Chaeremon attributed the same meaning to Osiris (fr.17 D van der Horst = Eusebius, Evangelic Preparation 3.11). Several later theologists contended that Osiris was the element of water, as Plutarch recorded in On Isis and Osiris. The papyrus Jumilhac informs us that people believed Osiris's sweat produced the Nile's flood and thus enabled the cultivation of cereals (Vandier, 1962).

The famous interpretation by James Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris (1962), recognized in Osiris the spirit of the corn, and Osiris's mythology should be an interpretation of corn's annual cycle. The connection with agriculture is evident, but Osiris's actions covered a larger field in the social structure. An often adopted definition of Osiris is "suffering god" (or "dying and rising god"). The ancient (Diodorus's book 1) and modern (Sethe, 1930, pp. 9495) euhemeristic explanations of Osiris as a deified ancient man are not suitable. The personality of this god goes back to the features of Neolithic religion, in which cults of the dead were strictly related to the agrarian rituals. A central feature of Osiris was his kingship over the dead, and this fact reproduced the structure of Egyptian society as a great monarchy (Griffiths, 1980). The dilemma of the dying god has worried many scholars, although Erik Hornung (1990) has stressed that death was the destiny of many Egyptian gods, whose beings were ever marked by cyclic death and life, as was the sun. A Greek god never looks older and never dies, whereas the eternity of Osiris consisted in a mysterious cycle of life and death. Nevertheless, in the coffin texts he was conceived as the immutable eternity.

Hellenistic and Roman Periods

The Osirian mysteries acquired in imperial times a new philosophical dimension, and Osiris was thought of as the eternity. The priest-philosopher Heraiskos (fifth century ce) discovered that Aion of Alexandria was also Osiris and Adonis (Damascius, Life of Isidorus, p.174 Zintzen). Aion was the deity on perennial time, and the Alexandrian Aion was also the god of destiny. His image was that of a snake, and Osiris also was sometimes represented entwined with a snake. That image corresponds to the hieroglyph signifying eternity.

The Apis bull was thought of as the soul of Ptah and Osiris (Diodorus 1.85.4; Strabo 17.1.31; Plutarch, 1970, 20; 29), and the Greeks worshiped it at least from the beginning of the fifth century. The foundation of a Greek city at Alexandria and the creation of the Macedonian kingship in Egypt under Alexander (356323 bce) and later under the Ptolemies produced a restyling of the great god of the dead. The names of Osiris and Apis (Osor Apis) were joined and gave birth to the name of Sarapis (or Serapis). Perhaps Alexander knew this god, but the complete transformation of Osiris into Sarapis was conceived by Ptolemy I (367, 366, or 364283 or 282 bce), the Egyptian priest Manetho, and the Eleusinian priest Timotheos (fourth century bce). The king saw in a dream a statue of Hades. His minister Sosibios discovered this statue at Sinope, and the Egyptians succeeded in taking it to Alexandria. That was the new image of Osiris identified with Hades, Dionysos, and Asklepios. Plutarch noted in On Isis and Osiris that he was seated on a throne and a snake stood on his hand and Cerberus by his feet. Over his head was the kalathos or modius, the measure of corn, to symbolize his attitude to produce fertility.

Sarapis's temple, the Serapeum, was built by Ptolemy III (d. 221 ce) and became the most famous one in Alexandria and one of the most important in the ancient world. Its destruction in 491 ce produced a pagan outburst. The Ptolemies attached a large library to the temple. The meter to measure the Nile's level (Nilometer) was kept by the Serapeum, and Aelius Aristides (129c.189 ce) celebrated Sarapis as the one who "drives up the Nile in summertime, and calls him back in winter" (Oration on Sarapis 32).

The nature of Sarapis was that of an international god, and many Serapea were consecrated in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds with a major shift in the second century ce. The first phase (third to first centuries bce) of his cult was marked by an evident Hellenization. During the first century bce the Roman phase began, marked by a stronger Egyptian style. Because he was also the protector of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the spread of Sarapis's cult advanced in accord with the foreign policy of the Alexandrian royal house. Sarapis was a supreme god, whose cosmological place was over the top of the universe, which was conceived as a sphere. Many Jews and Christians venerated him as the image of their god (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah ; Historia Augusta, Life of Saturninus 8). The Greek translation of the Bible was kept in his temple (Iohannes Chrysostomus, Patrologia Graeca 48, 851), and he was often identified with the biblical Joseph (Gn 41:3457) because this Jewish hero supplied the Egyptians with corn during the seven years of famine (Mussies, 1979). Sarapis often delivered oracles or performed miracles during dreams. The Roman Empire conceived of Sarapis as a solar god, the one god to whom the other divine entities owed their power (e.g., Iulian, Hymn to Helios 10; Macrobius 1.20.13). According to Erik Peterson (1926), he was often acclaimed, together with Zeus, as the only god.

Plutarch wrote that the cult of Osiris survived in the mysteries, and one can add that it was important in the doctrines and rituals of magic and that Sarapis was never substituted for him among Egyptian natives. The late mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman worlds are scarcely known because of their secrecy. They were practiced in the temples of Sarapis and Isis. The most important text describing the ceremonies outside the temples is the eleventh book of Apuleius's (c. 124after 170 ce) Metamorphses. The procession of the initiates carried an Osirian image in the form of a precious vessel an image of Osiris Hydreios that often had Osiris's head on top (the "Canopic Osiris") and held the sacred water of the Nile during the ceremonies. The bald-headed priests clad in linen held secret objects, wands and ivy used also in the Dionysiac cult, and in the temples water basins were regulated in the proper time to imitate the Nile flood. According to Julius Firmicus Maternus (fourth century ce) in On the Error of Profane Religions, the crucial rituals of the Isiac mysteries were the burial of Osiris, the mourning, the search for and discovery of his corpse, followed by the joy of the congregation.

Egyptian gem cutters produced series of hematite amulets that supposedly gave health to the womb. On them Osiris was represented alongside other fertility gods, such as Isis, Chnumis, Bes, the child Horus, and the mummiform Anubis, all standing on a schematic womb. These gods favored pregnancy and birth. In the magic practices several magicians acted as if they were Seth, threatened Osiris, and forced him to do what they wanted (e.g., Papyri Graecae Magicae 4,179189; 12,121143).

See Also

Iconography, article on Egyptian Iconography; Kingship, article on Kingship in the Ancient Mediterranean World; Mystery Religions.


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Leonard H. Lesko (1987)

Attilio Mastrocinque (2005)

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