Myth of Osiris

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Myth of Osiris


An important series of myths involved the god Osiris. Osiris played an important role in Egyptian mythology as the god of the underworld and judge of the dead. As a chthonic ("earth") deity, he also became associated with the fertility of the earth. Osiris first appears in Egyptian texts at the end of the Fifth Dynasty (2500–2350 b.c.e.), when he is mentioned in both inscriptions in private mastabas (tombs) and in the Pyramid Texts found in Unas' pyramid. His name was written with the hieroglyph of an eye surmounting a throne, and this combination has given rise to much speculation as to the origin and meaning of the name Osiris. At this point, there is no agreement about the significance of the name or its spelling. The simplest etymology would connect his name to the Egyptian word weser, meaning "mighty," making Osiris the "mighty one."

Fertility and the Underworld.

Osiris was not originally viewed in a positive light. He may have been the god of the unsuccessful dead, that is, those who did not ascend to the sky to become a star or gain a spot in Re's barque (sailing vessel). Osiris seems to have originally been thought of in the form of a dog, based on a Pyramid Text passage which states that the king has the face of a jackal, like Osiris. Osiris quickly lost this form, however, and his earliest depictions show him as a mummi-form human with his hands protruding from the mummy bandages and gripping the symbols of kingship, the crook and flail. He is frequently shown wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, or the Atef-crown. His face and hands are often painted green, representing his association with fertility, or black, a color associated with the underworld.

Association with Dead Kings.

Whatever Osiris' origin, the Pyramid Texts show that by the end of the Fifth Dynasty (2350 b.c.e.) the dead king was identified with Osiris. These texts frequently refer to the dead king as the Osiris N (representing the name of the dead king). As such, the king had gone from being the king of Egypt to being the king of the underworld. In these texts, the first allusions to the myth of Osiris are found, which are not recorded in narrative form until the first century c.e., when the Greek writer Plutarch recorded the myth. In this version, Osiris was a king of Egypt who was murdered by his jealous brother Seth. How this takes place is uncertain. Some texts refer to Osiris as being "thrown down" in the town of Nedyet in the land of Gehesty, while others refer to Osiris being drowned in the water of Djat. There may also be references to the dismemberment of Osiris. In the Greek version, Seth throws a banquet, and offers an exquisitely carved chest to whoever can fit inside it. When Osiris climbs into the chest, Seth slams it shut, seals it with molten lead, and throws it into the Nile. From there, it makes its way along the currents to the shores of Lebanon, where it becomes enfolded in the trunk of a tree, which is used as a column of a temple by the king of Lebanon.

First Mummy.

All versions of the myth include the search and discovery of Osiris' body. There are some indications in the Pyramid Texts that his father Geb found Osiris' body. Most commonly, however, his sister-wife Isis and sister Nephthys discover the body of Osiris. They are able to restore the body to life just long enough to allow Osiris to impregnate Isis with his son and heir, Horus. In later versions of the myth, the god Anubis transforms the corpse of Osiris into the first mummy, and he serves as the prototype of the treatment all deceased Egyptians wished to receive. According to the Greek version of the story, Isis leaves the chest containing the body of Osiris in Buto while she attends to her newborn child. Seth discovers the chest, becomes enraged, and dismembers the body of Osiris, scattering the pieces throughout Egypt. Isis finds each part and buries it. This provides an explanation for the numerous tombs of Osiris found up and down the Nile. Osiris then assumes his permanent position as ruler of the underworld.


The major cult center of Osiris was Abydos. Originally, this city was the cult-center of the jackal-god of the dead Khentiamentiu, "foremost of the Westerners" (i.e., the dead). During the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, however, Khentiamentiu became assimilated with Osiris. Beginning in the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 b.c.e.), his temple at Kom el-Sultan was taken over by Osiris. Also in the Twelfth Dynasty, the First-dynasty (3100–2800 b.c.e.) mastaba of King Djet in Abydos was mistakenly interpreted as the tomb of Osiris. Every year, Abydos was the site of a huge festival during which a dramatic presentation of the myth of Osiris took place. In order to participate vicariously in this festival, kings would build cenotaphs ("false tomb memorials") for themselves at Abydos. Along the festival route, private individuals erected small chapels for themselves. These chapels, called mahat, could contain a small stele or statue of the owner. This object would become the conduit through which the individual could magically share in the bounty of the festival.


J. Gwyn Griffiths, The Origin of Osiris and his Cult (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1980).

Eberhard Otto, Egyptian Art and the Cults of Osiris and Amon (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968).

see also Music: Musical Deities ; Theater: The Osirian Khoiak Festival Drama