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. 46–after 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 (2160–1580 bce) the burial rituals of nobles identified them with Osiris, and during the New Kingdom period (1580–1090 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. 484–between 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 1,17–18).
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.1370–c.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. 94–95) 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 (356–323 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 364–283 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 (129–c.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 41:34–57) 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. 124–after 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 4,179–189; 12,121–143).
Apuleius. The Isis-Book (Metamorphoses, Book XI). Translated and edited by John Gwyn Griffiths. Leiden, Netherlands, 1975.
Assmann, Jan. Tod und Jenseits im Alten Ägypten. Munich, 2001.
Beinlich, Horst. Die "Osirisreliquien": Zum Motiv der Körperzergliederung in der altägyptischen Religion. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1984.
Bergman, Jan. Isis-Seele und Osiris-Ei. Uppsala, Sweden, 1970.
Burkert, Walter. "Mysterien der Ägypter in griechischer Sicht." In Ägyptische Mysterien? edited by Jan Assmann and Martin Bommas, pp. 9–26. Munich, 2002.
Burkhard, Günter. Spätzeitliche Osiris-Liturgien im Corpus der Asasif-Papyri. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1995.
Cauville, Sylvie. La théologie d'Osiris à Edfou. Le Caire, Egypt, 1983.
Cauville, Sylvie. Le temple de Dendara: Les chapelles osiriennes. Le Caire, Egypt, 1997.
Derchain, Philippe. Le Papyrus Salt 825 (B.M. 10051): Rituel pour la conservátion de la vie en Égypte. Brussels, 1965.
Faulkner, Robert O. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford, U.K., 1969.
Frazer, James G. Adonis, Attis, Osiris. 3d ed. The Golden Bough, pt. 4. London, 1962.
Griffiths, John Gwyn. The Origins of Osiris and His Cult. Rev. and enl. ed. Studies in the History of Religions, vol. 40. Leiden, Netherlands, 1980.
Helck, Wolfgang. "Osiris." In Paulys realencyclopädie der klassischen, Supp. 9 (1962): 469–513.
Horbostel, Wilhelm. Sarapis. Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'empire romain (EPRO) 32. Leiden, Netherlands, 1973.
Hornung, Erik. Der Eine und die Vielen: Ägyptische Gottesvorstellungen. 4th ed. Darmstadt, Germany, 1990.
Kàkosi, Lazlo. "Osiris-Aion." Oriens Antiquus 3 (1964): 15–25.
Kees, Hermann. Der Götterglaube im alten Aegypten. Leipzig, Germany, 1941.
Merkelbach, Reinhold. Isis regina, Zeus Sarapis: Die griechisch-ägyptische Religion nach den Quellen dargestellt. Stuttgart and Leipzig, Germany, 1995.
Mussies, Gerard. "The Interpretation Judaica of Sarapis." In Studies in Hellenistic Religions, edited by Maarten J. Vermaseren, pp.189–214. Leiden, Netherlands, 1979.
Otto, Eberhard. Osiris und Amun: Kult und heilige Stätten. Munich, 1966. Translated by Kate Bosse Griffiths as Ancient Egyptian Art: The Cults of Osiris and Amon (New York, 1967).
Peterson, Erik. Heis Theos. Göttingen, Germany, 1926.
Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris. Translated and edited by John Gwyn Griffiths. Cardiff, Wales, 1970.
Raven, Maarten J. "Corn-Mummies." Oudheidkundige mededelingen uit het rijksmuseum van oudheden te Leiden (OMRO) 63 (1982): 7–38.
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Stambaugh, John E. Sarapis under the Early Ptolemies. Leiden, Netherlands, 1972.
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Vandier, Jacques. Le papyrus Jumilhac. Paris, 1962.
Vidman, Ladislav. Sylloge inscriptionum religionis Isiacae et Sarapiacae. Berlin, 1969.
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Leonard H. Lesko (1987)
Attilio Mastrocinque (2005)
The Pyramid Texts
Son of Nut and Geb
One of the most important deities of ancient Egypt, Osiris was god of the underworld and judge of the dead. He also represented the idea of renewal and rebirth in the afterlife. Osiris appears in many Egyptian myths and legends, and his popularity extended beyond Egypt.
Little is known about the origin of Osiris in Egyptian mythology. In very ancient times he may have been a local god of the city of Busiris in Lower Egypt. It is possible that he was originally an underworld god or fertility deity or legendary hero. By about 2400 bce, his worship had become firmly established and began to spread throughout much of Egypt.
In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was the son of the sky goddess Nut (pronounced NOOT) and the earth god Geb (pronounced GEB). He was also the brother and husband of Isis (pronounced EYE-sis) and the father of Horus (pronounced HOHR-uhs). He supposedly served as a ruler of early Egypt, where his followers honored him as both god and man. Credited with civilizing the country, Osiris introduced agriculture and various crafts, established laws, and taught Egyptians how to worship the gods.
Osiris traveled to other parts of the world to civilize people. Upon his return to Egypt, his jealous brother Set plotted with others to kill him. They built a beautifully decorated box, tricked Osiris into getting into it, sealed the box, and then threw it into the Nile River. The box floated into the Mediterranean Sea to the land of Byblos (pronounced BIB-luhs) in Phoenicia (pronounced foh-NEE-shuh).
Overcome with grief at the loss of her husband, Isis searched high and low for his body. Eventually she found it. After bringing his body back to Egypt, Isis magically restored Osiris to life long enough to conceive a son, Horus. Isis then hid Osiris's body in a secluded spot. Set discovered it, cut it into pieces, and scattered them throughout Egypt. Isis gathered up the pieces, reassembled them, and restored Osiris to life once again.
Instead of staying on earth, Osiris chose to become lord of the Egyptian underworld. As king of the dead, he sat in judgment of dead souls, measuring the worth of their lives and determining their punishment or reward. The gods Anubis (pronounced uh-NOO-bis) and Thoth (pronounced TOHT) assisted him. In his role as god of the dead, Osiris became associated with the Egyptian practices of embalming and mummification, methods of preserving the dead so they could safely travel to the afterlife.
When Osiris became lord of the underworld, his son Horus became ruler of Egypt. The Egyptians believed that when a pharaoh (king) died he became the god Osiris. The new pharaoh represented Horus, the god of the living.
Osiris in Context
Osiris reflects the ancient Egyptian belief that death and rebirth are intimately connected. To an ancient Egyptian, death represented a chance to become one with Osiris and be given eternal life. This explains why a god of the underworld, usually considered a bringer of death, is also associated with the sprouting of crops and the flooding of the Nile, which leads to an abundance of vegetation. Ancient Egyptians viewed each harvesting of crops as another death for Osiris, with the grain representing his body. Some even planted crop beds in the shape of the god, who would be reborn when the seeds sprouted. In the case of Osiris, lord of the Egyptian realm of the dead, “death-bringer” is a less appropriate description than “eternal life-giver.” Although Osiris's main center of worship was at the city of Abydos (pronounced uh-BYE-duhs), the god was worshipped intensely throughout Egypt. The appeal of a god who offered the promise of life after death was so strong that worship of Osiris also spread to other parts of the ancient world, most notably Greece and Rome.
Key Themes and Symbols
Osiris was linked to both death and rebirth for obvious reasons: he was killed twice by his jealous brother Set, and was restored to life twice by his wife and sister Isis. Osiris also represents the provider and teacher in ancient Egyptian myth. He brought knowledge of agriculture to the people and was also thought to be responsible for the growth of plants each year. An important theme in the myth of Osiris is the futility of jealousy and anger. Set kills his brother Osiris because he is jealous, but, in the end, Set still does not get to rule over Egypt—that honor passes to Osiris's son Horus.
In ancient Egyptian art, Osiris is usually portrayed as a bearded king wrapped in cloth like a mummy. He generally wears the crown of Upper Egypt, has an amulet around his neck, and holds a crook and a flail, symbols of his powers as god of fertility and the underworld.
Osiris in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
In modern times, Osiris is seldom encountered as a character in art or literature. He is, however, sometimes mentioned in works dealing with magic and death. For instance, in the sixth season premiere of the television series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (2001), the title character is brought back to life using an Urn of Osiris.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Locate on a map the following places and features mentioned in the myth of Osiris: Busiris, the Nile River, the Mediterranean Sea, Phoenicia, and Abydos. Do you think that the use of real places in the myth helps people to accept it as true? Why or why not?
Mighty One . Osiris played an important role in Egyptian mythology as the god of the underworld and judge of the dead. As a chthonic deity, he also became associated with the fertility of the earth. Osiris first appears in Egyptian texts at the end of Dynasty 5 (circa 2500-2350 b.c.e.), when he is mentioned in both inscriptions in private mastabas (boxlike tombs) and in the Pyramid Texts found in Unas’s 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 word wsr, meaning “mighty,” making Osiris the “mighty one.”
Fertility and the Underworld. Apparently, 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 bark. Osiris seems to have originally been thought of in the form of a dog, based on a Pyramid Text passage, which says that the king has the face of a jackal, like Osiris. He quickly lost this form, however, and his earliest depictions show him as a mummiform 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 after-crown His face and hands are often painted green, representing his association with fertility, or black, a color associated with the underworld.
Dead Kings . Whatever Osiris’s origin, the Pyramid Texts show that by the end of Dynasty 5, the dead king has come to be 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 has gone from being the king of Egypt to being the king of the underworld. In these texts scholars find the first allusions to the myth of Osiris, which is 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 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 hosts a banquet and offers an exquisitely carved chest to whomever 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’s body. There are some indications in the Pyramid Texts that his father Geb found Osiris’s body. Most commonly, however, his sister-wife Isis and sister Nephthys are the ones who 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, which 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 action provides an explanation for the various tombs of Osiris found up and down the Nile. Osiris then assumes his permanent position as ruler of the underworld.
Cult . 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 (that is, the dead).” During Dynasties 5 (circa 2500-2350 b.c.e.) and 6 (circa 2350-2170 b.c.e.), however, Khentiamentiu became assimilated with Osiris. Beginning in Dynasty 12 (circa 1938-1759 b.c.e.), his temple at Kom el-Sultan was taken over by Osiris. Also in Dynasty 12, the Dynasty 1 (circa 3000-2800 b.c.e.) mastaba of King Djet was mistaken as the tomb of Osiris. Every year, Abydos was witness to 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 tombs) 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.
Jan Assmann, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001).
John 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, translated by Kate Bosse Griffiths (London: Thames & Hudson, 1968).
One of the most important deities of ancient Egypt, Osiris was god of the underworld and judge of the dead. He also represented the idea of renewal and rebirth in the afterlife. Osiris appears in many Egyptian myths and legends, and his cult spread beyond Egypt.
Little is known about the origin of Osiris in Egyptian mythology. In very ancient times, he may have been a local god of the city of Busiris in Lower Egypt. It is possible that he was originally an underworld or fertility deity or a legendary hero. By about 2400 b.c., his cult had become firmly established and began to spread throughout much of Egypt.
In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was the son of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb, brother and husband of Isis* and father of Horus. He supposedly served as a ruler of early Egypt, where his followers honored him as both god and man. Credited with civilizing the country, Osiris introduced agriculture and various crafts, established laws, and taught Egyptians how to worship the gods.
deity god or goddess
underworld land of the dead
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
Osiris traveled to other parts of the world to civilize people there as well. Upon his return to Egypt, his jealous brother Set* plotted with others to kill him. They built a beautifully decorated box, tricked Osiris into getting into it, sealed the box, and then threw it into the Nile River. The box floated into the Mediterranean Sea and to the land of Byblos in Phoenicia*.
Overcome with grief at the loss of her husband, Isis searched high and low for his body Eventually she found it. Bringing the body back to Egypt, she magically restored Osiris to life long enough to conceive a son, Horus. Isis then hid the body in a secluded spot. Set discovered it, cut it into pieces, and scattered them throughout Egypt. Isis gathered up the pieces, reassembled them, and restored Osiris to life once again.
Instead of staying on earth, he chose to become lord of the Egyptian underworld. As king of the dead, he sat in judgment of dead souls, measuring the worth of their lives and determining their punishment or reward. The gods Anubis and Thoth assisted him. In his role as god of the dead, Osiris became associated with the Egyptian practices of embalming and mummification and was the object of intense worship.
When Osiris became lord of the underworld, his son Horus became ruler of Egypt. The Egyptians believed that when a pharaoh, or king, died, he became the god Osiris. The new pharaoh represented Horus, the god of the living.
embalm to treat a corpse with oils or chemicals to prevent or slow down the process of decay
mummification preservation of a body by removing its organs and allowing it to dry
amulet small object thought to have supernatural or magical powers
flail tool for threshing grain
In ancient Egyptian art, Osiris is usually portrayed as a bearded king wrapped in cloth like a mummy. He generally wears the crown of Upper Egypt, has an amulet around his neck, and holds a crook and a flail, symbols of his powers as god of fertility and the underworld. Although Osiris's main cult center was at the city of Abydos, the god was worshiped intensely throughout Egypt. The appeal of a god who offered the promise of life after death was so strong that worship of Osiris also spread to other parts of the ancient world, most notably Greece and Rome.
See also Afterlife; Anubis; Book of the Dead, The; Egyptian Mythology; Horus; Isis; Nut; RΑ (RE); Set; Thoth; Underworld.
In Ancient Egyptian mythology, Osiris was the god of the beyond whose death and resurrection brought a guarantee of an afterlife to mortals. He was a kindly Pharaoh, teaching agriculture, music, arts, and religion to his people. Jealous of his successful reign, his brother Seth killed him with the help of many accomplices and took control of Egypt. However, Seth's reign was foreshortened by Isis's great love for her husband and brother Osiris, whom she brought back from the dead. A skillful magician, she gave Osiris breath by flapping her wings above him while she transformed into a bird. Osiris and Isis then conceived Horus, their beloved son. Seth, seething in anger, killed Osiris once again, this time by cutting his body to pieces and throwing them into the Nile River. Isis, with the help of Anubis, the god with the jackal head, reconstituted Osiris's body with bandages and embalming rites, thus creating the first mummy. During this act, the god Thoth recited an incantation. Finally, Horus avenged his father Osiris in a bloody duel with Seth in which Horus lost his eye, which was then given as a food offering to Osiris.
Each of the ceremonies which were followed after Osiris' death, became the actual rituals that the Egyptians performed to ensure access to the eternal life after death. Egyptians performed mummification of the body to preserve it eternally, recited incantations to facilitate access to the hereafter and provide gifts to help them on their voyage. The deceased's soul proceeds to Hell and must appear before Osiris's Court, which weighs the soul's good and bad actions; the heart must be light as a feather to obtain salvation. Otherwise, the consequence is torment and destruction.
In pictorial representations, Osiris is portrayed wearing the white clothes used in mummification; he typically holds the king's scepter and the judge's whip, symbols of supreme authority.
See also: Cannibalism; Gods and Goddesses of Life and Death; Jesus; Sacrifice
Coulter, Charles R., and Patricia Turner. Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2000.
Griffiths, John Gwyn. The Origins of Osiris and his Cult. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1980.
Mercatante, Anthony S. Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend. New York: Facts on File, 1988.