Osiris (from ancient Greek Ὄσιρις) is a god of the Egyptian pantheon and a mythical king of ancient Egypt. Inventor of agriculture and religion, his reign was beneficent and civilizing. He died drowned in the Nile, murdered in a plot organized by Set, his younger brother. Despite the dismemberment of his body, he regained his life through the magical power of his sister Isis. The martyrdom of Osiris is worth to him to gain the world of the beyond of which he becomes the sovereign and the supreme judge of the laws of Maat.
In the Middle Kingdom, the city of Abydos became the city of the god Osiris. It thus attracts many faithful in search of eternity. The fame of this city rests on its cult festivities of the New Year and on a holy relic, the head of the god.
During the first millennium B.C., Osiris retains his status as funerary god and judge of souls. However, his aspects of god of the Nile”s waters and, by the same token, of god of fertility, acquire the primacy, thus increasing his popularity with the Nilotic population. Greek settlers in Memphis adopted his cult as early as the 4th century B.C. in its local form of Osiris-Apis, the dead and mummified sacred bull. The Lagid rulers imported this cult into their capital Alexandria in the form of Serapis, the Greek-Egyptian syncretic god. After the conquest of Egypt by the Roman forces, Osiris and Isis were exported to Rome and its empire. They remained there, with ups and downs, until the 4th century AD, when they were finally ousted by Christianity (prohibition of paganism following the Edict of Thessalonica). The Osirian cult, active since the XXVth century B.C., lasted until the VIth century A.D., when the temple of Isis on the island of Philæ, the last one in Egypt, was closed around 530 A.D., a closure ordered by the emperor Justinian.
The theonym Osiris is a transliteration in Latin alphabet of a word coming from ancient Greek: Ὄσιρις which has itself for origin a word of the Egyptian language: Wsjr variably transliterated according to the authors by Asar, Asari, Aser, Ausar, Ausir, Wesir, Ousir, Ousire or Ausare, the original Egyptian pronunciation being unknown because the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing does not restore all the vowels. Several Egyptologists have tried to give a meaning to the theonym Osiris. In 1980, John Gwyn Griffiths proposed that Wsjr derives from Wser and means “the Mighty”. Moreover, one of the oldest attestations of the god Osiris appears in the mastaba of the deceased Netjer-ouser (God-powerful). In 1987, Wolfhart Westendorf proposed the etymology Waset-jret: “she who carries the eye”. In 1985, David Lorton hypothesized that Wsjr is a compound word from the morpheme set associated with jret; set-jret meaning “ritual activity”. Osiris would then be “the one who benefits from ritual activity”. According to the Egyptian vision, the destructive forces are in perpetual struggle against the positive forces. In this, Set is opposed to his brother Osiris, symbol of the fertile and nourishing earth.
Osiris is one of the main deities of the Egyptian pantheon. However, the origins of his cult are still very obscure. In the state of Egyptological knowledge, the oldest attestations of Osiris go back to the XXVth century BC and date from the end of the IVth or the beginning of the Vth dynasty. The name of Osiris is first found in an offering formula addressed to Osiris and Anubis by a probable daughter of Kephren, Hemet-Ra, royal daughter and priestess of Hathor. She probably died during the reign of King Chepseskaf, the last ruler of Dynasty IV. The inscription appears on the lintel of the entrance to her tomb at Giza.
The first representation of Osiris is incomplete, as it appears on a fragment of the high temple of King Djedkare Isesi. The god appears as a male figure wearing a long divine wig.
Another of these ancient archaeological testimonies is an inscription of the name of Osiris on the lintel of the tomb of the high priest Ptahchepses. The latter died during the reign of King Niouserre. Discovered at Saqqara, the great necropolis of Memphis, the lintel is now kept by the British Museum in London.
The Pyramid Texts include litanies and incantations recited during royal funeral ceremonies. These texts were engraved on the walls of the burial chambers from the time of King Uanas, the last member of the Fifth Dynasty. With this documentation, it is difficult to deduce where and when the Osirian cult appeared. Chapter 219, however, mentions various places of worship located in several cities of the Nile valley, including Heliopolis, Bousiris, Bouto, Memphis and Hermopolis Magna. Strangely enough, Abydos is not mentioned in this list. The cult of Osiris was however introduced in this city during the 5th dynasty. Abydos is for the Osirian cult the most important place of pilgrimage from the Middle Kingdom. The Pyramid Texts indeed mention that the body of the murdered god was found lying near the banks of the Nile at Nedit (or Gehesti), a territory close to Abydos.
Archetypes and associations
According to the Egyptologist Bernard Mathieu, the appearance of the god Osiris is the result of a royal decision, because his cult suddenly spread throughout the Egyptian territory, at the beginning of the 5th dynasty. His name is a voluntary graphic game based on the hieroglyph representing the throne. From the beginning, Osiris is thus linked to the goddess Isis, the name of the latter meaning the throne. Osiris is the king of the funerary domains and the judge of the dead. His representation is anthropomorphic, very far from the animal forms that other deities from the predynastic period can take (bovids, crocodiles, falcons). The Osirian dogma was elaborated by the clergy of Heliopolis under the control of the monarchical power, which took charge of spreading it throughout the country, no doubt in order to better establish its ascendancy over the great temples such as those of Bousiris, Abydos or Heracleopolis.
Osiris is associated with other deities. In Lower Egypt, at Bousiris, he absorbs the qualities of Andjéty, tutelary god of this locality since prehistoric times. The representation of this shepherd god is characterized by his two high feathers on his head, held by a long headband, with the scepter Heqa and the flagellum Nekhekh in his hands. Osiris is also assimilated to the funerary god Sokar who watches over the Memphite necropolis. This god is represented by the association of a man”s body, which is sometimes sheathed in a shroud, and a hawk”s head and very often without any distinctive sign. He is also sometimes represented in the form of a mummified falcon. In Upper Egypt, Osiris is more particularly established in the nome of the Great Land, region surrounding the city of Thinis, the oldest capital of ancient Egypt. This ancient city is still not located with certainty. However, it is known that Osiris was brought closer to the god Onouris. This god is a man with a beard who wears a headdress composed of four high feathers. Onouris, in his funerary aspect, bears the epithet of Khentamenti, the “Chief of the West”. The Thinite necropolis was located in Abydos. There, Osiris is assimilated to Khentamentiou, the “Chief of the West”, a funerary deity close to Oupouaout and represented in the form of a black canid.
The god Osiris is intimately linked to the Egyptian monarchy. The god is seen as a deceased king then deified. His attributes are thus those of the Egyptian sovereigns. Osiris was considered as a sovereign of the whole of Egypt. However, his representations only show him with the white Hedjet crown, symbol of Upper Egypt. This crown is in the form of a cap narrowing upwards and ending in a bulge. However this crown can be increased by two high lateral feathers, probably of ostrich, one speaks then about the Atef crown. His other royal symbols are the scepter Heqa and the flagellum Nekhekh that he holds in his hands crossed on his chest. Osiris being a dead god, his representations show him as a mummified body. His postures are diverse, lying on his funeral bed, sitting on the throne or standing as a being who has conquered death.
Osiris is a complex god whose presence is attested on the whole Egyptian territory. This god has several facets within him. His aspects of funerary god are well known. But Osiris is also a deity who watches over the proper functioning of the universe. His beneficent action is thus at work in the parade of stars or in the seasonal cycle of vegetation. Consequently, Osiris presents himself to his worshippers under a multiplicity of names. Litanies are chanted to “Osiris under all his names”. Very early on, Osiris is endowed with the epithet “He who has many names” (ash renou). This accumulation of epithets and names appears in chapter 142 of the Book of the Dead. This text allows the deceased to access eternal life in the image of Osiris. To do this, the deceased enumerates a list of one hundred and fifteen epithets attached to the name of Osiris. The more names the worshipper enumerates, the more he recognizes and accepts the power of the deity invoked. The different functions of the god and the different cities where his cult is present are listed in no logical order:
Osiris, the son of Nut
The Greek Plutarch is the author of several treatises on morality, philosophy and theology. The treatise On Isis and Osiris relates to Egyptian beliefs. This author is the first to summarize and expose the Osirian myth in a linear narrative. The story begins with the mythical establishment of the solar calendar of 365 days. Nut, the goddess of the sky, had a secret love affair with Geb, her brother, the god of the earth. Ra, the sun god, upon learning of these actions, becomes angry and forbids Nut to give birth during the days of the year. Thoth, the other brother of Nut, decides to play dice with the Moon to win him a seventy-second of his days of light. Having won five more days, he placed them after the 360 days created by Ra. Osiris was born on the first day, Horus the Elder on the second day, Set on the third day by tearing the womb, Isis on the fourth day in the marshes of the Nile delta and Nephthys on the fifth and last day. Plutarch adds that the true father of Osiris and Horus the Elder would be Ra, that the father of Isis would be Thoth and that only Seth and Nephthys would be the descendants of Geb. But it also indicates another version of the paternity of Horus the Elder. Even before being born, Osiris and Isis, in love with each other, would have conceived Horus the Elder in the womb of their mother.
Chapter 219 of the Pyramid Texts magically equates the dead pharaoh with Osiris, the god who was restored to life. All the gods of the Osirian family are encouraged to restore the dead king to life as they did for Osiris. In this chapter are mentioned the different family links that the gods of Heliopolis have with each other. Osiris is the son of Atum, of Shu and Tefnut, of Geb and Nut. Other texts make us understand that Atum created Shu and Tefnut and that the latter are the parents of Geb and Nut. The enumeration of the family links continues by mentioning the siblings of Osiris, saying that he has as brothers and sisters, Isis, Set, Nephthys and Thoth, and that Horus is his son.
Osiris, the beloved of his sisters
Isis was considered by the ancient Egyptians as the wife of the god Osiris. As such, her cult was very popular, especially during the years of the Late Period. When the cult of the Egyptian gods began to decline in their country of origin, the veneration of Isis, the grieving widow who saves the initiates from death, continued however outside the borders of Egypt, in Greece (Athens, Delphi, Corinth), in Italy (Rome and Pompeii) or in Germania (Mainz). Osiris (or his Greco-Roman form of Sarapis) was of course always associated with him but the wife eclipsed the husband in the hearts of the devotees.
The funerary stele of Amenmes (XVIIIth dynasty), now preserved in the Louvre Museum, is the most exhaustive Egyptian archaeological document about the Osirian myth. One can read there a hymn to Osiris. Naturally, passages are devoted to his grieving wife. Set murdered Osiris and then made the body disappear. Isis, by the power of her magic, revives Osiris the god with a failing heart. Then, after being united with him, she conceives Horus, the future heir to the throne:
“Her sister is her protection, she who keeps away the adversaries. She repels the occasions of disorder by the charms of her mouth, the expert in her language, whose word does not fail, perfect in her orders. Isis, the efficient one, the protector of her brother, searching for him without weariness, going through this country, in mourning, does not rest until she has found him. Making shade with her plumage, producing air with her two wings, making gestures of joy, she brings her brother to her; raising what was sagging for the One-whose-heart-is-failing; extracting his seed, creating an heir, she nurses the child in the solitude of an unknown place, enthroning him, her arm grown strong, in the Great Hall of Geb.”
– Great Hymn to Osiris (stele C286 in the Louvre Museum).
In his treatise, Plutarch mentions that Osiris, by mistake, deceived Isis and that this infidelity was committed with his twin sister Nephthys, the wife of Set. From this adulterous relationship was born Anubis, the god with the head of a canine. A paragraph of the Brooklyn Papyrus (XXVIth dynasty) mentions that in the city of Letopolis there is a statue representing Nephthys in the form of the lioness Sekhmet embracing the mummy of Osiris; an attitude that is more that of an official wife than of a mistress. This fact is confirmed by two scenes from the temple of Edfu where Nephthys bears the name of Onnophret. This name makes Nephthys the female counterpart of Osiris in his aspect of Ounenefer (perfect existence). In one scene, Nephthys protects the mummy of Osiris after restoring his head and life. Moreover, the name of the goddess is inscribed in a cartouche, which makes her a legitimate wife. Isis must then be considered as the earthly wife of Osiris and Nephthys as his eternal wife, the one who accompanies him in the afterlife. Plutarch writes about the two sisters of Osiris: “Nephthys, in fact, designates what is underground and what is not seen; Isis, on the contrary, what is on earth and what is seen”. Nephthys was the nurse of the young Horus. She protected him from the fury of Set by hiding him in the swamps of Khemmis. In exchange for this protection and to escape Set”s revenge, she obtained the favor of being at Osiris” side in the underworld:
“Remember what I have done for you, (my) child: Seth I kept away from you, I made the nurse by carrying you and having milk. You were saved in the affair of Khemnis, because I refused to recognize the face of Seth because of you! Give me just one hour, that I may see Osiris because of what I have done for you!”
– Extract from the Papyrus of Imouthes. Translation by Jean-Claude Goyon
Osiris the enthroned
The Ennead of the gods of Heliopolis was considered by the ancient Egyptians as the first dynasty of their rulers. After having created Egypt, Atum-Ra reigned over the country, then was replaced by Shu then by Geb. This last one by noticing the merits of Osiris left him the throne:
“He establishes solidly the order in all Egypt. He places the son on the throne of his father, praised by his father Geb, loved by his mother Nut, heir of Geb for the kingship of the Double Country. As this one saw his perfection, he ordered that he guide the country for a happy success.”
– Hymn to Osiris from the New Kingdom (stela C286 in the Louvre).
A scene from the temple of Denderah engraved in the first century B.C. informs us that Osiris, like the human pharaohs, benefited from a royal titulary composed of five names and based on a theological word game:
Chapter 175 of the Book of the Dead indicates that the god was crowned in the city of Heracleopolis Magna by the creator god Atum-Ra. The crowning of Osiris gives the opportunity of a dialogue where the creative word of the two deities generates mythical facts and places of the Egyptian theology; below the sacred basins of the temple of Heracleopolis:
“Then Osiris had a headache because of the heat of the crown-Atef, which was on his head (the first day he had placed it on his head) so that the gods would fear him. Then Ra returned in peace to Heracleapolis to see Osiris, and he found him sitting in his house his head having become swollen because of the heat of the crown. Then Ra made this blood and the sania of this abscess flow out, and they became a pool. Then Ra said to Osiris: See, you have formed a pool of blood and sania from your head – hence this sacred pool in Heracleopolis.
– Extract from chap. 175 of the Book of the Dead. Translation by Paul Barguet.
Osiris, lord of Maat
Plutarch reports that Osiris taught his people civilized manners so that men would no longer look like wild beasts. He taught them agriculture as well as the respect of the gods and the laws. The oldest Egyptian archaeological documents concerning Osiris confirm Plutarch”s statements. A fragment of an architrave of the Vth dynasty lets us know that, from his cultic beginnings, Osiris is named “the great god, lord of Maat, Osiris who presides over Busiris and in all its places”.
Maat (cosmic order) is a politico-religious concept which appears during the formation of the Old Kingdom. At that time, the Egyptian king takes a central dimension. In a unified country, his person exceeds all local authorities. In this framework, the Ma”at is a myth which allows to unify all the subjects of the Egyptian sovereign under a single authority. Ma”at is then the deification of the royal will and order. To say and do the Ma”at is to obey and participate in the monarchy. In social life, to participate in Maat is to participate actively and reciprocally in a necessary human solidarity, the anti-Maat behaviors being laziness and greed.
At the highest moments of the kingship of the Old Kingdom, the Maat is a typical attribute of the human king. This is the case of the builder of the rhomboidal pyramid, king Snefru (IVth dynasty). In his title, this sovereign sets himself up as “lord of Ma”at”. The political-theological situation changes with the Fifth Dynasty. The supreme power passes from the earthly world to the divine plane. The power of the king is devalued and the sovereigns of this dynasty become the “sons of Ra”. At the same time, the rulers also see themselves dispossessed of their authority over the Ma”at to the benefit of Osiris. By the same token, the Ma”at becomes sacred because it is entrusted to the ruler of the afterlife, who sanctions at the end of the human life all harmful acts. The kings are no more than executors who make and say the Maat. A passage from the teaching of Ptahhotep shows us that the Egyptian scholars have linked the establishment of the Maat to the mythical reign of king Osiris:
“The maat is powerful, and of perpetual efficiency of action. It cannot be disturbed since the time of Osiris. Punishment is inflicted on him who transgresses the laws. This is what escapes the attention of the greedy.
– Teaching of Ptahhotep. Excerpt from Maxim 5
The brutal death of the god Osiris and the magical process of his rebirth are mentioned several times in the Pyramid Texts. Chapter 670 is a funerary recitation where these main moments of the Osirian destiny appear. Two kings benefited from this ritual text. They are Pepi I and Pepi II of the VIth dynasty. They reigned over Egypt in the XXIIIth and XXIInd centuries BC. In both cases, the text is engraved on the southern wall of the burial chamber as close as possible to the sarcophagus. The recitation is not presented as a narrative or as a structured story; this genre only appears with the philosopher Plutarch. The recitation is a magical incantation that makes the deceased king play the role of Osiris.
The recitation can be divided into two sequences. The first evokes the martyrdom of Osiris. The gates of heaven open to let the gods of the city of Pe, a place located in Lower Egypt, pass through. They are probably Horus and his two sons Amset and Hâpi. The gods come to the body of Osiris, attracted by the laments of Isis and Nephthys. In mourning and in honor of the deceased, they strike their thighs, ruffle their hair, clap their hands while denying the death of Osiris. They urge him to wake up so that he can hear what Horus has done for him. They tell him that his murder has been avenged. Set had beaten and killed Osiris like a simple bovine and had tied him up. Horus lets his father know that he has done the same to Set and placed him in the custody of Isis. The rest of the recitation recounts the rebirth of the god Osiris. In the lake of life, the deceased takes the form of the jackal god Oupuaout. Horus offers his father his defeated Sethian enemies. The latter are brought by Thoth. Then the son enthrones the father as chief of the dead by giving him the scepter Ufa. After being purified by Nephthys, Osiris is perfumed by Isis. It seems that Set also butchered his brother, for it is then mentioned that the two sisters reassembled his flesh and reattached his limbs. His eyes are given back to him in the form of the boats of day and night (Sun and Moon). The four children of Horus participated in the recovery of Osiris. In order for him to be completely calmed down, the ceremony of the opening of the mouth is performed on him. Awakened to life by Shu and Tefnut, Osiris comes out of the Douat and goes up towards Atum in the direction of the paradisiacal fields.
The most recent version of the myth was transmitted to us by Plutarch. This Greek philosopher makes of Osiris and Isis benefactor rulers. Osiris taught humans the rudiments of agriculture and fishing, while Isis taught them weaving and medicine. Meanwhile, Set ruled over the hostile desert and foreign lands. Jealous of his brother, Set planned the assassination of Osiris to seize the throne of Egypt, which he coveted. During a banquet in honor of Osiris, Set offered a magnificent chest to the audience, swearing to give it to the one who would fill it perfectly by lying down in it. None of those who attempted the feat succeeded in winning the chest. When it was Osiris” turn, who was the only one to succeed, Seth closed and sealed the chest, while his accomplices chased away the guests and kept Isis away… Seth threw the chest into the Nile, which carried it into the Mediterranean Sea. Osiris drowned, Set took advantage of the murder to establish his domination over Egypt. Isis, the grieving widow, then searched all over Egypt for her husband”s body and found it in Byblos, Lebanon. She brought the body of the murdered king back to Egypt and took refuge in the marshes of the Nile delta. During a night hunt in the swamps, Seth found the hated body of his brother. He went into a mad rage and cut the dead man into fourteen pieces that he scattered all over Egypt. With the help of a few followers, including Thoth, Nephthys and Anubis, Isis found the parts of the god, except for his penis which had been swallowed by the oxyrhynchus fish. After having reconstituted the body, she proceeded to embalm it with the help of Anubis by wrapping it in linen strips. The body of the god remaining inert, with the help of her sister Nephthys, Isis flaps her wings while uttering shrill cries to breathe life into Osiris thanks to her magical powers. Reanimated, Osiris does not return to earth, but reigns from now on over the kingdom of the dead. Thus, the rebirth of Osiris announces all possible forms of renewal, whether in vegetation or in humans. Transformed into a kite, Isis can be fertilized. From this union is born Horus the Child (Harpocrates), whom she hid in the papyrus thickets of the delta to protect him from his uncle Set.
Pillar-Djed and regeneration rituals
The Djed pillar is a very ancient fetish attested in Hierakonpolis as early as the Thinite period as part of a cult to Sokar, a funerary god represented as a mummified falcon. The original meaning of Djed is not yet known. Perhaps it refers to a tree that has been shaken. But from its beginnings, this pillar was also part of the agrarian rites of the fertility of grain. At Memphis, the Djed pillar was first erected in honor of Ptah and Sokar. At the beginning of the New Kingdom, Osiris merged with the latter two deities in the form of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. The erection of the Djed pillar then symbolizes the victory of Osiris over Set. In this context, the Djed is seen as the backbone of Osiris. This vision of the Jed also appears in the Book of the Dead. On the day of the burial, a Djed amulet is placed around the neck of the mummy:
“Stand up straight, Osiris! You have your vertebrae, he whose heart no longer beats. Stand on your side, let me put water under you! I bring you the golden Djed pillar; may you be glad of it!”
– Chapter 155 of the Book of the Dead. Translation by Paul Barguet
From the New Kingdom onwards, the Djed pillar is anthropomorphized and its representations are similar to those of Osiris. On the reliefs of the funerary temple of Sety I, the Djed pillar, like a resurrected Osiris, comes to life again after having been raised by the pharaoh Ramses II. There, the rite of the erection of the Djed pillar consists in giving life to the god Osiris. The pillar Djed is provided with two eyes Udjat, various crowns (including one made of two high ostrich feathers) and is dressed with the royal loincloth. In hieroglyphic writing, the Jed is the sign of stability. In the ritual of Abydos, this notion of stability refers to the necessary cohesion of the Double Country formed by the union of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Osiris encircling the Douat
The Douat is a mythical place that has no precise geographical location. This place is sometimes located in the sky, but other times on earth. The translations of the Egyptologists make it an afterlife or a hell. However, the Douat does not really correspond to these two concepts. In ancient Egyptian, the root of the word douât is close to the verb douâ which means “to pray, to adore”. As for the word douât, under another spelling, it can also mean “praise, hymn, adoration”. Moreover the word douâou means “dawn, morning and dawn”. As for the planet Venus, it is either the douâou netjer (god of the morning), or more simply Douât. The region of the Douat is thus a junction point where the living and the dead can praise the rebirth of light when the darkness of the night disappears in the face of the rebirth of the sun at dawn.
In the New Kingdom, a new kind of funerary literature was created: the “Books of what is in the Douat”. These books were intended for royal personalities and appeared on the walls of their tombs, cenotaphs or sarcophagi.
These texts, contrary to the Book of the Dead, are not compilations of magic formulas of heterogeneous origin. They are immutable texts that describe the rich illustrations associated with them. The oldest work is the Book of Amdouat which appeared under Thutmosis III. If the Book of the Gates appears at Horemheb, the first complete copy appears on the sarcophagus of Sety I. The twelfth and final sequence of this composition contains a representation of the moment when the sun emerges from the underworld to be reborn at dawn. This scene is a representation of the cosmological thought of the Egyptians of the New Kingdom.
The god Noun seems to emerge from the primordial waters. He raises the solar boat with his two long arms. On board, the scarab Khepri (symbol of rebirth) holds the solar disk. On either side of the scarab, the goddesses Isis and Nephthys appear to welcome or propel the reborn sun. The latter is received in the arms of Nut, the goddess of the sky. Represented upside down, the goddess is standing on the head of Osiris whose body forms a loop that contains the Douat. The inscription says: “It is Nut who receives Ra.
Like the snake Ouroboros which bites its tail, Osiris is coiled up on itself. His body forms a circle and the notice says that: “It is Osiris who encircles the Douat”. This representation of the god is a way of showing that time is cyclical. The circle symbolizes perfection and movement. This permanent return of things and events is a succession of regenerations. Osiris and Nut are represented upside down to show that the Douat is not subject to the same rules as the ordered universe, the sun traveling from west to east. When the sun enters it, it can only leave it. In the evening, the sun enters the West. It regenerates itself as it passes through the Dü”at. This world of night and death is ruled by Osiris. After passing through twelve regions and twelve portals, the sun is reborn at dawn when it leaves the eastern horizon. This exit from the underworld is symbolized by the second sun which is located at the bow of the solar boat. The sky through Nut is located between the Dudah and the ordered universe. It constitutes the link between the two worlds.
Osiris, the lord of millions of years
The mortality of the Egyptian gods is often evoked in a cycle where death and rebirth alternate, the rejuvenation of the god being possible only through his death. But the Egyptian documents which evoke the final end of time and the final disappearance of the gods are few. Chapter 175 of the Book of the Dead describes however very clearly this situation. At the end of time, only Atum and Osiris will remain. Osiris laments having to remain in the world beyond. Atum consoles him by telling him that the desert of the necropolises is his kingdom, that his son Horus reigns over men and that his life span will be very long. Atoum announces to him that they two, alone, will remain by returning in the chaos of the origins under the shape of a snake:
“You are destined for millions of millions of years, a lifetime of millions of years. But I will destroy all that I have created; this land will return to the state of Nun, to the state of flow, as its first state. I am what will remain, along with Osiris, when I am transformed back into a serpent, which men cannot know, which the gods cannot see.”
– Book of the Dead, chap.175, extract. Translation by Paul Barguet.
The Egyptians called Sah the constellation of Orion. Personified by a man wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, Sah was considered the ruler of the stars whose course he ordered in the night sky. Sah is the soul-Ba of Osiris or Osiris himself according to the different traditions. Several chapters of the Sarcophagus Texts are devoted to this constellation (chapters 469, 470, 689, 1017). Chapter 227 allows the deceased to transform himself into the successor of Osiris. The deceased, after affirming that he is Osiris, goes on to speak of Orion:
“I am Orion, the one who has reached his Double Country, the one who sails in front of the frame of the sky in the body of his mother Nut; she was fat of me according to her desire, and she gave birth to me with joy in her heart.”
– Extract from chap. 227 of the Texts of the sarcophagi. Translation by Paul Barguet.
Osiris the begetter
Chapters 366 and 593 of the Pyramid Texts, which are very close in their writing, relate the birth and conception of Horus. It appears there that his parents are Osiris and Isis:
“Your sister Isis came to you, happy with your love. After you placed her on your phallus, your seed sprang up in her”.
– Texts of the pyramids. Chap. 366.
The rest of the text is endowed with an astral dimension because the fruit of this union is Hor-imy-Sopedet, that is to say “Horus in the constellation of the Great Dog”. Osiris, assimilated to the constellation of Orion, transmits his stellar essence to Horus, i.e. the star Sirius through Isis, the constellation of the Great Dog:
“Your seed sprang in her (Horus-Soped came from you in his name from Horus in Sopedet.”
– Texts of the pyramids. Chap. 593.
This mythical and astronomical birth is based on a series of theological puns: Soped, the Egyptian name for the star Sirius, means sharp, sharp, skillful, and Sopedet means triangle and efficiency. The star Sirius-Soped can then refer to one of the three points of the triangle it forms with the stars Betelgeuse and Rigel, Sirius-Soped having a more important role because this equilateral triangle points to it. Osiris-Orion is the god in lethargy; three stars form his phallus (currently seen as his belt) pointing towards the constellation of the Great Dog: for the Egyptians, this is Isis in the form of a bird, the kite, which carries in its bosom his successor Horus-Soped (Sirius), the one who fights effectively to restore his father in his life and his royal functions
Osiris the leader of the Westerners
Dated to the reign of Rameses V (20th Dynasty), the Chester Beatty I papyrus contains the tale of the Adventures of Horus and Set. The story relates the internal struggles that rage within the Osirian family. King Osiris is dead. For eighty years, Horus and Set have been quarrelling about the succession to the throne. The Egyptian gods sit as jurors in a court presided over by Ra. They are divided into two camps of equal power. Horus, a teenager without much experience, is supported by a faction led by his mother Isis. As for Set, valiant defender of the solar boat against Apophis, his cause is supported by Ra. If Horus has to face the magical assaults of Set, the latter has to face those of Isis. After thousands of tricks, the gods of the court are tired of the procrastinations of old Ra. His successive judgments are all favorable to Horus but each time, Set can question them because of his ascendancy over Ra. On the advice of Thoth and Shu, Ra sends a letter to Osiris to know his opinion. In answer, the deceased god puts forward his own merits:
“Why is my son Horus being wronged? It is I who made you strong. It is I who created the barley and the spelt to make the gods live, as well as the herds under the care of the deities. No god or goddess was found to do this.”
– The Adventures of Horus and Set. Translation by Claire Lalouette.
Unimpressed, Ra mocks the power of Osiris by saying that with or without him, barley and spelt would still exist. In anger, Osiris threatens the gods of the Ennead. In fear of an epidemic, the gods make a final judgment in favor of Horus. The final argument is that on Osiris depends the good health of the creation. He feeds the gods and men as the god of abundance. But according to his good pleasure, he can unleash against his enemies and the impious an army of demons so that they shorten the joyful earthly life of the living beings:
“It is truly perfect, truly perfect, all that you have created, O inventor of the Ennead! But it has been made so that justice is swallowed up in the underworld. Consider the situation, you. This land in which I am is filled with fierce-faced messengers who fear no god or goddess. If I send them out, they would bring me the hearts of all those who have committed vile deeds, but they show up here, in my company. And why do I spend my life here, in peace in the West, while you are outside, all of you? Who among them is stronger than me? But see, they invented the lie. And when Ptah created the sky, did he not say to the stars that were in it: “You will go and lie down on the West, every night, where king Osiris resides? Then the gods, the nobles and the people will also lie down in the place where you are”-this is what he told me.”
– The Adventures of Horus and Set. Translation by Claire Lalouette.
The ancient Egyptians did not see death as a natural thing. By identifying all the dead with Osiris, the murdered god, they conceived death as the crossing of a threshold between the earthly world and the world beyond. Death is a temporary crisis that can be resolved by the funeral ritual. The Court of Osiris symbolizes this crucial stage because only the morally pure can claim the rites. Only the one who is free of sins appears before the tribunal of Osiris. This purity is put forward as early as the Old Kingdom in the texts of the tombs and mastabas. The gods, through the intercession of the king, grant to the servants of the monarchy the status of Imakhou (possessor of a tomb). But one can claim this privilege only if one has respected and applied the Maat. Osiris, in his name of Ounennefer (Perfect Existence), is a model to follow, his exemplary life having led him to exercise royalty on earth and in the afterlife:
“I have done justice for his lord, that I have satisfied him in what he loves. I have spoken the truth, I have done justice, I have spoken good, I have repeated good, I have achieved perfection, for I wished to have good with men. I judged two litigants so that they were satisfied. I saved the wretch from him who was more powerful than he in what I had authority over. I gave bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, passage to the shipwrecked, a coffin to the sonless. I made a boat for him who was without a boat.”
– False door of Nefershechemre said Chechi
In the New Kingdom, the judgment of the dead acquires its definitive form as it appears in the Book of the Dead (chap. 125). The passage before Osiris and his forty-two assessors resembles more a trial than a judicial procedure. The deceased knows in advance what he can be accused of and defends himself by denying en bloc two lists of sins. A first list of forty faults is denied before Osiris, then a second list of forty-two faults is denied before the forty-two assessors who symbolize the entire Egyptian territory. These laws conditioned the access to the world of the afterlife. But chapter 125 is more than a magic formula intended to purify the deceased. The Egyptian did not rely solely on the power of magic to save his soul. His post-mortem passage before Osiris was accompanied, during his earthly life, by a life inspired by the laws of the court:
“I am a nobleman who has taken pleasure in Ma”at, who has taken example from the laws of the hall of the two Ma”at, for I intended to arrive in the necropolis without the least baseness being associated with my name, I have done no harm to men, nor anything that their gods reprove.”
– Funerary stele of Baki, 14th century
From Osiris-Apis to Sarapis
The Apis bull (Hapi in Egyptian) symbolizes the cycle of a young animal succeeding an elder that has just died of natural causes. As soon as a bull died, the priests went in search of a young bull resembling him and enthroned him. The succession of Apis is attested from Amenhotep III until the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty but probably lasted until the 4th century AD. Apis conveys two theological images; first, the royal succession and second, the Osirian rebirth. Apis is thus represented as a living and walking bull, as a dead and mummified animal and as a human with the head of a bull. The deceased Apis becomes an Osiris under the name of Osiris-Apis (in Egyptian Osor-Hapi).
In the Late Period, a cult in honor of this dead animal developed, but within the limits of the city of Memphis. The cult is practiced in Egyptian circles but also among Greek colonists settled in Memphis. A papyrus in Greek mentions the god Oserapis as early as the 4th century BC. When the Lagid dynasty settled in Egypt, it established the cult of Sarapis in Alexandria. This deity took on the funerary and agrarian functions of the god Osiris, but his representations were those of a Greek god: a bearded man with curly hair crowned with either the modius (symbol of fertility) or the Atef crown (characteristic of Osiris).
Osiris who presides over the grain
For the anthropologist James George Frazer, the gods Osiris, Dionysus, Attis and Adonis are spirits of vegetation. Osiris is like the grain buried during sowing that resurrects during the next harvest. The grain is fertilized by water in the soil and then, during the harvest, it is dismembered by the sickles of the reapers.
It is not yet certain whether Osiris was a god of vegetation from the beginning or whether this side of his personality was later grafted onto his aspects as a funerary god. The fertility of the Egyptian soil is related to the silt carried by the flood of the Nile with which Osiris is associated. Despite the cutting of Osiris” body into pieces, his physical death is presented as lethargy. This unconsciousness of Osiris is like that of Atum in the Noun (the primordial ocean) before the creation of the universe. The sleep of the god Osiris is contrary to the order established by the creator god. Nevertheless, his death is necessary so that humanity can overcome its earthly limits and reach divine eternity. Osiris is the god who drowned in the waters of the Nile. His long stay in the water is seen as a return to the chaos of the original ocean. But this ocean is the medium from which life springs. The dismemberment of Osiris in sixteen pieces is linked to the annual return of the Nile flood. The ideal height of the flood is sixteen cubits and when this level is reached Osiris is reconstituted.
“O Primordial of the whole Double Land! food and nourishment before the Ennead, perfect Akh among the akhou for whom the Nun pours out his water Plants grow according to his desire and for him the productive earth constantly brings forth food has put under his hand this land, its water and wind, its grass and all its flocks, all that flies and all that lands, its reptiles and its desert animals, (all this) offered to the son of Nut: and the Double Land rejoices! And whatsoever the solar disk surrounds is subject to his designs; (likewise) the north wind, the river, the waves, the fruit tree and all that grows. It is Nepri who gives all its vegetation, the food of the soil. He establishes satiation and provides it to all countries. Every being is happy, every heart is joyful.”
– Great Hymn to Osiris. New Kingdom. Stele in the Louvre C286
Festivities of the month of Khoiak
Originally developed in Abydos and Busiris, the rite of the festivities of the month of Khoiak reached all the temples of the 11th Dynasty that were supposed to keep a relic of the Osirian body.
The cycle of the germination of grain was seen by the Egyptians as a metaphor for their concept of death. One of the images of the rebirth of Osiris is the representation of grain ears growing on his mummified body. This representation was actually implemented in the temples according to the ritual of the month of Khoiak. In a tank in the shape of a mummy, the priests placed an earthen mixture, where grain began to germinate (during underwater research, a tank of this kind was found inside the temenos of the temple of Amun and Khonsu of the sunken city of Heracleion). This vegetative Osiris, once placed in the sun and then dried out, was placed in a sacred boat and then transported to the necropolis of the city of Canope. This vegetal mummy was disposed of there, either buried or thrown into the water.
In the tombs, one could place small molds of this kind, called in the Egyptological environment “Osiris vegetant” or “Osiris cereals”.
Osiris in all his tombs
The cult of Osiris spread throughout the Egyptian territory. However, several cities stood out because of their particular relationship with the myth of the dismemberment of Osiris. Traditions differ as to the number of Osirian members scattered throughout the country; from fourteen to forty-two according to the different versions. According to Plutarch, Set drowned his brother Osiris by locking him in a chest thrown into the Nile. The body drifted to Byblos (Lebanon) where it was found by Isis. The goddess brought the chest and the body back to Egypt near Bouto. But during a hunting party, Set found the body of Osiris. Mad with rage, he dismembered the body in fourteen pieces and scattered them on all sides. Desperate, Isis set out to find them and went in search of them all over the country. Each time she found a piece, she entrusted its custody to the local clergy so that the memory of Osiris would be honored.
In the first chapter of the Book of the Dead, the deceased presents himself as a priest of the cult of Osiris, in the hope that he too will benefit from the funeral rites inaugurated by the dismembered god. The deceased thus lists some cities where, during his lifetime, he honored Osiris. Participation in the rites of these sacred places allows one to gain the favor of the gods. In the afterlife, the gods only take care of those who have honored them. Participating while alive in the rites related to the embalming of Osiris allows, once deceased, to contemplate the god and to survive in his kingdom:
“I am with Horus, as protector of this left shoulder of Osiris which is in Letopolis; I come and go, like a flame, the day to chase the rebels out of Letopolis.
– Excerpt from chapter 1 of the book of the dead. Translation by Paul Barguet
Phallus of Mendes
Plutarch, in his version of the myth of Osiris reports that the goddess Isis found all the scattered members except the phallus eaten by fish. To replace it, she made an imitation. However, the city of Mendes has preserved another mythical tradition. The relic that is honored in this city is the phallus attached to the spine. These two limbs are one relic because the Egyptians, (and the Greeks after them), believed that the bone marrow descended from the spine to the testicles and came out through the phallus in the form of semen. The semen in the woman”s body then formed the bones of the child, the female humours forming the flesh. Late in life, the pillar Djed was assimilated to this relic, the city of Mendes bearing in the Egyptian language the name of Djedet or Perbanebdjedou; the god of Mendes being since the beginnings of pharaonic Egypt the ram Banebdjedet. The latter was considered as the soul-ba of Osiris. In fact this animal carried in him four soul-ba, those of Ra, Shu, Geb and Osiris; also he was represented with four heads of rams.
Philæ and the Abaton of Biggeh
For the Egyptians, the water of the Nile flood comes from the underground world and comes out of a cave located in the region of the first cataract. This mythical source was first located in Elephantine, the city of the ram god Khnum. Then, in the Late Period, the source of the Nile was mostly assimilated to the Abaton of the island of Biggeh. The flood gushing out of the wound inflicted by Set on the left leg of Osiris preserved in this place. The cult in favor of Osiris probably dates back to the 6th century from the reign of Psametik II. Abaton is a word from the ancient Greek: ἂβατον and means “inaccessible”. The Egyptian names for Abaton are Iat-ouâbet, “The Pure Place” and Iou-ouâbet, “The Pure Island”. The Abaton is one of the tombs of Osiris. This sacred place is a necropolis where Isis found the left leg of her dismembered brother. The cults of Osiris of the Abaton of Biggeh were intimately linked to those of Isis of the island of Philæ:
“It is also said that there is a small island near Philæ, which is inaccessible to everyone; birds never fly there, and fish do not come near it. However, at a certain time, the priests cross the water to go there to make funeral sacrifices, to crown the tomb which is there and which is shaded by a plane of methida whose height exceeds that of all the olive trees.”
– On Isis and Osiris. Plutarch.
The statue of the goddess went out in procession every ten days from her temple in Philæ to Biggeh by boat. There, Isis performed, through her priests, ritual acts such as libations of milk for Osiris; the purpose being to revive his vigor. The rites are turned to the soul-Ba of Osiris to unite with his body and awaken the mummy sleeping in the Abaton. In addition to these decadal rituals, the highlights of the year are the stays of Isis and Harendotes in the tomb on the thirteenth day of the month of Epiphi and the regeneration rituals of the month of Khoiak.
Magical threats against the cult
Towards the beginning of the fourth century AD, the Neoplatonist Jamblicus, in his treatise on the Mysteries of Egypt, explains to the opponents of theurgy the operative mechanism of the verbal threats against the cults and festivities rendered to Osiris and Isis. According to him, the threats uttered by the magician are not intended for the gods (sun, moon, stars) but for lower spirits. The latter, without judgment or reason, are content to obey the orders of their divine superiors. Verbal threats terrorize these spirits. During a ceremony, an experienced magician can easily fool them by presenting himself to them in the form of a superior deity.
In the twelfth century, the tale of the Adventures of Horus and Set ends with a mention of these lower spirits. To get his way, Osiris threatens the other gods to send them against them. If Horus does not obtain the throne, then a horde of hostile spirits will descend on the earth and the living beings, gods and humans, will join the realm of the Beyond sooner than expected. The magic papyri of Turin are dated to the same period. A magic formula uses the verbal threat against the Osirian festivals and cults. The aim of the incantation is to heal a person who is ill because he has been bewitched by an envoy of Osiris. Healing requires the necessary removal of the spell. The magician-healer presents the matter in the form of a royal decree written by Osiris. The decree forces the evil entity to leave the victim”s body. In order to make it happen, the magician frightens it by uttering dark threats about the Osirian cult. The good functioning of the universe guaranteed by the worship of Osiris can only continue on the condition of his departure from his victim:
“If one delays to chase away the enemy, the enemy, the dead, the dead, or any execrable thing, then the enemy of the sky will divide the sky, the enemy of the earth will overthrow the earth, and Apophis will seize the boat of millions of years; water will not be given to the one who is in the coffin, the one who is in Abydos, will not be buried, the one who is in Bousiris, will not be hidden, they will not perform rites for the one who is in Heliopolis, they will not present offerings to the gods in their temples, men will not present offerings to any god in any festival.
– Magical Papyri of Turin (Excerpts)
Very early on, the funerary god of Abydos was the canid Khentamentiou, “the one who presides over the Westerners (the dead)”, venerated since the end of the Predynastic period. Although the cult of Osiris was established in the city during the Fifth Dynasty, it did not take off until the First Intermediate Period, which led to the fusion of the two funerary deities during the Eleventh Dynasty, when King Antef II brought Abydos under his authority. Osiris then completely supplanted Khentamentiou and the latter became a simple name of Osiris. In the Middle Kingdom, the city of Abydos was set up as the main place of the Osirian cult. However, its apogee was during the XIXth dynasty when kings Seti I and Ramses II undertook great works.
The prestige of the necropolis of Abydos is very old because it goes back very far in history; the tombs or the cenotaphs of the first Egyptian kings being located there. The archaeological researches have thus brought to light royal tombs going back to the Egyptian dynasty zero (Scorpion I), but also of the two Thinite dynasties (First and Second Dynasty). Later, the royal necropolis was transferred further north, to Memphis (Saqqara). Abydos then became a semi-mythical place of the origins of royalty. The tomb of king Djer, built around 3000 BC, was identified by the believers of the Middle Kingdom (a millennium later) as that of the god Osiris. This tomb became a place of pilgrimage in the New Kingdom.
Head of Osiris
In the Middle Kingdom, the prestige of Abydos was due to the fact that the city was the depository of an Osirian relic entrusted by the gods; the latter having found the head of Osiris not far from the necropolis:
“The 19th of the fourth month of spring is the day when the head was found established in the Gebel of the West. Anubis, Thoth and Isis had gone to the necropolis; a bird-qebeq and a wolf were watching over it. Thoth lifted her head and found a beetle underneath it. Then, he made her rest in the necropolis of Abydos until this day. Abydos was called the city of the beetle because of this. As for the bird-qebeq, it is Horus, master of Letopolis. As for the wolf, it is Anubis.
– Papyrus Jumilhac. Translation by Jacques Vandier
The relic is a sacred but fragile object. In fear of a possible Sethian attack, the relic is deposited and hidden in a reliquary. These can take different forms, chest, obelisk, vase, animal skin. The relic of Abydos is enclosed in a basket perched on a post:
“As for the reliquary-insout, it is a basket of reeds (n sout), that is to say of rush. The head of the god is wrapped in it. In other words, the reliquary is called “king” (nesut) because of the head (which is placed in it) in an unknown mysterious chest. This one is a basket of braided (rushes), a shrine of which it is unknown what is inside. The venerable head with a white crown is in it, made of paste, wrapped in gold. Its height is three palms, three fingers (28.2 cm).”
– Wall of the temple of Denderah. Translation by Sylvie Cauville
Egyptian temples were places closed to the profane public. The statue of the god remained hidden throughout the year in the naos (or holy of holies) of the religious building. However the god went out annually outside the temple. This exit was the pretext of a great festival where during some strong moments, everyone could participate. In Abydos, this outing took place at the beginning of the year at the beginning of the flood season. The statue of the god Osiris, transported in a boat, left his temple to go with great pomp to his tomb located in a place called Ro-Peker. There, his death was commemorated and then his triumph over his enemies. After that, the statue returned to its temple. The Osirian festivities of Abydos are inspired by the royal memphite funeral rituals of the time of the pyramids and celebrated for the deceased pharaohs of the Old Kingdom, transposed on the divine plane and repeated annually for Osiris.
Ikhernofret, on his stele preserved in Berlin, relates the festive events that took place under his direction during the nineteenth year of the reign of king Sesostris III. At the age of twenty-six, he was sent by royal order to Abydos. He had to pay homage to Osiris, by filling him with gold after a victory of the king against the Nubians. Before taking part in the Osirian celebrations by playing the role of Horus, Ikhernofret had the boat Neshmet renovated, had statues made and had their chapels rebuilt. The festivities take place in four acts:
“I “played” the exit of the “Opener of paths”, when he goes forward to avenge his father; I chased the enemies of the boat Neshmet, I pushed back the enemies of Osiris. Then I “played” a great exit, while Thoth rightly directed the navigation.”
– Stele of Ikhernofret. Translation by Claire Lalouette
“I had equipped with a beautiful chapel the boat (called) “She who appears in glory thanks to Truth-Justice”, and, having fixed his beautiful crowns, here is the god who advances to Peker, I cleaned the path that leads to his tomb facing Peker.”
– Stele of Ikhernofret. Translation by Claire Lalouette
“I avenged Unennefer (Osiris), on that famous day of the Great Fight, and I struck down all his enemies on the bank of Nedyt.”
– Stele of Ikhernofret. Translation by Claire Lalouette
“I made him go inside the boat (called) “the Great” and it carried his beauty. I rejoiced the heart of the hills of the western desert, I created exultation in these hills, when “they” saw the beauty of the boat Neshmet, while I approached Abydos, (the boat) which brought back Osiris, lord of the city, to his palace. I followed the god to his house, made him purify himself and return to his throne…”
– Stele of Ikhernofret. Translation by Claire Lalouette
In the Middle Kingdom, King Sesostris III of Dynasty 12 encouraged the cult of Osiris at Abydos by renewing the cult material, building a temple of Osiris, and constructing a pyramidal burial complex for himself. At the same time, a large number of wealthy individuals, motivated by their piety towards Osiris, had cenotaphs built on the “Terrace of the Great God” near the temple of Osiris. These buildings are built of mud bricks and are surrounded by a rectangular enclosure. Some chapels had a vaulted room where the statue of the deceased was located with votive stelae embedded in the interior walls. Others were solid with steles fixed to the outer walls. The central point of these constructions were therefore steles celebrating the memory of the deceased and his family. These archaeological pieces are now scattered in museums around the world. In 1973, 1,120 stelae from the 6th to the 14th Dynasty were inventoried; 961 of them invoke Osiris. By the end of the 12th and then the 13th Dynasty, these stelae were no longer a privilege of high-ranking officials. People of modest means placed steles in smaller chapels or had them placed in a monument of a wealthier individual. The stele of the harpist Neferhotep was thus deposited by his friend Nebsoumenou, a brick carrier, in the chapel of Iki, superior of the priests. This funerary practice continued during the New Kingdom and the Late Period.