The Myth of Isis and Osiris
The ancient Egyptian Mythology brings to us so many influential stories that it appears almost normal that I rely on history to relate a love story well comparable to Tristan and Iseult or Romeo and Juliet. This story brings the murder of a king of Egypt (God Osiris) during the 22nd dynasty.
The month of November brings to us the cult of our dead and following our recent “AMHE-Florida Radio program” that Rony Jean-Mary and I just animated for our radio listeners, I found useful to bring the story of Osiris and Isis to life. Especially, because I bought it to life during our discussion on the cult for the Dead.
A king” Osiris” was murdered by his jealous brother Seth (Set) who subsequently, sliced his body into pieces and usurped the throne. Isis, the beloved queen, discovered the body in a coffin and restored it with the help of the gods, allowing him to conceive posthumously a son, Horus. Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris.
Osiris and Isis were 2 twins who fell in love in the womb of their mother. They grew up as a couple. Set (or Seth) was a jealous brother who found ways to murder him and sliced the body into 14 pieces. Seth became furious when he learned that his wife Nephthys conceived a child, named Anubis by Osiris. Nephthys was also the fourth child of God “Geb”, father of all four. In revenge, Seth planned a banquet and invited guests to lie down in a coffin he had made with the measurements of the king.
Isis and Osiris, King and Queen during the 22nd dynasty.
With the help of Nephthys, Troth and Anubis, Isis performed a great act of magic in restoring back the body of Osiris together. They then created a mummy in wrapping the body head to toes. There are many versions on how Isis become impregnated. Texts described a flash of lightning; others described the way Isis was still in a bird form and bought breath and life into the Osiris ‘s body. This allows her to copulate with him. They conceived the rightful heir of the throne: Horus.
Osiris and Isis with their son Horus during the 22nd dynasty are seen above, on a lapis lazuli pillar. Osiris ruled Egypt having inherited the kingship from his ancestor’s descendant of the creator of the world “Ra” (or Alum). Isis, Osiris and Seth are all the children of the god “Geb” with the sky goddess “Nut”.
Horus was a vulnerable child, well protected by his mother and while growing, he became Seth’s rival for the throne. Many violent conflicts always ended with Horus ‘s triumph while he finally restored “Maat”? (Cosmic and Social order) in Egypt after ending Seth’s unrightful reign and after Isis completed the process of resurrection. The slaying of Osiris symbolizes the struggle between order and disorder and the disruption of life by death.
The myth expresses a complex symbolism in the ancient Egyptian conceptions of Kingship and succession. It brings to light conflicts between order and disorder, sexuality and rebirth, death and the afterlife. It also defines the essential character of the divinity in play. Most ancient Egypt religions before the 24th century BCE and at the end of the Fifth (5th) dynasty, were also worshiping these deities and may have been also partly inspired from regional conflicts in the Early dynasty or during the Prehistoric Dynasty in Egypt.
Egyptian texts, funeral texts and short stories have not allowed researchers to find a source presenting a full account of the myth, not even though the Greek or Roman writings. The myth appears in more ancient texts as well. The religious metaphor encountered seems to be more coherent than narrative. Each text containing a myth or a fragment of one, adapting the myth to suit a particular purpose, but bringing sometimes conflicting versions of the events.
Some texts seem to refer to the Osiris Kingship, being buried in the pyramid afterlife (Osiris myth), while others deal with the death and the restauration of Osiris and the strife between his son Horus and his brother Set, appear to be part of the Pyramid texts. Other texts such as the coffin texts found in the Middle Kingdom (c 2055-1650 BCE) and the Book of the Dead from the New Kingdom (c 1550-1970 BCE) also report on the myth. Many other texts in the middle Kingdom as the “Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus” and the “Ikhemofret Stela” give also the evidence.
The most complete ancient Egyptian account of the myth is the Great Hymn to Osiris dating of the Eighth Dynasty (c 1550-1282 BCE) that report the entire story with little detail. A religious narrative “Memphite Theology” include an account of Osiris death as well as the resolution of the dispute between Horus and Set. Other texts have mixed the stories but Egyptologists in 1970’s have concluded that the texts date the New Kingdom at the earliest.
Rituals in honor of Osiris are also major source of information. These texts can be found on the walls of the temples dating from the New Kingdom like the Ptolemaic (323-30 BCE) or during the Roman era (30 BCE to the 4th century AD). Magical healing spells were used by Egyptians of all classes for the sick person who can benefit from the goddess efforts. These spells are known from papyrus copies with instruction for the healing rituals. Some specialized type of stone (stela) called “cippus” will allow people to pour water over those stones and then drink the water in hope of curing the ailment. By this way, an endangered child can be protected from magic spells, custom used especially during the Middle Kingdom as an Osiris myth.
Others prominent text written for humorous entertainment (The Contendings of Horus and Seth) where Horus appears to be physically weak but clever while Seth was a strong man with limited intelligence while Osiris is articulate with an acid tongue. Ancient Greek and Roman writers described Osiris myth as well Herodotus in the 5th century BCE. The most popular version comes from the Egyptian religious beliefs of Diodorus, a modern version influenced by Greek philosophies not based on Egyptian beliefs. In the Pyramid’s texts, Seth’s motive to kill Osiris is different. Apparently, Seth is taking revenge because of a kick Osiris gave him and in revenge Osiris had sex with Nephthys.
The murder itself is never clearly described. Egyptians avoided writing negative comments on the death of Osiris. They at time, even denied the death itself even if it is cleared that he was murdered. Seth took the form of an animal, for some a crocodile for others a bull, to slay Osiris. Osiris corps is thrown in the water and this is why the Egyptian version has him drawn in the Nile. It remains that Seth has cut the body of Osiris in pieces (14 to 42 pieces). Isis under the shape of an eagle searches all parts of the body to restore it with the help of the gods and Nephthys. After restauration, she copulated with Osiris and gave birth to an heir: Horus. Osiris then represented the life-giving present in the river’s water and this is why, in the new Kingdom the return of Osiris becomes associated with the flooding season of the Nile.
After restauration of his body, Osiris become the “first mummy” and the god’s efforts to restore his body are the mythological basis for Egyptian embalming practices, which taught to reverse or prevent the decay that follow death. In the Coffin Texts, Isis appears to have been impregnated by a flash of lightning while other sources mentioned a bird form which fan breath and life into Osiris body. This represents the “DUAT” in which him and his kingship stand through his son Horus.
Another version states that the chest floated out into the sea, arriving at the city of Byblos where a tree grew around it, becoming an object to worship for the locals. Those are the facts giving an etiological explanation to the cult of Osis and Osiris which existed in Byblos narrated by Plutarch during the early part of the new kingdom. He also reports that Seth has stolen and dismembered th corps of Osiris at the exception of the penis which she has reconstructed with magic after the fishes have eaten it. Contrarily, the Egyptians report that the penis was found intact and all was reported in the “Tale of the two brothers with similarities with Osis and Osiris story.
Plutarch reports also that the Horus that avenged his father Osiris was conceived before the death of Osiris. It was a weak and premature child, Harpocrates who was born from Osiris post humous union. Those are the two separate form of Horus described in the Egyptian versions of the myth in the Plutarch version. Apparently, the pregnant Isis hides the child from Seth because he became a threat. Many other versions were also reported on papyrus. In fact, there is a version in which Horus was bitten by a snake reflecting the Egyptians fear of snakebite. Iris is shown as a devoted mother who looked for help from the gods to save her son.
The divine struggle between Seth and Horus brings in other deities to arbitrate the struggle. They compete in many contests like boat racing to determine a winner, having Horus repeatedly beating Seth over a period of eighty years until a final face-to-face combat between them. Isis attempted to harpoon Seth while he was fighting Horus and she stroked Horus instead who became enraged and cut her head. Troth replaced Isis’s head with that of a cow’s horns, or a scorpion or a sow. This story gave the mythical origin for the cow head dress worn by Isis.
In an episode reported on a middle Kingdom papyrus, Seth sexually abuses Horus to degrade his rival through his homosexual desires while Horus accepted to gain in strength. The encounter put Horus in danger because following the Egyptian tradition, the semen is a potent and dangerous poison which make him ill. Horus found ways to catch Seth semen in his hands and Isis placed in a lettuce salad for Seth. Seth defeat become apparent when the poising started to impregnate him.
Other episodes discuss injuries inflicted by each other during the fights. Horus injured Seth testicles while Seth tears out both eyes of Horus. Seth mutilation signifies the loss of virility and strength while the loss of the eyes represents a wide variety of concept in the Egyptian religion. The destruction of the eyes of Horus represents the darkening of the moon and its cycles of phases during eclipses. Other deities will intervene in the form of an eye to mediate between the feuding deities. The restauration of the eyes of Horus represents the return of the moon to brightness, the return of the kingship to Horus, and the return of the “Maat”.
The resolution of this myth is complex. Horus and Seth may divide the country in two traditional parts, the Upper and Lower Egypt representing the fertile lands and the desert and foreign lands. The god Geb will be the one monitoring all activities. In a peaceful time, Horus and Seth will reconcile and order is restored. A different view of the myths wants Horus to be the sole winner. In this version, they are not reconciled, but Seth will be exiled and Horus will take his throne. Then, Seth will not be seen anymore as an integral part of the order. Sometimes Seth is made to carry Osiris’ body to its tomb as part of a punishment while the new king performs the funerals.
The effects of the Osiris myth on the Egyptian culture were more widespread than any other myth. It provided the myth of the two brothers, the tale of the Truth and the Falsehood. King and commoners-built chapels through Egypt starting by the time of the Middle Kingdom, offering an annual festival procession from the Osiris’s main temple to the thumb site. In doing so, they sought to strengthen their connection to Osiris afterlife. A funeral festival, seen as a national event over several days was seen during th Middle Kingdom. Seeds were planted in “Osiris beds”, a mummy shape bed of soil. This myth extended through funerary sphere and gifts to the deities become the eyes of Horus. The myth influenced also popular religion with healing spells based on Horus childhood and protective emblems like amulets. Horus was represented as a personification of Kingship and the predecessors of all Egyptian rulers. The Turin Royal Canon, the Royal Coronation alluded to Osiris’s burial and hymns celebrating his ascension.
To conclude, I would like to add that, frequent characterizations of Seth as a disruptive and harmful god, can be seen in the Egyptian wisdom texts, Seth was portraited for his ambivalence and finally as a malevolent deity. Isis and Nephthys were seen as protectors of the dead and were seen as protecting Osiris or the mummy of Osiris. The image of a goddess holding her child was used prominently in her worship, in panel paintings. Several Isis’s iconographies closely resemble to the earliest Christian icon of Mary holding Jesus. The worship of Isis spread from Egypt across the Mediterranean world and she became one of the most popular deities in the region. The Greek and Roman cult of Isis explored the underworld through rites dedicated to Isis and Osiris. They believed that she protected the dead in the afterworld.
This is in words, through my searches, how the myth of Isis and Osiris has influenced our world and traditions. Isis (Egyptian Aset or Eset) is one of the most influential goddesses of Ancient Egypt. While her name in the Greek form means throne), her cult spread through the Roman empire. She was worshiped from England to Afghanistan and nowadays, she is still revered by pagans. She was also connected to the dead with magical power to heal and cure the sick. More, as a mother, she was also a role model for all women. On the other side, Osiris (Usir) is one of the most important gods of Ancient Egypt. He has been the personification of “Fertility” (2400 BCE) but played a double role as the god of fertility and the god of the dead (embodiment) giving him the divine kingship on the underworld. So much can be revealed.
I will invite you to explore a little more such interesting topic while I only tried superficially to bring to light this myth of Isis and Osiris, on this November month, dedicated to our dead.
Maxime Coles MD
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2- Graindorge, Catherine (2001): The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt Vol 3: pp 305-307.
3- Hart, George (2005). The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses.
4- Lichtheim, Miriam (1973 and 1976): Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol 1: The Old and the Middle Kingdom and Vol 2: The New kingdom, University of California Press.
5- Matthews, Thomas F, Miller, Norman (2005): “Isis and Mary in Early icons” In Vassiliaki, Maria: Images of Mother of God: Perceptions of Theotokos in Byzantium: Ashgate Publishing pp 3-11.
6- Smith, Mark (2008) Wendrich, Willeke (ed): “Osiris and the Deceased. UCLA Encyclopedia.
7- Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt: Thames and Hudson.
8- Broze, Michele (1996): Mythe et Roman en Egypte Ancienne : Les Aventures d’Horus et de Seth dans le Papyrus Chester Beatty 1 Peeters,