Osiris: The Egyptian God of Life and Death
In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was one of the divine kings who ruled Egypt. He had inherited power from his father, Geb.
Osiris married Isis and, according to some accounts, brought agriculture and civilization to the people of the Nile Valley. Few of his legends involve his actions as the king, however.
Osiris was murdered by his brother, Set. He left no heir so Set took the throne and disposed of his body.
Death was not the end of Osiris’s story, however. Isis reassembled her husband’s body and had him embalmed, making him the first mummy.
The god’s power only grew after death.
From fathering a son as a corpse to being separated from his soul, Osiris’s role as the king of the dead was perhaps more important than that of any living ruler!
The most famous myth regarding Osiris was that of his death.
Osiris was the son of Geb, the god of the Earth, and Nut, the sky goddess. He married his sister, Isis, and they ruled as king and queen.
Their brother Set was the god of the desert and storms. Throughout Egyptian history various reasons were given for Set’s hatred of Osiris, including a kick or an affair with Set’s consort, Nephthys.
Fueled by this hatred, Set murdered his brother.
Later Greco-Roman writers elaborated on the story, but the Egyptians themselves never wrote out the manner of Osiris’s death. Writing had the power to influence reality in Egyptian thought, so the crime should not be written out.
By the end of the New Kingdom, a tradition had developed in which Set cut his brother’s body into many pieces and hid them throughout Egypt. Earlier writings, however, hint that Osiris’s body was sealed in a box or thrown into the Nile to be eaten by crocodiles.
Set took the throne while Isis and Nephthys searched for their brother’s body. Their mourning was so intense that their tears flooded the Nile, and every year afterward the river spilled over its banks in memory of Isis’s grief.
The goddesses eventually found the body, or the pieces of it in later myths. In one tradition the only piece of Osiris that could not be found was his phallus, which remained in the land to make it fertile.
Isis and Nephthys worked together to piece Osiris’s body back together and keep it from decaying under the sun’s heat. Thoth advised them and Anubis developed embalming to keep the god from losing his handsome features.
After several days of work, they had completed their task. Osiris became the first mummy.
In some stories, Set and his allies continued to harass them. Isis fought to protect her husband’s body from damage at the hands of Set and his followers.
The goddess then took the form of a falcon and used her wings to blow life into her husband’s body. Osiris was reborn and the couple conceived their son, Horus.
The rebirth was not permanent, however. Osiris lived long enough to ensure that he had an heir then returned to the land of the dead.
He remained there for the rest of history. He was both the king of the dead and the god of rebirth. Osiris provided a link between the living world and the afterlife.
During her pregnancy, Isis hid from Set. Many images show her in a thicket of papyrus at this time.
After her son’s birth, Isis even took refuge among the human inhabitants of Egypt. In one of the few instances in Egyptian mythology in which the gods and mortals interact directly in life she travelled among the people of the mortal word and even asked for their help.
In one story from this period, a wealthy woman refused to sheltered the goddess and her son but a poor woman welcomed them in. A scorpion stung the rich woman’s son for her offense, but Isis took pity on a fellow mother and healed the child.
These stories are most often told in healing texts, which give instructions for how to cure the same maladies that affected Horus as a vulnerable child. Isis became a major goddess of healing after protecting her son from snakebites and illnesses.
When Horus grew to adulthood, he challenged his uncle for the throne. Rather than a battle, however, the two fought before a tribunal of their fellow gods.
Horus was the rightful heir as Osiris’s son, but the trial still lasted eighty years. This is often said to be because Geb, who served as the chief judge as a former king himself, favored his son over his grandson.
Ultimately, however, a resolution was reached. In some versions of the story Set was utterly defeated, but in other Horus received the rich lands around the Nile while Set was banished to the barren desert.
In many traditions, however, Set was made to carry Osiris’s body to its tomb. Only through a proper burial by the king that followed him could the god finally complete his journey to the afterlife.
Once Osiris was buried with the proper honors and sacrifices, he and his son took on complimentary roles. Horus was the king of the living while Osiris became the king of the afterlife.
Throughout much of Egyptian history, the pharaohs likened themselves to Horus. In time, they came to be seen as the human incarnations of Osiris’s son.
This gave the kings of Egypt a direct connection to both divine authority and the secrets of the afterlife. It was believed that after death the pharaoh’s spirit would ruled alongside Osiris, his father, in the afterlife.
The pharaohs looked to Osiris as their father and their first model of kingship.
Few written sources in Egypt detail the events of Osiris’s rule before death. While they generally agree that he was a good and prosperous ruler, his death and subsequent rebirth were more important elements of the story.
Greek and Roman authors, however, addressed the issue of what Osiris was like in life. Their accounts, however, were often filtered through their own belief that the Egyptian gods were aspects of their own that belonged to a more dour, less creative culture.
The historian Plutarch, for example, wrote:
One of the first acts related of Osiris in his reign was to deliver the Egyptians from their destitute and brutish manner of living. This he did by showing them the fruits of cultivation, by giving them laws, and by teaching them to honour the gods. Later he travelled over the whole earth civilizing it without the slightest need of arms, but most of the peoples he won over to his way by the charm of his persuasive discourse combined with song and all manner of music. Hence the Greeks came to identify him with Dionysus.
-Plutarch, Isis and Osiris
Some of Plutarch’s description of Osiris was certainly influenced by his own cultural bias, but aspects of it may reflect Egyptian thought.
Osiris was associated with the very elements that made Egyptian culture what it was.
In his myth, he represented the cycle of life and death that defined the Egyptian worldview. He was particularly associated with the agriculture that made life in the Nile Valley possible.
So it is possible that the people of Egypt saw Osiris as the first king to bring them culture and enable them to live in relative comfort and safety.
It is doubtful, however, that original Egyptian legends of Osiris included descriptions of his charismatic speeches and skill in music. These Greco-Roman ideals are almost certainly inventions of Plutarch’s own time.
Another invention of the Greek era is, in fact, Osiris’s name.
The name Osiris, like many of the Egyptian deities, comes from Greek transliteration of the Egyptian language. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to tell what Osiris was actually called in his native language.
Egyptian hieroglyphs represent combinations of consonants but contain no vowel sounds. In the case of names like Osiris, translating the writing system of ancient Egypt is made even more complicated by the use of special symbols that are not used in more common words.
This means that names are often not spelled out phonetically in hieroglyphs. The sounds associated with Osiris’s name can only be estimated based on similar words and transliterations in other phonetic writing systems.
Thus, his Egyptian name has been written as Asar, Usire, Ausir, Wesir, and other combinations of related sounds.
Many possible interpretations have been given for Osiris’s name. These include:
- The Mighty One
- Seat of the Eye
- He Who Bears the Eye
- The Product, or One Who Was Made
- The Male Principle
Many of these interpretations reference the Eye of Horus, the symbol of divinity and kingship held by Osiris’s son and, in many image, by the king of the dead as well.
Osiris’s soul, called a ba in Egypt, was sometimes thought of as a separate deity.
When the body died, the ba was released. This was just one part of the soul, but it was thought to be the most important aspect of a person’s personality and individual identity.
The ba represented the person’s power or reputation. It was the force of a person’s character, which was particularly strong for a god.
Some believed that the ba could take a physical form if it was particularly strong. As a god, Osiris’s ba was strong enough to become divine in its own right.
In some parts of Egypt, the ba of Osiris was worshipped as both an aspect of the god and as an individual deity. In this form it was called Banebdjedet, meaning “The Ba of the Pillar of Continuity.”
Worshipers of Banebdjedet believed that this aspect of Osiris’s soul was what maintained his influence over the Nile floods and the fertility they provided.
Ba was a reflection of the god’s power, but it also had another meaning in the Egyptian language. Ba was the world for “ram.”
Whether the similarity was because of a coincidence or not, the ram was the perfect symbol of power and force in the ancient world. It was only logical that Banebdjedet, the continuation of Osiris’s power, was pictured with the head of a ram.
Rams became central in the ba’s cult. In the city of Mendes a sacred ram was kept at the Banebdjedet temple as the soul’s physical incarnation. In death these sacred rams were mummified to be sent to rejoin Osiris in the afterlife.
The people of Mendes believed that the Banebdjedet continued Osiris’s power of fertility on Earth. Other explanations were given for this, however.
Like many cultures, the Egyptians saw life and death as related and interdependent concepts. Everything that grew came from the soil, a place of death.
In the Nile Valley, the link was especially clear. The valley’s fertile soil was the result of annual floods. Agriculture was only possible there because of a destructive and deadly event.
Osiris was the king of the dead, but his myth also showed him as a god who had personally gone through the cycle of rebirth. His brief revival had resulted in an act of conception and the birth of the next king.
The god king was thus linked to the land and its annual process of birth and death.
There is some evidence that pre-dynastic Egyptians may have worshiped Osiris long before death and embalming became central to their religion.
Two of his identifying attributes, which became symbols of kingship for all of Egypt, were the crook and flail, traditional tools of shepherds.
Combined with the ram imagery of his ba, this lends some credence to the theory that Osiris was a primitive god of herds and livestock before his mythology developed into one of kingship.
Later devotion to Osiris still recognized his role on Earth. Plutarch, for example, described a ritual in which the pieces of the god’s body were made of grain and ritually replanted to bring fertility back to the soil.
In art, the god was usually shown with green skin that represented the growth of new vegetation and his own similar rebirth. Although he was wrapped in the dressings of a mummy and ruled over the land of the dead, his body reflected life and fertility.
The resurrection of his ba was only one explanation given for the continued role Osiris played in the cycle of rebirth.
Another was developed with the story of his body being scattered around the country.
It’s likely that this story developed to create more immediate links between the god and his many temples. Dozens of sites around Egypt claimed to hold a piece of the god’s destroyed body, and thus have a claim to his regenerative powers.
This story was also used, however, to explain how Osiris made the land fertile even after he was removed from it.
In some versions of the legend, the god’s phallus is the only piece of his body that Isis is unable to recover. She fashions a duplicate to conceive Horus, but the god’s real sexual organ is left in the land of Egypt.
This piece of his body was used to justify how he could continue giving his fertility to Egypt. The most important element in this power was left behind to continue fertilizing the land.
Modern scholars have also interpreted this story as an illustration of Osirus as an androgynous fertility deity.
In the ancient mindset, the loss of his phallus made Osiris less masculine. He became a deity who was neither female nor fully male.
He remained the primary source of fertility, however. This interpretation posits that Osiris became a symbol of both male and female fertility after his death.
In this view he was no longer a masculine power, but one that could be accessed by all Egyptians.
Osiris was the son of the earth god and the sky goddess. He married his sister, Isis, and took the throne as king.
He was murdered, however, by his brother Set. According to some stories his body was cut apart and Isis spent several days searching for the lost pieces.
She put them back together, missing the phallus in some accounts, and had her husband’s body embalmed. The legend established the practice of mummification.
Isis brought her husband back to life long enough to conceive a son, Horus. Once her son reclaimed the throne as Osiris’s heir, the god was able to be properly buried and take his own place as the king of the afterlife.
Because the pharaohs were believed to be incarnations of Horus, they also claimed to be the sons of Osiris. Their right to kingship was legitimized through this relationship.
Osiris embodied the dual concepts of life and death in Egyptian thought. Having been reborn himself, he was the god of fertility, vegetation, and agriculture.