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Who was Osiris in Egyptian Mythology?
Osiris, son of the Egyptian deities Geb and Nut, was originally a god of nature who symbolised the cycle of vegetation. However, in time, he became the god of the dead. At his birth, he was proclaimed the “Universal Lord”, and he grew into a tall and handsome deity. When his father retired, Osiris became king of Egypt and took his sister, Isis, as his queen. His cult was created in Abydos, where tradition locates his tomb.
Osiris taught humankind how to make wine and bread and oversaw the building of the first temples and statues to the gods. He was usually depicted as a bearded man wrapped in mummy bandages and holding a crook and a flail to symbolise his kingship. He symbolises the regenerative powers of the natural world and the threat posed by severe weather conditions to the well-being of humanity.
Osiris has long been considered as the chief of the Egyptian gods who later took over the role of king of the underworld and ruler of the dead. The earliest mention of Osiris dates from the fifth dynasty, among which he was originally portrayed as a fearsome god, then transformed into a benign deity over time.
He is usually depicted in human form as a green or black-skinned man with a pharaoh’s beard, but often tightly wrapped in mummy linen with only his arms free, wearing a distinctive wreath—the atef, consisting of a tall conical white crown of the Lower Egypt and framed by long plumes of ram’s horns.
The colour of Osiris skin induces not the only decomposition of the corpse, but mostly the new and growing vegetation of fertile ground.
Osiris ruled Egypt after his father in Egyptian mythology and was among the most significant and widely revered deities of the Egyptian pantheon. In some myths, he was born at the necropolis known as the underworld gate of Memphis.
The major elements of the Egyptian legend about Osiris can be summarised around his position among the Egyptian gods, the purpose behind both his death and afterlife.
Osiris was the son of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb. He was the first king of the upper world and earned the name Wenennefer, meaning “he who is eternally perfect”—a description that shows the passion he had for his kingdom.
He was the one who taught the early Egyptians how to live, how to cultivate the wild wheat and barley, and how to make and use tools. His wife, Isis, was equally well-liked for the life skills she taught to women.
Osiris and Seth — The Death and Resurrection
But sadly, Osiris’s reign over Egypt met its end when his violent brother Seth who had already killed one of their brothers, blind Horus (known as Horus, the Elder), and then decided to go after Osiris and murder him for the throne of Egypt.
This story explains why besides Anubis, Osiris was one of the first to be associated with the mummy wrap after what his brother Seth has done to get rid of him.
The myth described how Seth persuaded Osiris to step into a fitting coffin, and once Osiris was inside the box, Seth slapped down the lid, which he then sealed with molten lead and tossed down into the Nile river.
Following the incident, the coffin drifted for many days; then, it became encased in a growing tree trunk. Eventually, the trunk was cut down and incorporated into a pillar, upholding the local ruler’s palace.
After years of searching, Isis and her sister, Nephthys, found Osiris, who was no longer alive and brought his body back. But his brother found him once more and chopped off his body into 14 pieces, which he scattered all over Egypt.
Osiris’s sister and wife, Isis, looked all over for his limbs and gathered the pieces. With the help of the jackal-god Anubis, who was at the time the god of the underworld, helped to patch up the dismembered fragments together and made the first mummy. Therefore, resurrecting Osiris, enabling the god to return to life.
Isis then transformed herself into a bird and hovered over Osiris’s mummy, breathing life into his body and mates with him just long enough to become pregnant with his son, Horus the younger.
The scattering of Osiris’ body was allegorised with the winnowing and scattering of grain in the farming fields of Egypt. The purely Egyptian account omits the incident of the coffin and the discovery at Byblos.
Following the myth, Isis is sometimes represented in the form of a hawk being impregnated by the erect phallus of the dead god. In another version of the story, Isis used a spell to briefly revive Osiris so he could impregnate her. She conceived and later gave birth to Horus, who would eventually avenge his father’s death and claim the throne that rightfully belonged to him.
Horus Avenges Osiris — Horus and Seth
Since Horus was born after Osiris resurrection, he came to be regarded as a representation of new beginnings and the vanquisher of the usurper Seth.
Horus thus fought Seth for the crown of Egypt and ultimately triumphed. His relationship with the Egyptian’s kingship became crucial. The early kings of Egypt were the divine embodiment of Horus in life but were believed to become Osiris when they died.
Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld—Osiris’ Symbols and Attributes
Osiris, after that, lived on and became the lord of the underworld—a role granted to him by Anubis and started to be shown as a mummified king, holding the symbolic crook that represents him as the shepherd god and a flail signifying divine authority.
According to Egyptian mythology, his symbol was the Djed-pillar, said to represent the spine of the god and the stability of the underworld.
Because of his death and resurrection and through the hope of new life after death, Osiris began to be associated with cycles observed in nature, particularly with the vegetation, the flooding and retreating of the Nile river, and the yearly growth and death of crops along the Nile valley.
Thus, he was commonly regarded as the god of agriculture and fertility.
Osiris was perceived as the counterpart in the death of the sun god Ra as the grain god. He was worshipped in the form of a sack filled with seeds that sprouted green, also represented by models with articulated members which women paraded through the streets at festivals and manipulated to demonstrate the god’s virility.
The germinating seed symbolised Osiris rising from the dead. An almost perfect example was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Osiris’ Role in the Underworld
Based on numerous manuscripts, the Egyptian’s conception of the underworld was described as a narrow valley with a river running through it, separated to the living world by a mountain range from which the sun rose and set.
At the verge of the world where the deceased negotiated the path from this existence to the next one, avoiding dangers with the precious help and guidance of the god with a dog’s head who swallowed shadows and tore out hearts.
As a final judgment, the dead were led by Anubis into the hall of the two truths in the tribunal of 42 divine judges. There, the dead person’s heart was weighed on a scale against the feather of truth. If the feather outweighed the heart, meaning that the person has led a life in conformance with the precepts of the goddess Ma’at, who represented truth and good living.
Horus then led the deceased into the presence of Osiris and other gods who sat as judges in the underworld to have eternal and happy life. While ordinary mortals who were neither too good nor too bad, those whose hearts were in balance with the feather, entered under Osiris’s service.
If the heart, heavy with shame and sins, outweighed the feather, the person was thrown to the soul-eating demon Ammit and did not share eternal life.
The person who the devourer took was subjected first to a terrifying punishment, then annihilated, suffering a second death from which there was no return.
These depictions of punishment may have influenced medieval perceptions of the infernal existence in hell via early Christian texts.
Purification for those who are considered justified may be found in the descriptions of certain great scripts where the dead experience the triumph over evil and rebirth. For the damned, complete destruction into a state of non-being awaits, but there is no suggestion of eternal torture.
The story of the death, mummification and resurrection of Osiris was the myth that offered the Egyptians the hope of life after death in the kingdom of Osiris.
The Worship of Osiris
The cult centre of the god’s worship was located in Abydos, in middle Egypt, where for more than two thousand years, the mysteries of the god were celebrated.
The first phase of the festival was a public drama, depicting the murder and dismemberment of Osiris, the search of his body by Isis, his triumphal return as the resurrected god bringing along the gift of eternal life; but the secret rituals were never revealed.
The chief embalmer and overseer of the mysteries enacted the role of the jackal god, Anubis, the protective god of the dead.
The ritual of mummification allowed the deceased to be identified with Osiris. Despite their rituals of death, mummification and entombment, the Egyptians were not obsessed with death but with life. So, the real purpose behind these rituals of remembrance was to ensure that there’s a new life after death.
They wanted to live as perfect beings in the Field of Reeds (sometimes called The Field of Offerings), inside Osiris’s domain, where the blessed dead gather in rich crops of barley and wheat.
The cult of Osiris was widespread around Egypt. The god absorbed the traits and names of several local deities, such as Khenti-Amentiu, the god of Abydos.
At Memphis, Osiris became closely identified with the falcon god Seker (also spelt Sokar), which earned him the name Sokar-Osiris. During the Greco-Roman periods, he merged with the sacred Apis bull in the Ptolemaic times to become the popular deity, Serapis.
Other Key Notes
The Osirian legend is known from pure Egyptian textual sources and an embellished account of great writers. Based on those texts, he was the eldest of four siblings, including his sister and consort Isis, his sworn enemy Seth, and younger sister Nephthys.
Osiris was the judge of the dead and the underworld, including sprouting vegetation and the fertile flooding of the Nile river. He was described as “he who is permanently benign and youthful” and “the lord of silence”.
Although the god is most closely linked with Isis, he was also tightly associated with Anubis, the mortuary deity and patron god of embalmers.
With that being said, myths surrounding Osiris can’t be mentioned without involving his illegitimate son, Anubis and vice versa.
Osiris was the god who brought prosperity and wealth to the land of Egypt and will be remembered not only as an iconic figure of culture but also as the pillar that holds the fundamental secrets and origins of the Egyptian religion and mythology.
Image Sources: Javier Cruz Domínguez, Zanten, Stu Harrington, Glaring Dragon and David Ferreira.