Saturday, April 20, 2013

Osiris and Isis Myth

The story of Isis and Osiris is probably the most important passage of Egyptian mythology. During the New Kingdom period it was already a very old tale, but also so much popular, with many different versions and open to a wide range of interpretations. In fact, no Egyptian source gives us a full account of the myth.

The perfect ruler

At the beginning of our story, Osiris rules Egypt as a powerful and righteous king along with his wife -and sister- Isis. Osiris is displayed here as the ideal ruler, guarantor of Ma'at , a concept which can be translated as a merge of balance, justice and morality; in other words, a summary of the ideal natural order whose maintenance was a fundamental goal in ancient Egyptian culture. As the perfect ruler that he is, Osiris is also connected with the idea of life-giving, having civilized his people and teaching them how to farm and taking advantage of the annual flooding of the Nile.

Everything seems to suggest that Egyptians lived under a truly golden age, especially when Osiris decided to teach them how to make beer (as important as water as life-giving, right?). But as we know, things can not be so good forever.

The evil brother

A good story must have a bad guy closely related with the good guy, and this one is not an exception. Osiris had a brother, Seth, who was deeply jealous of his power and position. Seth hated Osiris with all his heart and wanted to replace him in the throne, but feared the reaction of the other gods.

A conspiracy

One day, Osiris received an invitation from Seth, who had arranged a feast in his honour. Isis doubted about the true intentions of Seth and tried to advice her husband, but Osiris loved his brother and ignored her.

It was the greatest party ever held in the realm, and all the gods were invited. Late that night, when everyone was in a good mood and maybe a little drunk, Seth rose from his chair and commanded his servants to bring what it seemed like a big box, but it would better be described as a coffin, a truly beautiful golden coffin decorated with gemstones of all kinds. After showed it to all the guests, he said that whoever could fit inside would receive it as a gift. All the gods, very impressed indeed with the coffin, tried it but non of them fit well. The last one to try was Osiris, who fit perfectly, but as soon as he laid down inside the lid shut tight and was unable to reopen it. The last thing he heard was his brother's insane, cruel laughter. Seth then sealed the coffin with lead and threw it into the Nile river.

Looking for Him

Isis upon discovering this news, immediately set out to find her husband. The coffin meanwhile floated down the Nile to the open sea and then to Byblos -an important Phoenician port- and got embedded in the trunk of a cedar tree which was then cut down and used to make a pillar to support the palace of the king of Byblos. Isis discovered this and explained it to the Queen, who assisted her to extract the coffin without harming the palace. Isis then took the coffin back to Egypt.

Seth, who was now reigning over Egypt, found out about the return of Osiris' body, and knowing that his brother could be resurrected and become a certain threat, he took the body from the coffin and cut it into 14 pieces which he scattered throughout the land of Egypt.

Isis didn't surrender and began to search for the remains of her husband for many years while travelling all over the country. She found 13 of the 14 missing pieces, but Osiris's penis had been eaten by an oxyrhynchus fish so he couldn't be fully put back together. Then, Isis fashioned him a new penis out of gold and resurrected him using her magic with the help of Anubis. Shortly after, they conceived Horus, Osiris' rightful heir and successor, since he could not rule the land of the living anymore.

The Lord of the dead

The effect of the Osiris myth on Egyptian culture was greater and more widespread than that of any other myth. From at least the time of the Pyramid Texts, kings hoped that after their deaths they could emulate Osiris' restoration to life and his rule over the realm of the dead. By the early Middle Kingdom (c. 2055 - 1650 BC), non-royal Egyptians believed that they, too, could overcome death as Osiris had, by worshipping him and receiving the funerary rites that were partly based on his myth. Osiris thus became Egypt's most important afterlife deity.

The myth also influenced the notion, which grew prominent in the New Kingdom, that only virtuous people that had had a life in conformance with the precepts of the Ma'at (you know, balance, justice and morality) could reach the afterlife and be welcomed in the kingdom of Osiris. Now you can see the divine judges, always led by Osiris, in the next picture:

What happened with Seth and Isis? 

As the antagonist of the myth, Seth did not enjoy increased popularity. Although he was credited with positive traits in the Osiris myth, the sinister aspects of his character predominate. Overall he was viewed with ambivalence, and only after the first millennium BC he began to be seen as a totally malevolent deity. This transformation was prompted more by his association with foreign lands and invaders (Hyksos, Assyrians and Persians) than by the Osiris myth itself.

Isis was seen as protector of the dead in the afterlife because of their protection and restoration of Osiris' body. Isis, as Horus' mother, was also the mother of every king according to royal ideology, and kings were said to have nursed at her breast as a symbol of their divine legitimacy. In the Late Period, she was credited with ever greater magical power, and her maternal devotion was believed to extend to everyone. By Roman times she was the most important goddess in Egypt. The image of the goddess holding her child was used prominently in her worship, for example, in panel paintings that were used in household shrines dedicated to her. Isis' iconography in these paintings closely resembles and probably influenced the earliest Christian icons of Mary holding Jesus, as Christianity absorbed many of the traditions surrounding Isis and incorporated them into the veneration of Mary.


  1. Very enjoyable and interesting

  2. I'm curious, is there a source that displays an interlinear translation from all the various sources of this story - that can be cross-referenced side by side?

    Is there a list of all known sources for this story?

  3. So yeah I agree with everybody else that is cool but I have been always taught to list your damn fucking sources so do that

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