Osiris is one of the most powerful and important gods in the ancient Egyptian pantheon. Depictions of Osiris as a living god show him as a handsome man wearing royal robes, with the plumed headdress Atef crown of Upper Egypt and carrying the two symbols of kingship, the crook and flail. He is associated with the mythical Bennu bird which springs to life from the ashes.
As Lord of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead Osiris was known as Khentiamenti, “The Foremost of the Westerners.” In ancient Egypt, the west was associated with death as this was the direction of the sunset. “Westerners” was synonymous with the deceased who had passed on to the afterlife. Osiris was referred to many names but predominantly as Wennefer, “The Beautiful One,” “Eternal Lord,” King of the Living and The Lord of Love.
The name “Osiris” itself is the Latinized form of Usir in Egyptian which translates as ‘powerful’ or ‘mighty’. Osiris is the first-born of the gods Geb or earth and Nut or sky immediately following the creation of the world. He was murdered by his younger brother Set and resurrected by his sister-wife Isis. This myth was at the heart of Egyptian religious belief and culture.
- Osiris was the Lord of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead making him one of ancient Egypt’s most powerful and important deities
- Osiris was known by several names including “King of the Living and The Lord of Love,” “Wennefer, “The Beautiful One” and “Eternal Lord”
- Osiris was known as Khentiamenti, “The Foremost of the Westerners”
- “Westerners” was synonymous with the deceased who passed on to the afterlife and ancient Egypt associated the west and its sunset with death
- Osiris’ origin remains unclear, but evidence suggested Osiris was worshipped as a local god in Busiris in Lower Egypt
- Tomb paintings depict him as a living god showing him as a handsome man dressed in royal finery, wearing Upper Egypt’s plumed Atef crown and carrying the crook and flail the two symbols of ancient Egyptian kingship
- Osiris was associated with Egypt’s mythical Bennu bird, which springs back to life from ashes
- The temple at Abydos was the centre of the cult of Osiris worship
- In later periods, Osiris was worshipped as Serapis a Hellenistic god
- Several Greco-Roman writers frequently linked Osiris with the cult of Dionysus
Origins And Popularity
Originally, Osiris was thought to have been a fertility god, with possible Syrian origins. His popularity enabled his cult to absorb the functions of two fertility and agriculture gods, Andjeti and Khentiamenti, who were worshipped in Abydos. The djed symbol is closely associated with Osiris. He is frequently shown with green or black skin representing regeneration and the Nile River’s fertile mud. In his Judge of the Dead role, he is shown as either partially or fully mummified.
After Isis, Osiris remained the most popular and long-lasting of all of ancient Egypt’s gods. His cult worship endured for thousands of years from just prior to Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2613 BCE) to the fall of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE). There is some evidence Osiris was worshipped in the Pre-Dynastic Period of Egypt (c. 6000-3150 BCE) in some form and his cult probably emerged during that time.
While depictions of Osiris typically show him as a giving, just and generous, god of abundance and life, depictions of him as a terrifying deity dispatching demon-messengers to drag the living into the dismal realm of the dead have survived.
The Osiris Myth
The Osiris Myth one of the most popular of all ancient Egyptian myths. Shortly after the world is created, Osiris and Isis ruled over their paradise. When the tears of Atum or Ra gave birth to men and women they were uncivilized. Osiris taught them to honour their gods, gave them culture, and taught them agriculture. At this time, men and women were all equal, food was abundant and no needs were left unfulfilled.
Set, Osiris’ brother grew jealous of him. Eventually, envy turned to hatred when Set discovered his wife, Nephthys, had adopted Isis’ likeness and seduced Osiris. Set’s anger was not directed to Nephthys, however, but on his brother, “The Beautiful One”, a temptation too beguiling for Nephthys to resist. Set tricked his brother into laying down in a casket he had made to Osiris’ exact measurement. Once Osiris was inside, Set slammed the lid shut and tossed the box into the Nile River.
The casket floated down the Nile and was eventually caught in a tamarisk tree by the shores of Byblos. Here the king and queen were captivated by its sweet scent and beauty. They had it cut down for a pillar for their royal court. While this was happening, Set usurped Osiris’ place and reigned over the land with Nephthys. Set neglected the gifts Osiris and Isis had bestowed and drought and famine stalked the land. Eventually, Isis found Osiris inside the tree-pillar at Byblos and returned it to Egypt.
Isis knew how to resurrect Osiris. She set her sister Nephthys to guard the body while she gathered herbs for her potions. Set, discovered his brother’s and hacked it into pieces, scattering the parts across the land and into the Nile. When Isis returned, she was horrified to discover her husband’s body was missing.
Both sisters scoured the land for Osiris’ body parts and reassembled Osiris’ body. A fish had eaten Osiris’ penis leaving him incomplete but Isis was able to return him to life. Osiris was resurrected but could no longer rule the living, as he was no longer whole. He descended to the underworld and reigned there as Lord of the Dead.
The Osiris myth represents important values in Egyptian culture, those of eternal life, harmony, balance, gratitude and order. Set’s envy and resentment of Osiris stemmed from a lack of gratitude. In ancient Egypt, ingratitude was a “gateway sin” which predisposed an individual to other sins. The story told of the victory of order over chaos and the establishment of harmony in the land.
Abydos lay at the centre of his cult and the necropolis there became highly sought-after. People looked to be buried as near to their god as possible. Those living too far away or who were too poor for a burial plot had a stele erected in their name honour.
Osiris festivals celebrated life, both on earth and in the afterlife. Planting of an Osiris Garden was a key part of these celebrations. A garden bed was moulded in the shape of the god and fertilized by Nile water and mud. Grain grown in the plot represented Osiris arising from the dead and promised eternal life for those who tended the plot. Osiris Gardens were placed in tombs where they were known as Osiris’ Bed.
Osiris’ priests cared for his temples and statues of the god at Abydos, Heliopolis and Busiris. Only the priests were granted access to the inner sanctum. Egyptians visited the temple complex to make sacrificial offerings, seek counsel and medical advice, ask for prayers and receive help from the priests in the form of financial aid and gifts of material goods. They would leave sacrifices, beseeching Osiris for a favour or to thank Osiris for granting a request.
Osiris’ rebirth was closely connected with the rhythms of the Nile River. Osiris’ festivals were conducted to celebrate his death and resurrection together with his mystical power and his physical beauty. The “Fall of the Nile” festival honoured his death while the “Djed Pillar Festival” observed Osiris’ resurrection.
Relationship Between Osiris, The King, And The Egyptian People
Egyptians thought of Osiris as the first king of Egypt He set out the cultural values all kings later swore to uphold. Set’s murder of Osiris plunged the country into chaos. Only when Horus triumphed over Set was order restored. Thus Egypt’s kings identified with Horus during their reign and with Osiris in death. Osiris was both every king’s father and their divine aspect, which offered hope for salvation after their death.
Hence, Osiris is shown as a mummified king and the kings were mummified to mirror Osiris. His mummified aspect preceded the practice of royal mummification. A deceased Egyptian king’s mummified appearance as Osiris not only remind them of the god but also invoked his protection to drive away evil spirits. Egyptian kings similarly adopted Osiris’ iconic flail and shepherd’s staff. His flail symbolised Egypt’s fertile land while the crook represented the king’s authority.
Notions of kingship, the law of life and the natural order were all gifts by Osiris to Egypt. Participating in the community and observing religious rites and ceremonies, were paths to observing Osiris’ strictures. Ordinary people and royalty alike expected to enjoy Osiris’ protection in life and his impartial judgment upon their death. Osiris was forgiving, all merciful and a just judge of the dead in the afterlife.
Osiris’ association with life after death and with eternal life spawned a mystery cult, which travelled beyond Egypt’s boundaries as the Cult of Isis. While today, no one really understands what rituals were performed within this mystery cult; they are believed to have had their geneses in Osiris’ precursor mysteries conducted at Abydos from the start of the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1802 BCE). These popular festivals drew participants from across Egypt. The mysteries narrated the life, death, revival and ascension of Osiris. It is believed dramas were performed with prominent community members and the cult priests performing the major roles in re-enacting the legends of the Osiris myth.
One story called The Contention Between Horus and Set was dramatized by mock battles between The Followers of Horus and The Followers of Set. Anyone in the audience was free to participate. Once Horus had won the day, the restoration of order was celebrated enthusiastically and Osiris’ golden statue moved in a procession from the temple’s inner sanctum and marched amongst the people who placed gifts on the statue.
The statue was then paraded through the city in a great circuit before finally being placed in an outdoor shrine where his admirers could see him. The emergence of the god from the darkness of his temple into the light to participate with the living also represented Osiris’ resurrection after his death.
While this festival was concentrated at Abydos, followers also celebrated it in other Egyptian centres of Osiris cult worship such as Thebes, Bubastis, Memphis and Bursis. Initially, Osiris was the dominant figure of these celebrations, however, over time, the festival focus moved to Isis his wife, who had saved him from death and restored him to life. Osiris was intimately connected with the Nile River and Egypt’s Nile River Valley. Eventually, Isis’ ties to a physical location were dissolved. Isis was seen as the creator of the universe and the Queen of Heaven. All other Egyptian gods morphed into aspects of the almighty Isis. In this form, the cult of Isis migrated to Phoenicia, Greece, and Rome before spreading throughout the Roman Empire.
So popular was the Cult of Isis in the Roman world that it outstayed all other pagan cults in the face of the spread of Christianity. Many of the most profound aspects of Christianity, were adopted from the pagan worship of Osiris and the Cult of Isis, which emerged from his story. In ancient Egypt, as in our modern world, people were attracted to a belief system that lent meaning and purpose to their lives that offer the hope that there was life after death and that their souls would be in the care of a supernatural being who would protect them from the travails of the afterlife. Worshipping the mighty god Osiris provided his followers with just that reassurance much as our contemporary religious doctrine do today.
Reflecting On The Past
Osiris is one of leading deities in the Egyptian pantheon. Understanding his story of death, resurrection and the restoration of order is the key to truly understanding Egyptian belief systems and social ties.
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