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The Osiris myth is one of the most fascinating and surprising myths in Egyptian mythology. Starting long before Osiris’ birth and ending long after his death, his myth is full of action, love, death, rebirth, and retribution. The myth covers the murder of Osiris at the hands of his brother, his restoration by his wife, and the offspring that was the result of an unlikely union between Osiris and his wife. After Osiris’ death, the myth focuses on how his son avenges him, challenging his uncle’s usurpation of the throne.
This myth is often described as the most detailed and influential of all the ancient Egyptian myths mainly because its effect on Egyptian culture was widespread, influencing Egyptian funerary rites, religious beliefs, and the ancient Egyptian views on kingship and succession.
The Origins of the Myth
The inception of Osiris’ myth begins with a prophecy told to the sun god Ra, the then-supreme deity of the Egyptian pantheon. With his great wisdom, he realized that a child of the sky goddess Nut would one day dethrone him and become the supreme ruler over gods and men. Unwilling to accept this fact, Ra commanded Nut not to bear any children on any day of the year.
This divine curse tormented Nut deeply, but the goddess knew she couldn’t disobey Ra’s command. In her despair, she sought the council of Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and writing. It didn’t take the wise god long to devise an ingenious plan. He would create additional days which technically wouldn’t be part of the year. In this way, they could bypass Ra’s command without deliberately disobeying it.
The first step of that plan was to challenge the Egyptian god of the moon Khonsu to a board game. The bet was simple – if Thoth could beat Khonsu, the moon god would give him some of his light. The two played multiple games and Thoth won every time, stealing more and more of Khonsu’s light. The moon god eventually admitted defeat and retreated, leaving Thoth with a hefty supply of light.
The second step was for Thoth to use that light to create more days. He managed to make five whole days, which he added at the end of the 360 days that were already in a full Egyptian year. Those five days didn’t belong to the year, however, but were designated as festive days every two consecutive years.
And thus, Ra’s command was circumvented – Nut had five whole days to give birth to as many children as she wanted. She used that time to birth four children: the first-born son Osiris, his brother Set, and their two sisters Isis and Nephthys. According to some versions of the myth, there was also a fifth child, one for each of the five days, the god Haroeris or Horus the Elder.
The Fall of Ra
Regardless, with Nut’s children out of her womb, the prophecy of Ra’s fall could finally commence. However, this didn’t happen immediately. First, the children grew, and Osiris married his sister Isis, eventually becoming king of Egypt. Meanwhile, Set married Nephthys and became a god of chaos, begrudgingly living in his brother’s shadow.
Even just as a mere king, Osiris was beloved by the people of Egypt. Together with Isis, the royal couple taught the people to grow crops and grain, to look after cattle, and make bread and beer. Osiris’ reign was one of abundance, hence why he became known primarily as a god of fertility.
Osiris was also famous as a perfectly fair and just ruler, and he became viewed as the embodiment of maat – the Egyptian concept of balance. The word maat is represented in hieroglyph as an ostrich feather which becomes quite important later in Osiris’ story.
Eventually, Isis decided that her husband deserved to achieve even more, and she concocted a plan to put him on the divine throne, so he would rule over all gods as well as over mankind.
Using her magic and cunning Isis managed to infect the sun god Ra with a powerful poison that threatened his life. Her plan was to manipulate Ra into telling her his real name, which would then give her power over him. She promised that she would provide the antidote to Ra if he revealed his name, and reluctantly, the sun god did so. Isis then cured his ailment.
Now in possession of his true name, Isis had the power to manipulate Ra and she simply told him to give up the throne and retire. Left with no choice, the sun god vacated the divine throne and retreated to the sky. With his wife and the people’s love behind him, Osiris ascended to the throne and became the new supreme god of Egypt, fulfilling the prophecy of the end of Ra’s rule.
However, this was only the beginning of Osiris’ story. For while Osiris continued to be a great ruler and had the full support and adoration of the people of Egypt, Set’s resentment of his brother had only continued to grow. One day, while Osiris had left his throne to visit other lands and left Isis to rule in his stead, Set began to put the pieces of a convoluted plan into place.
Set commenced by preparing a feast in Osiris’ honor, he said, to commemorate his return. Set invited all the deities and kings of nearby countries to the feast, but he also prepared a special surprise – a beautiful gold-gilded wooden chest with the precise size and dimensions of Osiris’ body.
When the god king returned, and the glorious feast commenced. Everyone was enjoying themselves for quite some time and so, when Set brought forth his box, all their guests approached it with light-hearted curiosity. Set announced that the chest was a gift he would bestow on anyone who could fit perfectly into the box.
One after another, the guests tested the peculiar box, but no one managed to fit perfectly in it. Osiris decided to try as well. To everyone but Set’s surprise, the god king was a perfect fit. Before Osiris could get up from the chest, however, Osiris and several accomplices he had hidden in the crowd closed the lid of the box, and nailed it shut, sealing Osiris in the coffin.
Then, in front of the crowd’s stunned gaze, Set took the coffin and threw it in the river Nile. Before anyone could do anything, Osiris’ coffin was floating down the current. And that’s how Osiris was drowned by his own brother.
As the god’s coffin floated north through the Nile, it eventually reached the Mediterranean Sea. There, currents took the coffin northeast, along the coastline, until it eventually landed at the base of a tamarisk tree near the town of Byblos in today’s Lebanon. Naturally, with the body of a fertility god buried at its roots, the tree quickly grew to an astonishing size, impressing everyone in the town, including the king of Byblos.
The town’s ruler ordered the tree to be cut down and made into a pillar for his throne room. His subjects obliged but happened to cut down the exact section of the tree trunk that had grown around Osiris’ coffin. So, completely unaware, the king of Byblos had the corpse of a supreme deity, resting right next to his throne.
Meanwhile, the grief-stricken Isis was desperately searching for her husband throughout the land. She asked her sister Nephthys for help even though the latter had helped Set with the feast. Together, the two sisters transformed into falcons or kite birds and flew across Egypt and beyond in search of Osiris’ coffin.
Eventually, after asking people near the Nile’s delta, Isis caught a hint of the direction the coffin might have floated in. She flew toward Byblos and transformed herself into an old woman before she entered the town. She then offered her services to the king’s wife, rightly guessing that the position would give her opportunities to search for Osiris.
After a while, Isis discovered that her husband’s body was within the tamarisk pillar inside the throne room. However, by that time, she had also grown fond of the family’s children. So, feeling generous, the goddess decided to offer immortality to one of their children.
One snag was the fact that the process of bestowing immortality involved passing through a ritual fire to burn away the mortal flesh. As luck would have it, the boy’s mother – the king’s wife – entered the room precisely as Isis was overseeing the passage through fire. Horrified, the mother attacked Isis and deprived her son of the chance of immortality.
Isis removed her disguise and revealed her true divine self, thwarting the woman’s attack. Suddenly realizing her mistake, the king’s wife asked for forgiveness. Both she and her husband offered Isis anything she’d want to gain back her favor. All Isis asked for, of course, was the tamarisk pillar in which Osiris lay.
Thinking it a small price, Byblos’ king happily gave Isis the pillar. She then removed her husband’s coffin and left Byblos, leaving the pillar behind. The pillar holding Osiris’ body became known as the Djed pillar, a symbol in its own right.
Back in Egypt, Isis hid Osiris’ body in a swamp until she could figure out a way to bring him back to life. Isis was a powerful magician, but she didn’t know how to pull off that miracle. She asked both Thoth and Nephthys for assistance but, in doing so, she left the hidden body unguarded.
While she was away, Set found his brother’s body. In a second fit of fratricide, Set cut Osiris’ body into pieces and scattered them across Egypt. The exact number of pieces varies between the different versions of the myth, ranging from around 12 to up to 42. The reason behind this is that virtually every Egyptian province has claimed to have had a piece of Osiris at one point in time.
Meanwhile, Isis had managed to figure out how to bring Osiris back to life. Returning to where she had left the body, however, she was once again faced with the loss of her husband. Even more distraught but not at all deterred, the goddess transformed into a falcon once more and took flight over Egypt. One by one, she collected the pieces of Osiris from every province of the land. She eventually managed to collect all pieces but one – Osiris’ penis. That one part had unfortunately fallen in the River Nile where it was eaten by a fish.
Unwavering in her desire to bring Osiris back to life, Isis began the resurrection ritual despite the missing part. With the help of Nephthys and Thoth, Isis managed to resurrect Osiris, although the effect was brief and Osiris passed away for the last time soon after his resurrection.
Isis didn’t waste any of the time she had with her husband, however. Despite his semi-living state and even though he was missing his penis, Isis was determined to become pregnant with Osiris’ child. She transformed into a kite or a falcon once more and started flying in circles around the resurrected Osiris. In doing so, she extracted parts of his living force and absorbed it into herself, thereby becoming pregnant.
Afterward, Osiris died once again. Isis and Nephthys held the official funerary rites for their brother and observed his passage into the Underworld. This ceremonial event is why both sisters became symbols of the funeral aspect of death and its mourning. Osiris, on the other hand, still had work to do, even in death. The former fertility deity became the god of death and the afterlife in Egyptian mythology.
From that point on, Osiris spent his days in the Egyptian Underworld or Duat. There, in Osiris’ Hall of Maat, he oversaw the judgment of people’s souls. Each deceased person’s first task, when confronted by Osiris, was to list the 42 names of the Assessors of Maat or of balance. These were minor Egyptian deities that each charged with the judgment of the souls of the dead. Then, the deceased had to recite all the sins they had not committed while they were alive. This was known as a ‘negative confession’.
Lastly, the heart of the deceased was weighed on a scale against an ostrich feather – the symbol of ma’at – by the god Anubis, Set’s son and an assistant of Osiris in this process. If a deceased person’s soul was lighter than an ostrich’s feather and therefore pure, the result was recorded by the scribe god Thoth, and the deceased was granted entry to Sekhet-Aaru, the Field of Reeds or Egypt’s paradise. Their soul was effectively granted an eternal afterlife.
If the person was judged to have been sinful, however, their soul was devoured by the goddess Ammit, a hybrid creature between a crocodile, a lion, and a hippopotamus, and it was destroyed forever.
Isis, pregnant with Osiris’ son, had to conceal her motherhood from Set. Having killed the god-king, Set had assumed the divine throne and ruled all gods and men. A son of Osiris would present a challenge for the god of chaos, however, so, Isis had to hide not just during the pregnancy, but also had to keep her child hidden after his birth.
Isis named her son Horus, also known as Horus the Child to differentiate him from another sibling of Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys, called Horus the Elder. Horus the Child – or just Horus – grew under his mother’s wing and with a burning desire for vengeance in his chest. He was brought up in a secluded area of the Delta marshes, concealed from the envious gaze of Set. Often portrayed with the head of a falcon, Horus quickly grew up into a powerful deity and became known as a god of the sky.
Once of age, Horus set out to challenge Set for his father’s throne, starting a fight that continued over many years. Many myths tell of the battles between Set and Horus as the two often had to retreat, with neither achieving a final victory over the other.
One peculiar myth details a battle during which Horus and Set had agreed to transform into hippopotami and contest in the river Nile. As the two giant beasts competed against one another, the goddess Isis grew concerned for her son. She formed a copper harpoon and tried to strike Set from above the surface of the Nile.
As the two gods had transformed into near-identical hippopotami, however, she couldn’t easily tell them apart and she struck her own son by accident. Horus roared at her to be careful and Isis took aim at his opponent. She then managed to strike Set well and wound him. Set cried out for mercy, however, and Isis took pity on her brother. She flew down to him and cured his wound.
Angered by his mother’s betrayal, Horus cut off her head and hid it in the mountains to the west of the Nile valley. Ra, the sun god and former king of the gods, saw what had transpired and flew down to help Isis. He retrieved her head and gave it back to her. He then fashioned a headdress in the form of a horned cow head to give Isis extra protection. Ra then punished Horus and thus ended yet another fight between him and Set.
During another fight, Set famously managed to disfigure Horus by taking out his left eye and shattering it into pieces. Horus struck back, however, and castrated his uncle. The goddess Hathor – or the god Thoth in some versions of the myth – then healed Horus’ eye. Since then, the Eye of Horus has been a symbol of healing and an entity of its own, much like the Eye of Ra.
The two had many other fights, detailed in various myths. There are even stories of the two trying to poison each other with their semen. For example, in the mythological tale “The Contendings of Horus and Set“, known to us from a 20th Dynasty papyrus, Horus manages to stop Set’s semen from entering his body. Isis then hides some of Horus’ semen in Set’s lettuce salad, tricking him to eat it.
As the dispute between the two gods had become unmanageable, Ra called the Ennead or group of nine main Egyptian gods to a council at a remote island. All gods except Isis were invited as it was believed that she couldn’t be impartial in the case. To prevent her from coming, Ra ordered the ferryman Nemty to stop any woman with the likeness of Isis from coming onto the island.
Isis wasn’t to be stopped from helping her son. She transformed into an old woman again, as she had done while searching for Osiris, and she walked up to Nemty. She offered the ferryman a golden ring as payment for passage to the island and he agreed as she looked nothing like herself.
Once Isis got to the island, however, she transformed into a pretty maiden. She immediately walked up to Set and pretended to be a grief-stricken widow in need of help. Charmed by her beauty and enticed by her quandary, Set walked away from the council to talk with her. She told him that her late husband was killed by a stranger, and that the villain had even taken all of their property. He had even threatened to beat and kill her son who merely wanted to take back his father’s possessions.
Crying, Isis asked Set for help and begged him to protect her son against the aggressor. Overcome with sympathy for her plight, Set vowed to protect her and her son. He even pointed out that the villain had to be beaten with a rod and expelled from the position he had usurped.
Hearing this, Isis transformed into a bird and flew up above Set and the rest of the council. She declared that Set had just judged himself and Ra had to agree with her that Set had solved their predicament on his own. This was a turning point in the struggle between the gods, and ended up determining the outcome of the trial. In time, the royal throne of Osiris was awarded to Horus, while Set was banished from the royal palace and went to live in the deserts.
A god of fertility, agriculture, death, and resurrection, Osiris represents some of the most pivotal parts of Egyptian philosophy, funerary practices, and history. His myth was highly influential on the ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, especially the belief in the afterlife that it promoted. It remains the most detailed and influential of all the ancient Egyptian myths.