For the ancient Egyptians, the story of Osiris is one of tragedy and hope; it is nothing less than the promise of everlasting life. Osiris, god of the dead, was also the “Triumphant” One and the “Lord of Eternity.” John Ray, a reader in Egyptology at the University of Cambridge, writes that Osiris was “Onnofri,” meaning “the perfect or complete being.” According to Plutarch, writing around AD 120, Osiris will eventually rise again to govern Egypt. The Osiris legend is perhaps the oldest resurrection story of the ancient world.
The Birth and Death of Osiris
According to scholars of Ancient Egyptian religion, Osiris might have been an early king of a small state on the Nile delta. He was credited with introducing early Egyptians to the cultivation of grain, wheat, and barley and ending the practice of cannibalism. Osiris was the law-giver and taught Egyptians how to worship the gods. He also introduced the growing of vines, resulting in wine production.
Within religious texts and myths about the ancient Egyptian gods, Osiris was the son of the god Geb and the goddess Nut, born with four other siblings: Horus, Set, Nephthys, and Isis, the latter becoming his wife. Osiris was hated by his brother Set who contrived to murder him upon his return to Egypt; after teaching the Egyptians, Osiris traveled to western Asia, teaching other cultures.
Along with 72 other conspirators, Set invited Osiris to a party during which he tricked his brother into climbing into a specially made coffin. Once inside, the lid was flung over the coffin and it was sealed, suffocating Osiris. The coffin was then floated down the Nile.
Leaving her son, Horus the Younger, under the protection of the cobra goddess, Isis searched for her husband’s body, finding it in Byblos where the coffin had become part of an immense tree that had been cut down and used to build the palace of the king. Securing the coffin, Isis returned to Egypt.
The Resurrection of Osiris
While Isis retrieved her son, Set found the coffin and tore the body of Osiris to pieces. Some scholars suggest 14, other cite 16 pieces. Isis again traveled the land of Egypt, collecting the body parts yet burying copies of each part in different cities to confuse her enemies. Traditionally, however, the “tomb” of Osiris was considered to be at Abydos, the site of mass pilgrimages by Egyptians desiring to become Osiris in death.
Through her magical abilities and the help of Thoth, Isis revived Osiris but as king of the underworld where he ruled and judged the dead in the Hall of Two Truths. Although the story of Osiris may predate the Old Kingdom, John Ray states that the earliest fragmentary accounts come out of the fifth and sixth dynasties Pyramid Texts yet by the First Intermediate Period all Egyptians followed the funerary practices of the story to make them “Osiris,” identifying with the god.
According to social anthropologist Sir James Frazer, “In the resurrection of Osiris the Egyptians saw the pledge of a life everlasting for themselves beyond the grave.” (246) Osiris represented a positive afterlife concept that included fields of wheat so tall that they dwarfed Egyptians. In Egypt, sanctuaries containing his holy relics flourished. Both Memphis and Abydos claimed his head.
The story of Osiris is certainly far more complicated that this overview and readers are encouraged to consult the sources. This includes the lamentation of the god’s death by Isis as well as the yearly celebratory feast – all, in a sense, reenactments of his death and incarnation, often compared to similar rites associated with Dionysus.
- Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966)
- John Ray, Reflections of Osiris: Lives from Ancient Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2002)
- M. V. Seton-Williams, Egyptian Legends and Stories (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1988)
- Dudley Young, Origins of the Sacred: The Ecstasies of Love and War (St. Martin’s Press, 1991)