The Tale of Osiris and Isis

The Osiris Myth is one of the most important surviving pieces of Egyptian mythology. The tale is incredibly old, with the earliest surviving attestation found in the Pyramid Texts, that were inscribed on the walls of royal pyramids during the 5th Dynasty (c. 24th Century BCE). The myth was retold throughout Egyptian history, with elements recurring in the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts and in New Kingdom Books of the Dead. The most complete (and most famous) telling of the myth comes from Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride. The long history of transmission of the myth is evident in the Graeco-Roman influences present in Plutarch’s version of the story.

From King of the Living to Lord of the Dead

According to the myth, Osiris was the first Pharaoh, and the one who united Egypt. He was directly related to the gods, with a bloodline stretching back to the creator god, Atum. Osiris ruled Egypt alongside the goddess Isis, his wife, and their rule ensured that balance and justice (ma’at) were maintained. However, their brother Set – a deity associated with chaos (isfet) – conspired against Osiris; he murdered him, dismembered his body, and scattered the pieces across Egypt.

While Set sat upon the throne of Egypt, Isis travelled across the land with her sister, Nephthys, to find the pieces of her deceased husband. They travelled to each and every region (nome) of Egypt, finding all the pieces of Osiris to make the dead Pharaoh whole again. Together with Thoth (an ibis-headed god associated with hidden knowledge) and Anubis (a jackal-headed god associated with embalming and funerary traditions), Isis and Nephthys reassembled the body of Osiris and used their magic to bring him back to life.

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This faience pectoral shows the gods Osiris, Isis and Horus represented together. Between Osiris and Horus, there is a representation of the djed pillar, an Egyptian icon symbolising stability. (E. 192)

With Osiris restored to the realm of the living, Isis was able to conceive a child with him who would go on to become the true king of Egypt. However, Osiris was unable to remain in the land of the living, and after conceiving their child he went into the duat – the Egyptian underworld – to spend eternity as lord of the dead. This isn’t the end of the story, however; Isis and Osiris’ child, Horus, would grow up to challenge Set and take his place as rightful pharaoh of Egypt.

The Importance of the Osiris Myth

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This 26th Dynasty bronze statuette of Osiris was graciously lent to the Garstang Museum by the Liverpool World Museum. (M11410)

The Osiris myth illustrates a number of important tenets in Egyptian mythology and religion. Osiris can be seen to reflect the Egyptian expectations of the afterlife – their understanding that even after death, life continued in the world below. Osiris was a victim of betrayal and fratricide, but through the proper application of funerary ritual he was restored and became one of the justified dead (ma’at kheru). This illustrates the central Egyptian religious belief that, providing the proper preparations were made before burial, the deceased would be able to live on in an idealised afterlife.

The myth also relates a key philosophical component of ancient Egyptian belief – the ongoing battle between the forces of balance and righteousness and the forces of chaos. Osiris and Horus represent ma’at, the ‘correct way’, and thus they are the true kings of Egypt. Set, however, is an agent of isfet, and so he is seen as a usurper who has no right to take the throne. The belief that the world was in constant conflict between ma’at and isfet is an important part of the way that ancient Egyptians conceptualised the cosmological state of reality.

Christopher Bebbington.

 

 

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Personal Piety: Religion and the People

The ancient Egyptians did not have a word for religion; their religion was so deeply ingrained into everyday society that it was more an intrinsic way of life than a formalised set of beliefs. However, decorum during the Old and Middle Kingdoms of ancient Egypt dictated that only royalty could be depicted interacting with the gods. Therefore, our evidence for ancient Egyptian religion and worship is drawn almost entirely from royal tombs and the burials of elite individuals. This gives us a very narrow view of the everyday Egyptian’s experiences with the divine.

One of the few known examples of a god involved in the personal sphere is Bes, the protective dwarf god. His short, squat stature, leonine features and gurning face were believed to have scared away evil spirits. Unusually Bes was always depicted from the front, rather than the traditional profile seen in Egyptian art. Representations of the god are found on so-called ‘Bes Jars’; these were often found in the home and are thought to have protected women and children. Images of Bes (along with numerous other protective demons) are also found on ivory ‘wands’.

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‘Bes Jars’ represent the grotesque features of the household god, Bes. (E. 6807)

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Ivory ‘wands’ often included images of protective demons with surreal forms. (E. 7007)

It was during the Ramesside Period that changes in belief meant that the gods could be shown interacting with anyone. Increased evidence of ‘personal’ piety during this period gives us a greater understanding of the way the gods were conceptualised in the ‘everyday’. The gods were now represented in almost every aspect of Egyptian life. For example, Egyptian magical medicine rituals used statues of the young god Horus, known as cippi statues, in healing and protective rituals.

In non-royal tombs, it became more acceptable for the tomb owner to show personal interaction with the gods. This personal connection is visible through divine patronage, which could be used by Egyptians to justify their decisions in life and further their status in death. In his tomb, Zimut-Kiki claimed to have left his entire fortune to Mut, emphasising his personal connection with the goddess. Funerary stelae from this time also show the gods having a direct impact on their non-royal worshippers; the stela of Amennakht claims that Amennakht was struck blind by the goddess Meretseger as testament to her power.

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This Graeco-Roman stele depicts the deceased being led to the afterlife with the support of the gods. (E. 89)

During the Ramesside period Egyptians seemed to have more direct access to their gods. Statues of deities were still sequestered away in their temples, and only the very highest order of priests, and the king, were allowed contact with them. However, at the Temple of Amun at Karnak, the addition of a ‘Temple of the Hearing Ear’ suggests that Egyptian people could pray directly to the gods, and possibly receive answers to their questions. Similarly, numerous stelae exist that depict the gods alongside iconography of ears, implying that the gods took a personal interest in hearing the prayers of their followers.

It is hard to understand such a complex religion, which has been extinct for thousands of years, but by looking at the material culture of everyday religion in ancient Egypt we can achieve a broader comprehension of the way that non-royal Egyptians made sense of their world. This enables us to move beyond the historic fixation on the elite of Egyptian society and better understand the lived experience of ancient Egyptian people.

Louise O’Brien, Chris Bebbington