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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