ORIGIN Egyptian. Chthonic god of the underworld, also a corn or vegetation god.
KNOWN PERIOD OF WORSHIP circa 3000 BC until the end of Egyptian history circa AD 400.
SYNONYMS none, but many epithets are applied, reflecting the universality of his cult.
CENTER(S) OF CULT many throughout Egypt but chiefly at Abydos (Ibdju) in Upper Egypt and Busiris (Djedu) in the Nile delta of Lower Egypt. Other important sanctuaries are located at Biga (Senmet) in Upper Egypt south of Aswan, and at the Karnak complex of Thebes. Outside Egypt there is a major sanctuary at Philae in Greece.
ART REFERENCES innumerable sculptures, stone reliefs, wall paintings and papyrus illustrations.
LITERARY SOURCES Pyramid Texts; coffin texts including the Book of the Dead, etc.
Osiris is among the most significant and widely revered deities of the Egyptian pantheon. According to the genealogy drawn up by the priests at Heliopolis, he was born at Rosetau in the necropolis (gate of the underworld) of Memphis. His parents were GEB and NUT and he was the eldest of four siblings including his sister and consort ISIS, his adversary SETH and younger sister NEPHTHYS. Isis bore the god HORUS having impregnated herself with the semen of Osiris after his death. Though Osiris is most closely linked with Isis, he is also associated with ANUBIS, the mortuary god of embalming and the scorpion-like mortuary goddess SERKET.
Osiris is depicted in human form but often tightly wrapped in mummy linen with only his arms free, He holds the crook and flail. His crown, the atef, is distinctive, consisting of the conical white crown of Lower Egypt framed by tall plumes and rams’ horns. Often his skin is colored green. Osiris was perceived as the counterpart in death of the sun god RE.
As a grain god, Osiris was worshiped in the form of a sack filled with seed which sprouted green. He is also depicted by models with articulated members which women paraded through the streets at festivals and manipulated to demonstrate the god’s virility. His relationship with the Egyptian kingship was crucial. Each king was the divine embodiment of Horus in life, but became Osiris on his death.
The Osirian legend is known from pure Egyptian textual sources and from an embellished account of the Greek writer Plutarch. The latter describes how Osiris was persuaded by Seth to step into an exactly fitting sarcophagus during a drunken party. The coffin was nailed tight and thrown into the Nile. It was washed ashore at Byblos in the Lebanon where it became encased in the trunk of a growing tree. Eventually, the trunk was cut down and incorporated as a pillar in the palace of the local ruler. After years of searching, Isis found Osiris and brought his body home. She breathed life into it and impregnated herself with Osiris’s semen. She bore his son Horus. Meanwhile Seth found the body and once more destroyed it by hacking it into fourteen pieces and scattering them along the Nile valley. With the exception of Osiris’s penis, which Seth had thrown to a crocodile, Isis found all the pieces and buried them at the sites of various sanctuaries. She restored the penis with a replica which subsequently became a focus of the Osirian cult. The scattering of the body was allegorized with the winnowing and scattering of grain in the fields.
The purely Egyptian account omits the incident of the sarcophagus and the discovery at Byblos. Isis is sometimes represented in the form of a hawk being impregnated by the erect phallus of the dead god. The reference to the fate of the penis with a crocodile is also omitted. In the Egyptian version, the god’s phallus was buried at Memphis.
In many Egyptian tombs the burial chamber lay deep underground at the bottom of a steep shaft. This chamber, unlike the rest of the tomb, was regarded as being part of the Duat. The ba, the soul or manifestation of a dead person, is sometimes shown flying up the tomb shaft in bird form to visit the world of the living by day. The Book of Coming Forth By Day was the original name of The Book of the Dead. Such visits were not necessarily welcome. In a one literary text (The Contending! of Horus and Setti), Osiris threatens to send demon messengers from the Duat into the realm of the gods if his son Horus is not made king of Egypt. This seems to reflect an ancient view of Osiris as the grim ruler of a demon host which posed a threat to the living.
The form of a spell sometimes imitates other types of document written in hieratic, such as royal decrees, standard letters or legal judgements. For example, a spell to cure a feverish cold is in the form of a decree issued by Osiris as King of Upper and Lower Egypt to his Vizier, the earth god Geb. It orders him to take action against the malicious spirits who cause fever and catarrh. This was a device to increase the authority of the magician.
In myth, Osiris was the most vulnerable of the gods and this is exploited in magic. In the Book For Banishing an Enemy, Osiris is threatened with not being allowed to journey to his two sacred cities, Busiris in the north and Abydos in the south. The magician even threatens to take on the role of Seth and destroy the body of Osiris. In one spell in the Graeco-Egyptian papyri, the magician threatens to prevent the burial of the mummy of Osiris unless he gets his desire.
A fragmentary papyrus (Papyrus Vandief) dating to the late sixth or early fifth century BC contains the tale of a young magician called Meryra. Stories about Meryra were being told at least as early as the thirteenth century BC. In Papyrus Vandier, Meryra goes down into the underworld to save the sick Pharaoh Sisobek by winning him a longer life-span from Osiris. The king's other magicians are jealous of Meryra. While the young magician is trapped in the underworld, they encourage the king to marry Meryra's wife and to kill Meryra's young son. In order to take revenge from a distance, Meryra makes 'a man of clay'[Golem] and sends him to the world of the living. The clay man orders Pharaoh to burn the jealous magicians in the furnace of the goddess Mut at Heliopolis. Sisobek does not dare to disobey this grim supernatural messenger. He has the magicians executed and their bodies burned. It gives added point to the story that the magicians suffer the fate which they themselves would
In Papyrus Vantlier, Meryra seems to be rebuked by Osiris for sending the 'man of clay'.
The wedjat eye was ceremonially offered to the gods in major temples. Some other amulets are based on objects used during the daily cult or at religious festivals. These include the loop sistrum, a kind of sacred rattle, and the Osirian amulet known as the djed pillar. The mummy of Osiris was held to be the model for all human mummies, so this god was the original wearer of protective amulets. Several myths recorded in Papyrus Jumilhac tell of attempts by Seth and his followers to steal the objects that gave magical protection to the body of Osiris. In origin, the dyed may have been a corn sheath or some kind of temporary column raised in a harvest ceremony. By the era of The Coffin Texts, it was interpreted as the backbone of Osiris and symbolized stability or endurance. Rituals of raising the djed pillar are known from Memphis and Abydos.
Spell 101 from the The Book of the Dead, for protecting the deceased in the bark of the sun god, claims to be a very secret text originally written by Thoth for Osiris. This text, which may have been adapted from a temple ritual, was to be copied in ink made from myrrh and burned tamarisk onto a strip of the finest linen. This was to be placed as an amulet at the throat of the deceased. Written amulets have occasionally been discovered on mummies dating from the first millennium BC. A scrap of papyrus inscribed with a spell from The Book of the Dead was found at the throat of a High Priest of Amun buried at Thebes.