The Legend of Osiris
(As told by Plutarch, taken from Wallis Budge's Papyrus of Ani pg xlviii)


The chief features of the Egyptian religion remained unchanged from the Vth and VIth dynasties down to the period when the Egyptians embraced Christianity, after the preaching of St. Mark the Apostle in Alexandria, A.D. 69, so firmly had the early beliefs taken possession of the Egyptian mind; and the Christians in Egypt, or Copts as they are commonly called, the racial descendants of the ancient Egyptians, seems never to have succeeded in divesting themselves of the superstitious and weird mythological conceptions which they inherited from their heathen ancestors.  It is not necessary here to repeat the proofs of this fact which M. Amélineau has brought together1, or to adduce evidence from the lives of the saints, martyrs and ascetics; but it is of interest to note in passing that the translators of the New Testament into Coptic rendered the Greek Hades by Ament, amenti, the name which the ancient Egyptians gave to the abode of man after death2, and that the Copts peopled it with beings whose prototypes are found on the ancient monuments.

The chief gods mentioned in the pyramid texts are identical with those whose names are given on tomb, coffin and papyrus in the latest dynasties; and if the names of the great cosmic gods, such as Ptah and Khnemu (Khnum), are of rare occurrence, it should be remembered that the gods of the dead must naturally occupy the chief place in this literature which concerns the dead.  Furthermore, we find that the doctrine of eternal life and of the resurrection of a glorified or transformed body, based upon the ancient story of the resurrection of Osiris after a cruel death and horrible mutilation, inflicted by the powers of evil, was the same in all periods, and that the legends of the most ancient times were accepted without material alterations or additions in the texts of the later dynasties.

The story of Osiris is nowhere found in a connected form in Egyptian literature, but everywhere, and in texts of all periods, the life, sufferings, death and resurrection of Osiris are accepted as facts universally admitted. Greek writers have preserved in their works traditions concerning this god, and to Plutarch in particular we owe an important version of the legend as current in his day. It is clear that in some points he errs, but this was excusable in dealing with a series of traditions already some four thousand years old3.

According to this writer the Goddess Rhea (Nut), the wife of Helios (Ra), was beloved by Kronos (Geb).  When Helios discovered the intrigue, he cursed his wife and declared that she should not be delivered of any child in any month or in any year. Then the God Hermes, who also loved Rhea, played at tables with Selene and won from her the seventieth part of each day of the year, which added together, made five whole days. These were joined to the three hundred and sixty days of which the year then consisted. 

Upon the first of these five days was Osiris brought forth;4 and at the moment of his birth a voice was heard to proclaim that the lord of creation was born. In the course of time he became the king of Egypt, and devoted himself to civilising his subjects and to teaching them the craft of husbandman; he established a code of laws and bade men worship the gods.  Having made Egypt peaceful and flourishing, he set out to instruct the other nations of the world.  During his absence his wife Isis so well ruled the state that Typhon (Set), the evil one, could do no harm to the realm of Osiris. 

When Osiris came again Typhon plotted with seventy two comrades, and with Aso, the queen of Ethiopia, to slay him; and secretly got the measure of the body of Osiris, and made ready a fair chest, which was brought into his banqueting hall when Osiris was present together with other guests. By a ruse Osiris was induced to lie down in the chest, which was immediately closed by Typhon and his fellow conspirators, who conveyed it to the Tanaitic mouth of the Nile.5 These things happened on the seventeenth day of the month of Hathor,6 when Osiris was in the twenty-eighth year either of his reign or of his age. 

The first to know of what had happened were the Pans and Satyrs, who dwelled hard by Panopolis; and finally the news was brought to Isis at Coptos, where she cut off a lock of her hair7 and put on her mourning apparel.  She then set out in deep grief to find her husband’s body, and in the course of her wanderings she discovered that Osiris had been united with her sister Nephthys, and that Anubis, the offspring of the union, had been exposed by his mother as soon as born. Isis tracked him by the help of dogs, and bread him up to be her guard and attendant. 

Soon after she learned that the chest had been carried out by the sea to Byblos, where it had been gently laid by the waves among the branches of a tamarisk tree, which I a very short time had grown to a magnificent size and had enclosed the chest within it’s trunk. The King of the country, admiring the tree, cut it down and made a pillar for the roof of his house of that part which contained the body of Osiris. 

When Isis heard of this she went to Byblos, and, gaining admittance to the palace through the report of the royal maidens, she was made nurse to one of the king’s sons. Instead of nursing the child in the normal way, Isis gave him her finger to suck, and each night she put him into the fire to consume his mortal parts, changing herself the while into a swallow and becoming her fate. But the queen once happened to see her son in flames and cried out, thus deprived him of immortality. 

Then Isis told the queen her story and begged for the pillar which supported the roof. This she cut open, and took out the chest and her husbands body,8 and her lamentations were so terrible that one of the royal children died of fright. She then brought the chest by ship to Egypt, where she opened it and embraced the body of her husband, weeping bitterly. Then she sought her son Horus in Buto, in Lower Egypt, first having hidden the chest in a secret place. 

But Typhon, one night hunting by the light of the moon, found the chest, and, having recognised the body, tore it into fourteen pieces, which he scattered up and down throughout the land. When Isis heard of this she took a boat made of papyrus9 – a plant abhorred by crocodiles- and sailing about she gathered the fragments of Osiris’s body.10

Wherever she found one, there she built a tomb. But now Horus had grown up, and being encouraged to the use of arms by his father Osiris, who returned from the other world, he went out to do battle with Typhon, the murderer of his father. The fight lasted many days, and Typhon was made captive. But Isis, to whom the care of the prisoner was given, so far from aiding her son Horus, set Typhon at liberty. Horus in his rage tore from her head the royal diadem: but Thoth gave her a helmet in the shape of a cow’s head. In two other battles fought between Horus and Typhon, Horus was the victor.11

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1.  Le Christianisme chez les anciens Coptes, in Revue des Religions, t. xiv., Paris, 1886, pp. 308-45.
2.  See St. Matthew xi., 23; Acts ii., 27, etc.
3.  For the text see De Iside et Osiride, ed. Didot (Scripta Moralia, t. iii., pp. 429-69), § xii. ff.
4.  Osiris was born on the first day, Horus on the second, Set on the third, Isis on the fourth, and Nepthys on the fifth; the first, third, and fifth of these days were considered unlucky by the Egyptians.
5.  The mouths of the Nile are discussed and described by Strabo, XVII., i., 18 (ed. Didot, p. 681); and by Diodorus, I., 33, 7 (ed. Didot, p. 26)
6.  In the calendar in the fourth Sallier papyrus (No. 10 184) this day is marked triply unlucky, and it is said that great lamentation by Isis and Nephthys took place for Un-nefer (Osiris) thereon.  See Chablas, Le Calendrier, p. 50.  Here we have Plutarch's statement supported by documentary evidence.  Some very interesting details concerning the festivals of Osiris in the month of Choiak are given by Loret in Recueil de Travaux, t. iii., p. 43 ff; t. iv., p. 21 ff.; and t. v., p. 85 ff.  The various mysteries which took place thereat are minutely described.
7.  On the cutting of the hair as a sign of mourning, see W. Robertson Smith, The Religion of the Semites, p. 395 ; and for other beliefs about the hair see Taylor, Primitive Culture, vol. ii., p. 364, and Fraser, Golden Bough, pp. 193-208.
8.  The story continues that Isis then wrapped the pillar in fine linen and anointed it with oil, and restored it to the queen.  Plutarch adds that the piece of wood is, to this day, preserved in the temple of Isis, and worshipped by the people of Byblos.  Prof. Robertson Smith suggests (Religion of the Semites, p. 175) that the rite of draping and anointing a sacred stump supplies the answer to the unsolved question of the nature of the ritual practices connected with the Ashera.  That some sort of drapery belonged to the Ashera is clear from Kings xxiii., 7.  See also Tylor, Primitive Culture, vol. ii., p. 150; and Fraser, Golden Bough, vol. i., p. 304 ff.
9.  The ark of "bulrushes" was, no doubt, intended to preserve the child Moses from crocodiles.
10. By the festival celebrated by the Egyptians in honour of the model of the lost member of Osiris, we are probably to understand the public performance of “setting up the Tet in Tattu” which we know took place on the last day of the month of Choiak.
11. An account of the battle is also given in the IVth Sallier papyrus, wherein we are told that it took place on the 26th day of the month of Thoth. Horus and Set fought in the form of two men, but afterwards they changed themselves into two bears, and they passed three days and three nights in this form. Victory inclined now to one side, and now to the other, and the heart of Isis suffered bitterly. When Horus saw that she loosed the fetters which he had laid upon Set, he became like a “raging panther of the south with fury”, and she fled before him; but he pursued her, and cut off her head, which Thoth transformed with his words of magical power and set upon her body again in the form of that of a cow. In the calendars of the 26th day of Thoth was marked by triply deadly.

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