Mythology Summary and Analysis: Egyptian Mythology Osiris

Summary

The first son of Geb and Nut, Osiris was tall, slender, and handsome, with jet black hair. When his father, Geb, gave up the reigning power over Egypt and retired into the heavens, Osiris took over the kingship and married his sister, the beautiful Isis. Under his wise authority the Egyptians were persuaded to renounce cannibalism. He taught them farming and the pleasures of music, and he framed a just legal code for them. Egypt flourished peacefully under his rule.

Then Osiris went off to civilize the rest of the world and brought the same blessings to Europe, the Near East, and the Orient. In his absence Isis reigned as queen of Egypt and the land continued to prosper.

However, Osiris had an ugly and evil brother with red, coarse hair like an ass's pelt. This was Set, a born plotter who envied the power and attractiveness of his elder brother. Set had another reason for hating Osiris: His own wife, Nephthys, had conceived a child by Osiris — the jackal-headed Anubis. By bribery and cunning Set gained many allies during Osiris' absence, and together they devised a plan for the king's death.

When it was announced that Osiris would return, Set held a banquet and invited his brother. After the festivities Set had a beautiful chest brought forth and said that it would belong to the person who fitted it perfectly. After everyone had tried, Osiris stepped into the chest. Then Set and his toadies slammed the lid shut and sealed the joints with lead. Osiris suffocated, the chest was thrown into the Nile, and Set became king of Egypt.

When Isis learned of her husband's death she traveled along the Nile in the deepest grief, searching for the chest containing Osiris. She found Anubis, who had been abandoned by Nephthys, and she nursed and educated him. Isis continued looking for Osiris through repeated discouragements, until one day she learned the chest had sailed to Phoenicia, where a tamarisk tree had enveloped it within its trunk.

Isis went to Phoenicia and found the tree in the king's palace serving as a pillar. Isis taught the court ladies the art of perfumery and hair dressing, and upon meeting the queen Ishtar, she was engaged as a nurse to Ishtar's infant son. At night she performed a magic ritual to make the infant immortal by burning away his mortal parts, but Ishtar interrupted the ceremony and the spell was broken. Then Isis revealed herself as a goddess in all her glory and asked to have the chest in the palace pillar. Awed, Ishtar granted the request, and Isis returned to Egypt with the chest.

Aided by Nephthys, Isis revived Osiris through magic and conceived a son by him. And Set then put her in prison, from which she escaped with the help of Anubis. Isis fled to the swamps of the Nile delta and, living like a peasant, she gave birth to Osiris' son, Horus the hawk, born to avenge his father's murder.

In fear of Set, Isis raised Horus in seclusion. The boy was bitten by beasts, stung by a scorpion, and suffered intense pains throughout his childhood, and only his mother's witchcraft managed to save him. Often Osiris would appear to the young Horus to instruct him in the arts of war in preparation for the coming battle with Set. Horus grew to manhood as a valiant, handsome young general.

In time Set learned of Horus' existence and of his destiny to take over the throne of Egypt. Set also learned that Isis possessed the chest containing Osiris' corpse, so at night Set would hunt through the Nile delta in search of the chest. At length he found it and cut Osiris' body into fourteen pieces and threw them into the Nile.

Isis was appalled at this second calamity to befall her husband, but with her customary patience she collected thirteen pieces of Osiris' body from the river. Horus, having learned the art of sorcery, was able to join his father's body together again. However, Osiris' genitals had been eaten by some fish, so Isis was obliged to make a model of them.

By this time Horus had gathered an army with which to attack Set. Under Set's reign Egypt had become parched and infertile, and many of Set's followers were deserting to serve Horus. After restoring his father's body, Horus set out to wreak vengeance on the dreadful king. Set and Horus fought furiously for three days and nights in hand-to-hand combat, and Set was defeated. Horus turned the wretched captive over to his mother Isis and went off to pursue and kill Set's followers.

Set seemed merely pitiable in chains, and using all his powers of persuasion, he talked the forgiving Isis into releasing him. When Horus returned and learned of this, his anger was so great that he chopped off his mother's head. The god Thoth then replaced Isis' head with that of the cow-goddess Hathor and brought her back to life.

Together Horus and Isis pursued Set, and when they met the fighting was even more intense. Set managed to grab Horus' eye and tear it out, but Horus wrested it back and finally drove Set into the Red Sea forever.

Horus and Isis then returned to the temple where Osiris' body lay. Horus embraced the body and fed it his own eye that had been torn out, and Osiris revived as a truly godlike personage. Next Horus prepared a ladder for his father to ascend into heaven. By this means Osiris rose into the sky, with Isis on one side of him and Nephthys on the other. The gods sat in judgment on him, and with Thoth as his advocate Osiris was declared to have lived a pure and truthful life. From there Osiris went to the Seat of Judgment, where he in turn was allowed to judge the souls of the dead.

Horus was recognized by the gods as being Osiris' legitimate son and the rightful heir to the throne of Egypt. Under his dominion Egypt grew fruitful again, and he sired four pure sons from whom the entire line of Egyptian Pharaohs descended.

Analysis

In some interpretations of the myth of Osiris the main figures of the myth sumbolize the physical features of Egypt itself. Thus, Osiris represents the Nile with its annual flooding and withdrawal; Isis represents the fertile farm land of Egypt, which was made fecund by the Nile; Set represents the arid desert that separates the Nile and the fertile land; while Nephthys stands for the marginal areas between the farm land and desert. This naturalistic approach may stem from the fact that the lineage of these gods symbolized forces of nature — earth, sky, air, moisture, the sun.

Yet the main features of the myth are largely moral, depicting the eternal struggle between the powers of good and evil. Osiris is fearless, self-sacrificing, gentle, in harmony with himself, a benefactor to mankind; whereas Set is fearful, devious, full of envy and hate, sterile, never at peace. Osiris commands undying loyalty, while Set is deserted when his luck wears thin. The gods aid Osiris' family through hardships, but Set has merely his own strength to rely on. Lastly, goodness leads to one's resurrection and an honored place in the afterworld, but evil leads only to a despised exile.

One point worth remarking about some Egyptian gods, such as Ra, Shu, and Geb, is that they suffer the same vicissitudes as earthly monarchs. They reign for a while in Egypt, their power begins to dwindle, and they retire into the sky, leaving their kingdom to a son. Moreover, Osiris has a mortal body and dies like any man. And he must be restored to life through magic and love. One can link this to the annual death and rebirth of vegetation, but it has more to do with the idea of the soul's immortality and a regeneration beyond the grave.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

According to Arthurian legends, at what age did Arthur become King of Britain?





Quiz