Birth, Death & Resurrection of Osiris, the Ancient Egyptian God of the Underworld
Ancient Egyptians had quite a number of very important gods and goddesses in their pantheon. However, in terms of impact, there were very few gods or goddesses that could rival Osiris. And so his brother murdered him out of jealousy.
Prior to his death and resurrection, Osiris reigned over the land of Egypt. He toppled a very old and ailing Ra (the creator god) to become Egypt’s supreme god and first pharaoh. His reign shepherded the Egyptians into a civilized society. During his era, it is believed that the land of Egypt was at its most fertile. Wise and benevolent, Osiris was revered as the god that introduced ancient Egypt to agriculture, weaving, and music.
Birth of Osiris
In the beginning, the supreme creator god, Ra (also known as Amun-Ra) emerged from the primordial waters. Ra, the embodiment of the sun, proceeded to create the first god and goddess – Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture). From the union of Shu and Tefnut came Geb (the god of the earth) and Nut (the goddess of the sky).
Meaning and Epithets
In ancient Egypt, Osiris elicited the feeling of the afterlife. The name Osiris in Egyptian hieroglyphs comes out as wsjr. The name can be vocalized as Usir, Usire, Wesir, or Ausir. Those words typically translate into “great” or “mighty”.
In addition to his famed “Lord of the Underworld” epithet, Osiris had numerous other epithets, including: The Lord of Love; Foremost of the Westerners (Khenti-Amentiu); The Lord of the Pillar of Continuity; God of the Moon; He Who is Permanently Benign and Youthful; Lord of Silence; The Beautiful One (Wennefer); King of the Living; and The Eternal Lord.
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Osiris’s reign over Egypt
Aside from being the oldest among his siblings, Osiris was the wisest and most compassionate of them all.
Realizing that the people of Egypt lived in an uncivilized condition under the ailing and old god, Ra, Osiris wasted no time in taking the throne from Ra.
He assumed control of the land of Egypt, becoming the first pharaoh. Ruling side by side with his consort – the goddess Isis – Osiris’s reign brought untold prosperity and riches to people of Egypt. He made the people of Egypt civilized beings with very refined culture and religious practices. He also introduced agriculture, weaving and baking to the people.
Additionally, under his rule, everyone was treated in a just and fair manner. He taught the Egyptians the principles of Ma’at, i.e. truth and the right way of living. The land of Egypt was the epitome of paradise on Earth.
The Osiris Myth
Virtually everyone was happy with the good deeds of Osiris, except Set (Seth)– the god of chaos and the desert region. Set, Osiris’s younger brother, grew extremely jealous of Osiris’s domain and accomplishments.
Resentful and bitter, Set crafted a plan to usurp Osiris from the throne of Egypt. Set’s furry even got worse when he found out that his wife Nephthys had disguised herself (as Isis) in order to seduce Osiris. The unfortunate and deceitful union between Osiris and Nephthys brought forth Anubis – the god of the funeral and embalming.
Osiris and Set
As part of his plan to eliminate Osiris, Set constructed a coffin and imbued in it some magical properties. At a party, he promised to give the coffin to anyone who could fit in it. Unbeknown to Osiris, Set purposely designed the coffin to fit him perfectly. The Egyptian gods and goddesses all took turns trying the coffin out, but none could fit in the coffin except Osiris. As soon as Osiris got into the coffin, Set shut the coffin close and threw it into the Nile River.
Death and Resurrection of Osiris
Osiris remained in the coffin until he passed away. All that while, Osiris’s wife Isis covered the entire land, searching for her husband. She later found the coffin.
Worried that Set or his agents might find out, Isis hid Osiris’s body in a swampy land just close to the Nile Delta. She tasked Nephthys to watch Osiris’s body. However, Nephthys was not up to the task; Set found out about the location of Osiris’s body. Subsequently, Set dismembered the body of Osiris before scattering the pieces (14 pieces) across the earth.
Shell-shocked, Isis set out to find all the pieces of Osiris’s body. Aided by Nephthys, Isis was able to retrieve all the body parts of Osiris, except Osiris penis. Isis called on the god Anubis to help in the mummification process. After that, she cast a magical spell on Osiris dismembered parts, bringing him back to life. However, he did not come back in his old self. He was instead reborn in the land of the dead (the Underworld). Before he departed for the Underworld, Isis mated with him and became pregnant with Horus (the falcon-headed god).
Shortly after that, Osiris made his way to the afterlife to claim the throne of the land of the dead. His dominion over the land of the living ended because he was missing a body part.
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Significance of Osiris
Ancient Egyptians believed that Osiris was the first pharaoh of Egypt. He was the bringer of positive cultural values, such as harmony, truth, order and justice to the land.
Therefore, the pharaohs that reigned after Osiris were expected to guard those values sacredly least the kingdom descended into chaos.
During their time on earth, the pharaohs of Egypt typically saw themselves as the human manifestation of Horus. However, when those pharaohs died, the Egyptians believed that they reunited with Osiris in the underworld and became kings there. Therefore, an Egyptian pharaoh was entitled to rule both the land of the living and the land of the dead.
As lord of the underworld, Osiris’s was responsible for judging the souls of the dead. In that role, he earned the name Khentiamenti or “the Foremost of the Westerners”. It is believed that Osiris was aided by 42 judges (i.e. the Assessors of Ma’at) when judging the souls of the dead in the underworld. The judgment was based on determining whether the dead person lived a life in accordance with the principles of the goddess Ma’at, the goddess of truth and justice.
If the dead person was deemed to have lived an upright life, the soul of the dead would be ushered into the bosoms of Osiris, i.e. into eternal paradise. However, if the person was found guilty by the panel, the soul of dead was instantly consumed by the demon Ammit. Thus, the soul vanished into eternal nothingness.
Osiris Role and Powers
Another very important function of Osiris was that he was venerated as the giver of life. He was also seen as the god of vegetation and fertility. It was believed that Osiris’ soul was the force responsible for the vegetation along the Nile River. He was associated with the flooding of the Nile. Due to this, he earned the name, “He who is permanently benign and youthful”.
His death and resurrection was comparable to the changing seasons and cycles in Egypt. The Egyptians also drew parallels between that and the fall and rise of the Nile.
The worship of Osiris most likely started around the Fifth dynasty (25 BCE). However, archaeologists have uncovered some evidence to show that Osiris may have been worshiped as far back as the Pre-Dynastic era (before 3100 BCE). His worship continued up until the decline of the Ptolemaic Era (332 BCE – 30 BCE).
Primarily, ancient Egypt worshiped Osiris to seek his blessing in issues pertaining to harmony, order, justice, progress, balance and order, and the life after death.
Osiris’ story served as a constant reminder to the people of Egypt of how jealousy and envy can corrupt one’s soul. The Egyptians believed that ingratitude was a grave sin. Nothing but chaos comes out of envy and jealousy.
The Egyptians had several festivals to celebrate Osiris’s rebirth. The most famous of those festivals was the Djed (Pillar) Festival. During the festival, the pharaoh and his priest carried pillars around as a way to thank Osiris for the stability that he bestowed on the people. More often than not, Osiris festivals coincided with the rise or fall of the Nile.
In some festivals that honored Osiris, the people acted out the battle between Horus and Set. And just like what they believed happened, the followers of Horus all the time defeated Set’s followers. After the reenacting was done, a statue of Osiris was brought out from the temple into the light. This symbolized the return (rebirth) of Osiris from the depths of death into the light (life).
The Upper Egyptian city of Abydos was where Osiris got the most worship. In Lower Egypt, his worship was mainly in the city of Busiris.
Depictions and symbols
Osiris is commonly depicted as a green-skinned god. This is a symbolic representation of the generative nature of the god. It represents rebirth, fertility and vegetation.
In some cases, however, he was depicted with a dark skin. This symbolized the nutrient-rich mud sediments of the Nile.
Unlike other gods, Osiris had the head and beard of a man, i.e. the pharaoh. From most paintings and carvings, his body was shown partially mummified. It was commonly believed that Osiris was the first mummified body.
On top of his head was an Atef Crown. The Atef was similar to Upper Egypt’s White crown (Hedjet). The only difference is that it had two ostrich feathers in it. Osiris’s crown symbolizes his dominion over the underworld while the feathers in the crown represents Ma’at’s truth and justice.
In his hands were the crook and flail – the Egyptian symbols of royalty and power. Those items were usually associated with guides or shepherds. Ancient Egyptians believed that they were the flock of Osiris, “The Master Shepherd”. And so Egyptian pharaohs adopted the crook and flail to represent their oneness with Osiris.
Other Interesting Myths about Osiris
- The tombs of the dead pharaohs were painted with beautiful symbols and writings because they wanted the pharaoh to remember who he was in the land of the living. By so doing, the pharaoh could easily assume his rightful place in the afterlife.
- The soul of Osiris, Banebdjedet, was worshiped by some ancient Egyptians. In Mendes for example, worshipers even considered his soul as a separate god on its own. They regarded it as feminine in nature – a life giver and the force that makes things fertile. Also, the people of Mendes depicted Osiris’ soul as a ram, i.e. a ram-headed god.
- In some parts of Philae (in Upper Egypt), the cult of Osiris and Isis may have lasted up until the 5th century CE. Some remnants of it were able to last the ban on pagan gods and worship.
- Osiris was associated with the Bennu bird. The animal is similar to the Greek Phoenix. The association between Osiris and the Bennu bird is interesting because the bird (just like the phoenix) was believed to burst into flames and then get reborn from its ashes.
- The biggest source of information about the myths of Osiris comes from the Pyramid Texts. Other minor sources are from the Shabaka Stone and the Contending of Horus and Seth. Those two documents have been dated to the New Kingdom era.