The myth of Osiris and Isis
Ancient Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis were two very important deities most revered for being the first divine royal couple of the land. The Egyptians believed that the two, who were siblings and the children of Geb and Nut, introduced many wonderful things to the people. Their reign was marked by peace and prosperity all across Egypt.
For example, Osiris was worshipped as the green-skinned god of agriculture and fertility, while Isis was revered as the divine mother of the pharaohs and the most powerful Egyptian deity when it came to magic and potions.
What else were Osiris and Isis most famous for? And how important were they in the Egyptian pantheon of gods?
World History Edu takes a quick delve into the various myths surrounding Egyptian deities Osiris and Isis.
The first divine royal couple of ancient Egypt
Osiris and Isis were two of four children of Geb, the earth god, and Nut, the sky goddess. According to the myth, Nut is said to have given birth to five children on the five days that she had won from Thoth, the Egyptian god of time and knowledge. The four children of Geb and Nut were Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. Together with their parents, grandparents and great grandfather Ra, those four deities make up the famous Ennead of Heliopolis, also known as the family of the sun god Ra.
Osiris and Isis paired up while Seth took his sister Nephthys as his consort. Typical of many gods of the ancient world, Egyptian gods were known for marrying within the family.
Osiris and Isis were believed to have made ancient Egypt civilized
After inheriting the throne from the ailing Egyptian sun god Ra, Osiris was crowned divine king of Egypt. Helping him rule was his sister/wife Isis. Osiris’ reign over Egypt ushered in a very prosperous period for the land of Egypt. As the god of vegetation and agriculture, he introduced the Egyptians to many farming techniques as well as a variety of crops. Isis, on the other hand, was extremely knowledgeable in magic. It was also believed that Isis was the one who taught women how to grind wheat and weave cloth. She was also used her knowledge and magic curing and treating diseases. She was revered for protecting the people of Egypt from the forces of evil and chaos. One such malevolent force was her own brother Seth, the ancient Egyptian god of storms, chaos and destruction.
Osiris and Isis’ story is a tragic one
According to the Osiris myth, Seth grew very jealous of Osiris’ peaceful and prosperous reign and proceeded to play a wicked trick on his brother.
At a party organized by Seth for the gods, Seth initiated a game where he asked every god and deity present to enter the casket in order to determine who would fit in it perfectly. All the Egyptian gods and goddesses took turns trying the casket out, however none of them could fit into the casket.
When it got to Osiris’ turn, the casket fit. Seth had purposely designed the casket to fit the body shape and size of Osiris. Once Osiris was in the casket, Seth immediately sealed the casket and threw it into the Nile River. Osiris was left to suffocate and die in the coffin as it floated down the Nile.
When Seth got to know that Osiris’ body had been found by Isis, he sent his goons to fetch the body. This time around, Seth is believed to have chopped the body of Osiris into 14 pieces, before scattering the dismembered parts in the Nile. With Osiris out of the way, Seth proceeded to crown himself king of Egypt. Egypt and Isis mourn the death of Osiris, while Seth introduces draconian laws to govern the land.
Isis and Osiris are the parents of Horus, the Egyptian falcon-headed god of the sky
With the help of her sister Nephthys, Isis is able to retrieve the dismembered body parts of Osiris. She proceeds to put the body parts of her husband together by wrapping it like a mummy. Along with Anubis, the god of embalming and funeral rites, Isis invokes her magic to revive Osiris for a brief moment. In those few moments, Isis is able to get pregnant by Osiris. The son that Isis conceives is named Horus, who becomes a potent symbol of new beginning and the deity who eventually defeats Seth, the usurper.
But before Horus is old enough to wrestle with Seth, Isis and a few other ancient Egyptian deities do everything in their power to keep the baby Horus safe from the evil eyes of Seth.
Once Horus is mature enough, he takes his uncle on in a series of confrontations that later come to be called the Contendings of Horus and Seth. For eighty years, the nephew and uncle fought each other as they proved to be evenly matched. Ultimately, with a bit of trickery and help from Isis, Horus emerges victorious and is able to take back the throne of Egypt. The defeated Seth is banished to the outskirts of Egypt, where he becomes the lord of the desert and of foreigners.
Osiris was the first mummified corpse in ancient Egypt
In life, Egyptian pharaohs were seen as Horus; however, in death, the pharaohs became Osiris. As a matter of fact, ancient Egypt’s practice of mummifying the dead was influenced by the mummification process that was carried on the body of Osiris by Isis and Anubis. Thus, the ancient Egyptians considered Osiris as the first mummified corpse. For without the proper mummification process, it was believed that the dead would not be able to be reborn in the afterlife.
A bond that began in the womb
Isis and Osiris had a strong bond with each other. The Egyptians believed that the love the two deities had for each other started in the womb. The bond between Isis and Osiris is one of the reasons why Isis magic and spells were potent enough to briefly bring Osiris back from the dead.
The worship of Isis was widespread and lasted for a very long time
Isis, an Egyptian goddess who was revered for many things, was worshiped for many millennia throughout the ancient world. It’s even been stated that Isis worship reached as far as what is now present day England. Due to her widespread worship, Isis was undoubtedly the most influential goddess in ancient Egyptian religion.
Egyptian goddess Isis’ association with motherhood, healing, magic and childbirth helped make her even more popular. She was also associated with protection. The ancient Egyptians believed that Isis was divine protector goddess of the pharaohs, both in the land of the living and in the afterlife.
Osiris worship continued up until the decline of the Ptolemaic Era (332 BC – 30 BC). However, archaeologists believe that the worship of Isis might have lasted up until the 6th century AD, long after the rise of Christianity.
READ MORE: The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys
Depictions and meaning of their names
Isis is actually Greek for the Egyptian word “Aset” or “Eset” (“ee-set”). Those Egyptian words translate into something like “Throne”. This would explain why Isis was often physically depicted with a sun disk on her head or a throne on top of her head. The symbol was in reference to her position as the queen consort of ancient Egypt.
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”.
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. Unlike other gods, Osiris had the head and beard of a man, i.e. the pharaoh. In his hands were the crook and flail – the Egyptian symbols of royalty and power respectively. Those items were usually associated with guides or shepherds. Ancient Egyptians believed that they were the flock of Osiris, “The Master Shepherd”.
Other interesting myths about Osiris and Isis
As queen consort, it is believed that Isis was the one who introduced the institution of marriage to the Egyptians. She also taught them how to brew beer.
The ancient Greeks associated Isis to a number of Greek goddesses, including Demeter, Hera and Aphrodite. During the Graco-Roman era, she was revered by sailors as “the Star of the Sea” and the protector of sailors and travelers. As a result, her worship spread far and wide to many places along the Mediterranean. It is also very much likely that her worship stretched all the way to England.
Osiris’ death and resurrection was used as a metaphor to explain the changing seasons and cycles in Egypt. The Egyptians also drew parallels between his death and the fall and rise of the Nile.