Egyptian Mythology - Osiris Cult

Osiris Cult

Osiris has been mentioned many times, but not in any detail until now. Osiris played a very important role in ancient Egypt and this carried over into the rituals and beliefs of Egyptians much later, as well. It was because of the legend of Osiris that Egyptians believed they had the right to be transformed and to live in the afterlife. The myth of Osiris is like every other Egyptian myth: the story has changed with every political change of power.

Osiris was the son of Geb and Nut and was born in Thebes in Upper Egypt. Upon his birth, his grandfather, Ra, pronounced him heir to his throne, and when Geb retired, Osiris assumed this role and took his sister, Isis, as queen. His first deed was to abolish cannibalism and teach the arts of agriculture. He built the first temples and laid down fair laws for his people. He was given another name at this point, Onnophris, meaning the "good one." In his role as the fourth divine pharaoh, this was Osiriss name.

He left Isis to rule Egypt when he decided to spread his rule around the world. He returned only after civilizing the entire earth. He found that Isis ruled wisely and his kingdom was still in perfect order. However, it was at this point that his brother, Set, began plotting against him. There are many stories of how Osiris was killed. The most common is that Set held an extravagant banquet and invited Osiris. After the festivities were over, Set produced a magnificent coffin and offered it as a gift to whomever it fitted best. Of course, it had been built for Osiriss form and when he got in it, Set shut the lid and threw it in the Nile river.

Set took Osiriss place as king while the grieving Isis searched for Osiriss remains. She found the body in a far away place called Byblos, brought it back to Egypt, and hid it in the marsh. Set found it, unfortunately, and tore the body in pieces, throwing them again into the river. Isis collected all the pieces except the genitals, which had been eaten by fish. She bandaged the body together again. This was the first mummy. This mummy then transformed an akh, and this form of Osiris traveled to the underworld to become king over and judge of the dead.

At this point, it is important to understand what the Egyptians believed about the spirit of beings. There were three forms of spirits to each being: the akh, ba, and ka. As mentioned above, the akh was the name given to the form that the dead existed in. This form was immortal and unchanging. It is this form that traveled to the underworld. The ba, represented as a human headed bird, was the form released at death. It is often called the soul, incorrectly. It was actually considered a beings personality or character. Finally, the ka was the form considered to be the double of a being, both spiritually and physically. The ka was created at birth by the god Khnum on his potters wheel. The ka could be released in dreams while a being was alive, but was finally released at death. It is symbolized by a pair of upraised arms. At ones death, the ka and the ba traveled to join each other in the next world. Once this was done, the being could become an akh, and take the form of the dead that existed among the gods.

The Osiris Cult myths had its beginnings in Lower Egypt in the Delta region. Some historians believe that Osiris was an actual king of Egypt and this may be true; however, for our purposes, he was a god, though many kings later associated themselves with him. In the beginning, Osiris was associated mostly with agriculture. This cult spread rapidly into Upper Egypt, and soon Osiris became identified with the funeral god, Abydos, Khenti-Amentiu, who was symbolized by the wolf. Osiris became known as Osiris Khenti-Amentiu, "Lord of the Westerners," as the West was the home of the dead. As the cult spread and gained acceptance, Osiris also became identified with the necropolis god of Giza, near Memphis. Seker, as the god was called, was a burial ground god.

The spread of the cult did not find much opposition due to the fact that, in the beginning, Osiris did not threaten the more supreme gods of the time. Ra remained the supreme god in the solar religion, while Osiris, Isis, and Horus were incorporated into his family. In the early stages, Ra even remained the most important figure in the underworld as well. It was said that Ra, each night, traveled through the underworld in the form of Auf, the dead sun. His journey was sometimes threatened by the evil souls, and in the beginning, Osiris was sometimes one of these. Eventually, Osiris rose to more prominent standing, claiming the title, King over the Dead. Even in primitive times, Egyptians believed that in order for the soul to survive death, the body had to be preserved. Therefore, from the start of the Osiris legend being incorporated into the solar religion, embalming was practiced. This will lead us to the myths surrounding the mummy, but first, there is still more to discuss about the Osiris cult.

The rituals of burial and passage into the afterlife were only used for the pharaohs until around the sixth dynasty. At this point, rights were extended to the pharaohs immediate family and the aristocracy. When this dynasty fell around 2250 B.C., this practice was used more and more by the common people as well. Until the Osiris myth came along, there was only the sun-god myth for burial and passage. This was not suited for the common person, as they did not even have access to the inner sanctuaries of Ras temples. The cult of the sun-god explained present day politics and was tied up in laws of ownership and inheritance of power and property. The Osiris cult appealed to the common mans emotions and provided a way for him to believe that he, too, could have eternal life.

As the cult spread, Osiris took over more and more of Ras functions. Osiris became associated again with agriculture, as was Ra before Ra became so much a puppet of politics. Osiris eventually absorbed the power of Ra over the Nile, the floods, the vegetation. This was Osiris in his role a symbol for resurrection. Just as he was the god of the afterlife, so was he the god over the regeneration of non-human life on earth.

Osiris was not a frightening god to the people of Ancient Egypt, though they still felt a need to pacify him. He was their means to eternal life, and this was achieved by copying the exact forms and rituals of his embalming. From the time of death, The deceaseds name was always prefaced with Osiris, much as we use the words, "the late" in modern times. The entire mummification process took about seventy days and was a very degrading one, so as to put the deceased through the same trauma as Osiris himself had to endure. The body was taken away from the home to "the place of purification."

First the body was washed with water from the Nile, then the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines were removed. These were placed in four vessels called Canopic jars. The void in the body was filled with balls of linen, as was the head after the brain was removed through the nostrils. The purpose of the linen stuffing was to preserve the features because if they disintegrated, then the personality would also. The heart was left in the body because it was the seat of intelligence. The body was then soaked in salt, then with various oils and resins. Various amulets were then placed on the body, the most important being the scarab, symbol of renewed life, which was placed over the heart. Finally, the body was wrapped in linen bandages and placed in the coffin. All of these materials used were said to have grown from the tears that the gods shed when Osiris died.

Each person involved with the burial process paralleled the characters in the original embalming of Osiris. The embalmers represented the gods who helped Isis embalm Osiris. Female mourners, usually the wife and another female relative, symbolized Isis and Nephthys, and kept watch over the body until the actual burial. A great procession followed with the coffin being pulled in a boat (representing the great barge) by men and oxen. The female mourners were positioned at either end of the coffin with the male mourners following behind. The Canopic jars were next, with the rest of the female mourners, some professional mourners who would be chanting, behind them. The priests took part in this procession as well. Behind, the entire procession was brought up by the servants carrying everything the deceased was supposed to need for the next world.

The burial ground was usually on the western bank of the Nile; therefore, the entire procession would have to cross the river. Dancers and musicians joined the procession at the tomb, where the mummy was raised upright and the ceremony of the "Opening of the Mouth" took place. This ceremony was symbolic of when Horus went to Osiris to announce his victory over Set, to present the symbol of that victory, the eye which Set had taken during their battles, and to open his fathers mouth, thus wakening him from his unconsciousness. At this point, the resurrection of the soul was complete. In the actual ceremony, this was considered to be the way for the rebirth of the soul.

Finally, the mummy was replaced in the coffin, which was usually made from stone. Sometimes there were three or more coffins in which the mummy was placed -- the better to withstand the decay. Assuming all of the rituals were performed correctly, the deceased would make it at least as far as the Hall of Judgment. From there, he would be responsible for himself. He would be provided one last bit of help -- the book of the dead -- which, among other purposes, would be of assistance in talking to the judges.

Osiris, as mentioned earlier, was eventually considered to be the judge of the dead. Rights to the afterlife had to be earned by righteousness, and Osiris was the judge of this. Osiris was imagined sitting on a throne in the Hall of Judgment called the "Hall of the Two Truths." The throne sat at the top of a flight of steps representing the primeval hill where Ra had been born and started creation. This hill over time had come to represent the resurrection in the afterlife. This is another example of how Osiris absorbed so much of the power of Ra. Osiriss wife and sister, Isis was in attendance, as well as his other sister Nephthys, and his four sons, Imset, Hapy, Duamutef, and Qebehsenuf. There were forty-two judges, representing the forty-two provinces of Upper and Lower Egypt, and each judge was responsible for judging a particular aspect of conscience. Of these, there were nine great judges, and Ra was among these, as was his other form, Atum, and Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Isis, Nephthys, Horus, and Hathor.

Once the deceased had safely crossed over from the land of the living to that of the dead, he was immediately taken to the hall. This passage was considered to be the most terrifying part, and it was thought that safety could be enhanced with talismans placed on the mummy and passwords written on the indispensable Book of the Dead and sent with the deceased.

There were, it was believed, two parts to the hearing that took place next. The first was the "negative confession." The deceased addressed the gods and proclaimed himself to be sin free. (It was possible to deceive the gods.) Some say that simply saying one was pure, made one pure, like a magic spell. The second part of the hearing resulted from later beliefs that the soul really did need to be pure. This phase was presided over by Throth, god of wisdom and reason. Here, the heart of the deceased is weighed against an ostrich feather, symbol of Mayet, god of truth and justice. It is not known whether the heart of an unpure person weighed more or less than the feather, only that a pure heart weighed the same. If the heart weighed the same, the nine great judges confirmed the decision that the deceased was worthy. If not, it was thought, the deceased was thrown to Amemait the devourer, who was a hybrid monster -- part lion, part hippopotamus, part crocodile.

Once deemed worthy, the deceased was dressed in the form of Osiris and brought before the king of the dead. Osiris announced the verdict and invited the deceased to roam freely with the other gods. At this point, the deceased lived in eternal happiness, though sometimes he might be called upon to do some repair work. For this labor, he was equipped during his burial with little statuettes called "Shabtis," who would do this work for him.

The Osiris cult transformed Egyptian religion greatly. Whereas before, religion consisted of warding off evil intentions of various gods, the Osiris cult created a sort of ethic in Egyptian life. An individual had to follow a moral code to have the promise of eternal life. This promise was offered to every man, and this explains the rapid growth of the cult. The sun-god cult remained in existence until early in the forth century, B.C.; however, by the thirty-second dynasty, under Ptolemy, it is no longer mentioned.

As new dynasties ruled Egypt, and foreign gods made their mark on society, Osiriss images and symbolisms changed as well. As has been the case with all Egyptian myth, this was inevitable.

As promised earlier, myths surrounding the mummies will be discussed now. The most obvious would be the myth about the "curse of the pharaohs." Actually, there never was such a curse in Egypt. It was the Arabs that came up with it. They were sure that the Egyptians were magical people, what with all the treasures of pure gold and the like. The Arabs also believed that people capable of this magic would not just passively allow it to be taken from their tombs. Thus, in early Arabs texts there are writings of mummies coming back to life and being even more threatening than a living foe due to the mummies lack of fear.

These Arab myths were compounded when the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered. This was a bad scene politically and well covered by the press, who were the main culprits in distorting and exaggerating the myth. Many tragedies happened to people who had contact with Egyptian artifacts, and most blamed the curse, even when the tragedy happened years and years later. These tragedies range from broken legs, failed marriages, to death. Not one tragedy has been found that can not be explained rationally.

In reality, the inscriptions in the tombs of the Pharaohs welcomes anyone into the tombs with the proper intentions. The immortality of the pharaoh depended on the remembrance of his name and the continual funeral offerings. People had to enter the tomb to perform such duties. Even in rare inscriptions aimed at those coming in to the tombs for less than moral reasons, the threat was not that the mummy would defend the treasures, but that the gods would be the judge of that persons soul. Therefore, as disappointing as it may be, there was no curse. For all the hype about the curse following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, there was never found even a threat on the walls of that tomb.

Finally, myths concerning the protection of various gods over particular kingdoms and pharaohs were a very important aspect of Ancient Egypt. This is by no means a complete listing of all the gods. Nekhebet, the goddess of childbirth was said to watch over Upper Egypt. She is often seen suckling the royal children and sometimes even the pharaoh himself. Buto was the protector of Lower Egypt, and some versions of the Delta Myth claim that she allied herself with Isis to protect Horus during his infancy.

Mont, the Theban god of war, was considered protector there beginning in the Middle Kingdom, especially the Eleventh Dynasty. Originally, Mont was lord and master over a region for which Hermonthis was the capitol. Later, he was demoted by Amon, who became known as the king of the gods in this region, as is explained in the creation myth. Once ousted, Mont was still worshipped in Hermonthis and in Medamud, in the outskirts of Thebes.

Sebek, thought to be among the patrons of the Thirteenth Dynasty, was a crocodile god. Sebek was said to have crawled out of the primordial waters on the day of creation. He was especially worshipped in the Fayyum; however, due to his associations with Set, the crocodile -- symbol for Sebek -- was mercilessly hunted down and killed in other places in Egypt. It was told in some versions of the Osiris myth that Set had hidden in the body of a crocodile to escape punishment for his crime.

Sekhmet, a goddess of war and battle, is symbolized by a vicious lion. She was a ruthless protector of Ra, in fact, so much so, that she almost wiped out the entire human race when a revolt against Ra took place. She was the wife of Ptah, high god of Memphis, and mother to Nefertum. Neith was the protector of Sais, which became the capitol of Egypt around the middle of the seventh century B.C., during the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. She was a war goddess as well as being skilled in the domestic arts.

Return to Egyptian Mythology