Osiris (whose name is a Greek transliteration of the Egyptian Asar) is the Egyptian god of life, death, fertility, and the underworld. His extreme antiquity is attested to by his inclusion in pyramid texts dated to 2400 B.C.E., when his cult was already well established. In addition to the god's primary mythic and religious affiliation with the land of the dead, Osiris was also seen as the underworld agency that granted all life, including sprouting vegetation and the fertile flooding of the Nile River. The modern understanding of these myths is derived from representations, rites and paeans recorded in the pyramid texts, and, much later, in the mythic narrative of Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride ("About Isis and Osiris").
The cult of Osiris was characterized by various parallels between the worldly authority of the pharaohs and the celestial authority of the god: just as the human monarch ruled the fertile lands of the Nile delta, so too did Osiris reign over the land of the dead. As such, he became a protector and patron of the departed, promising them resurrection and eternal life. Though such patronage had originally been the exclusive province of the ruling class, by the New Kingdom period (1570–1070 C.E.) all men were believed to be associated with Osiris at death, providing that they had participated in the appropriate cultic observances. These worship practices, which were prevalent throughout ancient Egypt, became popularized throughout the Greco-Roman world and only ceased with the forceable suppression of "paganism" in the Christian era.
As an Egyptian deity, Osiris belonged to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system developed in the Nile river basin from earliest prehistory to 525 B.C.E. Indeed, it was during this relatively late period in Egyptian cultural development, a time when they first felt their beliefs threatened by foreigners, that many of their myths, legends and religious beliefs were first recorded. The cults within this framework, whose beliefs comprise the myths we have before us, were generally fairly localized phenomena, with different deities having the place of honor in different communities. Despite this apparently unlimited diversity, however, the gods (unlike those in many other pantheons) were relatively ill-defined. As Henri Frankfort notes, “the Egyptian gods are imperfect as individuals. If we compare two of them … we find, not two personages, but two sets of functions and emblems. … The hymns and prayers addressed to these gods differ only in the epithets and attributes used. There is no hint that the hymns were addressed to individuals differing in character.” One reason for this was the undeniable fact that the Egyptian gods were seen as utterly immanental—they represented (and were continuous with) particular, discrete elements of the natural world. Thus, those who did develop characters and mythologies were generally quite portable, as they could retain their discrete forms without interfering with the various cults already in practice elsewhere. Also, this flexibility was what permitted the development of multipartite cults (i.e., the cult of Amun-Re, which unified the domains of Amun and Re), as the spheres of influence of these various deities were often complimentary.
The worldview engendered by ancient Egyptian religion was uniquely appropriate to (and defined by) the geographical and calendrical realities of its believers' lives. Unlike the beliefs of the Hebrews, Mesopotamians and others within their cultural sphere, the Egyptians viewed both history and cosmology as being well-ordered, cyclical and dependable. As a result, all changes were interpreted as either inconsequential deviations from the cosmic plan or cyclical transformations required by it. Breasted argues that one source of this cyclical timeline was the dependable yearly fluctuations of the Nile.  The major result of this perspective, in terms of the religious imagination, was to reduce the relevance of the present, as the entirety of history (when conceived of cyclically) was ultimately defined during the creation of the cosmos. The only other aporia in such an understanding is death, which seems to present a radical break with continuity. To maintain the integrity of this worldview, an intricate system of practices and beliefs (including the extensive mythic geographies of the afterlife, texts providing moral guidance (for this life and the next) and rituals designed to facilitate the transportation into the afterlife) was developed, whose primary purpose was to emphasize the unending continuation of existence. Given these two cultural foci, it is understandable that the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tended to be either creation accounts or depictions of the world of the dead, with a particular focus on the relationship between the gods and their human constituents.
As Osiris was associated with both agricultural productivity and the human afterlife, he became one of the most popular deities of the Egyptian pantheon in terms of iconography, mythic accounts and cultic devotion. Such veneration is not at all surprising, given that his two areas of patronage were the cornerstones of Egyptian secular and religious life.
Within the classical Egyptian pantheon, Osiris was the oldest son of the Earth god, Geb, and the sky goddess, Nut, as well as the brother and husband of Isis, the goddess of fertility. In terms of progeny, the god is credited with siring with Anubis and Horus, though the later was conceived after the god's untimely death. The myths concerning each of these acts of procreation will be elucidated below.
Ptah-Seker, a composite deity uniting the creative elements of Ptah and the chthonic elements of Seker, gradually became identified with Osiris (the prototypical rebirth god). As such, the three deities came to be reified as Ptah-Seker-Osiris, an important god in both the temple worship tradition and the Egyptian funerary cult.
He is usually portrayed as a green-skinned pharaoh wearing the Atef crown. Typically, he is also represented holding the crook and flail, symbols of divine rulership that originated in iconographic depictions of the deity but that came to be signify religio-political authority in a more general context. Also, his feet and lower body are depicted enshrouded in gauze, as though already partly mummified—an entirely fitting image, given the god's relationship to death and rebirth.
When the Ennead and Ogdoad pantheons (and their attendant mythologies) became merged, most notably with the identification of Ra and Atum (Atum-Ra), Anubis (the god of the underworld in the Ogdoad system) came to be replaced by Osiris, whose cult had become more prominent throughout the country. In order to explain this, Anubis was subordinated to the more notorious god, the range of his realms of patronage was decreased, and he came to be identified as Osiris' son. Abydos, which had been a strong centre of the cult of Anubis, became a centre of the cult of Osiris.
However, as Isis (Osiris' wife) represented life in the Ennead, it likely seemed inappropriate to mythographers for her to be the mother of Anubis, a god so intimately tied to death. Thus, it was usually said that Nephthys, the other female child of Geb and Nut, was his mother. To explain the apparent infidelity of Osiris, it was said that a sexually frustrated Nephthys had disguised herself as Isis to get more attention from her husband, Set. While this ruse did not beguile its intended target, it did earn her the attentions of Osiris, who mistook the goddess for his wife. This copulation resulted in the birth of the jackal-headed god of death.
Later, when elements of the cult of Hathor (a deity from the Ogdoadic pantheon) were assimilated into that of Isis, Horus, who had previously been seen as Hathor's son, became associated with the Enneadic goddess. Attempts to explain how Osiris, the husband of Isis and a god of the dead, could have fathered a deity so definitively alive as Horus, led to the development of the Legend of Osiris and Isis, which became the single greatest tale in Egyptian mythology (described below).
In brief, this myth described Osiris's death at the hands of his brother Set, who jealously desired his elder sibling's throne. Discovering her lover's body, Isis briefly brought him back to life through the use of a magical incantation. This spell gave her time to become pregnant by the god before his final demise. Isis later gave birth to Horus. As such, since Horus was born after Osiris' resurrection, the second generation deity became thought of as representing new beginnings. This combination, Osiris-Horus, was therefore interpreted as a life-death-rebirth deity, and was thus associated with the new harvest each year.
As intimated above, the tale of Osiris's death and resurrection provided one of the most culturally and symbolically resonant myths in the Egyptian corpus. Further, this tale was a central element of the mystery cult built around the otherworldly ruler, whose prominence throughout the dynastic period allowed it to survive the incursions of Hellenistic society through the creation of Serapis (a self-consciously syncretic deity). While the specifics of the cult will be elucidated below, it is first necessary to outline the myth itself.
The myth is first evidenced in a fragmentary fashion in the Pyramid Texts—a collection of pyramid inscriptions whose primary purpose was to correlate the myths of the gods with the cult of the pharaohs (who had commissioned the construction of these monumental necropoli). In them, the core events of the tale are already present, including the murder of Osiris by Set (his jealous sibling);For instance, one text suggests that the deceased king had best avoid the depredations of Set, lest he face the same fate as Osiris: "Set would have cut thee to pieces, and thou wouldst not rise (again)." See also the terse comment: "Set is guilty; Osiris is justified" (1556a). the heart-broken response of his wife, Isis; the vengeance exacted by Horus, his son; and, the god's resurrection and return to prominence in the afterlife.
While the discrete episodes discernible in the Pyramid Texts imply the existence of a coherent, central narrative, the earliest textual accounts of this myth can only be traced to the Hellenistic period. The most complete of these can be found in the prolific literary output of Plutarch, who records it in his Moralia.
Within his telling, Set, desiring his brother's throne, convinced Osiris to lay down inside a coffin, which he then nailed shut, sealed with lead and threw into the Nile. Osiris's wife, Isis, searched for his remains until she finally found him embedded in a tree trunk, which was holding up the roof of a palace in Byblos on the Phoenician coast. She managed to remove the coffin and open it, but Osiris was already dead. She used a spell she had learned from her father and brought him back to life so he could impregnate her. At the conclusion of their semi-necrophilial intercourse, he died again. Afraid that Set would do violence to her beloved's remains, she hid his body in the desert.
Months later, the fertility goddess gave birth to Horus. While she was off raising her falcon-headed son, disaster struck again. One night, while Set had been out hunting, he inadvertently came across the body of Osiris. Enraged, he tore the corpse into fourteen pieces and scattered them throughout the land. Hearing of the new degradation visited upon her deceased paramour, Isis set out on a reed boat to gather up all the parts of the body. While she was able to retrieve thirteen of them, his phallus was permanently lost, having been devoured by a fish (the consumption of which thereafter became a religious taboo). After fashioning a new member for the god from wood, she (along with Anubis, the god of embalming) reconnected the pieces and bandaged them together for a proper burial. Thereafter, Osiris was restored to life (of sorts) as the god of the underworld. From his chthonic throne, he trained and instructed Horus in the arts of diplomacy and combat, allowing the son to eventually exact vengeance from Set.
Diodorus Siculus gives another version of the myth, where Osiris is described as an ancient king who taught the Egyptians the arts of civilization, including agriculture. Like the account summarized above, Osiris is murdered by his evil brother Set, who Diodorus associates with the evil Typhon of Greek mythology. After the god's death, Typhon divides the body into twenty six pieces, which he distributes amongst his fellow conspirators in order to implicate them in the murder. Isis and Horus avenge the death of Osiris and slay Typhon. Isis recovers all the parts of Osiris body, less the phallus, and secretly buries them. Likewise, she also makes replicas of them and distributes them to several locations, which thereafter became centers of Osirian worship.
Plutarch and others have noted that the sacrifices to Osiris were "gloomy, solemn, and mournful" and that the great mystery festival, celebrated in two phases, began at Abydos on the seventeenth of Athyr (ca. Nov. 13) commemorating the death of the god, which (not coincidentally) was also the same day that grain was planted in the ground. "The death of the grain and the death of the god were one and the same: the cereal was identified with the god who came from heaven; he was the bread by which man lives. The resurrection of the God symbolized the rebirth of the grain." This overt relationship between the fertility of the soil and the god's death and rebirth was most potently demonstrated in artifacts known as "Osiris Beds": stone or wood constructs in the form of Osiris, which were filled with soil, sown with seed, and (in many cases) wrapped as mummies. The germinating seed symbolized Osiris rising from the dead. An almost pristine example of this type of cult device was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter.
The first phase of the festival featured an elaborate procession, whereby an image of the god was paraded through town, allowing for public adulation of the typically concealed religious images. Next, the assembled devotees and pilgrims viewed a public drama reenacting the murder and dismemberment of Osiris, the search for his body by Isis, his triumphal return as resurrected god, and the battle where Horus ultimately defeated Set. This ritual theater was presented by skilled actors, serving as both an oral history and a cultic theology, and was the primary means of proselytizing to potential converts. The participants in these mysteries are described (in an unflattering light) by Julius Firmicus Maternus, in his "Error of Pagan Religions." Therein, he describes who this play was re-enacted each year by worshipers who "beat their breasts and gashed their shoulders. … When they pretend that the mutilated remains of the god have been found and rejoined… they turn from mourning to rejoicing.
Perhaps more important than any of these particular ceremonials, however, is the fact that deceased mortals came to be directly identified with the deity, to the extend that their names were appended onto the god's name during funerary rites. While this venerable practice was originally extended only to the bodies of pharaohs, it came to be an accepted portion of the funeral liturgy. As such, Osiris was seen as an immanent part of the death (and assume resurrection) of human believers.
Much of the extant information about the Passion of Osiris can be found on a stele at Abydos erected in the 12th Dynasty by I-Kher-Nefert (also Ikhernefert), possibly a priest of Osiris or other official during the reign of Senwosret III (Pharaoh Sesostris, about 1875 B.C.E.).
The Passion Plays were held in the last month of the inundation (the annual Nile flood), coinciding with Spring and taking place at Abydos/Abedjou, which was the traditional place that the body of Osiris drifted ashore after having been drowned in the Nile. Some elements of the ceremony were held in the temple, while others involved public participation in a form of theatrical observances (as mentioned above). The Stela of I-Kher-Nefert recounts the programme of public events that comprised the Festival:
Contrasting with the public "theatrical" ceremonies sourced from the I-Kher-Nefert stele, more esoteric ceremonies, which were open only to initiates, were performed inside the temples by priests. One such practice was the creation and seeding of "Osiris beds" (mentioned above). Describing this rite, Plutarch states:
the keepers of the robes and the priests bring forth the sacred chest containing a small golden coffer, into which they pour some potable water which they have taken up, and a great shout arises from the company for joy that Osiris is found. Then they knead some fertile soil with the water and mix in spices and incense of a very costly sort, and fashion therefrom a crescent-shaped figure, which they clothe and adorn, thus indicating that they regard these gods as the substance of Earth and Water. Yet even he was respectfully vague concerning their more arcane practices, as when he wrote, "I pass over the cutting of wood, the rending of linen, and the libations that are offered, for the reason that many of their secret rites are involved therein."
In the Osirian temple at Denderah, an inscription describes in detail the making of wheat paste models of each dismembered segment of Osiris, which were to be sent out to the various towns where each piece was said to have been discovered by Isis. At the temple of Mendes, figures of Osiris were made from wheat, paste was placed in a trough on the day of the murder's commemoration, then water added for several days. Finally, the mixture was kneaded into a mold of Osiris and taken to the temple and buried. Given the sacramental nature of these cakes, the sacred grain composing them could only be grown in temple fields. All of these sacred rituals were "climaxed by the eating of sacramental god, the eucharist by which the celebrants were transformed, in their persuasion, into replicas of their god-man."
Since Osiris was a chthonic, underworld deity and was thus associated with the realm of spirits, the god's soul (or rather his Ba) was occasionally worshiped in its own right. Given the fluidity inherent in Egyptian notions of divinity, such a multipartite cult was certainly not unusual. This aspect of Osiris was referred to as Banebdjed (also spelt Banebded or Banebdjedet, which literally means The ba of the lord of Djedet (the city of Mendes). Given that Mendes was associated with the Isis/Osiris cycle as the place that the soul of the god "took refuge … when his body was killed by Seth," the localization of these cultic practices is certainly comprehensible.
Since ba was associated with power, and was a homophone of the Egyptian word for "ram," Banebdjed was depicted as a ram or as a ram-headed humanoid. Due to this association, a living, sacred ram, was kept at Mendes and worshiped as the incarnation of the god, and upon death, the rams were mummified and buried in a ram-specific necropolis. As regards the association of Osiris with the ram, the god's traditional crook and flail are of course the instruments of the shepherd, which has suggested to some scholars also an Osiris' origin in herding tribes of the upper Nile. From Osiris, they eventually passed to Egyptian kings in general as symbols of divine authority. 
In Mendes, they had considered Hatmehit, a local fish-goddess, as the most important divinity, and so when the cult of Osiris became more significant, Banebdjed was identified in Mendes as deriving his authority from being married to Hatmehit.
By the Hellenic era, Greek awareness of Osiris had grown, and attempts had been made to unify Greek mystical philosophy, such as Platonism (and, more explicitly, Neo-Platonism) with the cult of Osiris, whose mythical resurrection was highly appealing to Greek auditors. This process resulted in the development of a new mystery religion. Gradually, as this belief system became more popular, it came to be exported to other parts of the Greek sphere of influence. However, these mystery religions were primarily structured around the experiential truths of the revelations (concerning the fate of the human soul in the afterlife), rather than the specifics of the mythic traditions being appropriated. Thus, various mythic characters (from Orpheus and Dionysus, to Attis and Mithras, and innumerable local rebirth deities) all came to play a similar role in the mystery cults. Given the primacy of Osiris in the development of these religious institutions, scholars of religion often use the term "Osiris-Dionysus" as a general catch-all to describe the syncretic gods that they were centered around.
Eventually, the Hellenic pharaohs decided to promote a deity that would be acceptable to both the local Egyptian population and to the influx of Hellenic visitors and immigrants. To this end, a cult that had originally been dedicated to the deceased Apis Bull (thus, to the Osiris of Apis), came to be re-imagined in a more Hellenic mode. Modeled on Hades (the Greek god of the underworld), Serapis, whose name was a transliteration of Osor-Hapi), came to fulfill this role.
The characteristic and constant elements of these depictions is their anthropomorphic character. Though he was related to the bull of Memphis, Sarapis was never represented in bovine or hybrid form. … While the basic image of Sarapis could seem familiar to the Greeks, we might well wonder how the Egyptians received it. A partial answer is furnished by recent discoveries at Dush in el-Kharga Oasis. In the temple there, which was constructed between the reign of Domitian and that of Hadrian and dedicated to Osiris-Sarapis and Isis, the recently excavated treasure included classical, anthropomorphic images of Sarapis, but even more images of the sacred bull Apis. We must acknowledge that the same divine entity could be depicted in very different ways.
Osiris-worship continued up until the sixth century C.E. on the island of Philae in Upper Nile. The Theodosian decree (in about 380 C.E.) to destroy all pagan temples and force worshippers to accept Christianity was ignored there. However, Justinian dispatched a General Narses to Philae, who destroyed the Osirian temples and sanctuaries, threw the priests into prison, and carted the sacred images off to Constantinople. However, by that time, the soteriology of Osiris had assumed various forms which had long previous spread far and wide in the ancient world.
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