Major figure of the pantheon, Osiris was a very ancient god in Egyptian history, already present in the Pyramid Texts In these first precepts is constituted the history of Egypt, his role of a God who dies then is reconstituted is expressed already, but the role of Osiris remains rather marginal.
Osiris will see his position assert itself little by little, until he becomes preeminent as a God of the beyond; the cult of Osiris and its mythology will develop until it occupies the field of the funeral religion. And from the end of the New Kingdom and into later periods, Osiris will take a special place in popular piety, bound in the search of personal security appropriate to this period.
Having originally experienced a terrestrial royalty (see ), However, Osiris only really exists once dead, and in his hermetically separated realm of the underworld. His destiny allying death and rebirth will evolve progressively in Egyptian history, the one who will first of all model himself on him is the King, then that of all men.
The origin of the name Wsjr, as with that of nearly all the great gods of the pantheon remains uncertain:
"the Powerful", "the one who presides on his throne"…
Some proposed to see in Osiris a very ancient king of the city of Busiris, in the Delta, whose destiny would have led to the constitution of a myth.
More probably Osiris was a god of agricultural origin, a divinity of fertility and plant growth to which two main cities are connected: Busiris in the Delta, and especially Abydos in Middle Egypt.
From the Vth Dynasty, the priests of the sun God Re at Heliopolis incorporate him in the Heliopolitan Ennead as first child of Geb and Nut.
Osiris was born during the five epagomenal days in a place named Ro-Setau which will subsequently be designated as the entry to the underworld.
Osiris marries his sister Isis and receives part of Egypt from his father Geb, while his brother Seth receives power on the peripheral desert areas.
A good and non violent God, Osiris brings civilisation to man: the method of cultivation, the arts, moral principles…
It is essentially known to us by the belated narration of Plutarch, because the Egyptian texts themselves not very numerous and rather evasive, reluctant to speak of the murder and the dismemberment of Osiris.
According to the myth the God Seth, jealous of his brother Osiris, attacks him physically and kills him. How?
Having obtained his brother's measurements (who, according to the legend was a giant), Seth had a magnificent case manufactured which he promised to offer at the time of a banquet to whom it would best fit. Naturally it was Osiris.
When Osiris had lain down in the case, the 72 accomplices of Seth nailed it's lid and threw it into the Nile, this becomes the first sarcophagus, and Osiris perishes drowned. It is for this reason that the drowned have always been considered as reaching the kingdom of Osiris directly.
The reign of Osiris had lasted 28 years, a mythical length which must be connected of course to the lunar cycle of 28 days.
The closed sarcophagus, adapted perfectly to the God's shape, and floating in a liquid environment, evokes a new gestation: the "sleeping" God", in lethargy, is under regeneration for a new vital cycle, like the foetus in amniotic fluid.
This death by drowning is controversial, and isn't represent in the Pyramid Texts (see )
The case containing the cadaver of Osiris drifted until it reached Byblos where it was imprisoned in the trunk of a tamarisk tree. The local sovereign has the tree felled, which becomes a column of the royal palace. This explains the very close tie between Osirises and the trees which always ornament his cenotaphs.
After multiple adventures, Isis, archetype of the exemplary wife, succeeds in recovering the cadaver of her brother and husband, brings it back to Egypt, into the swamps of the Delta where she thinks it safe from the malevolence of Seth.
In spite of all her precautions, Seth recovers the cadaver, by a way of luck, while Isis was absent.
In his anger, and to prohibit his brother a burial worthy of his name, he carves up the cadaver into pieces whose number varies according to the texts: 14 (a half lunar month), 16 (16 cubits are the ideal height of the rise in the water level) or 42 (corresponding to the number of the nomes of Egypt). He then dispersed the pieces, thinking thus to definitely get rid of his victim.
But Isis didn't admit to defeat and she undertook to collect the God's scattered fragments.
This one consists of gathering the different pieces of Osiris dispersed by Seth. Some texts report that Isis buries the fragments where she found them, allowing every city of Egypt to possess an Osirian relic.
Elsewhere, we are told that the goddess manufactured a replica of every part of her husband, which she buried while she reconstituted the body of the martyred God. Only the phallus of Osiris, swallowed by an Oxhyrinchus fish, was not recovered.
Isis, the Great Sorceress, succeeds with the help of her sister Nephthys and Anubis in reconstituting the physical integrity of Osiris which thus represents the first mummy. Anubis, in reconstituting the body of his deceased father became the model for the embalmers ().
Isis, by the magic of her words, resuscitates her spouse then and after having transformed into a kite gives him back the breath while beating her wings. She reconstitutes the phallus magically, then shet succeeds in making him impregnate her to be able to conceive a son, his heir, thus Horus the Young ().
Thus we see that we cannot speak about a resurrection but about a renewal of existence, of a perpetuity.
Thus Horus was conceived assisted by Anubis, son of Osiris born out of wedlock, and together with Nephthys will be able to then intervene to practice the indispensable rituals of opening of the mouth and eyes on their father-brother-spouse-lover Osiris.
It is represented extensively on the walls of the tombs and the vignettes of the Book of the Dead where one also sees Isis and Nephthys in human form with their heads surmounted by the hieroglyphs of their names, or sometimes in the form of birds (kites), at the foot and at the head of the funeral bed mourning their brother.
The murder of Seth, as reprehensible as it is, appears however like a necessary event for the implementation of the cosmic cycle and its renewal. In fact, Seth, whose disputes with the Horus-son postmortem of Osiris - will occupy the assembly of the gods further during decades, will never be worried by the divine court for his murderous act.
As we have seen, Osiris seems to be originally a God related to the resurgence of vegetation, to whom one attributes the annual destiny of the terrestrial soil.
When the inundation came, Osiris was also the new water which maked the fields grow green again. But when the plants withered and died, it wass said that Osiris died. But he was not quite dead since the following year grasses pushed through the land again (his body) and proved that he was always alive.
The God's flesh could be represented by this fact in green, the colour of the resurgent vegetation, or in black, the colour of the fertile silt. He was represented like a field that emerged from the water with the withdrawal of the flooding and sometimes the entire land was described as spread on the cadaver of Osiris. The trees were also associated with him, and we will always find some on the floor of the tomb-cenotaphs of Osiris.
The Osirian vegetation represented perfectly the agrarian aspect of the God. In the month of Khoiak, images (often ithyphallic) were modelled of the deceased God from the silt, which were placed in a scale model sarcophagus. It was planted with seeds which were watered and when the grain grew, the God was revived. Sometimes these figurines are found covered with wheat or withered barley in the Theban tombs.
The Egyptians, an agricultural people, tried by this means to monopolise themselves of the energy regenerated by the God so that he encouraged germinated and the seeds grew. Thus, Osiris also became the model for the obligatory passage of rebirth of all living beings.
The belated legend by Plutarch corresponds in fact to a working of older authentic Egyptian texts where the body of Osiris was not dismembered, but instead decomposed itself.
Isis stopped this decomposition magically thanks to the help of Thoth and Horus. These revived the body by laying on him of the Ankh signs (the hieroglyph for life), this scene is abundantly represented on the walls of the temples and tombs: the mummiform Pharaoh is surrounded thus with the signs of life.
Between the IVth and the Vth Dynasties, the fate of Osiris stops being the sovereign's exclusive prerogative. Osiris becomes an intercessor in the funeral offering formulas, but one cannot address him except through the intermediary of the king, thanks to the formula
"htp-dj-nsw": "An invocatory offering which the king gives (to Osiris, so that he gives…)". Then follows the list of the offerings.
Progressively, the private individuals abandon the belief in the solar destiny of Heliopolitan inspiration (which moreover largely escaped them) and come closer to Osiris who they gradually make their personal God.
The Sarcophagus Texts of the Middle Kingdom, where this assimilation of vignettes and formulas of the Book of the Dead of the New Kingdom translate in profusion and this hope to share the fate of the Great God and to become themselves an Osiris after their death.
It is logical enough that the Egyptians, very close to nature and agriculture, likened their destiny to the one of a God of the fertilising land and vegetation which springs from it after each flood.
Indeed, each year in July they saw lands all cracked by the awful solar heat and which seemed destined to die, then, suddenly, noting that it was covered all over again by the waters of the inundation. With the subsidence, the emergence of the fields from the liquid covering fully evoked in them that of the God's body thrown into the Nile.
The God's wakening, after his lethargy and his stay in the waters of the Nile, appeared thus as the archetype of an existence renewed after the obligatory passage of terrestrial death which presented itself only like a phase.
It is thus understandable why the murder of Osiris by Seth was a necessity, because it was the only means to equate the God's destiny to the one of the humanity.
From the Middle Kingdom and especially from the New Kingdom, some complementary funeral concepts appear.
Once the survival of the God is assured by embalming and funeral rituals, Osiris became Lord of the Duat (the underworld).
Assimilated with the moon, he became closer to Re himself and represented the nocturnal form of the sun. This is illustrated in the formula:
"Osiris is the ba of Re and Re he is the ba of Osiris". In the hypogeums of the New Kingdom, being with the head of a ram who travels in a barque in the underworld represents the fusion of Osiris and Re.
This explains the reason why Isis and Nephthys, guardians and revivors of the dead Osiris, also become the goddesses who welcome the sun at its rising. Notice the major role of the wife in the future of Osiris, and therefore in that of all mortals.
It was this duty which fell on her to awaken her spouse from his mortal lethargy, to restore him and with it to return the sexual capacities which will allow for him to reappear of his own works in beyond.
Osiris leads the underworld and its inhabitants, the Westerners. He also presides over the divine court assigned to judge the dead. The scene of the weighing of the heart at the time of this judgment is represented very frequently.
Osiris, Lord of Ma'at, represents equity, the truth and the justice, and it is in front of him that one justifies oneself by the weighing of ones heart and the negative formula recitation (I didn't kill, I didn't lie…). Each relies on its benevolence to reach eternal life.
It is understood very well that this very human God imposed himself as a model: as a man, he underwent the test of death and triumphed over it, thus giving security and hope to humanity.
All beings were equal in front of him at the time of judgment and each is treated according to his merits, the injustices of terrestrial judgement no longer exist.
Osiris thus appears as the precursor of the Christian model of the personal savior of every individual.
As a result, it explains the progressive abhorrence towards his brother, the murderous Seth, who will appear as a representation of evil.
Osiris became, after his "passage" sovereign of the World of Below, the douat. He left his terrestrial kingship to his son Horus. And the possession of this royalty by the son is an indispensable element for the social "new life" of Osiris in the world of the gods, as shown by J. Assman.
"First of the Westerners ", "Lord of eternity", Osiris reigns on the world of the dead. He is the supreme judge, generally directing the divine court before which the deceased must justify themselves to have access at the second life. The most famous scene summarising this judgment is the one so-called "Psycho-stasis " where one sees the heart of the deceased weighed on the tray of the balance and a representation of the goddess Ma'at (a feather) on the other tray. Thoth records the result, which is always favourable, of course - and the announcement to the silent Osiris under his canopy to whom the deceased, declared
imakhu, pays homage.
The human character of Osiris is more accentuated by his mode of representation which is always anthropomorphic (human), far from the antropozoomorphic (human/animal) constructions of the other great divinities.
Seated, lying, standing (often on a sign of Ma'at), always (with very rare exceptions) immobile, Osiris is sheathed closely in a tight-fitting garment or is sometimes enveloped in bandages. Only the hands and the head (and on the extended God, the phallus) appear.
His flesh is sometimes green like the returning vegetation, or black like the fertile silt of the Nile. He always wears the long curved beard of the dead gods.
He holds in his hands the insignia of power: the heqa scepter and the flail (nekhakha). He wears a high white miter sometimes flanked by two feathers, or his characteristic Atef crown. It is formed from with a bulbous appendage flanked with two high feathers with sometimes the horns of a ram at its base.
Solar crown, the Atef was handed to him by Re when the young Horus avenged the murder of his father Osiris and took on the power of Egypt.
As for the Djed pillar which is associated with him, it signifies stability or continuity of power. A very ancient sign, one finds it for example as decoration in the form of columns supporting windows in the underground chamber of the pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara.
Its significance initially remains obscure:a pruned tree, primitive altar… It ends up representing the backbone of Osiris, the four bars surmounting it representing the vertebrae.
It can be decorated with the Atef crown or can include two udjat-eyes, or given hands holding the sceptre and flail.
The Djed can be dressed in the aspect of a human body whose head is represented by the extremity of the pillar, translating the God's revivification.
The raising of the Djed pillar is an important element of different festivals, notably in Abydos, where the God's head was supposed to be.
It is part of the ritual of the royal coronation (attested under Senusret I) and with the Sed-celebrationwhich renews the royal strength. The raising of the pillar, is the final achievement of the resurrection of Osiris who, straightened, becomes stable as the monarchy.
The egyptologist W. Budge counts no less than forty of them.
The Egyptians, always obsessed by their desire to reject death by any means, use metaphors or more or less explicit circumlacation to speak of Osiris and his state. The various Books of the Dead teem with them.
One notices that the God never dead, he is asleep, he is apathetic, he is lethargic, etc.
Here are some examples:
"the great inert", "the king of those who are not", "the Lord of the living", "the master of eternity", "the one who governs Ro-Setau", "the first of the westerners".
As Wenennefer, which means
"the one that remains perfect", Osiris represents the accomplished form who recovered the full possession of his vitality and his capacity at the same moment his kingly and sexual capacity. He is materialised by the full moon since he, as the God, is regenerated progressively after having temporarily disappeared.
In an Early Period a fusion occurred between the personality of Osiris and Apis, the bull consecrated by Ptah in Memphis. This fusion gave Wsjr-Apis, whom the Greeks made Serapis. Its cult had a very great popularity, going extensively beyond the borders of Egypt.
Some episodes of the Osirian legend were represented annually at the time of the festivals in Abydos: the departure of the God guided by Wepwawet (the opener of the ways), the death of the God and his funeral in Peker (Abydenien ritual) followed up instead by his so-called funeral in Wepeqer. Then the great fight on the bank of Nedit, place of the death of Osiris and revenge on his murderers. These scenes sometimes led to violence between actors who could go on until death…
Some "mysteries" were performed in hidden rooms of certain temples. These festivals took place in the month of Khoiak, when the waters of the flood began to lower, and when the fields appeared. It was at this moment that one prepared the statuettes of vegetating Osiris, of which we have already spoken. These figurines were transported then in the Nechmet barque toward the island evoking the initial hillock where his tomb was located.
- Busiris (Djedu) in the Delta where Osiris followed the God Andjty (of whom the emblem is represented by two feathers which are seen on the Atef).
One of the formermost sanctuaries of Osiris and one notices that the name of the city is written with two Djed pillars (Djedu).
- Abydos where Osiris ousts the god Khentymentiu to become the first of the westerners.
It was the most sacred place of all since it was in Abydos that the God's head was buried.
The temple of Osiris is currently missing. On the other hand, episodes of the ritual are very well preserved in the temple of Sethy I.
Behind this temple, one finds the Osireion which is supposed to represent the primordial hillock and the God's symbolic tomb.
As an anecdote, it is he who inspired E.P. Jacob when he imagined his "secret" chamber in the comic strip "The Mystery of the Great Pyramid".
- Biggah (Senmet), small island situated in the immediate proximity to the temple of Isis at Philae. The body of Osiris is there supposed to have rested. A libation of milk was made there in procession every 10 days.
- Finally, all cities in which a piece of the God's dismembered body had been recovered possess a cenotaph to Osiris.