Osiris is the God of mortality and of the mortal being as mortal, hence in the ultimate stages of the development of Egyptian theology, any deceased individual is identified with Osiris, as is reflected by the use of ‘Osiris N.’ to refer to the deceased in the collections of afterlife literature known as the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead, where the conventional ‘N.’ of the translators represents the insertion of the name of the person on whose behalf the copy of the text was produced. This identification bridges gender, males and females alike being referred to as ‘Osiris’ in this context, albeit occasionally Hathor replaced Osiris as the vehicle of divine identification for the female deceased; and the Osirian identification apparently bridged species as well, since as animals who received funerary rites, such as the Apis bull, could be ‘Osirianized’ as well. Osiris is depicted anthropomorphically, virtually always mummiform, holding the crook and flail, symbols of royalty, and the atef crown, which resembles the ‘white crown’ of Upper Egypt but with two plumes on either side. The skin color of Osiris is generally green, symbolizing vegetative life and renewal. No single convincing interpretation of the name ‘Osiris’ has come forward (for the various hypotheses, see J. G. Griffiths, “Osiris,” in Helck and Otto), but the Os- component is written with the same sign – a throne, with the meaning ‘seat’ or ‘place’ – as the Is- component in the name Isis, while the -ir component is written with an eye, as the verb ‘to make’, hence the wordplay of PT utterance 684: “the King will take his place as Osiris,” or “make his seat like Osiris.” A connection to the word wsr, ‘mighty’, has also been suggested. The most characteristic epithet of Osiris is wn-nfr, or ‘Onnophris’, meaning ‘Enduring in well-being/the good’.
Osiris is the passive object of the opus of resurrection, to which virtually all of the Gods of the Egyptian pantheon make a contribution large or small, just as they make their contributions to the defense of Re, the one pertaining to the cosmos as a whole, the other to the life cycle of the individual mortal being. Like many Egyptian myths, that of Osiris is not known to us through a narrative account, but rather through countless allusions to it in hymns, rituals and spells. The Greek philosopher Plutarch offers a famous narrative in his On Isis and Osiris, but this text can only be trusted to accurately transmit Egyptian ideas intermittently. Perhaps the longest single Egyptian account of the myth is the ‘Great Hymn to Osiris’ on the stela of Amenmose (18th dynasty) (trans. in Lichtheim, vol. 2, 81-86). What is clear is that Osiris, son of Geb and Nut, brother and husband of Isis, and king of an ideal Egypt, is murdered by his brother Seth, although the method is not clear. Vagueness on this subject comes about not only through a reticence in Egyptian sources to dwell at length on an inauspicious topic, but also probably because the death of Osiris at the hands of Seth is meant to symbolize all the diverse causes of mortality. Some part of Osiris’ fate involved being cast into the Nile and recovered (brought ashore, according to an important tradition, at Memphis) and some part involved dismemberment, although the ‘drowning’ and the ‘dismemberment’ are probably substitutable alternatives rather than discrete elements in a single account. The immersion of Osiris in the Nile, while it is on the one hand a symbol for disintegration, also establishes the immanence of Osiris in the Nile’s life-giving annual inundation; a related tradition is that the phallus of Osiris was never recovered from the Nile, but rather was consumed by a carp. (Vernus has argued that when Osiris is said to be mḥi, it does not mean ‘drowned’, but merely ‘immersed’. Note the metaphorical extension of mḥi, which allows one to speak, as in English, of being ‘immersed’ in thought or concern about something.) This connection of Osiris to agriculture via the inundation is stronger than the identification claimed by older scholarship between Osiris and the crops themselves, the primary evidence for which is the beds for barley sprouts in the shape of Osiris which were a feature of the Osirian rites. The ‘Great Hymn’ is, at any rate, paradigmatic in its account that Isis “sought him without wearying … roamed the land lamenting, not resting till she found him,” (83) and that Isis protects the prone Osiris from further attacks, being “his guard … who drives off the foes, who stops the deeds of the disturber by the power of her utterance,” that is, her magic primarily, but also possibly as ruler in his stead, for she is characterized here as “the clever-tongued whose speech fails not, effective in the word of command,” (ibid.). Osiris is somehow reconstituted and resurrected, an event typically depicted by Osiris laying upon a bier while Isis hovers over his erect phallus in the form of a small bird of prey, either a kestrel or kite; the ‘Great Hymn’ describes Isis having thus “created breath with her wings,” (ibid.). Isis creates the missing phallus of Osiris for herself by means of her magic, a symbol for the magical reconstitution or resurrection of Osiris in general. Isis copulates with the risen Osiris, conceiving Horus, whom she raises in secret to vindicate Osiris and claim the sovereignty. The resurrection of Osiris, being ‘metaphysical’, so to speak, does not result in his return to his prior life, but his assumption of his new role as lord of the dead, Khenty-Amentiu, ‘Foremost of the Westerners’, an epithet which refers to the West (Amenti) as the land of the setting sun and hence of the dead. In this sense, the Egyptians resurrection is not a negation of mortality, but is instead predicated upon it. The futurity of Osiris is represented instead by Horus, who is conceived, in effect, posthumously; or, better, the reconstitution of Osiris is one and the same magical act as the conception of Horus, which is its proof, so to speak. The myth of Osiris and Horus is a myth of royal succession, in which the living king is Horus in relation to his deceased predecessor Osiris, whether or not there is a blood relation between them; but the myth becomes the basis for a doctrine of salvation. Horus vindicates his right to succeed to the sovereignty of the ideal Egypt before a tribunal of the Gods, to whom he must prove his claim against Seth, and when he is found ‘justified’ (lit. ‘true-of-voice’, ma’e-hru) and given sovereignty over the cosmos, there results universal jubilation inasmuch as the succession of Horus represents the victory over death itself as well as the triumph of legitimacy and civilization over the rule of force. Osiris himself presides over the tribunal which judges the dead, an event which assumes its most characteristic form in BD spell 125 with the ‘weighing of the heart’ (the conscience, as it were) – against Ma’et (truth, justice, the cosmic order).
The territory in dispute between Horus and Seth is, in a sense, Osiris himself, insofar as the parts of Osiris’ body are associated (albeit with some inconsistency and redundancy) with the nomes, or districts, of Egypt as well as the limbs of an ideal living being who is, in effect, every mortal being. Moreover, as can be seen from spells in the afterlife literature having as their goal the divinization of the parts of the deceased’s body by identifying them with various Gods, the entire pantheon of Egypt has a stake in the resurrection of Osiris and are, in some sense, manifest in his resurrected body. The body parts of Osiris were not understood to be interred at different places around the country; tombs of Osiris at several places around Egypt – the Abaton near Philae, Abydos, Busiris, Herakleopolis Magna – were rather resting places of his whole person, however this was conceived. The identification of the districts with the limbs of Osiris affirms the nation’s indivisibility, not its fragmentation, by literally taking up or ‘incorporating’ the local cults into the God’s body (Hans Betz, “Reliquie,” in Helck and Otto). Furthermore, the ‘dismemberment’ of Osiris is simply decomposition into formlessness, as contrasted with the integrity that is synonymous with life and hence with resurrection, and it is the integrity and totality of Osiris which theology consistently seeks to emphasize. Thus, for instance, PT utterance 247, possibly the earliest extant hymn to Osiris, calls Osiris ‘the Complete’, tem, associating him thereby with Atum, his great-grandfather. This point about integrity and resurrection helps to clarify the Egyptians understanding with respect to mummification. Inasmuch as the only genuine guarantee of the integrity of the body is not its embalming, but its resurrection, since only a living body is unified and integral, the mummy is properly regarded as a locus for the work of resurrection, and a shelter for the individual in that process, rather than as the goal of that process as such.
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Griffiths, J. G. 1980. The Origins of Osiris and His Cult. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Helck, Wolfgang and Eberhard Otto, eds. 1973–. Lexikon der Ägyptologie. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
Lichtheim, Miriam. 1975-80. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Vernus, P. 1991. “Le Mythe d’un mythe: la prétendue noyade d’Osiris. De la dérive d’un corps à la dérive du sens.” Studi di egittologia e di Antichità funiche 9: 19-34.