THE MURDER OF OSIRIS
THE MURDER OF OSIRIS
Osiris was one of the most important of all the Egyptian gods. According to the Heliopolitan version of the creation, he was the son of the deities Nut and Geb. Along with them, he numbered among the nine gods who formed the sacred Ennead. At first, Osiris was a fertility god associated with vegetation and the rich soil of the Nile delta. In time, however, he came to be seen as the ruler of the Underworld.1 He was also both the brother and husband of Isis, another member of the Ennead. The royal families of the ancient Egyptians did not feel constrained by the taboos against incest—sexual relations between close relatives—that most modern peoples do. The idea of Osiris and Isis marrying and giving birth to a son was seen by these rulers as both the justification and the model for such royal brother-sister marriages, which became common in many ancient civilizations. In their paintings, the Egyptians most often pictured Osiris as a mummy wrapped in bandages, but with his hands free and holding the crook and flail, the chief insignia of Egyptian royalty. The crook was a royal scepter shaped like a hook; the flail was a stick with long tassels hanging from one end. Sometimes in these paintings Osiris’s head is topped by rams’ horns, but more often he wears the atef, a white crown shaped somewhat like a bowling pin with a plume attached to either side. His skin is either white, black, or green, the latter being the color associated with resurrection, or rebirth. Indeed, in the chief myth about Osiris he is murdered but later undergoes a Christ-like resurrection. This story was central to the religious worship of the Egyptians, as well as to the succession and rule of the pharaohs in Egypt.
The combination of the god’s fertility and his image as the controller of the Underworld, or the world of the dead, was seen as an extremely potent force. By at least 2400 B.C., a dead king was identified with and believed even to take on the guise (spirit and powers) of Osiris; while the new king who took his place came to be identified with Osiris’s son, Horus. The Egyptians viewed this human identification with the divine as the noblest example of the endless cycle of death and renewal that they perceived everywhere in the natural world. The theme of birth, death, and rebirth was one of the pillars of Egyptian religion. Parts of Osiris’s story were discovered on various ancient Egyptian papyruses and stone carvings. However, the most complete version is a much later one preserved around A.D. 100 by the Greek writer Plutarch in his story Concerning Isis and Osiris. (Egyptian and other Near Eastern stories were often retold later by the Greeks and Romans.) Besides Osiris, his sister (and wife) Isis, and their son, Horus, the other main characters are Osiris’s brother Seth and sister Nephthys.