Osiris: The Egyptian Lord of the Underworld

Osiris was an ancient Egyptian god primarily known as the god of the afterlife, death, resurrection, and fertility. He played a central role in Egyptian religious beliefs and mythology, and he was considered a benevolent and just ruler of the underworld.

Osiris was often depicted as a mummified figure with green skin, wearing a white crown with two ostrich feathers. His green color symbolized fertility and rebirth, and his association with resurrection and the afterlife made him a crucial figure in Egyptian religious practices.

Osiris was also a member of the divine family in Egyptian mythology. He was the son of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb, and he had a brother named Seth (or Set) who was often portrayed as the antagonist in Osiris’s myth, as he was responsible for Osiris’s murder. Osiris was married to his sister, Isis, and they had a son named Horus.

The story of Osiris’s murder, dismemberment, and resurrection is one of the most significant myths in Egyptian mythology. It symbolizes the cycle of death and rebirth, the annual flooding of the Nile River, and the hope for eternal life in the afterlife.

Osiris’s role in Egyptian religion extended beyond mythology. He was associated with the judgment of the dead and the concept of Ma’at, the goddess of truth and justice. In the afterlife, he presided over the judgment of souls, weighing their hearts against the feather of Ma’at to determine their fate.

Who Was Osiris?

Osiris was the son of the primordial Egyptian deities, Geb and Nut. Geb was the god of the earth while Nut was the sky goddess. This is a pairing that is often found in many of the ancient religions, Gaia and Uranus being one such example. Usually, the pairing is of an Earth mother goddess and a sky god. In the case of the Egyptians, it was the other way around.

Osiris was the oldest son of Geb and Nut, his other siblings being Set, Isis, Nephthys, and in some cases Horus although he is also commonly said to be the son of Osiris. Of these, Isis was his wife and consort and Set his most bitter enemy.

Lord of the Underworld

After the death of Osiris at the hands of Set, he became the god of the underworld and sat in judgment over dead souls. While he was a much-beloved god during his living years and worship of Osiris spanned many eras, his enduring image is that of the god of death. Even in this role, he was seen as a just and wise ruler, not bent on wreaking vengeance on his murderous brother or other souls.

The deceased were thought to take long journeys to his hall of judgment, with the aid of various charms and amulets. Then their deeds in life and their hearts would be weighed to judge their fates in the afterlife. Osiris, the great god of death, sat on a throne while meting out the tests to judge a person’s worth. Those who passed were allowed into The Blessed Land, which was believed to be a realm devoid of sorrow or pain.

Other Gods of Death

Gods of death were common in ancient cultures and belief systems. Most religions believed in an afterlife, an eternal life of peace and joy after the mortal one was done, and this necessitated faith in who could protect and guide one in that afterlife. Not all gods of death were kind or generous, although all were considered important within their own pantheons.

READ MORE: The Egyptian Afterlife: Mummification, Burial Practices and Beyond

Where there is life, there must be death. And where there are dead, there must be a deity in charge of doling out their fates. Important deities of the dead and the underworld are the Greek Hades, the Roman Pluto, the Norse goddess Hel (from whose name we get ‘Hell’), and even Anubis, the other Egyptian god of death.

READ MORE: 41 Greek Gods and Goddesses: Family Tree and Fun Facts, Roman Gods and Goddesses: The Names and Stories of 29 Ancient Roman Gods, and Norse Gods and Goddesses: The Deities of Old Norse Mythology

God of Agriculture

Interestingly enough, Osiris was also considered the god of agriculture in ancient Egypt before his death. This would seem like an anomaly, but agriculture is intrinsically linked with both creation and destruction, harvest and rebirth in many ways that we don’t usually think of. There is a reason that the enduring modern image of death is as the Grim Reaper with a sickle. Without the end of a cycle, there can be no planting of new crops. Osiris in his oldest form was also believed to be a fertility god.

Thus, it is perhaps fitting that Osiris, whose story of resurrection is so well known, should be the god of agriculture as well. The harvest and the threshing of grains were supposed to be a symbolic death from which would arise the new spark of life as the grains were sown again. Osiris could not dwell in the world of the living again, after his death at the hands of Set, but his reputation as a generous god who was fond of the living survived in this form as the god of agriculture and fertility.

Origins

The origins of Osiris might predate ancient Egypt. There are theories that say the original fertility god may have been from Syria before he went on to become a primary deity of the old city of Abydos. These theories have not been substantiated with much evidence. However, the primary cult center of Osiris remained Abydos through many of the ruling dynasties of ancient Egypt. He became absorbed into the figures of earlier deities, like the god Khenti-Amentiu, meaning ‘Chief of the Westerners’ where ‘Westerners’ means the dead, as well as Andjety, a local god with roots in prehistoric Egypt.

READ MORE: Prehistory: Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic Periods, and More

Meaning of the Name Osiris

Osiris is the Greek form of the Egyptian name. The original Egyptian name would have been a variation along the lines of Asar, Usir, Usire, Ausar, Ausir, or Wesir. Translated from the hieroglyphics directly, it would have been spelt as ‘wsjr’ or ’ꜣsjr’ or ‘ jsjrj’. Egyptologists have not been able to come to any agreement about what the name means. Suggestions have been as varied as ‘powerful one’ or ‘mighty one’ to ‘something that is made’ to ‘she who bears the eye’ and ‘engendering (male) principle.’ The hieroglyphs for his name meant ‘throne’ and ‘eye,’ leading to much confusion about what exactly it could mean.

Appearance and Iconography

Osiris was usually portrayed as a pharaoh with green skin or black skin. The dark color was meant to symbolize the mud along the banks of the Nile River and the fertility of the Nile valley. At times, he was portrayed in the form of a mummy, with wrappings from the chest down. This was meant to portray his position as the king of the underworld and ruler over the dead.

Egyptian mythology and the dynasty of pharaohs had many different kinds of crowns, each symbolizing something. Osiris wore the Atef crown, a crown specific to Osiris alone. It was similar to the White Crown or Hedjet of the kingdom of Upper Egypt but it had two additional ostrich feathers on either side. He was also usually depicted with the crook and flail in hand. These were originally the symbols of Osiris before they became associated with the pharaohs at large. The crook, associated with shepherds, was considered the symbol of kingship, which is apt since Osiris was considered the king of Egypt originally. The flail, a tool used for the threshing of grain, stood for fertility.

Osiris and Isis

Osiris and Isis were among the most important gods of the Egyptian pantheon. While they were brother and sister, they were also considered to be lovers and consorts. Their story could be considered one of the first tragic love stories of the world. A devoted wife and queen, when Osiris was killed by Set, she searched everywhere for his body so she could take him back home and raise him from the dead.

A slightly more disturbing addition to this tale is the fact that she apparently conceived her son Horus with the mummified version of her husband.

Mythology of Ancient Egypt

The Osiris resurrection myth is perhaps one of the most famous and well-known myths from that period and the Egyptian civilization in general. Murdered by his jealous brother Set, this is the story of how Osiris went from being the king of Egypt and god of agriculture and fertility to lord of the underworld. Many of the seminal gods of ancient Egypt are all involved in the story.

Osiris as King of Egypt

What we cannot forget is that before Osiris ever died and came to rule the underworld, he was considered the first king of Egypt. According to Egyptian myths, since he was the first son of the Earth god and the goddess of the sky, he was not only king of the gods in a way but the king of the mortal realm as well.

He was said to be a good and generous ruler, who brought Egypt into a period of civilization by introducing agriculture. In this, he played a similar role to the Roman god Saturn, who was believed to also have brought technology and agriculture to his people when he ruled over them. Osiris and Isis, as king and queen, established a system of order and culture that would form the basis of Egyptian civilization for thousands of years.

READ MORE: 15 Examples of Fascinating and Advanced Ancient Technology You Need To Check Out

Death and Resurrection

Set, the younger brother of Osiris, was very jealous of his position and power. Set also supposedly lusted after Isis. Thus, as the myth goes, he made a plan to kill Osiris. When Osiris made Isis his regent as he went to travel the world instead of Set, this was the last straw. Set made a box out of cedar wood and ebony exactly to the specification of the body of Osiris. Then he invited his brother to a feast.

At the feast, he promised that the chest, which was actually a coffin, would be given to anyone who could fit inside. Naturally, this was Osiris. As soon as Osiris was inside the coffin, Set slammed down the lid and nailed it shut. Then he sealed the coffin and threw it into the Nile.

Isis went in search of her husband’s body, tracking it to the kingdom of Byblos where it, having been turned into a tamarisk tree, was holding up the roof of the palace. Having persuaded the king to return it to her by saving his child, she took the body of Osiris with her to Egypt and hid it in a swampy region in the Nile Delta. While she was with the body of Osiris, Isis conceived their son Horus. The only person Isis took into her confidence was Set’s wife Nephthys, her sister.

While Isis was away for a while, Set discovered Osiris and chopped his body into several pieces, scattering them all over Egypt. Isis and Nephthys regathered all the pieces, being unable to locate only his penis, which had been swallowed by a fish. The sun god Ra, watching the two sisters mourn over Osiris, sent Anubis to help them. The three gods prepared him for the first ever instance of mummification, put his body together, and Isis turned into a kite to breathe life into Osiris.

But since Osiris was incomplete, he could not take his place as ruler of the world anymore. Instead, he went on to rule a new kingdom, the underworld, where he would be both ruler and judge. It was the only way for him to gain eternal life in some sense. His son would avenge him and become the new ruler of the world.

Father of Horus

The conception of Horus is described in the Osiris myth. There is some confusion about which point of the tale Isis conceived him. Some sources say that she could already have been pregnant with Horus when Osiris died while others claim that it was either the first time she brought his body back to Egypt or after she reassembled his body together. The second part might seem unlikely since Osiris was specifically missing his phallus but there is no accounting for gods and magic.

Isis hid Horus in the swamps around the Nile River so Set would not discover him. Horus grew up to become a powerful warrior, bent on avenging his father and protecting the people of Egypt from Set. After a series of battles, Set was finally defeated. He may have either died or fled the land, leaving Horus to rule the land.

The Pyramid texts speak about both Horus and Osiris in association with the pharaoh. In life, the pharaoh is supposed to be the representation of Horus, while in death the pharaoh becomes the representation of Osiris.

Associations with Other Gods

Osiris has certain associations with other gods, not least of which is with Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead. Another deity with whom Osiris is often associated is Ptah-Seker, being known as Ptah-Seker-Osiris in Memphis. Ptah was the creator god of Memphis and Seker or Sokar protected tombs and the workers who built those tombs. Ptah-Seker was the god of rebirth and regeneration. As Osiris came to be absorbed into this deity, he came to be called Ptah-Seker-Asir or Ptah-Seker-Osiris, god of the underworld and afterlife.

He was also absorbed into and associated with other local deities of different cities and towns, as was the case with Andjety and Khenti-Amentiu.

Osiris and Anubis

One Egyptian god that Osiris can be associated with is Anubis. Anubis was the god of the dead, the one who supposedly prepared bodies after death, for mummification. But before Osiris took over as the god of the underworld, that had been his domain. He still remained connected with funerary rituals but to explain why he had given way to Osiris, a story developed that he was the son of Osiris through Nephthys.

Nephthys was said to have slept with Osiris disguised as Isis and conceived Anubis, even though she was assumed to be barren. This story not only explains why Anubis respected Osiris enough to cede his position to him, but it also strengthens Set’s hatred of his brother and the image of Osiris as a fertility god making the barren deserts of Egypt bloom.

Dionysus

Just as one of the most important myths in Egypt is the myth about the death and resurrection of Osiris, in Greek mythology, the death and rebirth of Dionysus was one of the most important stories about the god of wine. Dionysus, just like Osiris, had been ripped to pieces and had been restored to life through the efforts of a goddess devoted to him, the Greek goddess Demeter in this case.

Nor are they the only two examples of gods who have been killed and whose loved ones have gone to great measures to bring them back, since the Norse god Baldr also falls into this category.

Worship

Osiris was worshiped across Egypt and annual ceremonies were performed in his honor to symbolize his resurrection. The Egyptians held two Osiris festivals over the course of the year, the Fall of the Nile in remembrance of his death and the Djed Pillar Festival in remembrance of his resurrection and descent to the underworld.

The Great Temple of Osiris, which had originally been a chapel to Khenti-Amentiu, was located in Abydos. The ruins of the temple can still be seen today.

The ritual of mummifying a body to prepare it for the afterlife also began with Osiris, as the Egyptian myths go. One of their most important texts was the Book of the Dead, which was meant to make a soul ready to meet Osiris in the underworld.

Cult

The cult center of Osiris in Egypt was located in Abydos. The necropolis there was a large one since everyone wanted to be buried there so as to be closer to Osiris. Abydos was the center of the worship of Osiris and Isis in many ways although he was worshiped widely throughout Egypt.

The Hellenization of Egypt and of Osiris also led to the rise of a Greek-inspired deity called Serapis who had many of the traits of Osiris and was a consort of Isis. The Roman author Plutarch claimed that the cult was founded by Ptolemy I and that ‘Serapis’ was a Hellenized form of the name ‘Osiris-Apis,’ after the Apis bull of the Memphis region.

The beautiful Philae Temple was an important site for this cult devoted to Osiris and Isis and was of great relevance until well into the Christian Era.

READ MORE: How Did Christianity Spread: Origins, Expansion, and Impact 

Rituals and Ceremonies

One interesting aspect of the festivals for Osiris was the planting of the Osiris garden and Osiris beds within those. These were often placed in tombs and they contained Nile mud and grains planted in the mud. They were meant to represent Osiris in all his duality, both the life-giving side of him as well as his position as judge of the dead.

People came to the temple complexes to offer prayers and gifts to Osiris. Although only the priests were allowed into the inner sanctums of the temples, anyone could seek aid and counsel from the gods via the priests by offering sacrifices and material or financial gifts in exchange.

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