Explorations: Isis and Osiris-Death and Resurrection

Explorations: Isis and Osiris-Death and Resurrection

By Normandi Ellis

Religious rites and traditions often center upon a culture’s story of its dead and resurrected god. Egyptian religion is no different. The myth of Isis and Osiris is the pillar of Egyptian religion. As Judas betrayed Jesus during the Passover feast, so did Seth betray his brother Osiris in the midst of a grand feast held in Osiris’s honor. Here’s how it happened:

The good king Osiris was in his twenty-eighth year. He and his sister-wife Isis had been given the rich, fertile black land of the Nile valley and delta, whereas brother Seth and his sister-wife Nephthys were bequeathed the barren, red desert lands. Seth felt cheated. In their land, the royal couple Osiris and Isis were much beloved, having taught their people the ways of agriculture and a nonviolent life. Seth’s tribe, on the other hand, were still a ragtag group of warriors and hunters who had to scratch subsistence from the desert mountains and valleys. They wanted what Osiris had.

While the goddess Isis was away, Osiris generously invited his brother Seth and Seth’s whole entourage to join him and his people in a harvest festival, with abundant food and copious amounts of wine and beer. The palace was all in festivity of music and dancing and merriment.

Seth appeared, bearing a gift—a box richly adorned with jewels and gold. As a party game, he announced he would give the box to any man or woman who might lie down in it and fit exactly. Of course, the trick was that it had been built precisely to the proportions of Osiris. Like Cinderella’s glass slipper, it would fit none except its rightful owner. When Osiris lay within it, Seth and his seventy-two rabble-rousing companions closed him up inside and sealed the coffin with lead.

Amid the ensuing confusion and under the cover of darkness, Seth’s gang hurried the box down to the river’s edge and threw it into the Nile, drowning Osiris in the jeweled coffin. The river carried his body inside the box downstream, until it finally came to rest in a foreign land, moored against a tamarisk tree that grew around the coffin, completely trapping the body of Osiris within.

When Isis finally heard the news, she was beside herself with grief. She came home to find that Osiris was dead, his body had vanished, and her younger brother was her husband’s murderer. In the manner of widows of her nation, she cut off all her beautiful long hair and walked barefoot along the banks of the river, searching for the body of her husband. She no longer resembled the beautiful queen of Egypt, but appeared in the grim visage of a hag; thus her own people rejected and scorned her. At last, following the river, she discovered that the chest had sailed down the Nile, clear out of Egypt into the Mediterranean Sea, and had been cast onto the shores of Byblos and lodged in the branches of the tamarisk tree. Even though Osiris was hidden, the good wife Isis recognized that the tree contained the body of her husband and so would not leave it.

In the meantime, stories abounded in Byblos of an amazing tree that apparently had sprung up overnight beside the shore of the sea. The king of Byblos was so astounded by the beautiful tree, by its sturdiness, and by its miraculous growth that he had it hewn down and brought to his capital city to make it into the central pillar for his palace.

Dutiful Isis followed the fallen tree all the way to the palace gates. There she sat outside the community well, weeping and wondering what to do now that her husband’s body had been taken from her yet again. Common as she seemed on the outside, Isis attracted the interest of the palace servants and the princesses. Who was this strange, ravaged yet beautiful woman sitting beside their well, and why was she crying? As the handmaidens of the queen came closer, they realized this mysterious woman exuded a fragrant perfume from the pores of her skin. Divine beings were said to have a fragrance that was the mark of their divinity, so the servants and princesses reasoned that this woman must be a goddess in hiding.

Because of the delicious odor of sanctity about the woman, the queen decided to give Isis the royal babe to nurse. Thus Isis was taken into the palace as nursemaid and given an infant to suckle and proximity to her husband again. Isis soon became an indispensable part of the palace household and was the much-loved nurse to the king and queen’s children. Having lost a husband, Isis knew there is no worse grief than the death of a loved one, so she decided to give the child of this queen a rare gift indeed for mortals—the gift of immortality.

At night, while the palace slept, Isis made magic. She performed a divine alchemy by thrusting the babe into the fire to burn away his mortality. While the magical fire performed its task on the hearth, the goddess transformed herself into a kite. She flapped her wings, fluttering about the column in which Osiris resided, keening and lamenting his death with strange, shrill, mournful songs.

This alchemical magic went on for some days, but on the last night of the transforming ritual for the babe, the strange singing of the hawk goddess awakened the queen, who went to investigate. Seeing her child in flames, the queen shrieked and dragged the babe from the fire, thus breaking the spell and depriving him of immortality. Seeing that her gift had been rejected, Isis swooped down before the terrified queen and reassumed her true form as a goddess.

Terrified of having a woman of such power in her kingdom, the queen quickly asked, "What do you want?" She was willing to give anything to get rid of this witch in her house.

"I want the pillar that contains Osiris," Isis said.

Immediately granting her request, the queen had the pillar cut down and sent home with Isis in one of the king’s boats.

The Lamentations of Isis was a sorrowing festival held on October 3 to bemoan the loss of light in the northern hemisphere. Six months later, on April 3, came another festival celebrating the return of the light, when Isis found Osiris. On the third night of the festival, the priests went to the river’s edge, removed from a box a casket of gold into which they poured holy water, and cried "Osiris is found!" Then fertile soil, spices, and incense were mixed to form a crest of mud, representing the union of Isis and Osiris.

Among the Greek initiates of Isis, this feast day was linked to the Thesmophoria, a festival devoted to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and marriage. Like Isis, Demeter had also lost a loved one, her daughter Persephone, to the power of the underworld. As Osiris arose to bring renewed life in Egypt, so did Persephone return to initiate the spring growing season in Greece.

The Greek historian Herodotus reported that two women of noble birth from Egypt, called the Danaids, brought these sacred rites to Peloponesia and taught the women there how to celebrate the feast day. In Athens two noble women were chosen to preside over the festival as Isis and Nephthys. They alone performed the temple duties and prepared the festal meal. The Thesmophoria was strictly a women’s festival, and a part of the mysteries included mixing seed corn with menstrual blood and planting it to initiate a bountiful agricultural year. After the planting, the women cloistered themselves within the temple to commune with the goddess during the night.

The mystery rites of Isis and Osiris were held in Egypt year after year. Participants returned annually to the temples to be reinitiated and to celebrate the festival of renewal. Performing the Osirian rites was a sacred act of remembering. To forget one’s name and one’s relationship to the Divine was to die while still living. It was the worst of all possible sins. Therefore, the rites were celebrated yearly. Each year, Osiris was mourned; each spring, his body and spirit were reunited; each spring, he was remembered and reborn.


Normandi Ellis, who has taught English at the University of Colorado and writing at the University of Kentucky, is an award-winning author of books on Egyptian religion, including the Quest Book Dreams of Isis (1995). This selection is adapted from her new Quest Book, Feasts of Light: Celebrations for the Seasons of Life Based on the Egyptian Goddess Mysteries.


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