The Mysteries of Osiris

Osiris as green-skinned god from tomb of Nefertari.
Osiris as green-skinned god from tomb of Nefertari.

In the previous post we looked at the myth of  Dionysus Zagreus in which that god was murdered and dismembered by the Titans. The Orphics believed that as a result of this act mankind was created–and we inherited the spark of immortal spirit from Dionysus. It is likely the Greeks borrowed elements of the myth from the story of the Egyptian god Osiris–who suffered a similar fate of being murdered, dismembered and resurrected. Osiris was one of Egypt’s oldest and most beloved gods, and his cult gained in popularity down through the centuries. His sufferings could be related to by ordinary people, and he offered them the hope of resurrection after death. As well as being a god, Osiris was also thought to have been the first king of Egypt. Here is a well known version of the myth of  the Death & Resurrection of Osiris:

Osiris was the son of Ra the sun god, and Nut the sky goddess. He grew up to become a wise and powerful king, bringing civilization to his people, teaching them agriculture, animal husbandry, laws to live by and worship of the gods. Egypt prospered under his rule. Set, the brother of Osiris and god of desert and chaos, was envious of him. He schemed against Osiris, devising a plot in secrecy with seventy-two other conspirators. He invited Osiris to a feast and set out a beautifully decorated box which he had made to fit the exact measurements of Osiris’s body. Set offered it to anyone whom the box fit. One guest after another tried to fit in the box until it was Osiris’s turn. As he innocently laid in the box Set and the conspirators slammed the lid it on it and nailed it closed, throwing it into the Nile river. When Isis, Osiris’s wife, heard of this she was grief stricken. She set out to find the body of her husband, knowing the dead could not rest until they had a proper funeral. Searching far and wide she found nothing, finally learning that the coffin containing his corpse had floated out to sea to the land of Byblos. There it became lodged in a tamarisk tree which had miraculously grown to enclose it within its trunk, which the king of Byblos cut down and made it into a pillar for his palace. Isis travelled to Byblos to recover her husband’s body– asking to have the pillar in which the corpse of Osiris was hidden. Her wish granted, she returned to Egypt with the pillar, cutting it open and exposing the coffin. She wept over her dead husband, joined by her sister Nephthys. She hid the coffin but to no avail–that night while hunting Set found it, and enraged at the sight of Osiris, tore his corpse into fourteen pieces, scattering them throughout the land of Egypt. Learning of this, Isis set out once again to find her husband’s remains. She recovered all the pieces except for his phallus which had been swallowed by a fish. Instructed by the god Thoth, she used magic to reassemble the body of Osiris, resurrecting him briefly to life. She magically reconstituted his phallus, and hovering over his body in the form of a falcon was impregnated by him, giving birth to their son Horus.

Isis with Horus the Child.  600-643 BCE.
Isis with Horus the Child.
600-643 BCE.

Horus grew to manhood, and was it was decided by a tribunal of gods that he was the rightful heir to his father’s kingdom. Set was unwilling accept this verdict and surrender the throne. Osiris appeared to Horus and urged him to avenge the evils committed by his brother. Horus challenged Set to a dual and a great battle ensued between the forces of good and evil. During the battle Horus lost his eye and Set lost his testicles. In this story good triumphs over evil, and some day Horus will be victorious and Osiris will return to rule the world of the living.

The mysteries of Osiris were popular yearly ceremonies in ancient Egypt, celebrated with passion plays at Abydos, the cult center of Osiris—the earliest recorded examples of theatre. They recalled the life, death, and resurrection of the god and lasted for many days. Leading roles were assigned to priests wearing the masks of various gods they represented, while extras in the drama were played by community members. After these performances, a mock battle was staged between the followers of Horus and Set. A procession also took place in which statues of Osiris, made from precious metals, were carried from the temple and set up in public places where people could gaze on the image of Osiris “The Beautiful One”.

Seeded grain
Seeded grain “Osiris Bed”.

Osiris was originally an agricultural deity associated with the seasonal cycle of nature—the growth of the crops as well as the yearly Nile flood upon which all life depended. The annual Khoiak Festival was celebrated from mid-September to mid-October as the Nile flood waters receded exposing silt covered fields ready for sowing. During this time seeds were planted in “Osiris Beds”—molds in the form of the mummy of Osiris–and watered until they germinated, symbolizing the resurrection of the god, as well as magically enhancing the growth of the crops. The festival culminated with the ritual raising of the djed pillar, emblematic of Osiris’s backbone, bringing about his restoration.

Osiris overseeing the weighing of the soul in the Hall of Judgement.
Osiris overseeing the weighing of the soul in the Hall of Judgement.

Over the centuries Osiris came to be viewed as the ruler of the land of the dead, who presided over the weighing of souls in the Hall of Judgement. If the deceased had lived a life based on the precepts of Maat, goddess of truth and righteousness, they were welcomed by Osiris into his kingdom. In fact, in the Egyptian Book of the Dead “Osiris” became the synonymous title for the soul in the duat–the otherworld. While the living pharaoh was thought to embody Horus, his deceased father became the new Osiris dwelling in the underworld. Their relationship exemplified the close connections felt by Egyptians between the living and their departed ancestors, with the understanding that from the invisible realm of death emerges life and renewal. Through the myth of Osiris, the worshipper was also able to identify with the immortal god within their own being—the part of their spirit which was resurrected in eternity.

Sahu--the soul (ba) of Osiris/Orion glancing back at Isis/Sirius in the form of a cow.
Sahu–the soul (ba) of Osiris/Orion glancing back at Isis/Sirius in the form of a cow.

The myth also has an astronomical/calendrical dimension. According to the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, the Egyptians associated Osiris with the constellation Orion, while Isis was symbolized by the brilliant star Sirius, in close proximity to Orion in the sky–the two forming a natural pair. Orion disappears from view every year from the spring equinox until mid-summer–blotted out by the sun’s rays as it transits through the area of the sky occupied by the constellation. Vanishing from sight at this time, it was thought Osiris/Orion had died and gone to the underworld. His absence coincided with the summer season of hot-dry southern winds which brought drought and sandstorms, associated with Set, the murderer of Osiris, and the Nile was also at its low ebb during this time of year. Set was believed to rule the land until late summer, when Isis-Sirius ascended again on the eastern horizon just before sunrise. Sirius’s “heliacal rising” heralded the Nile floods that restored life and fertility to the land, and the Egyptian New Year was celebrated at this time. The flooding of the Nile was believed to be caused by the tears of Isis weeping for her dead husband Osiris. Accompanying Sirius, however, Orion was again visible in the eastern sky before dawn—believed to represent Osiris resurrected and returned from the underworld.

The Osiris myth has clear parallels with the symbolism of the shaman’s initiation suggesting its prehistoric origins. Historian Gloria Emeagwali writes: “This motif of death and resurrection resembles elements of shamanic initiation in north Asia and elsewhere: ritual dismemberment of the initiate’s body and subsequent rebirth as a fully fledged shaman.” The other clearly shamanistic element in the myth is Isis’s shapeshifing into the form of a hawk in order to be impregnated by Osiris.

Winged isis & Osiris
Winged isis & Osiris

The mysteries of Osiris, Isis, and Horus may have been a model for initiation rites among cultures of the Mediterranean world, according to Masonic historian Albert Pike. He notes that ancient writers believed the mystery religions of Attis and Cybele celebrated in Phrygia, and Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis in Greece were copies of the mysteries of Osiris and Isis. Pike writes that the deities were also equivalent: “the Ceres of the Greeks was the same as the Isis of the Egyptians and Dionysos or Bacchus was the same as Osiris.”

The Osiris legend has endured as one of the core myths of modern western esotericism. It appears in Freemasonry during the third degree initiation where candidates undergo a symbolic death, burial and raising similar to Osiris. In the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Osiris symbolizes the element of “spirit”. During the Adeptus Minor ceremony of that order, the Chief Adept identifies with Osiris saying: “I am Osiris Onophris…the Lord of Life triumphant over Death.”  Like the shaman, initiates of the mysteries gain direct knowledge–gnosis–of spiritual realms and states of consciousness transcending the material world, and are thus assured of the continuity of consciousness after death.


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