Today I’m reviewing Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt by R.T. Rundle Clark. This book was suggested to me by this guy right here, and it doesn’t disappoint. You’ll see that there are tons of quotes in this review because there was just that much stuff in the book. There are lots of small, obscure bits of information you don’t see presented anywhere else, and at the very least, there are lots of topics for you to sit and wrap your brain around- it’s like a gift that keeps on giving!
Some examples of more obscure information would be:
- Set killing Osiris in the form of a flea.
- The myth about Osiris asking Ra if he can have Set’s lands and people that he oversees, Ra saying yes, Set’s nosebleed creating agriculture, and then when Osiris puts on Ra’s Atef crown, getting all sorts of head injury (yes, I’m serious).
- Discussions about Osiris in his inert state- being protected by Nehaher, who eventually turns into apep when he won’t let Osiris go and move forward.
The little tidbits are very interesting, and part of why I like this book so much. I enjoy obscure information, or things that you don’t readily find in every book on ancient Egypt. Especially because it allows you to really contemplate how these lesser known concepts could affect your practice (such as Nehaher being a/pep- it really challenges you to reconsider what you know about a/pep).
I also like that the myths that he does recount within the book have explanations behind them. The author isn’t just telling you the stories and myths- he’s attempting to explain them, draw parallels between them and other aspects of AE culture, and provide context and meaning to them. It’s not something that a lot of authors do.
Despite the name, this book focuses almost solely on Osiris. I think a lot of people would benefit from reading this book for no other reason than you can see just how many different myths, angles, and changes have occurred in the Osirian mythos. We always hear the clean cut, simplified version of Osiris and Set, about Aset and Nebhet’s search for him.. etc. But when you start to examine all of the variances in the myth that occurred in different nomes or eras- it becomes really apparent that nothing is very clear cut. So for anyone who wants a good primer into learning about Osiris or his mythos- this book is highly beneficial, and I recommend you pick it up.
If Osiris isn’t your cup of tea, this book may not serve you much. I mean, there is other information within the book, but a large portion of it (like.. 2/3s of the book) talks about Osiris.
Here are some interesting quotes I pulled from the book:
“Atum was unhappy in the Primeval Waters because he was, in the words of this text, ‘in a relaxed state, very weary and inert.’ This existence in the waters was painful; Atum was in travail until he could settle his limbs in a definite place. From the emerging deity’s point of view the waters are bad, they represent the conditions of helplessness and chaos which have to be transcended. On the other hand, they can be regarded as ‘pure’ and as ‘the waters of life’ for the soul who wishes to return to their state of negation. Immersion in them means going back to primeval innocence.”
“The pyramid texts have echoes of lost tales about teh gestation of Nut and how she freed herself violently from her mother’s womb. But the essential event connected with Geb and Nut is their separation.”
“The symbolism is based on a legend that originally earth and sky were together in total and sexual union. So, when the sky descends ritually upon the earth, Nut is impregnated by Geb. We are then told why the sky was lifted away from the earth. Shu, Nut’s father ‘so loved her’ that he separated her from her mate Geb and, as the air, held her aloft with his arms. Nut was then able to give birth to the stars and to ‘taken them up’- allow them to sail across her belly, the sky.”
“Osiris is immanent. He is the sufferer with all mortality but at hte same time he is all the power of revival and fertility in the world. He is the power of growth in plants and of reproduction in animals and human beings. He is both dead and the source of all living. Hence to become Osiris is to become on with the cosmic cycles of death and rebirth… In Egypt, Osiris absorbed the nature or attributes of many cyclic or fertility figures such as Anedjety of the Eastern Delta (whose insignia he borrowed), Sokar of Giza, the “Lord of the Westerners” at Abydos and others now forgotten.”
Osiris is nature itself or, to speak more accurately, nature as experienced by the farmers and stock-breeders of the Ancient Near East. During the summer heat the desolate condition of the world can be expressed as if either the spirit of life had departed, or was listless and asleep, or that life itself was dead. Any single metaphor would be insufficient to describe the dire calamity of the world. Similarly, the fate of Seth, the enemy, can be death, bonds or ignominious submissions he cannot be altogether annihilated, for he is a power that can be restrained or canalized, but not absolutely destroyed. Take away the pathos of the Osirian cycle, and the metaphors fall apart so that each can generate its own myth in narrative form. This is what happens in the myth of the contendings of Horus and Seth, int eh saga of the Two Brothers and the other popular tales, which deal with mythical motives as connected stories. They arose on the periphery of Osiris worship, far away from the deep emotions displayed in the genuine cult. Even the simple statement that sorrow is at an end in the Twin Sanctuaries declares that the joy at the salvation of Osiris is universal.
“Hence to become Osiris X is not to be identified with Osiris as he is usually represented, but to share in the god’s salvation and transformation into a ‘soul’. Death and the indignities of embalmment represented, for earthly bodies, the passion of the god. Seth is the death that strikes on down; his confederates are the demons of decay and dissolution. The completion of the rites and the establishment of the ordered ritual at the tomb are the ‘rescuing of the god’. The interim period btwn death and revival was one of great danger. Just as the pieces of Osiris’ body had been put together, and his corpse watched all through the night of his passion by his sisters Isis and Nephthys, so priestesses personifying them play the role of mourners and protectors of his body from spirit enemies during the funerary rituals. They, in fact, are responsible for the safety of Osiris between his death and the coming of Horus. First they find the gods and then they put his body together and mourn him.”
The waters of the annual inundation came from the thigh of the god (Osiris). This.. is the reason why the thigh of Osiris was kept as a relic in several temples and why modern scholars have been so mystified by references to being ‘born upon the thigh’.
Now to the downsides of the book. I think it needs to be stated that this book was written in the 50’s, so you have to keep an open mind with some of the information he presents. He seems to have an undercurrent of monotheism that I didn’t care for, and he likes to talk about the “Mother Goddess”- as though there is some supreme mother goddess of AE that oversees things. It’s a bit clunky in those regards, but I was able to look past that for the information he presents.
I think my biggest beef with this book is his writing style. Sometimes, he would go on about a topic- and then jump to an entirely different topic without so much as a transition. In some cases, this isn’t such a big deal- but in other cases, it almost feels like he was in the middle of a large point when he decides to switch tracks. This can become confusing or frustrating when you’re trying to piece together larger concepts and ideas. I also don’t entirely understand his names for his chapters. They make no sense to me, nor do they seem to have much correlation to the text within the chapters. Most of the areas where he discusses Osiris, I think the information could have been categorized into something more linear and easier to follow, and that most of those chapters could have been mashed into one large chapter that dealt with nothing more than Osiris’ mythos.
However, if you can move beyond the writing style, the information in the book is totally worth it. I plan on reading this again in the future, so I can soak up more details about Osiris, as there isn’t a whole lot written about him in-depth elsewhere. If you’re looking to learn about O, I totally recommend picking this book up.