If there is any symbol that has become synonymous with Osiris it is the Djed pillar. The connection between Osiris and the djed became so important that by the New Kingdom, the deity would often be shown as a djed entirely.
But what is the history of this symbol? What can we learn about Osiris through the djed?
According to Griffiths (pg 41), the djed wasn’t originally tied to Osiris. It was its own symbol before it got sucked into the Osirian cult. It is believed that the djed was originally a bundle of reed stalks or papyrus that had been tied together. The four cross-bars that you see on the pillar are considered to be papyrus flowers that poke out from the various stalks that are tied together. It’s possible that the idea came from archaic housing methods, where the entirety of the house/tent rested upon a central pillar that perhaps was made of reed or papyrus.
Before the onset of the use of the cartouche, djed pillars were often used to frame the name of a king. As stated by Rundle-Clark:
There are several stelae in the Zoser buildings at Sakkarah where the djed and tyet are used together as supports. … The purpose is clear: as with Khasekhemui the djed columns are world pillars, holding up the sky and so guaranteeing the space of air and world in which the king’s authority holds good. It is basic for all royal symbols of antiquity that kingship is universal; it means rule over the whole earth and all that is beneath the vault of the sky. Hence the frame of a king’s name is the delimination of the world. Taken horizontally, this is shown by a coil of rope with the ends tied together- in early times the coil is circular, but later it is spread lengthwise to accommodate longer names. this is the origin of the royal cartouche, the expanded oval in which royal names are written. In the Zoser name the djed and tyet signs delimit the world vertically while the coil of rope does the same thing horizontally. Zoser is master of all that is beneath the sky and to the ends of the earth (pg 237)
Throughout the entirety of the symbol’s history, the djed pillar was used in a variety of settings, and in each of these settings the same message shines through: stability, order, durability.
The Djed in Later Periods
As the Osirian cult grew, the use of the djed pillar in art and relief grew as well. In the later periods of Egypt, it was customary for the djed pillar to be painted onto the back of the sarcophagus to represent the spinal column and strength and stability of the mummy housed within. According to Rundle-Clark, the potency of the djed pillar is activated when the pillar is erect, or upright. He notes that even though the sarcophagus is ultimately laid flat in the tomb, it is standing upright during the Opening of the Mouth ceremony- the points in time which the Osiris contained within the sarcophagus needs all of the strength they can muster. According to Wilkinson:
New Kingdom coffins frequently have a djed pillar painted on the bottom where the backbone of the deceased would rest, in this way identifying the person with Osiris and acting as a symbolic source of stability. (pg 165)
The djed was also a symbol used with the deity Ptah who was sometimes called the “Noble Djed”. This is likely due to assimilation and syncretism that occurred between Osirs, Sokar and Ptah in the New Kingdom. In some cases, the djed is shown behind Ptah and his shrine to evoke the concept of “all protection, life, stability, dominion and health… are behind him.” It is common to have support shown behind you, as seen in a lot of Egyptian statuary and fundamentally means that you have the backing of said deity or item. Additionally, the djed was featured in one of Ptah’s most prominent symbols- an amulet that consists of the ankh, was sceptre and djed (which I’ve mused over in the past).
The Djed’s Use in Osirian Cult Practice
One of the primary uses for the djed was during the Osirian Mysteries that occur every year around harvesting time. The Mysteries are a week long event that culminates in the raising of the djed pillar which symbolizes Osiris’ rebirth into the Duat. Rundle-Clark says that the ritual goes even further in certain eras and that the djed pillar would be decorated with a loin-cloth and feathers and was treated like a living god. The raising of the djed symbolized the overcoming of decay and inertness. It is essentially Osiris overcoming the limitations of his death.
The raising of the djed is also featured in the rituals for a deceased king and at the new king’s jubilee festival. Raising the djed in these situations likely represents both the rebirth of the deceased monarch (as Osiris is also reborn) ad the establishment of stability in the cosmos/universe by the new king.
Because of the overlap between the Osirian cult and the use of the djed, I believe that a lot of the symbolism of both bled into the other. The stability of the djed helps to make Osiris more stable and steadfast. The rejuvenation that Osiris is known for bleeds into the symbolism of the pillar, and the bleed through of Ptah’s cult and function makes the pillar a creative force as well.
How can we use the djed in modern Kemeticism?
I think that there are many ways that we can make use of the djed pillar.
First and foremost would be to use the djed as an amulet. This can be in the form of a necklace or pendant, or possibly as a tattoo that is placed on or around the back. We can also use the djed as a reminder to work on stability, or to bring support to our lives.
For those of us who participate in the Mysteries, or work with Osiris, there is an obvious choice of bringing the djed into ritual practices as a means of bringing stability to the god in question.
But I also think that the djed can be a useful symbol for meditating or focusing upon when working on shadow work or inner work. Figuring out what brings you stability in your life can be exceptionally beneficial, especially if you have chronic spoon shortages. If you’re lacking in stability, you can focus on this symbol and reflect upon what you could do to help make yourself more stable. Who knows, even Osiris himself may show up to give a few pointers.
- Reading Egyptian Art: Wilkinson (pg 165)
- Myth and Symbol in AE: Rundle-Clark (pgs 235-238)
- The Origins of Osiris and His Cult: Griffiths (pg 41)