This post is a continuing work in progress. As I find new information regarding the Osirian myth cycle, I will add it in below. If you see anything incorrect within this post, please let me know so that I can correct it!
It’s incredibly difficult to get to know Osiris without getting to know his mythology. More so than a lot of other deities, I have found that Osiris is entirely tied up in his mythology, especially because he is commonly regarded as being a dead deity. Almost every aspect of him and his rites circles back around to the stories that fueled his cult.
What makes discussing the Osirian myth cycle so complicated is that the myth cycle was a hodge podge of myths crammed together to begin with. And from there, these stories had thousands of years to grow and change and morph into something completely different. And to make matters worse, you had foreigners (such as Plutarch) come in and retell the stories again from a different perspective. And that makes a mess.
This post is an attempt to give everyone a primer for understanding the variety and depth of the Osirian myth cycle because as it stands, I don’t feel like there is an online source that does his mythology justice.
So let’s dive in!
The Original Scheme
In order to not go insane while reading Osirian myths, you’ll have to start with the knowledge that there are huge numbers of contradictions within the original version of the myth. These contradictions only increase with each iteration of the myth.
The first mention of Osiris in any capacity is in the Pyramid Texts (PT) inside of Wenis’ pyramid in Saqqara (5th Dynasty). Due to the nature of the Pyramid Texts, they provide only a fragmentary view of Osiris’ original mythological scheme and are only somewhat helpful in understanding his origins and place within the Egyptian pantheon as a whole.
That being said, I think the first thing that you’ve got to understand about Osirian mythology is that it’s initial start in the world (in the Pyramid Texts, where it was essentially “born”) is a hack job. It’s a mixture of different mythologies crammed into one larger mythology. We’re not entirely sure why the Egyptians did this, but it is clear that a hack job was the end result. As Griffiths says:
What emerges clearly from a study of the Horus-myth and the Osiris-myth is that although they appear in the PT as a composite story they were not originally so. One of the contradictions which make this clear concerns the relationship of the main protagonists. In the Horus-Seth feud these two gods are brothers, while in the Osiris-Seth feud, Seth has become the paternal uncle of Horus and the brother of Osiris. Seth is indeed often mentioned as the brother of Osiris. Only rarely is he described as the brother of Horus, but in non-Osirian references to the conflict he and Horus appear as equals and contemporaries. Again, the child Horus of the Osiris-myth is very different from the strong deity who is able to mutilate Seth violently. An elder Horus seems to be present as well in the Osiris-myth, but there is no suggestion that he is any other than the grown child. (pg 15)
Technically, there are two main myths that are at work in the Osirian myth cycles as they appear in the Pyramid Texts. Griffiths refers to these as the “Horus-Seth” myth and the “Osiris-Seth” myth. In the Horus-Seth myth, these two are regarded as equals and contemporaries that are dueling it out for the reign of Egypt. This is the ever popular story where Seth loses his testicles and Horus loses his eye. In the Osiris-Seth myth, Seth becomes the uncle of Horus as the Egyptians worked to add a dead-king into the mythological mixture. Each attempt to retell the story with Osiris in it that moves further from the originals- almost like a weird game of telephone.
This can be seen in something as simple as the trial scene in the myth. According to Griffiths, the original trial scene (Horuse-Seth myth) actually occurred before Geb and concerned Seth and Horus and who will receive the right to oversee Egypt. However, in the first retelling of the myth, Osiris appears at trial in front of Geb after he has been felled by Seth. The only purpose of this trial is to ascertain the sovereignty of Osiris over the realm of the Dead. There is little to no discussion about Seth or the wrongs that have happened to Osiris. In later retellings of this myth, Horus is now a factor, and Osiris is overseeing the trial instead of Geb. This particular trial is about restoring Horus’ eye – which represents the sovereignty over Egypt. Because Osiris replaces Geb, this leaves Horus’ inheritance at stake, hence the shift in focus (source).
The most basic form of the original Osirian myth cycle is as follows:
- Osiris, a king, is felled by his brother, Seth. Sometimes, he is attacked in Gehestey or Nedyet (Griffiths, pg9). In other situations he is said to be drowned, and Rundle Clark makes mention of a version where Seth takes the form of a flea, and Osiris dies after he is bitten by said flea (pg104). In any case, Osiris’ story really starts with his felling.
- Osiris is found by Aset and Nebhet. Sometimes they are mourning kites, sometimes Horus tells them to “seize” Osiris out of the water.
- Osiris is then run through the mummification processes. He is made whole and complete. Aset and Nebhet mourn him as is customary.
- Meanwhile, Osiris is inert and unable to do much for himself. He will only be free when Order is restored- when Horus has overcome the adversity that has befallen him.
- There are discrepancies about who should receive the inheritance of Egypt. This is where the Seth-Horus myth comes into play, and both duke it out for the right to rule. Each member will be wounded, but both will be restored by the end of the myth.
- Upon having his Eye restored, Horus will offer it to Osiris. In this case, the Eye is a source of protection to the king against Seth’s violence (Griffiths, pg8).
- Horus will also bring the subdued Seth and his confederates before Osiris in a display of Order over Chaos.
- There is a secondary trial before the gods of Heliopolis that is overseen by Geb that concerns Seth’s deeds in regards to Osiris. The verdict will swing in Osiris’ favor, of course.
- With Order restored, Osiris takes his rightful place as king of the Duat and Horus becomes king over the living.
In the original myth scheme, Osiris’ felling is handled very delicately. There is no direct mention made of the event, and its usually alluded to through metaphor. Usually, if Osiris is said to be dead, it is followed up with a reversed sentence that refutes that death, such as:
“Atum, this Osiris is thy son; thou has caused him to flourish and live. He lives, this King lives; he is not dead, this King is not dead. (Griffiths, pg19)”
In addition to this, Seth is often equated to the boat that helps to ferry Osiris’ mummy across the Nile to the necropolis. This is said to be a punishment for his deeds, though Griffiths believes it to reflect some amount of regret on Seth’s part (Griffiths, pg75). Seth also works in concordance with Horus to help Osiris and the Osiris-King throughout the Pyramid Texts. Which reflects some depth of character for this particular deity.
Horus is another difficult character to pin down. As mentioned above, his role shifts throughout the telling of the myth due to the mixing and merging of different stories into one. You’ll notice in my bullet points above, there is no mention of the tell-tale portion of Aset and Osiris getting it on to conceive Horus. This is because I’ve read conflicting information on this. According to Griffiths, in certain versions- Horus is already born before his father is felled. However, in other versions, its supposed that Horus’ birth is more metaphorical in nature, and refers astronomical links. And finally, you’ve got the standard version which involves Aset and Osiris getting it on after Osiris has been properly mummified. The confusion with Horus’ birth likely stems from the merging of the two myths- in many myths that pre-date the Osirian cult, Horus’ parents are often cited as Nut and Geb or Hathor (Griffiths, pg15).
New Kingdom Modifications to the Osirian Myth Cycle
By the New Kingdom, the Osirian myth cycle has had quite a few centuries to evolve and shift to reflect the population’s view towards both Osiris and death. According to Roberts, New Kingdom religion (specifically in regards to Dynasty 19) was about devotion and piety. As a sort of backlash from the Amarna situation, the tombs of the 19th Dynasty contained more somber reliefs with Osiris and experiences within the Duat as a focal point (pg2). Abydos, the main cult center for Osiris, will experience its peak in both expansion (O’Connor, pg104) and cultic practice during the New Kingdom, and the Osirian myth and Mysteries will be fleshed out and brought to new heights during the latter part of Egyptian history. It is also during this era that the Book of Going Forth by Day, also known as the Book of the Dead (BotD) gains its popularity for funerary texts and the Contendings of Horus and Set are written as a satirical text.
It is during the New Kingdom that some of the more familiar elements of the Osirian myth cycle start to appear. For example:
- There is the consistently added feature of Aset and Osiris copulating to create Horus postmortem (it’s canon!).
- The addition of the chopping up of Osiris’ body seems to have been added in and worked into the mythology of the cult (saying that each Egyptian nome had a part of Osiris’ body buried in it with the head being in Abydos)
- There are a lot more ties to Osiris and the Nile and this is the era that corn mummies are brought into cultic use.
By this point in time the story had become more consistent, and enough time had passed from the original versions that were recorded in the PT that we can begin to ignore a lot of the smaller inconsistencies and focus on the real “meat” of the story, which is Osiris’ felling and rebirth through the love of his devoted wife and son.
The Later Period Retellings
This is the era that birthed the version of this myth that pretty much everyone knows. It’s the version of this myth that you get taught in schools, that makes it into media references and movies and is the version of this mythology that you see on almost every internet webpage. This is also the era of Plutarch’s telling of this mythology. The reason why Plutarch’s version of this myth is so popular is because it’s the first time that this myth was written down all at once. The Egyptians didn’t seem to like to record their stories all in one place, all in one go, and so all of the previous versions of this myth are basically cobbled pieces of information that we’ve found in a variety of places. The whole story isn’t recorded all in one pyramid, relief or temple, and so every version of the story up until Plutarch’s telling has a bunch of holes in it.
However, it’s pretty clear that Plutarch added a lot of stuff that doesn’t exist in the original telling (to our knowledge). So there is some debate as to how much weight we should put into the Plutarchian version of the myth. The additions that made it into the later periods of the Osirian myth cycle are:
- Osiris cheated on Aset with Nebhet- a debacle which includes making Anup Osiris’ child (read more here).
- Tricking Osiris into laying in a coffin and drowning him.
- The first outright statement that Osiris was killed and how he was killed.
- The addition of Osiris losing his phallus to an Oxyrhynchus fish.
- Aset journeying to other realms or countries to find the felled Osiris.
While these items are often talked about as though they are part of the original myth, they aren’t. They are relatively late additions to the story (as far as we currently know, at least), and probably should be regarded as such. There are lots of possible reasons as to why these things were added into Plutarch’s stories, but there is currently no concrete evidence either way.
What does this mean for my practice? Which version of the story to I believe?
The short answer to these questions is “it’s up to you”. The Osirian myth cycle has heavy relevance to some people’s practices (particularly those who work closely with Osiris, Set or Aset), but may have virtually no implications for someone else. What version of the myth you utilize is entirely up to you, though all of the varieties have some merit to them. The initial OK version of the myth had Osiris less at the focal point and placed more emphasis on the deceased King befriending Osiris and obtaining life after death. During the NK, the whole point became about Osiris’ triumph over death and how Horus and Aset help him to defy death. And by the later periods, the story is heavily focused on salvation after death. For myself personally, I believe that the OK version is very interesting for understanding how Set and Osiris’ relationship started and that this version is ideal for getting a relatively unbiased view on Set. I prefer the later versions of the myth for understanding more complexities within Osiris’ cult and for poking at the layers of death and rebirth within the ancient Egyptian mindset. Even Plutarch’s version has some interesting things to consider.
At the end of the day what matters most is that you understand that the story shifted and changed and grew, and that there is more than one version of the myth out there. This is doubly important to recognize because it reflects how Egyptians treated mythology- as something that was malleable and pliable, and that the cults themselves shifted and grew as time progressed. In addition to this, as it was okay for things to shift and change in the past, we can also continue to shift and change as we move into the future.
- The Origins of Osiris and His Cult by J. Gwyn Griffiths
- Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt by Rundle Clark
- My Heart My Mother by Alison Roberts
- Abydos by David O’Connor