Legends of the Gods
The Egyptian Texts, edited with Translations
by E. A. Wallis Budge
London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trübner & Co. Ltd.
THE HISTORY OF ISIS AND OSIRIS
THE history of Isis and Osiris given on pp. 198-248 is taken from the famous treatise of Plutarch entitled De Iside et Osiride, and forms a fitting conclusion to this volume of Legends of the Gods. It contains all the essential facts given in Plutarch's work, and the only things omitted are his derivations and mythological speculations, which are really unimportant for the Egyptologist.
Egyptian literature is full of allusions to events which took place in the life of Osiris, and to his persecution, murder, and resurrection, and numerous texts of all periods describe the love and devotion of his sister and wife Isis, and the filial piety of Horus. Nowhere, however, have we in Egyptian a connected account of the causes which led to the murder by Set of Osiris, or of the subsequent events which resulted in his becoming the king of heaven and judge of the dead. However carefully we piece together the fragments of information which we can extract from native Egyptian literature, there still remains a series of gaps which can only be filled by guesswork.
Plutarch, as a learned man and a student of comparative religion and mythology was most anxious to understand the history of Isis and Osiris, which Greek and Roman scholars talked about freely, and which none of them comprehended, and he made enquiries of priests and others, and examined critically such information as he could obtain, believing and hoping that he would penetrate the mystery in which these gods were wrapped.
As a result of his labours he collected a number of facts about the form of the Legend of Isis and Osiris as it was known to the learned men of his day, but there is no evidence that he had the slightest knowledge of the details of the original African Legend of these gods as it was known to the Egyptians, say, under the VIth Dynasty.
Moreover, he never realized that the characteristics and attributes of both Isis and Osiris changed several times during the long history of Egypt, and that a thousand years before he lived the Egyptians themselves had forgotten what the original form of the legend was. They preserved a number of ceremonies, and performed very carefully all the details of an ancient ritual at the annual commemoration festival of Osiris which was held in November and December, but the evidence of the texts makes it quite clear that the meaning and symbolism of nearly all the details were unknown alike to priests and people.
An important modification of the cult of Isis and Osiris took place in the third century before. Christ, when the Ptolemies began to consolidate their rule in Egypt. A form of religion which would be acceptable both to Egyptians and Greeks had to be provided, and this was produced by modifying the characteristics of Osiris and calling him Sarapis, and identifying him with the Greek Pluto.
To Isis were added many of the attributes of the great Greek goddesses, and into her worship were introduced "mysteries" derived from non-Egyptian cults, which made it acceptable to the people everywhere. Had a high priest of Osiris who lived at Abydos under the XVIIIth Dynasty witnessed the celebration of the great festival of Isis and Osiris in any large town in the first century before Christ, it is tolerably certain that he would have regarded it as a lengthy act of worship of strange gods, in which there appeared, here and there, ceremonies and phrases which reminded him of the ancient Abydos ritual.
When the form of the cult of Isis and Osiris introduced by the Ptolemies into Egypt extended to the great cities of Greece and Italy, still further modifications took place in it, and the characters of Isis and Osiris were still further changed. By degrees Osiris came to be regarded as the god of death pure and simple, or as the personification of Death, and he ceased to be regarded as the great protecting ancestral spirit, and the all-powerful protecting Father of his people.
As the importance of Osiris declined that of Isis grew, and men came to regard her as the great Mother-goddess of the world. The priests described from tradition the great facts of her life according to the Egyptian legends, how she had been a loving and devoted wife, how she had gone forth after her husband's murder by Set to seek for his body, how she had found it and brought it home, how she revivified it by her spells and had union with Osiris and conceived by him, and how in due course she brought forth her son, in pain and sorrow and loneliness in the Swamps of the Delta, and how she reared him and watched over him until he was old enough to fight and vanquish his father's murderer, and how at length she seated him in triumph on his father's throne.
These things endeared Isis to the people everywhere, and as she herself had not suffered death like Osiris, she came to be regarded as the eternal mother of life and of all living things. She was the creatress of crops, she produced fruit, vegetables, plants of all kinds and trees, she made cattle prolific, she brought men and women together and gave them offspring, she was the authoress of all love, virtue, goodness and happiness. She made the light to shine, she was the spirit of the Dog-star which heralded the Nile-flood, she was the source of the power in the beneficent light of the moon; and finally she took the dead to her bosom and gave them peace, and introduced them to a life of immortality and happiness similar to that which she had bestowed upon Osiris.
The message of the cult of Isis as preached by her priests was one of hope and happiness, and coming to the Greeks and Romans, as it did, at a time when men were weary of their national cults, and when the speculations of the philosophers carried no weight with the general public, the people everywhere welcomed it with the greatest enthusiasm.
From Egypt it was carried to the Islands of Greece and to the mainland, to Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Portugal, and then crossing the western end of the Mediterranean it entered North Africa, and with Carthage as a centre spread east and west along the coast. Wherever the cult of Isis came men accepted it as something which supplied what they thought to be lacking in their native cults; rich and poor, gentle and simple, all welcomed it, and the philosopher as well as the ignorant man rejoiced in the hope of a future life which it gave to them. Its Egyptian origin caused it to be regarded with the profoundest interest, and its priests were most careful to make the temples of Isis quite different from those of the national gods, and to decorate them with obelisks, sphinxes, shrines, altars, etc., which were either imported from temples in Egypt, or were copied from Egyptian originals. In the temples of Isis services were held at daybreak and in the early afternoon daily, and everywhere these were attended by crowds of people.
The holy water used in the libations and for sprinkling the people was Nile water, specially imported from Egypt, and to the votaries of the goddess it symbolized the seed of the god Osiris, which germinated and brought forth fruit through the spells of the goddess Isis. The festivals and processions of Isis were everywhere most popular, and were enjoyed by learned and unlearned alike. In fact, the Isis-play which was acted annually in November, and the festival of the blessing of the ship, which took place in the spring, were the most important festivals of the year.
Curiously enough, all the oldest gods and goddesses of Egypt passed into absolute oblivion, with the exception of Osiris (Sarapis), Isis, Anubis the physician, and Harpokrates, the child of Osiris and Isis, and these, from being the ancestral spirits of a comparatively obscure African tribe in early dynastic times, became for several hundreds of years the principal objects of worship of some of the most cultured and intellectual nations. The treatise of Plutarch De Iside helps to explain how this came about, and for those who study the Egyptian Legend of Isis and Osiris the work has considerable importance.