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
WITH EXPLANATIONS OF THE SAME, COLLECTED BY PLUTARCH, AND SUPPLEMENTED BY HIS OWN VIEWS
THIRD EXPLANATION OF THE STORY
Such then are the arguments of those who endeavour to account for the above-mentioned history of Isis and Osiris upon a supposition that they were of the order of Daemons; but there are others who pretend to explain it upon other principles, and in more philosophical manner.
To begin, then, with those whose reasoning is the most simple and obvious. As the Greeks allegorize their Kronos into Time, and their Hera into Air, and tell us that the birth of Hephaistos is no other but the change of air into fire, so these philosophers say that by Osiris the Egyptians mean the Nile, by Isis that part of the country which Osiris, or the Nile, overflows, and by Typhon the sea, which, by receiving the Nile as it runs into it, does, as it were, tear it into many pieces, and indeed entirely destroys it, excepting only so much of it as is admitted into the bosom of the earth in its passage over it, which is thereby rendered fertile.
The truth of this explanation is confirmed, they say, by that sacred dirge which they make over Osiris when they bewail "him who was born on the right side of the world and who perished on the left." 1 For it must be observed that the Egyptians look upon the east as the front or face of the world, 2 upon the north as its right side, 3 and upon the south as its left. 4 As, therefore, the Nile rises in the south, and running directly northwards is at last swallowed up by the sea, it may rightly enough be said to be born on the right and to perish on the left side, This conclusion, they say, is still farther strengthened from that abhorrence which the priests express towards the sea, as well as salt, which they call "Typhon's foam."
And amongst their prohibitions is one which forbids salt being laid on their tables. And do they not also carefully avoid speaking to pilots, because this class of men have much to do with the sea and get their living by it? And this is not the least of their reasons for the great dislike which they have for fish, and they even make the fish a symbol of "hatred," as is proved by the pictures which are to be seen on the porch of the temple of Neith at Saïs. The first of these is a child, the second is an old man, the third is a hawk, and then follow a fish and a hippopotamus. The meaning of all these is evidently, "O you who are coming into the world, and you who are going out of it (i.e., both young and old), God hateth impudence."
For by the child is indicated "all those who are coming into life"; by the old man, "those who are going out of it"; by the hawk, "God"; by the fish, "hatred," on account of the sea, as has been before stated; and by the hippopotamus, "impudence," this creature being said first to slay his sire, and afterwards to force his dam. 5 The Pythagoreans likewise may be thought perhaps by some to have looked upon the sea as impure, and quite different from all the rest of nature, and that thus much is intended by them when they call it the "tears of Kronos."
Some of the more philosophical priests assert that Osiris does not symbolize the Nile only, nor Typhon the sea only, but that Osiris represents the principle and power of moisture in general, and that Typhon represents everything which is scorching, burning, and fiery, and whatever destroys moisture. Osiris they believe to have been of a black 6 colour, because water gives a black tinge to everything with which it is mixed.
The Mnevis Bull 7 kept at Heliopolis is, like Osiris, black in colour, "and even Egypt 8 itself, by reason of the extreme blackness of the soil, is called by them 'Chemia,' the very name which is given to the black part or pupil of the eye. 9 It is, moreover, represented by them under the figure of a human heart."
The Sun and Moon are not represented as being drawn about in chariots, but as sailing round the world in ships, which shows that they owe their motion, support, and nourishment to the power of humidity. 10 Homer and Thales both learned from Egypt that "water was the first principle of all things, and the cause of generation." 11]
The Nile and all kinds of moisture are called the "efflux of Osiris." Therefore a water-pitcher 12 is always carried first in his processions, and the leaf of a fir-tree represents both Osiris and Egypt. 13
Osiris is the great principle of fecundity, which is proved by the Pamylia festivals, in which a statue of the god with a triple phallus is carried about. 14 The three-fold phallus merely signifies any great and indefinite number.]
The Sun is consecrated to Osiris, and the lion is worshipped, and temples are ornamented with figures of this animal, because the Nile rises when the sun is in the constellation of the Lion. Horus, the offspring of Osiris, the Nile, and Isis, the Earth, was born in the marshes of Buto, because the vapour of damp land destroys drought. Nephthys, or Teleute, represents the extreme limits of the country and the sea-shore, that is, barren land. Osiris (i.e., the Nile) overflowed this barren land, and Anubis 15 was the result. 16
As to what they relate of the shutting up of Osiris in a box, this appears to mean the withdrawal of the Nile to its own bed. This is the more probable as this misfortune is said to have happened to Osiris in the month of Hathor, precisely at that season of the year when, upon the cessation of the Etesian or north winds the Nile returns to its own bed, and leaves the country everywhere bare and naked. At this time also the length of the nights increases, darkness prevails, whilst light is diminished and overcome. At this time the priests celebrate doleful rites, and they exhibit as a suitable representation of the grief of Isis a gilded ox covered with a fine black linen cloth. Now, the ox is regarded as the living image of Osiris. This ceremony is performed on the seventeenth and three following days, 17 and they mourn:
1. The falling of the Nile;
2. The cessation of the north winds;
3. The decrease in the length of the days;
4. The desolate condition of the land.
On the nineteenth of the month Pachons they march in procession to the sea, whither the priests and other officials carry the sacred chest, wherein is enclosed a small boat of gold; into this they first pour some water, and then all present cry out with a loud voice, "Osiris is found." This done, they throw some earth, scent, and spices into the water, and mix it well together, and work it up into the image of a crescent, which they afterwards dress in clothes. This shows that they regard the gods as the essence and power of water and earth.
Though Typhon was conquered by Horus, Isis would not allow him to be destroyed. Typhon was once master of all Egypt, i.e., Egypt was once covered by the sea, which is proved by the sea-shells which are dug out of the mines, and are found on the tops of the hills. The Nile year by year creates new land, and thus drives away the sea further and further, i.e., Osiris triumphs over Typhon.
1 Plutarch here refers to Osiris as the Moon, which rises in the West.
2 According to the texts the front of the world was the south, khent, and from this word is formed the verb "to sail to the south."
3 In the texts the west is the right side, unemi, in Coptic, .
4 In the texts the east is the left side, abti.
5 Each of these signs, , except the last, does mean what Plutarch says it means, but his method of reading them together is wrong, and it proves that he did not understand that hieroglyphics were used alphabetically as well as ideographically.
6 Experiments recently conducted by Lord Rayleigh indicate that the true colour of water is blue.
7 In Egyptian, Nem-ur, or Men-ur, and he was "called the life of Ra."
8 The commonest name of Egypt is KEMT, "black land," as opposed to the reddish-yellow sandy deserts on each side of the "valley of black mud." The word for "black" is kam.
9 Plutarch seems to have erred here. The early texts call the pupil of the eye "the child in the eye," as did the Semitic peoples (see my Liturgy of Funerary Offerings, p. 136). The Copts spoke of the "black of the eye," derived from the hieroglyphic "darkness," "blackness."
10 There is no support for this view in the texts.
11 It was a very common belief in Egypt that all things arose from the great celestial ocean called Nu, whence came the Nile.
12 Plutarch refers to the vessel of water, with which the priest sprinkles the ground to purify it.
13 He seems to refer here to the olive-tree: Beqet, "olive land," was one of the names of Egypt.
14 Plutarch seems to be confounding Osiris with Menu, the god of generation, who is generally represented in an ithyphallic form. The festival of the phallus survived in Egypt until quite recently.
15 The Egyptian ANPU. The texts make one form of him to be the son of Set and Nephthys.
16 Plutarch's explanations in this chapter are unsupported by the texts.
17 The 17th day is very unlucky; the 18th is very lucky; the 19th and 20th are very unlucky. On the 17th day Isis and Nephthys made great lamentation for their brother Un-nefer at Saïs; on the 19th no man should leave the house; and the man born on the 20th would die of the plague.