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The Book of the Dead, The Legend of Osiris


The Papyrus of Ani



Late keeper of Assyrian and Egyptian Antiquities
in the British Museum



The main features of the Egyptian religion constant.

The chief features of the Egyptian religion remained unchanged from the Vth and VIth dynasties down to the period when the Egyptians embraced Christianity, after the preaching of St. Mark the Apostle in Alexandria, A.D. 69, so firmly had the early beliefs taken possession of the Egyptian mind; and the Christians in Egypt, or Copts as they are commonly called, the racial descendants of the ancient Egyptians, seem never to have succeeded in divesting themselves of the superstitious and weird mythological conceptions which they inherited from their heathen ancestors. It is not necessary here to repeat the proofs, of this fact which M. Amineau has brought together,[1] or to adduce evidence from the lives of the saints, martyrs and ascetics; but it is of interest to note in passing that the translators of the New Testament into Coptic rendered the Greek {Greek a!'dhs} by ###, amenti, the name which the ancient Egyptians gave to the abode of man after death,[3] and that the Copts peopled it with beings whose prototypes are found on the ancient monuments.

Persistence of the legend of Osiris and the belief in the resurrection.

The chief gods mentioned in the pyramid texts are identical with those whose names are given on tomb, coffin and papyrus in the latest dynasties; and if the names of the great cosmic gods, such as Ptah and Khnemu, are of rare occurrence, it should be remembered that the gods of the dead must naturally occupy the chief place in this literature which concerns the dead. Furthermore, we find that the doctrine of eternal life and of the resurrection of a glorified or transformed body, based upon the ancient story of the resurrection of Osiris after a cruel death and horrible mutilation, inflicted by the powers of evil, was the same in all periods, and that the legends of the most ancient times were accepted without material alteration or addition in the texts of the later dynasties.

[1. Le Christianisme chez les anciens Coptes, in Revue des Religions, t, xiv., Paris, 1886, PP, 308-45

2. I.e., ###.

3. See St. Matthew xi., 23; Acts ii., 27, etc.]

Plutarch's version of the legend.

The story of Osiris is nowhere found in a connected form in Egyptian literature, but everywhere, and in texts of all periods, the life, sufferings, death and resurrection of Osiris are accepted as facts universally admitted. Greek writers have preserved in their works traditions concerning this god, and to Plutarch in particular we owe an important version of the legend as current in his day. It is clear that in some points he errs, but this was excusable in dealing with a series of traditions already some four thousand years old.[1] According to this writer the goddess Rhea [Nut], the wife of Helios [Ra], was beloved by Kronos [Seb]. When Helios discovered the intrigue, he cursed his wife and declared that she should not be delivered of her child in any month or in any year. Then the god Hermes, who also loved Rhea, played at tables with Selene and won from her the seventieth part of each day of the year, which, added together, made five whole days. These he joined to the three hundred and sixty days of which the year then consisted.[2] Upon the first of these five days was Osiris brought forth;[3] and at the moment of his birth a voice was heard to proclaim that the lord of creation was born. In course of time he became king of Egypt, and devoted himself to civilizing his subjects and to teaching them the craft of the husbandman; he established a code of laws and bade men worship the gods. Having made Egypt peaceful and flourishing, he set out to instruct the other nations of the world. During his absence his wife Isis so well ruled the state that Typhon [Set], the evil one, could do no harm to the realm of Osiris. When Osiris came again, Typhon plotted with seventy-two comrades, and with Aso, the queen of Ethiopia, to slay him; and secretly got the measure of the body of Osiris, and made ready a fair chest, which was brought into his banqueting hall when Osiris was present together with other guests. By a ruse Osiris was induced to lie down in the chest, which was immediately closed by Typhon and his fellow conspirators, who conveyed it to the Tanaitic mouth of the Nile.[4] These things happened on the seventeenth day of

[1. For the text see De Iside et Osiride, ed. Didot (Scripta Moralia, t. iii., pp. 429-69), xii. ff.

2. The days are called in hieroglyphics ###, "the five additional days of the year," e?pago'menai!hme'rai pe'nte; see Brugsch, Thesaurus Inscriptionum Aegytiacarum, Abt. ii. (Kalendarische Inschriften), Leipzig, 1883, pp. 479, 480; Brugsch, Aegyptologie, p. 361 Chabas, Le Cendrier, Paris (no date), p. 99 ff.

3. Osiris was born on the first day, Horus on the second, Set on the third, Isis on the fourth, and Nephthys on the fifth; the first, third, and fifth of these days were considered unlucky by the Egyptians.

4. The mouths of the Nile are discussed and described by Strabo, XVII., i., 18 (ed. Didot, p. 681) and by Diodorus, I., 33, 7 (ed. Didot, p. 26).]

Plutarch's version.

the month Hathor,[1] when Osiris was in the twenty-eighth year either of his reign or of his age. The first to know of what had happened were the Pans and Satyrs, who dwelt hard by Panopolis; and finally the news was brought to Isis at Coptos, whereupon she cut off a lock of hair[2] and put on mourning apparel. She then set out in deep grief to find her husband's body, and in the course of her wanderings she discovered that Osiris had been united with her sister Nephthys, and that Anubis, the offspring of the union, had been exposed by his mother as soon as born. Isis tracked him by the help of dogs, and bred him up to be her guard and attendant. Soon after she learned that the chest had been carried by the sea to Byblos, where it had been gently laid by the waves among the branches of a tamarisk tree ({Greek e?pei'khj tini`}), which in a very short time had grown to a magnificent size and had enclosed the chest within its trunk. The king of the country, admiring the tree, cut it down and made a pillar for the roof of his house of that part which contained the body of Osiris. When Isis heard of this she went to Byblos, and, gaining admittance to the palace through the report of the royal maidens, she was made nurse to one of the king's sons, Instead of nursing the child in the ordinary way, Isis gave him her finger to suck, and each night she put him into the fire to consume his mortal parts, changing herself the while into a swallow and bemoaning her fate. But the queen once happened to see her son in flames, and cried out, and thus deprived him of immortality. Then Isis told the queen her story and begged for the pillar which supported the roof. This she cut open, and took out the chest and her husband's body,[3] and her lamentations were so terrible that one of the royal children died of fright. She then brought the

[1. In the Calendar in the fourth Sallier papyrus (No. 10,184) this day is marked triply unlucky, and it is said that great lamentation by Isis and Nephthys took place for Un-nefer (Osiris) thereon. See Chabas, Le Calendrier, p. 50. Here we have Plutarch's statement supported by documentary evidence. Some very interesting details concerning the festivals of Osiris in the month Choiak are given by Loret in Recueil de Travaux, t. iii., p. 43 ff; t. iv., p. 21 ff.; and t. v., p. 85 ff. The various mysteries which took place thereat are minutely described.

2 On the cutting of the hair as a sign of mourning, see W. Robertson Smith, The Religion of the Semites, p. 395; and for other beliefs about the hair see Tylor, Primitive Culture, vo1. ii., p. 364, and Fraser, Golden Bough, pp. 193-208.

3 The story continues that Isis then wrapped the pillar in fine linen and anointed it with oil, and restored it to the queen. Plutarch adds that the piece of wood is, to this day, preserved in the temple of Isis, and worshipped by the people of Byblos. Prof. Robertson Smith suggests (Religion of the Semites, p. 175) that the rite of draping and anointing a sacred stump supplies the answer to the unsolved question of the nature of the ritual practices connected with the Ashera. That some sort of drapery belonged to the Ashera is clear from 2 Kings xxiii., 7. See also Tylor, Primitive Culture, vol. ii., p. 150; and Fraser, Golden Bough, vol. i., p. 304 ff.]

Plutarch's version.

chest by ship to Egypt, where she opened it and embraced the body of her husband, weeping bitterly. Then she sought her son Horus in Buto, in Lower Egypt, first having hidden the chest in a secret place. But Typhon, one night hunting by the light of the moon, found the chest, and, recognizing the body, tore it into fourteen pieces, which he scattered up and down throughout the land. When Isis heard of this she took a boat made of papyrus[1]--a plant abhorred by crocodiles--and sailing about she gathered the fragments of Osiris's body.[2] Wherever she found one, there she built a tomb. But now Horus had grown up, and being encouraged to the use of arms by Osiris, who returned from the other world, he went out to do battle with Typhon, the murderer of his father. The fight lasted many days, and Typhon was made captive. But Isis, to whom the care of the prisoner was given, so far from aiding her son Horus, set Typhon at liberty. Horus in his rage tore from her head the royal diadem; but Thoth gave her a helmet in the shape of a cow's head. In two other battles fought between Horus and Typhon, Horus was the victor.[3]

[1. The ark of "bulrushes" was, no doubt, intended to preserve the child Moses from crocodiles.

2. {Greek Mo'non de` tw^n merw^u tou^ O?si'ridos th`n I?^sin ou`x e`urei^n to` ai?doi^n e`u`s ga`r ei's to`n potamo`n r!ifh^nai kai` geu'sasi to'n te lepidwto`n au`tou^ kai` to`n fa'gron kai` to`n o?ksu'rugxon. k.t.l.}. By the festival celebrated by the Egyptians in honour of the model of the lost member of Osiris, we are probably to understand the public performance of the ceremony of "setting up the Tet in Tattu", which we know took place on the last day of the month Choiak; see Loret, Les Fes d'Osiris au mois de Khoiak (Recueil de Travaux, t. iv., p. 32, 87); Plutarch, De Iside, xviii.

3. An account of the battle is also given in the IVth Sallier papyrus, wherein we are told that it took place on the 26th day of the month Thoth. Horus and Set fought in the form of two men, but they afterwards changed themselves into two bears, and they passed three days and three nights in this form. Victory inclined now to one side, and now to the other, and the heart of Isis suffered bitterly. When Horus saw that she loosed the fetters which he had laid upon Set, he became like a "raging panther of the south with fury," and she fled before him; but he pursued her, and cut off her head, which Thoth transformed by his words of magical power and set upon her body again in the form of that of a cow. In the calendars the 26th day of Thoth was marked triply deadly. See Chabas, Le Calendrier, p. 28 ff.]

Identity of the deceased with Osiris.

This is the story of the sufferings and death of Osiris as told by Plutarch. Osiris was the god through whose sufferings and death the Egyptian hoped that his body might rise again in some transformed or glorified shape, and to him who had conquered death and had become the king of the other world the Egyptian appealed in prayer for eternal life through his victory and power. In every funeral inscription known to us, from the pyramid texts down to the roughly written prayers upon coffins of the Roman period, what is done for Osiris is done also for the deceased, the state and condition of Osiris are the state and condition of the deceased; in a word, the deceased is identified with Osiris. If Osiris liveth for ever, the deceased will live for ever; if Osiris dieth, then will the deceased perish.[1]

[1. The origin of Plutarch's story of the death of Osiris, and the Egyptian conception of his nature and attributes, may be gathered from the following very remarkable hymn. (The text is given by Ledrain, Les Monuments yptiens de la Bibliothue Nationale, Paris, 1879, pll. xxi-xxvii. A French translation of it was published, with notes, by Chabas, in Revue Archlogique, Paris, 1857, t. xiv., p. 65 ff.; and an English version was given in Records of the Past, 1st series, vol. iv., p. 99 ff. The stele upon which it is found belongs to the early part of the XVIIIth dynasty, by which is meant the period before the reign of Amenophis IV.; this is proved by the fact that the name of the god Amen has been cut out of it, an act of vandalism which can only have been perpetrated in the fanatical reign of Amenophis IV.):

Hymn to Osiris.

"(1) Hail to thee, Osiris, lord of eternity, king of the gods, thou who hast many names, thou disposer of created things, thou who hast hidden forms in the temples, thou sacred one, thou KA who dwellest in Tattu, thou mighty (2) one in Sekhem, thou lord to whom invocations are made in Anti, thou who art over the offerings in Annu, thou lord who makest inquisition in two-fold right and truth, thou hidden soul, the lord of Qerert, thou who disposest affairs in the city of the White Wall, thou soul of Ra, thou very body of Ra who restest in (3) Suten-henen, thou to whom adorations are made in the region of Nart, thou who makest the soul to rise, thou lord of the Great House in Khemennu, thou mighty of terror in Shas-hetep, thou lord of eternity, thou chief of Abtu, thou who sittest upon thy throne in Ta-tchesert, thou whose name is established in the mouths of (4) men, thou unformed matter of the world, thou god Tum, thou who providest with food the ka's who are with the company of the gods, thou perfect khu among khu's, thou provider of the waters of Nu, thou giver of the wind, thou producer of the wind of the evening from thy nostrils for the satisfaction of thy heart. Thou makest (5) plants to grow at thy desire, thou givest birth to . . . . . . . ; to thee are obedient the stars in the heights, and thou openest the mighty gates. Thou art the lord to whom hymns of praise are sung in the southern heaven, and unto thee are adorations paid in the northern heaven. The never setting stars (6) are before thy face, and they are thy thrones, even as also are those that never rest. An offering cometh to thee by the command of Seb. The company of the gods adoreth thee, the stars of the tuat bow to the earth in adoration before thee, [all] domains pay homage to thee, and the ends of the earth offer entreaty and supplication. When those who are among the holy ones (7) see thee they tremble at thee, and the whole world giveth praise unto thee when it meeteth thy majesty. Thou art a glorious sahu among the sahu's, upon thee hath dignity been conferred, thy dominion is eternal, O thou beautiful Form of the company of the gods; thou gracious one who art beloved by him that (8) seeth thee. Thou settest thy fear in all the world, and through love for thee all proclaim thy name before that of all other gods. Unto thee are offerings made by all mankind, O thou lord to whom commemorations are made, both in heaven and in earth. Many are the shouts of joy that rise to thee at the Uak[*] festival, and cries of delight ascend to thee from the (9) whole world with one voice. Thou art the chief and prince of thy brethren, thou art the prince of the company of the gods, thou stablishest right and truth everywhere, thou placest thy son upon thy throne, thou art the object of praise of thy father Seb, and of the love of thy mother Nut. Thou art exceeding mighty, thou overthrowest those who oppose thee, thou art mighty of hand, and thou slaughterest thine (10) enemy. Thou settest thy fear in thy foe, thou removest his boundaries, thy heart is fixed, and thy feet are watchful. Thou art the heir of Seb and the sovereign of all the earth;

[* This festival took place on the 17th and 18th days of the month Thoth; see Brugsch, Kalendarische Inschriften, p. 235.]

Seb hath seen thy glorious power, and hath commanded thee to direct the (11) universe for ever and ever by thy hand.

"Thou hast made this earth by thy hand, and the waters thereof, and the wind thereof, the herb thereof, all the cattle thereof, all the winged fowl thereof, all the fish thereof, all the creeping things thereof, and all the four-footed beasts thereof. (12) O thou son of Nut, the whole world is gratified when thou ascendest thy father's throne like Ra. Thou shinest in the horizon, thou sendest forth thy light into the darkness, thou makest the darkness light with thy double plume, and thou floodest the world with light like the (13) Disk at break of day. Thy diadem pierceth heaven and becometh a brother unto the stars, O thou form of every god. Thou art gracious in command and in speech, thou art the favoured one of the great company of the gods, and thou art the greatly beloved one of the lesser company of the gods.

"Thy sister put forth her protecting power for thee, she scattered abroad those who were her enemies, (14) she drove back evil hap, she pronounced mighty words of power, she made cunning her tongue, and her words failed not. The glorious Isis was perfect in command and in speech, and she avenged her brother. She sought him without ceasing, (15) she wandered round and round the earth uttering cries of pain, and she rested[*] not until she had found him. She overshadowed him with her feathers, she made wind with her wings, and she uttered cries at the burial of her brother. (16) She raised up the prostrate form of him whose heart was still, she took from. him of his essence, she conceived and brought forth a child,[+] she suckled it in secret (?) and none knew the place thereof; and the arm of the child hath waxed strong in the great house of Seb. (17) The company of the gods rejoiceth and is glad at the coming of Osiris's son Horus, and firm of heart and triumphant is the son of Isis, the heir of Osiris."[++]

[*. Literally, "she alighted not,"; the whole passage here justifies Plutarch's statement (De Iside Osiride, 16) concerning Isis: {Greek Au?th`n de` genome'nhn xelido'na tu~j ki'oni peripi'tesi kai` hnei~n}.

+. Compare Plutarch, op. cit., 19: {Greek T`hn d' I?'sin th`n teleuth`n e`ks O?si'ridos suggenome'nou tekei~n h?li'to'mhnon kai` a?snh~ toi~s ka'twn gui'ois to`n A?rpokra'thn}.

++. The remainder of the hymn refers to Horus.]]

Osiris invested with the attributes of Ra.

Later in the XVIIIth, or early in the XIXth dynasty, we find Osiris called "the king of eternity, the lord of everlastingness, who traverseth millions of years in the duration of his life, the firstborn son of the womb of Nut, begotten of Seb, the prince of gods and men, the god of gods, the king of kings, the lord of lords, the prince of princes, the governor of the world, from the womb of Nut, whose existence is for everlasting,[1] Unnefer of many forms and of many attributes, Tmu in Annu, the lord of Akert,[2] the only one, the lord of the land on each side of the celestial Nile."[3]

In the XXVIth dynasty and later there grew up a class of literature

[1. For the text see the papyrus of Ani, pl. ii., and pl. xxxvi., 1. 2.

2. I.e., the underworld.

3. neb atebui; see Ani, pl. xix., 1. 9.]

Osiris the god of the resurrection.

represented by such works as "The Book of Respirations,"[1] "The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys,"[2] "The Festival Songs of Isis and Nephthys,"[3] "The Litanies of Seker,"[4] and the like, the hymns and prayers of which are addressed to Osiris rather as the god of the dead and type of the resurrection[5] than as the successor of the great cosmic god Tmu-Ra. He is called "the soul that liveth again,"[6] "the being who becometh a child again," "the firstborn son of unformed matter, the lord of multitudes of aspects and forms, the lord of time and bestower of years, the lord of life for all eternity."[7] He is the "giver of life from the beginning;"[8] "life springs up to us from his destruction,"[9] and the germ which proceeds from him engenders life in both the dead and the living.[10]

[1. ###. The text of this work, transcribed into hieroglyphics, was published, with a Latin translation, by Brugsch, under the title, Sai an Sinsin sive Aber Metempsychosis veterum Aegyptiorum, Berlin, 1851; and an English translation of the same work, but made from a Paris MS., was given by p. J. de Horrack in Records of the Past, 1st series, vol., iv., p. 121 ff. See also Birch, Facsimiles of Two Papyri, London, 1863, p. 3; Devia, Catalogue des MSS. yptiens, Paris, 1874, pp. 130 ff., where several copies of this work are described.

2. The hieratic text of this work is published with a French translation by p. J. de Horrack, Les Lamentations d'Isis et de Nephthys, Paris, 1886.

3. A hieroglyphic transcript of these works, with an English translation, was given in Archogia, vol. iii., London, 1891.

4. What Devia says with reference to the Book of Respirations applies to the whole class: "Toutefois, on remarque dans cet rit une tendance la doctrine de la rurrection du corps plus marqu que dans les compositions antieures" (Catalogue, p. 13).

5. ###. Festival Songs, iv., 33.

6. ###. Ibid., viii., 21, ix., 8.

7. Litanies of Seker, col. xviii.

8. ###. Festival Songs, vi., 1.

9. ###. Ibid., iii., 18.

10. ###. Ibid., ix., 26.]


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