Egyptian Mythology

The Myth of Isis, Osiris, and Horus

What was the myth behind the Osiris/Isis/Horus cult?

The reign of Osiris and his sister-wife Isis was a golden age. The primary companions of the king and queen were their brother Seth (Set or Typhon) and their sister Nephtys, Seth’s wife. Whether because of jealousy over the reported accidental affair between Osiris and Nephtys, or simple envy, Seth turned against his brother and killed him. Some say he trampled Osiris to death. Some say he caused him to drown. The most popular version—the one containing the most devious act—was reported by Plutarch. In this version, Seth secretly obtains his brother’s exact measurements and then builds a beautiful coffin-like chest according to those measurements. He promises the chest to anyone who can fit into it exactly. No one fits the chest until Seth encourages Osiris to try and, of course, the fit is exact. Now Seth and some of his followers quickly close the lid of the chest containing the king and they seal it and cast it into the Nile, and it floats out into the sea.

Isis, upon learning of her husband’s disappearance and death, searches the world for him, finally making her way to Byblos, in what is now Lebanon. Apparently the coffin had become a great tree, which the king of Byblos had incorporated into a column of his palace. Isis asks for the column, and the king gives it to her. Isis extracts the coffin and takes it back to Egypt. But, not to be deterred in his wish to rid the world of his rival, Seth discovers the returned body and cuts it into many parts, which he scatters or throws into the Nile. Again Isis embarks on a search and succeeds in finding all her husband’s body parts but for his penis, which a fish has swallowed. With the help of her sister Nephtys, Isis reconnects the dismembered parts of her husband’s body. She makes models of the lost penis and some say she buries such models in all the provinces of Egypt and that these burials result in grain production. This aspect of the story relates Osiris to dying gods in other cultures whose resurrections are sources of nourishment for the people. Dionysos in Greece is such a god and he produces the grape. Jesus’ death results for Christians in new spiritual food.


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