1. Antiquity in Egypt. The abundant Nile, with fertile silt freshly deposited each year after the floods, provided ample sustenance with little effort. Arts and sciences flourished. Ruling classes consisted of priesthoods and their political dynasties, living in luxury while the masses toiled away. Egypt antedates all other Eurasian cultures except Sumerian, dating back to 3000 BC, but possibly as old as 8000 BC.
2. Preoccupation with the After-life. The Egyptians longed for personal immortality, uniquely so among ancient peoples. [Synopsizer’s Note: Many historians have noted that ancient Egypt was geographically unique among all other civilizations. The Nile flowed directly south to north, the sun directly crossing overhead, desert mountains on both sides, fertilized flooding each spring, with the stars revolving around the North Star directly downriver--establishing a seamless order with heaven and earth and allowing the entire cosmos to be viewed as a state.*] Perhaps the ease of life for some in the Valley, combined with the inundations of water, and the gross inequalities (or whatever the reasons) we know that gradually, as time went on, the Egyptians became more and more obsessed with personal immortality. The preparation for eternity became a vast and huge industry, requiring an elaborate priesthood and the construction of eternal monuments. Osiris, the savior-god, was a creation of the ruling classes, “but in time became the supreme hope of an enslaved and tortured people, by them beloved more than wealth or freedom.” (2)
3. The Pre-Osirian Theogony. Preceding Osiris, “Tem or Ra was the God and Father of all, the ungenerated original of the universe. It was he who laid an egg in the chaotic waters from which he himself was reborn or evolved.” (2) This description is detailed in the Papyrus of Nesi, translated by Sir Wallis Budge.
4. The Emergence of Isis and Osiris. Tem, Shu, and Tefnut were worsphipped by the dark-skinned aborigines before 3000 BC. Egypt was invaded by a light-skinned race of metal-working Aryan-Sumerians coming out of Mesopotamia, who engrafted new gods, including Osiris, onto the older pantheon.
5. The Primitive Osirian Theogony. In the beginning there was only chaos and the watery waste. God, or Tem willed to evolve life and develop order in the universe, reproducing himself from an egg into Ra, the sun-god, the creative power of all existence. Ra first evolved from himself a daughter, Maat, the principle of regularity or law in the cosmos, then secondly, Thoth, who is the Word, or its creative agency. Ra thereupon self-produced from himself the brother and sister divinities, Shu and Tefnut, who then gave birth to Seb or Keb, the earth-god, and to Nut, the sky-goddess, who became the wife of Ra. These gods probably represent the pantheon prior to Sumerian conquest. Later, it was declared that Nut, seduced by Keb, bore the quintuplets: Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys. Isis bore the younger Horus to Osiris and Nephthys becamse by same father the mother of Anubis. (3)
6. The New Culture. Along with religion, the Sumerians brought control to the flood waters, from their expertise in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, an area that flooded between two rivers. They also introduced grain and bread and ale from barley. They forbade cannibalism, practiced writing, brickmaking, stone-cutting and street-paving. These new developments were all sanctioned by the original god-man incarnate, Osiris, although the priests never seem to have explained how Osiris and his siblings could be human yet have gods as parents. It didn’t need explanation for some reason.
7. The Tribal Totem. Animals were worshipped and whenever slaughtered, were sacrificed to the same deity and the devotees absorbed their powers (including cats, dogs, snakes, hawks, cows).
8. The Pre-Eminence of Osiris. “Over a period exceeding three thousand years, some half a billion Egyptians lived and died in devotion to Osiris; he was the beloved god of the people; and they had conceivable hope higher than they might in death become one with him in blissful immortality.” (4) In the Book of the Dead there are a series of funerary formulas addressed almost exclusively to Osiris, to be learned by a man when living or inscribed on his coffin so he might enter the “blessed abodes” after death. “Although none tell the story of the god, all assume a minute knowledge of him.” (5)
1. A Mystery-Cult. Only those initiated into the Osirian cult would know its doctrines and ceremonials, for these were, according to the Book of the Dead, “an exceedingly great mystery…in the handwriting of the god himself…. And these things shall be done secretly.” (in the rubric accompanying Ch. CXXXVIIa) The Greeks, who also copied these sacred writings, declared it a sacrilege to reveal the rites or doctrines of the mysteries. Herodotus, Plutarch and Pausanias all noted that they were not allowed to repeat what they had learned from Egyptian religious rituals. When Aeschylus revealed the Eleusinian ritual in a play, the audience stormed the stage, threatening to kill him. Hence, it is difficult to reconstruct.
2. The Osirian Myth. The Osirian Myth is, however, fully retold by Plutarch (Isis and Osiris, 12-20) and elaborated and reinforced by Diodorus Siculus (Library of History I, 11-27), and this account runs briefly as follows:
The sun-god Ra found his wife Nut embracing Seb, the earth-god. He thus decreed that her offspring could not be born on any day of the year. Thoth came to her aid and by playing draughts with the moon won her a 70-second portion of each day. By this means, five days were added to the year, reforming the calendar, which was previously 360 days. On these five days, her five offspring were born (Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, Nephthys). All were born of Heaven and Earth, thereby able to understand and solve human problems. Osiris was crowned king of Egypt in his twenty-eighth year, relating to the lunar cycle. It is said he established communities and taught arts of war and peace, prohibited cannibalism and the eating of dead relatives (previously common). Above all, he established cereal agriculture and with it, civilization. Osiris also journeyed all over the inhabited world conferring this civilization on all peoples, returning to Egypt after teaching music and arts abroad. In his absence, Isis governed justly, but the evil Set had been making romantic advances on her, which she rejected.
Set is depicted as the great serpent, (whom the Greeks call Typhon) and symbolized the powers of darkness, storms, and all disturbances of nature. Set became jealous of Osiris and conspired with 72 others to overthrow him. Having measured Osiris, Set built a coffin in which he induced Osiris to lie in, whereupon he and the conspirators instantly nailed the lid shut, killing Osiris by suffocation. They then threw the coffin in the Nile, where it floated out to sea and washed up on across the Mediterranean on the shores of Byblus (modern Jebeil, a former Egyptian colony and the place where actual debris actually washes up from the Nile). Isis, now in danger, fled into the delta swamps, where she gave birth to the younger Horus, but Set pursued her and killed the child. However, Thoth had instructed her in magic and medicine and this enable her to restore the child back to life.
Leaving the infant to be raised at Buto, Isis set out find the body of her husband, Osiris, which she found at Byblus encased in a pine tree. After a series of adventures, she brought the body back to Egypt. Set, however, tore the corpse into fourteen parts (some say sixteen) and buried them, one in each province of Egypt. Isis then began her long and celebrated search for the broken body. After finding each part, she pieced them back together, lacking the male member, which was eaten by a fish (a pike—hence the balsam phalluses adorning each temple). Wherever a piece of the body was discovered, that site became a temple, tax-exempt and able to collect one-third of all produced in the land. After all the parts, except one, were recovered, with the help of Thoth and Horus, Isis breathed life into the corpse, accomplishing the first resurrection to a second and eternal life, becoming “the first-fruits of them that slept.” (8)
Upon rising, Osiris instructed his son in the arts of war and swore him to seek revenge him upon the evil Set. Then, Osiris departed to the world of the immortals in Khenti-Amenti to become judge of the dead and ruler of the blessed. In the meantime, Set had usurped the throne of Egypt; and when Horus claimed it, Set accused Horus of being an illegitimate child from Isis via adultery. There was trial before the gods, who sided with Isis and Horus. A battle thus ensued, where Horus bound Set in chains, himself sustaining a bruised heel. Finally, Horus crushed the serpents head (see Genesis 3:15) and ruled Egypt happily. The gods sentenced Set to annihilation by fire for being the diabolical Adversary.
3. The Growth of Horus and Isis. During the Ages when The Book the Dead was written, a development took place. Horus assumed expanded powers and was identified with his father. Cultists began to identify with Horus, and with his popularity the worship of Isis established itself, because without Isis there would have been no resurrection, nor one to establish civil law and teach men to transform the golden grain of Osiris into the bread of life. “She became the universal and infinite benefactress of humanity, the eternal protective mother, the queen of earth and heaven. Images of her and her son were sacred objects in every Egyptian household, resembling the Madonna and the Christ-child, both in appearance and in the veneration they elicited.” (9)
4. Symbolism in the Osirian Myth. The dynamism of the Isis-Osiris myth lay in the vitality of astronomical, sexual, and agriculture symbolism. The sun was most often identified with Osiris, the moon Isis. The dog-star (morning star, or Sirius) appeared in the east of the month of June, when the Nile began to overflow, and this was also identified with Osiris. Osiris is also identified with the bull, and Isis the cow (a dynastic reconstitution of the older Hathor, goddess of love. Also, the zodiacal precession which passed through Taurus on the summer solstice, and then gradually Aries, and then later Pisces corresponds to temple symbols which identified Osiris, in some places, as the lamb, and later in Christianity which featured the fish, as in the catacombs, for instance). Isis and Osiris were also deities of generation, giving power to conceive and impregnate, associated also in Greece with Dionysius, a derivative of Osiris. The most profound symbolism, however, is associated with agriculture. Ancient writers all knew that Osiris symbolized grain, which is sown, his death and rebirth symbolizing the death and rebirth of wheat and barley. “In countless representations of Osiris, we see grain sprouting from his body: and in thousands of funerary inscriptions, we are told that the sacred bread is the body of the god. At the annual Osiris celebrations, images of the god were made of wheat paste and eaten as holy sacrament.” (11) As for Isis, Plutarch claims that “They regard both the cow and the earth as the image of Isis.” (Ibid. 39).
5. Egyptian Doctrines Concerning the Soul. Every Egyptian hoped to achieve immortality by being transformed into an Osiris to obtain “a homestead forever in Sehhet-Aru (Elysian Fields) with wheat and barley therefor.” (from the papyri of Ani, Nu, and Nebseni, all from circa 1550 BC). To understand this eschatology, it is first necessary to understand Egyptian metaphysical concepts concerning themselves. The physical body was called the Khat, which was the foundation for an immaterial reality, at the center of which was the Ba, the heart-soul (the destruction of which meant annihilation). “Now this Ba projected its Khu, which was its double, a sort of a shadow being or spiritual duplicate, and which could come or go, having a separate being from, if not independent of, its original. Upon death, the Khu lived, required food and drink, could visit the tomb or go abroad, and starved when the funerary offerings ceased; and if it had not entered Elysium by this time, it was reduced to eating human excrement, and, on this diet, withered into nothingness.” As such, the Khat and Ba were ephemeral, and it was the Khu only which offered any celestial importance and had the potential for immortality. But, in order for a human to be transformed into an Osiris, it was necessary to “be endowed with incorruption” and this was done by uniting one’s Khu to its Sahu, “which was its spiritual essence.” (12)
6. Reasons for Mummification. Mummification was necessary not only because Isis, Horace and Thoth had embalmed and swathed Osiris before his resurrection (and it was necessary to duplicate Osiris to become an Osiris) but also because the new priesthood (post-cannibalism) taught that immortality was only possible if the deceased entered the afterlife with his Khat inviolate. Mummification involved priests to perform magical incantations and ceremonies in order for the Sahu to germinate from it and unite with the Khu. If this new entity was victorious in its trial before Osiris, it would attain immortality, so preservation of the Khat was necessary. This practice was continued well into Christianity and was abolished in 350 AD when Christians were assured by Antony and Anthanasius that they would be given new bodies at the resurrection even if worms ate their corpses.
7. Prerequisites for Entry into Sekhet-Aaru. 1. A man or woman must first be initiated into the exclusive cult of the god and be “clean of hand and pure of heart.” 2. His or her essence must already be transmuted into divinity by eating and drinking the sacred eucharist. 3. Embalming. 4. Vindication at a public trial before the funeral ceremonies begin; all creditors must be satisfied or he could not be buried. 5. The required incantations be recited by official priests.
8. The Hall of Judgment. Once the above requirements were met, then the journey into the next life began. The deceased was ferried across the Great Lake and into the hall of Maat. According to numerous Egyptian funerary texts, we know what one could expect at their judgment. According to one papyrus concerning the royal scribe, Ani (composed during the 18th dynasty circa 1550 BC), both he and his wife Thuthu approached the “great scales” where Anubis weighed the heart of the suppliant against the “feather of Maat.” When it is found to be perfect, Thoth announces the result to the gods, who declare: “Osiris, the scribe Ani victorious, is holy and righteous…. It shall not be allowed to the devourer Amemet to prevail over him. Meat-offerings and entrance into the presence of the God Osiris shall be granted unto him, together with a homestead for ever in Sekhet-hetepu.” At the side of Thoth is the great monster Amemet (or Apep) with a crocodile head, a lion-shaped forebody, and the rear of a hippopotomus, ready to devour the heart and the heart-soul of the damned.
As Osiris Ani emerged victorious from the weighing of the heart, and by the records of Thoth, and by consent of the company of the great gods, he is then led into “the august and awful presence of Osiris himself, seated on his throne, grasping the scepter, flail, slave hook, and wearing a tall white crown. His body is still incased as a mummy and behind him stand Nepthys, who advises him, and the beloved Isis, who makes constant intercession for the deceased. Horus leads Ani before the throne, where he sinks to his knees; whereupon Horus, acting as mediator, prevails upon his father to admit the suppliant to his blessed realm. With this, the judgment is complete; and the victorious Ani enters the Elysian fields.” (14)
Chapter CXXV of The Book of the Dead contains an elaboration of the judgment just described, consisting of three parts: 1. The addresses to Osiris by the scribe Osiris-Ani and by the Overseer of the Seal, Nu, triumphant. 2. The well-known Negative Confession by the scribe Nebseni. 3. The final address by Nu to the gods. Entering the hall, Nu pays homage to the “Great God” and then enters the hall of Maat, where he must face the gods of the 42 Egyptian articles of ethics (circa 1600 BC) who each avenge a particular sin or crime. The Negative Confession thus admits that one has “not committed robbery, violence, theft, or murder; or purloined what belongs to God; has not slandered anyone, wasted the land, killed any sacred animals, pried into holy secrets, given way to wrath or terrified anyone; has never been guilty of adultery or sodomy; has not been deaf to the truth, stirred up strife, or caused any one to weep; has never abused anyone or judged hastily; has never scorned the god of the city or been irreverent to God; has never cursed the king, used too many words, made his voice haughty, been insolent, fouled the water, or increased his wealth unjustly.” (14-15)
Osiris was able to peer into the secret places of the heart, and nobody could hope to be perfect, yet the Law of Maat was strictly enforced. Hence, without the intercessions from Isis, the advice from Nepthys, and the advocacy of Thoth and the mediation of Horus, and the mercy of Osiris, no one could hope to see salvation. Nu therefore says: “Do away with my evil deeds, and put ye away my sin, which deserved stripes on earth, and destroy ye any evil whatsoever that belongeth to me.” (The Book of the Dead, CXXVI) In the third part of Chapter CXXV, the suppliant elaborates a declaration of social morals: “Bring ye not forward my wickedness…[for] I have given bread to the hungry man, and water to the thirsty man, and apparel to the naked man, and a boat to the shipwrecked mariner. I have made holy offerings to the gods….Be ye then my deliverers, be ye then my protectors…. I am clean of mouth and clean of hands; therefore, let it be said unto me….`Come in peace; come in peace.’” For thousands of years, initiates into the pagan mysteries were to repeat: “I am clean of hand and pure of heart.”
9. Annihilation. “In Osirian eschatology, there was no waiting for judgment, no hell, no torture for the damned.” (15) The heart of the condemned was eaten by the monster Apep or Amemet and his heart-soul ceased to be and his body was annihilated into the “Lake of Fire” (Ibid. LXXI, XVII, XIX).
10. The Elysian Fields. Those who were admitted into the Eylsian fields were promised to dwell forever in peace and abundance, in a land teeming with grain, reunited with their family and able to rule over the same servants as on earth (Ibid. CIX, XCVIII). When a person died, the wives, servants and captured enemy slaves were executed and buried with him, so that they might serve him eternally. Thus, a person could hope to continue to live a good life uninterrupted, occupying the same status as on earth.
11. Extension of the Osirian Hope. During the early dynasties, it is believed that only the royal family and certain important officials and members of the priesthood could hope for immortality. However, the idea of immortality trickled down to be more democratic by the time Herodotus described three methods of embalming (History II, 86-89), at varying costs to suit each purse. It finally evolved to be as simple as a small piece of papyrus with words from The Book of the Dead inscribed on them, placed in a coffin and which promised to deliver the same results that the pharaohs hoped to achieve by building the pyramids (see rubric in Papyrus of Nebseni, LXXII, Book of the Dead).
12. Identification with Osiris. It has been noted that every Khu seeking admission to Sekhet-Aaru called himself Osiris. It is obvious that all Egyptians seeking immortality already considered themselves transformed into the divine immortal essence of their god by the way they addressed themselves as already being “an Osiris” or identical with Osiris and seeking resurrection (Ibid. CXVII, XLV, X, XLIII).
13. Public Ritual of Osiris. Plutarch and others have noted that the sacrifices to Osiris were “gloomy, solemn, and mournful…” (Isis and Osiris, 69) and that the great mystery festival, celebrated in two phases, began at Abydos on the 17th of Athyr (Nov. 13th) commemorating the death of the god, which is also the same day that grain was planted in the ground. “The death of the grain and the death of the god were one and the same: the cereal was identified with the god who came from heaven; he was the bread by which man lives. The resurrection of the god symbolized the rebirth of the grain.” (17) The first phase of the festival was a public drama depicting the murder and dismemberment of Osiris, the search for his body by Isis, his triumphal return as the resurrected god, and the battle in which Horus defeated Set. This was all presented by skilled actors as a literary history, and was the main method of recruiting cult membership. According to Julius Firmicus Maternus of the fourth century, this play was re-enacted each year by worshippers who “beat their breasts and gashed their shoulders…. When they pretend that the mutilated remains of the god have been found and rejoined…they turn from mourning to rejoicing.” (De Errore Profanorum).
The Passion of Osiris was re-enacted at all of his temples during his annual festivals. On a stele at Abydos erected in the 12th Dynasty by I-Kher-Nefert, a priest of Osiris during the reign of Usertsen III (Pharaoh Sesostris, about 1875 BC) we find the principle scenes of the mystery-drama depicted (I-Kher-Nefert played Horus). In the first scene, Osiris is slain, no one knowing what happened to his body, and the onlookers weep and mourn, rend their hair and beat their breasts. Isis and Nepthys then recover the remnants and return to the temple. In the second scene, Thoth, Horus and Isis revive Osiris in the sanctuary, not witnessed by the populace. Then Osiris emerges, to much rejoicing. Horus then places Osiris in a solar boat, to proceed directly to the eternal regions, known as the “coming forth by day” mentioned so often in the Book of the Dead. The climax of the play is the great battle between Horus and Set, described in detail by Herodotus (History II, 63).
14. Esoteric Ritual. Differing from the public portion above, an esoteric phase consisted of ceremonials performed inside the temples by priests witnessed only by initiates. Plutarch mentions that two days after the beginning of the festival “the priests bring forth sacred chest containing a small golden coffer, into which they pour some potable water…and a great shout arises from the company for joy that Osiris is found (or resurrected). Then they knead some fertile soil with the water…and fashion therefrom a crescent-shaped figure, which they cloth and adorn, this indicating that they regard these gods as the substance of Earth and Water.” (Isis and Osiris, 39). Yet even he was obscure, for he also wrote, “I pass over the cutting of the wood” opting to not describe it since he considered it most sacred. (Ibid. 21)
Luckily, in the Osirian temple at Denderah, an inscription reveals what these secret rituals are (translated by Budge, Chapter XV, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection). They describe in detail the making of wheat paste models of each dismembered piece of Osiris to be sent out to the town where each piece was discovered by Isis. At the temple of Mendes, figures of Osiris are made from wheat and paste placed in a trough on the day of the murder, then water added for several days, when finally the mixture was kneaded into a mold of Osiris and taken to the temple and buried (the sacred grain for these cakes only grown in the temple fields). Molds are made from wood of a red tree in the forms of the sixteen dismembered parts of Osiris, cakes of divine bread made from each mold, placed in a silver chest and set near the head of the god, “the inward parts of Osiris” as described in the Book of the Dead (XVII). On the first day of the Festival of Ploughing, where the goddess Isis appears in her shrine where she is stripped naked. Paste made from the grain is placed in her bed and moistened with water, representing the fecund earth. All of these sacred rituals were “climaxed by the eating of sacramental god, the eucharist by which the celebrants were transformed, in their persuasion, into replicas of their god-man.” (20)
15. The Osirian Sacrament. Although there were ethical and ceremonial considerations (as mentioned in B7) none of these could compare to the power of the divine eucharist, which cannot be underestimated, since it was literally believed to be the body (bread) and blood (ale) of the god. Since the ancient Nilotics believed that humans were whatever they eat, this sacrament was, by extension, able to make them celestial and immortal. The doctrine of the eucharist ultimately has its roots in prehistoric cannibalism, whose practitioners understood that virtues and powers of the eaten can be thus absorbed by the eater. This phenomenon has been described throughout the world.
One of the oldest of the Pyramid Texts is the Unas from the 6th Dynasty (circa 2500 BC). It shows that the original ideology of Egypt commingled with Osirian concepts. Although ultimately given a high place in heaven by order of Osiris, Unas is at first an enemy of the gods and his ancestors, who he hunts, lassoes, kills, cooks, and eats so that their powers may become his own. This was written at a time when the eating of parents and gods was a laudable ceremony, and this emphasizes how hard it must have been to stamp out the older order of cannibalism. “He eats men, he feeds on the gods…he cooks them in his fiery cauldrons. He eats their words of power, he swallows their spirits…. He eats the wisdom of every god, his period of life is eternity…. Their soul is in is body, their spirits are within him.” A parallel passage is found in the Pyramid Text of Pepi II, who is said to have “seizeth those who are a follower of Set…he breaketh their heads, he cutteth off their haunches, he teareth out their intestines, he diggeth out their hearts, he drinketh copiously of their blood!” (line 531, ff) Although crude, this was a core concept, the conviction that one could receive immortality by eating the flesh and blood of a god who had died became a dominating obsession in the ancient world. Although the cult of Osiris forbade cannibalism, it did not outlaw dismemberment and eating of enemies, and practiced the ritual rending and eating of the sacred bull, symbolizing Osiris.
Although this sacramental concept only originated once in history, it spread throughout the Mediterranean area and became the dynamic force in every mystery cult. It was only by this sacerdotal means that the corruptible deceased could be clothed in incorruption and this idea appears again and again in infinite variety. The scribe Nebseni implores: “And there in the celestial mansions of heaven which my divine father Tem hath established, let my hands lay hold upon the wheat and the barley which shall be given unto me therein in abundant measure.” (Ibid. LXXII) Nu corroborates that this is the eucharist by saying: “I am established, and the divine Sekhet-hetep is before me, I have eaten therein, I have become a spirit therein, I have abundance therein.” (Ibid. LXXVII) Again Nu states: “I am the divine soul of Ra…which is god…I am the divine food which is not corrupted.” (Ibid. LXXXV). The ancientness of the concept is again reaffirmed in the Pyramid Text of Teta (2600 BC) where the Osiris Teta “receivest thy bread which decayeth not, and thy beer which perisheth not” In the Text of Pepi I we read: “All the gods give thee their flesh and their blood…. Thou shalt not die.” In the Text of Pepi II the aspirant prays for “thy bread of eternity, and thy beer of everlastingness.” (Line 390)
16. The God-Man Osiris.
“Such was the great god-man Osiris: human like us, and thus able to take upon himself all our sorrow, but also divine, and therefore able to confer divinity upon us. He brought the divine bread from heaven, he taught justice and practiced mercy; he died, was buried, and rose from the grave; he gave to all who became members of his mystical body his flesh to eat and his blood to drink so that this divine sacrament might transfigure them into celestial gods; he went before to prepare mansions for his initiates in Elysium; and he was to be the just and merciful judge before whom men and women must appear beyond the grave.” (23)
17. The Destruction of the Cult. Osiris-worship continued up until the 6th century AD on the island of Philae in Upper Nile. The edict of Theodisius (about 380 AD) to destroy all pagan temples and force worshippers to accept Christianity was ignored there. However, Justinian dispatched a General Narses to Philae, who destroyed the Osirian temples and sanctuaries, threw the priests into prison, and carted the sacred images off to Constantinople. However, by that time, the soteriology (sacramental god-man salvation) of Osiris had assumed various forms which had long spread far and wide in the ancient world.
* See The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, Henri Frankfurt, Mrs. H.A. Frankfurt, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen (University of Chicago Press, 1946)