One of the most well known ancient Egyptian mythological stories is the story of Isis and Osiris: brother and sister, and husband and wife. Isis and Osiris were born to the earth god Geb, and the sky goddess Nut, along with their brother Set, and sister Nepthys. The four grew and separated into two consort pairs, Isis and Osiris, and Set and Nepthys. Now, sibling rivalry rears its ugly head among the best of us, but when one of you is the clear favorite, a golden boy associated with righteous kingship, life giving order and the power of Maat (Justice), while the other is left with only darkness and chaos, there is sure to be strife… and strife there was.
Some stories recount that Set was angered by Osiris sleeping with Nepthys, others say it was triggered by a single kick Osiris delivered to Set; either way it caused Set to tear Osiris into pieces, and dump him into the Nile. How many pieces? Again it differs, the maximum believed to be 42, a single piece of Osiris’s body dispersed through-out the 42 nomes (provinces) that made up Egypt; other sources count twelve.
As Set assumed his brother’s throne, darkness fell upon Egypt. Isis and Nepthys had abandoned the kingdom in their grief and changed themselves into kites. They flew through the skies searching for their brother, screeching their cries of sorrow as they went. Some say the tears Isis shed for her beloved Osiris became the all important flood waters of the Nile.
Eventually Isis and Nepthys found the body of Osiris, and with the help of the gods Thoth and Anubis attempted to restore and reassemble his corpse. The magical spells and rituals they use created the first mummy, and became the basis for the afterlife practices of the ancient Egyptians.
Once Osiris was mummified, Isis took the form of a bird yet again, and used her wings to try and fan life and breath back into the body of her dead beloved. This was an act that may seem like it ultimately failed, yet it resulted in the conception of Horus, so Osiris’s blood lived on in his heir.
The fullest account of the Osiris/Isis myth is the one given by Plutarch, a roman writer and bibliographer who lived between 42-120AD, and some of the finer details of the story that we find in later re-tellings come from his account. Here we find the narrative where Set conspired with an Ethiopian Queen to bring down Osiris, asking her to build a beautiful bejeweled casket secretly made in Osiris’s exact bodily dimensions, and have her present it to the Egyptian court. While everyone was busily admiring its ornate beauty, Set suggested to the Queen that she should gift it to anyone that it would perfectly fit. The Queen agreed, and everyone had a turn trying out the casket. Eventually it was Osiris’s turn, and as he laid down, Set and his helpers rushed over and nailed the casket shut, before tossing it into the ocean.
Isis searched far and wide for the casket, which had eventually washed up on the shores of Byblos. Isis learnt that since coming ashore a great tree had grown around the casket, and that portion of the trunk had then been cut down and installed as a pillar to support the roof of the house of the Byblos king. Wanting to be near her beloved husband, Isis took a job as a nursemaid for the Queen, and at night would change form into a swallow and fly around the pillar which contained Osiris’s body. Eventually this was noticed, and forced to reveal herself, Isis took the pillar contained her husband’s body and brought it back home to hide in Buto, Egypt. There it hid, until one night Set went out hunting, and stumbled across the casket. Opening it to reveal Osiris’s body, he flew into a rage at the sight and tore it into 14 pieces and scattered them through-out the land. Isis, determined to recover her husband’s body sailed along the Nile collecting them and holding a funeral at the location of each piece that she found. The phallus was only part of Osiris she was unable to find (it had been eaten by a fish as Set threw it in the river) so instead, Isis fashioned him a new one out of wood, and restored it to his body long enough to conceive a child.
While Plutarch used Egyptian sources as the base of his narrative, the Greco-Roman influence in his story can be clearly seen: firstly he recasts Set as Typhon (the monstrous snake creature that attempted to overthrow Zeus in Greek mythology). Horus is also already born, so when Osiris returned to life long enough to impregnate Isis, it was with a different child: Harpocrates, a god that appeared little outside of Ptolemaic Alexandria. Unlike his brother Horus, Harpocrates was said to be weak and malformed, perhaps thought to be due to his conception through a surrogate phallus. While Harpocrates was an entirely Greek invention, his character was modeled off a mis-understanding of the identity of Horus’ Child form in Egyptian statues and engravings. Under Greek interpretation he also became the god of secrets based on his hand posture, a single finger raised towards his lips (a denotation of childhood to the Egyptians).
There is no question that Plutarch’s version is based on Egyptian mythology, and the existing story of Isis and Osiris, yet it is significantly more complete than any of the current Egyptian records available. Many prefer the format of a singular narrative structure rather than piecing together fragments from artwork, spells and texts which has made Plutarch’s text more available. But the question remains, how many blanks did he fill in to create , and how many details flourish it with?
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Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian, and Australian kudos to these gifted mythologists, whose scholarship and generosity of spirit is inspirational. Thank you