The myth of Isis and Osiris



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The myth of Isis and Osiris can be defined the Egypt national myth, which later spreaded in the Mediterranean during the Hellenic era.

It's important to remark its original legend, before it took the Hellenic shape in the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, because sources tell us that they preserve the Egyptian language, therefore they wanted to refer to the origins of the myth.

Considering the “Pyramid Texts", the texts written on the walls of funeral cells, Isis and Osiris are two gods generated by Nut (the goddess of the sky) and Geb (the god of the earth). Osiris is the first male figure and Isis is the first female figure. They are the firstborn of both sexes, they married, in order that the birthright of the power of Nut and Geb was saved from any dissipation. Osiris is god and sovereign of the earth, who introduces the civilization among the primitive men and expands it beyond the Egyptian boundaries. Seth, his brother, is full of envy and conceives the thought of killing him, but his sister-wife Isis watches over Osiris. Seth, Nut and Geb's second son, according to the advice of the god Thot, another brother of Osiris, tries to trap Osiris, he strikes him, he binds him up and kills him, then he cuts his body into pieces, scattering them into the waters of the river Nile. Seth’s aim is to hinder the ritual of mummification of Osiris’s body, in order to avoid that the spirit of Osiris might return to his mummified body. Isis seeks her husband, but does not find him and together with Nephthys, her sister, she begins to shout and cry. The Gods seeing them in pain lacerate their bodies, but Seth and Thot don’t share the pain.

Nut recovers from the water the corpse limbs in green and black colour (the vegetation and the silt) and she recomposes the body up, leaving it inside the water, where Isis picks it up. The gods take care of the corpse. The god Ra, the god of the sun, supports his head and during a special ritual of embalming tells him: "Do not rot, do not rot, your smell won’t be bad ". Isis turns into a hawk and lies down on her husband in order to ventilate him by waving her wings. The mummy has a vital sign in its genitals, according to the Pyramid Texts, and so the goddess becomes pregnant with the god Horus, who will be born with a human body and a hawk’s head.



Isis gives birth to Horus and when he becomes an adult he faces Seth, his father's enemy. In the fight Seth tears out Horus’s divine eye and for this reason he takes the shape of a hog. Horus tears off Seth’s testicles and recovers his eye. Then Horus gives to his father Osiris his own eye. Osiris cheers up and becomes powerful. The agricultural cycle is completed.

The Papyrus of Ani at the chapter 167 refers to the suffering of Osiris who, king and sovereign of the entire world, wearing the Ureaus on his head (the ureaus was the image of cobra snake which was on the crown of the pharaoh), was killed, cut into pieces and covered by the mud of the river Nile. Then he was recomposed with little chances of life and he receives the Atef crown (ornament made of papyrus and feathers) as king of the underworld. “I’ve put the Atef Crown instead of the Ureaus Crown. I’ve relieved the pain, I’ve carried his foot-rest”. "The foot rest" is the royal stool that Seth wanted to destroy.

The enemies of Osiris seeing him so powerful are terrified. According to Geb's order the gods have a meeting in Eliopoli in order to bring Seth to trial. He tries to escape, but two goddesses of the truth force him to confess. Horus folds Seth under Osiris’s feet and forces him to carry Osiris wherever he wanted to go. Then Geb puts Osiris on a throne.


Another version of the myth of Osiris is on the Louvre stele number 20. It’s the hymn to Osiris.

Geb and Nut have two sons, Seth and Osiris, and two daughters, Isis and Nephthys. Geb concedes his legacy on the earth to his first-born son Osiris. Seth is jealous of his brother and becomes his enemy, he treats him continuously but without success, because Isis assists her husband-brother. But deceptively Seth manages to prevail on Osiris. He makes a wonderful chest as big as Osiris's stature and during a banquet he invites all the guests to enter the enclosure: the one who was perfectly fitting in it would become the owner. So Osiris went inside and immediately the lid was closed and sealed. The words on the Pyramid of Pepi II refers to this coffin: “Tribute to you, sycamore, big gallows, god companion. Your breast touches Osiris shoulders” (the sycamore wood, a very hard wood, was used by Egyptians to build sarcophagi). Then the coffin is thrown into the sea. Isis, remained alone with Nephthys, wanders through the country in search of Osiris and finds his corpse. The pain of Isis and Nephthys is heartbreaking. The Sun God (Ra or Re) then sends his fourth son, Anubis, who was the child of the goddess Hesat or, in another version, of the goddess Bast. Anubis, the god who presides over the mummification, mummifies the corpse. Then Isis arises above him in the semblance of a bird and ventilates him with her wings, the mummy has a vitality and Isis becomes pregnant of Horus, but Osiris can’t be anymore god-king of the living, but he is the god-king of the dead. Horus was born and overcomes all the difficulties that the enemies of Osiris throw against him. Horus faces Seth, who tears his eye, but in turn Horus cuts off the genitals of Seth. God Thot intervenes and heals them both. But the winner is Horus, which is introduced by Isis to the royal hall of Geb. Seth rises against Horus denying the legitimacy of the succession to the throne of Osiris. The process concludes with the recognition of the god Horus king of Egypt. Osiris puts his foot on Seth’s head. Osiris began to sovereign on the dead and is said "the first of the West" (the point where the sun sets): Horus became the first of the living".



Plutarch of Cheronea (45-125 AD) provides the Greek version of the myth.

The God Sun (Atum, Ra or Re) utters some imprecations against Nut preventing her from giving birth. But the god Thot (identified with Hermes) creates the five days of epagomeni. These five days were added to the king calendar in order to combine it with the civil calendar. In these five days Nut gives birth to her five children: Osiris, Harueris (Horus the great, who is different from the son of Isis), Seth (identified by Typhoon), Isis and Nephthys (Nefta). Osiris adult is the king of men and leads them from barbarism to civilization. Seth is jealous and with the help of twelve companions prepares a rich coffin and offers it as a gift to the one who would has fit it perfectly. Osiris enters in it and he is locked, then the case is thrown into the Nile River, reaching the sea. Isis seeks him and learns about the action of Seth and how the case came to Byblos in Fenicia.

The case ended up in a large shrub, such long that the King of Byblos turned it into a column for his home. Isis goes to Byblos and obtains to be introduced into the palace, then she is taken as the nanny of the Queen’s baby. Isis feeds the child only with her finger, while during the night exposes him to the fire in order to purify him and to make him immortal. Isis changes into a bird and then flies around the column of wood where is the corpse of Osiris. The queen sees that Isis during the night puts her son in the fire and cries, breaking the spell: the Queen's son will not have access to immortality anymore. Isis then reveals herself as a goddess and removes the case that is inside the column and begins to lament for Osiris. Then she goes back to Egypt, to Buto (an important religious center in the Nile Delta, now Tell el-Farain), at her son Horus, already conceived with the mummified Osiris, and she lies down on the dead body and cries. Typhoon-Seth discovers the corpse of Osiris and breaks it up in fourteen parts, which he disperses in the swamps of the river Nile. Isis on a papyrus boat goes in search of her husband-brother limbs and finds them all except for the sexual organ which had been eaten by a fish (the Oxirane, that therefore became an abomination for the Egyptians). Isis orders the construction of a big wooden phallus and proceeds to the reconstruction of Osiris limbs. In the places where Isis had found Osiris limbs there were built several cells called "finding’s cells". The idea that the goddess buried the various members in the places where she found them goes against the nature of the myth and must be turned down. Ra (Re) sent Anubis and Toht to embalm Osiris. In this way Osiris got the opportunity to return to his body. Osiris became the king of hell, where he was the judge of the souls and so he was called Neb-er-tcher, "The Lord of the extreme limit". The Egyptians couldn’t conceive the survival in the afterlife without the mummification of the body. The soul always maintained a relationship with the body even if they were separated.

The Temple of Osiris was in Abidi, today called El-Madfuna. The mummified body of Osiris was considered to be buried there.




The assembling of Osiris' body, his mummification and his genitals’ revitalising in order to have a son, are not a resurrection at all. In Plutarch’s myth version the genitals’revitalising is not mentioned because they have been eaten by a fish. The big wood phallus that was built is just a ritual body’s completing. This detail definitely confirms that Osiris did not really resurrect but was bound to mummification.

Osiris cannot come back among the living. Osiris, who was put underground like a seed, becomes god of vegetation. Vegetation stops during winter time like in a mummification, then, thanks to spring’s warmth, regains its energy exactly like Osiris does: he is mummified but receives energy by the wind from Isis’s wings and then by Horus’eye. Osiris, even if he is bound to the afterworld, can come to life and take different forms. He is like a seed under ground, that springs, so he is not only the underground god, but also god of vegetation: the name Osiris comes from Asar (vegetation). For Egyptians the grave was more important than the house, because the grave, together with the magic spell that accompanied the embalming and that was written on the grave’s walls and on the sarcophagus, assured a happy life in the after world. The dead can live in his/her mummified body, in his/her grave or also come out from it.


The myth in the Hellenic era: Mysteries of Isis and Osiris


It’s not possible to grasp how the myth was perceived by the mysteries.

The description of Isis’ and Osiris’ mysterical worship has been handed on by Apuleius of Madaura (125-162 AC), but in an uncertain and incomplete way.

In any case, the Isis’ and Osiris’ mysteries are a match of the Egyptian magical divinatory elements with the Greek astronomy. The Hellenism (323-31 AC) with its Stoicism had spread the concept of the igneous soul lightness. The souls descend from the astral world and then return to it. The Pharaohs became stars of the sky through the Osirisification, that means the identification with Osiris, whose astral sign was Orion constellation. The three great Giza pyramids are a perfect representation of these ideas. The pyramid of Cheops, that is 146 meters high, the pyramid of Khafre, that is 144 meters high, and the pyramid of Menkaure, that is 65 meters high, are placed in order that their squared base’ diagonals point out the four cardinal points. In the sky they correspond to the three stars of Orion’s Belt: Mintaka, Alnilam, Alnitak.

In this way what was a pharaohs privilege now was extended to all mystery initiates. The mummification was no longer practised, but the Egyptian magic spells were still used.

First of all the initiand addressed Isis, according to Apuleius words in his novel "The Metamorphosis", which S. Augustine renamed "The Golden Ass" as the main character, Lucius, is called golden ass because of his desire to learn and experiment.

The initiation first phase consisted in strict ascetic practices in order to withdraw the initiand from everything, pushing him towards ataraxy. At this stage, many instructions were given to the initiand. The strong suggestions could produce dreams about the goddess Isis.

In the second phase the initiand walked through a route symbolizing the afterlife. Apuleius makes Lucio say: "I approached to the confines of death and having trod on the threshold of Proserpine I returned from it, being carried through all the elements. At midnight i saw the sun shining with a splendid light; and I manifestly drew near to the gods beneath and the gods above and proximately adored them".

Nothing to do with a dream or a trip in the afterworld. The initiand experiments only initiation representing his death and how the underworld could not hold him because he was protected by Isis. Proserpine was the queen of the underworld. Kidnapped by Pluto, king of the underworld, remained there six months a year, and for the other six months she could get out. The initiand came back, dragged (by Isis without doubt) through the water, the fire, the earth and the air, all the four elements that the Greeks thought to be the basis of the entire universe. Above all it’s worthy of note the purifing fire with which Isis wanted the Queen of Byblos’ son to get immortal. During the night, that stands for the underworld, Lucius said he saw the Sun, according to the Egyptian concept that the Sun during the night was sailing along the river Nile spreading its light around. The initiand was in front of the dols of the underworld gods and idols of the heaven gods.

Everything was played on smart scenes.

After these initiations the initiand is placed on a wooden pedestal in front of Isis’ statue, then he receives a custom called Olympiad stole. In his right hand is placed a lit up torch, sign of the astral fire, and on his head is placed a crown of palm, that is the symbol of the deification. These words were addressed to the goddess: "You can untie even the inextricable threads of the Fate. The tempest of Fortune you can assuage and restrain the baleful motion of the stars. The gods above adore you, the gods below worship you. It is you that makes the globe whirl (the sphere of heaven). You give light to sun. You govern the universe. You trample down the underworld. Under your orders the stars move". Isis, the Egyptian magician goddess, is able to dominate all the gods, as well as the magicians believed to put in chains the gods with their spells.

After that a banquet was held.

The third phase is dedicated to the identification with Osiris. Isis acts on the initiands in the same way she acted on Osiris. The Platonic (division between soul and body), stoic and neoplatonic dualism made the embalming ritual superfluous.

What emerges at the end is the power of the magician goddess Isis, able to dominate the gods and caught in great love towards Osiris, that she pours on those who identify with him.


The festivities were held on early December and lasted seven days, covering the events of the myth.

Day 1: defense of Osiris from Seth's traps.

Day 2: the death of Osiris.

Day 3: the pain of Isis shared by the initiands.

Day 4: all-night vigil. A vigil of lamentations was held. In all probability, the news that the Christian writer Firmico Materno (early IV-350 d.C) reports, referring to a lamentation nigth in front of a statue lying on a catafalque, is connected to Osiris.

Day 5: the recostruction ad revitalizazion of the corpse of Osiris. The lamps were lit and a priest said: “Take courage, initiates, the god is safe and you will be saved from your sufferings”. Which means that they will be protected by Isis, who as well as she saved Osiris will save the initiates from the dark and adverse forces of the Fate. Day 6: offerings to the altar of Osiris. The lamps were lit and a priest said: “Take courage, initiates, the god is safe and you will be saved from your sufferings”. Which means that they will be protected from the dark forces of Fate, which will give them obstacles and suffering.

Day 7: raising of the djed, a magical amulet symbolizing the stability of the immortal life.


The distance between Isis and Mary is abysmal. Mary gave birth to Chrits, and has participated in a passion the salvation from sin. Isis is a goddes of magic, her relationship with Osiris is between husband and wife.

There is no virginity concept in Isis. The image of Isis nursing Horus was not the source of the images of Mary with the Child in her arms. Millions and millions of mothers offers this picture every day.


Enciclopedia delle Religioni”, word Egypt, Firenze: Vallecchi, 1978

Scaroi Paolo, “Le religioni dei misteri”, Milano: Mondadori, 2004

Tosi Mario, “Dizionario enciclopedico delle divinità dell'antico Egitto”, Torino: Ananke, 2004