Osiris: Lord of the Underworld in Egyptian Mythology

Osiris Judges the Deceased, New Kingdom Papyrus
Osiris judges the deceased architect Kha and his wife. Papyrus from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, from Kha's funerary chamber, 18th dynasty (1540-1295 BC), in Deir El-Medina (Egypt). Museo Egizio, Turin, Italy.

Leemage / Getty Images

Osiris is the name of the God of the Underworld (Duat) in Egyptian mythology. Son of Geb and Nut, husband of Isis, and one of the Great Ennead of the creator gods of Egyptian religion, Osiris is the "Lord of the Living," meaning he watches over the (once-)living people who reside in the underworld. 

Key Takeaways: Osiris, Egyptian God of the Underworld

  • Epithets: Foremost of the Westerners; Lord of the Living; The Great Inert, Osiris Wenin-nofer ("he who is everlastingly in a fine condition" or "beneficent being." 
  • Culture/Country: Old Kingdom—Ptolemaic period, Egypt
  • Earliest Representation: Dynasty V, the Old Kingdom from the reign of Djedkara Isesi
  • Realms and Powers: Duat (Egyptian Underworld); God of Grain; Judge of the Dead
  • Parents: Firstborn of Geb and Nut; one of the Ennead
  • Siblings: Seth, Isis, and Nephthys
  • Spouse: Isis (sister and wife)
  • Primary Sources: Pyramid texts, coffin texts, Diodorus Siculus, and Plutarch

Osiris in Egyptian Mythology

Osiris was the firstborn child of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, and was born in Rosetau at the western Desert necropolis near Memphis, which is the entrance to the underworld. Geb and Nut were the children of the creator gods Shu (Life) and Tefnut (Maat, or Truth and Justice) in the First Time—together they gave birth to Osiris, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys. Shu and Tefnut were the children of the sun god Ra-Atun, and all of these deities make up the Great Ennead, four generations of gods who created and ruled the earth.

Relief of Osiris, Isis, and Horus, Late Period (644–322 BCE)
Late Period (644–322 BCE) relief of Osiris, Isis, and Horus at the Temple of Hibis, Kharga Oasis in the Libyan Desert, Egypt. C. Sappa / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images Plus

Appearance and Reputation 

At his earliest appearance in the 5th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (late 25th century to mid-24th century BCE), Osiris is depicted as the head and upper torso of a god, with the hieroglyphic symbols of Orisis' name. He is often illustrated wrapped as a mummy, but his arms free and holding a crook and a flail, symbols of his status as a pharaoh. He wears the distinctive crown known as the "Atef," which has ram's horns at the base, and a tall conical centerpiece with a plume on each side. 

However, later on, Osiris is both human and god. He is considered one of the pharaohs of the "predynastic" period of Egyptian religion when the Ennead created the world. He ruled as pharaoh after his father Geb, and he is considered the "good king," in opposition to his brother Seth. Greek writers later claimed Osiris and his consort, the goddess Isis, as the founders of human civilization, who taught agriculture and crafts to humans.

Role in Mythology

Osiris is the ruler of the Egyptian underworld, a god who protects the dead and is connected with the constellation of Orion. While a pharaoh is seated on the throne of Egypt, he or she is considered a form of Horus, but when the ruler dies, she or he becomes a form of Osiris ("Osiride"). 

Queen Hatshepsut as Osiris
These larger than life-size statues of Queen Hatshepsut's temple in Luxor show her as Osiris. BMPix / iStock / Getty Images Plus

The primary legend of Osiris is how he died and became the god of the Underworld. The legend changed a bit throughout the 3,500 years of Egyptian dynastic religion, and there are more or less two versions of how that happened. 

Death of Osiris I: Ancient Egypt

In all versions, Osiris is said to have been assassinated by his brother Seth. The ancient story says that Osiris is attacked by Seth in a remote location, trampled and cast down in the land of Gahesty, and he falls on the side of the riverbank near Abydos. In some versions, Seth takes the form of a dangerous animal to do that—crocodile, bull, or wild ass. Another says Seth drowns Osiris in the Nile, an event that occurs during the "night of the great storm." 

Osiris' sister and consort, Isis, hear a "terrible lament" when Osiris dies, and go searching for his body, eventually finding it. Thoth and Horus conduct an embalming ritual at Abydos, and Osiris becomes the king of the underworld.

Death of Osiris II: Classic Version 

The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (90–30 BCE) visited northern Egypt in the mid-first century BCE; the Greek biographer Plutarch (~49–120 CE), who neither spoke nor read Egyptian, reported a narrative of Osiris. The story the Greek writers told is more elaborate, but likely at least a version of what the Egyptians believed during the Ptolemaic period

In the Greek version, Osiris' death is a public assassination by Seth (called Typhon). Seth builds a beautiful chest made to fit his brother's body perfectly. He then displays it at a feast and promises to give the chest to anyone who fits into the box. Typhon's followers try it, but none fit—but when Osiris climbs into the box, the conspirators bolt the lid and seal it with molten lead. They then throw the chest into a branch of the Nile, where it floats until it reaches the Mediterranean. 

Reconstructing Osiris

Because of her devotion to Osiris, Isis goes in search of the chest and finds it at Byblos (Syria), where it had grown into a marvelous tree. The king of Byblos had the tree cut down and carved into a pillar for his palace. Isis recovers the pillar from the king and takes it to the Delta, but Typhon finds it. He tears Osiris's body into 14 parts (sometimes 42 parts, one for each district in Egypt), and scatters the parts throughout the realm. 

Isis and her sister Nephthys take the form of birds, seeking out each of the parts, and making them whole again and burying them where they were found. The penis had been eaten by a fish, so Isis had to replace it with a wooden model; she also had to revive his sexual powers so that she could give birth to their son Horus.

After Osiris is reconstructed, he is no longer involved with the living. As happened in the shorter version of the tale, Thoth and Horus conduct an embalming ritual at Abydos, and Osiris becomes the king of the Underworld.

Osiris as God of Grain

In papyri and tombs dated by the 12th dynasty of the Middle Kingdom onward, Osiris is sometimes portrayed as the god of grain, specifically barley—the sprouting of the crop implies the resurrection of the deceased in the Underworld. In later New Kingdom papyri he is illustrated lying on the desert sand, and his flesh changes color with the season: black evokes the Nile silt, green the living vegetation before the summer ripening. 

Sources

  • Hart, George. "The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses," 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.
  • Pinch, Geraldine. "Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt." Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
  • ---. "Handbook of Egyptian Mythology." ABC-CLIO Handbooks of World Mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2002. Print.