Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Isis and Osiris

After the brutal slaughter following the Creation at the hands of the goddess Sekhmet, the Egyptian cosmos was afforded some small respite and peace. Mankind had paid a heavy price in blood, which even now stained the land of Egypt, for the mercy of the gods (for the story of the Egyptian Creation myth, please click here). Feeling remorse for the carnage he had unleashed by the creation of Sekhmet, Ra, the Sun god, stayed her hand. Meanwhile, new deities were being born...

Thoth - the god of wisdom
Wall relief from the Temple of Ramesses II
During the old times, when Ra had ruled mankind as an avatar on Earth, a prophecy reached his ear that should the sky goddess Nut ever bear children, his rule would fall before one of them. So the Sun god laid a curse upon Nut, so that she could not give birth on any day of the year. Desperate with grief, Nut came before learned Thoth, the ibis headed god of wisdom whose intellect rivalled any deity to be born in Heaven. Wise Thoth knew that Ra's curse could not be lifted, but conceived a plan. He approached the moon god, Khonsu, and challenged him to a game of draughts. The lunar spirit accepted, and the games began. Thoth wagered his skill against the precious light that the moon god guarded, and through his arcane foresight, won game after game until Khonsu refused to play any more. Triumphant Thoth gathered the light he had won and with it he wove five extra days. Before Thoth's game the year had but three hundred and sixty days, now three hundred and sixty five. Nut was joyous at the news, for Ra's curse had been laid upon offspring born in the year, and now she had five days in addition to the ritual year.

Osiris - Lord of the Underworld
Papyrus in the British Museum
The goddess soon gave birth. Over five days she bore five deities. On the first, a son she called Osiris. On the second, another son. On the third, another son she called Set. On the fourth, a daughter she called Isis. On the fifth and final day, another daughter she called Nephthys. The curse of Ra had at once been fulfilled and conquered. Of all Nut's children it seemed that Osiris, her eldest son, was the most favoured. Popular, and shrewd, he ruled over the land of Egypt as Pharaoh and as god. Enamoured with Isis, Osiris wed his own sister, for a god could not marry a mortal, beginning a long tradition perpetuated through the Egyptian royal line in historical times. Osiris and Isis, as King and Queen, ruled well, and soon had a son, Horus. Osiris taught man the arts of civilisation, from the building of cities and the writing of laws to agriculture. Wars ceased, for man had no need of violence under Osiris' sound judgement and prudence. The shout of battle was replaced with song and dance, poverty with prosperity, death with life. The other gods bowed to Osiris and obeyed his will. Mankind turned from their heathen, cannibalistic ways when Isis uncovered the secrets of the fertile banks of the Nile. The secrets of writing, the invention of wise Thoth, were shared with the priests of Egypt. Jubilant at his noble rule, the people and gods of Egypt grew to adore their Pharaoh.

Set - the god of chaos
Stela in the British Museum
All except one. For Set, the god of chaos, storms and the desert, secretly harboured a strong hatred of his brother. Set reviled his popularity, when he himself had been shunned at court. The more the people praised Osiris, the greater his rage grew. But Set dared not strike Osiris down openly, for Isis was ever vigilant of Set's dark envy, as Osiris would not believe ill of his brother. Set therefore conceived a plan. One day, Osiris returned to Egypt from travels in distant lands. Set waited for his brother, and greeted him on bended knee, praising him for his virtuous rule, and declaring a magnificent banquet to be held in his honour. Attending would be men and gods from far and wide, but little did oblivious Osiris know that among those present, seventy two of the guests were fellow conspirators of Set. The feast eclipsed any which had been seen before in the Royal Palace of Egypt, as the laughter rang and the wine flowed. All gathered grew merry through revelry, and after the tables had been drawn aside, Set summoned into the hall a gift. Through the doors the servants came, bearing a most splendid casket, fashioned from the most precious metals and richest woods. All present marvelled at the craftsmanship of the Casket, but none were prepared for what came next. Set decreed that he would grant the casket to he who fits most exactly within it. One by one the seventy two conspirators moved to lie within it, though each was too slender or too broad. At last Osiris himself agreed to try the Casket. Set smiled with malice. For the calculating god had designed the Casket to fit the dimensions of Osiris perfectly. Osiris lay within it, finding to his surprise that it was most comfortable to his frame. At once Set gave the command, and the seventy two conspirators pounced. They immediately sealed the Casket with the god-king inside, driving the nails into the wood, binding them with molten lead. The conspirators took the casket onto their shoulders and hurled it into the mighty River Nile, which swept it through the Tanitic Mouth to the Delta. Further and further the Casket of Set was borne, until it at last found peace in the branches of a great tamarisk tree in the land of Phoenicia.

Isis - Queen of the gods
Painting in the Tomb of Seti I, Valley of the Kings
Isis, wracked with grief, set about searching far and wide for the Casket, carrying the infant Horus in her arms. Far and wide across the land of Egypt she sought her brother and husband in vain, and wept bitterly, for until given the proper funeral rites, the soul of Osiris would never be able to truly move on. Loyal Isis asked every man, woman and child she came across, but none had seen the Casket. Then, just as all hope seemed to have faded, she chanced across some children playing by the banks of the Nile. To her elation, it so happened that they had indeed seen a chest such as she described, and pointed her in the direction of the Ocean. Grateful Isis blessed the children, and all children hence with the gift of innocence and wisdom. Leaving Horus in the safe care of the goddess Buto, Isis made for Phoenicia with all haste. Over time, the tamarisk tree had been felled and now stood as a pillar in the House of King Malcander and Queen Astarte of Phoenicia. Through her humility and peculiar aura, Isis soon won the respect and admiration of the Phoenician people. Coming to the Royal Court at Byblos, Isis chanced upon the baby Dictys, who she found to be in terrible ailment. Through her empathy, Isis felt the child's pain, and took pity upon him, making him an immortal. With a shock, Queen Astarte revealed the baby to be her own son, and the King and Queen were immeasurably grateful, offering anything and all they had in praise of Isis. Humble Isis, however, begged just one thing, the pillar of the palace. Unaware of the truth of the pillar's core, King Malcander granted her this gift most willingly. Isis broke apart the mighty trunk to reveal, to her ecstasy, the Casket of Set. Taking the Casket she at once made her return to Egypt, and ever after the tamarisk pillar was revered as the most sacred relic in Byblos.

Wall relief from the Temple of Edfu
Her quest at last complete, Isis set the Casket down in the marshes of the Delta, and collapsed in fatigue and grief. For in her absence, Set had seized power in Egypt for himself, and now ruled the land as Pharoah and god. Though Egypt was strong, the people lived in fear of their new King, who though an authoritative leader, ruled with the unrelenting grip of a tyrant. For an age Isis wept over her beloved Osiris, so missed by his people and his sister, such that the Nile itself began to flood. Every year since, the Nile has burst its banks, both a blessing and a curse. After a time, her eyes grew dry from giving up so many tears, and her thoughts turned to her son Horus, who she had not seen for so long, and she made haste to visit Buto to reclaim him from her care. But ill fortune was still to come. That night, Set rode forth from the Palace astride his chariot, hunting boars in the Delta as was his pleasure, for Set adored the darkness of the night and the wicked things which dwell within it. The light of the moon shone brightly that night. A glint in the bushes caught the dark god's eye. Curious, Set leaped to the ground. Recognising the lavish designs on the Casket at once, his fury was terrible to behold. Drawing upon his immense strength, powered by the sinews of a god, Set rent the Casket asunder and gazed upon the body of his brother. His rage building, Set lifted the body high into the air and tore the corpse into fourteen pieces, hurling each bloodied part to the fourteen corners of Egypt, before storming back to the Palace.

When Isis returned with Horus, and learned what Set had done, she was as relentless as she was sorrowful. Dutifully, she set about searching once again, in a boat woven of papyrus. The creatures of the Nile, through fear or reverence, bowed before her and aided her passage. Out of respect, the crocodiles had not devoured the dismembered parts of Osiris, and retreated before her. Guided by the creatures, Isis soon discovered thirteen of the parts, stopping to hold a funeral for each as she found it. Where each piece was found, a shrine to Osiris was raised in defiance of Set. But an impious pike had fed upon the final part of the fourteen, and Isis was forced to fashion the remainder out of wood from a nearby tree. The body of Osiris at last united, Isis wove her arcane magic, uttering the divine secrets she had learned from Ra, as she embalmed the body. Osiris could at last move on to the Underworld, and Isis hid the body on the island of Elephantine, hoping that Set would never discover it.

Horus - the god of the Sky
Photograph taken by Karen Green
As the young Horus grew, he heard the voice of his father in his ears, a voice which taught him all the arts a warrior must know who must face Set. Over the years, Horus grew into a strong being, mighty in will and in stature. One day Osiris asked his son "What is the noblest thing that a man can do?". "Avenge his father and mother for the evil done to them", Horus eagerly replied. Osiris smiled, seeing that his son was ready to face Set. Word soon reached Set in the Royal Court of a rebellion in the South, who set about raising an army to confront the apparent usurper. The two forces met near the Delta, and the fighting was bitter. When Set saw that the rebellion was lead by the Son of Osiris, he was angered further still. Both armies clashed, but neither side could lay low the other. For many days the war went on, all over Egypt, until the time came for one final battle. Drawn by the rapids to the First Cataract of the Nile, Horus came to the island of Elephantine. In close pursuit, with a deafening roar, the Nile seemed to tear asunder as the dark god burst forth from its depths, in the form of a titanic hippopotamus coloured as though drenched in blood. Coming to rest upon Elephantine, Set sensed the presence of Osiris's corpse, and was incensed greatly. Suddenly spying Horus on the prow of the lead ship, Set turned to crush the Son of Osiris once and for all. Wielding power over the storms, Set commanded a blasting gale bear down upon Horus and his fleet. The howling winds sent forth the Nile in raging torrents and towering waves, and Horus clung on, just. The sky darkened with the violence of the storm, and a ripple of fear passed through Horus's troops. Sensing their fear, Set rose high into the air and lunged at Horus, his tusk ridden jaws stretched wide, eager to engulf the young god in his maw. Desperate, Horus seized a harpoon from the deck and dived forward. Carried onward by his own immense mass, Set was impaled upon the blade, and the point bored through his powerful skull, transfixing his brain. Set, the enemy of Osiris, fell broken to the Nile depths. The storm subsided, the blackness replaced by a deep blue, and the Sun glowed brightly. Osiris, once the great King and now the judge of the dead, was truly at peace. The people of Egypt shouted in triumph, and greeted Horus the Avenger with glorious exultation. Egypt was, at last, at peace.

The story of Isis and Osiris is a vast myth, and the cornerstone of Egyptian Mythology. Preserved in images all over Egypt, and in the writings of later civilisations, it is a tale which has endured the withering passage of time with potency. The story in its completeness can be found in its entirety in the following books, available at a good price from Amazon:

United Kingdom

Plutarch's Moralia:
Moralia: v.5: Vol 5 (Loeb Classical Library)
(Includes an account of the story of Osiris, through the eyes of a Romanised author)

Diodorus Siculus' Library of History:
Library of History: v. 1 (Loeb Classical Library)
(A more light hearted and easy to read account of the tale, told by a Sicilian!)

United States

Plutarch's Moralia:
Plutarch: Moralia, Volume V, Isis and Osiris. The E at Delphi. The Oracles at Delphi No Longer Given in Verse. The Obsolescence of Oracles. (Loeb Classical Library No. 306)
(Includes and account of the story of Osiris, through the eyes of a Romanised author)

Diodorus Siculus' Library of History:
Diodorus Siculus: Library of History, Volume I, Books 1-2.34 (Loeb Classical Library No. 279)
(A more light hearted and easy to read account of the tale, told by a Sicilian!)

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