Osiris: The Egyptian God of the Afterlife and the Lord of the Dead
In this in-depth bio, you will learn the history of Osiris and the myths and beliefs attached to his name.
We will be covering the following topics:
- Who Is Osiris in Egyptian Mythology?
- How Osiris Was Depicted in Egyptian Artwork and Literature
- The Names of Osiris and the Meanings Behind Them
- The Story of Osiris
- The Death of Osiris
- How Osiris Came To Be Regarded as the Lord of the Dead
- Judgment in the Egyptian Afterlife
Who Is Osiris in Egyptian Mythology?
Osiris is best known as the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld and the dead. At various times throughout Egypt’s history, he was also believed to be the deity of agriculture, vegetation, fertility, and all of life.
After Isis, Osiris was arguably considered the most popular god of ancient Egypt, whose worship had to be forcefully ended after the establishment of Christianity as Egypt’s official religion in the 4th century A.D.
Made popular through the power of the Ennead cult of Heliopolis, the Osirian Resurrection Myth became a cornerstone of Egyptian religion. Archeologists have found evidence of widespread worship of Osiris as early as the Fifth Dynasty (2465 – 2323 B.C.) and believe that he was worshipped in Predynastic Egypt as a fertility god.
Osiris bore the title of Khenti-Amentiu, which was used in Abydos during Predynastic Egypt and as part of the pharaonic title during the First Dynasty (3200–3035 B.C.). The Osirian myth was partially sourced from the Pyramid Texts inscribed on the walls and sarcophagi of the pyramids of Saqqara during the Fifth Dynasty, thus making the story of Osiris one of the oldest religious writings in known history (2615 – 2181 B.C.).
According to the Ennead creation myth of Heliopolis, Osiris was the great-grandson of the creator god Atum (Atum-Ra), grandson of Shu and Tefnut, the son of Geb and Nut, and brother to Set, Isis, Horus the Elder, and Nephthys. Some versions of the Osirian myth state that he was the illegitimate father of the jackal-headed god Anubis through union with Nephthys.
Nearly all myths of Osiris name him as the father of Horus the Younger, and all myths have him being resurrected by his wife, Isis.
As the cult of Heliopolis became the state-sponsored religion of Egypt, the Ennead cult became the dominant belief system and came to influence every corner of ancient Egyptian religion, making Osiris a central figure in every person’s life in ancient Egypt.
The cult of Osiris thrived for over 2,000 years, influencing all levels of Egyptian society. Even the kings of Egypt were directly linked with Osiris. When the pharaoh died, the king was believed to resurrect in the afterlife and join in union with the Lord of the Dead, journeying into the stars with him for all eternity.
How Osiris Was Depicted in Egyptian Artwork and Literature
Unlike many ancient Egyptian deities who were pictured with the heads of animals, Osiris was typically depicted as a man. Most representations of Osiris pictured the god in his post-resurrection form with a pharaoh’s beard and green skin, representing fertility and rebirth.
Other distinctive features of Osiris were his partially linen-wrapped legs (representing his mummification), the Atef crown upon his head (which combined the Hedjet, the white crown of Upper Egypt, with red ostrich feathers on each side), and holding the crook and flail of Egypt (symbolizing kingship and fertility). These representations are commonly seen in tomb depictions, demonstrating Osiris’ role as Lord of the Dead.
When depicted before his death and resurrection, Osiris typically appeared in a pharaonic form as a handsome man. In these representations, Osiris wore the royal dress while holding his symbols of authority, such as the plumed Atef crown and the crook and flail, demonstrating the god’s role as ruler of the living.
Like his great-grandfather Atum-Ra, Osiris was represented by the mythical “bennu,” the predecessor of the Greek phoenix, a bird that burst into flames but was then reborn from its ashes.
In rare depictions, Osiris’ complexion was black. These depictions of Osiris date to Egypt’s earliest history, with the color black representing fertility, as the fertile soil of the Nile was caused by the depositing of black silt during the Nile’s annual inundation.
In the night sky, Osiris was represented by the constellation that is now called Orion, with several Egyptian festivals and holidays marking the constellation’s path upon the horizon and across the sky.
One of the most frequently used symbols to represent Osiris was the djed. Believed to be the pillar carved for the king and queen of Byblos, which unknown to them held the dead body of Osiris inside, the pillar came to represent stability and the spine of Osiris.
During the Sed festival, held approximately every 30 years to honor the pharaoh’s continued rule, a central ceremony was the “Raising of the Djed,” which celebrated the victory of Osiris over his brother Set.
The Names of Osiris and the Meanings Behind Them
The name Osiris is a Greek transliteration of the name Wsjr, pronounced as either Usir, Asar, Wesir, Ausar, Ausir, or Usire. The root of Wsjr was defined in ancient Egyptian as “mighty.”
As Osiris played a central role in Egyptian society, he was known by several official names and titles.
Some of his more common titles were –
- The Lord of Love
- The Beautiful One
- The Foremost of the Westerners (the west symbolized death, with this title expressing Osiris’ dominion of the dead)
- The Lord of Silence
- King of the Living
- He Who is Permanently Benign and Youthful
- Ptah-Seker-Osiris (representing the king of the underworld, god of the afterlife, life, death, and rebirth)
- Force of the Lord of the Djed
- Lord of the Sky
- Eternal Lord
- Life of the Sun God Ra
- Osiris – Neper (when worshipped as the god of grain and agriculture)
- The One Who Continues To Be Perfect
The Creation and Rule of Osiris
The most common creation myth of ancient Egypt was that of the Ennead cult of Heliopolis, which became the state-sponsored religion of ancient Egypt and thrived from the Old Kingdom period (circa 2700) through the Ptolemaic Dynasty (30 B.C.).
In the cult’s primary creation story, before the Earth was formed, there was only chaos, which was symbolized by dark waters. Out of the waters rose the god Atum-Ra, creating himself from nothingness.
Realizing he is lonely, Atum-Ra created the gods Shu and Tefnut from mating with his shadow through masturbation and spit. After Shu and Tefnut became lost from exploring chaos, Atum-Ra began to despair for his children, soon sending his flaming eye to find the children. Upon their return, Atum-Ra cried tears of joy. As they fell upon the ground at his feet, they became the first humans.
To create a home for humanity, Shu and Tefnut mated and produced Geb, the god of the earth, and Nut, the goddess of the sky. However, Geb and Nut could not stay away from one another, mating over and over, crashing the earth and sky together, making the world too unstable for humanity.
In anger, Atum-Ra established pillars to keep Geb and Nut eternally away from one another, thus creating a safe domain for humanity. However, Nut soon found that she was pregnant with Geb’s children and soon produced five gods: Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys, and Horus the Elder.
Atum-Ra desired the principles of Ma’at (righteousness and justice) in all of creation. Osiris, the firstborn of Geb and Nut, was well known for being fair and just, ruling with gentleness and equality. Because of this, Atum-Ra named Osiris as the god of the living and gave him the right to rule all of creation. Isis became the wife of Osiris, and they ruled with kindness and justice.
Seeing that humankind’s nature was debased and uncivilized, Osiris gave humanity religious instruction through his priests. He also taught farmers of agriculture and established schools within his temples to teach culture and law. The world thrived under the rule of Osiris and Isis, with men and women enjoying equal status.
The land was lush and fertile, and peace fell upon creation. The cosmos were in perfect harmony, and Osiris performed his duties with compassion and love for all of creation. The worship of Osiris and Isis was plentiful and widespread, and the gods lavished blessings upon their people.
How Did Osiris Die?
While the universe blossomed under the rule of Osiris and Isis, their brother Set grew jealous. He desired the attention given to Osiris, and he desired the power the god wielded over Egypt.
Nephthys, the wife of Set, desired the attention of Osiris as well. She watched how Osiris poured adoration upon his wife, and since Set barely paid attention to her, she wanted a taste of what Isis received from her husband.
Wanting to feel the love her sister experienced, Nephthys used her magic to transform into the likeness of Isis, even reproducing her scent and taste. She seduced Osiris, tricking the god into sleeping with her. After leaving her bedside, a flower that Osiris wore in his hair fell unnoticed upon the ground.
Later, Set came upon his wife, laying in her true form, asleep and naked upon the bed. Looking down, he discovered Osiris’ flower and flew into a terrible rage, as he believed that it was Osiris that seduced his wife.
With jealousy overwhelming him, Set put a terrible plan into motion. Set designed a wooden box to the exact specifications of Osiris’ body and threw a rambunctious party. Inviting all the gods of Egypt and after plying his brothers and sisters with beer and wine, Set brought forth the ornate wooden box.
His brothers and sisters wondered over the craftsmanship of the box, running their hands along its edges, tracing the symbols of the box with their fingers. Set then placed the box in a dark room and offered the box as a prize to whichever god could best fit inside.
Each god of Egypt went and laid in the box while Set looked on as a judge. To be fair, Osiris desired all other gods to go before him, as he knew by looking at the box that he would fit in it best.
Once the last god left the room, Osiris entered and laid in the box under Set’s gaze, unaware of the evil in his brother’s heart. As Osiris laid in the box and crossed his arms, Set immediately closed the lid, sealed it shut, and threw the coffin into the Nile River.
The Nile took Osiris out to sea, and over the course of many weeks, the box made its way to the rivers of Phoenicia. The coffin became lodged in a tamarisk tree, and the tree grew around it. Malcander, the king of Byblos, happened upon the tree one day and wondered at it, as it had a sweet aroma and feeling of peace.
The king’s wife, Astarte, asked if they could have it brought to their court. The king ordered the tamarisk tree cut down and carved into a beautiful pillar to stand in their throne room. And inside the tree, Osiris, now dead, remained.
The Discovery of Osiris’ Corpse
Upon Osiris’ disappearance, Set assumed the throne of the living. Due to his harsh rule, soon, the balance of Maat was upset. Crops began to wither and fail. The Nile did not rise and fall, causing the once lush green Nile River valleys to turn brown. Father turned against mother and sons against themselves. The sun burned hot, and there was no relief.
Since the disappearance of Osiris, Isis had searched every corner of the kingdom of Egypt, looking for her husband to no avail. After hearing of a mysterious tree in Byblos that had a sweet aroma and wonderful soothing presence, Isis went in search of the tree, believing that it may give her a clue to her husband’s whereabouts. Disguised as an old woman, Isis searched the shore until she found where a large tree had been hewn down. There she collapsed in tears, once again at a loss.
Several royal handmaidens were walking by and witnessed the old woman crying. They invited her to the king’s palace, and Isis accepted. Entering the court, she immediately knew that her search for Osiris was over.
Being near the carved pillar, Isis knew her husband’s body was trapped inside but did not wish to dishonor the king and queen by stealing it away. Instead, she ingratiated herself to the king and queen and became a nursemaid to the crown prince.
In becoming close to the prince, Isis desired to make the child immortal. When he would wake at night to feed, Isis would create a sacred fire and dip him inside to burn away his mortal body. One night, Queen Astarte came to check on her young son and found the old woman bathing him in fire.
The queen screamed in fear, and then Isis revealed her true form. Knowing she was in the presence of one of the immortals who governed the earth, the queen begged for forgiveness. Isis asked for the carved pillar to bring with her back to Egypt and thereafter left.
The Desecration of a God
As soon as she was away from Byblos, Isis cut Osiris’ body from the tree, hiding him in the marshes of the Nile. She knew that if Set was to find out Osiris’ body had been found, he would be furious. Asking for her twin sister’s help, Isis went to find herbs to resurrect Osiris, leaving Nephthys to guard the body.
Set, however, had heard rumors that Isis had been seen bearing a large tree near the swamps of the Nile River Delta. Happening upon Nephthys, he tricked his wife into revealing the location of the body, and upon finding it, hacked his brother’s corpse into 26 pieces. He threw the body parts all over Egypt and threw Osiris’ penis into the river.
When Iris heard of Set’s desecration of Osiris’ body, she went to work gathering the pieces of her husband’s corpse. With the help of Nephthys, the sisters soon discovered all the god’s body parts except her husband’s penis. Set knew that if Osiris’ body could not be fully put together, he could never return to the land of the living.
In throwing Osiris’ penis into the Nile, it had been consumed by the oxyrhynchus fish, dooming Osiris forever to the land of the dead.
The Resurrection of Osiris and Contendings of Horus and Set
Isis and Nephthys brought the body to their son Anubis, the god of mummification. Anubis, the jackal-headed god, was the product of the union of Nephthys deceitful union with Osiris.
Fearing the wrath of Set, Nephthys kept her pregnancy secret from her husband, giving her son to Isis to raise after the disappearance of Osiris. For the love of her husband and sister, Isis raised Anubis as her own.
Working powerful magic, the twin goddesses began to recite prayers and lamentations, urging the spirit of Osiris to return to his body. Scribes recorded the prayers of the goddesses as they worked, putting them together into a work that would be called “The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys,” which would become an essential component of the Egyptian Book of the Dead for thousands of years. The soul of Osiris returned to his body, and soon the god stood again.
Knowing that Osiris would have to descend into the land of the dead since his body was not complete, Isis transformed into a hawk and flew quickly round and round her husband, drawing his seed into herself. Now pregnant, Isis released her husband, and Osiris descended into the Duat, becoming Lord of the Dead.
Soon Isis gave birth to Horus the Younger, trusting Nephthys to keep the child secret from Set until he became of age. Upon reaching maturity, Horus came forward to challenge Set. For over 80 years, Horus the Younger and true heir to the throne of Osiris battled Set across Egypt, which would become known as the “The Contendings of Horus and Set.”
Seeing that the fight between Horus and Set would continue for eternity unless she stepped in, Isis tricked Set into admitting that he had acted dishonorably in the murder of Osiris before the council of gods.
Atum-Ra seized control of Egypt away from Set and gave it to Horus. Set was banished from Egypt and cursed to wander the deserts forever, and Isis reigned as mother to the rightful king.
The Lord of the Dead
When a soul entered the afterlife, it would be welcomed by Anubis and brought before 42 judges. In the Halls of Maat, a person’s heart would be weighed against the feather of Maat, under the watchful gaze of Anubis, Thoth, and Osiris.
If a person had lived a life holding Maat (righteousness and justice) in high regard, they would be free to enter Osiris’ kingdom of lush and verdant fields. If their heart was weighed down with guilt and shame, they would be cast into the maw of the crocodile-headed goddess Ammit to be devoured, but not before undergoing terrible punishments in a lake of flame.
Pharaohs, who were believed to be living gods, were given further honors in the Osirian afterlife upon death. After moving through the afterlife, deceased pharaohs were lifted to the heavens and returned to Osiris in the stars, merging with him forever to reign over the dead.
Osiris, the Rightful King of the Living Who Became God of the Afterlife
The story of Osiris’ birth, death, and resurrection was the most popular myth of ancient Egypt, forming the cornerstone of Egyptian faith for over 3,000 years.
Osiris, with his wife Isis and son Horus, was considered the most popular triad in ancient Egypt’s history, one of the few gods whose worship continued past the introduction of Christianity into Egypt during the 3rd century A.D.
Let’s recount what we have discussed above:
- Osiris was the Egyptian god of the afterlife, the dead, agriculture, vegetation, fertility, and at one point, all of life
- Unlike other gods who had animal heads, Osiris was often represented as a man with a royal beard, wearing an Atef crown, royal dress, and holding the crook and flail
- When depicted in his resurrected form, Osiris’ skin was painted either green or black to represent rebirth and fertility
- The Osirian Resurrection Myth was the most popular story in ancient Egypt, believed to be the oldest religious writing in the world’s history
- Osiris, the ruler over all of life, was murdered and dismembered by his brother Set, who cast the body parts of Osiris throughout Egypt
- Isis reassembled the body parts of Osiris to resurrect him. However, since his body was not complete, Osiris descended to the underworld to become Lord of the Dead
- In the Egyptian afterlife, if one had led a life of righteousness, they were allowed to move on to the verdant fields of Osiris for all eternity. If one led a life of evil, they were judged, punished, and then fed to the crocodile-headed goddess Ammit
The cult of Osiris thrived for over 2,000 years, touching the lives of almost every Egyptian and influencing Egyptian society and culture at every level. The god of the living who became Lord of the Dead, Osiris, still looms large in the mythology of ancient Egypt, a testament to the memory of a culture that still fascinates thousands of years after its demise.