The Great Royal Myth of Egypt: Osiris, Isis, Set, and Horus
A most important god of Egypt and actually visible, literally "in the flesh," was the king himself. He was the god Horus, son of Isis and Osiris; and the first of the five names in the royal titulary was the king's name as "Horus So-and-So." The concept of the reigning king as the living Horus goes back to the most ancient times, and in this sanction of the king as the living, personal deity of Egypt were his absolute power and authority embodied. An appreciation of this fact is essential to an adequate understanding of the literature and art, and indeed the entire cultural complex which prevailed in ancient Egypt.
The position of the king as the living and manifest national god of Egypt found its authority in what might be called the basic myth of Egypt--the story of Osiris, which made a profound impression on all those who came in contact with Egypt from the earliest period through Roman times. As in all primal myths, the motif is a simple one. It will be remembered from The Creation according to Ra, that the primordial god Ra-Atum-Khepri produced the gods Shu (“air”) and Tefnut (“moisture”), who in turn begot Geb ("earth") and Nut ("sky). Geb and Nut bore two sons, Osiris and Set, and two daughters, Isis and Nephthys. Geb, as lord of all the earth, bestowed the sovereignty thereof upon his eldest son, Osiris. Osiris ruled over all the earth (Egypt, naturally) in paternal beneficence, teaching mankind agriculture and the other arts of civilization. His younger brother Set however, being jealous of his hegemony, conspired against him, slew him, and usurped his throne. Isis, who was Osiris's loving and devoted sister and consort, observed the ritual period of lamentation and mourning together with their sister Nephthys and then proceeded upon the search for her murdered husband's limbs (or drowned body, in another version). Her main purpose in this was to reconstitute the life of Osiris so that he might impregnate her and engender an heir who would avenge his father's murder and take his rightful place upon, the usurped throne.
Eventually Isis found the dead Osiris, and being “great of magic,” she brought about his resurrection. After impregnating Isis, Osiris left the earth forever, to become lord of the Other World, the World of Eternity where the immortal dead live in beatitude and glory. In course of time, Isis gave birth to Osiris's son Horus, who was to avenge his father and assume his rightful place as king of Egypt. After various struggles with Set, Horus was victorious and eventually obtained the recognition of the Council of the Gods as rightful king.
From the earliest times, the royal succession of Egypt was intimately and essentially a repetition of this theme, a re-enactment of the ongoing myth. The living king upon the throne was always the god Horus, and regarded as such by all "people," that is, mortals. The king was not a mortal; he was a god, Horus, the son of Isis and heir of his father Osiris, the first divine, legitimate heir to the throne. When the king died, he became, in absolute identification with his father, Osiris; and his heir in turn took his place upon the throne of Egypt as Horus. Becoming Osiris and Horus, however, could be effected only by means of ritual magic, and this was the purpose of the involved ceremonials attending the burial of the deceased king and the investiture of his successor.
To effect the deceased king's becoming Osiris was the purpose of our earliest body of religious texts from Egypt, the Pyramid Texts, so-called because the texts were found inscribed upon the walls of the corridors and chambers of the pyramids of the kings of the Fifth and Sixth dynasties. What these texts are is a series of magic spells which bring this purpose about it must be remembered that these ritual formulas are not there to tell us the story of Osiris, but to "make" the deceased king Osiris by the magical effectiveness of their words and of the ritual acts which accompanied them. For this reason, we do not find the story in a connected form. As a matter of fact, nowhere in ancient Egyptian literature do we find the entire story in a connected sequence. We find it only in a late text with many non-Egyptian additions and speculations and written in Greek by a non-Egyptian: the essay On Isis and Osiris by Plutarch, who lived during the later first and early second century C.E. Various elements and aspects of the myth, however, are referred to in much of ancient Egyptian literature throughout its history, and one most unusual and amusing text deals anecdotally with The Contending of Horus and Set.
Our purpose here is to present the myth from the oldest source at our disposal, namely, the Pyramid Texts. Since as mentioned, these ritual texts do not tell the story in a connected order, as this was not their reason for being, what we have done is to gather separate spells referring to definite elements of the "story line" and arrange them in as best an ordered sequence as we can. If our compilation seems rather disjointed, it is because the spells, or groups of spells, have been taken out of context and rearranged to “tell” the story. In no way, however, has the meaning of a spell been stretched or changed, except those instances in which the deceased king is addressed or referred to as "Osiris So-and-So" or by his name alone. In these cases we have simply substituted "Osiris," since that was what he was considered to be. The only complete English translation is by the Canadian Egyptologist Samuel A. B. Mercer: The Pyramid Texts (4 volumes, Macmillan, 1952), with commentary and additional essays, of which the translation comprises the first volume.
The texts from the various royal pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth dynasties were collated and published, first partially by Maspéro in 1894, and in a much more complete edition by Kurt Sethe in 1908-1910. Sethe's edition has become the standard one, although from time to time new inscriptions have come to light from Old Kingdom pyramids, with parallel and/or additional texts. Each sentence of the texts (corresponding to a "verse" in the Bible) is referred to as a "spell" by scholars, and each group of spells dealing with a unit of the ritual is called an "utterance." The corpus of texts as published by Sethe is made up of 2,217 spells or fragments of spells, divided into 714 utterances.
The Birth of Osiris:
There come the waters of life which are in the sky; there come the waters of life which are in the earth. The sky bums for you, the earth trembles for you, before the birth of the god.
The two mountains open: the god comes into being, and assumes power over his body.
Behold Osiris! his feet shall be kissed by the pure waters which were in Atum, which the phallus of Shu has made and which the vulva of Tefnut has caused to be.
Your Mother Nut has given you birth; Geb has wiped your mouth for you!
They have come, they have brought to you the pure waters which are in their father. They purify you and cleanse you as with incense. .
A cool libation is poured out at the gate of Osiris. The face of every god is washed.
You wash your arms, O Osiris! The renewal of your youthful vigor is as a god!
[Nut rejoices in the birth of her son, and all the gods rejoice with her]
Nut, the gleaming, the great, says: "This is my son, my first-born, Osiris, opener of my womb! “This is my beloved, in whom I am content.” Geb says: “This is my son, Osiris, of my body!”
Nut the great, she who is in the lower mansion, says: "This is my son, Osiris, my beloved, my eldest one, who is upon the throne of Geb, in whom he is content, to whom he gave his inheritance in the presence of the Great Ennead”
All the gods are in exultation. They say: "How beautiful is Osiris, in whom his father Geb is content"
Nut, this is your son is this one here, Osiris, of whom you have said: "One born to your father!" You have wiped for him his mouth.
[Osiris is assigned his place in the genealogy of the gods]
Atum, this your son is this one here, Osiris, whom you have made to endure and to live.
Shu, this your son is this one here, Osiris, whom you have made to endure and to live.
Tefnut, this your son is this one here, Osiris, whom you have made to endure and to live.
Geb, this your son is this one here, Osiris, whom you have made to endure and to live.
Nut, this your son is this one here, Osiris, whom you have made to endure and to live.
Isis, this your brother is this one here, Osiris, whom you have made to endure and to live.
Set, this your brother is this one here, Osiris, who is made to endure and to live, so that he may punish you.
Nephthys, this your brother is this one here, Osiris, whom you have made to endure and to live.
Thoth, this your brother is this one here, Osiris, who is made to endure and to live, so that he may punish you.
Horus, this your father is this one here, Osiris, whom you have made to endure and to live!
[Osiris is declared king of Upper and Lower Egypt]
Nut-Nekhbet the great says: “This is my beloved, my son. I have given the Two Horizons to him that he may be powerful over them like the Horus of the Two Horizons." All the gods say: "It is a true thing that he is your beloved among your children. I will exercise divine protection over him eternally!" Nut the great, who is within the encircled mansion, says: "This is my son, Osiris, of my heart!"
All the gods say [to Nut]: "Your father Shu knows that you love him more than your mother Tefnut."
He lives, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, beloved of Ra, living forever!
Heir of Geb, whom he loves, Osiris, beloved of the gods, Osiris, given life, endurance, joy, health, all happiness, like Ra!
Osiris, the beloved son of Geb, Osiris, son of Nut, opener of her womb, Osiris, endowed with life, endurance, health, like Ra for ever!
[Isis and Nephthys given to Osiris as consorts]
Nut says: "Osiris, I have given to you your sister Isis, that she may hold you fast, that she may give you your heart of your body."
Nut says: "Osiris, I have given to you your sister Nephthys, that she may hold you fast, that she may give you your heart of your body."
[Thoth aids Set against Osiris]
Behold what Set and Thoth have done, your two brothers, who knew not how to weep for you!
Set, this your brother is this one here, Osiris, who is made to endure and to live, that he may punish you! Thoth, this your brother is this one here, Osiris, who is made to endure and to live, that he may punish you!
[Set binds Osiris and kills him]
[Horus] beats him who beats you; he binds him who binds you. Have you [Set] acted against him? Have you said that he would die? He will not die! Osiris will live a life forever. Osiris is become, in spite of them, as the surviving bull of the wild bulls. Osiris is at their head; he will live and last forever!
[The search and lamentation for Osiris]
The hat-bird comes, the kite comes; they are Isis and Nephthys. They have come in search of their brother Osiris.
You who are here, weep for your brother! Isis, weep for your brother! Nephthys, weep for your brother!
Isis sits, her hands upon her head. Nephthys has indeed seized the tips of her breasts because of her brother Osiris. Anubis is on his belly, Osiris being wounded.
Isis and Nephthys have seen you; they have found you. Your two sisters, Isis and Nephthys, come to you. They hasten to the place in which you are, to the place where you were drowned. Your sister Isis laid hold of you, when she found you complete and great, in your name of "Great Black."
The gods in Buto (a mythical city and spiritual center in Lower Egypt) were filled with compassion, when they came to Osiris, at the voice of weeping of Isis and at the lamentation of Nephthys, at the wailing of these two spirits.
The souls of Buto dance for you; they smite their flesh for you; they beat their arms for you; they dishevel their hair for you; they smite their legs for you!
[The resurrection of Osiris]
It is your great sister who has collected your flesh, who has gathered your hands, who sought you, who found you on your side on the shore of Nedyt. Your two sisters, Isis and Nephthys, come to you. They heal you, complete and great, in your name of Great Black, fresh and great, in your name of Great Green!
Osiris, your mother Nut has spread herself over you, that she may hide you from all evil things. Nut has guarded you from all evil; you are the greatest among her children.
O Osiris, he who comes and comes, you shall not be in need! Your mother comes; you shall not be in need! Nut, you shall not be in need; protectress of the great, you shall not be in need; protectress of the fearful, you shall not be in need!
She protects you, she prevents your need, she gives back your head to you; she collects your bones for you; she brings your heart into your body for you.
Nut has made you to be as a god to your enemy, for you are made young in your name of Fresh Water.
Osiris, who was placed upon his side by his brother Set, he who was in Nedyt stirs; his head is raised up by Ra. His abomination is to sleep; he hates to be wearied!
Osiris awakes in peace; he who was in Nedyt awakes in peace. His head is lifted up by Ra.
He rots not; he stinks not!
"Come, my child!" says Atum. "Come to us" say they, say the gods to you, Osiris!
“Our brother is come to us-the eldest, the first-begotten of his father, the first-born of his mother."
You support the sky on your right side, having life. You live, because the gods ordained that you live. Osiris supports the sky on his right side, having life. He lives his life, because the gods have ordained that you live!
You lean on the earth on your left side, having joy. You live your life, because the gods have ordained that you live!
Osiris is the blood which came forth from Isis! Osiris is the red blood which came forth from Nephthys!
[Osiris impregnates Isis]
Your sister comes to you, rejoicing for love of yon! Isis comes to you, rejoicing for love of you!
"I have assembled my brother; I have united his limbs. I have come, I lay hold of you; I have put your heart in your body for you. I have come, rejoicing for love of you! O Osiris, this source is within you! I am the water-hole; I am overflowing!"
You have placed her upon your phallus, that your seed may go into her, pointed like Sothis. Horus the pointed has come forth from you as Horus who was in Sothis!
[The battle of Horus and Set]
It is Horus! He has come to avenge his father Osiris! He has proclaimed a royal decree of death in the places of Anubis. Everyone hears it and he [Set] shall not live.
Thoth, spare none among those who have wronged the king!
[The first company of the “justified” was born] before there was anger, before there was tumult, before there was strife, before there was conflict, before the Eye of Horus was plucked out, before the testicles of Set were torn away.
Horus falls because of his Eye. The Bull Set collapses because of his testicles.
Horus has moaned because of his Eye. Set has moaned because of his testicles.
Horus has seized Set; he has placed him under you, that he may carry you, and that he may quake under you like the quaking of the earth, for you are more exalted than he, in your name of "He of the Exalted Land."
Horus has caused that you seize him with your hand, without his escaping you. O Osiris, Horus has avenged you! He has done it for his ka in you, that you may be satisfied in your name of "Satisfied Ka."
[The return of the organs of Horus and Set after the battle]
Osiris is the messenger of the gods in search of the Eye of Horus. Osiris searched for it in Buto; he found it at Heliopolis. Osiris snatched it from the head of Set, at the place where they fought.
The messenger of Horus, whom he loves, was Osiris, who has brought back to him his Eye. The messenger of Set, whom he loves, was Osiris, who has brought back to him his testicles.
You, Osiris, shall spit in the face of Horus in order to drive the injury away from him. You shall catch the testicles of Set, in order to drive away his mutilation. That one was born to you; this one was begotten by you.
You have been born, O Horus, as one whose name is “him at whom the earth quakes.” You are begotten, O Set, as one whose name is “him at whom the sky trembles.” That one [Horus] has not a mutilation; this one [Set] has not an injury. This one has not an injury; that one has not a mutilation.
[Horus gives his Eye to Osiris]
Your son Horus has smitten him; he has snatched back his Eye from him; he has given it to you, that you may become glorious thereby, that you may become mighty before the Glorious Ones.
O Osiris, arise! Horus comes, he reclaims you from the gods. Horus has loved you; he has equipped you with his Eye. Horus has given you his Eye, the hard one. He has placed it for you, that you may be strong, and that all your enemies may fear you. Horus has completely filled you with his Eye, in this his name of “fullness of the god.”
Horus has opened your eye for you, that you may see with it, in its name of "Opener of the Way."
[In a variant spell, Osiris eats the Eye:] that which you have eaten is an eye. Your body is full of it; your son Horus parts with it for you, that you may live by it.
[Horus as the Avenger of Osiris]
Horus says: Arise for me, father! Stand up for me, O Osiris! It is I; I am your son; I am Horus your avenger. I have smitten for you him who smote you. I have avenged you, O father Osiris, on him who did you evil!
O Osiris, Horus has found you! He rejoices over you. Go forth against your enemy; you are greater than he!
Horus has caused him to carry you; he has delivered you from your enemy. He has avenged you.
Horus has extended your enemy beneath you. You are older than he [Set] for you were born before him.
Horus has caused Thoth to bring your enemy to you. He has placed you upon his back, and he dares not resist you. Sit you down upon him!
Mount; sit upon him, so that he dare not resist you!
And the Ennead shall not allow Set to be free from carrying you forever!
[Set's lying testimony, and his judgment]
Remember, Set, put in your heart this word which Geb spoke, the threat which the gods made against you in the house of the Prince, in Heliopolis, because you did strike Osiris to the ground!
As you, Set, did say: "I have not done this against him!" that you might prevail thereby; that you might be acquitted, and prevail in spite of Horus.
As you, Set, did say: "It is he who defied me!" As you, Set, did say: “It is he who came too near to me!”
Osiris desires to be justified by that which he has done; since Tefen and Tefnut have justified Osiris, since the Two Truths have heard him, since Shu has been his advocate, since the Two Truths have given verdict, he has encompassed the thrones of Geb; he has raised himself to that which he wished.
So that his limbs are united, which were once hidden. He united himself with those who are in Nun. He concludes his defense in Heliopolis.
[The triumph of Osiris and Horus]
O Osiris, stand up, see that which your son has done for you! Awake, hear that which Horus has done for you!
He has caused Thoth to turn back for you the Followers of Set, and that he bring them to you all together.
Thoth has seized your enemy for you, so that he is beheaded together with his followers; there is not one whom he has spared!
He has beaten for you him who beats you. He has killed for you him who kills you, like a wild bull. He had bound for you him who binds you. He has put him under your great daughter who is in Kedem.
So that mourning ceased in the Two Palaces of the gods!
[The risen Osiris as the ongoing principle of life]
Osiris has come forth this day at the head of the full flood. Osiris is the crocodile with the flourishing green plume, with head erect, his breast lifted, the foaming one who has come forth from the thigh of the Great Tail which is in the gleaming heavens.
Osiris has come to his pools, which are in the land of the flood, in the great inundation, to the seats of contentment-green of fields, which are in the horizon.
Osiris makes green and fertile the fields in both lands of the horizon. Osiris has brought the gleam to the Great Eye in the midst of the field. Osiris receives his throne which is in the horizon.
Osiris rises as Sebek, son of Neith. Osiris eats with his mouth;
Osiris urinates; Osiris copulates with his phallus. Osiris is lord of semen which women seize from their husbands, wherever Osiris wishes, according as his heart conceives.
O you whose life-giving tree becomes green, who is over his field; O opener of flowers, he who is on his sycamore; O you whose riverbanks glisten with verdure, who is over his tree of charm!
O lord of green fields, rejoice this day! Osiris will henceforth be among you; Osiris will go forth in his environs. Osiris will live on that upon which you live.
O Bulls of Atum! Make Osiris green! Refresh Osiris more than the Red Crown which is upon his head, more than the floodwaters which are upon his thighs, more than the dates which are in his fist!