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Ancient Egyptian deities: The Abydos Triad–Osiris, Isis, Horus–and Seth
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The Abydos Triad–Osiris, Isis and Horus–and Seth

Osiris

Osiris Osiris wearing the atef crown
Source: Egypt by Irmgard Woldering

    Osiris, god of the dead and the Duat [1], was one of the most important deities in ancient Egypt. A fertility god in the Pre-Dynastic Period, he had by about 2400 BCE become also a funerary god and the personification of dead pharaohs. With his sister-consort Isis and their son Horus, he formed the great triad of Abydos (Abdu, about 520 km south of Cairo). He was credited with teaching the skills of agriculture to the Egyptians.

The Osiris myth

    The only complete account of the Osiris myth occurs in Plutarch's Of Isis and Osiris, Egyptian text fragments support much of his version. Osiris was the son of the earth-god Geb and the sky-goddess Nut.
Thou art the eldest son of the womb of Nut. Thou wast begotten by Keb (Geb), the Erpat.
From the Hymn to Osiris Un-Nefer
Translated by E.A.Wallis Budge
    In the temple of Denderah he is given his full royal titulary and personal details like size and ancestry:
Osiris who has appeared as king on the throne of his father.
Horus, strong of arm.
Nebty strong by courage.
Golden Horus Osiris.
King of Upper and Lower Egypt Osiris.
Son of Re, Wennefer, triumphant.
This is his exact name.
Eight cubits, six palms, three fingers.
He was put in this world at Thebes.
His father was Geb.
His mother was Nut.
He has appeared (as king) at Heracleopolis.
While he acted as the lord (?),
Thoth acted as vizier,
Hu as general of Upper Egypt,
Sia as general of Lower Egypt
After Jean Yoyotte, Une notice biographique du roi Osiris, BIFAO 77 (1977), p.145
According to another tradition mentioned by Diodorus Siculus Osiris was the founder of Thebes, rather than just being born there.[6]
 
    When he was twenty-eight Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Seth, according to one tradition because he had had an affair with Seth's wife Nephthys, but Isis recovered the fourteen scattered parts of his body, reassembled them, restored him to life and was impregnated by him. However, Osiris did not return to rule this world, but remained in the underworld as king, the Khentamenti (First of the Westerners, i.e. the dead–originally an epithet of Anubis), while his posthumous son Horus became king of the living.
His sister [Isis] hath protected him, and hath repulsed the fiends, and turned aside calamities (of evil). She uttered the spell with the magical power of her mouth. Her tongue was perfect, and it never halted at a word. Beneficent in command and word was Isis, the woman of magical spells, the advocate of her brother. She sought him untiringly, she wandered round and round about this earth in sorrow, and she alighted not without finding him. She made light with her feathers, she created air with her wings, and she uttered the death wail for her brother. She raised up the inactive members of whose heart was still, she drew from him his essence, she made an heir, she reared the child in loneliness, and the place where he was not known, and he grew in strength and stature, and his hand was mighty in the House of Keb. The Company of the Gods rejoiced, rejoiced, at the coming of Horus, the son of Osiris, whose heart was firm, the triumphant, the son of Isis, the heir of Osiris.

From the Book of the Dead
Translated by E.A.Wallis Budge

    Osiris, whose death had been unlawful, was "justified", i.e. was declared free of wrongdoing, and regained life. He came to represent the resurrection into eternal life that Egyptians sought by having their corpses embalmed and swathed like that of their beneficent god.

Iconography

    Osiris is depicted mummified in green stone statues, but in pictures the color of his skin suggests that he was a black god. His body is customarily wrapped in white funeral cloths. In his hands he holds the crook and flail of kings and the scepter of the gods. The Ani Papyrus (ca.1250 BCE; at the British Museum) of the Book of the Dead shows a green Osiris enthroned, sitting in judgment over the dead, who recite before him their 42 negative confessions, asserting that they had lived blameless lives.
Grant thou to me glory in heaven, and power upon earth, and truth-speaking in the Divine Underworld, and [the power to] sail down the river to Tetu in the form of a living Ba-soul, and [the power to] sail up the river to Abydos in the form of a Benu bird, and [the power to] pass in through and to pass out from, without obstruction, the doors of the lords of the Tuat.

From the Hymn to Osiris Un-Nefer
Translated by E.A.Wallis Budge

Associations with other divinities

    Possibly the first god Osiris became identified with was Anedjti, a ruler deity and fertility god from Busiris, whose insignia, the crook and the flail, he adopted. Like other gods, Osiris was at times equated with Re, or, as in the following passage from the Book of the Dead, with his fertilizing phallus:
It is Osiris. Others, however, say that his name is Ra, and that the god who dwelleth in Amentet is the phallus of Ra, wherewith he had union with himself.

From the Book of the Dead
Translated by E.A.Wallis Budge

Self-fertilisation, a recurring motif in creation myths based on a single god bringing forth the rest of the creation, is also attributed to Amen.
    The Greeks identified Osiris with Dionysos, and other gods as well:
Osiris is considered at times to be one with Serapis, at times with Dionysos, with Pluto, with Ammon, occasionally with Zeus, often with Pan. Some claim Serapis to be the same as the one called Pluto by the Greeks.
Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, Vol.1 chapter 25
    The black bull god Kemwer (Kemur) of Athribis was variously identified with Osiris and Khenti-kheti.[7] Osiris came to be considered the father of Anubis taking over that god's role as lord of the underworld.
    The association of the hare, Egyptian wn, with Osiris-Wennefre, who also carries the epithet of Wen (wn), is based on a misunderstanding of 19th century Egyptologists. There is no apparent ancient Egyptian connection between this animal and the god.

Isis

Isis, wallpainting in the tomb of Horemheb; Source: Jon Bodsworth     Isis was the mother goddess of fertility and nature. Her worship was combined with that of her brother and husband, Osiris, and her son Horus. After the murder of Osiris she rescued his body
Isis
Source: Jon Bodsworth
This is the land ------ the burial of Osiris in the House of Sokar. ------ Isis and Nephthys without delay, for Osiris had drowned in his water. Isis [and Nephthys] looked out, [beheld him and attended to him]. Horus speaks to Isis and Nephthys: "Hurry, grasp him ---." Isis and Nephthys speak to Osiris: "We come, we take you ---."
------ [They heeded in time] and brought him to [land. He entered the hidden portals in the glory of the lords of eternity]. -------. [Thus Osiris came into] the earth at the royal fortress, to the north of [the land to which he had come. And his son Horus arose as king of Upper Egypt, arose as king of Lower Egypt, in the embrace of his father Osiris and of the gods in front of him and behind him.]

From the Shabaka Stone [3]

    Sometimes she is depicted wearing on her head the horns of a cow, encircling either a lunar or solar disk, which were generally attributes of Hathor. Her worship originated in Egypt, and by Hellenistic times she had assimilated the attributes of the major Greek divinities Demeter and Aphrodite. By the period of the Roman Empire, she had become the most prominent deity of the Mediterranean basin, as her temple at Pompeii attests.
Isis, Source: Jon Bodsworth

Isis
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    Isis who had saved her son Horus from death was the great healer of mankind:
The Egyptians report of Isis that she was the inventor of many remedies and very knowledgeable in medicine. Therefore her greatest joy, even now after she had become immortal, was still to make people well, and to those who implored her she explained remedies in their dream, clearly revealing her presence to every petitioner needing help.
Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, Vol.1 chapter 25
    The Isis cult focused on the celebration of the mysteries associated with the death and resurrection of Osiris. In The Golden Ass (ca.155 AD), Lucius Apuleius, an African priest of Isis, left an excellent account of her appearance and mystery cult; in a dream or during initiation, Apuleius saw Queen Isis rise with the moon from the sea. In this text she has many titles, including Queen of Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld, and Mother of Wheat.
    During the early centuries CE the cult of Isis vied with the newly founded Christian religion for dominance. Despite persecutions of her followers, the Isis cult continued well into the 6th century.

Horus

Horus at Edfu
Horus
Source: Jon Bodsworth
    In Egyptian mythology Horus was the god of light. He personified the life-giving power of the sun, which was one of his eyes, the other being the moon, the wadjet. Horus was usually represented as a falcon-headed man wearing a sun disk as a crown.
    Horus was the child of Osiris and Isis and the brother of Seth. He avenged his father's murder by killing Seth or, alternatively, in his struggle against Seth for the succession of Osiris he was judged by the gods to be in the right and was declared ruler of Egypt. In the Shabaka Stone version the two were finally reconciled:
Geb's words to the Nine Gods: "I have appointed Horus, the firstborn."
Geb's words to the Nine Gods: "Him alone, Horus, the inheritance."
Geb's words to the Nine Gods: "To his heir, Horus, my inheritance."
Geb's words to the Nine Neteru: "To the son of my son, Horus, the Jackal of Upper Egypt
--- Geb's words to the Nine Gods: "The firstborn, Horus, the Opener-of-the-ways."
Geb's words to the Nine Gods: "The son who was born --- Horus,
on the Birthday of the Opener-of-the-ways."

Then Horus stood over the land. He is the uniter of this land, proclaimed
in the great name: Ta-tenen, South-of-his-Wall, Lord of Eternity. Then sprouted
the two Great Magicians upon his head. He is Horus who arose as king of Upper and
Lower Egypt, who united the Two Lands in the Nome of the Wall, the place
in which the Two Lands were united.

Reed and papyrus were placed on the double door of the House of Ptah.
That means Horus and Seth, pacified and united. They fraternized so as to cease quarrelling
in whatever place they might be, being united in the House of Ptah,
the "Balance of the Two Lands" in which Upper and Lower Egypt had been weighed.

From the Shabaka Stone [3]

    The reigning kings of Egypt were believed to be incarnations of Horus. In a variant legend Horus was the son of Re (or Amen-Re).

    He was popular as Harpocrates (MdC transliteration Hr-pA-Xrd, Horus the child) among the Greeks and the Romans, who worshipped him as the god of silence - represented in this context as a child with his finger held to his lips, and a god of fertility shown bearing a horn of plenty, or riding on a ram. According to Plutarch his birth was celebrated by offerings of lentils:

they bring to him as an offering the first-fruits of growing lentils, and the days of his birth they celebrate after the spring equinox.
Plutarch, Moralia: Isis and Osiris, chapter 65
    Other forms of Horus were Hor-sematawy (translit. Hrw-smA-tAwj, Uniter of the Two Lands, Greek Harsomtus), two gods of the morning sun: Harakhte (translit. Hrw-Axt.j, Horus of the Horizon) and Harmakhis (translit. Hrw-m-Axt, Horus in the Horizon), Horus of Edfu (translit. Hrw bxdt.j ), the tutelary Harendotes (translit. Hr-n-D-jt=f, Protector of his Father) who defeated Seth to become avenger of his father Osiris and heir to his patrimony, Harpare of the triad of Medamud (translit. Hr-pA-ra, Horus the Sun) who was the son of Montu, Harsiese (translit. Hr-aA-Ast, Horus son of Isis). As Herwer (translit. Hr-wr, Horus the Elder, Greek Haroeris) he either belonged to the generation of Osiris and Isis, was their child or was the son of Hathor by Re. At times he was identified with Shu. As Har-Sopdu he became Lord of the East.
    The connection of Horus with sight was a close one. There was the seeing Horus, Hormerty (Horus Khenty-irty; i.e. Horus of the two eyes), a warrior god defending the solar barque of Re against Apophis and represented by the ichneumon and Horus Khenty-en-irty who had no eyes, was represented by an eyeless shrew, lived in the Underworld where he tortured the evil dead as punishment. Horus the Elder was said to have a green, with which the Egyptians meant red (cf. Red or Green Crown of Lower Egypt), eye which represented the sun, and a lesser white eye, the moon.[8]
 

Seth

(Set, Setekh, Setesh, Seti, Sutekh, Setech, Sutech) Seth and pharaoh; Source: Jon Bodsworth
Seth and a pharaoh
New Kingdom
This statue has been heavily restored and may reflect the notion the restorers had of Seth's looks rather than what the ancient Egyptians thought.
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    The Egyptian god of chaos who embodied the principle of hostility - he was the adversary of the god Osiris - or of outright evil, even if his role was not altogether negative: Only he could withstand the stare of the Serpent of Chaos and only he had the weapons to which its flint scales were vulnerable. He was associated with foreign lands where Maat, the rule of justice, was unknown.

    During the second dynasty Seth became closely connected with Ash, the original god of the Upper Egyptian city of Ombos, whom he substituted as that city's chief deity. [4] For a while during the third millennium BCE, Seth replaced Horus as the guardian of the pharaohs.
    As the story of Seth's murder of Osiris and his eighty year war against Horus gained currency, Horus was restored to his preeminence [2]. During that war Seth tore out the left eye of his adversary but lost a foreleg and his testicles.

...the combat which took place on the day when Horus fought with Seth, during which Seth threw filth in the face of Horus, and Horus crushed the genitals of Seth .... This storm was the raging of Ra at the thunder-cloud which [Seth] sent forth against the Right Eye of Ra (the Sun). Thoth removed the thunder-cloud from the Eye of Ra, and brought back the Eye living, healthy, sound, and with no defect in it to its owner.

From the Papyrus of Ani

    A council of the gods declared Horus the victor, and made him ruler of the kingdoms of Lower and Upper Egypt. Seth had to give back the eye of Horus and was killed according to one tradition, according to another he joined the sun god Re and became the voice of the thunder, according to a third he was reconciled with Horus
    Seth was the one of Nubet and his connection to royalty is, according to some interpreters, reflected in the so-called Golden Horus name of the pharaonic titulary, thought to mean rather "Horus over the one of Nubet", i.e. Seth.[5]
Seth fighting Apophis     The Book of the Dead refers to Seth as the "Lord of the northern sky", responsible for clouds and storms.

Seth fighting Apophis
Her-Uben B Papyrus, 21st dynasty
Source: S. M. elSebaie, The Destiny of the World: A Study on the End of the Universe in the Light of Ancient Egyptian Texts, Toronto 2000, p.58

    The souls of ordinary deceased Egyptians where sometimes seized by him, but Seth protected Re against the serpent Apophis on his nightly voyage through the underworld. Later he was - strangely - identified with this enemy of his.

    Throughout history Seth's reputation grew steadily worse, until he became Seth, the abominable. In the Book of victory over Seth the god is expelled from Egypt. Magic is invoked against him, his effigy is burned, and he is delivered to the Devourer. Even his mother Nut is driven to repudiate her son:
"Is there a mother who consumes her child?
Is there a woman who draws her knife against him who emerged from her?"
I have opened (my) mouth in order to eat,
I have drawn (my) knife in order to commit slaughter
against that wretched Seth and his following,
(against him) who was not mild, who grasped in evil
against the eldest of my body, of mild manners,
who emerged with the royal serpent on his head from (my) body,
who was crowned before he was born,
(against him) who created evil against the body cleaver,
who was hard hearted against the benefactor,
who brought about unequalled crimes.

    Seth was usually depicted in human form with a head of indeterminate origin, said to resemble that of an aardvark with a curved snout, erect square-tipped ears and a long forked tail. Sometimes he was represented in entirely animal form with a body similar to that of a greyhound. He was said to be the son either of Nut and Geb or of Nut and Ra, and the brother of Isis, Osiris and Nephthys. Nephthys was sometimes given as his consort, although he is more commonly associated with the foreign, Semitic goddesses Astarte and Anat. Despite his reputation, he had an important sanctuary at Ombus in Upper Egypt, his reputed birthplace, and had his cult was also prominent in the north-eastern region of the Nile delta.
    Animals sacred to Seth were the desert oryx, the crocodile, the boar, and the destructive hippopotamus. The pig was taboo in Seth's cult.

    The Hyksos introduced Baal into Egypt where he came to be identified with Seth; the Greeks equated Seth with Typhon.

 


[1] Duat: Realm of the Dead, often translated as underworld, should not be confused with the dark Greek underworld where the dead existed as nameless shadows, though as the centuries passed by, this was a view also held in Egypt. The Duat was inhabited by the stars. These were followers of Osiris and contained the dead.
[3] The excerpts from the Shabaka Stone text were taken from The Shabaka Stone: Our Guide to the Memphite Theology, at http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/pds/shabaka.htm
[4] George Hart, The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Routledge 2005, p.33
[5] Hart 2005, p.143
[6] Anne Burton, Diodorus Siculus, Brill, 1973, p.8
[7] Manfred Lurker, The Routledge Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses, Devils and Demons, Routledge, 2004, p.42
[8] Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian mythology, ABC-CLIO, 2002, p.131
 

 
 Texts
-[2] A satirical view of the dispute: The contendings of Horus and Seth
-A Hymn to Osiris and the Legend of the Origin of Horus
-The book of the victory over Seth
-The Abydos stela of Ramses IV
-The Shabaka Stone
-The Legend of Horus of Behutet and the Winged Disk
-The Legend of Re and Isis
© 2000
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