Isis & Osiris

from Ancient Egyptian Legends by Margaret Alice Murray (1920)

The birth of Osiris

In the beginning Ra cursed Nut, and his curse was that none of her children should be born on any day of any year. And Nut cried to Thoth who loved her, Thoth, the twice great, god of magic and learning and wisdom, he whom the Greeks called Hermes Trismegistos1.

Though the curse of the great God Ra once uttered could never be recalled, Thoth by his wisdom opened a way of escape. He went to the Moon-god, whose brightness was almost equal to that of the Sun itself, and challenged him to a game of dice. Great were the stakes on either side, but the Moon’s were the greatest, for he wagered his own light. 

Game after game they played and always the luck was with Thoth, till the Moon would play no more. Then Thoth, the twice great, gathered up the light he had won, and by his power and might he formed it into five days. And since that time the Moon has not had light enough to shine throughout the month; but dwindles away into darkness, and then comes slowly to his full glory; for the light of five whole days was taken from him. 

And these five days Thoth placed between the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year, keeping them distinct from both; and on these five days the five children of Nut were born; Osiris on the first day, Horus on the second, Set on the third, Isis on the fourth, and Nephthys on the fifth. Thus the curse of Ra was both fulfilled and made of no effect, for the days on which the children of Nut were born belonged to no year.

Now Isis feared Set exceedingly. His smooth words did not deceive her, and she knew of his hatred to Osiris, but the great King would not believe in his brother’s wickedness. When the soul of Osiris passed from his body, at once Isis was aware that he was dead, though no man told her. She took her little son, whom men call Harpocrates or Horus the Child, and fled with him to the marshes of the Delta, and hid him in the city of Pé. Ancient and gray was this city of Pé and it stood on an island; there dwelt the goddess Uazet, whom men call also Buto and Latona, for she is worshipped under many names. Uazet took the child and sheltered him, and Isis by her divine power loosed the island from its moorings, and it floated on the surface of the Great Green Waters, so that no man could tell where to find it. For she feared the power of Set lest he should destroy the child as he had destroyed the father. As the souls of men cannot rest until the funeral rites are performed and the funeral sacrifices offered, she journeyed, solitary and alone, to seek the body of her husband, and bury it as became his greatness. Many people did she meet, both men and women, but none had seen the chest, and in this matter her power was of no avail. Then she thought to ask the children, and at once they told her of a painted chest floating on the Nile. And to this day children have prophetic power and can declare the will of the Gods and the things that are yet for to come. Thus, asking always of the children, Isis came to Byblos. She sat by the Great Green Waters, and the maidens of Queen Athenais came to bathe and frolic in the waves. Then Isis spoke to them and braided their hair and adjusted their jewels; the breath of the Goddess was sweeter than the odors of the Land of Punt, and it perfumed the hair and the jewels and the garments of the maidens. When they returned to the palace, Queen Athenais asked them whence they had obtained the perfume, and they answered, “A woman, strange and sad, sat by the sea-shore when we went to bathe, and she braided our hair and adjusted our jewels, and from her came the perfume, though we know not how.” Queen Athenais went to the shore to see the strange woman and conversed with her, and they spoke together as mothers speak, for each had a little son; the son of Isis was far away and the son of Athenais was sick unto death. Then rose up Isis, the Mighty in Magic, the skillful Healer, and said, “Bring me to your son!” Together the Goddess and the Queen returned to the palace, and Isis took little Diktys in her arms and said, “I can make him strong and well, but in my own way will I do it, and none must interfere.” Every day Queen Athenais marveled at her son. From a little whimpering baby he became a strong and healthy child, but Isis spoke no word and none knew what she did. Athenais questioned her maidens, and they answered, “We know not what she does, but this we know, that she does not feed him, and at night she locks the doors of the hall of the pillar, and piles the fire high with logs, and when we listen, we can hear nothing but the twittering of a swallow.” Athenais was filled with curiosity and hid herself at night in the great hall, and watched how Isis locked the doors and piled the logs upon the fire till the flames rose high and scorching. Then, sitting before the fire, she made a space between the blazing logs, a space that glowed red and crimson, and in that space she laid the child, and turning herself into the form of a swallow, she circled round the pillar, mourning and lamenting, and the lamentation was like the twittering of a swallow. Queen Athenais shrieked and snatched her child from the fire, and turned to flee. But before her stood Isis the Goddess, tall and terrible. “O foolish mother!” said Isis. “Why did you seize the child? Just a few days longer and all that is mortal in him would have been burnt away, and he would have been like the Gods—immortal and forever young.” A great fear fell upon the Queen, for she knew that she looked upon one of the Gods. As humbly as she could, she and King Malkander begged the Goddess to accept a gift. All the riches of Byblos were spread before her, but to her they were nothing. “Give me,” Isis said, “what this pillar holds and I shall be content.” At once the workmen were summoned, and they took down the pillar, and split it open, and lifted out the coffin. And Isis took sweet spices and scented blossoms; these she strewed upon the pillar, then wrapped it in fine linen and gave it to the King and Queen. And all the people of Byblos worship it to this day, because once it held the body of a god. But Isis took the chest on a boat and sailed away from Byblos, and when the waves of the river Phaedrus, lashed by the wind, threatened to sweep the chest away, she dried up the water by her magical spells. Then, in a solitary place, she opened the chest, and, gazing upon the face of Osiris, she mourned and lamented. Now some say that when Isis left Byblos she took Diktys with her, and that he fell out of the boat and was drowned. Others say that the sound of her lamentation was so terrible in its grief that his heart broke and he died. But I think that he remained in Byblos; and because he had lain in the arms of the Divine Mother, and had passed through the purifying fire, he grew up to be a great and noble King, ruling his people wisely. Then Isis hid the coffin and set out for the city of Pé, where it stood on the floating island and where her little son Harpocrates was safe under the care of Uazet, the Goddess of the North Country. And while she was away, Set came hunting wild boars with his dogs. He hunted by moonlight, for he loved the night, when all evil things are abroad; and the air was filled with the whoop and calls of the huntsman and the cries of the dogs as they rushed after their quarry. And as he dashed past, Set saw the painted chest, the colors glinting and gleaming in the moonlight. At that sight, hatred and anger came upon him like a red cloud, and he raged like a panther of the South. He dragged the chest from the place where it was hidden and forced it open; he seized Osiris’s body and tore it into fourteen pieces, and by his mighty and divine strength he scattered the pieces throughout the land of Egypt. And he laughed and said, “It is not possible to destroy the body of a God, but I have done what is impossible—I have destroyed Osiris.” And his laughter echoed across the world, and those who heard it fled trembling. When Isis returned, she found nothing but the broken coffin, and knew that Set had done this thing. Her search was now to begin again. She took a little boat made of papyrus reeds lashed together, and sailed through the marshes to look for the pieces of Osiris’s body, and all the birds and beasts went with her to help her; and to this day the crocodiles will not touch a boat of papyrus reeds, for they think it is the weary Goddess still pursuing her search. A mighty and a cunning enemy was hers, and only by wisdom could he be overcome; therefore, wherever she found a fragment of the divine body, she built a beautiful shrine and performed the funeral rites as though she had buried it there. One piece only she did not recover, for it had been eaten by certain impious fishes; and their kind were accursed ever afterwards, and no Egyptian would touch or eat them. Isis, however, did not bury any of the pieces in the places where the tombs and shrines of Osiris stood. She gathered the pieces together, rejoined them by magic, and by magic made a likeness of the missing part so that Osiris was complete. Then she caused the body to be embalmed and hidden away in a place of which she alone knew. And after this the spirit of Osiris passed into Amenti2 to rule over the dead until the last great battle—for when Horus the Child should be grown to manhood, then he will fight with Set and avenge his father; and after he obtains victory, Osiris will live again. But until that day Osiris lives in Duat, where he rules the Dead wisely and nobly as he ruled the living when on earth.

Osiris rules on earth

When Osiris was born, wonders and marvels, prodigies and signs, were heard and seen throughout the world, for a voice cried over the whole earth, “The Lord of all comes forth to the light.” And a woman drawing water from the holy place of the temple was filled with divine inspiration and rushed forth crying, “Osiris the King is born.”

When Osiris was grown, he married his sister Isis, a custom which the Pharaohs of Egypt followed ever after. And Seth married Nephthys: for he too being a god could marry only a goddess.

After Isis by her craft had learned the Secret Name of Ra, Osiris became sole ruler of Egypt and reigned on earth as Ra had done. He found the people both savage and brutish, fighting among themselves and killing and eating one another. But Isis discovered the grain of both wheat and barley, which grew wild over the land with the other plants and was still unknown to man; and Osiris taught them how to plant the seeds when the Nile had risen in the yearly inundation and sunk again leaving fresh fertile mud over the fields; how to tend and water the crops; how to cut the corn when it was ripe, and how to thresh the grain on the threshing floors, dry it and grind it to flour and make it into bread. He showed them also how to plant vines and make the grapes into wine; and they knew already how to brew beer out of the barley.

When the people of Egypt had learned to make bread and cut only the flesh of such animals as he taught them were suitable, Osiris, went on to teach them laws, and how to live peacefully and happily together, delighting themselves with music and poetry. As soon as Egypt was filled with peace and plenty, Osiris set out over the world to bring his blessings upon other nations. While he was away he left Isis to rule over the land, which she did both wisely and well.

Set murders Osiris

But Set hated his brother Osiris, and he gathered to himself seventy-two conspirators, and with them was Aso, queen of Ethiopia. And they made a plan that when Osiris returned they would kill him and place Set on the throne; but they hid their plans, and with smiling faces went out to meet Osiris when he re-entered Egypt in triumph. 

In secret they met again and again, in secret also they prepared a chest made of costly wood painted and decorated with rich designs and glowing colors, an interweaving of tints and a wealth of cunning workmanship, so that all who saw it desired it for their own. Set, that Wicked One, had in secret measured the body of Osiris, and the chest was made to fit the body of the King, for this was part of the plan. 

When all was ready, Set invited his brother and the seventy-two conspirators to a feast in his great banqueting-hall. When the feast was over, they sang the chant of Maneros, as was the custom, and slaves carried round cups of wine and threw garlands of flowers round the necks of the guests, and poured perfume upon them, till the hall was filled with sweet odors. And while their hearts were glad, slaves entered bearing the chest, and all the guests cried out at the sight of its beauty. Then Set stood up in his place and said, “He who lies down in this chest and whom it fits exactly, to that man I will give it.” 

His words were sweet as honey, but in his heart was the bitterness of evil. One after one, the conspirators lay down in the chest with joking and laughter—for one it was too long, and for another it was too short, and for a third it was too wide, and for a fourth too narrow. Then came Osiris to take his turn, and he, all unsuspecting, lay down in it. “I fit exactly, and the chest is mine!” cried Osiris. 

It is yours indeed, and shall be so forever!” hissed Set as he banged down the lid. At once some of the conspirators nailed it firmly in its place, while others poured molten lead into all the openings lest Osiris should breathe and live. 

Thus died the great Osiris, he who is called Unnefer the Triumphant, and his spirit went west across the Nile into Duat the Place of Testing; but, beyond it to Amenti, where those live for ever who have lived well on earth and passed the judgments of Duat, he could not pass as yet.

The conspirators lifted the chest, which was now a coffin, and carried it to the riverbank. They flung it far into the water, and Hapi the Nile god caught it and carried it upon his stream to the sea; the Great Green Waters received it and the waves bore it to Byblos and lifted it into a tamarisk-tree that grew by the shore. Then the tree shot forth great branches and put out leaves and flowers to make a fit resting place for the God, and the fame of its beauty went throughout the land. 

In Byblos ruled King Malkander and his wife, Queen Athenais. They came to the sea shore to gaze upon the tree, for naught could be seen but leaves and blossoms which hid the coffin from all eyes. Then King Malkander gave command and the tree was cut down and carried to the royal palace to make a pillar therein, for it was worthy to be used in a king’s house. All men wondered at its beauty, though none knew that it held the body of a God.