OSIRIS


   Although the cult of the sun-god was the state cult of Egypt, the most important god in terms of religious practice was Osiris, the god of the living and the dead. For the cult of Osiris applied to everyone, from the king down to the lowest member of society. Osiris was a god of fertility; all the principal Egyptian gods (including the pharoah who was God Incarnate) were creator gods, that is, they gave life to the world. Since Osiris gave life to the living and the dead, the pharoah was generally regarded as the incarnation of Osiris—in fact, the very name of the god, Us-Yri, means "Occupier of the Throne."

   Osiris's principle function as the god of the dead was to judge the soul of the deceased. If that soul were found to be pure and sinless, it would be admitted into the realms of bliss; if it were to be found in any way weighted with sin or crime, it was thrown to Amenti, a horrid god with the face of a crocodile, the front of a leopard, and the back of a rhinoceros, who would consume the soul in its frightening jaws. So Osiris was the god that every soul had to answer to after death, accounting for all aspects of the life lived on earth.

   Osiris didn't just fall into this role. According to Osiris legends, as an incarnate god in the body of a pharoah, he was married to his sister, Isis. Their brother, Setekh, was also married to another sister, Nephthys. Through a ruse, Setekh murdered Osiris and threw his body, locked in a coffin, into the Nile. When Isis recovered the body, Setekh tore it into many pieces and threw them back into the Nile. Isis reassembled all the pieces and breathed life back into the body; they then had a child, Horus, who would become the god of the sun. Isis herself turned into a hawk; so most tombs in Egypt have an image of a hawk with its wings spread out as a symbol of rebirth.

   So Osiris represents many things for the Egyptians. As someone who died and was then reborn, he represents the cycle of death and rebirth which the Egyptians saw as the dominant principle and promise of the universe. As the god of fertility and the Nile, Osiris brought life, in the form of agriculture, to all living humans. Incarnate in the pharoah or king, Osiris created life for the living in the administration of the state. As the lord of the dead, Osiris represented the moral order of the universe, judging each soul by its life and rewarding or punishing that soul with a rigorous justice.

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-6-96