Osiris, the Ancient Egyptian God of Life, Death, and Fertility: Mythology and Cult

Osiris was an ancient corn-deity who followers, who came probably from Syria, identified their god with a pastoral deity called Andjeti and established themselves in his Delta city in predynastic times.

The cult object, or fetish, known as the djed column and thought to represent four pillars seen one behind the other, or a man’s backbone, or more probably a leafless cedar, was brought from Syria after which came the name of the city of Djedu.

The city was subsequently renamed Per-Usire or Busiris after Usire, the Egyptian form of Osiris’ name. Although, the meaning of this name is uncertain, it has been interpreted as «to create a throne» and as Seat or Power of the Eye.

The Osiris fertility cult soon spread, apparently peacefully, to many parts of Egypt. The god’s associations with burial rites were also established early, because by the Fifth Dynasty he had absorbed the funerary gods of Abydos and dead pharaohs were identified with him. Since the funerary aspect ultimately became paramount, Osiris became the supreme god of Egypt.

However, when speculating about the beliefs concerning the «First Time» when Osiris was incorporated by mythology into the Heliopolitan Ennead, it is easy to imagine the vegetation god being the son of Geb, the earth god.

Plutarch, in his treatise, present a fairly complete account of the Osiris myth with its accuracy confirmed by certain details in the Pyramid Texts and other documents of an earlier date.

Accordingly Nut gave birth to Osiris at Thebes on the first of the five intercalary days that Thoth created for Nut because he was in love with her.

At the birth of Osiris a voice was heard in the temple crying that the great and good king was born, or that the lord of all was entering the light.

Re acknowledged Osiris as his heir, and at times is said to have begotten both Osiris and Horus, Thoth fathered Isis, and Geb only Seth (Set) and Nephthys.

Also, according to legend, Osiris and Isis fell in love while still in the womb and then produced Horus the Elder. They were later married and Osiris succeeded his father Geb on the throne.

According to the First Time legends concerning Osiris the people of that time were barbarous cannibals. It was Osirs who instructed in the ways of civilization, teaching them what to eat and the methods of agriculture. He taught the proper worship of the gods, and drew up laws for them.


Thoth helped by serving as Osiris’ scribe, as well as inventing the arts and sciences, and naming things. Osiris governed by persuasion, not by force; and when having civilized Egypt by these methods, he decided to teach the rest of the world.

He left Isis as regent during his absence. Osiris took with him on his mission many musicians and minor gods. Through arguments and hymn singing he persuaded other peoples of the things that he had taught his own people.

However, during his absence Isis administered his kingdom, assisted by Thoth, but she was hard pressed by the tactics of Seth who not only coveted the throne, but also was enamored of her, and sought to change the order of things.

Not long after Osiris returned Seth, assisted by the queen of Ethiopia, Aso, and seventy-two conspirators, was determined to do away with him.

Their plot was successful as Osiris fell to the conspirators, and it was Seth who cast his body into the floodwaters of the Nile.

Isis sought and found the body of her husband, and with her own magical powers, assisted by Thoth, Nephthys, Ambis, and Horus, restored Osiris to life.

But Osiris already belonged to the world of the dead, though after his resurrection he could have resumed the throne, but it is thought he preferred to maintain his kingdom in the land of the dead, leaving his earthly vindication in the hands of his posthumous son Horus.

The proceeding is just one of many versions of the Osiris myth. The legend of Osiris, perhaps more than the legend of any other god, has constantly undergone change throughout history.

Obviously there are probable reasons for this: in earlier times, certainly, he was a subsidiary god in the national religion; originally his myth did not belong to any of the great cosmogonic systems, but was subordinated to the family of gods venerated at Heliopolis, Hermopolis, Memphis, and Thebes.

The priests of these centers, anxious lest the ever-popular Osiris cult should swamp their own cults, accepted the fait accompli of gods combined into one human family by popular imagination. And in this family Sethting the Osiris myth gained widespread appeal.

The suffering Osiris, head of an ideal family and model king, ultimately became the most important member of the divine family. By acquiring such veneration among worshipers, it is easily to understand how the cult of Osiris emerged.

The Osiris myth, perhaps related to the reign of some king, apparently absorbed the local Delta gods and unified Lower and Middle Egypt.

As god of the dead, Osiris his greatest popularity; though he seemed to have begun his mythic career. But, gradually his worshipers hoped for an eternal happy life in the Underworld ruled but a just and good king.

The location of this kingdom was thought to be either beneath Nun, or in the northern heavens, or in the west, and it was a gentle, fertile land.

As god of the dead, Osiris retained his earlier associations with the fertility of land and agriculture, and his death was identified with the dwindling of the Nile while his resurrection was associated with the flooding of it; the sun too, with its daily death and rebirth, became associated with Osiris.

The rivalry with his brother Seth was view as the eternal opposition between the fertile Nile and the hostile desert, between life and death.

Osiris became worshipped throughout Egypt, usually as a triad that included Isis and Horus, his posthumous son.

The chief cult centers were Busirs, representing his early home in the Delta; Abydos, in Middle Egypt; and near Nedit, the center for the cult of the dead because it was thought to be the location where he was killed or where Isis found his body.

Here Osiris was known as the «First of the Westerners,» a title taken from the first god of Abydos, Khenti-Amentiu, which means King of the Dead. Starting in the Old Kingdom, the pharaohs were buried in Abydos, later notables and others too were buried or had their funeral stales there.

Later Abydo became the center to which most Egyptians made pilgrimages, sometimes in proxy, then as part of their funeral ceremonies. A.G.H.


Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, pp. 41-42
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 35-38
Ions, Veronuca, Egyptian Mythology, Feltham, Middlesex, Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd., 1968. pp. 50-58