Egyptian Myths and Legends

Week 2: Ancient Near East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Rule of Osiris

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 800 words.

Very often the gods of ancient mythology take on many different aspects and characters, and they can sometimes appear very contradictory to us. The goddess Hathor is usually a goddess of love and beauty, but you saw how she could be a goddess of bloodshed and slaughter. You also saw a pretty sinister view of Isis in the preceding story, but in this story you will see a different Isis, devoted to her husband Osiris and to their infant son, Horus. The three of them will all suffer terribly at the hands of Set, the evil brother of king Osiris.

WHEN Osiris was born, a voice from out of the heavens proclaimed: "Now hath come the lord of all things." The wise man Pamyles had knowledge of the tidings in a holy place at Thebes, and he uttered a cry of gladness, and told the people that a good and wise king had appeared among men.

When Ra grew old and ascended unto heaven, Osiris sat in his throne and ruled over the land of Egypt. Men were but savages when he first came amongst them. They hunted wild animals, they wandered in broken tribes hither and thither, up and down the valley and among the mountains, and the tribes contended fiercely in battle. Evil were their ways and their desires were sinful. Osiris ushered in a new age. He made good and binding laws, he uttered just decrees, and he judged with wisdom between men. He caused peace to prevail at length over all the land of Egypt.

Isis was the queen consort of Osiris, and she was a woman of exceeding great wisdom. Perceiving the need of mankind, she gathered the ears of barley and wheat which she found growing wild, and these she gave unto the king. Then Osiris taught men to break up the land which had been under flood to sow the seed, and, in due season, to reap the harvest. He instructed them also how to grind corn and knead flour and meal so that they might have food in plenty.

By the wise ruler was the vine trained upon poles, and he cultivated fruit trees and caused the fruit to be gathered. A father was he unto his people, and he taught them to worship the gods, to erect temples, and to live holy lives. The hand of man was no longer lifted against his brother. There was prosperity in the land of Egypt in the days of Osiris the Good.

When the king perceived the excellent works which he had accomplished in Egypt, he went forth to traverse the whole world with purpose to teach wisdom unto all men, and prevail upon them to abandon their evil ways. Not by battle conquest did he achieve his triumphs, but by reason of gentle and persuasive speech and by music and song. Peace followed in his footsteps, and men learned wisdom from his lips.

Isis reigned over the land of Egypt until his return. She was stronger than Set, who regarded with jealous eyes the good works of his brother, for his heart was full of evil and he loved warfare better than peace. He desired to stir up rebellion in the kingdom. The queen frustrated his wicked designs. He sought in vain to prevail in battle against her, so he plotted to overcome Osiris by guile. His followers were seventy and two men who were subjects of the dusky queen of Ethiopia.

When Osiris returned from his mission, there was great rejoicing in the land. A royal feast was held, and Set came to make merry, and with him were his fellow conspirators. He brought a shapely and decorated chest, which he had caused to be made according to the measurements of the king's body. All men praised it at the feast, admiring its beauty, and many desired greatly to possess it.

When hearts were made glad with beer-drinking, Set proclaimed that he would gift the chest unto him whose body fitted its proportions with exactness. There was no suspicion of evil design among the faithful subjects of Osiris. The guests spoke lightly, uttering jests one against another, and all were eager to make trial as Set had desired. So it happened that one after another entered the chest on that fateful night, until it seemed that no man could be found to win it for himself. Then Osiris came forward. He lay down within the chest, and he filled it in every part. But dearly was his triumph won in that dark hour which was his hour of doom. Ere he could raise his body, the evil followers of Set sprang suddenly forward and shut down the lid, which they nailed fast and soldered with lead. So the richly decorated chest became the coffin of the good king Osiris, from whom departed the breath of life.

The feast was broken up in confusion. Merrymaking ended in sorrow, and blood flowed after that instead of beer. Set commanded his followers to carry away the chest and dispose of it secretly. As he bade them, so did they do. They hastened through the night and flung it into the Nile. The current bore it away in the darkness, and when morning came it reached the great ocean and was driven hither and thither, tossing among the waves. So ended the days of Osiris and the years of his wise and prosperous reign in the land of Egypt.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what happened when Osiris was born? what kind of king did Osiris become?
  • how did Set capture his brother Osiris?
  • what was done with the body of Osiris?

Source: Egyptian Myth and Legend by Donald Mackenzie (1907). Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM