Egyptian Myths and Legends

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

Isis Seeks Osiris

Reading time: 6 minutes. Word count: 1100 words.

On the one hand, you can relate to Isis as a woman - a grieving widow, a desperate mother. But on the other hand, she is also a goddess, possessed of magical and dangerous powers. On this page, you will read a story about how she cast a baby into the flames in order to give him immortality. This story shows the close association between the legends of Isis and the Greek legends associated with the mother goddess Demeter (you can read the archaic Greek Hymn to Demeter in a translation by Gregory Nagy - great Greek scholar! - online at Diotima).

When the grievous tidings were borne unto Isis, she was stricken with great sorrow and refused to be comforted. She wept bitter tears and cried aloud. Then she uttered a binding vow, cut off a lock of her shining hair, and put on the garments of mourning. Thereafter the widowed queen wandered up and down the land, seeking for the body of Osiris. Nor would she rest nor stay until she found what she sought. She questioned each one she encountered, and one after another they answered her without knowledge. Long she made search in vain, but at length she was told by shoreland children that they had beheld the chest floating down the Nile and entering the sea by the Delta mouth which takes its name from the city of Tanis.

Meanwhile Set, the usurper, ascended the throne of Osiris and reigned over the land of Egypt. Men were wronged and despoiled of their possessions. Tyranny prevailed and great disorder, and the followers of Osiris suffered persecution. The good queen Isis became a fugitive in the kingdom, and she sought concealment from her enemies in the swamps and deep jungle of the Delta. Seven scorpions followed her, and these were her protectors.

Ra, looking down from heaven, was moved to pity because of her sore distress, and he sent to her aid Anubis, "the opener of the ways", who was the son of Osiris and Nepthys, and he became her guide.

One day Isis sought shelter at the house of a poor woman, who was stricken with such great fear when she beheld the fearsome scorpions that she closed the door against the wandering queen. But a scorpion gained entrance and bit her child so that he died. Then loud and long were the lamentations of the stricken mother. The heart of Isis was touched with pity, and she uttered magical words which caused the child to come to life again, and the woman ministered unto the queen with gratitude while she remained in the house.

Then Isis gave birth unto her son Horus; but Set came to know where the mother and babe were concealed, and he made them prisoners in the house.

It was his desire to put Horus to death, lest he should become his enemy and the claimant of the throne of Osiris. But wise Thoth came out of heaven and gave warning unto Isis, and she fled with her child into the night. She took refuge in Buto, where she gave Horus into the keeping of Uazit, the virgin goddess of the city, who was a serpent, so that he might have protection against the jealous wrath of Set, his wicked uncle, while she went forth to search for the body of Osiris.

But one day, when she came to gaze upon the child, she found him lying dead. A scorpion had bitten him, nor was it in her power to restore him to life again. In her bitter grief she called upon the great god Ra. Her voice ascended to high heaven, and the sun boat was stayed in its course. Then wise Thoth came down to give aid. He worked a mighty spell; he spoke magical words over the child Horus, who was immediately restored to life again. It was the will of the gods that he should grow into strong manhood and then smite his father's slayer.

The coffin of Osiris was driven by the waves to Byblos, in Syria, and it was cast upon the shore. A sacred tree sprang up and grew round it, and the body of the dead ruler was enclosed in its great trunk. The king of that alien land marvelled greatly at the wonderful tree, because that it had such rapid growth, and he gave command that it should be cut down. As he desired, so it was done. Then was the trunk erected in his house as a sacred pillar, but to no man was given knowledge of the secret which it contained.

A revelation came unto Isis, and she set out towards Byblos in a ship. When she reached the Syrian coast she went ashore clad in common raiment, and she sat beside a well, weeping bitterly. Women came to draw water, and they spoke to her with pity, but Isis answered not, nor ceased to grieve, until the handmaidens of the queen drew nigh. Unto them she gave kindly greetings. When they had spoken gently unto her she braided their hair, and into each lock she breathed sweet and alluring perfume. So it chanced that when the maidens returned unto the king's house the queen smelt the perfume, and commanded that the strange woman should be brought before her. Then it was that Isis found favour in the eyes of the queen, who chose her to be the foster-mother of the royal babe.

But Isis refused to suckle the child, and to silence his cries for milk, she put her finger into his mouth. When night came she caused fire to burn away his flesh, and she took the form of a swallow and flew, uttering broken cries of sorrow, round about the sacred pillar which contained the body of Osiris. It chanced that the queen came nigh and beheld her babe in the flames. She immediately plucked him forth; but although she rescued his body she caused him to be denied immortality.

Isis again assumed her wonted form, and she confessed unto the queen who she was. Then she asked the king that the sacred pillar be given unto her. The boon was granted, and she cut deep into the trunk and took forth the chest which was concealed therein. Embracing it tenderly, she uttered cries of lamentation that were so bitter and keen that the royal babe died with terror. Then she consecrated the sacred pillar, which she wrapped in linen and anointed with myrrh, and it was afterwards placed in a temple which the king caused to be erected to Isis, and for long centuries it was worshipped by the people of Byblos.

The coffin of Osiris was borne to the ship in which the queen goddess had sailed unto Syria. Then she went aboard, and took with her Maneros, the king's first-born, and put forth to sea. The ship sped on, and the land faded from sight.

Isis yearned to behold once again the face of her dead husband, and she opened the chest and kissed passionately his cold lips, while tears streamed from her eyes.

Maneros, son of the King of Byblos, came stealthily behind her, wondering what secret the chest contained. Isis looked round with anger, her bright eyes blinded him, and he fell back dead into the sea.

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

  • who was Horus?
  • where was Osiris cast ashore? what sign marked the spot?
  • what happened to the boy who saw Isis kissing the dead 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