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Family Drama: The Osiris Myth

Papyrus Depicting  Isis & Osiris

For our first official foray into Egyptian mythology, I thought I'd share one of the most popular stories from the ancient Egyptian religious tradition: the Osiris Myth. It's got it all, from murder, to betrayal, to incest, to dismembered bodies.

Our tale begins with the five children of Geb (the earth god) and Nut (the sky goddess): Isis, Osiris, Set, Nephthys, and Horus. (In some versions, Horus is cited as the son of Isis and Osiris instead). According to the ancient Egyptians, these deities ruled over primeval Egypt, with Osiris reigning as the first-ever pharaoh and Isis as his queen. Under the god-king's guidance Egyptian civilization flourished, and the country enjoyed a period of unparalleled happiness and prosperity.

Osiris's brother Set, the god of chaos, soon grew jealous of the king and wished to take his place on the throne. (Set was also a little miffed at the fact that his own sister-wife, Nephthys, had slept with Osiris and borne him a son). So, Hamlet-style, he devised a bizarre yet cunning plot to kill the pharaoh. Set decided to throw a banquet in his brother's honor, at which he presented a large, beautifully ornate box to the court. Set claimed that whoever could fit inside the box would get to keep it as a gift. One by one, the courtiers tried and failed to get inside, until it came time for Osiris to try his luck. Sure enough, the box fit the king perfectly, and as soon as he stepped inside Set sealed it shut and threw it in the Nile. The king suffocated and died, his coffin carried down the river and lost at sea. With his brother out of the way, Set was free to claim the throne for himself.

Isis, distraught, searched for her husband's body for years. She finally tracked down his coffin in Byblos (Phoenecia), and brought Osiris's remains back to Egypt. Set, aware of Isis's plans to bring Osiris back to life using magic, stole his brother's body and chopped it up into fourteen pieces. Set scattered the pieces throughout Egypt, and Isis again set out to search for her husband's remains. After many years she successfully recovered all the pieces of Osiris's body (except for his genitals, which had been eaten by a fish - yikes!). She and her other brother Horus (or son) eventually raised and army and drove Set out of Egypt. The pair then revived Osiris, who ascended into the heavens to become the Lord of the Dead. Horus ruled Egypt as Osiris's heir, revered as the patron god of the kingship for centuries to come.

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