AskDefine | Define Osiris

Dictionary Definition

Osiris n : Egyptian god of the underworld and judge of the dead; husband and sister of Isis; father or brother of Horus

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Proper noun

  1. the Egyptian god of the dead and of the underworld


Extensive Definition

Osiris (Greek language, also Usiris; the Egyptian language name is variously transliterated Asar, Aser, Ausar, Ausir, Wesir, or Ausare) is the Egyptian god of life, death, and fertility.
Osiris is one of the oldest gods for whom records have been found and first appears in the Pyramid Texts around 2400 BC, when his cult is already well established. He was widely worshipped until the forcible suppression of paganism in the Christian era. The information we have on the myths of Osiris is derived from allusions contained in the pyramid texts, and, much later, in narrative style from the writings of Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus.
Osiris was not only the redeemer and merciful judge of the dead in the afterlife, but also the underworld agency that granted all life, including sprouting vegetation and the fertile flooding of the Nile River. The Kings of Egypt were associated with Osiris in death — as Osiris rose from the dead they would, in union with him, inherit eternal life through a process of imitative magic. By the New Kingdom all people, not just pharaohs, were believed to be associated with Osiris at death if they incurred the costs of the assimilation rituals.
Osiris is the oldest son of the Earth god, Geb, and the sky goddess, Nut as well as being brother and husband of Isis, with Horus being considered his posthumously begotten son.
The tale of Osiris losing his manhood to fish (becoming fish like) is cognate with the story the Greek shepherd god Pan becoming fish like from the waist down in the same river Nile after being attacked by Typhon (see Capricornus). This attack was part of a generational feud in which both Zeus and Dionysus were dismembered by Typhon, in a similar manner as Osiris was by Set in Egypt.

Passion and resurrection

Plutarch and others have noted that the sacrifices to Osiris were “gloomy, solemn, and mournful...” (Isis and Osiris, 69) and that the great mystery festival, celebrated in two phases, began at Abydos on the 17th of Athyr (November 13) commemorating the death of the god, which is also the same day that grain was planted in the ground. “The death of the grain and the death of the god were one and the same: the cereal was identified with the god who came from heaven; he was the bread by which man lives. The resurrection of the God symbolized the rebirth of the grain.” (Larson 17) The annual festival involved the construction of “Osiris Beds” formed in shape of Osiris, filled with soil and sown with seed. The germinating seed symbolized Osiris rising from the dead. An almost pristine example was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter.
The first phase of the festival was a public drama depicting the murder and dismemberment of Osiris, the search of his body by Isis, his triumphal return as the resurrected god, and the battle in which Horus defeated Set. This was all presented by skilled actors as a literary history, and was the main method of recruiting cult membership. According to Julius Firmicus Maternus of the fourth century, this play was re-enacted each year by worshippers who “beat their breasts and gashed their shoulders.... When they pretend that the mutilated remains of the god have been found and rejoined...they turn from mourning to rejoicing.” (De Errore Profanorum).
Some scholars have suggested possible connections or parellels of Osiris's resurrection story with those found in other religions. According to Anthony Aveni, The Russell B. Colgate Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology at Colgate University, Osiris
was done in by a conspiratorial brother who nailed him alive in a lead-lined cross and tossed into the Nile. Isis spent her life searching for Osiris, but once again her brother-in-law managed to recover the coffin and, for good measure, dismembered his brother's corpse and scattered it about the land. Undeterred, the faithful spouse collected all the body parts (minus the penis, which has been devoured by fish, thus necessitating a wax replacement) and reassembled them by constructing the first mummy. She dedicated one part each to the lands over which he had spread his teachings. Out of pity the jilted sun god revived Osiris, but confined him to rule over the dead in the underworld. Thus his worshippers acquire the promise of everlasting and bountiful life once they pass beyond the grave through the mummification process. Minus the mummy, doesn't this resurrection story have a familiar ring?

I-Kher-Nefert stele

Much of the extant information about the Passion of Osiris can be found on a stele at Abydos erected in the 12th Dynasty by I-Kher-Nefert (also Ikhernefert), possibly a priest of Osiris or other official during the reign of Senwosret III (Pharaoh Sesostris, about 1875 BC).
The Passion Plays were held in the last month of the inundation (the annual Nile flood), coinciding with Spring, and held at Abydos/Abedjou which was the traditional place where the body of Osiris/Wesir drifted ashore after having been drowned in the Nile. The part of the myth recounting the chopping up of the body into 14 pieces by Set is not recorded until later by Plutarch. Some elements of the ceremony were held in the temple, while others involved public participation in a form of theatre. The Stela of I-Kher-Nefert recounts the programme of events of the public elements over the five days of the Festival:
  • The First Day, The Procession of Wepwawet: A mock battle is enacted during which the enemies of Osiris are defeated. A procession is led by the god Wepwawet ("opener of the way").
  • The Second Day, The Great Procession of Osiris: The body of Osiris is taken from his temple to his tomb. The boat he is transported in, the "Neshmet" bark, has to be defended against his enemies.
  • The Third Day, Osiris is Mourned and the Enemies of the Land are Destroyed.
  • The Fourth Day, Night Vigil: Prayers and recitations are made and funeral rites performed.
  • The Fifth Day, Osiris is Reborn: Osiris is reborn at dawn and crowned with the crown of Ma'at. A statue of Osiris is brought to the temple. from the 6th Dynasty (circa 2500 BC). It shows that the original ideology of Egypt commingled with Osirian concepts. Although ultimately given a high place in heaven by order of Osiris, Unas is at first an enemy of the gods and his ancestors, whom he hunts, lassoes, kills, cooks, and eats so that their powers may become his own. This was written at a time when the eating of parents and gods was a laudable ceremony, and this emphasizes how hard it must have been to stamp out the older order of cannibalism. “He eats men, he feeds on the gods...he cooks them in his fiery cauldrons. He eats their words of power, he swallows their spirits.... He eats the wisdom of every god, his period of life is eternity.... Their soul is in his body, their spirits are within him.” A parallel passage is found in the Pyramid Text of Pepi II, who is said to have “seizeth those who are a follower of Set...he breaketh their heads, he cutteth off their haunches, he teareth out their intestines, he diggeth out their hearts, he drinketh copiously of their blood!” (line 531, ff). Although crude, this was a core concept, the conviction that one could receive immortality by eating the flesh and blood of a god who had died became a dominating obsession in the ancient world. Although the cult of Osiris forbade cannibalism, it did not outlaw dismemberment and eating of enemies, and practiced the ritual rending and eating of the sacred bull, symbolizing Osiris.
Although this sacramental concept only originated once in history, it spread throughout the Mediterranean area and became the dynamic force in every mystery cult. It was only by this sacerdotal means that the corruptible deceased could be clothed in incorruption and this idea appears again and again in infinite variety. The scribe Nebseni implores: “And there in the celestial mansions of heaven which my divine father Tem hath established, let my hands lay hold upon the wheat and the barley which shall be given unto me therein in abundant measure” (Ibid. LXXII). Nu corroborates that this is the eucharist by saying: “I am established, and the divine Sekhet-hetep is before me, I have eaten therein, I have become a spirit therein, I have abundance therein.” (Ibid. LXXVII) Again Nu states: “I am the divine soul of Ra...which is god...I am the divine food which is not corrupted” (Ibid. LXXXV). The ancientness of the concept is again reaffirmed in the Pyramid Text of Teta (2600 BC) where the Osiris Teta “receivest thy bread which decayeth not, and thy beer which perisheth not” In the Text of Pepi I we read: “All the gods give thee their flesh and their blood.... Thou shalt not die.” In the Text of Pepi II the aspirant prays for “thy bread of eternity, and thy beer of everlastingness” (Line 390).


By the Hellenic era, Greek awareness of Osiris had grown, and attempts had been made to merge Greek philosophy, such as Platonism, and the cult of Osiris (especially the myth of his resurrection), resulting in a new mystery religion. Gradually, this became more popular, and was exported to other parts of the Greek sphere of influence. However, these mystery religions valued the change in wisdom, personality, and knowledge of fundamental truth, rather than the exact details of the acknowledged myths on which their teachings were superimposed. Thus in each region that it was exported to, the myth was changed to be about a similar local god, resulting in a series of gods, who had originally been quite distinct, but who were now syncretisms with Osiris. These gods became known as Osiris-Dionysus.


Eventually, in Egypt, the Hellenic pharaohs decided to produce a deity that would be acceptable to both the local Egyptian population, and the influx of Hellenic visitors, to bring the two groups together, rather than allow a source of rebellion to grow. Thus Osiris was identified explicitly with Apis, really an aspect of Ptah, who had already been identified as Osiris by this point, and a syncretism of the two was created, known as Serapis, and depicted as a standard Greek god.


Osiris-worship continued up until the 6th century AD on the island of Philae in Upper Nile. The Theodosian decree (in about 380 AD) to destroy all pagan temples and force worshippers to accept Christianity was ignored there. However, Justinian dispatched a General Narses to Philae, who destroyed the Osirian temples and sanctuaries, threw the priests into prison, and carted the sacred images off to Constantinople. However, by that time, the soteriology of Osiris had assumed various forms which had long spread far and wide in the ancient world.



  • Martin A. Larson, The Story of Christian Origins (1977, 711 pp. ISBN 0883310902 ).
Osiris in Tosk Albanian: Osiris
Osiris in Arabic: أوزيريس
Osiris in Breton: Osiris
Osiris in Bulgarian: Озирис
Osiris in Catalan: Osiris
Osiris in Czech: Usir
Osiris in Danish: Osiris
Osiris in German: Osiris
Osiris in Modern Greek (1453-): Όσιρις
Osiris in Spanish: Osiris
Osiris in Esperanto: Oziriso
Osiris in Persian: اوزیریس
Osiris in French: Osiris
Osiris in Galician: Osiris (deus)
Osiris in Korean: 오시리스
Osiris in Hindi: ओसिरिस
Osiris in Croatian: Oziris
Osiris in Indonesian: Osiris
Osiris in Icelandic: Ósíris
Osiris in Italian: Osiride
Osiris in Hebrew: אוזיריס
Osiris in Georgian: ოსირისი
Osiris in Latin: Osiris
Osiris in Lithuanian: Ozyris
Osiris in Hungarian: Ozirisz
Osiris in Macedonian: Озирис
Osiris in Dutch: Osiris (Egyptische mythologie)
Osiris in Japanese: オシリス
Osiris in Norwegian: Osiris
Osiris in Occitan (post 1500): Osiris
Osiris in Polish: Ozyrys (bóg)
Osiris in Portuguese: Osíris
Osiris in Romanian: Osiris
Osiris in Russian: Осирис
Osiris in Sicilian: Osiride
Osiris in Simple English: Osiris
Osiris in Slovak: Usíre
Osiris in Slovenian: Oziris
Osiris in Serbian: Озирис
Osiris in Serbo-Croatian: Oziris
Osiris in Finnish: Osiris
Osiris in Swedish: Osiris
Osiris in Tamil: ஒசைரிஸ்
Osiris in Thai: เทพโอซีริส
Osiris in Turkish: Osiris
Osiris in Ukrainian: Осіріс
Osiris in Chinese: 欧西里斯

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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