ISIS AND OSIRIS
c. 2500 BCE to c. 500 CE
In the Argonaut myth, Medea is held responsible for the dismemberment and resurrection, successful or otherwise, of Jason, Aeson, and Pelias, depending on the version consulted. To effect this mystical rebirth, the person is killed and his body is cut into many pieces and placed into a cauldron or pot with healing herbs. After Medea performs incantations and spells, the body emerges from its container restored to the vigor of youth. The myth of the death and resurrection of Osiris bears a resemblance to this mystical process, whereby the goddess Isis, like Medea a powerful healer and sorceress, gathers to dismembered parts of Osiris' corpse, which had been placed in a casket, and resurrects him through a magical process.
Many historians have speculated on the influence of Egyptian mythology on its Greek counterpart, though it is unlikely that there is a direct connection between Osiris and Jason. Nevertheless, the concept of mystical resurrection is one that occurs across the ancient Near East. The key text for this myth is Plutarch's On Isis and Osiris, a very long essay from which I have extracted chapters 12-20, which relate the myth of Isis and Osiris.
ON ISIS AND OSIRIS
1st c. CE
trans. William Baxter (1870)
12. The story is thus told after the most concise manner, the most useless and unnecessary parts being cut off. They tell us how that once on a time, Rhea having accompanied with Saturn by stealth, the Sun found them out, and pronounced a solemn curse against her, containing that she should not be delivered in any month or year; but that Hermes, afterwards making his court to the goddess, obtained her favour, in requital of which he went and played at dice with the Moon, and won of her the seventieth part from each day, and out of all these made five new days, which he added to the three hundred and sixty other days of the year; and these the Egyptians therefore to this day call the Epagomenae (or the superadded days), and they observe them as the birthdays of their Gods. Upon the first of these, as they say, Osiris was born, and a voice came into the world with him, saying, The Lord of all things is now born. There are others that affirm that one Pamyles, as he was fetching water at Thebes, heard a voice out of the temple of Jupiter, bidding him to publish with a loud voice that Osiris, the great and good king, was now born; and that he thereupon got to be foster-father to Osiris, Saturn entrusting him with the charge of him, and that the feast called Pamylia (resembling the Priapeian procession which the Greeks call Phallephoria) was instituted in honour of him. Upon the second day Arueris was born, whom some call Apollo, and others the elder Horus. Upon the third Typhon was born, who came not into the world either in due time or by the right way, but broke a hole in his mother's side, and leaped out at the wound. Upon the fourth Tsis was born in Panygra. And upon the fifth Nephthys, whom they sometimes call the end, and sometimes Venus, and sometimes also Victory. Of these they say Osiris and Arueris were begot by the Sun, Isis by Hermes, and Typhon and Nephthys by Saturn. For which reason their kings, looking upon the third of the Epagomenae as an inauspicious day, did no business upon it, nor took any care of their bodies until the evening. They say also that Nephthys was married unto Typhon, and that Isis and Osiris were in love with one another before they were born, and enjoyed each other in the dark before they came into the world. Some add also that Arueris was thus begotten, and that he was called by the Egyptians the elder Horus, and by the Greeks Apollo.
13. And they say that Osiris, when he was king of Egypt, drew them off from a beggarly and bestial way of living, by showing them the use of grain, and by making them laws, and teaching them to honor the Gods; and that afterwards he travelled all the world over, and made it civil, having but little need of arms, for he drew the most to him, alluring them by persuasion and oratory, intermixed with all sorts of poetry and music; whence it is that the Greeks look upon him as the very same with Bacchus. They further add that Typhon, while he was from home, attempted nothing against him; for Isis was very watchful and guarded him closely from harm. But when he came home, he formed a plot against him, taking seventy-two men for accomplices of his conspiracy, and being also abetted by a certain Queen of Ethiopia, whose name they say was Aso. Having therefore privately taken the measure of Osiris's body, and framed a curious ark, very finely beautified and just of the size of his body, he brought it to a certain banquet. And as all were wonderfully delighted with so rare a sight and admired it greatly, Typhon in a sporting manner promised that whichsoever of the company should by lying in it find it to be of the size of his body, should have it for a present. And as every one of them was forward to try, and none fitted it, Osiris at last got into it himself, and lay along in it; whereupon they that were there present immediately ran to it, and clapped down the cover upon it, and when they had fastened it down with nails, and soldered it with melted lead, they carried it forth to the river side, and let it swim into the sea at the Tanaitic mouth, which the Egyptians therefore to this day detest, and abominate the very naming of it. These things happened (as they say) upon the seventeenth of the month Athyr, when the sun enters into the Scorpion, and that was upon the eight and twentieth year of the reign of Osiris. But there are some that say that was the time of his life, and not of his reign.
14. And because the Pans and Satyrs that inhabited the region about Chemmis were the first that knew of this disaster and raised the report of it among the people, all sudden frights and discomposures among the people have been ever since called panics. But when Isis heard of it, she cut off in that very place a lock of her hair, and put on a mourning weed, where there is a town at this day named Kopto; others think that name signifies bereaving, for that some use the word for depriving. And as she wandered up and down in all places, being deeply perplexed in her thoughts, and left no one she met withal unspoken to, she met at last with certain little children, of whom also she enquired about the ark. Now these had chanced to see all that had passed, and they named to her the very mouth of the Nile by which Typhon's accomplices had sent the vessel into the sea; for which reason the Egyptians account little children to have a faculty of divination, and use more especially to lay hold on their omens when they play in sacred places or chance to say any thing there, whatever it be. And finding afterwards that Osiris had made his court to her sister, and through mistake enjoyed her instead of herself, for token of which she had found the melilot garland which he had left hard by Nephthys, she went to seek for the child; for her sister had immediately exposed it as soon as she was delivered of it, for fear of her husband Typhon. And when with great difficulty and labor she had found it, by means of certain dogs which conducted her to it, she brought it up; and he afterwards became her guardsman and follower, being named Anubis, and reported to guard the Gods as dogs do men.
15. Of him she had tidings of the ark, how it had been thrown out by the sea upon the coasts of Byblos, and the flood had gently entangled it in a certain thicket of heath. And this heath had in a very small time run up into a most beauteous and large tree, and had wrought itself about it, clung to it, and quite enclosed it within its trunk. Upon which the king of that place, much admiring at the unusual bigness of the plant, and cropping off the bushy part that encompassed the now invisible chest, made of it a post to support the roof of his house. These things (as they tell us) Isis being informed of by the divine breath of rumour, went herself to Byblos; where when she was come she sate her down hard by a well, very pensive and full of tears, insomuch that she refused to speak to any person, save only to the queen's women, whom she complimented and caressed at an extraordinary rate, and would often stroke back their hair with her hands, and withal transmit a most wonderful fragrant smell out of her body into theirs. The queen, perceiving that her women's bodies and hair thus breathed of ambrosia, greatly longed to become acquainted with this new stranger. Upon this she being sent for, and becoming very intimate with the queen, was at last made nurse to her child. Now the name of this king (they tell us) was Malcander; and the queen, some say, was called Astarte, and some Saosis, and others Nemanun (which in Greek is as much as to say Athenaïs).
16. Isis nursed the child by putting her finger into his mouth instead of the breast; and in the night-time she would by a kind of lambent fire singe away what was mortal about him. In the mean while, herself would be turned to a swallow, and in that form would fly round about the post, bemoaning her misfortune and sad fate; until at last, the queen, who stood watching hard by, cried out aloud as she saw her child all on a light flame, and so robbed him of immortality. Upon which the Goddess discovered herself, and begged the post that held up the roof; which when she had obtained and taken down, she very quickly cropped off the bushy heath from about it and wrapping the trunk in fine linen and pouring perfumed oil upon it, she put it into the hands of their kings; and therefore the Byblians to this very day worship that piece of wood, laying it up in the temple of Isis. Then she threw herself down upon the chest, and her lamentations were so loud, that the younger of the king's two sons died for very fear; but she, having the elder in her own possession, took both him and the ark, and carried them on shipboard, and so took sail. But the river Phaedrus sending forth a very keen and chill air, it being the dawning of the morn, she grew incensed at it, and dried up its current.
17. And in the first place where she could take rest, and found herself to be now at liberty and alone, she opened the ark, and laid her cheeks upon the cheeks of Osiris, and embraced him and wept bitterly. The little boy seeing her came silently behind her, and peeping saw what it was; which she perceiving cast a terrible look upon him in the height of her passion; the fright whereof the child could not endure, and immediately died. But there are some that say it was not so, but that in the fore-mentioned manner he dropped into the sea, and was there drowned. And he hath divine honours given him to this very day upon the Goddess's account; for they assure us that Maneros, whom the Egyptians so often mention in their carols at their banquets, is the very same. But others say that the boy was named Palaestinus or Pelusius, and that the city of that name was so called from him, it having been built by the Goddess. They also relate that this Maneros, so often spoken of in their songs, was the first that invented music. But some there are that would make us believe that Maneros was not the name of any person, but a certain form of speech, made use of to people in drinking and entertaining themselves at feasts, by way of wishing that all things might prove auspicious and agreeable to them; for that is the thing which the Egyptians would express by the word Maneros, when they so often roar it forth. In like manner they affirm that the likeness of a dead man, which is carried about in a little box and shown at feasts, is not to commemorate the disaster of Osiris, as some suppose, but was designed to encourage men to make use of and to enjoy the present things whilst they have them, since all men must quickly become such as they there see ; for which reason they bring it into their revels and feasts.
18. But when Isis came to her son Horus, who was then at nurse at Buto, and had laid the chest out of the way, Typhon, as he was hunting by moonshine, by chance lighted upon it, and knowing the body again, tore it into fourteen parts, and threw them all about. Which when Isis had heard, she went to look for them again in a certain barge made of papyrus, in which she sailed over all the fens. Whence (they tell us) it comes to pass, that such as go in boats made of this rush are never injured by the crocodiles, they having either a fear or else a veneration for it upon the account of the goddess Isis. And this (they say) hath occasioned the report that there are many sepulchres of Osiris in Egypt, because she made a particular funeral for each member as she found them. There are others that tell us it was not so, but that she made several effigies of him and sent them to every city, taking on her as if she had sent them his body; so that the greater number of people might pay divine honors to him, and withal, if it should chance that Typhon should get the better of Horus, and thereupon search for the body of Osiris, many bodies being discoursed of and shown him, he might despair of ever finding the right one. But of all Osiris's members, Isis could never find out his private part, for it had been presently flung into the river Nile, and the lepidotus, sea-bream, and pike eating of it, these were for that reason more scrupulously avoided by the Egyptians than any other fish. But Isis, in lieu of it, made its effigies, and so consecrated the phallus for which the Egyptians to this day observe a festival.
19. After this, Osiris coming out of hell to assist his son Horus, first laboured and trained him up in the discipline of war, and then questioned him what he thought to be the gallantest thing a man could do; to which he soon replied, to avenge one's father's and mother's quarrel when they suffer injury. He asked him a second time, what animal he esteemed most useful to such as would go to battle. Horus told him, a horse; to which he said that he wondered much at his answer, and could not imagine why he did not rather name a lion than a horse. Horus replied, that a lion might indeed be very serviceable to one that needed help, but a horse would serve best to cut off and disperse a flying enemy. Which when Osiris heard, he was very much pleased with him, looking upon him now as sufficiently instructed for a soldier. It is reported likewise that, as a great many went over daily unto Horus, Typhon's own concubine Thueris deserted also; but that a certain serpent, pursuing her close at the heels, was cut in pieces by Horus's men, and that for that reason they still fling a certain cord into the midst of the room and then chop it to pieces. The battle therefore continued for several days, and Horus at last prevailed; but Isis, although she had Typhon delivered up to her fast bound, yet would not put him to death, but contrariwise loosed him and let him go. Which when Horus perceived, he could not brook it with any patience, but laid violent hands upon his mother, and plucked the royal diadem from off her head. But Hermes presently stepped in, and clapped a cow's head upon her instead of a helmet. Likewise, when Typhon impeached Horus for being a bastard, Hermes became his advocate, and Horus was judged legitimate by all the Gods. After this, they say that Typhon was worsted in two several battles. Isis had also by Osiris, who accompanied with her after his decease, Harpocrates, who came into the world before his time and was lame in his lower parts.
20. These then are most of the heads of this fabular narration, the more harsh and coarse parts (such as the description of Horus and the beheading of Isis) being taken out. If therefore they say and believe such things as these of the blessed and incorruptible nature (which is the best conception we can have of divinity) as really thus done and happening to it, I need not tell you that you ought to spit and to make clean your mouth (as Aeschylus speaks) at the mentioning of them. For you are sufficiently averse of yourself to such as entertain such wicked and barbarous sentiments concerning the Gods. And yet that these relations are nothing akin to those foppish tales and vain fictions which poets and story-tellers are wont, like spiders, to spin out of their own bowels, without any substantial ground or foundation for them, and then weave and wire-draw them out at their own pleasures, but contain in them certain abstruse questions and rehearsals of events, you yourself are, I suppose, convinced. And as mathematicians do assert the rainbow to be an appearance of the sun so variegated by reflection of its rays in a cloud, so likewise the fable here related is the appearance of some doctrine whose meaning is transferred by reflection to some other matter; as is plainly suggested to us as well by the sacrifices themselves, in which there appears something lamentable and very sad, as by the forms and makes of their temples, which sometimes run out themselves into wings, and into open and airy circs, and at other times again have under ground certain private cells, resembling vaults and tombs. And this is most plainly hinted to us by the opinion received about those of Osiris, because his body is said to be interred in so many different places. Though it may be they will tell you that some one town, such as Abydos or Memphis, is named for the place where his true body lies; and that the most powerful and wealthy among the Egyptians are most ambitious to be buried at Abydos, that so they may be near the body of their God Osiris; and that the Apis is fed at Memphis, because he is the image of Osiris's soul, where also they will have it that his body is interred. Some also interpret the name of this city to signify the haven of good things, and others, the tomb of Osiris. They add, that the little island at Philae is at other times inaccessible and not to be approached to by any man, and that the very birds dare not venture to fly over it nor the fish to touch upon its banks; yet upon a certain set time the priests go over into it, and there perform the accustomed rites for the dead, and crown his tomb, which stands there shaded over by a tree called methida, exceeding any olive in bigness.
Source: Plutarch, Plutarch’s Essays and Miscellanies, edited by William W. Goodwin, vol. 4 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1906), 74-83.