Mysteries of Isis and Osiris
This website was last revised on: 11 March, 2011
"In Osiris the Christian Egyptians found the prototype of Christ, and in the pictures and statues of Isis suckling her son Horus, they perceived the prototype of the Virgin Mary and her Child. Never did Christianity find elsewhere in the world a people whose minds were so thoroughly well prepared to receive its doctrines as the Egyptians"
Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life, page 9.
"The Christian Trinity ousted the old triads of gods. Osiris and Horus were represented by our Lord Jesus Christ, Isis by the Virgin Mary, Set the god of evil by Diabolus [Satan]…and the various Companies of the Gods by the Archangels, and so on."
Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Tales and Romances, page 17.
Judgment of the Scribe Hunefer by Osiris
Scene from the famous papyrus scroll known as The Judgment of the Scribe Hunefer, which is dated to the Egyptian 19th Dynasty (ca. 1285 B.C.). The scroll is on display in the British Museum.
In the first part of the scene, the scribe Hunefer is taken by the jackal-headed god Anubis to the "Hall of Maat" in the Underworld (Duat) where the scales of judgment are located. Hunefer's heart is weighed (left tray of scale) against the "Feather of Maat" (right tray of scale). The crocodile-headed monster Ammit crouches beneath the scales. If Hunefer's heart weighs more than the Feather, the heart becomes the property of Ammit, who will devour it and Hunefer will be denied any chance of entrance into the good afterlife (Aaru). To the immediate right of the scale stands the Ibis-headed god Thoth, the scribe of the gods, who records the results of the weighing. Fortunately, Hunefer passes this preliminary test!
In the second part of the scene, the falcon-headed god Horus (Osiris's son) introduces Hunefer to the Judge of the Dead, the green-colored god Osiris. Standing just behind Osiris, in a protective mode, are his two sisters, the goddess Isis (also Osiris's wife) and the goddess Nephthys. Osiris will make the final disposition of Hunefer's case and send him on the long and perilous journey to Aaru.
The myth of Isis and Osiris and the mysteries associated with them are the dominate themes of ancient Egyptian religion. By New Kingdom times, virtually every deceased man or woman was entombed with observances honoring Osiris. By the time of the Roman Empire, the cult was practiced in almost every province of the Empire.
The city of Abydos on the west bank of the Nile and north-west of Thebes was sacred to Osiris. In that city is the great mortuary temple built by the 19th Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I which contains seven sanctuaries dedicated to: Seti I himself, Osiris, Isis, Horus, Ptah, Ra and Amen. This temple and the adjacent Osireion are among the greatest architectural masterpieces of Pharaonic Egypt.
The city of Sais in the Nile Delta had major temples dedicated to Isis and Osiris and a major festival commemorating the floating of Osiris’ body down the Nile and into the Mediterranean was held there annually. Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-120 A.D.) writes of an inscription at the shrine of Isis at Sais where the Goddess tells us that:
“I am all that hath been, and is, and shall be; and my veil no mortal has hitherto raised.”
The veil of Isis so indicated refers to the raising or opening of the veil of the material world, thus obtaining a state of true spiritual awareness concerning the mysteries of nature.
Isis and Osiris were members of the Egyptian Grand Ennead of gods and goddesses.
What made the Isis and Osiris story become so deeply ingrained in the religious awareness of all the Mediterranean peoples that by the 2nd century A.D. the mysteries of the cult were practiced in virtually every province of the Roman Empire?
Briefly stated, the story of Osiris' death and resurrection is as follows:
Osiris was once the Pharaoh of Egypt; his rule was remembered as a Golden Age of bliss. However, Seth, Osiris’ brother, became jealous and killed him and dumped his body into the Nile, whence it floated down the river and out into the Mediterranean Sea. Isis, both the sister and wife of Osiris, after many peregrinations finally located Osiris' dead body and brought it back to Egypt. By use of magic, Isis was able to conceive by the spirit of the dead Osiris and subsequently gave birth to a son named Horus. Unfortunately, Seth accidentally discovered the body of Osiris, which Isis had hidden away in the dense Nile marshland. This time, Seth cut the body of Osiris into 14 pieces and scattered them throughout the various Nomes (provinces) of Egypt. Undaunted, Isis began to collect all of Osiris' dispersed members. She successfully gathered them all up and wrapped them together as a mummy. Now Isis magically brought Osiris back to life. However, Osiris could no longer remain among the living on Earth. Instead he descended to the underworld where he became both the ruler and judge of the dead. After Horus grew up, he avenged his father by engaging and defeating Seth in combat and thus became the living ruler of Egypt. The memory of these events was a matter of yearly jubilation among the Egyptians.
In Egyptology the true meaning of this archetypical story has never been solved. The myth of Osiris “is too remarkable and occurs in too many divergent forms not to contain a considerable element of historic truth,” wrote Sir Alan Gardiner (1879-1963), a leading 20th century British Egyptologist. Could it be the story of “an ancient king upon whose tragic death the entire legend hinged?” wondered Gardiner. But of such a king “not a trace has been found before the time of the Pyramid texts.” There Osiris appears as a dead god or king or judge of the dead. But who was Osiris in his life? asked Gardiner. At times “he is represented to us as the vegetation which perishes in the flood-water mysteriously issuing from himself. . . .” Ultimately, Gardiner confessed that to him: “The origin of Osiris remains ... an insoluble mystery.”
The Director of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, American Egyptologist John A. Wilson (1899-1976), wrote that it was an admission of failure that the chief cultural content of Egyptian civilization, its religion, its mythological features again and again narrated and alluded to in texts and represented in statues and temple reliefs, were not understood.
Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), the English collector of folklore, came to regard Osiris as a vegetation god; and he saw in the Babylonian Tammuz and various other Near Eastern gods, an equivalent of the Egyptian Osiris. With this concept in mind, he wrote his monumental work entitled The Golden Bough.
In the late 4th century B.C., the first Macedonian pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy I, decided to produce a supreme deity that would be acceptable to both the local Egyptian population, and the recent influx of Greek immigrants and visitors. Ptolemy I declared this new god, named Serapis, to be the principal god of both Egypt and Greece. Ptolemy hoped a common religious base would unify the two peoples and ease tension in the country.
The attributes of Serapis were both Egyptian and Hellenistic. The aspects of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris were united with the Apis Bull a major aspect of the god Ptah (who the Greeks identified with their god Hephaestus). The syncretism of these two deities was given the name Serapis. This new deity was usually depicted as an anthropomorphic Greek god not dissimilar to standard depictions of the supreme Greek god, Zeus. Serapis became very popular and his cult quickly spread from its center in Alexandria to all of Egypt and finally to the entire Eastern Mediterranean area.
The Romans conquered Egypt in 30 B.C. and continued official governmental support of the Serapis cult. By the 2nd century A.D., even many members of the Christian community in Alexandria appears to have become worshippers of both Serapis and Jesus and would prostrate themselves without distinction between the two.
A letter included in the Augustan History, written in about 130 A.D. by the Emperor Hadrian (ruled from 117 to 138 A.D.) to his brother-in-law, Servianus, refers to the worship of Serapis by many people who consider themselves to be Christians or Jews, suggesting a great intermixing of cults and practices in Alexandria. An English translation of this letter appears in the book entitled: History of Letter Writing By William Roberts, pages 356-357 as follows:
The Egyptians, whom you are pleased to commend to me, I know thoroughly from a close observation, to be a light, fickle, and inconstant people, changing with every turn of fortune. The Christians among them are worshippers of Serapis, and those calling themselves bishops of Christ scruple not to act as the votaries of that God. The truth is, there is no one, whether Ruler of a synagogue, or Samaritan, or Presbyter of the Christians, or mathematician, or astrologer, or magician, that does not do homage to Serapis. The Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is by some compelled to worship Serapis, and by others, Christ. It is a race of men, of all the most seditious, vain and mischievous. The state is powerful, rich, and abounding, and of so active a disposition, that no one is allowed to live without occupation. Some are glass-blowers, some paper-makers, some weavers of thread. All are professors of some one art or other. The blind, and those who have the gout in their feet or hands, find something to do. There is one God whom all worship (Serapis) both Christians, Jews, and Gentiles. I wish this place maintained a better character, worthy of its rank as the first city in Egypt. I have made great and liberal grants to it. I have restored to it its ancient privileges; I have laid it under much obligation by immediate benefits; and after all, as soon as I had left this people, they began to calumniate my son Verus, and I reckon you heard what they have said concerning Antinous. I wish them no further harm, than that they may live upon their own chickens, hatched on their own dunghills, according to that disgusting practice of theirs, which it is disagreeable even to allude to.
I have sent you some of those variegated cups so remarkable for their diversity of colors, in different lights, which were given to me by a priest of the temple, and are now dedicated to you and my sister, which I wish you to exhibit when you entertain your friends on festival days. Take care they do not fall into the hands of our little Africanus, to use them as he pleases.
I am not surprised by the Emperor Hadrian's letter. My own research, which is presented at my Platonism, Paganism and Christianity website, indicates that many aspects of the New Testament Jesus story are actually adaptations taken from the Isis - Osiris - Horus myths. Indeed, as far back as the Renaissance, there have been scholars who asserted that many of the rituals and teachings of Christianity are derived from the belief system associated with the Egyptian-Greek god Serapis. The investigative journalist and writer, Filip Coppens (b. 1971) has said that the Renaissance scholar, Marisilio Ficino (1433-1499) held such beliefs. The following is quoted from his web page entitled Ficino: The high priest of the Renaissance:
The religion of Serapis was a wisdom cult, which means it must have had a body of literature. But what was that body of literature? Both the Serapis Cult and the Hermetic literature are dedicated to the Egyptian god Thoth, the Greek Hermes, from which the Hermetic literature takes its name. When Champollion translated the hieroglyphic script in the 19th century, he stated that the Corpus contained the ancient Egyptian doctrine. According to two prominent scholars, Bloomfield and Stricker, the Corpus Hermeticum was indeed the “bible” of the Egyptian mystery religion of Serapis. Interestingly, this is exactly what Ficino himself believed. ... Ficino realised that Christianity was a slightly modified continuation of the cult of Serapis. ...
The purpose of this website is to explore the various versions of this great archetypical myth and provide pertinent extracts from major works of scholars who have attempted to provide analyses of pertinent aspects of this great mystery religion.
Hyperlinks to the other parts of this website are as follows:
This project is being accomplished mainly as an intellectual exercise for my own personal amazement and amusement. Even so, the results of this study are being made available to anyone who may have similar interests via this website. This site includes my interpretations of some of the ideas promulgated by various ancient authors and modern scholars. These interpretations should not be considered as a complete summary of all their ideas. The interpretations are entirely my own and I am solely responsible for any errors, whether objective or subjective, that may be found.
I currently support twenty-four websites. Fifteen sites are related to philosophy and art and nine are related to genealogy and local history. Hyperlinks to these sites are shown below.
Philosophy and Art:
* Sites still under construction
Genealogy and Local History:
Copyright© 2009 by Phil Norfleet
All Rights Reserved. Published in the United States of America. Essays and other materials, provided at this web site, may be reproduced for nonprofit personal or educational use only. Any commercial use of these materials is a violation of United States copyright laws and is strictly prohibited.