Mysteries of Isis and Osiris

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Extracts from the Hermetic Text Entitled: The Virgin of the World



One of the most influential manuscripts, which became available to European scholars during the Renaissance, was by Johannes Stobaeus. It was probably written for his son Septimius in the 5th Century AD. The Stobaeus Manuscript gives extracts from more than 200 Greek authors including many which are not found elsewhere making the document an important source book of Greek literature and philosophy for the Renaissance. This anthology has had a long and interesting history which is worth relating as it is typical of the vicissitudes of a classical text over the centuries and gives some indication of the fascination which the subject can hold for a literary historian. Stobaeus’ anthology was originally called the Florilegium and it was divided into four Eclogues, a Greek word which also means collection. These Eclogues were contained in two volumes and it is known that one copy of the two, perhaps the only surviving copy of the complete work, were together in a library in Constantinople in the 10th Century. Sometime later the two volumes were separated and thenceforth led separate lives. Mistakenly, the first volume with the first two books was thereafter called the Eclogues and the second volume containing books three and four became known as the Florilegium. The whole contained two hundred and eight chapters of which thirty-nine were lost from the Florilegium during the late Middle Ages although subsequently four of the lost chapters were found in an unrelated text.

The first Latin translation of the Florilegium by Varinus Camers, the tutor of Pope Leo X was published in Rome in 1517. The first printed Greek Edition was in 1535 and the Swiss scholar Conrad Gesner (1515-1565) edited and translated a Latin and Greek edition in 1543 which he called Sententiae a word which is obviously the origin of the English ‘sentence’ but in the Renaissance had the specific meaning of saying or aphorism.  The first printed edition of the Eclogues i.e. Books 1 and 2 was by Plantin in Anvers in 1575.

The anthology of Stobaeus contains a very important Hermetic dialogue called the Kore Kosmu. Variously translated as "Virgin of the World" and "Eye-pupil of the Universe", it is the record of a supposed conversation between the goddess Isis and her son Horus. It explains the traditional belief held by the Egyptians that their "gods" came from the heavens, being sent to Earth by the Father of all to bring about civilization.

Most scholars consider the Kore Kosmou or Virgin of the World to be one of the earliest Hermetic writings. The work has a closer connection with the ancient mythology of Egypt than the other Hermetic works.  Isis and Horus are the teacher and pupil; Thoth, Imhotep, and Ptah are all named; the mission of Osiris and Isis is recounted; the divine parentage of the kings is described: and Egypt is described as the happy centre of all the world. Such Egyptian detail is absent from other Hermetic works. There is no trace of Jewish influence in the ideas or language. There is an allusion to Egypt as:

" ... free from trouble, ever it brings forth, adorns and educates, and only with such weapons wars--on men--and wins the victory, and with consummate skill, like a good satrap bestows the fruit of its own victory upon the vanquished."

The allusion to the government of a good satrap almost certainly refers to an Egypt under Persian dominion.  Wise and righteous rule by Persia could not have commenced earlier than the enlightened reign of Darius I, which began in 521 B.C. After 405 B.C. Persian rule began to break down, being finally ended when Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. Thus good government by Persian satraps lasted for only a little more than a century.  By this allusion to a satrap, it is not unreasonable to date its origins to some time in the 5th century B.C.


Extracts from the Virgin of the World

Translated by Brian Brown, first published New York: 1923

... And Horus said:  For what reason, my mother, are the minds of men who are not of our holy country less open than the minds of those who belong to it?

And Isis replied: 

The earth is set in the midst of the universe like a man lying on his back and gazing into heaven, and the various regions of earth correspond to the different members of the man. The earth turns her gaze towards heaven as towards her father, following in her changes the changes of the skies. Her head lies to the south, her right shoulder to the east, her left is turned towards the Libyan wind, her feet are under the constellation of the Bear, the right beneath the tail, and the left beneath the head of the Bear; her loins are under the regions of heaven nearest to the Bear; the midst of her body is beneath the centre of heaven. Behold as a proof of these things, how they who dwell in the South have a beautiful countenance and plentiful hair, while the orientals have hands hardy in conflict and ready with the bow, for they are right-handed; the westerns are strong and fight with the left hand, attributing to the left side the functions which belong in others to the right; those who dwell beneath the Bear are distinguished by the attributes of their feet, and by the beauty of their legs; those who inhabit beyond the Bear in the climate of Italy and of Greece are remarkable for the beauty of their loins, and hence their tendency to prefer males. This part of the body also, being whiter than the rest, produces men of a whiter hue.

The hallowed region of our ancestors is in the midst of the earth, and since the midst of the human body is the seat of the heart, and the heart of the soul, this is why, my son, the men of this land, beside the qualities which all men possess in common, have also a loftier intelligence and wisdom, because the heart of the earth brings them forth and nourishes them.

Moreover, my son, the south is the storehouse of the clouds; it is there they assemble, and thence, it is said, flows our river (the Nile), when the cold becomes abundant. Now, where the clouds descend, the air grows thick and is filled with vapors which spread themselves as a veil not only over the sight, but over the intelligence. The east, my son Horus, is continually disturbed and glowing under the sunrise, as is the west under the sunset; there-fore, they who dwell in these regions can hardly preserve a clear perception. The north, by means of its icy temperature, thickens the mind even as it does the body.

The central land alone, clear and serene, is favored as are those who inhabit her. She brings forth in a perpetual tranquility, she adorns and completes her offspring, she contends alone against all others, she triumphs, and like a worthy Satrap (ruler) partakes with the vanquished the fruits of victory. ...

... O my son, in every order of souls there are found a few royal souls, and of divers characters: some fiery, some cold, some proud, some gentle, some crafty, some simple, some contemplative, some active. This diversity belongs to the regions from whence they descend into bodies. From the royal zone the royal souls go forth, but there are many royalties; the royalty of spirit, of the flesh, of art, of science, of the virtues.

And how, said Horus, dost thou name these royalties?

O my son, the king of souls who have hitherto existed is thy father Osiris; the king of bodies is the prince of each nation, he who governs. The king of wisdom is the Father of all things; the Initiator is the thrice great Hermes; over medicine presides Asclepios, the son of Hephaistos; force and power are under the sway of Osiris, and after him, under thine, my son. Philosophy depends on Arnebaskenis; poetry, yet again, on Asclepios, Imouthè's son. So that, if thou thinkest thereon, thou wilt perceive that there are indeed many royalties and many kings.

But the supreme royalty belongs to the highest region; lesser kingships correspond to the spheres which bring them forth. Those who issue from the fiery zone handle fire; those who come from the watery zone frequent liquid spheres; from the region of art and learning those are born who devote themselves to art and science; from the region of inactivity, those who live in ease and idleness. All that is done and said upon earth has its origin in the heights, from whence all essences are dispensed with measure and equilibrium; nor is there anything which does not emanate from above and return thither.

Horus said:  Explain to me this that thou sayest, O my Mother.

And Isis answered: 

An evident token of these exchanges has been stamped on all creatures by most holy Nature. The breath which we indraw from the upper air we exhale and again inbreathe by means of the lungs within us which perform this work. And when the way destined to receive our breath is closed, then no longer do we remain on earth; we depart hence. Moreover, O my glorious son, there are other accidents by which the balance of our combination may be destroyed.

What is, then, this combination, O my Mother?

It is the union and admixture of the four elements, whence emanates a vapor which envelops the soul, penetrates into the body and communicates to both its own character. Thus are produced varieties among souls and bodies. If in the composition of a body, fire dominates, then the soul being already of an ardent nature, receives thereby an excess of heat which renders it the more energetic and furious, and the body the more vivacious and active. If the air dominates, the body and soul of the creature are thereby rendered unstable, errant and restless. The domination of the water causes the soul to be mild, affable, bland, sociable, and easily moulded, because water blends and mixes itself readily with all other things, dissolves them if it be abundant, moistens and penetrates them if it be less in quantity. A body softened by too much humidity offers but a weak resistance, a slight malady disintegrates it, and little by little dissolves its cohesion. Again, if the earthy element be dominant, the soul is obtuse, because the body lacks subtlety, nor can she force a way through the density of its organism. Therefore, the soul remains indrawn upon herself, borne down by the burden she supports, and the body is solid, inactive, and heavy, moving only with effort.

But if the elements be all in just equilibrium, then the whole nature is ardent in its actions, subtle in its motions, fluent in its sensations, and of a robust constitution. Of the predominance of air and fire birds are born, whose nature resembles that of the elements which generate them. Men are endowed with an abundance of fire united with but a little air, and of water and earth equal parts. This excess of fire becomes sagacity, seeing that intelligence is indeed a kind of flame, which consumes not, but which penetrates. The predominance of water and earth with a sufficient admixture of air and but little fire engenders beasts; those endued with more fire than the rest are the more courageous. Water and earth in equal quantities give birth to reptiles, which, being deprived of fire, have neither courage nor truthfulness, while the excess of water renders them cold, that of earth, sordid and heavy, and the lack of air makes all their movements difficult. Much water with but little earth produces fishes; the absence of fire and air in them causes their timidity, and disposes them to lie hidden, while the predominance of water and earth in their nature approximates them by natural affinity to earth dissolved in water. Moreover, by means of the proportional increase of the elements composing the body is the body itself increased, and its development ceases when the full measure is attained. And so long, my beloved son, as equilibrium is maintained in the primitive combination and in the vapours arising there from, that is, so long as the normal proportion of fire, air, earth, and water remains unchanged, the creature continues in health.

But if the elements deviate from the proportion originally determined--(I speak not now of the growth of activities, nor of that resulting from a change of order, but of a rupture of equilibrium whether by addition or diminution of fire or of other elements)--then malady supervenes. And should air and fire, whose nature is one with that of the soul itself, prevail in the conflict, then, through the dominance of those elements, destroyers of the flesh, the creature abandons its proper state. For the earthy element is the pabulum of the body, and the water wherewith it is permeated contributes to consolidate it; but it is the aerial element which confers motion, and the fire engenders all energies. The vapors produced by the union and combination of these elements blending with the soul, as it were by fusion, bear her along with them, and clothe her in their own nature, whether good or evil. So long as she remains in this natural association the soul keeps the rank she has attained. But if a change should occur either in the combination itself or in any of its parts or subdivisions, the vapors, altering their condition, alter likewise the relations between soul and body; the fire and air, aspiring upward, draw with them the soul, their sister, while the watery and terrestrial elements, which tend earthwards like the body, weigh it down and overwhelm it.