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Isis and Osiris


The Myth of Isis and Osiris

The Egyptian creation;
The unusual sexual relations of the Sky Goddess;
Kingship of her son Osiris, his murder by his brother Seth;
The adventures of Isis as a widow;
The miraculous birth of her son, Horus

Re-told by Daniel M. Kolos

Sep Tepy is the beginning of time from which all stories start. Egypt was already a green valley, carved out from a vast desert along the course of a great river. Villages stood above the flood plane, built upon the ashes and debris of thousands of years of occupation. Houses were built of dried mud-brick. People said the King who ruled over the land was the son of Geb and Nout, the Earth and the Sky. His name was Osiris, `the one who acts upon the throne.’ His Queen was called Isis, and her name represented the throne itself. They were brother and sister and they were barren.

People in those mud-hut villages said that Geb was not necessarily Osiris' father. Geb was in an awkward position, lying on his back under Nout's arched body. The villagers knew the score. Each year, on the feast-day of Creation, they enacted Geb's noble effort to impregnate his wife, Nout. These villagers roared with laughter as the man with the longest phallus helplessly poked upwards, trying to reach his wife's vagina as she bent over him, her hands by his shoulders, her feet by his feet. Then Thoth, the playful God of Words and Meanings sneaked up to her upraised buttocks
and sank his short phallus into her ripe lotus flower.

Nout was said to be the most beautiful of all of Ra's creations. The Sun God Ra, King of the Gods, He of Many Forms, Who Created Heaven and Earth, had hoped to impregnate his own daughter, Nout with one of his potent rays. But he was too busy with his creation, so Nout offered her buttocks to the other Gods. Several, perhaps all of her lovers succeeded, because Nout found herself pregnant with quintuplets! Indignant, Ra decreed that she could not give birth on any of the three hundred and sixty days of the year.

Crestfallen, Nout, the Sky Goddess sought out one of her lovers, Thoth. Though playful with words and females, he was also the God of wisdom and responsibility. He served the Sun God. Having preempted him in Nout's womb, Thoth could not very well turn to Ra for help. Instead, Thoth challenged Khnum, the Moon God, to a game of Senet. On a board of thirty squares, ten long and three wide, they each placed ten gaming pieces and the play began. Khnum lost and graciously asked how he could compensate Thoth. The shrewd God, record keeper of the Council of the Gods, asked for one-seventieth of the Moon's light. This light amounted to five extra days, which he then added to the year. When Nout's time had come, she safely gave birth to one child on each of those five days.

Osiris was her firstborn. Isis followed, then Heroo and Nephthys, but on the fifth day Seth is said to have cut his way out of Nout's womb. Impatient and short-tempered, this redheaded God may have resorted to violence because he had to wait for all his siblings to be born before him. Waiting and frustration followed Seth all his life. In fact, he eventually murdered his brother, being jealous that Osiris had been the first-born.

In the days of Sep Tepy the Gods lived on the land of Egypt. As Ra was the King of the Gods, so Osiris was the King of the people of Egypt. He taught his people the three foundations of civilization: the skills of agriculture, how to sow and reap; the laws of government, how people must rule themselves; the necessities of participation in creation, how to worship the Gods. In all these things, Isis, his sister and wife, accompanied him.

Osiris taught the people of Egypt to domesticate cereals like emmer, durum, kamut, barley and sorghum. A plentiful crop of these cereals on the fertile flood plane of the Great River ensured the people's survival year after year. The river valley with its black soil was the ideal medium for agriculture. The Nile's annual flood deposited a new layer of nutrient-rich silt on the fields. When the flood receded, the fields were ready. Every man woman and child
participated in preparing the field with the plough and the hoe and then sowing the seed. They even drove their hoofed animals to trample the seed into the ground, then spent two months nurturing the new growth. They also had to protect the grain fields by guarding them against both wild and domestic animals. Then came the reaping, another fully communal activity, followed by winnowing and storing.

The rules of government were mostly abstract concepts that fully balanced the physical activities required by agriculture. Government, Osiris taught the people, depends on the triune principles of Sia, Hu and Ma'at.

Sia is the Understanding that all things are related in the sense that everything participates in the existence of everything else. Sia is the Perception of how an individual's thoughts, words and deeds, whether she is a washerwoman or he is a king, affect everyone else. The first responsibility of governance was to ensure that relationships among people remain open and measured.

Hu represents that thought, word or deed that comes after long deliberation: how will that thought, deed or word benefit both the self and the community? Hu is also the Manifest Activity that infuses the practical, proven habitual words and interactions of all people so that no one will be harmed by the individual's thoughts, words, or deeds. Hu is finally the Authoritative Utterance that comes intuitively from an individual's ancestor, or even from the King himself directly into the ears of the people, reflecting the collective wisdom of the community and the greater good of the whole land.

Ma'at is the resulting social Order, the overall divine Harmony within which all people and things function. Ma'at is the Righteousness of an act or a collective action that benefits everyone; Ma'at is the Truth of an utterance that is readily perceived by the community; Ma'at is a sense of Justice that urges an individual to live in harmony with himself, his family, his village, in fact, with all creation.

When Osiris and Isis traveled from village to village teaching their people Agriculture and Government, they remained long enough to show people Religion, how to worship the Deities. Building great temples or small shrines, and practicing elaborate ceremonies or private rituals, the King and Queen taught their people to show respect and reverence both to the Deities within themselves as well as the Deities who surrounded them outside. Worship, they claimed, is equally beneficial to the one who does it and to the God for whom it is done.

While Osiris and Isis were involved in their work, Seth looked upon his other sister, Nephthys, the Mistress of the House, with frustration and growing anger. He was not happy being the 'other' brother who had nothing to teach, no one to rule. Nephthys was afraid of her brother Seth and often found solace in the arms of Osiris on nights when Isis, her sister, was away. On one those nights, Nephthys brought an extra jug of wine, which they drank after their evening meal. The sweet euphoria of the honeyed wine brought them to even sweeter coupling and Nephthys became pregnant. She hid herself in the north among the marshes of the river delta out of fear that Seth, her brother, might find out. When the child was born, she exposed him to the elements that he might die. Isis, however, with her unerring instincts, found the baby boy, rescued him and raised him as if he were her very own child. She called him Anubis. Because he lay upon the rotting vegetation of the marshland as a newborn child, he was fascinated by putrefaction and sought all his life to slow its progress, stop it, and perhaps reverse it. When it dawned on him that life itself was the reverse of putrefaction, he became content to preserve food for the people of Egypt through the use of drying and salting meat, and eventually found a way to preserve the human body after death. He became the God of Mummification and taught the people to soak the dead in a solution of natron, insert small linen bags of salt into the body cavities to collect the moisture from the body, and to wrap the body tightly with dry linen cloth.

When Osiris and Isis had traveled all of Egypt and taught everyone the foundations of civilization, Osiris decided to leave Egypt and continue his teaching in other lands. He was quite satisfied that Egypt would be safe and would prosper while he was away. Seth, however, felt betrayed. In the absence of his brother Osiris, he expected to reign as King. Thinking that he had been wronged, Seth found seventy-two conspirators who were willing to follow him.

Many years later, when news arrived that Osiris was on his way back to Egypt, Seth and his co-conspirators organized a large welcoming festival for him. All the noblemen of Egypt had been invited. On the day of his arrival, Osiris and Isis proceeded to the festival. Tables overflowed with food and there was no shortage of wine. Dancers and musicians entertained the guests. When everyone had eaten and drank, Seth announced a prize to be given away, something more valued by the Egyptians than anything else: an exquisitely carved coffin.

Great excitement ran through the invited guests who now lined up to see if they would fit perfectly into the coffin. Those who were short, stretched themselves, but to no avail. Those who were too tall, tried to shrink, but were unsuccessful. Unbeknown to them, Seth had the coffin made to measure for his brother Osiris. When it was Osiris' turn to lie down into the coffin, everyone cheered at the perfect fit. At that moment Seth gave a signal. His seventy-two henchmen rushed forward. Some slammed the lid onto the coffin, nailing it shut. Others drew their swords and put all the noblemen of Egypt to death. Seth ordered that the grooves of the coffin be filled with hot lead, and had the coffin thrown into the Great River. Seth declared himself King of Egypt. His rabble then took the noblewomen for themselves and Seth looked around for his sister Isis. She, however, had fled.

Isis, in her grief for her brother Osiris, went to search for him. Following the course of the Great River, Isis reached the seacoast. The current ran east and north, so she followed the coast east and north, wailing in her despair, mourning the loss of her husband and brother. Isis appealed to her father, Thoth, just as Nout, Isis' mother, had appealed to him for help. Thoth told Isis that Osiris' coffin had been washed ashore in a storm below the city of Byblos on the Lebanon coast. The wood of the coffin had taken root and a great tree had grown around it, concealing the coffin.

The daughter of the King of Byblos had seen the amazing tree. She asked her father to have it transplanted into her private garden.

When Isis reached Byblos, she disguised herself as a gardener and knocked on the palace door. When the doorkeeper opened it, she asked if the Princess needed a gardener. It happened that the gardener had recently been taken ill and Isis was immediately given the job. For a year she tended the Princess' garden and served as the nurse to the Princess' children. One night, however, the Princess could not sleep. She walked into her gardener's bedchamber and momentarily froze with horror: the woman the Princess trusted to be the nurse was holding one of the children by the heel over the white-hot coals of the fireplace. The Princess screamed, jumped to her child's side and tore him away from Isis: "What are you doing to my child?" she demanded. Her gardener then revealed herself to the Princess as the Goddess Isis, Great of Magic and said to the Princess, "But for a few minutes more, your son would have become immortal."

Fearing for their lives, the Princess and her household fell on their faces before the Goddess. She asked Isis, "What is it you want?” Isis replied, "I want nothing except the tree that stands in the middle of your garden. The King of Byblos ordered that the tree be cut down immediately and had it loaded onto a ship bound for Egypt. Everyone in the palace breathed a sigh of relief to see the Goddess depart from their land.

When the ship reached Egypt, Isis asked to have the tree dropped off in the Great River's delta where she dragged it deep into the marshes. In a secret clearing she cut the tree open, freed the coffin and pried off its lid. Osiris lay within, lifeless but perfectly preserved, still wearing his spotless white tunic and kilt. Isis threw herself upon her dead husband and broke into tears. With all her might she willed him to return to life. As her tears rolled onto Osiris' face, they spread warmth throughout his body. He came to life, opened his eyes and greeted his sister, his wife. Isis stood up, helped Osiris out of the coffin and they embraced.

Now it happened that Seth was hunting that day, as was his custom. Standing on his papyrus skiff, he punted himself forward with the long pole in his hands. The tall papyrus stalks bent to the left and to the right before him. Without any warning he ran aground in a clearing where he saw Osiris, his brother alive and in an embrace with Isis, their sister. Being the God of Uncontrollable Anger, all reason left Seth. He drew his knife, leaped from his skiff and wrenched Osiris from his sister's arms. With his great strength, Seth cut Osiris into fifteen pieces and threw those butchered parts into his skiff. All that day he punted his skiff upstream from the Delta to the granite rocks of Elephantine. From time to time he bent down, picked up a piece of Osiris and violently heaved it, sometimes to the east bank, sometimes to the west. When he found Osiris' phallus, Seth threw it into the Great River and watched with satisfaction as the fish devoured it.

Isis was devastated. Her mourning cries could be heard throughout the Delta region for days. In her pain and despair, she again turned to her father, Thoth, the God of Wisdom whose mascot was the ibis-bird. He counseled Isis to take a boat upstream and call out Osiris' name. Wherever Seth had thrown them, the separate body parts would answer her call and she must collect them all. Isis set out and fared upstream from the Delta. Throughout her journey she called out Osiris' name. From time to time she heard the faint murmur of a response, sometimes from the east bank, sometimes from the west. She beached her boat, searched out the body part and brought it back. By the time she reached the granite rocks of Elephantine, Isis had collected fourteen parts of Osiris. She turned her boat around and fared downstream. Isis returned to the Delta marshes again, where she sought out another secret hiding place, set a clean mat on the ground and placed Osiris' body parts on it. Once all the pieces were in the right order, she took clean bandages and wrapped the body from head to toe. Then she took clay from the river's edge and formed it into a phallus to replace Osiris' only missing part. Throughout her work, Isis chanted the potent magical words she learned from her father, Thoth. When she had finished her work, she fell, exhausted and miserable onto the newly mummified body of her husband. She cried uncontrollably and her hot tears rolled onto Osiris' face. The warmth of her tears spread warmth throughout his body. He came to life, opened his eyes and greeted his sister, his wife. Isis embraced him and Osiris felt her desire for him. His phallus took life and became erect. Feeling her brother's phallus rise between her legs, Isis changed herself into her favorite bird, a kite, rose into the air and descended upon Osiris' phallus. With great cackling of joy she received his seed and conceived their son, Horus.

The other Deities of Egypt, who witnessed the drama, decided that Osiris had fulfilled his mission in life. They offered Osiris Kingship over the life of the souls who remain after the death of the mortal flesh. Osiris accepted and the other Deities took him away to Amentet, that beautiful place in the west.

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