There was once a golden age in which the people of Egypt lived in a state of prosperity and happiness. By order of the sun god Ra, the kindly god Osiris ruled the land as king.
Osiris’s sister, the goddess Isis, sat at his side as his wife and Egypt’s beautiful, wise, and strong-willed queen. Osiris was indeed a kind and helpful king.
He showed the people how to plant crops and to irrigate them using the waters that were so plentiful when the Nile River overflowed its banks each year. He also instructed them in making laws and worshipping the gods in the proper manner. Eventually, the god-king went on a long pilgrimage to bring these same gifts of civilization to the inhabitants of other lands.
While Osiris was away, Isis ruled Egypt in his stead. She kept a watchful eye on their brother Seth because she sensed that Seth felt jealousy and hatred for Osiris, and she feared that Seth might be scheming to steal his brother’s throne.
Indeed, Seth was planning to overthrow Osiris, but for the present he bided his time, waiting for the right opportunity to strike. And when Osiris returned from his journey, Seth pretended to be pleased to see him.
Seth’s big chance came at last when Isis was away on a short trip and Osiris invited him to attend a lavish banquet at the palace. Arriving at the party, Seth put on a friendly face and circulated among the guests, bragging repeatedly about a beautifully decorated chest that someone had recently built for him.
He even had some servants bring the chest to the party, and everyone, including Osiris, was duly impressed with its fine craftsmanship.
After all those present had downed a great deal of wine, Seth sprang his trap. “I’d like to offer the following challenge,” he said. “Each of you can take turns lying down inside the chest, and the first person who fits in it exactly will receive it as my gift!”
Eager to own such a magnificent treasure, each guest took a turn lying in the chest, but no one fit in it exactly right. Finally, Osiris climbed in. He had no idea, of course, that Seth had purposely commissioned the box to fit Osiris’s god-like measurements. “Ah!” Osiris happily exclaimed. “See, Seth, how well I fit in here. I’ll wager that when you issued your challenge you never expected you’d have to give the chest to me!”
“To the contrary,” Seth chortled with an evil grin. “The chest is now yours, brother, forever!” Then, suddenly, Seth slammed down the lid, trapping Osiris inside. And while his servants held back the other guests, Seth poured melted lead over the chest, sealing it and killing poor Osiris.
The conspirators then carried the box, which was now a coffin, to the Nile and threw it in. Seth roared in triumph, “Finally, I have rid myself of that worthless do-gooder and can enjoy what Ra should have given me in the first place!” Then Seth declared himself the new king of Egypt.
Isis Searches for Her Husband
When Isis returned, she learned of the tragedy that had befallen her husband, as well as the kingdom, which was now under the rule of an evil monarch. Naturally, she was both shocked and grief-stricken.
After cutting her hair and donning black garments in the traditional Egyptian manner of mourning, she immediately set out to find Osiris’s body. She wanted to give it a proper funeral, for the dead would not rest peacefully without certain necessary funeral rituals.
Isis searched every inch of the Nile in the area in which the murderers had dumped the chest, but by then, she realized, it had floated out to sea. Calculating the prevailing ocean currents to be northerly, Isis left Egypt and journeyed in a horse-drawn cart up the coast of Palestine (the land to the northeast of Egypt), searching for a floating box and asking everyone she met if they had seen one.
Eventually, Isis learned that such a chest had floated ashore near the port city of Byblos (north of Palestine), where it had come to rest among the exposed roots of a small young tree. Even in death Osiris’s body retained its strong powers of fertility.
As if by a miracle, the tree on which his chest had landed had grown to its full size overnight, enveloping the chest inside its massive new trunk. Hearing of this singular event, the local king had ordered the tree cut down and brought to his palace to be used as a pillar. He had no idea that a god’s remains rested inside the tree’s massive trunk.
But when she heard the local people tell the story of the miraculous tree, Isis knew what must have happened. Cleverly, she disguised herself as a simple hairdresser and managed to gain entrance to the palace.
There, she gained the confidence of the king and queen to such a degree that they asked her to watch over their own child. Each night, when everyone had gone to bed, the goddess would go to the pillar in which her beloved husband’s body rested and quietly weep.
In time, she decided to reveal her true divine nature to the royal couple. When the king and queen heard that the god Osiris was trapped inside their pillar, they quickly ordered it cut open. Inside, still intact, was Osiris’s chest containing his remains.
They presented the chest to Isis, who carried it in her cart back to Egypt. For many centuries to come, what remained of the pillar that had harbored the dead god was preserved and worshipped in Byblos.
Resurrection and the Conquest of Death
Once back in Egypt, Isis carefully avoided towns and other crowded places so that word would not reach Seth that she had arrived home with Osiris’s remains. In a secret, desolate place, she used some sharp metal tools to unseal the casket, and she gazed once again on the face of her husband, who appeared to be merely asleep. Sobbing almost uncontrollably, she embraced him and then resealed the box. For a while, she kept a silent vigil over it, guarding it from harm.
One night, when Seth was out hunting birds in the Nile marshes, he stumbled on the coffin, which Isis had hidden among the rushes. The new god-king, who ruled his people harshly, immediately recognized this coffin as the chest bearing his dead brother.
Seeing that Isis was asleep nearby, Seth quietly opened the box, removed the corpse, and carried it far away. “Now I’ll destroy you completely, as I should have done before!” Seth said, and he angrily cut and tore Osiris’s body into many pieces. After he had done this grisly deed, he had his servants hide the pieces all across the land of Egypt. He was certain that Isis would have no chance of finding them all.
But Seth had again underestimated his sister’s powers. With the help of Nephthys, Seth’s wife (who loved Isis and Osiris more than she loved her evil husband), Isis searched relentlessly for the scattered shreds of her husband’s body. After many years, the two women found all the hidden pieces, and Isis was able, with great difficulty, to piece Osiris back together.
Using every magic spell she could remember, she managed to bring him back to life for a single night. The two declared their undying love for each other. And that night they conceived a son, Horus.
The next morning Osiris departed the earth forever. Though he was now truly dead, he had in a sense conquered death, for the mighty Ra proceeded to make him lord of the Underworld. And from that day forward, no Egyptian ever again feared death, knowing that his or her spirit would be well cared for in the peaceful realm that Osiris now ruled.
Label: Egyptian mythology