Isis and Osiris: Death and Rebirth in Ancient Egypt

From the lecture series: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

What did the ancient Egyptians believe about the existence of life after death? For the answer, you need to go explore the myth of Isis and Osiris.

Facsimile of a vignette from the Book of the Dead of Ani. The deceased Ani kneels before Osiris, judge of the dead. Behind Osiris stand his sisters Isis and Nephthys, and in front of him is a lotus on which stand the four sons of Horus. Book published 1994; facsimile created 1890; original artwork created c. 1300 BC
Facsimile of a vignette from the Book of the Dead of Ani. The deceased Ani kneels before Osiris, judge of the dead. Behind Osiris stand his sisters Isis and Nephthys. (Image: British Museum/Public domain)

Isis and Osiris: The Good Gods

Isis and Osiris are the good guys. Nebthet, their sister, is also a good goddess. Their brother Seth, however, is elementally evil. As the archetype of the devil, he only tries to harm.

According to the myth, Isis and Osiris came down to earth to civilize Egypt. After bringing civilization to the people of the Nile Valley, Osiris leaves to teach the rest of the world; thus, the diffusion of civilization from Egypt to other lands is explained.

While Osiris is away, Seth tries to do horrible things to Egypt. Fortunately, Isis is very powerful. The goddess of magic, she is even called “she who knows all the names.”

What does that mean?

According to their culture, if you wanted to work a magic spell against someone, you would have to know the victim’s name, for example, “May this happen to Marvin.” Now, Isis knows everyone’s name. When an Egyptian child was born, they often had two names. One was the real name that only his mother knew; the other name was the name that everyone else called you. If you are named Marvin but the family calls you Harry, everyone knows you by Harry. If someone tries to do an evil spell on you and says, “Oh, may Harry break his leg,” it won’t work, because your name is Marvin.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Isis, as “she who knows everyone’s name,” is something of a hero. She keeps her evil brother Seth in check, and nothing terrible happens to Egypt.

Seth Plots to Murder Osiris

Osiris then returns, having civilized other countries. Seth, however, lays a plan.

 Stone statues of Nephthis and Seth carved between 1279 and 1213 BC.
 Nephthis and Seth (Image: Photographed by Rama/Collection
Louvre Museum/Public domain)

While Osiris is sleeping, Seth takes his brother’s exact bodily measurements and builds a wooden chest to those proportions. At a banquet, Seth says, “I’ll give a wonderful prize to anyone who fits exactly into this chest.” Guest after guest tries, but none of them quite fit. It’s similar to Cinderella’s slipper.

Finally, Osiris tries—and it fits him just right. Seth is ready for this: He nails the chest shut, pours molten lead on the chest, and throws it into the Nile. There is no contradiction involved in someone being a god and dying. A god is greater than man—but mortal, and so Osiris dies in the chest.

But the myth doesn’t end there.

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Osiris: The First Mummy

The Nile flows northward to the Mediterranean, and the chest washes ashore at Byblos (modern Lebanon). According to the myth, there is a huge storm that blows the chest into the branches of a tree, which grows to tremendous proportions, encompassing the chest in its trunk.

The king of Byblos wants to build a palace, and he needs large trees—cedars of Lebanon—for pillars. This particular tree is cut down and incorporated into the palace as a pillar, where Osiris is hidden.

Isis, the devoted wife, sets out on a journey to recover the body of her husband. Eventually, she finds out where Osiris is, talks to the queen of Byblos, is given a job as her handmaiden and explains that her husband is in a pillar in the palace. The queen is sympathetic, and the pillar is cut down. The chest is taken out and Osiris is indeed dead. Isis then brings the body back to Egypt for proper burial.

Seth, always scheming, finds the body and hacks it into 14 pieces, which he scatters up and down the Nile. Isis, wanting to give her husband a proper burial, finds the pieces, aided by her sister Nebthet.

They find almost all of the pieces of Osiris, but the phallus is missing. It was thrown into the Nile and devoured by fish.

Isis reassembles Osiris, fashions an artificial phallus to complete him, says magical words, and breathes life into him. Osiris resurrects and he becomes the God of the Dead. In this sense, Osiris is the first mummy.

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The Origin of Egyptian Burial Customs

What does this myth teach us?

Almost every funerary belief that the Egyptians had can be traced from this story. For example, Isis must recover the body and bury it on Egyptian soil, and it’s her reason for going to Byblos. There is something special about Egypt and Egyptian soil. This belief is why the Egyptians never colonized, as no one wanted to die away from Egypt.

Another funerary practice follows from Osiris missing one part, the phallus, and Isis creating an artificial one. The significance is if you’re going to use your body again in the next world, you want it to be complete. This was a practice followed by Egyptian embalmers. When a person died whose leg had been amputated, the embalmers would create an artificial leg for the next world.

The chest that Seth fashions to the exact proportions of Osiris in the Osiris myth becomes the anthropoid coffin, culminating in the belief that there needs to be a special container for the body to preserve it.

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Good Triumphs, Evil Remains

Image from Baedeker, Karl. Egypt, "Handbook for Traveling, pt.1 Lower Egypt, with the Fayum and the peninsula of Sinai". K. Baedeker, Leipsic, 1885. p.130
Osiris, Horus and Isis. (Image: rudr.rice.edu/Public domain)

Following his resurrection, Isis and Osiris have a child, Horus, who does battle with his evil uncle, Seth. There are two important results from this battle.

One is that Horus’s eye is taken out in the battle, but it’s magically regenerated. Thus, good triumphs.

The other important element is that Horus defeats Seth—but doesn’t kill him.

This is an existential statement: Evil will always be with us, and so we have to be vigilant to continue to triumph over it.

Common Questions About Isis and Osiris

Q: How do we translate Isis and Osiris?

Isis and Osiris are complex. Osiris is a Latinized form of a name with deeper Egyptian meaning. Osiris meant, in Egyptian, “Usir,” or “powerful.” Isis was his sister who resurrected him, and her name has remained.

Q: Who was Osiris killed by?

Osiris was killed by Isis‘s brother Seth out of jealousy.

Q: Was Osiris cut into pieces?

Yes. Osiris was cut into 14 pieces by Isis‘s brother Seth. They were flung all across Egypt.

Q: How did Isis and Osiris have children?

Isis found Osiris‘s body parts and recreated him so that they could conceive of a child, who was Horus.

This article was updated on December 18, 2019

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