Osiris, Horus and Isis were three Egyptian gods that became increasingly popular in Greece and Rome; they formed a ‘holy family’ of sorts; Osiris was the father of Horus and the brother/Husband of Isis.
Osiris was Egyptian god of the dead, but also a vegetation and resurrection god. Although the story of Osiris is already told in the Pyramid texts of ancient Egypt (2400BC), his popularity exploded when his cult (or rather, the cult of Isis, which included him and his son, Horus) was exported into the Greek and Roman empires. The main story of Osiris, which features his death and resurrection, as well as the magical healing powers of Isis and the birth of their son, Horus, is as follows.
Osiris was the great benefactor of humanity; he gave men laws, the institution of marriage, civil organization, taught them agriculture, and how to worship the gods. “He conquered the nations everywhere, but not with weapons, only music and eloquence” (Bullfinch 238). He ruled the land in peace with his consort (wife/sister) Isis. However, his brother Seth (earlier versions Typhon), was filled with envy and malice, and decided to kill him. Knowing that Osiris was more powerful, Seth designed a clever trap: he made a beautiful chest out of wood, exactly the size of Osiris, and promised it as a gift to whoever it fit. Everybody tried, but nobody could fit in the box. Finally, Osiris tried; but as soon as he lay down inside, Seth with his companions closed the lid, nailed it shut and threw the chest in the Nile river. Isis wept and mourned, tearing her hair and beating her breast. Dressed in black, with shorn hair, she wandered up and down the banks of the Nile, searching in vain for the body of Osiris.
The chest had come to rest on the bank of the river, and the power inside was so great that a large tree blossomed; the chest became part of the tree trunk, which was then used as a column in a palace. Isis discovered the truth, and with a wave of her magic wand, split open the column, revealing the wooden coffin. She took the body of Osiris and hid it in a swamp. But Seth found it (as he was out hunting a wild boar) and tore it into 14 pieces. Nevertheless, Isis in her magnificent power found the pieces and put them together again (with the exception of the phallus, which was eaten by a fish.) She raised Osiris from the dead, at least enough to impregnate her, and he became the ruler of the underworld. Isis then fled with her infant son, Horus, into hiding, in fear of Seth. However, when Horus grows up and is strong enough, he will return to defeat Seth and avenge the death of his father.
On this founding myth was built a robust system of Egyptian religious belief and ritual, which included the suffering and burial of Osiris, the mourning of Isis, the birth of the divine child, and then the exuberant celebration of his return (Witt 27).
The rejoicing of the triumph of Horus is the precise counterpart of the mourning over the death of Osiris. Both are extreme and all encompassing. Just as the death plunges the entire world into the depths of despair, so the triumph transports it into the heights of rapture. The two emotions belong together as a pair at the beginning and the end of the story that transpires between them. The entire land participated in the story in an annual cycle of festivals, and all who took part in them experienced them. (Assman 145)
Osiris is undoubtedly a vegetation god, sometimes associated corn or grain, but could also be a solar deity, “bringing light and food especially to those Yonder, the denizens of the netherworld, as he makes his nocturnal journey through their midst in his boat (Witt 38).
When he was called ‘the Great Green’ he was the life-giving fresh water of the River and under this aspect even the salt water of the sea. As with other gods of Egypt he could be addressed as a bisexual being: ‘You are Father and Mother of men. They live from your breath and eat of the flesh of your body.’ (Witt 44)
At the same time, as ruler of the underworld, he was “the resident king of the dead, true of heart and voice, watching with an eye that was never at rest over the rewards of those who came into his realm” (Witt 38). The story of his resurrection had been used for millennia to justify the potential for life after death.
Osiris was the dying and rising god, the mythic precedent and guarantee that one could say to the deceased king, and later to every person, “Stand up!” The fact that he had risen invested these words with meaning. As is well known, this role of Osiris has led to his being classified with a series of “dying and rising” vegetation gods from western Asia: Tammuz, Attis, Adonis. This might be true to a certain extent. Without doubt, Osiris had a relationship with the agricultural cycle and other processes of death and rebirth in nature. (Assman 129)
Each person had a ba (soul) that survived death, left the body, and managed the posthumous journey into the divine realm. Each person became an Osiris and followed the mythic precendent of the god. (Assman 185)
According to Frazer, Egyptians were sometimes entombed with life sized effigies of Osiris, which were hallowed out; sealed inside in a water tight compartment were placed water, dirt and barley seed, which would ‘live forever’.
In laying their dead in the grave they committed them to his keeping who could raise them from the dust to life eternal, even as he caused the seed to spring from the ground. Of that faith the corn-stuffed effigies of Osiris found in Egyptian tombs furnish an eloquent and unequivocal testimony. They were at once an emblem and an instrument of resurrection. (441)
The annual commemoration of the Osiris story was an enormous cultural event; it retraced the passion, death and resurrection of the god, and was celebrated even in the Roman capital (the Egyptian cult was established in Rome around 50BC). The Iseum of Pompei was decorated with two paintings of the passion of Osiris (Bonnefoy 246). According to Witt, Isis would discover she was pregnant on the 3rd of October. She rose up the new god Horus in an egg. The search for Osiris’ body lasted until the 3rd of November, followed by the embalmment of the body. The mummified body is entombed on the 21st December, and two days later, on the 23rd, Isis brings forth her child, “23 December being in the Egyptian Calendar the date of the simultaneous burial and rebirth of the Sun God. Of cardinal importance for the chronology of the whole tale is the winter solstice” (Witt 213). This confirmed by Dowden:
For three days his dismemberment at the hands of his enemy Seth or Typhon is mourned; then he is found by Isis and reassembled… This is the experience which is shared in some way by those who have been initiated into the secrets of the religion, maybe the Melanephoroi (‘wearers of black’) whom inscriptions mention: it is a death and resurrection, despair and new hope story. (72)
Osiris had his own mysteries, and followers of the Egyptian cult believed that they could, like Osiris, find eternal life after death. Gordon claims that the idea of an afterlife, as either a reward or punishment based on the merits of each individual, is unique to Egypt:
Egyptian religion developed a kind of Passion Play concerning Osiris, the god of the dead, showing his suffering, death, and revival. Each dead person was identified with Osiris on the assumption that the deceased would undergo, but emerge triumphant like Osiris from, a trial full of vicissitudes to qualify for life eternal… This fully developed concept of personal judgment, whereby each man enters paradise if his character and life on earth warrant it, appears quite remarkable when we consider that centuries later there was still no such idea in Mesopotamia or Israel. (60)
The cult of Osiris, it seems, was deliberately altered to make it more accessible to Hellenized society, by merging Osiris with the Apis bull; thus, making an identification with other sacrificial bull-gods like Dionysus or Attis even easier. This new version of Osiris was renamed Sarapis.
Osiris’ son, Horus (known as Harpocrates by the Greeks), an infant god described in the Pyramid Texts as “the young one with his finger in his mouth,” was a favorite figure of paganism in the time of Christ (Witt 210). Even as a young child, he was given absolute power. “He shall rule over this earth…He will be your master, this god who is but an embryo.” (Witt 210)
The birth story of Horus (the massacre of infants, retreat into hiding, triumphant return), which is mostly based on solar worship, is very similar to that of Jesus Christ. Horus was reborn every year on January 6th (Witt, 211) – the date on which the birthday of Jesus was celebrated for centuries until 354AD, when the bishop of Rome ruled in favor of December 25th. Statues of Isis with the baby Horus in her lap are nearly indistinguishable from those of Mary and Jesus and were worshipped in Christian churches for centuries.
When the Egyptian cult was introduced to Greece and Rome, Horus became identified with Apollo and Heracles, Eros (god of love) and the sun.
The Beloved and indeed Only Begotten Son of the Father, the Omnipotent Child, he has under his control the circuit of the solar disk and so assumes the lotus which itself is the emblem of the rising Sun. (Witt 214)
Demonstrating the trend towards religious synthesis, Horus assimilated the roles and symbols of other gods. In the depictions of Horus found in Pompeii, “He can don the wings of Eros, anticipating the angel-iconography of Christianity, and in his left hand carry the cornucopia of Bacchus. He possesses the quiver of Apollo and the fawnskin of Dionysus” (Witt 215).
When Horus grows up, he defeats the dragon/crocodile Seth in a magnificient battle. This battle almost certainly influenced Christian iconography:
In the period during which Christianity was establishing itself as a world religion the figure of Horus/Harpocrates in conjunction with that of a crocodile typified the triumph of good over evil, exactly the same as the victory over the dragon by the saintly combatants Michael and George (…) Moreover, the dragon was pyrrhous in color: and Plutach thrice applies the same epithet to the complexion of Seth-Typhon. (Witt, 16)
It was Isis however, as great mother-goddess, who was the most powerful of the trilogy. Isis gives Horus his powers, and it was Isis who restored life to Osiris. She was a gifted healer – priests of her temples had to study six branches of medical science: anatomy, pathology, surgery, pharmacology, ophthalmology and gynaecology (Witt 92).
She was the great sorceress. The art of medicine was hers. Horus, the child born weak, is named ‘son of an echantress’. It is to Isis the divine sorceress that the great god Re is forced to reveal the secret of his name. Her magical nature renders her potentially hermaphrodite. So she is not bound by the normal law of sex. She can resuscitate the dead Osisris and by spells obtain the gift of a son. We learn that she discovered health-giving drugs and simples as well as the elixir of life. Like Apollo and Aslepius she was an expert in making men well when they betook themselves to her temples, where after incubation they could look forward in hope to gain a cure. Skilful as healer and discoverer of the mysteries of birth, life and death, she was the lady who saved. She resurrected. The gates of Hell, besides salvation, were in her hands. (Witt 22)
Isaic temples held mysteries of redemption involving ‘living water’, challenging initiation rites, and obedience.
Certainly, Isis gives her children the sure hope of eternal salvation: but in return she demands from them unquestioning, even blind obedience, just as she subjects them to the most grueling tests before they reach their haven of rest. (Witt 135)
She had the power to control ‘Demons’/elements, or ‘nature’/astrology (Witt 134). She loves sinners – according to Lucius, “Thou doest always bestow they dear love on wretched men in their mishaps” (qtd. Witt 134). She also made her mysteries available to rich and poor alike, “not just to the affluent citizen who made his fortune in shipping but even to the man of lowly birth and the down-trodden slave” (Witt 85). One inscription to her, found at the temple of Neith at Sais, says “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my robe has never yet been uncovered by mortal men” (Witt 67).
Like Horus and Osiris/Sarapis, Isis increasingly usurped the roles, symbols and powers of other gods; she became all things to all people. After this with her untold wealth of titles she could take the one that pleased her best. She could assume the eagle of Zeus and the dolphin of Poseidon, the lyre of Apollo and tongs of Hephaestus, the wand of Hermes, the thyrsus of Bacchus and the club of Heracles. (Witt 129)
The similarities between the Egyptian cult and Christianity are many: the entire birth story, as well as the Christian iconography of the infant Jesus; the triumph of good over evil; the death and resurrection; the “Great Virgin” and “Mother of God” (Isis was called both before the Christian era). Most importantly the emotional catharsis involved, which is also to be found in most other mystery traditions, in mourning the death and then celebrating the return of the deity. Some researchers claim that the Egyptian myth is unique because it has two generations:
If we are somewhat reminded of the sorrow of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday, it should again be stressed that in the myth of Osiris, we are dealing with two generations. The god who triumphs is a different one from the god who is killed. (Assman 145)
However, Horus grows up to become Osiris every year, and makes a new Horus; if you combine Horus and Osiris together into one figure, you’d create a figure much like Jesus Christ. Of course the story is very different; the details of Jesus’ life and personality so clearly presented in the gospels make him dissimilar to the Egyptian myth. But what is most relevant to the figure of Jesus Christ; the historical details that make him just an ordinary man, or his death and resurrection, role in salvation, and divinity?