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The Golden Bough
James George Frazer
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Chapter 40. The Nature of Osiris
1. Osiris a Corn-god.
THE FOREGOING survey of the myth and ritual of Osiris may suffice to prove that in
one of his aspects the god was a personification of the corn, which may be said to die and
come to life again every year. Through all the pomp and glamour with which in later
times the priests had invested his worship, the conception of him as the corn-god comes
clearly out in the festival of his death and resurrection, which was celebrated in the month
of Khoiak and at a later period in the month of Athyr. That festival appears to have been
essentially a festival of sowing, which properly fell at the time when the husbandman
actually committed the seed to the earth. On that occasion an effigy of the corn-god,
moulded of earth and corn, was buried with funeral rites in the ground in order that, dying
there, he might come to life again with the new crops. The ceremony was, in fact, a
charm to ensure the growth of the corn by sympathetic magic, and we may conjecture
that as such it was practised in a simple form by every Egyptian farmer on his fields long
before it was adopted and transfigured by the priests in the stately ritual of the temple. In
the modern, but doubtless ancient, Arab custom of burying the Old Man, namely, a sheaf
of wheat, in the harvest-field and praying that he may return from the dead, we see the
germ out of which the worship of the corn-god Osiris was probably developed.
The details of his myth fit in well with this interpretation of the god. He was said to be
the offspring of Sky and Earth. What more appropriate parentage could be invented for
the corn which springs from the ground that has been fertilised by the water of heaven? It
is true that the land of Egypt owed its fertility directly to the Nile and not to showers; but
the inhabitants must have known or guessed that the great river in its turn was fed by the
rains which fell in the far interior. Again, the legend that Osiris was the first to teach men
the use of corn would be most naturally told of the corn-god himself. Further, the story
that his mangled remains were scattered up and down the land and buried in different
places may be a mythical way of expressing either the sowing or the winnowing of the
grain. The latter interpretation is supported by the tale that Isis placed the severed limbs
of Osiris on a corn-sieve. Or more probably the legend may be a reminiscence of a
custom of slaying a human victim, perhaps a representative of the corn-spirit, and
distributing his flesh or scattering his ashes over the fields to fertilise them. In modern
Europe the figure of Death is sometimes torn in pieces, and the fragments are then buried
in the ground to make the crops grow well, and in other parts of the world human victims
are treated in the same way. With regard to the ancient Egyptians we have it on the
authority of Manetho that they used to burn red-haired men and scatter their ashes with
winnowing fans, and it is highly significant that this barbarous sacrifice was offered by
the kings at the grave of Osiris. We may conjecture that the victims represented Osiris
himself, who was annually slain, dismembered, and buried in their persons that he might
quicken the seed in the earth.
Possibly in prehistoric times the kings themselves played the part of the god and were
slain and dismembered in that character. Set as well as Osiris is said to have been torn in