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The Golden Bough
James George Frazer
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Chapter 42. Osiris and the Sun
OSIRIS has been sometimes interpreted as the sun-god, and in modern times this view
has been held by so many distinguished writers that it deserves a brief examination. If we
enquire on what evidence Osiris has been identified with the sun or the sun-god, it will be
found on analysis to be minute in quantity and dubious, where it is not absolutely
worthless, in quality. The diligent Jablonski, the first modern scholar to collect and sift
the testimony of classical writers on Egyptian religion, says that it can be shown in many
ways that Osiris is the sun, and that he could produce a cloud of witnesses to prove it, but
that it is needless to do so, since no learned man is ignorant of the fact. Of the ancient
writers whom he condescends to quote, the only two who expressly identify Osiris with
the sun are Diodorus and Macrobius. But little weight can be attached to their evidence;
for the statement of Diodorus is vague and rhetorical, and the reasons which Macrobius,
one of the fathers of solar mythology, assigns for the identification are exceedingly slight.
The ground upon which some modern writers seem chiefly to rely for the identification of
Osiris with the sun is that the story of his death fits better with the solar phenomena than
with any other in nature. It may readily be admitted that the daily appearance and
disappearance of the sun might very naturally be expressed by a myth of his death and
resurrection; and writers who regard Osiris as the sun are careful to indicate that it is the
diurnal, and not the annual, course of the sun to which they understand the myth to apply.
Thus Renouf, who identified Osiris with the sun, admitted that the Egyptian sun could not
with any show of reason be described as dead in winter. But if his daily death was the
theme of the legend, why was it celebrated by an annual ceremony? This fact alone seems
fatal to the interpretation of the myth as descriptive of sunset and sunrise. Again, though
the sun may be said to die daily, in what sense can he be said to be torn in pieces?
In the course of our enquiry it has, I trust, been made clear that there is another natural
phenomenon to which the conception of death and resurrection is as applicable as to
sunset and sunrise, and which, as a matter of fact, has been so conceived and represented
in folk-custom. That phenomenon is the annual growth and decay of vegetation. A strong
reason for interpreting the death of Osiris as the decay of vegetation rather than as the
sunset is to be found in the general, though not unanimous, voice of antiquity, which
classed together the worship and myths of Osiris, Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, and Demeter,
as religions of essentially the same type. The consensus of ancient opinion on this subject
seems too great to be rejected as a mere fancy. So closely did the rites of Osiris resemble
those of Adonis at Byblus that some of the people of Byblus themselves maintained that
it was Osiris and not Adonis whose death was mourned by them. Such a view could
certainly not have been held if the rituals of the two gods had not been so alike as to be
almost indistinguishable. Herodotus found the similarity between the rites of Osiris and
Dionysus so great, that he thought it impossible the latter could have arisen
independently; they must, he supposed, have been recently borrowed, with slight
alterations, by the Greeks from the Egyptians. Again, Plutarch, a very keen student of
comparative religion, insists upon the detailed resemblance of the rites of Osiris to those
of Dionysus. We cannot reject the evidence of such intelligent and trustworthy witnesses