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Chapter 38. The Myth of Osiris
IN ANCIENT EGYPT the god whose death and resurrection were annually celebrated
with alternate sorrow and joy was Osiris, the most popular of all Egyptian deities; and
there are good grounds for classing him in one of his aspects with Adonis and Attis as a
personification of the great yearly vicissitudes of nature, especially of the corn. But the
immense vogue which he enjoyed for many ages induced his devoted worshippers to
heap upon him the attributes and powers of many other gods; so that it is not always easy
to strip him, so to say, of his borrowed plumes and to restore them to their proper owners.
The story of Osiris is told in a connected form only by Plutarch, whose narrative has been
confirmed and to some extent amplified in modern times by the evidence of the
Osiris was the offspring of an intrigue between the earth-god Seb (Keb or Geb, as the
name is sometimes transliterated) and the sky-goddess Nut. The Greeks identified his
parents with their own deities Cronus and Rhea. When the sun-god Ra perceived that his
wife Nut had been unfaithful to him, he declared with a curse that she should be delivered
of the child in no month and no year. But the goddess had another lover, the god Thoth or
Hermes, as the Greeks called him, and he playing at draughts with the moon won from
her a seventy-second part of every day, and having compounded five whole days out of
these parts he added them to the Egyptian year of three hundred and sixty days. This was
the mythical origin of the five supplementary days which the Egyptians annually inserted
at the end of every year in order to establish a harmony between lunar and solar time. On
these five days, regarded as outside the year of twelve months, the curse of the sun-god
did not rest, and accordingly Osiris was born on the first of them. At his nativity a voice
rang out proclaiming that the Lord of All had come into the world. Some say that a
certain Pamyles heard a voice from the temple at Thebes bidding him announce with a
shout that a great king, the beneficent Osiris, was born. But Osiris was not the only child
of his mother. On the second of the supplementary days she gave birth to the elder Horus,
on the third to the god Set, whom the Greeks called Typhon, on the fourth to the goddess
Isis, and on the fifth to the goddess Nephthys. Afterwards Set married his sister
Nephthys, and Osiris married his sister Isis.
Reigning as a king on earth, Osiris reclaimed the Egyptians from savagery, gave them
laws, and taught them to worship the gods. Before his time the Egyptians had been
cannibals. But Isis, the sister and wife of Osiris, discovered wheat and barley growing
wild, and Osiris introduced the cultivation of these grains amongst his people, who
forthwith abandoned cannibalism and took kindly to a corn diet. Moreover, Osiris is said
to have been the first to gather fruit from trees, to train the vine to poles, and to tread the
grapes. Eager to communicate these beneficent discoveries to all mankind, he committed
the whole government of Egypt to his wife Isis, and travelled over the world, diffusing
the blessings of civilisation and agriculture wherever he went. In countries where a harsh
climate or niggardly soil forbade the cultivation of the vine, he taught the inhabitants to
console themselves for the want of wine by brewing beer from barley. Loaded with the