The Osirian legend is the most well-known of the Egyptian myths despite the fact that the only detailed narrative is that of Plutarch’s Greek version. The authentic Egyptian references are ‘dispersed over several different periods and offer only a nebulous of disjointed facts’ (Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods) while one ‘curious and poorly documented legend’ Geb is forced to slay his own son (Osiris) in self-defence. The Osirian cult forms the bridge between the nine deities of the Great Ennead of Heliopolis and the more modern, devotional approach of the Hermopolitan Path.
As Hamlyn points out in Egyptian Mythology, ‘perhaps more than in the case of any other god, the legend of Osiris underwent great changes through the course of history’. And as all students of mythology are aware, the mysteries of the ‘dying god’ tradition were a focal point of religious belief in the Tigres-Euphrates and Nile valleys, i.e Osiris (Egypt), Attis (Phrygia) and Adonis (Greece). Osiris was originally a god of the vegetation which died, re-seeded and flowered again following the inundation of the Nile, thereby symbolising the Egyptian concept of re-birth. As Gardiner points out the Osirian myth had ‘never been deeply spiritual but it had recounted the triumph of good over evil and had told of widely devotion and filial piety’. It was also accessible to the common people in terms of understanding and identification.
The dying god concept had to be credible to the simple man. To have a divine being dying each year by accident would have eventually led to a total lack of ‘street-cred’; death by disease or decay was also out since who in their right mind would identify with a weak and sickly god? The only alternative was for Osiris to be killed and as the image of Set was still creating a problem for the priesthood, he could be disposed of once and for all by being named as the murderer of his brother.
Magically speaking, the death and resurrection of Osiris are comparable to the later mystery traditions of Ishtar/Tammuz, Cybel/Attis, Demeter/Persephone, Mithra and Christianity rather than the more sanitised version with which he is so frequently aligned. In view of later ‘dying god/king’ cults (including the killing of the pagan king William Rufus by Walter Tyrrel in English folk-lore when the king’s blood ‘watered the earth’ all the way to Winchester) it also endorses the theory that Set’s involvement was originally that of ‘divine slayer’ rather than the murderer of Osiris [Tyrrel has never been reviled as a murderer]. The fact that the mortal remains of the dead god should come into contact with the earth indicates that this was a custom belonging to the age of agriculture; life had been taken out of the ground by the crops, so life had to be put back in again.
Praise be to Osiris!
Adorations be given to him!
Smelling of the earth to Un-Nefer!
Prostrations to the ground to the
Everlasting Self-Created Sun God!
It would be unwise, however, to look upon the Osirian Path with sweetness and light since the knowledge drawn upon to resurrect the god were magical powers that the uninformed would be quick to label ‘black’. One of the best sources of information for students of the Osirian Tradition is the two volume Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection by Sir Wallis Budge which provide sufficient working material to satisfy even the most avid of scholarly magi. For the modern magician, the Set/Osiris Mysteries have been more fully explored in The Setian by Billie Walker-John, where the relationship between the so-called rivals can be seen in its proper perspective of balancing opposites.
Represented by corn and vine, Osiris’s other most familiar emblem is the djet. From the beginning of the New Kingdom this was considered to be a portion of the backbone of the god and venerated as one of the his relics. Because of its symbolic value, the hieroglyph appears often in scenes and texts associated with the knot or buckle [tjet] of Isis. Located in the centre of the Pillar of Equilibrium, Tiphareth is the sphere of the dying god - the Tarot symbolised by Death and The Hanged Man. Osiris is petitioned for strength during suffering and adversity and a belief in what is to come. His image is one of fertility and growth and it would be a mistake to look upon him as a death-god.
Attributed with all the qualities of the perfect wife, mother and goddess - the mother of all things, both spiritual and temporal. She is almost inter-changeable with Hathor and Bast on the more earthly levels but it is as the goddess of magic that Isis comes into her own. To enable her to posthumously bear her son, conceived by the union with her husband’s dead body, Isis resorted to the skills of the necromancer. “For she was a potent magician and even the gods were not immune from her sorcery.”
Isis represents the rich plains of Egypt, made fruitful by the annual Inundation of the Nile. She is represented as a woman who bears the hieroglyph of a throne as her head-dress, or a solar disk between cow’s horns which identifies her with Hathor. By the time of the Greek occupation of Egypt, Isis had adopted virtually all the attributes of the female pantheon — and some of the male ones as well. Netzach is her sphere on the Tree of Life and her image is The High Priestess of the Tarot. Her colours are blue and silver. Because she became the embodiment of every other goddess in the Egyptian pantheon, this collective power makes her a very powerful focus for female energies in magical terms.
The fourth sibling in the Osirian group represents the flooding or high water mark of the Nile. She represents hidden lunar depths and can be invoked as a protector; she was supposed to possess great magical powers like her sister, Isis but she is the personification of darkness and of all that belongs to it, her attributes being of a passive rather than active nature. This idea stems from the legend that having taken a fancy to her brother-in-law Osiris she slipped into his bed under the cover of darkness. As a result him of mistaking her for Isis, Anubis was the result of this adulterous union. She is therefore the mistress of illusion. Nevertheless the two goddesses are inseparable, Isis representing the part of the world that is visible, with Nephthys representing that which is invisible. Nephthys is always represented by the head-dress of a house and basket but never appears to have been the object of an independent cult since no temples or shrines have yet been discovered that are dedicated to her alone.
Horus the Younger [E=Hor]
The son of Isis and Osiris (there are some 20 of this name in the Egyptian pantheon) who was born posthumously and later avenged the death of his father by doing battle with Set. During the fighting, Horus lost an eye, the symbol of which has become a powerful tool in magical working although it is often confused with the more ancient ‘eye of Re’. Like Horus the Elder, he is depicted as falcon-headed and holds in his right hand the ankh.
Despite the happy-family picture, Horus and Isis were often at logger-heads, the son even decapitating his mother after particularly violent argument. Later Pharaohs associated themselves with the younger Horus and thus became identified the son of Osiris - which added another layer of confusion to the earlier texts where Pharaoh was descended from the sun-god. He could aptly use The Aeon as a point of focus in the Tarot, with many of the attributes normally associated with Horus the Elder.
She grew to prominence as the popular goddess of childbirth, maternity and suckling during the New Kingdom. She is represented as a pregnant hippopotamus with pendulous breasts, standing upright and holding the hieroglyphic sign of protection, ka, a plait of rolled papyrus. Enjoying great popularity at Thebes amongst the middle classes, who gave her name to their children and decorated their homes with her image, she could also be called upon as an avenging deity when she would appear with the head of a lioness brandishing a dagger.
Also a popular household deity from the New Kingdom who presided over all aspects of the home from marriage and child-birth to protection against evil spirits. He was a grotesque dwarfish figure, jovial and belligerent, fond of dancing and fighting. The middle classes kept statues of him in their homes and named children after him.
There are, of course, hundreds more deities in the Egyptian pantheon than those featured above and the Adept choosing to follow either the Primitive, Heliopolitan or Hermopolitan Paths can expand his or her knowledge of those appertaining to the appropriate Path by studying academic text books for the period. The Pyramid and Coffin Texts and The Book of the Dead are important historical guides to the deities of ancient Egypt and some later versions of The Book of the Dead list up to 500 separate identities.
The later Triad system, a group of three gods usually consisting of a divine family of parents and child who were worshipped at a particular cult centre set the precedent for the trinity-concept in other religions emerging outside Egypt. As the Dictionary defines, the Triad was often a convenient method of linking together three formerly independent deities of an area to form an easily identifiable religious context for worshipping or political purposes. Among the most important were Amun-Mut-Khons at Thebes;Ptah-Sekhmet/Bast-Nefertem at Memphis; the Winged Horus-Hathor-Horus the child at Edfu; Khnum-Satet-Anuket at Elephantine and Osiris-Isis-Horus who were not associated with any specific cult-centre. The Dictionary suggests that this appears to have been ‘primarily a theological development of the New Kingdom’ but it was a convenient method of bringing several different attributes of the deities under one temple roof.
The regions to which the dead departed were called the dwat or Amenti (Osiris is sometimes referred to as Khenti-Amenti in earlier texts); the latter a dark gloomy place, containing pits of fire and dreadful monsters, flanked by a river and lofty mountains. In the later Osirian cult the souls of the dead had to pass through to the dwat, an equivalent of the Elysian Fields [sekhet hetepet] where Osiris and his company could be found among the 15 regions in the Field of Reeds [sekhet aaru]. The dwat was situated in the heavens, at the furthest reaches of the Eastern Desert where the mummified body of the sun-god waited while the scarab beetle, Khepri, deity of the rising run, pushed the solar disc out of the dwat into the new day. Amenti is the darkness into which the sun descends over the mountains of the Western Desert.
Like most things connected to Egyptian religious thought, the dwat had an equivocal meaning insomuch that the texts sometimes refer to the negative aspects of Osiris as a malevolent deity. In this guise the petitioner could invoke the protection of Re, so the deceased could make the journey in the light rather than the darkness. Initially, in the Pyramid Texts, the dwat was represented by a star within a circle; the place in the sky where the sun and the stars re-appeared after having been invisible; in later times it began to represent the Otherworld whether celestial or subterranean (the latter being more recent in Egyptian culture).
The Egyptian fondness for obscure mythological allusions make it extremely difficult to discover any specific details about Otherworld since most spells are for the life in the hereafter rather than about it (JEA - Vol 58). “As a rule, the magical incantations that make up the bulk do not specify the exact circumstances under which they are to be used, nor can these be easily deducted from their contents.” According to Dieter Muller early copies of The Book of the Dead display ‘great variability in the choice and order of their chapters’. The Pyramid Texts at the other end of the spectrum show a certain degree of consistency, while the Coffin Texts pose a particularly complicated problem. Having preserved much valuable information on the purpose of the spells and their application they nevertheless exhibit certain conflicting preferences for the location and order of the text.
The Texts consist of a heading followed by a section in which the deceased has to pass an unspecified number of gates. At each gate a conversation ensues, in which he reveals his familiarity with the name and character of the door-keeper and receives permission to advance: “You who have come spiritualised, my brother: proceed to the place about which you are informed’. The same pattern is followed to placate the ferryman who will take him across the river separating these gates from the Field of Reeds. The text concludes with an invocation and a docket promising freedom of movement and arable land in the Field of Reads to anyone who knows this spell [Reference JEA - Vol 58].
The Egyptians often referred to the desert [E=deshret] the ‘red land’ as a place of death; the Western Desert was regarded as the entrance to Amenti. Set was considered the ‘red god’ and lord of the desert wilderness, while other deities such as Min and Hathor were patrons of travellers in the desert regions.
Like all mythologies, there are strange creatures inhabiting the Otherworld such as Ammut who consumes the hearts of those whose evil deeds made them unfit to proceed into the afterlife. She is usually shown waiting beside the scales in the Hall of Judgement, with the head of a crocodile, the foreparts of a lion and the rear of a hippopotamus. Apophis, the snake-god of the underworld, who symbolises the forces of chaos and evil; it is Set who defeats this adversary of Re but at a later period Set himself became identified with Apophis.
The realms of the Otherworld were inhabited by a ‘fantastic array of beings’ but the most feared were the ‘messengers of Sekhmet’ which appear to be irritating and deadly spirits thought to be prevalent at the end of the year and very much part of the ‘real’ world. They caused sickness, sleeplessness and general discontentment and can be dealt with by invoking Sekhmet herself to get rid of them. The demons of the netherworld are the creatures of the darkness, probably similar to those encountered on the astral, who hound and harry the dead as they make their way through Amenti.
Magically, Amenti is the darkness of the Otherworld - the place to which the Adept can descend in the process of exploring the astral since this is where all things that are hidden are finally revealed. The dwat is the ‘starry place’ - the darkness behind the sky. It doesn’t matter which deity the Adept chooses providing she or he maintains a strict adherence to the cosmic, natural or universal law - the law of opposites that governs all areas of magical working - ‘As Above, So Below’ - which takes into account this world and the next, whether it be the physical world, Amenti or the dwat.