- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- History of the Middle East
Osiris and Isis: An Egyptian Love Story
Nut and Geb
I suppose these two lovebirds should not have expected a happily ever after since even their parents did not fare well in love. It is with their story that I will start this sad tale. Nut, the starry night, and her brother Geb, the earth, both children of Shu, the god of wind, and Tefnut, the goddess of moister, were very much in love. After their marriage, Nut became pregnant, but Ra, the sun god and pharaoh of the gods, was concerned that if these two had a child that it would usurp his throne. For this reason, he proclaimed that Nut was not allowed to give birth during any day or night within the 360-day year.
Nut desperately wanted to deliver her children, what woman wouldn't, so she spoke with Thoth, the very smart god of wisdom. Thoth suggested that Nut try to win some extra moonlight form the moon god Khonshu. Nut, desperate to give birth, challenged Khonshu to a game of senet, an ancient Egyptian board game. Nut beat the young god so many times that she won five days that she added to the year and gave birth to her children. Different stories have her delivering five children, one on each of the additional days, but the name of the fifth child varies in the stories where it exists. We do know that she had four specific children that are always included in the story.
On the first day, Nut brought forth a son named Osiris. On the second day, another son was born. This one was named Set. Next came a daughter named Isis followed by another daughter named Nepthys. Ra was so angry with Nut that he ordered Shu, the father of she and Geb, to always stand between the two of them so they could never be together again. Nut and Geb so loved their children, however, that they believed it was well worth the sacrifice.
The Children of Nut and Geb
Osiris and Isis soon fell in love and married which greatly upset Nepthys, as she also loved her older brother Osiris. The goddess of the Nile River was left no choice but to marry her other brother Set. When their father Geb, who had been ruling as the first pharaoh of Egypt, decided it was time to step aside and let his children rule, it was, of course, the oldest son, Osiris, who took the throne. This greatly angered Set, who wanted the position of pharaoh for himself.
Set and Nepthys were the first to have a child, though some tellers of the story claim that Nepthys disguised herself as her sister Isis and slept with Osiris to become pregnant. One look at their son Anubis, though, and one can certainly see the resemblance to Set. Despite who fathered the young god, Nepthys did not want him growing up as the son of Set, so she gave the boy to Osiris and Isis to raise. The boy became the god of the Underworld and ruled over the dead. Anubis would play a vital role in the future of his parents and Egypt.
The Death of Osiris
The people of Egypt loved Osiris and approved of his rule over the kingdom, but his brother Set was scheming to take the throne, which could only be done through the death of his own brother. In an effort catch his brother off guard, Set hosted a major celebration to honor Osiris. His dear brother Set also brought a wonderful gift. It was a golden coffin that all the gods clamored to see. Set offered that the coffin would go to the one god who fit within it. Many of the gods and goddesses tried it on for size but, of course, it fit none of them. Through trickery, because Set was the god of evil and chaos, he got his brother to lie down in the coffin and immediately sealed him inside. Isis and Nepthys were crying out for Osiris to be freed, but Set would not allow it. He was pharaoh now, and Osiris could never come back. Just to make certain, he put the golden coffin into the Nile River and sent it down river.
Isis eventually found her husband's body tangled in the roots of a large tree and was about to ask the gods to revive him when Set learned of his brother's whereabouts. This time he would make certain that Osiris could not be revived. He cut his brother into fourteen pieces, one for each nome (district) within Egypt then he scattered his brother across the land. Isis was again devastated, but she would not give up in her quest. This time, her sister Nepthys assisted her in finding the pieces of their beloved brother.
Legend has it that together they found thirteen of the pieces, but a catfish in the Nile had eaten the fourteenth piece. The goddesses brought the pieces they had to Anubis. Because he too loved Osiris, his adoptive father, he agreed to reassemble Osiris and used gold to create the one missing piece, the phallus. Thoth then assisted Isis in resurrecting her husband long enough for the goddess to take the form of a kite, bird of prey, and mate with her husband one last time. It was at this time, Isis became pregnant with their son, Horus.
Osiris was now not quite dead, but he was also not quite alive. There was no way he could live and rule in the upper world as he had done before. It was decided that he should become God of the Dead, which was a position held by Anubis. Osiris had been such a wonder father to the young god, and really what choice did Anubis have in the matter, that he agreed and took on the lesser roles of god of funerals and mummification.
Isis knew that she must not let Set know that she would soon have the child of her husband Osiris, so she fled into hiding. Once her son, Horus was born, she kept him hidden as well until he grew old enough to avenge his father's death and claim the throne as the rightful heir of Egypt.
Isis prepared her son well for his fight to reclaim the throne, but it was still a difficult task. The series of battles is said to have lasted eighty years, but Horus was fighting not just for revenge but because his mother had told him his entire life that he had to protect the people of Egypt from the evil Set. Set was fighting because he did not want to lose the throne.
The Contendings of Horus and Set
The battle would not have gone on as long as it did, but some of the gods, like Ra who received Set's help every night battling Apophis, did not want to rule against Set, the living brother of Osiris, while others, like Onuris, a god of the hunt and war, did not want to rule against Horus, the living son of Osiris. Thoth, god of wisdom, who was presiding over the dispute agreed to send a letter to Neith, goddess of the hunt and a very respected goddess. Despite, or maybe because of, having a child with Set, Sobek the crocodile god, Neith wrote back telling them to give the throne to Horus. They agreed, but as soon as Set protested, they were right back to arguing again, and so it would continue.
Isis tricked Set into agreeing that a son had the right over the belongings of his father, but still Set refused to give up the throne. Set then suggested that they fight as hippos in the Nile River and both gods jumped in the water. Isis tried to help her son by throwing a harpoon into the river. Unfortunately, she struck her son. He cried out for her to stop, as he was her loving son. She pulled the harpoon out then threw it again, this time striking Set. Now he cried out for her to stop, as he was loving brother. Again she pulled the harpoon back, but Horus was ticked. He blasted out of the water. In a fury, he chopped his mother's head off before he could stop himself. He then grabbed her head and ran off with it. Thoth had to take the goddess's body back to the council and explain what had happened. Ra declared that Horus should be punished.
Set found Horus in the mountains. He threw him down and gouged both of his eyes out then buried them but later told Ra he did not find the boy. Ra then sent his daughter Hathor, goddess of love, to find the Horus. When she did, she was able to heal him by pouring milk from a gazelle into each of his eyes then added part of the sun to his right eye and part of the moon to his left. He then told her what had happened and she brought him back to her father, Ra. Now that Isis's head was back, Thoth put her back together again and Ra ordered both of them to stop the foolishness so the rest of them did not have to deal with it every day.
This time Set tried another tactic. Under the pretense of ending the war, he invited Isis and Horus to his home, but that night he tried to sexually assault Horus to show dominance over him. Horus, however, saved himself by putting his hands between his legs and catching Set's semen. When Horus showed his mother what Set had done, she screamed, cut off her son's hands and threw them into the river. She then caused her son to put his own semen into a pot. The next morning, she learned that the only vegetable her brother would eat was lettuce. Having a plan, she smeared her son's semen all over the lettuce and had it sent to her brother Set.
Set, thinking he had finally gotten one over on his nephew, ordered him once again to the gods. This time Set claimed that he should be ruler for he had dominated Horus. Horus argued that it was a lie and that he had dominated his uncle. The gods knew this would be easy to settle. Thoth put his hand on Horus's shoulder and called out for Set's semen. Of course, it came from the river where his mother had thrown his hands. Next, Thoth repeated the process by placing his hand on Set shoulder. This time, the semen came from inside Set, as he had eaten the lettuce. The gods again sided with Horus, but Set would not hear of it. This time he decided to challenge his nephew to a race in stone boats. Horus smiled and agreed.
That night, Horus built himself a boat made from pine but covered the top of it with stone. The next morning it was waiting in the water with no one any the wiser. Set, on the other hand, chopped off the top of a mountain and set it down into the water to serve as his boat. Set's boat instantly sank while Horus's boat floated, and Set was livid. He transformed once again into a hippo and destroyed his nephew's boat.
This time, Horus went to Neith and asked her to settle the matter once and for all since he keeps beating Set over and over and the other gods would not make a decision. Now Neith suggested that Thoth write a letter and ask Osiris who should be pharaoh since it was his seat they were filling.
As I am sure you can guess, Osiris wrote back and asked why his son should be denied rule over all that he created. When Thoth read his reply to the judges, Ra ordered a letter sent back. In it, he insisted that just because Osiris created food and other things for mankind that did not mean someone else could not have done it if Osiris had never been around.
Osiris was ticked when he got the reply and basically threatened the other gods. He reminded them that as the god of the dead, he had a whole host of subjects who feared no god, and they would be more than willing to come forth and provide justice if the gods did not see fit to do it themselves.
The creater god Atum then odered Isis to bind Set, sure make the woman put him in chains, and bring him to the others. Set now knows this is not going to end well for him, and when Atum asks why they should side with him over Horus, he tells them to give the throne to Horus. Ptah, the carpenter god, now asked what would happen to Set now that he had lost. Ra then made Set the god of storms and took him with him into the sky.
Taken from: The Contendings of Horus and Set - Papyrus Chester Beatty I
So Isis lost her loving husband, but she did everything she could, including losing her head, to make sure that their son Horus would rule the world. Osiris, though he was dead, seemed to relish his new duties as god of the dead and appears to have been able to see his wife and son as long as they came the the Underworld, if we can believe the many copies of the Book of the Dead. As for Set, he lost his throne and has been vilified by many, but he served Ra well before and after killing his brother and battling his nephew. It seems like the only one who lost out in this entire episode was poor Anubis, but he seems happy to go about his daily tasks of mummifying the dead and weighing their hearts.