©Thierry BENDERITTER, 2003
English translation by Jon J Hirst
Nadine GUILHOU: Les deux morts d’Osiris, d’après les textes des Pyramides.
Extracted from the magazine “Egypte”, N°10, August 1998, with the agreeable authorisation of editor-in-chief Thierry-Louis Bergerot
The most complete ancient work in existence of the myth of Osiris which we know is that of Plutarch, in his ‘De Iside et Osiride’. We know the stratagem used by Seth and his associates, and we know how the conspirator, having locked Osiris precisely by guile in a chest made to his measurements, threw it into the sea, an episode which Plutarch is the only one to relate, began the mourning and the quest of Isis. Then (Isis and Osiris, 14-18) who returned to Byblos to look for the chest containing her spouse’s body.
Having been grounded on the beach, he had been enveloped by a bush (tamarisk or erica) become a tree so marvellous that the king, dazzled by its beauty, had made a column for his palace of it. After many adventures, the goddess finally recovered the body, embraced it and lamented over it. Then, wanting to go with her son Horus, she deposited the chest in a place distant from the Delta. It is there that Seth found it, “one night when he hunted with his pack to the moonlight” and cut him into fourteen pieces which he dispersed in the swamps (Isis and Osiris, 18). Isis then undertook a new quest and, recovering the pieces of the body of Osiris one by one, buries them in the different cities of Egypt.
Such is, in substance, the narration of Plutarch. He stresses that he suppressed “the shocking episodes from it, such as the dismemberment of Horus and the beheading Isis” (Isis and Osiris 20), two episodes from the struggle of Horus against Seth, when Horus tried to recover his father’s inheritance. He especially overlooked the essentials of it: the death of Osiris.
Locked alive in a chest in and thrown into the water, he is not said to be “death” anywhere. His death is only mentioned by inference: “this event”, “this misfortune” (Isis and Osiris, 14). When Isis finally opened the chest, in “the first desolate place”, “in the solitude, her face was pressed against that of Osiris, she embraced the body, and she wept”. By Diodore of Sicily, the phrase, more brutal, remains vague: “made disappear”. It is only when Seth recovers the body which he lays a hand on him and cuts him into fourteen pieces.
The number of pieces of the body of Osiris varies, according to the sources, from fourteen to forty-two. The two versions of the Jumilhac Papyrus mention fourteen pieces collected by Isis in twelve days, what corresponds to the length of the festival of ploughing. According to Diodore of Sicily (l, 21,2), Typhon, a co-conspirator, “cut his victim’s body in twenty-six pieces”. he gave each a mummiform appearance before burying it.
Finally, the sacred geography of Edfu mentions as many pieces as there are nomes, being forty-two. The dismembered body of Osiris, of which the flood makes whole, merges thus with the land of Egypt. Here, the fourteen pieces undoubtedly represent those which are associated with the moon, in the descendant phase, until its total disappearance, illustrating the quest of Isis and the re-constitution of the body, opposing this, the ascendant phase, until the resurgence of the full moon, completes, reconstitutes – the udjat-eye.
The narrative of Plutarch thus comprises the following elements:
*The “first death”, inferred, since Osiris is locked alive in the chest then thrown into water, from where the conclusion, commonly supposed, is that he had died by drowning.
*The first collection of Isis, as far as Byblos, in search of the body.
*The “second death” of Osiris, cut in pieces by his brother Seth, pieces once again thrown into the Nile.
*The second quest of Isis in which she collects the pieces of her spouse’s body and buries them separately or together, according to tradition (Isis and Osiris, 20-21).
Along the way, “from a posthumous union of Osiris with Isis, was born a child come before term and weak in the lower members, Harpocrates ” (Isis and Osiris, 19), without knowing the precise moment that the birth took place, nor what the relationship is between this young Harpocrate (“Horus the child”) and the small Horus “raised in nearby Buto” of where Isis had gone, abandoning the chest, that fatal night when Seth discovered the corpse.
The essential interest of the Plutarch narrative is to propose a relationship with the myth, and it is in this that distinguishes itself from the Egyptian sources.
Indeed, if the majority of the elements are present from the Pyramid Texts, they are the object of scattered references, without constituting a consistent narrative. Which is what we learn from the most ancient Egyptian texts on the death of Osiris?
The narrative of the plot doesn’t appear there, nor in that of the other Egyptian sources. However, there is maybe an allusion in § 184, where Osiris is designated as the one who had been “put in a chest (deben), in a box and in a bag”. The “beautiful magnificently worked chest” which Plutarch mentions, incontestably a sarcophagus. The Egyptian version would bring additional precision by mentioning the triple envelopments: exterior sarcophagus, interior sarcophagus, and shroud. That this chest had been thrown into water doesn’t appear either. However, Osiris appears on two occasions in connection with water.
1. Osiris N, take this fresh water, cooled for you by Horus, in this your name of He-who-is-come-from-the-fresh-water.
Taking the humours issuing from you.
Horus made it that the gods are assembled for you, at the place from where you depart.
Horus made it that you are assigned (his) children, at the place from where you derive (§ 24 and 766).
2. Horus assembled for you the gods.
They cannot move away from you from the place from where you depart.
Horus assigned to you the gods.
They cannot move away from you from the place from where you derive (6615).
This second occurrence replaces the reference to the fresh water by a play on words on bj3, “to move away”, but as “a celestial space”, “liquid firmament in which the sun god swims or on which the dead travel” (Wb l, 439, 6-8). It is always about the source of life, the fresh water in which the divinity (Re, Osiris) immerses himself, in prelude to his (re)birth.
Thus, a text such as the one of formula 353 from the Coffin Texts, “you can permit me to have water as Seth had water when he committed a flight against Osiris, on the night of the great storm !” (CT IV, 396a-b), makes allusion to the cataclysm triggered by the death of Osiris, but opposes, especially, the brutal waters of the storm of which Seth is the master, to the impregnating waters – the humours – which spring from the body of Osiris.
This water is not the one which “drowned” Osiris, giving him death, but water in the movement of the flooding, which “drowns” the land of Egypt, and it is in this sense that it is necessary to understand the “drifting” of the body of Osiris, whether he is in the chest or not. This idea is again resumed by the sarcophaguses of the Middle Kingdom, the all in one receptacle containing the house and boat for the body, since its long west and east sides are called walls of “port and starboard” respectively.
No benefit to Plutarch, therefore, the Egyptian documents assign the death of Osiris to drowning.
On the contrary, the Pyramid Texts are very precise and insist on the violence of Seth: Osiris has been beaten, thrown on the ground, bound, killed, cut in pieces. According to the context, one finds two different lexical fields: the first puts the actions of Seth in relation to the place of discovery of Osiris. the second refers to the ritual of sacrifice.
In the first case, the most current expressions are “thrown/placed/fallen” on the (his) flank, depending on whether one wants to emphasise the action of Seth or its result, which means the method of the discovery of the body of Osiris. Most occurrences use a neutral term, the verb rdj, “to place” or “to put”, or even no verb at all:
3. Geb came (…). He has found him (Osiris) placed on his side in Gehest(y) (§ 1033b-c).
4. Osiris had been placed on his side by his brother Seth. (But) the one who is in Nedit will move, (because) his head has been put back in place by Re (§ 1500a-b).
5. […], says Isis. “I have found”, says Nephthys, (when) they saw Osiris on his side on the (river) bank of [Nedit] (§ 2144a-b).
6. Your daughter (…) who had found you on your side, beyond the bank of Nedit (§ 1008). But others mention a violent action:
7. You went in search of your brother Osiris, (after) his brother Seth had pushed him on his side on the way to Gehesty (972a-b).
8. Isis came; Nephthys came. The one of the west, the other of the East, one as a tern, the other as a milan (kite). They found Osiris (as) his brother Seth had flung (ndj) him on the ground in Nedit (§ 1255-1256a-b).
9. This Great One had fallen on his side; he had been thrown down, The One who is in Nedit (§ 819a).
10. This Great One had fallen on his side. (But) The One who is in Nedit can move, (because) his head has been put back in place by Re (§ 5721a-c).
In this last example, the determinative of the sacrificial animal at the end of the verb “to fall”, in the version of Teti, is especially eloquent. However, the choice of expressions is essentially a function of a play of words on the place of the drama.
Tradition places it close to Nedit, close to Gehesty (5-6, 8-10 on the one hand, 3 and 7 on the other). Gehesty forms play on words with the position of Osiris “on the side”, “on the flank”, Nedjit with the verb “to throw down”. Some later traditions give other places, situated most of the time in Lower Egypt or at the border of the Upper and Lower Egypt. These different places, desert, as the determinative of the three hills indicates, have not been identified. Probably it concerns mythical places. The location of Nedit in the Delta is agreed. Indeed, it is also there that Isis would have brought to the world and raised her son, in hiding from Seth.
It is interesting to note that Nedit is regularly the place of the actuation of Osiris (4, 10), the starting point of the “drifting” of the body (1-2). which can make reference, very concretely, to the fact that the corpse began to “to spread”: the process of putrefaction had to be started when the two sisters discovered the body.
A certain number of later documents indicates this.
According to the Coffin Texts, they have the worry of preventing liquefaction of the corpse (TS 73). They make a “dam” around him (TS 74, CTI, 3073.): this is the sarcophagus.
We are back where we started. We can interpret the verb mhj, discussed above, therefore as “to spread/to spread itself”, literally and figuratively, depending on whether it is transitive or intransitive – from where in Greco-Roman times come such expressions as ” The one who spreads from the leg”, with a play on the words w’r.t, “leg” and “extent of liquid” result precisely from the Osirian relic. It is these humours which, channel, fill canals and rivers, bringing fertility.
All this corresponds to the “first death” of Osiris according to Plutarch: brought down by his brother Seth, he is found in Nedit or Gehesty by his two sisters, Isis and Nephthys, in search of the body. The second group of documents mentions the dismemberment of the corpse of Osiris by Seth. He uses terms which are much more precise and much more violent, belonging to the lexical field of sacrifice.
11. He (Horus) strikes the one who stuck you, binds the one who bound you (§ 1007e).
12. Arise, so that you see that which made for you my son! Awaken you, that you hear that which was made for you Horus! He struck (hw) for you the one who had struck you as an ox (jh). He bound the one who had bound you. He killed for you the one who had killed you as a breeding bull (sm3) (§1976 1977a-c).
13. 0, Osiris N who is here! (I hit for you the one who had hit you as an ox (jh). I killed for you the one who had killed you as a breeding bull (sm3). I provided (ng3, lit.: broke) the one who had submitted you to nega bull (red bull of Upper Egypt).
The one who had shot you (with an arrow) is (now) shot.
The one who had stunned you is (now) stunned (§ 1544-1545a-b). (There follows the carving of the animal of sacrifice, answering to the name of Osiris).
These texts mention the vengeance of Horus and the killing of the sacrificial animal likened to Seth (a metaphor already present at the time of the death of Osiris with the determinative of the verb “to fall”, 10). has every time a play on words, difficult to produce in the translation, between the verb and the name of the animal.
The sacrifice clearly appears as an act of reparation: to every gesture previously carried out by Seth corresponds a gesture of Horus. So, not only is the evil destroyed, but it is transformed into a positive act (in the same way, at the time of the slaughtering of the two sacrificial animals of Upper and Lower Egypt in the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth). The killing of the sacrificial animal is part of the funeral rituals made at the time of funeral ceremony, after the re-constitution of the body:
14. He (Horus) set him (Seth) under his daughter, the Great One who is in Qedem, your sister, the great, the one who collected your flesh, the one who closed again your hands, the one who took you in her arms, the one who had found you beyond the shore of Nedit, so that the mourning will be accomplished in the two chapels (§ 1008, following 11, already partially quoted in 6).
Several passages of the Pyramid Texts develop the quest of the pieces of the body of Osiris in order to return to him his integrity:
15. You are restored (tjs), N who is here !
You received your head. Your bones have been collected for you, your members have been collected, the land has been extracted from your flesh (§ 624-625).
Most of the time, the collection of the dispersed members of Osiris is made by Horus:
16. It is I, your son; I am Horus. I came toward you to wash you, to purify you, to revive you, to collect for you the pieces which remain (lit. what remains of you, nb.t=k) to collect for you the parts of your body (dm3.t=k), because I am Horus, his father’s avenger (§ 1683-1685).
Two terms designate here the members of the body of Osiris: the “pieces which remain”, a precise reference to the members thrown in the Nile, and the “parts of the body”, with the determinative of the knife, are cut. This last word is written elsewhere with three pieces of meat (the ancient “plural” determinative, using three different signs (§ 616a, 617a, 654th, 1732a). One could not evoke more clearly the membra disjecta, which the Jumilhac Papyrus (many centuries later) offers more clearly a more extensive metaphorical representation.
The pieces are gathered (jnq), amassed (s3q), united (dmdj), drawn together (shn) before being joined (m’b) and connected (tjs) to each other. Most of the time, it is Horus who gathers the pieces, while Nut reconstitutes the body.
Isis and Nephthys appear only rarely in this role (§ 592,616,631, 1981b-c). Their essential function is to lead the mourning and to carry out the funeral rituals: they wash the body, lament over it; their respective position (at the feet and at the head of the body, § 1089d, 2098b), their gestures (1281b-1282a, 1630a-b) are defined. They finally resuscitate the body when he is reborn by Nut (who gathers the divine members for the same reason as Horus), in its role of sarcophagus (§ 616d-f, § 825, and § 1629 where it is presented, as in § 828, as that which unites the parts of the body), and exhumed: after his gestation within Nut, the earth is removed which covered the corpse.
17. Your mother Nut has given birth to you, your father Geb wiped (lit.: swept) for you your mouth, the Great Ennead protected you, she subjected for you your enemies (§ 626a-d) (…).
Your sisters came, Isis and Nephthys, to return to you your integrity (swdj3) (§ 628a).
Probably one must place here the conception of Horus (§ 632a-b, given in the inscription, resumed in § 1635b-1636a-b). In the form of birds, the two sisters probably resuscitated the body by the beating of their wings (§ 1280a-b), according to the well established tradition of which the Coffin Texts make themselves the echo (TS 777, CT VI, 410a-c). But as they also appear like this when they discover the body of Osiris, in Nedit (8), one can ask at which moment is their action. In fact, the Pyramid Texts present us with two possible scenarios for the death of Osiris.
Firstly, Osiris is brought down by Seth in Nedit. The two sisters discover the body there. They resuscitate him. Then Isis conceives hiss son Horus. Seth, on finding the corpse, cuts it in pieces which he throws into the Nile. Horus leaves to search for them, collects them. Entrusted to Nut they are buried inside the sarcophagus. The dismembered body is reconstituted, recomposed like that of an embryo, before being put back into the world (of the beyond). The Pyramid Texts, in addition, develop the nursing and feeding of the newborn.
Secondly, Osiris is brought down by Seth and cut in pieces. Isis and Nephthys recover them in Nedit. The body is reconstituted, buried, resuscitated. The conception of Horus takes place at that moment.
A variant of the second scenarios: Osiris is put to death two times (brought down, then cut up), the corpse having been discovered a first time by Isis and Nephthys, then reconstituted and buried before being resuscitated.
The second scenario and its variant come up against the tradition making of Horus, the one who collects the pieces of his father’s corpse (we also find him in the same way in the sides of Isis and Nephthys in the Jumilhac Papyrus, at the bottom, V). However, one could consider this quest as a sort of abridgement, a metaphor: Horus would not literally collect the parts of his father’s body but his inheritance.
In any case, it seems preferable to conceive a death in two stages, as passed on to us by Plutarch.
Indeed, in the Old Kingdom, one repeatedly finds traces of such a practice within the framework of funeral rites. In necropolises such as the one of Deshasheh – but the examples do not limit themselves to this one -, we possess several examples of corpses whose bones have been arranged in disorder, which supposes a first burial (or, more probably, to allow the corpse to dry up and to decompose by itself) and a secondary burial permitting a different arrangement of the body.
Such a burial in two stages is even present in the rituals of the month of khoiak, when the mummy of Osiris was buried before being committed to the earth. It would be necessary, of course, to recover all the archaeological files.
However be that as it may, the death of Osiris, as one can restore it according to the Pyramid Texts, is a very real death. Contrary to very widespread opinion, it is not concealed, nor toned down. It is even mentioned with a certain brutality. Besides, the Pyramid Texts make allusion repeatedly to mummification and make it possible to define in a very precise way the ritual of the funeral. All this shows, if it was necessary, that it is about an ancient and well established tradition, where it is possible to discover hidden layers, but revealing the very ancient existence of the myth of Osiris, who is probably not a newcomer to the Egyptian pantheon, as was often written.
Compared to the recension of Plutarch, all the anecdotal elements are missing (the scene of the banquet, episodes of the quest of Isis, primarily in Byblos). Only the essential events have been retained. This choice is quite logical and answers the fundamental value of the compilation which constitute the Pyramid Texts: having as its function to ensure the passage of the demise of life, the death of Osiris and his resurrection, it acts as a model and a myth of reference. Thus the actual death is accentuated, by the reference to the decomposition of the corpse; the destruction of the body, by dismemberment (which refers maybe to very precise practices in use during the prehistoric period and again in the Old Kingdom, as we have seen); then the re-constitution of the body and the birth, as well as the institution of the funeral ritual coming with these different stages. Beyond its setting in words and in pictures, the double death of Osiris is rich with several teachings:
Firstly, to return to the point of departure, to start, it is necessary to give back life. Osiris is Atum, the one who accomplished the cycle, whose other face is Re, one being the nocturnal part, the vital strengths, the other the diurnal part, the luminous strengths, according to the famous formula of the tomb of Nefertari. In other words, the death is generative of life: Horus, the descendant, symbol of the continuity, is born of his dead father.
In the same way, vegetation is born of the decomposition (the humours), both (sperm and humours) being two generating liquids of life. Dismemberment is necessary to the being’s future re-conctruction, who, however, is not going to be born again in the land of the living but in the celestial and nocturnal beyond, which means either individually, as at the time of his first birth, or as a component of the universe, thus built into the eternal cycle of the living one.
It is the very teaching of the Pyramid Texts, where the Pharaoh dies like Osiris. His dismembered body is reconstituted like the one of a newborn, and who will himself become a source of life, having acquired in turn the elements (strength, mobility, light) which are necessary to him, and having drawn to Osiris, in the night of the serdab, the “Cave of Nouou”, the creative power.