OSIRIS IN THE FAYYUM
From Fayyum Studies 2
Edited by Sergio Pernigotti and Marco Zecchi, 2006
One of the most crucial and unavoidable issues in studying a polytheistic religion is the problem of gods’ identities. In this respect, Osiris is a problematic figure, whose identity one could never expect to master. Osiris’ origins remains unclear and a number of factors are important in attempting to unravel his identity, his birth and personal qualities and, above all, the events of his life and death.
The fact that his cult spread throughout Egypt made him an‘universal’ god, who belonged to all Egyptians. The particular inflections that his identity took on through its dissemination in various localities undoubtedly played an important role in the construction and reconstruction of his characterendowing Osiris with multiple attributes and complex connotations.
During the dynastic period, in the Fayyum – a rather circumscribed geographical area – the worship of Osiris was widespread. But did the transposition of Osiris into the Fayyum provide any significant mutation on the representation of his personality? Was there a way of thinking about this god that was typical of this region? The documents from the Fayyum seem to elicit very particular kinds of attention.
The earliest sources referring to Osiris and connecting him with the Fayyum date back to the First Intermediate Period. In 1913-14 the British archaeologist Reginald Engelbach excavated some cemeteries around Harageh, a modern village at the entrance of the Fayyum, whose very name points to a series of necropolis. Besides two cemeteries dating to the Predynastic Period, there were also cemeteries of the First Intermediate Period, the late Middle Kingdom,the New Kingdom and the Coptic Period. One of the biggest tombs (tomb 151) in the cemeteries dating to the First Intermediate Period belonged to the ‘ruler of an estate’ (HqAHwt), ‘sole friend’ (smr waty)and ‘lecture priest’ (hry-Hb) Nes-Ihy, who evidently was an influential personality in the state administration.
Inside his tomb there was a headrest, where Nes-Ihy is referred to as the ‘revered one before his lord (nb=f)’ and ‘before the great god, lord of the sky(ntraAnb pt)’. His coffin, on the East side, had an offering formula to Anubis ‘on his mountain, imy-wt,lord of the [sacred] land’. On the West side, there was an offering formula for ‘Osiris lord of Busiris, for a good burial in his tomb of the necropolis (qrs nfr m is=f n hrt-ntr), the revered one before the great god, lord of the sky […]’.
In this context, therefore, Osiris, in his role as an underworld god, was invoked for a good burial, which was fundamental for the eternal surviving of the body.At Harageh, the name of Osiris, ‘lord of Busiris’ or ‘lord of Busiris,foremost of the westerns, lord of Abydos’, occurs in other wooden coffins of the same period. Engelbach discovered also two small decorated tomb chambers of the First Intermediate Period. One belonged to a man called Heryshef-nakht (tomb 671), another to a woman, perhaps his wife, called Wadjet-hotep (tomb 672).
The East side wall of the tomb chamber 671 is decorated with images of the eternal food supply. Heryshef-nakht is depicted sitting in front an offering table. On the right, there is the typical offering list with four men who have the task of bringing the produce alive. At the top there is an offering formula with an inscription to Osiris ‘lord of Busiris, the great god, lord of Abydos, that is a voice offering of bread, beer,cattle and birds for the revered one Heryshef-nakt’.
Above the four men performing rituals,there are a few lines of an interesting religious text, a variant of Spell 16 of the ‘Coffin Texts’, which was part of a ritual to be recited at burial. According to this text the deceased is like Horus, who was victorious over Seth, murderer of Osiris: ‘Heryshef-nekht sits down to judge in the presence of Geb, it is Horus with the white crown on his head. Isis bore him; Khabet brought him up, the nurse of Horus nursed him. The Osiris Heryshef-nakht […] the power of [Seth?…] over and above his own powers, [his father Osiris] gave him […] ’.
The West side of the chamber has an offering formula to Anubis, placed above a frieze of objects. Under these,there are religious texts which seem related to the ‘opening the mouth’ ritual.The village and the cemeteries at Harageh cover an area now known as Gebel Abu Sir. As Grajetzki has pointed out, the two cemeteries of the First Intermediate Period were probably used by two different settlements, as they are on the opposite side of the Gebel Abu Sir. But which settlements remains a question. On and adjacent to the cemeteries there were settlementremains, but due to wind erosion, these are now destroyed. However, Harageh, or a locality in its vicinity ,can be identified with spt, a site known thanks to a pair of stelae of the Middle Kingdom, one from el-Lahun and the other from Harageh itself.
During the XII dynasty, Harageh became the burial ground of a wealthy community. The tombs date to the late Middle Kingdom, from the reign of Senusret II onwards. In fact, the destiny and fortune of Harageh, in this period, seem strictly connected with those of the pyramid complex and the pyramid town of Senusret II at el-Lahun. It is likely that, despite the distance of four kilometres between the two centres, the people of el-Lahun chose Harageh as their necropolis.The Middle Kingdom documents from Harageh referring to Osiris consist in stelae or other funerary objects discovered in tombs, which often bear offering formulae in honour of the god,who is invoked as ‘lord of Busiris’, ‘great god’, ‘foremost of the West’ and ‘lord of Abydos’.
The same usual epithets bestowed to Osiris at Harageh are also attested in the material of the same period from the pyramid complex of Senusret II at el-Lahun and from Kahun. Inside the funerary chamber of the king’s pyramid, Petrie found an offering table with two offering formulae, one to Anubis ‘on his mountain’, and the other to Osiris ‘lord of Busiris’ (nbddw)(O-1). The god’s name appears also on some stelae, on an offering table (O-2), on two statuettes, on a scarab and on a coffin (C-9) of the Middle Kingdom, where he is referred to as a single deity and in a syncretistic association with Ptah and Soker.
The numerous hieratic papyri from el-Lahun, now in the Petrie Museum of the University College London and in the Papyrus Collection in the State Museum of Berlin, are important sources to gain an insight into the administration, cults and priesthood of the pyramid complex of Senusret II. It is significant that, according to these papyri, in the pyramid complex the most important form of veneration, besides that in honour of the dead king, was the one attributed to Anubis ‘on his mountain’ and, to a lesser extent, to Hathor ‘lady of Atfih’ and Sobek.
Stephen Quirke has suggested that the great importance given to Anubis in these papyri might reflect ‘an emphasis on the dead body, its mummification and subsequent resurrection as Osiris; this could be reflected also in the layout of the subterranean chambers of the pyramid, which Erik Hornung has compared with the Osiris tomb of Sety I behind his temple for the royal cult at Abydos’.
The presence of trees around the pyramid complex might also invoke the cult of Osiris. In short, the tomb of Senusret II could suggest new ideas about the destiny of the deceased king, ideas which focused on the Osirian myth to the detriment of the astral and solar doctrines. As a consequence, the king’s tomb had to imitate the tomb of Osiris. However, the presence of the god’s name, together with that of Anubis,on an offering table inside the king’s funerary chamber does not find a parallel in the papyri, where his name is totally absent; no priests, festivals, chapels and even offerings in his honour are mentioned in this context. Osiris at el-Lahun may have had a more influential role on a strictly theological level, than in the royal cult, where he was not so much a real presence as an evoked entity.
The reign of Senusret III, son of Senusret II, did not leave any particular mark in the Fayyum. For his pyramid complex, this king left the area at the entrance of the Fayyum andchose as his burial ground Dahshur. It was during the reign of his successor, Amenemhat III, that new developments in the Fayyum began to emerge. Although our views on the policy of the kings of the XII dynasty in the region may be vague, the available evidence indicates that the Fayyum acquired great importance above all in the reign of Amenemhat III, which was of paramount importance for the development of new religious foundations in the dynastic his-tory of the region.
The king reclaimed lands and carried out an intense building programme for the royal cult and the worship of local deities: the king’s colossi at Biahmu, the pyramid complex at Hawara, the temple for the goddess Renenutet at Medinet Madi and the temple of Sobek in the capital town Shedet. One might speculate it is possible that, during the reign of Amenemhat III, as a result of his policy and in parallel with such architectural projects, a certain theological activity became more and more influential.
The association between Sobek and Horus was, in fact, already well established during the reign of Amenemhat II. But it is undeniable that the figure of ‘Sobek Shedety-Horus who resides at Shedet’ acquired significance for the royal religious policy only with Amenemhat III. Sobek and his locality, Shedet, became the centre of a network of cults, some of which were a complete novelty for the region.
In all probability, it was from the reign of Amenemhat III that, in the region, a theological reflection was pursued intensively, leading to transformations of the written myths and, more broadly, of theological conceptions. Nevertheless, these transformations took place within a specific conceptual framework, according to which the religious world was dominated at its centre by a crocodile god, who was surrounded by the other deities. It was hardly possible for any god in the Fayyum, Osiris included, to avoid the consequences entailed in his association with Sobek.
Starting from the XII dynasty ,the cult of Osiris in the Fayyum began to be focused on a new form: ‘Osiris the sovereign, who resides in the land of the lake’ (Asir ity Hry-ib tA-S). This Osiran form existed alongside the Osiris whose name was followed by more usual epithets, such as ‘lord of Busiris’, ‘foremost of the westerns’, ‘foremost of the West’ and ‘lord of Abydos’. Osiris ity Hry-ib tA-S is present in the Fayyum until the Graeco-Roman Period thanks to different typologies of documents: statues, stelae, canopic jars, coffins, temple inscriptions and papyri. Unfortunately, the origin of Osiris ity is unknown.
According to Kees, this Osirian form came from Busiris, where it is supposed it was strongly influenced by the local god Andjety. Henri Wild suggested that Osiris ity could come from Sais, where he was the object of an important form of worship. Osiris ity is however connected with many other sites, for example Abydos, Memphis, Athribis, Karnak and Kom Ombo.
The hypothesis of a provenance of this Osirian form from Busiris is reinforced by a document of the Middle Kingdom associating Osiris ity with ddw and by the fact that the name of Osiris ity, also in the Fayyum,was often followed by the determinative of the god Andjety, a male figure with two feathers on his head holding a long stick in one hand and a flail in the other. Nevertheless, the use of this determinative is not attested before the late Third Intermediate Period, when the iconographical connections between Osiris and Andjety were quite familiar within the Egyptian religious thought. But what does the union of Osiris’ epithets ity and Hry-ib t A-S stand for?
Of course, one could assert that it was Osiris ity who, coming from Busiris, was accepted in the Fayyum pantheon. However,in all probability, the emergence of discourses defining Sobek’s identity in relation with Horus facilitated a redefinition of the nature of his father Osiris. We could suggest that, as a consequence of this process, the inhabitants of the Fayyum,with the epithet Hry-ib tA-S, meant to express their awareness that Osiris was not a god originally of the land of the lake and that he was temporarily hosted in the local pantheon, where he was bestowed with the epithet ity. This seems corroborated by the fact that the name of this Osirian form was expressed in a great variety of ways (Asir ity Hry-ib tA-S; Asir Hry-ib t A-S; Asir mtA-S; Asir x nty imntt ntr aA Hry-ib t A-S; Asir ity Hry-ib Sdt and Asir ity m tA-S) and, above all, by the fact that, even outside the boundaries of the region, this Osirian form seems to have been regarded as typical of the Fayyum.
Osiris ity was strictly connected with the Fayyum in lita-nies, in the ‘Book of the Dead’ (P-2, P-4, P-5, P-7), at Abydos (R-1) and in the temples of Hibis (R-2) and Esna (R-3). Moreover, with the exception of the above-mentioned document of the Middle Kingdom connecting Osiris ity with Busiris, in all the localities where he was present, this god was attested solely in the Late Period or in the Graeco-Roman Period. On the contrary, his presence in the Fayyum was already well established in the XII dynasty. We cannot therefore rule out the possibility that Osiris ity was a product of the religion of the Fayyumor, at least, that the region played an important role in the definition of his nature. But does the epithet ity in the Fayyum indicate more significant meanings about the changing understanding of Osiris?
It is likely that this title refers in the first place to a kingship of the god not only over the region, but throughout Egypt. The term ity itself has strong royal overtones. It may perhaps have originated from the root it, ‘father’, a word used to denote the king. Moreover, from the VI dynasty onwards, ity was also adopted as a substitute noun for nsw. In the XII dynasty the term frequently occurs in the monumental texts referring to the sovereign, though it was only in the Late Period that it became a normal title both for kings and gods. In particular, in the Middle Kingdom, ity seems to convey the office of kingship rather than the king himself.
If in the Middle Kingdom the noun ity was strictly connectedwith kingship, we can suppose that it maintained the same semantic value also when applied to such a god as Osiris, who was strictly associated with the royal office. In this respect, it is no coincidence that in the Fayyum, already in the Middle Kingdom, there was a form of Osiris bestowed with the epithet ity.
The hypothesis of an Osiris ity originating from the Fayyum and associated with the idea of the kingship might seem problematic. We have however to remember that this form of Osiris appeared in the same period in which the theology of the Fayyum elaborated new religious ideas associating Sobek with Horus and, as a consequence, with Osiris himself. Moreover, this set of ideas appeared in the same period when the Egyptian kings began to take an interest in the Fayyum and when Senusret II, and above all Amenemhat III, chose this region as their burial ground.
Osiris ity could have been born in the Fayyum in the late Middle Kingdom, possibly during the reign of Amenemhat III, when the link between Sobek and Horus was definitely established. Unlike Senusret II, who preferred Anubis ‘on his mountain’, Amenemhat III attributed a prominent role in his pyramid complex to the local god Sobek, also in association with Horus, a fact that might have contributed to the creation of a cult apparatus and facilities for worship in honour of Osiris.
What is certain is that, sometime in the XII dynasty, Osiris ity must have had some claim to worship in the Fayyum. But where, precisely? The best possibilities would seem to be the main town Shedet and Hawara, both strongly linked to the building activity of Amenemhat III, while el-Lahun, as we have seen, is not so plausible. Even though the provenance of the few documents citing Osiris ity Hry-ib tA-S is unknown, it seems possible that some of them might have been dedicated in Hawara (S-1 and S-2). The most ancient objects whose provenance is known are a couple of statues from Shedet and now in the Cairo Museum (S-7, S-11),which have been dated to the XIII dynasty.
It should be stressed that Osiris ity does not appearin the documents from Harageh and el-Lahun and Kahun, where he is attested not earlier thanthe Late Period. Evidently this Osiris failed to draw the attention of the community of the pyramid complex and the pyramid town of Senusret II. This was probably due to the fact that this king took no part in the creation of this Osirian form.
The identity of Osiris ity might be multivalent. As a deity at the centre of the royal doc-trines, Osiris ity was regarded as a god-king, wielding his sovereignty on the Fayyum and, from there, over the whole of Egypt. The fact that in the Fayyum Osiris is usually bestowed with a couple of epithets, ity and Hry-ib tA-S, which could be used the one without the other,is significant. In this respect, it is worth noting that, starting from the Late Period, the inscriptions of some coffins from Hawara contain offering formulae dedicated to two different Osiris: Asir ity Hry-ib tA-S and Asir x nty imntt H ry-ib tA-S (C-33, C-34, C-37; see also C-16 and C-17). Therefore, in the Fayyum, Osiris’ identity is split into two forms according to roles and events in the god’s life. One is a sovereign who is born to a new life and who secures, through adescendant, the continuity of his royal power, the other is a king, who, after his death, rules in the netherworld.
A stele of the Graeco-Roman Period from the Fayyum, now in the Louvre,is even more enlightening (St-19) (Fig. 5). The arch has the winged sun disk with uraei with two Anubis images located opposite. Underneath, the register has one offering formula on each side. On the left the offering formula is addressed to Osiris ‘foremost of the West, the great god, who resides in the land of the lake’. Below, a scene shows Anubis imy-wt offering a vase(?) to an Osiris named ‘foremost of the West’, represented standing, with his hands projecting from his wrappings to grasp the crook and flail and with the
atef-crown on his head. Behind him there is the goddess Isis in a protective attitude. On the right, the offering formula is for Osiris ‘the sovereign, who resides in the land of the lake’.
In the scene below, the iconography of the god, labelled as Asir ity Hry-ib tA-S, is significantly different. The body of Osiris, in front of the deceased making an offering, is not that of a dead god, but refers to his role as a living king. Osiris is depicted standing, on his head there is a royal wig with a crown composed of two tall feathers and a sun disk set upon horizontal ram’s horns; his body is covered with a short skirt, while one of his hands holds awas-sceptre, the other the ankh-sing. Behind him there is the god Soker and the goddess Nephtys.There are clearly two manners of representing and naming the god that correspond to two distinct roles. It is not a coincidence that Osiris ity is never bestowed with the epithet of x ntyimntt.
The people of the Fayyum made it clear that Osiris ity and Osiris x nty imntt were not to be confused, even though both these god’s forms were supposed to reside in the land of the lake. Nevertheless, in the Fayyum, the identity of Osiris encapsulates a certain amount of contradictions and tensions. Death is part of Osiris’ nature to such an extent that it is almost impossible to speak of the one without the other; Osiris’ death, caused by his brother Seth ,came to obscure any other aspects of his character.
Nevertheless, Osiris in the Fayyum has a distinctive form, which is essential to his local identity. Osiris ity is a deity who, of course, has experienced (or will experience) death, but who remains at the centre of the royal doctrines. He is the sovereign who has triumphed over death, whereas Osiris x nty imntt is the Osiris who is finally able to present himself definitely as sole ruler of the underworld, where all the Egyptians hoped to be admitted. In this respect, the presence of both Osiris ity and Osiris x ntyimntt, ‘residing in the land of the lake’, in funerary monuments becomes even more significant.
The inhabitants of the Fayyum recognised that in their region there was an Osiris ity who could be evoked together with Sobek-Horus of Shedet in the offering formulae of statues (S-1,S-3, S-7, S-8, S-9, S-10, S-11, S-13, S-14, S-15, S-16, S-17, S-18). Nevertheless, in a strictly funerary context, they also invoked Osiris ‘foremost of the West’ and Hry-ib t A-S, who could be the ruler of all the dead.