O Osiris the king,
who goes forth by night !
by Wim van den Dungen
“I, King Neferkare, am Osiris who goes forth by night.”
Pyramid Texts – Late Vth – VIth Dynasty – § 1761d.
“Lord of All Men, at the head of the Two Lands as a whole !
(He) who comes in peace !
Lord of the Blooming of the Heart !”
Hymn to Osiris – stela – XIIth Dynasty – British Museum
“Hail Osiris, son of Nut ! (…)
Whose awe Atum set in the heart
of men, gods, spirits and the dead. (…)
King of gods, great power of heaven,
ruler of the living, king of those beyond !”
Hymn to Osiris – Stela of Sobek-iry – XIIth Dynasty – Louvre
“Commoners hide, (but) the gods fly away.”
Pyramid Texts – § 459a.
The first Egyptian Pyramid Texts appear in the Vth Dynasty, in the underground chambers of the tomb of King Unas (ca. 2378 – 2348 BCE), namely in its antechamber, passage way and burial-chamber. Together with the texts found in the tombs of his successors, Pharaohs Teti, Pepi I, Merenre & Pepi II (ca. 2270 – 2205 BCE) of the VIth Dynasty, they form the first known religious corpus in world literature.
Pharaoh Unas, Wenis or Unis, was the last Pharaoh of the Vth Dynasty. His pyramid at Saqqara is at the South-western corner of Djoser’s enclosure. The complex, a model for these subsequent rulers, is almost diagionally opposed to the pyramid of Userkaf (ca. 2487 – 2480 BCE), the founder of his Heliopolitan Dynasty. Pharaoh Unas is the first to include hieroglyphic inscriptions in a royal tomb.
The inscriptions carved and filled with blue pigment, contain, in 234 of the 759 known utterances, the first historical account of the (Heliopolitan) religion of the Old Kingdom (ca. 2670 – 2198 BCE). Technically, this royal corpus consists of a series of “utterances” or “spells”, so called because the expression “Dd mdw” (“Dd” = “words” ; “mdw” = “speech”), “to say” or “words to be said”, i.e. “to be recited” is, as a rule, at the head of most.
However, these texts include drama, hymns, litanies, glorifications, magical texts, offering rituals, prayers, charms, divine offerings, the ascension of Pharaoh, the arrival of Pharaoh in heaven, Pharaoh settled in heaven, and miscellaneous texts. It refers to the oldest body of theology in the world, and precedes the extant textualization of the Vedas, reckoned at ca. 1900 BCE (most likely the composition was contemporaneous with the Indus civilization, flourishing between ca. 3000 BCE & 1700 BCE).
These utterances are the codification, in Old Egyptian, of a royal canon predated by centuries of oral transmission. Discovered by Maspero in 1881, these Unas texts had been buried and left undisturbed for ca. 4200 years. An untainted primary religious source ! Shortly after they were written down and also much later, the Unas texts as a whole acquired canonical status, and were copied and reproduced (cf. the Middle Kingdom tomb of Senwosret-Ankh, “highpriest of Ptah”). The Unas corpus is also the best preserved body of utterances and contains a complete set of them. It provides the standard approach to the theology of the Old Kingdom, dominated by Atum-Re of Heliopolis.
By the IVth Dynasty (ca. 2600 – 2487 BCE), when king Khephren (ca. 2540 – 2514 BCE) added the title “son of Re” to his royal titulary, Ancient Egyptian culture had reached its pinnacle. Canonical attainments in science, engineering, mathematics, medicine, magic, ritual and sapiental teachings had been established, and we have to wait until the New Kingdom (ca. 1539 – 1075 BCE) to witness new developments (as Atenism and Amonism). However, in all periods, Egypt would return to the canon begun by king Djoser (ca. 2654 – 2635 BCE) and [Imhotep (“the one that comes in peace)], the vizier, scribe, doctor and architect. In architecture (cf. Giza pyramids), religion (cf. the Pyramid Texts) and wisdom-teaching, to name but a few areas of interest, these rules became sanctosanct.
In the theology of Heliopolis (the “On” of the Bible and today the Coptic suburb of Cairo), Pharaoh Unas ascends to the realm of Atum, the unique supreme deity (cf. Hornung, 1986), materializing as the star of our Solar system, Re in his Solar disk (<Aten). There, in the Sun’s domain, the First Time, the king is ensured of an ongoing increase in spirituality (an efficiency due to the transformation of his Ba into an Akh, a spirit of light) and a union with the only true source of life and youth, projected near the Northern Circumpolar Stars ; he arrives there as an awesome god (cf. Cannibal Hymn). He sails on Re’s Bark of Millions of Years, ascends with a ladder or flies as a bird, sacred smoke or a grasshopper.
The lightland of Re, fountain of rejuvenation and endless power, is a continuing cycle of renewal (in neheh-time), a perpetuum mobile at the core of (stellar) light. Here, the powerful Sa-energy of the universal Heka-field can be harvested. The latter is due to the autogenic activity of the sole creator god Atum.
- “Nun”: the unmanifested sameness of everything is not light ;
- “Atum”: unmanifested light diffused in Nun ;
- “Atum-Kheprer” : the unmanifested, first occurrence of eternally recurrent light ;
- “Re” : the manifest presence of Atum as light on the primordial “hill”.
Grosso modo, this Heliopolitan ideology of the divine king was Solar, stellar & national, complementing the contextual, regional and variable Lunar spirituality of the common Egyptians.
For good reasons, Kemp (1989) and Lesko (1999) doubt whether, in the Predynastic and the historical periods, Heliopolitanism was shared by the vast majority of unlettered Egyptians. The opposite seems to be true.
“Kemp has suggested that Egyptian religion, as we know it from the formal, state-approved written texts, is an intellectually manipulated construction of the historic period, most likely of the middle or late Old Kingdom (…) to promote the divinity of the king of Egypt.”
Lesko, 1999, p.31.
The concept of Horus (the Elder) as the male ruler of the sky, symbolical of the divine king himself, is rather speculative (top-down) than natural (bottom-up). Indeed, this idea is the ideological counterpart of the political unification of Upper (Southern) and Lower (Northern) Egypt. Hassan (1992) points to the assimilation by the male king of the power of the great (cow) goddesses at the beginning of the Pharaonic Period, in particular in the Early Dynastic (Wilkinson, 2001). Lesko (1999) conjectures that up until approximately 3000 BCE, the sky was considered female (cf. Nut). The great goddess never vanished, but was assimilated by state doctrine. Indeed, during the long Pharaonic Period, the great mother continued to play a crucial role (cf. the suckling scenes, the ritual role of milk, the continuity of the succession and the accommodation of dynasty-shifts). Of this, the cults of Neith, Hathor, Isis and Mut as well as political realities amply testify.
Can it be argued that, because, in order to operate properly, every state needs to stay in touch with its people, the Heliopolitans introduced or assimilated (at the beginning of the Vth Dynasty, ca. 2487 BCE ?) a human generation of deities, namely Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys, entangled in a family drama ? They were the great-grand children of Atum-Re, and represent the human side of the “Golden Age” of Egypt, the epoch when the gods reigned on Earth, a time when the eternal equilibrium of the First Time had not yet been broken by Seth. This was the time of Osiris, the Lunar deity of vegetation, reigning over the whole of Egypt, making her living, healthy and prosperous. By doing so, the theologians of Atum-Re (Horakhety) assimilated the popular Lunar cult of Osiris, and made it part of the royal ritual, especially in terms of the physical regeneration & resurrection of the king (during and after life), whereas the latter’s ascension remained Solar and spiritualizing, as the architecture of the tombs of Unas and his successors testify (cf. the Northern shaft directed to the “Imperishable” circumpolar stars).
In this last family of gods and goddesses, the god Seth played the bad boon. He envied his brother and being the strongest of the gods, murdered him to claim the throne of Egypt. From this moment on, creation was divided and chaos starts to leaks in, ending the Golden Age. What follows is the age of mankind, in “nominal” time, when the battle between Horus and Seth rages, pushing the choice between, on the one hand, a peaceful throne or, on the other hand, the dominion of conscious evil. Locking horns with his wicked, powerful and perverted uncle, Horus, the avenger of his father, is finally vindicated by Re, who, at first, had decided in favour of Seth. At the end of the day, Horus is enthroned as the justified king of Egypt. He then descends into the Duat, the netherworld, and brings his Left Eye of Wellness to Osiris, who, fully restored by it, is able to rise to his heaven in the Duat. There, he is enthroned as the king of the dead, establishing a jurisdiction of his own, separate from all other deities.
And what about the commoners ? As the king looked at his father, the royals and those part of the administration of the state looked at the king. But, they and the majority of the illiterate folk (clinging to the Lunar faith ?), had no other way than “to hide”. As nobody except the divine king had a “Ba” (the dynamical principle enabling spiritualization), everybody was dependent on his ascension, efficiency and goodwill (in heaven). To be buried near the king was a privilege and even after the Osirification of the royal hereafter, as given in the Unas texts, only Pharaoh was “Osiris the king”. Just as in the Old Kingdom, Egyptian civilization happened in and around the capital Memphis, in the Pyramid Texts, all spirtualization circumambulated the divine king.
By the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1938 – 1759 BCE), this bleek prospect got turned over. As recent history had made clear the more futile aspects of a strict royal theocracy to the people (cf. the collapse of the state during the First Intermediate Period, ca. 2198 – 1938 BCE), the provincials had lost faith in the effectiveness of the king’s exclusive spiritual emancipation and ability to assure a “good Nile” (a prosperous annual flooding). A “demotization” of the hereafter occurred, allowing every Egyptian, able to make the proper preparations, to be “an Osiris NN” after death (“NN” stands for “nomen natus“, the name of the deceased). In this way, the “Beautiful West” was in principle made accessible to all, and even the commoners could hope to live forever in the kingdom of Osiris, the ruler of the Duat, the netherworld of the dead. If justified by the tribunal of Osiris, they could now directly intervene for their families.
In many ways, this seems an advance. If before, the commoner was totally dependent on the spiritual evolution of the divine king (without him no salvation), and so usually spiritually lost, now he or she could make (even simple) preparations for themselves way beyond the power of being near to the king. Indeed, their individual conscience (“heart” or “Ib”) played a pivotal role, deciding whether their “Ba” would enter the kingdom of the good king or be eaten by the monstrous hybrid Ammit, “the Eater”, swallowing the “Ba” if one’s heart was found to be “too heavy” … The price to pay for this spiritual liberation was the possibility of damnation. The damned were punished, brutally tortured and devoured in the “secret slaughter house”.
Of course, without the sacred mechanism of mummification and enterment (allowing the “Ka” to be fed and so the “Ba” to be gratified and dynamic), no transformation was possible. If a deceased would try to enter the netherworld without any credentials, he or she would be enslaved by the hell hounds of Osiris lurking at the borders of the kingdom of the dead, and be submitted to continuous humiliation (walking on the head, eating excrement) and torture (repetitive infliction of pain and mutilation by thousands of knives). All human or divine miscreants capable of harming the resurrection of Osiris, had to be kept at a distance, and especially the followers of Seth, who never gave up trying to make incursions, or other malevolent intruders were kept at bay.
In the eyes of the justified, Osiris was a good king … According to the standards of common Egyptians, who believed that without a righteous king, both the earthly kingdom and the sky were lost, he truly was good, righteous and true. Creation as a bubble of order surrounded by infinite chaos would not be submerged in the original, limitless ocean. His murder ended his earthly rule, but made him the sole and exclusive king of the middle region, the Duat between Earth (Geb) and sky (Nut), the parents of the human generation of deities.
Because they had lost trust in the ineffable power of the divine Horus-king, keeping the fabric of creation operational (effective), the perfect ruler was introjected, ruling the dark and silent beyond, the Western kingdom of the dead, mirroring the land of the Pharaohs. From the Middle Kingdom onwards, the theology of Osiris was refined and brought into closer harmony with Heliopolitan thought and the emerging cult of Amun-Re (mirroring that of Atum-Re).
The concept of the Duat is interesting. This dark place of silence is part of creation but unseen, underneath the surface of the Earth. Most basic processes of life take place in it, in particular Re’s regeneration (during the 6th Hour of the Amduat), but also the rebirth of every deceased, Pharaoh included.
Did the commoners (and even the gods) spoke so well of Osiris because they truly loved him or out of fear of his judgment and hellish powers ?
“Liberation for the ba meant escaping the uncertainties of the kingdom of the dead, which was in the final analysis only an extension of the world of the living, with all its frightening features, obligations and vexations. Hence the prayer of supplication Osiris’ subjects offered up in an attempt to protect themselves against everything that might restrict the movement of their ba-souls.” Meeks & Favard-Meeks, 1996, p.148.
For many reasons, Osirian faith was appealing to the masses. Firstly, these deities acted out the standard human drama, portrayed as a family tragedy : the good king of Egypt was murdered and primarily reassembled and raised from the dead by his sister and wife Isis, engendering Horus, who, raised in danger by his mother, avenges his murder and restores his father to full power in the netherworld by means of his (Lunar) eye of wellness. The sequence explained the becoming of “human time” (instead of the “eternal repetition” of the cycles of the deities in the “zep tepi”, the First Time, “in the beginning”). In between these broad rubrics, many secundary themes were worked out and ritualized as long mystery plays, whereas important “stations” were enacted in processional rituals for the divine king and his higher priesthood (cf. the Osireon) and pilgrimages organized (for example to Abydos, burial-place of the head of Orisis).
Secondly, these deities were easier to approach, for their mythological form resonated with the universal archetypes (genetic constituents) processing the spiritual evolution of humanity : mother, father & child. Introjected, these ideal standards were beyond the reach of calamity and eternalized the hope of a good afterlife in terms of Osiris’s perfect kingdom of the dead.
Thirdly, Osiris was the hope of everyman. His resurrection from the dead proved beyond doubt that there was life after death just as there was a new flood every year, a new heliacal rising of Soped, Sirius (the Greek Sothis), the brightest stationary star of Isis at the heel of the constellation Orion, symbolic of Osiris and bringer of the New Year and the new grain …
In the Old Kingdom, only the divine king was certain to survive physical death. He rose to the sky and sat together with his father Re in the latter’s golden bark, merging with Re as a god. Nobody except the “great house” had a spiritual principle of motility (a “Ba” or soul) effectuating the transformation from soul to spirit (“Akh”). By means of the Eastern horizon (“akhet”), his “Ba” reached the upper sky alone and its gods trembled when they see him coming, for he enters as “power of powers” and “image of images” (cf. Cannibal Hymn).
“May Osiris not come with this his evil coming. Do not open your arms to him.”
Pyramid Texts – § 1267.
For the kings, the coming of Osiris is not always appreciated. The kings were warned against him. Their ultimate spiritual goal aimed beyond the darkness of the land of Osiris, in the lightfields of Re, filled with eternal light and glory, devoid of any form of trial, justification or obligation (Atenism shows many aspects of this exclusivity of the lightland).
In the Middle Kingdom (cf. the Coffin Texts), the dead were :
” (…) poor lost creatures making their way through hostile parts, unable to count on anything but their own knowledge or the help of protectors solicitous of their success.”
Meeks Favard-Meeks, 1996, p.145.
Hence, at best, commoners could cherish the hope to be resurrected as was Osiris. The latter had procured for himself a separate legislation or “office”, namely that of king of the beautiful West. In a strict sense, this is not the “land of the dead”, but a possible place of glory for the dead. Those souls who cannot enter, eventually, by lack of sustenance, slowly perish. Osiris’ realm is the kingdom of the justified deceased : a holy family saved from chaos by a good king. In his dark kingdom, his noble servants would live out the best of their lives on Earth for all of eternity, and its heaven was filled with the best of the best, resembling the excellence of life on Earth.
Yet, Osiris was a king and monarchs need to be served. Freedom was still dependent on status and power, and was not a given, for knowledge of the Duat was indispensable. Serving Osiris was deemed the highest spiritual state attainable for all justified humans, the “Osiris NN”. Although the rich and powerful could afford the magical mechanics to feed the “Ka” gratifying the “Ba” (igniting the process of spiritualization), they were not sure to enter the Solar Bark of Millions of Years. Indeed, even for them, ultimate spiritualization was futile and a noble role in the holy family of Osiris was the second-best solution. Even the dead king had to pass through the Duat, but, unlike everybody else, could always escape Osiris or completely identify with him (in ecstatic, this-life rituals and trance-like activities – cf. the Sed Festival, the Osireon, the Dramatic Ramesside Papyrus – Naydler, 2005).
Although by the New Kingdom, the dead declared to be gods presenting themselves before Osiris, the power (“sekhem”) of their divinity was always smaller than the dominion of Osiris, whom even the gods (and even Re) feared. He had procured for himself a kingdom in the hidden place and could never leave it. Likewise, the deities of the Duat and the blessed dead were bound to its darkness. If, in the Middle Kingdom, funerary theology had been trying to learn about the Duat or hidden chamber, by the New Kingdom they knew. But only literate people could rest assured never to mishandle the Osirian mechanics and cause their souls to be annihilated or perpetually chained. Indeed, this very operational knowledge, “proven a million times” was restricted to the very few. It was highly esoteric and “initiate” material.
This leaves us with the complementarity of a two-tiered heaven :
- VIA THE MOON : the (lower) sky of Osiris: the ultimate state of human blessedness is to live the life of an “Osiris NN”, with a court, humbling servants and a kingdom situated in the vast darkness of the Duat (like creation is a bubble of moisty air suspended in chaos). Even the smallest offer made with a sincere heart during earthly life might be enough to be helped by Isis or Osiris, and so the commoners made sure the holy family would notice them. This economy is inclusive of everyman, but conditional, except for Pharaoh – the Eye of Horus ;
- ENDING IN THE SUN : the (upper) sky of Re: the sky of Osiris and the sky of Re are proximate, and after the highest spirituality of servitude has been fulfilled, the “Ba” of the deceased is transformed, in the horizon, into an “Akh” of Re, sailing, among the other pure beings of light, on the Bark of Re, illuminating the beings of day and night, including the deities and the justified blessed dead of Osiris (who otherwise sleep). The sacred knowledge regarding this spiritual evolution was for the very few and, when first written down (cf. the Pyramid Texts and the Amduat), portrayed in the tomb of kings only. This economy is exclusive of everyman, reserved to the deities (as the king and his high priests) and unconditional – the Eye of Re.
Everywhere people could pray to Osiris, for indeed Seth, in his rampage, had scattered parts of Osiris’ dismembered body all over Egypt : his left leg in the first Upper Egyptian nome, his right in the sixth, his jaw in the third, his ear in the tenth Lower Egyptian nome, his head in Abydos (and Memphis !), his backbone in Busiris, etc. Such omnipresence may explain his popularity, but also signal his particular, unique function in the Egyptian pantheon, to wit : the sacred body of nobility within creation (or “sah”), the divine matter of the dark, eclipsed Sun at night (cf. the New Kingdom Amduat).
In Spell 142 of the New Kingdom Book of the Dead, Osiris is given 6 times 26 “names of the god Osiris in every place wherein he chooses to be”. These are enumerated in a great litany, showing the extent of his popularity, for he was deemed omnipresent. Osiris was not only a “netjer” or “god”, but had also been a “nesu” or an earthly “king”, albeit in the “Golden Age”, when the gods ruled, and their self-possessed power (“sekhem”) was omnipotent and devoid of evil and chaos (“isefet” and “Nun”). This was before the time of humanity, initiated by the murder of this god.
For the common Egyptian, Osiris was a good king, a just ruler who generated life, prosperity and health for all those in his retinue, in this life and in the next. Of course, they had to be his servants and dedicate their eternal existence to him and him alone (except for the brief moments the Bark of Re passed during the night).
Book of the Dead, papyrus of Nu, CXLII, VI.13-23.