The oldest written documents are the hieroglyphic texts engraved on the inside walls of the Egyptian pyramids. The earliest of these “Pyramid texts” date from about 2400 BC when the unified and centralised Egypt was already 600 years old. There is no written record of this ancient period.
The Pyramid texts relate to the eternal destiny of the kings or pharaohs who were buried there. The achievement of their destiny -their union with their gods- was not easy, and the writings were meant to help the Pharaohs on their journey among the dead. They include also spells and incantations, hymns and prayers that were thought to be magically effective against natural and supernatural problems. The priests must have read these Texts during the burial ceremonies.
The Pyramid Texts refer to many deities since the Egyptian religion was polytheistic. The main deity seems to have been the Sun-god Re, or Atum, and the Texts were written by the priests of Heliopolis, the centre of sun-worship. Another god of similar prominence was Osiris. He was so well known that he is never described in the Texts. Osiris became the main character of the Egyptian mysteries together with his wife, Isis.
Recent research has led the scholars to believe that the ancient Egyptians of that time believed that Osiris, one of their king, had been killed by his brother, Set. Later on, his body had been saved from decomposition and revived by his wife Isis and her sister Nephthys or, according to other sources, by Atum-Re assisted by other deities. The resurrection of Osiris did not bring him back on earth but he became the ruler of the next world. Set was sentenced to death and Osiris’ son became the new Pharaoh.
This became the base for the mortuary rites of the following kings, as it was believed that what happened to Osiris could be symbolically re-enacted for the eternal revival of each deceased pharaoh during the ceremony of their embalmment. Instead of being the usual embodiment of power and splendour, as most deities are, Osiris is connected with death, resurrection, and rebirth.
In ancient Egypt Isis, Osiris, and the members of their divine family, were among the most influential and worshipped gods and goddesses. Isis is a mother goddess with great magical power and is identified with the royal throne of the pharaoh. In hieroglyphic characters her name (Seat) is the throne, and her role in Egyptian myth guarantee an orderly succession to the throne of Egypt from one pharaoh to the other. Osiris is the brother and husband of Isis.
Osiris possesses generative powers that make the land watered by the Nile to be fertile and productive of crops. In another words, the drama of his death and resurrection is seen as representing the annual death and revival of vegetation in Egypt. Osiris symbolises the Egyptian concept of kingship being the source of vitality and prosperity of the land.
Politically, Osiris is the image of the deceased pharaoh who leaves the upper world and functions as ruler of the underworld. Egyptian artists portrait Osiris as a mummy in linen wrappings, with a crown on his head and emblems of sovereignty such as the crook and flail ion his hands.
In Egyptian mythology, the brother and rival of Osiris, Set, kills him, but Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, defeats Set. Horus is the mythological counterpart of the living pharaoh; he succeeds his dead father and ensures continuity and order in Egyptian life. Isis, in the meantime, together with Thoth, Horus, Anubis and Nephthys employs her magical power to mummify Osiris and therefore to restore him from death to life.
Egyptologists write about such mysteries as the “Mystery play of succession” which uses elaborate rites to dramatise, mythologically, the death of one pharaoh and the succession of another, who still is related and united with the dead king.
Already in ancient Egypt, at Abydos and other places, there were “mysteries” of Isis and Osiris but they were different of those of the Greco-Roman period that are described above.
Another related “mystery” of ancient Egypt was the funerary ritual of mummification and burial. The Egyptians believed that those who experience the appropriate funerary rites would live again by being joined, mystically, to Osiris. Initially those rites were reserved to royalty, but later on nobles, and even ordinary people, could have them and hope for spiritual resurrection.
During the Hellenistic period the worship of Isis and Osiris was implanted in one form or the other in Greece, and later on in the Roman Empire. Often the worship took the form of the Greco-Roman mysteries of these Egyptian deities. Apeleius tells us a lot about the mysteries of Isis and Osiris; he describes the public ceremonies that precede the initiation as well as what went on during the evening of the secret initiation of Lucius in the Holy of Holies in the temple of Isis:
“I approached the confine of death. I trod the threshold of Proserpine; and borne throughout the elements I returned. At midnight I saw the sun shining in all his glory. I approached the gods below and the gods above, and I stood beside them, and I worshipped them.”
This account reminds us of the Egyptian “Book of the Dead” and of the encounter of deceased people with Osiris, Re the Sun god, and the other deities in the next life.
In Apuleius too, initiation is described as an experience of death. The comment about Lucius being “borne through the elements” is similar to another statement in the Mithra Liturgy about the transformation and glorification of the elements in the body of an initiate. Furthermore, within the realm of death, Lucius sees the Sun. Even if the priests manipulated these lights, the interpretation of the experience, as one of seeing the Sun, is compatible with ancient Egyptian descriptions of the realm of death. The Egyptians believed that the sun travelled through the underworld during the night, so that a person who entered the underworld could greet the sun, as well as the other deities of the underworld and worship them there. Apuleius adds that on the morning after the solemn initiation, Lucius appears as the rising sun; it was also thought that he had been reborn. Lucius emerges from the Holy of Holies wearing twelve stoles (as a symbol of having spent 12 hours of the night in the underworld or as a reference to the 12 signs of the zodiac) of embroidered linen and a crown decorated with palm leaves (so that it looks like the sun’s rays). This day was a day of feasting and celebration, like if it was a birthday.
The 4th century Christian author Firmicus Maternus offers two “symbola” that clarify furthermore the mysteries of Isis and Osiris in Roman antiquity:
– On a certain occasion the devotees of Isis and Osiris cry out “heurekamen, synchairomen”, “We have found! We rejoice together!”. The occasion is the celebration in November in Rome called the Inventio Osiridis, the “finding of Osiris”. Here the participants share the grief and the joy of Isis who sought for the body of Osiris and finally found and embalmed him.
– A second “symbolon” derives from the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, or from the mysteries of Attis. After the worshipers have mourned over a statue, a light is carried into the place, and a priest anoints the throats of the mourners and whispers “Be of good cheer, O initiates (mystai), for the god is saved, and we shall have salvation from our woes”.
Given the popularity of the Egyptian goddess Isis in the Roman world, it is not surprising that her worship shaped the veneration of the Virgin Mary in Christianity. Isis and Mary are both blessed mothers who were acclaimed queen of heaven (regina caeli), were linked to the moon, and were often portrayed with their sons (Horus or Jesus) sitting on their laps.
– During he 6th dynasty, the power of the Pharaoh decreased and that of the local chiefs increased in consequence. Even when their power was re-established in the Middle Kingdom period (2160-1580 BC), the nobles kept part of their power and privileges. They were buried in large coffins and embalmed. In addition, extracts of the Pyramid Texts were painted in or near their tombs. Like the Pharaohs, these deceased were identified with Osiris, with whom they share in his resurrection to a new life.
Gradually Osiris’ cult was democratised even more and all those who could afford to pay for the Osirian-type burial ceremony could look to him for a happy life in the after-world. As a result Osiris became the Saviour-god who, through his death and resurrection, assures a new life after death to his devotees. He also became the judge of the dead or the god before whom the dead were to be judged.
In the New Kingdom period (1580-1090 BC), the process of democratisation continued, and even the poor could hope to rise to a new life after death by ritual assimilation to Osiris. Now prayers, hymns, and incantations were written on papyrus and deposited in the tomb instead of being painted on the coffins. The collection of these New Kingdom mortuary texts is known as the “Book of the Dead”. The cult of Osiris dates from the 4th millennium BC and continued, in one way or the other, until the official suppression of Paganism by the Roman Emperor Theodosius (AD 379-395). Strange enough, when the cult of Osiris ended, it was followed by the religion of Christ, the new saviour-god, who had died and rose to life again. Osiris’ wife, Isis, is known for her devotion to her husband and her will to protect their child, Horus, menaced by the murderous Set. Isis is seen as the pattern of womanly virtue and she is often represented as the holy mother nursing her divine son. Horus symbolised the ideal pious son who avenged his father’s death and regained his throne ensuring continuity.