Graphic Rule
Graphic Rule



The vagueness, multiplicity and mutability that characterized the Egyptian pantheon characterized the Egyptian's notions of himself. In addition to the body, or khat, a man possessed a ren, a khaibut, an ab, an aakhu, a ka, and a ba. The ren was his name, the khaibut his shadow, the ab his heart. These words, however, had unusual meanings, for both a man's name and his shadow enjoyed to a certain degree an independent existence of their own, while a man's name not only possessed magic power but was vulnerable in that the owner could be injured by magic operations upon it. If he had a secret name, it must on no condition be discovered or he would be left helpless against the incantations of all who knew it. His shadow could leave his body, as indeed it did every night, and journey elsewhere. The heart was deemed to be the seat of intelligence or wisdom, as well as of conscience, and it was responsible for a man's actions. The aakhu was perhaps a primordial life spirit akin to the spirit of the living grain. Ka has been translated as person, personality, self, individual, genius, image, semblance, ghost, and even by that jack-of-all-meanings, spirit, but perhaps its context is most nearly paralleled by the notion of an immaterial 'double' comparable to the 'twin spirit' of the afterbirth; it came into existence at birth, and looked precisely like its living double, attended him as a presiding genius throughout life, and passed ahead of him at death into his tomb. The ba, on the other hand, came into existence only at or after death; it may perhaps be translated as the spectral, reassembled, resurrected man, formed when his ren, khaibut, ab, aakhu and ka rejoined his khat, or body.

The ka, or double, continued after death to perform all the functions of human life, sharing the same joys and sorrows as the living, delighting in the same amusements, requiring the same nourishment, suffering the same risks, even that of death. It continued to exist rather from an instinctive horror of annihilation than from any joy of life. At night hunger, thirst, loneliness and misery might drive it from the tomb to prowl about fields and villages, greedily devouring whatever food might have been discarded. It did not permit its family to forget it, but entered their houses and their bodies, struck them with disease or madness and, if ravenous, even sucked their blood. The only effectual means of preventing these visitations was for the living to keep the ka well supplied with provisions in the tomb.

If a man were to be fully 'resurrected' and to enjoy the hereafter, it was necessary for the ka and all other parts to be reunited with the physical body; separated from this body they remained lost, helpless, spectral fragments of a man. In conceiving that the afterlife required the preservation of the body for their reattachment, the Egyptians were almost unique and this notion constitutes the primary motivating factor in the development of their civilization.

Buried in the hot, dry sand of Egypt the body failed to decompose; the skin changed rapidly into a tough, blackish parchment which wrinkled and shrank to the bones as the flesh became desiccated; the tough skin and ligaments held the skeleton together and gave to the corpse an almost miraculous integrity. One may imagine that the early Egyptians assumed that the desiccated corpse was not really, not completely dead, but rather living in some state of suspended animation analogous to that which gripped the land, the trees and even some of the fish during low Nile. All that was required was to bring the proper magic to bear upon it at the proper time and place and it would be reanimated, even as the Nile Valley was reanimated annually by the priest's incantation and the river's flood. The first and essential step was to preserve the body until the time of its revitalization.

Though the process of mummification was begun in the Old Kingdom, it did not reach a high degree of elaboration for a thousand years. At first it was only the king who was mummified, because only he was entitled to immortality; later the privilege was extended until it was available to all who could afford it. According to later descriptions of the process in Greek literature, the time required for embalming varied from forty to one hundred and twenty days.

The embalmers belonged to hereditary profession and developed the practice both as a religious ritual and an art. In some localities the body was preserved by treatment with oil of cedar, myrrh, cinnamon and other drugs and spices, in others it was steeped in bitumen or, more rarely, placed in honey which preserved it almost unchanged, or in natron, a natural mixture of salt and soda which simply pickled it. Bitumen penetrated the bones so completely that the arms and legs broke like brittle glass, and burned so freely, giving out great heat, that at one time such mummies were used for fuel by the modern natives of western Thebes. In the more elaborate process of mummification the viscera were mummiffed separately and placed in four so-called canopic jars, each of which was dedicated to a son of Horus. The preservation of the viscera was essential because the welfare of the body in the nether world depended absolutely upon its having every part complete.

A green scarab, symbol of the god Khepra and inscribed with a magic spell conveying resurrection and eternal life, was placed in the body where the heart had been. After the body had been treated with preservatives it was covered with sweet-smelling unguent and bandaged with strips of linen many yards long. These bandages were gaudily colored or inscribed with many spells and incantations, the names of gods and other words of power; each bandage had a special name and magic purpose. When completely bandaged the body was sewn into a saffron-colored sheet held in position by wide strips of brownish linen. A handsomely painted wooden covering, which had a human face and was closely shaped to fit the mummy, covered the bandaged body; the mummy and cover were then placed in an inner coffin or linen-plaster cartonnage case with a molded face, and this in turn was placed in a heavy outer coffin, the lid of which was sealed with dowels and liquid plaster. The inner and outer coffins, as well as the mummy cover, were decorated with scenes of gods and goddesses, and with events from the life of the deceased, and inscribed with as many spells and words of power, prayers, and praises as could be crowded on. The finer mummies were literary and religious, as well as mortuary, masterpieces. Thus were the dead assured of resurrection, a favorable trial before Osiris, and a safe and happy future life.

The Egyptians buried their corpses with considerable care. When a grave dug in the sand proved to be inadequate protection against the depredation of animals, it was excavated in solid rock, in an area set aside for the use of the whole community. The body was placed in the bottom of the rock pit, the top of which was closed by a roof of poles and brushwood overlaid with sand so that it resembled the desert landscape. Later a wood lining was given to the pit, and a wooden coffin stood free in the center. It has been suggested that the first carpentering done by the ancient Egyptians was the making of these coffins for the preservation of the dead.

By the Ist Dynasty (3400 B.C.) bricks had been invented and were used to raise the walls of the pit above the level of the ground and to make a closed roof, so that the burial place became a sealed mausoleum of brickwork, the mastaba, reproducing the house of the living. By the IIIrd Dynasty great blocks of sandstone were quarried from the cliffs of the valley, and the pyramidal tomb, built with brick or stones set back at regular intervals in the manner of steps, had been introduced. The IVth Dynasty (ca. 2900 B.C.) saw the culmination of this type of tomb in the smooth Pyramids at Cairo, which represent, if not the most prolonged, certainly the most intense physical effort ever expended by man in the cutting and transportation of rock. The stonework in the Pyramid of Khufu (Kheops) is done with a skill and accuracy scarcely exceeded in later times. Some of its 2,300,000 limestone blocks average 2½ tons apiece, and not a few weigh 50 tons, the whole weighing 5,570,000 tons. Facing stones were transported great distances from the quarries, ferried across the Nile and elevated to considerable heights. They are trimmed with an average error of only one part in 16,000 of lineal and one in 17,000 of angular measure, and it is the more remarkable that they were apparently quarried and trimmed with only stone tools. Built into the massive pile of masonry are secret passages leading to the burial chamber at its heart, as well as narrow ventilating shafts which pass from the burial chamber to the exterior and which supplied the workmen with air until the sarcophagus was in place and the entrance sealed. The burial chamber is ingeniously designed to resist the tremendous weight of material which presses down upon it, and although an earthquake has shaken the structure, not one of the stones which encase the chamber has moved perceptibly since it was fixed in place.

Herodotus, when he was traveling in Egypt, was told that 100,000 men worked ten years in building the roads over which the stones in the tomb of Khufu were brought from the quarries, and twenty years in erecting the pyramid itself; but it is possible that work was carried on during only a few months of the year when men could be spared from the soil. In Herodotus's time there was an inscription upon the pyramid which related, according to his interpreter, that 1600 talents of silver had been expended just for radishes, onions and garlic for the workmen. The interpreter can never be refuted, for the outer covering of the pyramid was subsequently torn away by the Mohammedans to build the mosques of Cairo; but according to Egyptologists, Herodotus was told a typical dragoman's tale. If Khufu put any inscription upon his tomb, it had to do with the gods and immortality and not with vegetables.

The data quoted by Herodotus cannot be given any historical value, but the cost in labor was certainly tremendous and both Khufu and Khafra, who built the second pyramid at Gizeh, of which the Sphinx was part of the chapel, can be credited with having erected the most colossal works ever put together by forthright handicraft. Both Pharaohs were afterwards accused of merciless cruelties in these works, but some historians have dismissed this as a late fable. Egyptian literature reveals no evidence of slave labor on such a scale. On the contrary it suggests that it was the organized ability and co-operation of thousands upon thousands of people which built the pyramids, a people willing and skilled and proud to participate in so magnificent a task. Apparently the workers were employed only during the flood when work upon the land had to cease, so that the ventures had something of the nature of unemployment relief projects. That the people felt no animosity against these kings is further attested by the fact that the service of Khufu's temple was maintained with few interruptions from the IVth to the XXVIth Dynasty, a period of more than 2000 years.

Though the building of pyramids continued from the beginning of the IVth to the end of the XIVth Dynasty, a period of 1400 years, the Pyramid Age proper ends with the five pyramids at Sakkara, in the ancient cemetery of Memphis, which were erected by Unas, the last king of the Vth, and Teta, Pepi I, Merenra and Pepi II, the first four kings of the VIth Dynasty (2625-2475 B.C.). After the VIth Dynasty the sepulchers were of more modest size, but in later times, and especially in the period of the empire, tombs just as magnificent in many ways as those of the Pyramid Age were carved out of the sandstone cliffs which formed the walls of the river valley at Thebes. Some of these cliff tombs were veritable subterranean palaces cut from the solid rock.


Our knowledge of the beliefs of the Old Kingdom comes largely from the Sakkara pyramids of the Vth and VIth dynasties, which are unique among the tombs of the Pyramid Age in that their chambers and corridors are covered with hieroglyphics deeply incised in the stone and inlaid with green paste. The Sakkara texts are, with the possible exception of the so-called Memphite drama, the oldest literary records extant. At the time when these pyramids were built the worship of Ra was reserved for the king, who was destined in the natural course of events to become a god. It was axiomatic throughout Egyptian history that the Pharaoh was in essence a supernatural being, the physical embodiment of Ra. It is possible that at an intermediate period in the development of the kingship, the king or overlord had been put to death in the prime of life in order to transfer his still virile power to his successor, but by the dynastic period the actual sacrifice of the king had been replaced by a ceremonial sacrifice, the Sed festival, a mock death which is possibly depicted in low relief on the great mace head of the Pharaoh Narmer of the Ist Dynasty. In later times, when the Pharaoh was conceived as Osiris, the periodic Sed festival served to dramatize his death and resurrection, and to confirm or renew his divine power by identifying him with this god.

It had been the tradition, long before the worship of Osiris became widespread, for the Pharaoh to trace his ancestry direct to Ra, and it was to keep the solar blood uncontaminated that the king usually married his sister, or in some instances his daughter or another divine relation. Though incest was forbidden to ordinary men, the union of the king and his sister was considered to be the highest and most divine form of love, and the terms 'brother' and 'sister' were used poetically in the sense of lover and mistress. When an invader of mundane antecedents gained the throne it was always discovered by the priests that he was descended from the solar god by a hitherto unsuspected genealogy, or that he had been conceived by Ra, who had descended to earth secretly and begotten him by a mortal mother in order to rejuvenate the race. In fact, Ra consorted with Egyptian women of low and high rank whenever it was necessary to elevate vulgar blood to a royal position, and from the XVIIIth Dynasty on it was dogmatically held that the god Amen was the father of every Pharaoh, and that he took on the outward appearance of the royal consort in order to visit the queen.

Being of supernatural birth and closest to the gods in life, it was natural that the king should join the gods on his demise. Alive, the king was the state, the source of all its power and greatness; translated to the hereafter he was the sun and vital force upon which men were wholly dependent for prosperity; should he die, famine and destruction would come. With the royal wish for immortality the people of Egypt were always in accord, at least in principle. And in the Pyramid Texts all the magic power of words is concentrated on the effort to insure the royal ka of a safe journey to the solar heaven.

The sun god's realm lay in the sky to the east, and to reach it the king had to be ferried across a great lake in a reed bark which was poled by a mysterious and taciturn boatman. Alternatively, he could fly to the solar kingdom as on the wings of a falcon, or ascend a ladder let down from the sun's rays. Whatever the route, the journey was most hazardous and uncertain. The boatman on the lake might refuse to take the passenger, the falcon's wings might fail, the sun's ladder might not appear; or, upon the king's arrival at the far shore, the gates to the beyond might not be open. The Pyramid Texts guarantee that the deceased will encounter none of these difficulties. The boatman is cajoled with flattery or emphatically commanded into obedience; the king's ability to fly is praised again and again until there can be no doubt about the worthiness of his wings; the sun's ladder is safely lowered by a detailed description of the event; the doors are declared open with such powerful spells that no doors could possibly resist. The sun god himself is threatened with destruction if the king is not promptly admitted at the gates of the sky.

The sun god, and almost synonymously, the dead king, is depicted in the Pyramid Texts as the most glorious being imaginable. He is conceived as a falcon flying across the sky, or as a great hunter drifting across the heavens, the 'Field of Rushes,' in a bark made of reeds. It is said of him that he is 'a stallion of a man ... he carries off women from their husbands to the place he willeth whensoever he hath a mind to do so ... he hath had union with Nuiut ... he hath smelled the odor of Isis ... he hath had union with a maiden ... she hath given food to him and hath served him as a wife on this day.' Then without a sense of contradiction he becomes an imperishable star, or fowls in the Field of Rushes, or he takes command of the solar bark itself; he punishes the wicked by throwing them into a deep pit filled with fire where they are instantly destroyed; he consumes the magnificent offerings which are carried by his people to the chapel of his tomb; he is surrounded by sky goddesses and enjoys celestial fruits; he hunts down men and other gods with lassos and devours them, eating especially the heart for the wisdom which it contains, the entrails for their magic power, the lungs and legs and thighs. He eats the Red, he swallows the Green, until he is nourished on 'satisfied organs' and is himself 'satisfied.' He draws sustenance from the Tree of Life which grows in the Isles of the Blest in the midst of the Field of Offerings, in search of which he sets out in the glorious company of the morning star. He serves Ra joyously, and yet he himself plays the part of Ra and it is in the role of this deity that he receives the gifts tendered to the temple and acquires godlike control of the fortunes of men. It is not surprising to find that he was born of Isis and conceived by Ra, that he came forth before the earth came forth, before men were born, before death came forth, and that he was present at the birth of the gods themselves.

This eschatological conglomeration was partly attributable to the naïveté of the Pyramid Age and partly to the circumstance that the Pyramid Texts are a mixture of many faiths, primitive ancient star worship, the abstract cult of Ptah, the solar splendor of Ra and the newly rising cult of Osiris, all competing with one another for dominance in theology. The one common feature is the reliance upon the magic power of the written declaration: whatever is proclaimed often and emphatically enough is thereby brought about. Even death itself is thus abolished: the devotees of the solar faith refused to mention it by name except in application to a foe; they referred to it only by denial, or they called it a 'landing,' a 'mooring' or just 'not living.'


The supreme celestial being, as much as the earthly one, required for his continued existence food and drink, sacrifices, servants, fields, cattle, all the appurtenances of royalty. Consequently as each monarch ascended to the throne he began to amass a fortune and to erect and equip a tomb appropriate to his future magnificence. He laid aside stores of riches with which to purchase the sustenance necessary for his maintenance in perpetuity; this wealth he turned over to trusted nobles and friends, appointing them and their descendants executors of his tomb forever. He built vast coffers to store the grain from his own lands, levied taxes upon his subjects, established a treasury, and sent out tax collectors who scoured the land searching out any man who failed to pay the levy. When this was not enough, he drafted men into an army with which he sought to confiscate riches and slave labor in foreign lands. He created a 'kingdom' and commandeered its wealth and power to the end of assuring himself eternal glory.

In the Old Kingdom the king took with him into the other world his wives or concubines and an adequate company of nobles, couriers and slaves. Zer of the Ist Dynasty was content with the immolation of no less than 334 persons, of whom 70 were from the royal harem, these sacrifices being buried in graves regularly arranged around his own tomb. Zet, Semti and Enezib, also of the Ist Dynasty, took 174, 137 and 64 persons, respectively, with them to the beyond, and on a varying scale the custom lasted into the Middle Kingdom, when Hepzefa of Siut was buried with 300 Ethiopians and Mentuhotep with his six princesses. In addition to the human sacrifices were large numbers of food animals, one king being buried with 1000 oxen to insure him against a depleted larder.

To protect the king against possible mishaps there were included in his tomb amulets of the cow of Hathor, the vulture of Isis, the hawk of Horus, the backbone of Osiris, the genital organs of Isis, the Heart, which was the source of all life and thought, the Papyrus Column, which bestowed strength and vigor, and the Life amulet, an elongate cross surmounted by a circle. Above all these providers of well-being was the scarab, the sacred beetle of Khepra, the god who created the world afresh each morning. At first the Egyptians used the scarab amulet merely to endow themselves with the power, health and strength of the great sky beetle. Then they associated the sun's cycle with life and death; if the sun could rise again, so might a man, provided he possessed a scarab on his mummy. So with the dead they buried scarab amulets of wood, stone, ivory, glazed faïence, amethyst, cornelian, lapis lazuli and other semiprecious stones, on which were engraved the name of the deceased, the names of great kings (themselves magic words of power) or a recitation of great events. So popular did the amulet ultimately become that it was adopted by the living as a personal seal or for adornment, and finally scarabs were manufactured in untold quantities and sold as souvenirs or mementos to tourists, so that after the opening of the New Kingdom they literally served the same purpose as modern postcards, and had an equal value.

As king followed king into the other world in ever more glorious tombs and with ever more glorious equipment, the tomb became the receptacle for the finest Egyptian art. Upon its walls the painter inscribed in colored scenes the exploits of the deceased and extolled his virtues in beautifully executed hieroglyphs. The sculptor plucked from the groves and marshes the palm frond, the papyrus leaf and the lotus flower, and captured birds and animals to reproduce them in the stately colonnades and friezes. The dead king was furnished jewels, rings, armlets, anklets of silver and gold, necklaces of cornelian, jasper, mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli, amethyst, sardonyx, onyx, agate or garnet, as well as furniture elaborately decorated with painted carving, jewels and gold. The tomb supplies of food and drink were placed in jars and vases made of granite, diorite, basalt, porphyry, gilded wood, glass, bronze, gold and alabaster; in form and execution many of these vessels achieved perfection.

The Egyptians suffered from irritation of the eyes caused by the glare of the sun on the river, particularly at flood time, so they supplied the king with kohl and other salves to protect his eyes. It was the custom for guests at a feast to sit with a contrivance on the head to hold a scented unguent which, being slowly melted by the heat of the body, ran down the hair and spread over the arms and shoulders, and cones of such unguents were included in the tombs, along with mirrors, tweezers, skin scrapers, hairpins, pumice stone to soften the skin, scented oils, pastes, pomades, red lip salve, and henna to stare the nails. Some of the tombs of the IInd Dynasty even contained privies for the royal ka.

By the time of the Middle Kingdom it had become the custom to substitute for actual sacrifices painted stone or wooden images of animals and slaves of various kinds, farmers, brewers, butchers, bakers and musicians. It was believed that at the appropriate 'word of power' from the dead all these figures would become vitalized. At first these images were life-sized, but as the hereafter was democratized between the VIth and XIth Dynasties they became smaller and cheaper, until even the poorest man could afford to buy himself a few servants. These statuettes, or ushabti (respondent) figures, were buried in such numbers that it has been said the census of the other world was multiplied tenfold, and the museums of this world overpopulated by them. The practice of the burial of statuettes was ultimately extended to foods, furniture, and the like, and finally there was substituted merely a 'tablet of offerings' on which were engraved the images of the things offered, such as fowl, fruits, haunches of beef, bread, and so on. The gods were enjoined by an incantation upon the 'tablet of offerings' to supply the deceased with all those articles that were engraved thereon, those 'things which chanted declamation makes real.'

Buried in an everlasting tomb with every conceivable accessory, protected by every imaginable amulet, the dead king was still not completely safe; for the very hieroglyphic writing on the walls spelling out the magic texts contained miniature figures of men, animals and reptiles which might themselves come to life and torment him. Consequently it became the practice to deprive these figured beings of their legs or bodies, to chop them in half, or even to replace them with impotent substitutes, these measures of safety in no way impairing the magic power of the incantation.


The Pyramid Age had within itself the germs of its own destruction. Priests and high officials, finding great wealth placed within their hands for the maintenance of the service of the dead, could after a few generations be held to no accounting and inevitably appropriated it for their own ends. Soon many of them were living as kinglets. The country was ridden by excessive taxation and the brutal tax collectors were the most feared and the most hated of public officials. Corruption spread and by 2500 B.C. the centralized government began to collapse and the country became divided into loosely affiliated feudal states which though nominally forming a nation, periodically fell apart into warring factions. In the VIIth Dynasty there were seventy kings in as many days; the VIIIth Dynasty, although it lasted a hundred years, produced no ruler strong enough to hold the land together, and it was divided and redivided among petty barons whose rule was little better than a state of anarchy.

With the collapse of the monarchy, princelets and petty officials, and finally even serfs and slaves down to the humblest fellahs, conceived that they too could aspire to immortality. Under priestly influence the worship of the dead and of the gods acquired new fervor and developed into cults of national proportions; the temple rituals were elevated into national ceremonies, the sacred days into national holidays. The Book of the Dead was written upon inexpensive strips of papyrus and the necessary spells for assuring a man a happy afterlife were purchased by the yard.

With the democratization of the hereafter the solar faith gave way to the Osirian theology, which had long been in competition with it. As the bright visions of the sun god's realm had moved the rulers of the Old Kingdom to the heroic efforts of the Pyramid Age, so in the Middle and New Kingdoms the legends of Osiris and Isis were to shape the lives of ordinary men.

Against the royal glory of the solar hereafter, as described in the earlier of the Sakkara pyramids, Osiris was mentioned only as the ruler of Tuat, the realm of the dead, the truly dead, from which the king had happily escaped to become one with Ra. By implication Tuat was the dark, cold, cheerless emptiness of the abandoned grave to which the lowly people were predestined, a nether world beyond the edge of the desert and inhabited by disembodied bas and other miserable specters. Before the last of the Sakkara pyramids had been built the Tuat had been transferred to the sky and illumined by Solar splendor, to the confusion of Ra and the Solar priests.

It is related in a papyrus of the XXVIth Dynasty that Osiris, Horus the Elder, Set, Isis and Nephthys were the children of Keb, the earth, and Nut, the sky. Osiris and his sister Isis embraced within their mother's womb, and Isis brought forth a son called Horus (the Younger); Set and Nephthys also embraced before birth and Nephthys brought forth a son called Anubis.

A later record of the legend, though perhaps an earlier variant, is given in Plutarch's De lside et Osiride. Here it is told that the goddess Nut coupled with Keb by stealth, and was discovered by Ra, who straightway declared a curse upon her that she should not be delivered of a child in any month of any year. Thoth, who also was in love with Nut and was moreover indebted played at dice with the moon and won from that deity a seventy-second part of every day; having compounded five whole days out of these parts he added them to the Sothic year of three hundred and sixty days, thus bringing the lunar and solar year in harmony. These five extra days were untouched by the sun god's curse, and Nut was therefore permitted to have five children, Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys and Horus the Elder. Again it is said that Osiris and Isis fell in love with each other and copulated in the womb of Nut. This brother and sister marriage was taken in the case of Osiris and Isis to represent the union of the Nile and the fertile land, a marriage which was repeated annually when the river rose and the earth came forth green and fruitful from its embraces. This yearly union of Osiris and Isis was at once an epitome of human desire and satisfaction, and the very source of bread, fruit, fish -- of all the products of the valley of the Nile.

If the river rose on the appointed day, it was due to no mechanical function of a being to whom the consequences of his acts were a matter of indifference -- the god was acting with purpose and deliberation, and out of his affection for man. As though to present a visible and indubitable sign of this affection, he bore on his tides the cardinal emblems which all men understood. The rising flood sweeps before it the stagnant growths of the vast Sudan and is so richly colored when it reaches the delta as to be called Green Nile. After a few days this color gives way to gray or blue, and then at the height of the flood, when the turbulent stream is tearing down the sandstone banks of Upper Egypt, to a dark red, occasionally so intense as to look like freshly shed blood. Green Nile, the color of resurrection; Red Nile, the color of life; could a god give clearer evidences of himself? With no sense of contradiction, Osiris was also the living spirit of the grain and seed that, dying yearly, were revitalized by the annual flood. As the god of grain and crops, he passed into the bodies of all who consumed the fruits of the earth. The spirit of the Nile and the spirit of the grain were one, for did not the river impart to the quiescent seed the very essence of life?

The spirit of the forbidding desert that borders both sides of the Nile was Osiris's brother, Set, who was cruel and treacherous, always waiting to shrivel the harvest with his burning breath or to smother the river and the Black Land under drifting sand. Evil was apparently innate in Set -- in one account it was related that he tore his mother's womb at birth and made his way into the world through her side.

At first Osiris and Set had each kept to his own half of the world. Then Set, ever jealous of his brother, married his sister Nephthys in order that he might be inferior to Osiris in nothing. Nephthys had no children by Set, for the sterile desert brought barrenness to all it touched, and she sought fertilization from another source. It was rumored that she had made Osiris drunk, drawn him to her arms without his knowledge and borne him a son. The child of this furtive union was the jackal, Anubis, who prowled along the edges of the desert, and who stood as sponsor for the dead in the Judgment Hall. This irregular invasion of the domain of Set by Osiris was the beginning of open strife between the brothers, one all goodness and life, laboring to produce abundance; the other, evil and death, striving only to destroy. Set was also jealous because Osiris was beloved by all mankind; for these reasons, and perhaps because he was dissatisfied with Nephthys and wanted Isis, whose reputation as a devoted wife and able manager filled the country, he devised a plan to destroy his brother. Osiris had been in Asia, teaching men the arts and agriculture, and when he returned Set took the occasion to put his brother out of the way. He gave a banquet in Osiris's honor to which he invited seventy-two of his conspirators. Having secretly taken the measurements of Osiris's body, he prepared a richly adorned chest which he brought in at the feast. When all rejoiced at the sight of its beauty, Set promised to give it to the one whom it would exactly fit. All tried it, but it fitted none, until at last Osiris got into it and lay down. Quickly Set and his conspirators closed the cover, nailed it firmly shut, soldered it together with melted lead and threw it into the Nile, which carried it out to sea.

In the oldest record, the Memphite Drama, Osiris is said to have drowned in his 'new water' (the inundation), while the Pyramid Texts simply relate that Set murdered him at Nedyt, which may have been an ancient name for Byblos. The gods friendly to Osiris, fearing that they would suffer harm, hid themselves in the bodies of animals to escape the malignity of the new king. The grief-stricken Isis cut her hair, put on mourning robes and fled to the delta in search of the body of her lord. In the Pyramid Texts it is said that she found it there, and the spirit of Osiris visited her secretly so that she bore a son Horus, whom she hid in a basket of rushes.

In the later legend Isis had to engage in a long search in which she was accompanied by Nephthys, both being in the form of birds, and the lamentations of the two sisters were the most sacred expression of sorrow known to the Egyptians. It was told that the waves had washed the chest ashore off the coast of Byblos and a tamarisk had there grown up so quickly that it had quite enclosed it. The king of that country, having admired the tree, had caused it to be cut down and placed as a pillar beneath his house. Isis entered the service of the king as a nurse and drew the chest out from the pillar; then she took it to Egypt, where she hid it in the Nile while she rejoined her son Horus.

Set, while hunting by moonlight, discovered the chest and opened it, and, recognizing Osiris, cut the corpse into fourteen pieces, which he scattered widely. Once more Isis had to set forth on a woeful pilgrimage to recover the body of her lord. She found all the parts except the phallus, which had been devoured by the great Nile catfish, and buried them where they were found. Ever after men revered each of these spots as the grave of their benefactor: Busiris, where his backbone was buried; Abydos, where his head rested in a small chest; Athribis, which was honored with his heart. Some of the divine parts were miraculously multiplied, for Memphis as well as Abydos claimed to be the repository of his head, and the number of his legs would have sufficed for several ordinary mortals. Isis made a magic model of the lost phallus and ever after the Egyptians celebrated the feast of Pamylia in its honor.

When Horus had grown to be a man, he left his hiding place in the rushes to avenge the death of his father. He encountered Set and they had a terrible fight; one of Horus's eyes was torn out and Set was emasculated, but at last Set was vanquished and he acknowledged Horus as the new monarch of the earth. Thoth, the god of wisdom, replaced the eye of Horus and restored sight to it by spitting upon it.

Then Horus set about reassembling the fragments of his father's body, which Isis had buried. When these were complete, he prepared, under the direction of Anubis, the inventor of the art of embalming, a mummy which was so skillfully made that it would last forever; but rather than being a warm, breathing body, spontaneous in movement and capable of thought and speech, Osiris was an immobile, cold, blackish mass, adequate only to assure the continuity of the ka. This body's inertness condemned it to vegetate in the darkness of the tomb without pleasure and almost without consciousness of its existence. So Thoth, Isis, Horus and Anubis applied themselves to giving it life again. Thoth, the inventor of magic words and writing, showed how to inscribe the protective bandages with the proper figures and formulas; how to decorate the body with amulets of special efficacy for its different parts; how to draw on the boards of the coffin and the walls of the sepulchral chamber scenes depicting Osiris's glorious adventures, both in this world and in the life which they sought for him in the hereafter; and how to open the mouth, the eyes, the ears, and to loosen the arms and legs, to restore breath to the throat and movement to the heart by magic rituals. With Thoth's assistance the severed phallus was joined to Osiris's body and empowered to perform its natural function. As the last step in the resurrection, Horus gave his eye to Osiris to eat, whereupon Osiris was restored to life, and became a god.

No sooner was Osiris resurrected than Set proceeded to prefer charges against him, charging that Horus was not the son of Osiris but a bastard whom Isis had conceived after the death of her husband. To settle the matter for all time the two brothers were called before the Ennead, the tribunal of nine gods at Heliopolis. Thoth, acting as Osiris's advocate, completely cleared both father and son. The gods decided that Osiris was 'justified' and made him king of the nether world. Thereafter the word 'justified' was applied to the dead to mean innocent, triumphant, assured of immortality, and the resurrected dead were called 'justified of Osiris.'

To the masses of the Pyramid Age the glory of the solar realm, the magic power of precious stones and gold and amulets, and the wondrous litanies of the priests were but matters of reputation; while the humanity and death of Osiris, the treachery of Set, the passion of Isis and Nephthys, the filial devotion of Horus, the trial before the tribunal of gods -- all these were comprehensible to the humblest people, who sensed themselves to be closely akin in both substance and destiny to the grain that withered and died and was trod into the fields, only to come to life again. It was Osiris, the living spirit of the grain, who died in the falling seed and was revitalized by Isis; who was killed by Set and preserved to eternal happiness by the filial love of Horus. If the love of Isis, the sacrifice of Horus, the wisdom of Anubis and Thoth could gave life to Osiris, could they not do the same for them?

So the worship of Osiris spread among the people and, coming into conflict with the solar theology, invaded the latter to such an extent that in the last of the five reigns in which the Sakkara pyramids were built it is as Osiris himself the 'resurrected,' that the king climbs up the sun's ladder or is ferried in the sun god's bark. By the end of the Middle Kingdom (1580 B.C.) the hereafter had become thoroughly democratized and the great sun god Ra had been retired to an ancestral role and forced to illumine the Osirian nether world. It was related that as Ra became old, his bones changed to silver, his flesh to gold, his hair to lapis lazuli, and in this time of decrepitude Isis, who was wiser than all the gods except Ra himself, had deposed him by stealing his secret name. Ra had mounted Hathor, the Cow of Heaven, who rose and stretched out across the earth so that her belly formed the sky, supporting herself on her four legs as on so many pillars. Thereafter the sun god busied himself organizing and ruling the new world which he found upon her back, the Field of Rushes, and Osiris was left all-powerful in the nether world.


The regal splendor of the sun god's realm was not imitated in the Land of the Dead over which Osiris ruled. The Tuat, or nether world, was not actually subterranean, but lay far to the west, beyond the 'Mountain of the Sunset.' It was a fellah's paradise where the wheat grew to three cubits' height and there was never any hunger. The happy inhabitants could go fishing or fowling among the reeds or, if they were so inclined, lounge in the shade of the trees that were perpetually green, or retire into their painted pavilions to tell amusing tales and to play at draughts. Their lives were, however, not entirely free of care. The walls of the kingdom had to be defended against the partisans of Set, the canals and dykes had to be maintained, the ground had to be tilled and grain had to be sowed, reaped and garnered. It was to perform such burdens in the solar realm that servants of all kinds had once been sacrificed at the tombs of kings and princes, and now that Tuat was available to the poor they entered it well equipped with ushabti figures, statuettes of farmers, soldiers, bakers and the like in wood, clay, faïence or other inexpensive materials. It was only necessary to arouse these miniature servants by the proper incantation and they would come to life and take up a man's responsibilities.

The kings of the Ist Dynasty had ruled from This, a city near Abydos, and were buried there. About 2000 B.C. the name of one of these kings, Zer, began to be read, or misread, as Khenti, and thence to be identified with Khenti-amenti, an ancient god of Abydos who was now himself identified as Osiris under another name. Thus Zer's tomb by accident became the burial place of the murdered god, and by the XVIIIth Dynasty it was revered as a holy sepulcher, the most sacred spot in Egypt. The greatest of all blessings was to be buried there; if this were impossible, those who could afford it arranged to have their mortal remains conveyed to Abydos for a few days before interment in their native soil, or had false tombs erected for them near the sepulcher of the god.

There was held at intervals at Abydos a festival called the Sed, a passion play which began with Osiris's life as a king, depicted his death, the finding of his body and its entombment, the grief of the burial, the fight between Set and Horus, and finally the raising of the dead king to be a god. In this ceremony the living king was identified as the reborn Osiris. This festival so held the affection of the people that they prayed that after death they might be allowed to participate in its celebration, and its dramatic representation of the life, death and resurrection of the god was duplicated on a smaller scale in other cities throughout the land

In later, and probably in earlier times, there were closely interwoven in the Osirian faith the three chief historical threads of magic: agrarian fruition, human fertility and personal resurrection. Images of Osiris planted with grain were watered by the priests and, at the time of plowing and sowing of the land, were buried in the fields with elaborate funeral rites and mimic grief. The sprouting seed, representing the body of the dismembered god, was a magic device to promote abundant crops. Similar grain images of Osiris were buried with the mummy, the quickening of the seed serving to quicken the resurrection of the dead.

In the temple at Philae there reposed a statue of the god which indicated in the plainest way that even in death his generative power was not extinct, but only suspended, ready to prove the source of life and fertility when the opportunity should offer. Priapic images of the god, each about a cubit in height and with a phallus almost as large as the rest of the figure and worked by strings, were on festival occasions carried through the streets behind a flute player and followed by women singing the god's praises. The force of these national ceremonies, which moved the people to mass hysteria, coupled with the doctrine that every commoner might, like the king, be resurrected and join the gods, did much to spread the Osirian faith and its doctrine of a judgment.

The journey to the Osirian realm was a long and difficult one through unknown desert mountains and beset with every conceivable danger. It had been to guide the dead and to protect them from misadventure on this journey that Thoth had produced what is known as the 'Book of the Dead,' a term ignorantly applied to the mysterious rolls of papyrus invariably found in coffins of the New Kingdom. When in time the inscriptions on the papyri were translated, they were found to be a collection of magic incantations intended to protect the deceased on his journey to the nether world, and to revitalize his mummy; and the correct reading of the hieroglyphic title proved to be 'Coming Forth into the Day.' The Book of the Dead remained in use from 3000 B.C., or perhaps earlier, until long after the beginning of the Christian Era, and though many additions were made from period to period, nothing that aided a man's chances of safety in the other world seems ever to have been rejected.

The opening chapter of the Book of the Dead in all the great papyri begins with a laudatory incantation to Ra, the sun god, and is followed by another to Osiris. There then follow spells to protect the ba on his journey to the nether world, to enable him to avoid the great crocodile, the serpent, the lynx, the beetle, and the terrible snake goddesses, spells to protect him from being decapitated, and to keep him from dying a second time. To aid him in finding his way he was supplied with a map, and since in the nether world he might find himself forced to walk upside down, he was given a spell for 'not walking head downward.' Important were the spells to 'open the mouth of the deceased,' and to enable him to breathe and think and drink and eat, and equally important was the spell which gave him control over his 'heart' so that it would not belie his testimony and bear witness against him in the final judgment. There were spells enabling him to gain access to the solar bark of Ra; to assume at will the form of the divine hawk, Khepra, or the light god, the son of Ra, or the earth serpent, or the crocodile; to enable him to obtain a boat in which to sail the Field of Rushes, or a ladder by which to ascend to the solar kingdom; or to enable him to build a house and to supply it with servants, to plant trees and dig a garden pool. There was included a spell for 'becoming a magician' so that the ba could himself take care of any unforeseen difficulties or dangers; and another spell protected him from having this magic power taken away from him by other magicians who might be his enemies. As if this were not enough, a spell was included which contained words of such power that should the deceased fail to be 'justified' he could cast the sun god himself down into the Nile. A ba armed with an adequate recension of the Book of the Dead was prepared to face the hereafter with perfect confidence.

In the Old Kingdom the incantations of the Book of the Dead were confined to the pyramids in which the kings were buried, but beginning with the VIth and continuing to the XIth Dynasty they were written upon the boards of the coffins of commoners, frequently with great haste and carelessness. Sometimes the same text was copied several times in the same coffin, the coffin makers striving simply to cover the boards with inscrip-tions as rapidly and thoroughly as possible. With the opening of the New Kingdom the texts came to be written on long rolls of papyrus, partly be-cause they were now too numerous to be placed on the coffin boards, and partly because they had to be inexpensive in order to meet the great demand.

If the ba followed the prescriptions of the Book of the Dead to the letter, he reached his goal without fail. On leaving the tomb he turned his back on the valley and, magic staff in hand, climbed over the hills which bounded it on the west and plunged boldly into the desert, then across the land of the sacred sycamores and a terrible country infested with many dangers, until step by step he ascended the mountains which surround the world and came to a great river across which he was carried by a ferryman. On the further shore he was met by the gods and goddesses of the court of Osiris, who acted as a guard of honor to convey him into the Judgment Hall.

At the further end of this hall, which was lit only by a mysterious twilight, sat Osiris swathed in the white bandaging of the mummy case, wearing a necklace of red stones, his green face surmounted by a tall white diadem bearing the 'feathers of truth.' Behind him stood Isis and Nephthys, and around the walls were arranged the forty-two gods who had died and been restored to life like their lord, all clothed in mummy wrappings, waiting silently until they should be addressed. The ba advanced humbly to the foot of the throne carrying in its outstretched hands the image of its heart, the organ of its conscience or intelligence, or its eyes, the organs of its sins and virtues. In the middle of the hall stood a Great Balance, manipulated by Thoth, one pan of which was weighted by a feather representing 'law' or 'truth.' Anubis, the jackal, led the ba up to the balance and placed its heart upon the other pan. In the exquisite Theban papyrus which depicts the weighing of the heart of Ani, Thoth manipulated the balance and mercifully bore upon the side of truth in order that the judgment might be favorably inclined. The dog-headed ape announced the result, which Thoth recorded with a palette of reed. The assembled gods pronounced the verdict: the defendant either was, or was not, justified. He whose heart was light in the balance was instantly destroyed by a monster with the head of a crocodile, the forequarters of a lion and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus. That an adverse verdict might be rendered against the dead was clearly recognized in principle, but as clearly deemed to be inconceivable in fact.

Osiris, the mummy, watches over the proceedings without a word. He is at once spectator, auditor and arbiter of the judgment. Above all he is the king who was betrayed, killed, mourned and buried; who was resurrected by love and filial devotion; who was tried before the gods and, because he was justified, admitted unto godhood. He is silently eloquent of man's rebellion against death, and of his theory that by amulets and incantations he can avoid personal annihilation and achieve a blessed immortality.

Graphic RuleGraphic Rule 75Graphic Rule