THE MYTH OF OSIRIS AND ISIS

By Joseph Offord, Jnr.

[Extracted from PSBA, 14, 371-3.]


The newly discovered Apology of Aristides, edited by Professor Rendell Harris, contains in paragraph 12 a remarkable reference to the myth of Isis and Osiris, upon which important evidence has recently been obtained from the researches of Egyptologists. It is possible that the statement of Aristides may have been derived by him directly from the treatise by Plutarch upon Isis and Osiris, but as Aristides uses the plural "they say" (i.e., the Egyptians), and further refers to some practices of Egyptian worship not appertaining to Plutarch's work, it is probable that he obtained his knowledge from some author who had also been perused by Plutarch. That this writer possessed genuine Egyptian authority for his account of the adventures of Isis in Syria we now know.

The extract from the Apology is as follows:

"For of old time they worshipped Isis, and they say forsooth she is a goddess, who had a husband Osiris, her brother; but when Osiris was killed by his brother Typhon, Isis fled with her son Horus to Byblos in Syria, and was there for a certain time until that her son was grown."

Many years ago, Messrs. Pleyte and Rossi published a papyrus at Turin containing a description of the biting of Ra (the sun-god), a form of Osiris, himself the father of Horus, by a serpent, and it has been completely translated by M. Lefebure, under the title of Un chapitre de la Chronique Solaire.* Subsequently the late M. Chabas signalised a fragment in an hieratic papyrus at Leyden containing magic formula, which was related apparently to the Isis and Osiris myth popularised by Plutarch, for one of the incantations was recited by Isis with the object of curing Horus from a serpent's [p.372] venom; and later on M. Chabas again found an allusion to the same story in the Harris Magic Papyrus.

Much more information was however forthcoming from a monumental text known as the Metternich Stela, which has be^n translated by M. Golenischeff, which really is a long incantation against venomous attacks, for it tells us, among other items, that it was immediately after the birth of Horus that he was stung by a scorpion and bitten by a serpent. But although these and other evidences from Egyptian literature show how common this story was there, no evidence was yet forthcoming indicating where Isis and Horus were situated when the event occurred.

However, in 1881, M. Revillout described a demotic papyrus at Leyden which whilst giving details analogous to the Metternich Stela, and thus amplifying the Isis and Horus myth, also agrees distinctly with Plutarch and Aristides in placing the scene of the serpent's attack in Syria. In this text we are introduced to Isis arranging with Horus to return to Egypt, his father Osiris having been legitimate king, and Horus therefore entitled to the kingdom; but when Horus should have set out, he began to weep and cry for Isis, because a serpent had stung him. Isis heard his cries, came and consoled her child, and showed him a cure for the bite; and her recipe has taken its place among the medico-magic formulae to be used for curing the bites of serpents in ancient Egypt.

Since the date when M. Chabas wrote upon the subject of this myth, it has become doubtful whether the Egyptians believed it to have occurred in a mythical period of their history, or whether it only formed part of the adventures of Osiris, the nocturnal sun god, during his passage through the twelve regions corresponding to the twelve hours of the night : M. Maspero having shown that the sun was supposed after disappearing behind the western hills to travel northward up a valley parallel with that of the Nile, and then passing around to the north of Egypt from west to east; moving thus eastward across Phoenicia, to reappear in the morning above the mountains on the eastern side of Egypt. On this journey Byblos was at one time one of the stages. During this nocturnal period Osiris died, was re-born as Horus to reappear as the rising sun in [p.373] the morning. Byblos** would therefore be one of the later stages on the route, hence a suitable site for adventures appertaining to the young Horus, who, personifying the sun, in a few hours more, continuing his great semicircular journey from west to east, would reappear full grown as the glorious orb of an Egyptian dawn.

Anyway this proof that Aristides in writing his Apology for Christianity made it his business to accurately ascertain the true tenets of the pagan cults he condemned, is an interesting fact in the history of Apologetics.


* Mr. Renouf read a paper on this story entitled, The Eclipse in Egyptian Texts, printed in the Proceedings, June, 1885 (Vol. VII, p. 163, &c. ). Mr. Renouf tells me that Prof. Sayce showed him an ostrakon, belonging to All Souls' College, Oxford, upon which Mr. Renouf recognized this same text written in the hieratic character.W.H.R.

** Byblos was well known to the Egyptians from early times. A recipe in the great medical papyrus was said by it to have been invented by a practitioner of Byblos.