The name Osiris was the Greek form of the Egyptian Usire, and the Greeks identified him with their own gods of the under-world, Dionysus and Hades.
Osiris is represented as a man wrapped in a mummy's bindings holding in his crossed arms the ceremonial crook and flail. Upon his head he wears the tall white crown of Upper Egypt. Often his skin is coloured green, which symbolized regeneration and growth.
In the beginning Osiris was a vegetation god governing the death and rebirth of the crops, but later he became associated with the death of man and so as a funerary deity he was one of the most revered and popular of all Egypt's gods.
When Osiris was born wonderful singing was heard in the heavens and a loud voice called out proclaiming, "Now has come the lord of all things!" Tremendous was the rejoicing throughout the land, the hearts of the people were gladdened, and rumour spread along both banks of the Nile that a great and wise king had been born amongst them.
According to the Egyptian myths Osiris was once a king upon the earth, his rule following those of Ra his grandfather and Geb his father. Before the reign of Osiris the tribes of Egypt were nomadic hunters constantly at war with each other as they travelled up and down the Nile valley, but with his sister Isis as his queen, Osiris set about civilizing his people. First he taught them the arts of agriculture and instructed them in the manufacturing of agricultural tools and implements. He showed them how to grow crops of wheat and then how to grind it for baking bread. They then learned how to raise vines to make wine, and in areas unsuited for grape production Osiris taught them how to brew beer from barley.
Osiris also founded temples and had them decorated with fine carvings, statues and paintings. He formulated the rituals of worship and religious practices, encouraging his people to live noble and just lives, constructed towns and provided the citizens with just laws.
When he was satisfied that his kingdom was civilized and that his people led contented and meaningful lives, he went from Egypt, travelling abroad with Thoth, Anubis and Wapwawet to civilize the rest of the world. Behind him he left his queen Isis to rule in his place.
Set, Osiris's brother, was envious of the position and power of Isis and sought to take the throne for himself. Isis, however, was wise and strong and she quickly defeated his rebellion. As Set was the brother of both Isis and Osiris, he escaped punishment and was allowed to retain his freedom.
Osiris brought many lands under his rule, not by violence and the force of arms, but by gentleness and persuasion. His army marched to the sound of joyful songs and the playing of sweet music, not the chants of war and the clash of spears against shields.
Only after bringing the benefits of civilization to the whole of the earth did Osiris's mind turn to thoughts of home and returning to Egypt. Once back in Egypt, he found the land prosperous and peaceful under the wise and loving care of Isis. But after a time jealousy again surged in his brother's heart, and quietly and diligently Set planned his destruction. He formed an alliance with the queen of Ethiopia, and aided by 70 of her people, he waited for his chance.
Using secretly obtained measurements of the dimensions of the king's body, Set had a rich chest fashioned and ornamented with great skill and artistry. Such was its size and shape that it would only accommodate the king's body and no other. This task completed, Set held an elaborate feast in honour of Osiris's reign. Apart from Osiris the only other guests were his own confederates.
At the feast the chest was brought before the assembled company with great show and ceremony. It was greeted with cries of delight and shouts of admiration. Set, as if joking, promised that it should be a gift to whosoever it would fit, and offered Osiris the chance to be the first to try. Obligingly the unsuspecting god climbed into the box. As soon as he lay within its confines the conspirators seized their chance and slamming down the lid they nailed it firmly in place and sealed the cracks with molten lead. The wonderful chest had become a deadly coffin. With Osiris firmly entombed, Set had the chest carried to the mouth of the Nile and cast into the sea.
News of the fate of Osiris came to the ears of Isis and she immediately set out to find his body, for she knew the dead could not rest until they had received a proper burial with the correct rites and ceremonies. Long she searched, asking all that she met for news of her beloved husband, but none were able to help. Eventually her searching carried her to the point where the Nile meets the sea. There she saw children playing, and they told her that the chest had been cast adrift by Set.
Consulting oracles, Isis discovered further details of the whereabouts of her husband's body. The chest, she was told had been washed ashore on the coast of Byblos in Phoenicia, and rested for a while amongst the branches of a tamarisk bush. Encouraged by the vitality of the god which it held, the bush grew rapidly, becoming a mighty tree and forming a solid trunk about the chest. The ruler of Byblos, King Melcarthus, and his queen saw the tree and were highly impressed. They had it cut down and from its trunk commanded that a pillar be made to support the roof of the royal palace. In this position it exuded such a sweat odour that its fame spread far and wide.
Isis left Egypt and travelled to Byblos. Once there she sat at a fountain that was situated outside the king's residence. There she remained, speaking to no one except the queen's own hand maidens. To these she was most helpful. She would braid their hair, tying it with great skill, and perfumed them with the sweet fragrance of her own breath. Returning to their mistress, they told her of their meeting with the strange woman. The queen's curiosity was immediately aroused and she summoned Isis to the palace and was so impressed by her skills that she gave her the position of nurse to one of her young sons.
Dark rumours spread around the palace however of the strange practices of the new nurse. It was told that each night she would wait until all had retired. Once all was quiet, she would enter the great hall and build up the fire into a raging furnace. When the flames were at their highest she would plunge her charge, the prince, in amongst them, after which she would change herself into a swallow and fly around the great pillar singing sorrowfully as if in mourning for a lost loved one.
News of these alarming habits came to the notice of the queen, who, fearing for the safety of her child, set out to discover if the tales were true. Concealing herself in the great hall, she waited for night to fall. Then, just as she had been told, Isis came forth and after building up the fire, cast the child into the flames.
With a scream the queen sprang from her hiding place and pulled the child from the fire. Isis turned to her and chastised her severely, explaining that by her foolish and hasty action she had deprived her son of eternal life.
Isis went on to explain her true identity to the astonished queen and revealed the events that had led to her coming to Byblos. Finally she begged that she might be given the pillar that supported the roof of the palace.
When the king heard of the goddess's presence he did all that he could to make her welcome and was quick to grant her request. The pillar was carefully removed and the chest cut out from its heart. Isis had the chest carried aboard a ship and Sailed back to Egypt, accompanied by Maneros, the king's eldest son, while the remains of the tree that she left behind were anointed with myrrh and worshipped and venerated by the Byblians as a holy relic.
During the voyage Isis found that she could no longer keep from opening the coffin, so, raising the lid, she gazed lovingly upon Osiris's cold face and kissed his still lips, tears falling upon him from her eyes. Wondering what great secret the chest contained, Maneros came up behind her, but when she heard him she turned around in anger and the brightness of her tear reddened eyes burnt his flesh and caused him to fall dead on the deck.
In the meantime, as Isis had been searching for the body of Osiris, Set had taken the vacant throne of Egypt. Under his rule the supporters of Osiris were persecuted and injustice prevailed. When Isis returned to the land of Egypt Set's followers hunted her as a fugitive, driving her to seek refuge in the dark swamps of the Delta, but Ra, her grandfather, saw her plight from his seat in the heavens and sent Anubis to be her guide.
Isis hid the body of Osiris from the eyes of Set. However whilst he was out hunting one night by moonlight he chanced upon her chosen hiding-place. Recognizing the chest, he opened it and had the body of Osiris removed and cut into 14 pieces, which were cast into the Nile in the belief that crocodiles would devour them and thus deny Osiris eternal life. But because of their love for Osiris and their fear of the wrath of Isis the crocodiles did not eat the flesh of the god, and the pieces were carried by the waters of the Nile and cast upon the banks, all that is except the phallus, which was consumed by a fish of the species Oxyrhychid.
When Isis discovered Set's evil deed she was filled with greater sorrow then before. Accompanied by her sister Nephthys she sailed down the Nile searching out the scattered parts of Osiris's body.
According to one version of the story as she found each piece she buried it, and upon the spot was raised a temple to his name, thus explaining the proliferation of his temples.
A second version of the story tells that the gods Anubis and Thoth descended from heaven to assist Isis and Nephthys. Together they took the separate parts of the body and made Osiris whole again, then wrapped him in the bandages of a mummy. Isis took the form of a kite and used her wings to blow air into his nostrils, restoring his soul to life and making it free to depart into the other-world. Still in the form of a bird, she came to rest on the body of her dead husband and using her magic she conceived their son Horus.
For many years Set reigned and Isis remained in hiding with her son. In time Horus grew strong and well practised in the arts of combat, waiting for the day when he would be strong enough to avenge his father's slayer.
Among the swamps of the Delta Horus raised an army comprised of the faithful followers of his father and those who hated Set for his wrongdoing. The angry hawk of the sun glared down from their banners of war. Then, following a sign from his father which was revealed to him in a dream, Horus called his army to his side and marched to battle.
Set assembled his forces and drew them up in lines of battle upon the fields of Edfu. His army was strong, but that of Horus was increased when many of Set's own warriors, still faithful to Osiris and Isis, broke from the ranks and joined Horus. Following a bitter and bloody struggle, Horus won the field. Set was driven forth in disarray, and the victors pursued him up to the eastern borders of Egypt. Finally he sought to make a stand at Zaru. Gathering the remnants of his force, he prepared to meet the army of Horus once again.
The fighting at Zaru was fierce, the killing lasted many days, and the mounds of the dead grew high with broken bodies. Beneath the circling vultures Horus and Set fought with all their might, both suffering many wounds, and when for a brief moment the two stood face to face the sound of their cries of rage shook the earth and caused those around them to quake with fear. The gods engaged each other with the fury of wild beasts, cutting and slashing, heedless to pain. Set was driven back as the superior strength of Horus began to show, and taking advantage of a moment's respite he escaped to the ranks of his supporters. Rut for all his powers, the hawk god had lost an eye to the hand of Set.
Eventually Set was overcome, and the last defeated and bloody remains of his once proud army fled across the border and out of Egypt. Thoth came down from heaven and healed the wounds of both combatants. Then Set was summoned to appear before a council of gods to answer for his crimes. They passed judgement that Horus was the rightful king of Egypt and he became a well-loved ruler, just as his father had been before him.
As time passed Horus too became tired of earthly kingship and handed his throne to a human successor. From then on the rule of the gods upon earth was ended. Thereafter kings took the name 'Horu' throughout their lives and after death they took the name 'Osiris'. Indeed when a king died his heir would add authority to his claim to the throne by assuming the title of Horus and presiding over the burial of the deceased Osiris. This practice was followed when succession was direct from father to son but could also be used to legitimatize the ascendance to the throne of those not of royal descent, for example when Tutankhamun died without male offspring he was followed by his uncle Ay, who although not of royal blood, assumed the title of Horus and conducted the rituals of burial for his nephew, therefore validating his claim to the throne.