Of all the Egyptian religious beliefs that existed from the Prehistoric period down into Roman times, the oldest and the one most held in veneration was that connected with the worship of Osiris, Isis and Horus. These three, though primarily only local gods, at an. early period became prominent deities of all Egypt; and the cult of Isis, more particularly, remained a favourite always, rivalling even that of Osiris in later times.
During the many thousand years of Egyptian history, not only did many changes occur in the ceremonies connected with these cults, but also the legends and origin of the Osirian faith received many additions and interpolations; and thus the old faith lost much of its purity. The simplest form in which it is preserved to us states that Osiris was the son of Seb and Nut--i.e. Earth and Heaven; of whom were born also Isis, Nephthys and Set, or Sutekh, as he is also called, Osiris married his sister Isis, while Set chose Nephthys. It is probably due to this feature of the legend that the Pharaohs often married their sisters, and occasionally also their daughters. Osiris was the first divine ruler of Egypt: whence he came is not told; but when he came to that country, he found it sunk in barbarism and ignorance, with no law but that of strength, and poverty everywhere. He went through the land settling quarrels, organizing government, teaching polite manners and customs, dictating laws and civilizing the people.
Set, his brother, became jealous of the renown of Osiris, and hated him because of the good he had done; and resolved upon his destruction. Assisted by the evil spirits, or demons (the "enemies" or "foes" of the chants), Set constructed a large chest exactly the size and shape of the body of his brother Osiris; and at a feast given by the latter, he offered to present the chest, which was richly adorned, to the one whose body it best fitted. No one was successful until Osiris entered the chest, when Set closed it, and with the help of the evil spirits bore it from the banquet hall and cast it into the Nile. Thereupon Isis fled to the Delta, taking with her Horus, her son, whom she left to be cared for in Buto, according to some legends; others say he was left with Tehuti, or Thoth, god of learning. Isis then took a boat and searched the Nile for the body of her husband, which she ultimately found in the Delta. Before it could be interred, however, it was stolen by Set, who then divided the body into fourteen portions, and scattered them over the whole of Egypt. Again the bereaved Isis commenced a search for the pieces of her husband's body, and found thirteen; the fourteenth piece, the phallus, she was unable to find, it having been eaten by fish.
Wherever a fragment of the body of Osiris was found, a temple was there erected to his memory; and as the head (or according to some authorities, the heart) was found at Abydos, that city was considered as especially sacred, and was the centre of his worship.
Horus, son of Osiris and Isis, avenged his father's death by ultimately slaying Set; while Osiris, miraculously resurrected by Horus in the regions of the dead, ruled over the underworld and its inhabitants. Such, briefly, is the legend of Osiris. But the cult could never have become national in character without changing in many ways. Every city and town of any prominence in Egypt had its own especial local deity, who received special worship, even while other deities were admitted to exist, though considered subordinate to him: and at an early date the priesthood of Osiris began systematically to identify the leading characteristics of these various local gods with those of Osiris. Hence in course of time we find Osiris-Sokar, an identification of the local god Sokar with the great deity of Abydos; Osiris-Apis, which in Greek times became Serapis, where the attributes of Osiris had become identified with those of a Memphite deity; and in later times, Osiris became a solar deity, and is addressed by epithets and titles which seem to show an identification with Ra, the sun god. By this means, Abydos became the great early religious centre of Egypt. But these identifications of various deities were not confined to Osiris. Horus became mutated, and gained new attributes--as Horus-Ra, he became the midday sun; and under the priesthood of Heliopolis, he became Tum, the setting sun, even losing his name. Isis, also, received new qualifications, being often identified with Hathor (whom the Greeks in turn identified with Aphrodite); but the chief places where Hathor was worshipped were at Dendereh and at Der-el-Bahri, in the western portion of Thebes; while the worship of Isis centred around Abydos and Busiris, the latter being frequently mentioned in the liturgies; and in later times also she was worshipped at Philae; and her worship was so popular, that long after Egypt had ceased to be a nation, and her gods had become a by-word, there were no less than three great temples erected to her cult within the walls of Rome itself.
It is this merging of the attributes of one god into those of another, and their unification into Osiris, to which the chants refer when speaking of the "attributes" of the deities. The eating of the fourteenth fragment of the body of Osiris by fish is paralleled by a similar legend in the story of "Anpu and Bata," often called the "Tale of the Two Brothers."
The triad was not an unusual combination in the Egyptian belief; for besides that of Osiris, Isis and Horus, we find Amen, Mut and Khonsu at Thebes; and other lesser triads; so that when Christianity reached Egypt, the trinitarian idea found ready adherents; and this may partly account for the strides which Christianity made in Egypt almost before it had obtained a foothold elsewhere. The resurrection of Osiris and his ruling over the spirits of the deceased is nearly a parallel to the story of the Cretan King Minos, and possesses some points in common with the Christian belief; while the worship of Isis paved the way for the worship of the Virgin Mary many centuries later, though this latter was repudiated by the Egyptian Christians of the first four centuries, probably as being too reminiscent of "paganism." (Budge, "Paradise of the Fathers," I., II.)
The position of Set is curious. While he was considered an evil deity, yet he had many temples and worshippers; in early times, strangely enough, in addition to the "Horus" name, some Pharaohs had a "Set" name; and the name of Set was used by several later Pharaohs, such as Sety I., Sety Merenptah, Set-aa-pehti, Set-Nekht and others.
Nephthys plays a somewhat unimportant rôle in the liturgies, as well as in the Egyptian pantheon, being usually associated with Isis. She seems to have repudiated Set after the murder of Osiris, and to have aided Isis in seeking for the body.
The continuity of the chants is much broken, it appears as if two, or even three, deities are addressed at the same moment. This, however is due to two causes: first, the identification of attributes originally belonging to divers deities in the person of the one god Osiris; and second, to the fact that these chants were accompanied by spectacular performances--a forerunner of the "miracle-plays" of the Elizabethan period. Various temple officials impersonated the gods on certain occasions, and these were implored, invoked or praised as the living representative of the deity. But more frequently the animal sacred to the god was brought out and worshipped--not for himself, but for the deity he represented. The Hawk of Horus at Edfu, the Crocodile of Sebek at Crocodilopolis, the Cow of Hathor, the Bull Apis--all were praised as the living counterpart chosen by the god to represent himself. And just as in Roman Catholic churches, at certain times, a bell was formerly rung to frighten away the Devil, so in the Egyptian time the sistrum-bearer was prominent at sacred festivals; for it was his duty, by shaking the sistrum, not to frighten the evil one, but to call the attention of the deity specially to his worshippers. This accounts for the frequent appeal in the liturgies--"Behold the excellent sistrum-bearer!"
What will most impress one in these liturgies, however, is the deep, sincere religious feeling that permeates them--the grief for the lost one, the hope of again beholding him, the cry from the heart for help, the reliance upon the divine all-ruling destiny that shall bring the trial to a happy ending, and the triumph of a desire realized and a hope fulfilled: these sentiments, as much a part of human nature now as then, bring the far-off dwellers of the land of Kem near at heart and feeling to the twentieth-century reader of our own era. For above all nations of old, the future life entered especially into the Egyptian daily life and thought; their religion was one where the present was considered only the threshold; and it was their belief in the absolute endlessness of matter and the immortality of the spirit that causes the frequent formula after many of their names--"Ankh zetta heh"--living for ever, eternal.
The two papyri in which these chants are found were both discovered in Luxor, Egypt; and that relating particularly to Osiris is written in a hand representing an intermediate stage between hieratic and demotic. The chants of Isis were found inside a statue of Osiris, by M. Passalaqua.
The period when these chants were first written is unknown. Probably in the earliest times, they were committed to memory, and handed down verbally from generation to generation, as were so many traditions of olden time.
We may believe, however, that they had already been reduced to writing by the time of the fourth dynasty, though at that time they probably consisted chiefly of the invocatory portions, the subsidiary matter being added later, and at different periods.
The date of the texts from which the present translations are made approximates 300 B.C., while the texts themselves are written in a purer and more classic style than are most of the writings of that time; so that it is probable that in their present form they certainly are; not later than the twenty-sixth dynasty, and may probably be as early as the eighteenth or nineteenth.
The Osiris chant, together with one of the Isis and Nephthys liturgies, exists in the hieratic form in what is known as the "Rhind papyrus," B.M. 10188, while the other Isis liturgy is in the Berlin papyrus 14225. Extracts have been published by Pleyte, in "Recueil des Travaux," Vol. III., and by Dr. E. A. Wallis Budge in Vol. LII. of "Archaeologia," many years ago. De Horrack published the second Isis liturgy in French, a translation of which into English appeared in "Records of the Past," Vol. II. The three chants, however, have not heretofore been published in one volume.
From the frequent mention of the sistrum-bearer in the chants, we know that this musical instrument was chiefly employed, but the music in which they were written is unknown. The Egyptians rated music highly, and Plato considered their music superior to the Greek, both for melody and energy. But harmony and rhythm were always subordinated to the words, and the subject-matter was paramount. There were two sorts of harmonies known to the old Egyptians, which the Greeks designated as "Dorian" and "Phrygian"--the former grave, slow and tranquil, the latter a dithyrambic form, probably employed in these chants, which was forceful, appealing and energetic.
The Egyptians based their music on seven diatonics, which Demetrius of Phalerus attributes to "the seven vowels"; others say the seven senses, or the seven planets. Dion Cassius corroborates him, while Dionysos of Halicarnassus says, "Melody embraced an interval of five-it never rose more than three and one-half tones toward high, and fell less toward bass." This probably was a result of the use of the three-stringed lyre.
To find a probable origin for the legend of Osiris and Isis, it may seem strange to have to turn to the shores of Mexico and Central America; yet there, among the ruined cities of the ancient Mayan civilization, according to Le Plongeon, are two temples bearing historical inscriptions which in many details correspond with the Egyptian legend. The king, ruling well and wisely, is slain and dismembered by his brother, and the sister-wife, after finding the body, erected over it a pyramid and sphinx, the latter with a human head on a leopard's body, after which she travelled eastward, to the colonies of her race that had settled there centuries before; where she lived until her death. Her son ultimately killed his usurping uncle, and ruled the Mayans in his stead. The points of resemblance between the two legends are too numerous to name here; but as the period when the Mayan events took place is about ten thousand years before Christ, if the legends arose from one common source it would give ample time for history to become merged into myth.
Whatever be the origin of the Osiris belief, however, it is certain that in the beginning he did not typify any of the forces of nature, as some would have us believe: this is a theory of much later date than the belief upon which it is grafted, and belongs to a period of decline; and Osiris is rather to be regarded as one of the great rulers of old time, far-seeing, advanced in his ideas, who fell a martyr to his duty, his conscience and his people. Had the Pharaohs tried rather to emulate the living Osiris, instead of simply being merged into him after death, Egypt might have survived for many centuries the cataclysms which eventually overwhelmed her, and put an end to her existence as a nation.