Scholia Reviews ns (2008) 16.

Bojana Mosjov, Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. Pp. vi + 150, incl. 10 plates, 7 figures, and 2 maps. ISBN 1-4051-1073-2. UK£55.00.

Sakkie Cornelius
Ancient Studies, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa

The cult of the Egyptian god Osiris was -- next to that of his sister Isis, who was his loving wife and mother of his child, Horus -- surely the most popular in the ancient world, including the Greco-Roman world. Plutarch later retold the myth in which Osiris is one of the main characters.[[1]] However, the origins and development of Osiris are much more complex. In this book the Macedonian- born author retells this story covering 3000 years, but also looks at the influence and legacy of the Egyptian god of the dead, the first ‘mummy’ in the long history of the Egyptian cult of the dead.

The book has a list of Egyptian gods and goddesses (pp. xiv-xviii), a glossary of terms with definitions (pp. 134- 37), a chronology following the ‘Oxford History of Egypt’ (pp. 138-41;,[[2]] a bibliography (pp. 142-44), and an index consisting mostly of names, but not concepts such as ‘monotheism’ or ‘resurrection’ (pp. 145-50). There are two very detailed maps, some illustrations: line- drawings in the text, but also two black-and-white plates -– the rest are in colour. (The description in the very first lines of the book (p. xi) of the well-known scene of Osiris sitting at the judgement of the dead really begs for an illustration!)[[3]] The key Egyptian term for cosmic order and justice is printed throughout the book (as in the list on p. xvi; cf. the index on p. 147) as Ma’at instead of the correct Ma‘at! (written with an ain and not an aleph). The same is true for per a-a (p. xiii), Baal and Canaan (pp. 55, 134).

Seth was the opponent of Osiris, but the Egyptian word (setekh) is surely not related to the complex Hebrew term satan (p. xvii), which has very little to do with the later Christian concept of divine Evil.[[4]]

The introduction deals with some central concepts and definitions. It is argued (p. xi) that ‘because of the peculiar nature of their religion . . . [the Egyptians] never took the trouble to write down or explain this myth’ -- what exactly was this ‘peculiar nature’? This introduction is followed by the prologue, which summarizes the Osiris myth, and eleven numbered chapters. Chapter 1, ‘The Myth Makers’ (pp. 1-9), looks at the origins of Egypt before the unification. Some unsubstantiated remarks (with no references) are made (p. 9) on a presumed Sumerian influence[[5]] along with the claim that the so-called ‘Great Goddess’ declined and male warrior gods arose, undermining the role of women, referring (I presume) to the outdated views of Gimbutas.[[6]] ‘Enter the Divine King’ (Chapter 2, pp. 10-14) looks at royal ideology and mythology. The Osiris myth was indeed a ‘myth of kingship’,[[7]] the myth used by the pharaohs to legitimise their divine status (p. 10). The ‘Conflict of Horus and Seth’ is known from the Chester Beatty papyrus,[[8]] but we do not know whether it was a ‘popular play’ (p. 12). Chapter 3 (pp. 15-21) devotes attention to the cemetery of ‘Abydos’ (Umm el Kab), where Osiris was buried. This was the time when a belief in the afterlife applied not only to the divine king, but also to ordinary Egyptians. ‘Pyramid Builders’ (Chapter 4, pp. 22-37) looks at the Old Kingdom (ca. 2686-2181 BCE). The deceased king became an Osiris. Whether Osiris is to be linked (p. 34) with the Mesopotamian deity Assar (Ashur) is not so clear. Chapter 5 ‘The Mysteries’ (pp. 38-53), describes the First Intermediate, Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate periods (ca. 2160-1550 BCE), and emphasises how the worship of Osiris emerged as the principal cult of the Middle Kingdom period through the buildings of the pharaohs Mentuhotep and Amenemhet III. The term ‘Indo- Aryans’, used here (p. 44), is totally outdated. The New Kingdom is discussed in the next two chapters: ‘Rise of the Empire’ and ‘Golden Pharaohs’ (Chapters 5-6, pp. 38- 68). After the expulsion of the Hyksos, Egypt was unified and the power of Osiris enlisted by Ahmose (p. 57). The Hittites were not ‘Indo-Germanic’, as stated here (p. 57), but rather Indo-European. Classicists could take note of the stratagem of soldiers hidden in baskets to take the city of Joppa (a story which precedes the Trojan horse) and pharaoh Amenhotep II can be seen as a ‘forerunner’ of Achilles (p. 64). Chapter 7 (pp. 69-82) has a description from the time of Amenhotep IV or Akhenaten who, as the world’s first monotheist, had little time for Osiris, although the real issue was with Amen-Ra. The Egyptian ‘Books of the Afterlife’[[9]] are described in Chapter 8 (pp. 83-93). In the scenes in the tomb of Sety I Osiris merges with Ra. Here (pp. 89f.), as in a few other places, the term ‘trinity’ is used. It is more appropriately referred to as a ‘triad’ formed by Osiris, Isis and Horus, or Ptah, Ra and Amen, and Atum-Ra-Khepri. The ‘many’ (plurality) remained in spite of some sort of unity. Chapter 9, ‘Toward the Sunset’ (pp. 94-101), shows how the belief in Osiris spread over Egypt, replaced Amen and travelled to Phoenicia in the Late Period (after 1000 BCE). In this period the Greeks and Persians enter the scene, but Chapter 10 deals with the ‘Greeks in Egypt’ (pp. 102-10), who created the new god Serapis as an amalgamation of Osiris and Apis. The Ptolemies married their sisters, using Osiris and Isis as an example. After the defeat of Pompey Cleopatra VII was reinstalled by Julius Caesar. Although Egypt was ruled by new powers, the cult of Osiris lived on, as in the Dendera ritual. ‘The Roman Legacy’ (Chapter 11, pp. 111-19) deals more with the time after the advent of Christianity and possible Egyptian influences, including the Gnostics and Egypt as the source of ‘secret lore’. It seems that iconographic motifs such as the ‘Madonna and Child’ and ‘St. George and the Dragon’ go back to Isis and Horus and the battle between Horus and Seth (p. 116). Whether Osiris was a god who dies and rises again is highly debatable. This is not really comparable with the Christian belief in resurrection. Osiris lives on, but he is stamped by death and can only function as the lord of darkness and lord of the dead.[[10]] In the same way the Egyptians believed that the deceased lived on after death. The ‘Epilogue’ (pp. 120-27) looks at the survival of Osiris in the Christian era and after, on the assumption that related ideas lived on in Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Alchemism and Catharism. The statements are, however, a bit too generalising.

A general problem with this helpful overview is that, although there are some notes (pp. 128-33), too often statements and descriptions are not always well substantiated with references to the original sources or to the secondary literature. In some cases the reader is referred to other sources, but in others not (e.g. p. xix -- what is the exact passage from the ‘Coffin Texts’; on p. 7 -- which of the ‘Pyramid Texts’?). On p. 54 reference is made to Flavius Josephus’ description of the Hyksos, but in the next paragraph a more important text of Hatshepsut is quoted without any reference to the source or translation.[[11]]

Although it is true that ‘Egypt’s long history could be read as the biography of the god’ (p. 111), the book only touches on the life of Osiris in some parts, but it is not specifically enough focused on, nor a real ‘history’ of, the god Osiris.


[[1]] J. G. Griffiths, Plutarch: De Iside et Osiride (Oxford 1970) and The Origins of Osiris and his Cult (Leiden 1980). For the rituals and possible enactment of the drama cf. now R. A. Gillam, Performance and Drama in Ancient Egypt (London 2005).

[[2]] I. Shaw (ed.), The Oxford History of Egypt (Oxford 2000).

[[3]] Cf. C. Seeber, Untersuchungen zur Darstellung des Totengerichts im Alten Ägypten (München 1976).

[[4]] K. van der Toorn et al. (edd.), ‘Satan’, in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden 1999).

[[5]] This process might well have occurred the other way around, with Egyptian influences on Mesopotamia; cf. O. Kaelin, ’Modell Ägypten’ Adoption von Innovationen im Mesopotamien des 3. Jahrtausends v. Chr. (Fribourg 2006).

[[6]] L. Goodison and C. Morris (edd.), Ancient Goddesses: the Myths and the Evidence (London 1998).

[[7]] G. Hart, Egyptian Myths (London 1990) 29f.

[[8]] M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature II (Berkeley 1976) 214-23.

[[9]] Cf. E. Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife (New York 1999).

[[10]] Cf. inter alia T. N. D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection. ‘Dying and Rising Gods’ in the Ancient Near East (Stockholm 2001) 182.

[[11]] It can be found in J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Ancient Egypt II (Chicago 1906) 124-300 (available online at