isis, osiris, and the nile -- 12/17/14

Today's selection -- from Red Nile by Robert Twigger. The earliest Egyptians avoided the dangerous Nile. But the climate changed and these people were forced to settle close to the Nile and became subject to its torrential floods. A mythology arose that explained these floods as the tears of Isis for the death of her husband Osiris. Be forewarned -- ancient religions were not nearly as prudish and gentle as many contemporary religions:

"7,000 years ago the Saharan desert was full of wildlife and had a good sufficiency of water. The Nile was a swamp, a place to be avoided. Then the weather changed and the desert dwellers found the river their salvation. The life-giving river became the inspiration for an entire mythology.

"The mythology could be written down on papyrus, this miracle plant they had found growing along the banks of the river. And the stories, these earliest stories, were full of the fears of the desert dweller -- the fear of drowning, the fear of being overwhelmed by this watery force of nature.

"In the earliest Egyptian stories, it is the tears of Isis for her husband Osiris which form the flood that gives life to the Nile. Osiris was the wise ruler of mythological ancient Egypt and Isis was his twin sister and wife. Together they formed a perfect pair. They had a perfect son, too, called Horus.

"But they also had a perfectly nasty brother, Set or Seth. Set is depicted as the god of the desert and sand storms. He undoubtedly represents the new river dwellers' distaste for and rejection of the harsh place that the desert had become. The newly recognised bounty of the river was represented by the 'good' gods -- Isis and Osiris and Horus. We may note the curious way that Set is depicted, with the oversized ears of a fennec fox and the snout of an aardvark -- both of them desert/savannah dwellers at that time. Later, and in keeping with the main mode of desert travel, Set is represented as a donkey.

The resurrection of Osiris, from a bas-relief carving in the temple of Sethos I at Abydos

"Bad boy Set was jealous of all the love and attention his brother was getting as Lord and Ruler of the new and prosperous river kingdom of Egypt. Out in the badlands, out in the desert, he started to plot his revenge. One of the things these new river dwellers had done was, when someone died, to use a box as a coffin and dig tombs instead of the caves and stones they had employed in the desert. Indeed, the river folk seemed to have become rather too obsessed with death. Set had his plan.

"In what was probably the earliest version of the Cinderella 'if the shoe fits' story, Set attended a party of the gods with a huge lead coffin. Gods are eccentric like that. He asked everyone to lie down in it and test it for size. The winner would get a nice new metal coffin all ready for when he shuffled off his (im)mortal coil (unlike most gods, Egyptian gods can die). In some versions the lead coffin is simply a stone sarcophagus lined with lead, perhaps to make it air-, and water-, tight.

"Naturally, Set had taken his brother's measurements secretly and made the coffin himself out in the desert where he lived all alone. He was pleasantly surprised when the urbane guests agreed readily to his game of taking turns to lie down in a sarcophagus trimmed with lead, to see who the coffin most closely fitted. When Osiris lay in it, jealous Set conspiring with the Queen of Ethiopia (almost certainly an ancient coded reference to Ethiopia being the source of the flood) slammed the lid shut, rushed with it past the astonished guests and dropped it in the Nile. ...

"Even if Osiris could swim, he wasn't Houdini; so, trapped in his lead coffin, he drowned. Isis found him, but very carelessly left the coffin in marshland (strangely prefiguring the Moses story). What was she thinking? Set, like the Bedouin who would replace him, was always hanging around the water margins waiting to strike at hapless settled folk.

"So, while she was away, Set, out hunting, found the coffin. Using his best sword he prised open the lid. And being something of a psychopath, and no doubt aware of the god's regenerative powers, he dismembered the body into fourteen parts.

"Dim but faithful Isis returned to the scene of carnage. It was essential that Osiris, like some early-day Captain Marvel, be reassembled so he could live again -- in the underworld. Traipsing about, tears falling in grief, Isis found thirteen of the fourteen bloody body parts. She wept for forty days and nights looking for the fourteenth -- which was, of course, Osiris' penis.

Isis lamenting the loss of Osiris

"And the Nile flooded. From all the tears.

"Meanwhile it wasn't surprising that teary Isis hadn't found the missing penis since it had been eaten by a hungry Oxyrhynchus fish. It seems likely that the desert town of Oxyrhynchus that borders the Nile is named after the fish; strangely, it is also the place where thousands of pieces of papyrus have been found buried under the sand. This preserved them perfectly and much of our knowledge of ancient Egypt, including versions of this myth, comes from this desiccated papyrus.

"Pretty unlucky, eh? Having your tool eaten by a fish, not to mention being split into fourteen bits. But, this being the world of the gods, Isis, after fashioning a golden replacement phallus, managed to sing Osiris back to life so that he could have a proper burial. He was still dead, though. However, he was able to command a top post in the underworld, eventually becoming its king.

"And this is the place whence the Nile flowed


Robert Twigger


Red Nile: A Biography of the World's Greatest River


Thomas Dunne Books


Copyright 2013 by Robert Twigger


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