top of page
  • Writer's pictureEgytian Priestess

Osiris: Egyptian God of Life, Death, and Letting Go

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

Osiris is best known as the Egyptian god of the underworld. Killed by his brother Seth and resurrected by his sister-wife Isis, this episode created the underworld and gave the Egyptian people the ability to continue to live on after death.

The death and rebirth of Osiris also stabilized the fertility cycle that dominated Egyptian life with the annual flooding of the Nile that brought fertile soil deposits for annual planting. His cycle of death and rebirth promises the continuation of the cycle.

The god is associated with necromantic rituals, but also rituals to renew energy and reinvigorate our lives. He is also associated with mourning and letting go of the things that no longer serve us. As well as being worshipped himself, Osiris’ spiritual essence, his Ba, was worshipped as a deity in its own right.

Image from the Book of the Dead

Osiris in the Ennead

There are many different theories about the origins of Osiris as a god. It is even speculated that he was a real person, a shepherd turned king who was responsible for civilizing large portions of the country. But by the height of the Egyptian period, Osiris was considered part of the Ennead of Heliopolis, a group of nine gods and goddesses descendent from the creator god Atum-Ra.

He is the oldest of the final generation of gods, the son of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, and the brother of his sister-wife Isis, sister Nephthys, and brother Seth. As the oldest, Osiris was the ruler of the reality that exists between the earth and the sky.

All the gods of the Ennead were depicted with the Ankh, which symbolized life in its eternal and repeating cycle. It can be included in rituals to represent any of the nine gods, or the Ennead pantheon.

Nine gods of the Ennead of Heliopolis

Transformation of Osiris

The most important story about Osiris involves his death at the hands of his brother Seth. It seems that Seth wanted Osiris’ power for himself and either alone, or as part of a large conspiracy, plotted to trick Osiris into voluntarily entering a coffin-like box, allowing Seth to kill his brother and usurp his position.

To ensure that Osiris could not return, Seth cut his body into many pieces and hid them across Egypt. But Seth did not count on the determination of Isis who, with the help of her sister Nephthys, found and reunited the pieces. The only piece that she was unable to find was his penis, which had been swallowed by a fish, so she made a wooden replacement.

Isis then invented the process of mummification, and with her prodigious magical powers, restored Osiris to life. However, this was not a full life, but rather an afterlife in a realm known as the Duat. Osiris became the ruler of this underworld.

Isis also impregnated herself with Osiris’ seed and gave birth to Horus. Osiris’ posthumous son was able to avenge his father and take up Osiris’ position as the ruler of reality between the earth and sky.

Osiris was often represented as androgynous, but the phallus was also a symbol of Osiris in some of the esoteric rituals conducted by priests in his temple. The ancient Greek historian Plutarch refers to a ceremony that involved the cutting of the wood, which he did not describe because it was so secret and sacred. A wooden phallus can be used to represent Osiris in rituals of transformation.

Osiris receiving fertility offerings

God of the Dead

As the ruler of the underworld, Osiris is a god of the dead. In fact, Isis’ resurrection of him seems to have created the underworld. It is her magic that allows others to join Osiris there. Death rituals imitate Isis’ rituals to reincarnate Osiris, with the dead person, male or female, able to pass over by identifying with Osiris. He was often called Wepwaet, which means “opener of the way”.

The required rituals for resurrection and transformation are recorded in the Book of the Dead.

This is why Osiris was depicted partially mummified from the waist down, representing his status in the underworld and the steps required to pass between the two realities. In this capacity, he was often referred to as Khenti-Amentiu, which means foremost of the Westerners. The lands to the west, where the sun sets, are the lands of the dead.

Osiris was sometimes known as Ptah-Seker-Osiris, a sun god that descends to the underworld each night with the setting of the sun and is reborn every morning with the rising sun.

In early times, the Egyptians believed that the correct rites and magical rituals could secure someone a place in the afterlife. But they began to believe that a person’s deeds in life would be judged, and their heart would be weighed against the feather of Maat, which measured their intentions in life.

While Osiris played an important role in this ritual, he was not one of the 42 divine judges that weighed the heart. Rather, he waited on the other side of the judgment to welcome the dead into the Duat. Those who did not pass their weighing ceremony had their souls eaten by the demon Ammit. Osiris does not seem to have been associated with helping the dead pass the judgment, but the goddess Nephthys was sometimes connected with this idea.

Necromantic rituals that involve communing with those who have past through Osiris are often best performed at sunset, while rituals asking for restoration and the renewal of energy should be conducted at sunrise.

Osiris and the judgement of the dead

God of Fertility

But while Osiris is the god of the dead, he is also the god of all life, since the Egyptian belief system viewed life as a constant cycle of death and renewal. Osiris’ death and rebirth is just another expression of that unending cycle.

Many of the days of worship associated with Osiris are linked to observable cycles in nature. He was associated with the heliacal rising of Orion and Sirius at the start of the new year. This occurs on 19 July in Cairo when the two stars appear on the eastern horizon at dawn just before sunrise after having spent a season invisible behind the sun. This date also marks the time of year when the Nile River can be expected to start flooding, fertilizing the land of the Nile Valley.

In the great celebration for Osiris at Abydos, on the celebration day commemorating the death of the god, grain was planted in the ground in best shaped like Osiris. These germinating seeds represented the god rising from the dead. He was often called Wenennefer, he who continues to be perfect (despite or because of his death and rebirth).

The funeral rites of Osiris were often conducted during the last month of the Nile inundation, marking the end of the period of abundance that was Osiris’ life. The rituals re-enacted the death and rebirth of Osiris, and also the defeat of the god’s enemies.

The heliacal rising of Orion and Sirius is a powerful day for invocations of Osiris, especially when calling on the god to offer his renewing energy. Planting and nourishing a small plant that represents your intentions can be an appropriate ritual for Osiris.

You can find out when the next helical rising of Sirius is, and track other important celestial phenomena on this site.

Osiris receiving offerings

The Ba of Osiris

The Ba of Osiris, his soul or the essence of his personality and charisma, was also sometimes worshipped, almost as a distinct god. This aspect was often referred to as the Banebdjed. This seems to be the part of the god that lived on beyond him through his seed, as Horus was sometimes called the son of Banebdjed.

Ba is also the word for ram in Egypt, and the animal was associated with Banebdjed worship. A living ram was kept in some temples and worshipped as an incarnation of the god. When it died, it was mummified and buried in a necropolis specifically for rams.

This aspect of Osiris was also often represented by the Djed, a hieroglyphic symbol thought to literally represent the backbone of Osiris, and metaphorically to represent stability. This again links with the idea of dynasty and legacy, and the stability that continues to exist when we lose someone.

The Djed can be used in rituals of mourning that help us let go of things that we have lost or no longer need. It can also be used to cultivate characters, charisma, and emotional stability.

Ba of Osiris as Ram

Osiris Symbology

Osiris is depicted as a man with green or black skin. His green skin seems to represent his undead status, while his black skin seems to represent the fertility of the soil following the inundation of the Nile.

He is mummified from the waste down, representing his status in the underworld, and the path to the next life. Osiris holds a symbolic hook and flail, which may represent his past as a shepherd, or may reflect his role as a shepherd of men’s souls.

He wears a crown known as the Atef, which combined the white Hedjet crown of Upper Egypt with two curly red ostrich feathers on either side. These match the feathers worn by the goddess Maat.

Symbolism of Osiris

38 views0 comments
bottom of page