Osiris [key], in Egyptian religion, legendary ruler of predynastic Egypt and god of the underworld. He was the son of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb. The great benefactor of mankind, Osiris brought to the people knowledge of agriculture and civilization. In a famous myth he was treacherously slain by his evil brother Set, who cut his body into 14 pieces and spread the fragments throughout Egypt. Thereupon, Isis, sister and wife of Osiris, sought and found his scattered body. She buried the pieces, making each burial place a sacred spot. According to another legend Isis did not bury Osiris, but collected the pieces of her dead husband and miraculously brought him back to life. Osiris' son Horus later killed Set and became the new king of Egypt, while Osiris became ruler and judge of the underworld. The worship of Osiris, like that of the sun god Ra, was one of the great cults of ancient Egypt. It gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean world and, with that of Isis and Horus, was especially vital during the time of the Roman Empire. Identified variously with the waters of the Nile, the grain of the earth, the moon, and the sun, Osiris was the great symbol of the creative forces of nature and the imperishability of life. He was commonly represented as swathed in mummy wrappings, wearing the crown of Upper Egypt (a dome-shaped hat with a papyrus tuft) and holding a whip and a crook.
See J. G. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris (1907, new ed. 1961); E. A. W. Budge, Osiris (1911, new ed. 1961, repr. 1973); J. G. Griffiths, The Origins of Osiris (1966).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Ancient Religion