Come! Listen! Let me tell you a tale of days gone by, of brother murdering brother and of the grief of a sister weeping for her husband.
And in those days Osiris son of Geb ruled over mankind as their king with his consort, his sister-wife Isis, by his side. Their rule was just and upheld the proper order of things. Their rule was wise and men learnt to plant wheat and barley as the flood waters dwindled and to reap grain for food. Their rule was good and brought peace, prosperity and plenty to the lives of men. And when all was in order in his lands Osiris went forth from the banks of the Nile to spread his wisdom and peace amongst those who dwell far from the bounty of the river, leaving his sister-wife the beautiful Isis to rule as if she were himself.
There was but one scorpion in this house of peace & prosperity, and that was Seth. Seth the brother of Osiris, Seth the second son of Geb, Seth the angry who punched his way out of the side of his mother Nut. Where others saw virtue, Seth saw dullness and compared it unfavourably to his own brilliance. Where others saw justness, Seth saw weakness and compared it unfavourably to his own strength. And he brooded on this both alone and with his companions, until his twisted heart came up with a way to shine in the eyes of others as he shone in his own.
When Osiris returned to the banks of the Nile there was much rejoicing amongst the people of the land. He travelled the length of the Nile and all houses were open to him and much cattle was slaughtered for feasting and celebration. And when he came to the place of Seth, his brother, even there was provided a large and joyful meal. And Seth and Osiris and 72 of Seth’s closest companions sat long at the table, drinking and making merry. At the climax of the day as the sun retreated behind the hills of the west Seth commanded a chest to be brought to the banquet. Such a chest as you never have seen, made of the finest cedar wood new from the city of Byblos, coated in gold and studded with jewels. And all the assembled were amazed and awed by this, the most beautiful of chests.
“Let he who fits the chest have it to keep!” pronounced Seth, and one by one his companions tried it. One was too short, and the next too tall. Another too great in girth, and the next too small. And so it went through each and every one of the 72 companions of Seth, until only Osiris was left to try. Osiris now befuddled with strong wine, Osiris forgetting the enmity his brother Seth bore him, Osiris full of desire for this most magnificent chest. He climbed in and lay down and it fit like it had been made to his measure, for that was indeed what his brother Seth had done. And Seth’s twisted heart grew full and heavy with triumph.
Quickly, quickly, before the great Osiris arose the chest lid was slammed shut. Quickly, quickly, before the great Osiris arose the chest lid was bolted. Quickly, quickly, before the great Osiris arose the chest was sealed up with molten metal.
Osiris, son of Geb, the ruler of the Two Lands was dead, and the chest his coffin.
And the coffin was cast upon the Nile to float downstream, far from the land and far from those who would mourn him.
Seth now was in no-one’s shadow, his light not diminished by the brighter one beside him. But he had reckoned without Isis, his sister, the wife of his brother. Isis the beautiful, Isis the wise, whose grief when she heard was inconsolable. She cut her hair in mourning and went through the land from the source of the waters to the Great Green itself searching for the lost body of her lord. Even beyond the lands of the Nile did she go, finally finding the chest in the city of Byblos. Heart full with grief she returned with her dead husband, her dead brother, the great Osiris, to give him a burial as befitted the king and god that he was.
But Seth heard of this and angry that even in death Osiris would out shine him he was determined to prevent it. He found where Isis had hidden his brother’s remains and tore open the chest, and in his fury tore up the body of the great Osiris. Then he went through the whole of the land scattering the pieces of his brother as he went. When Isis saw what he had done her fury blazed with the heat of the desert. Even Nephthys, her sister, the wife of Seth was shocked by this outrage against all proper order. As falcons the sisters flew throughout the land seeking the remains of their dead brother. Each piece as they found it they mourned, and built for it a tomb.
Then once they had collected all that they could the pieces were placed back together to give form to the dead king once more. Only one part was missing, and for all that they searched the phallus of Osiris was lost, swallowed up by the greedy Nile perch and never to be found. In order that Osiris, her brother, her husband, should be complete for eternity Isis the wise fashioned for him a new phallus.
Then in her falcon form Isis called upon all of the gods to aid her and the draught of her wings was the breath of life in his nose.
She copulated then with her resurrected brother and she conceived of a son. But Osiris now burgeoning with new life was nonetheless no longer to live in the realm of mortal men, his time as their ruler was over, the light of his sun had set behind the hills of the west. He was buried with all the rites that should be performed for a king and came to the Duat, there to rule over the reborn dead as their king for eternity.
And Isis was left to guard their son Horus, as Seth’s heart grew ever more twisted. But that, my friends, is a story for a different day.
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
For the plot of the legend I mostly followed Plutarch’s version as described in both Shaw & Tydesley’s books, and then retold it in my own style combining Egyptian imagery with my own cultural references. Plutarch may have the most complete form of the myth that we have from ancient sources, but he does include several parts that are not corroborated by older more purely Egyptian sources – including the chest, however I liked that imagery so have kept it in the story. I did skip the dead baby prince of Byblos subplot, though, as that seemed to’ve wandered in from a completely different mythos!