Osiris: The Ruler of the Underworld

Weighing of the Heart | Courtesy of Charolette Lichirie Collection of Egyptian Art
Weighing of the Heart | Courtesy of Charolette Lichirie Collection of Egyptian Art

In accordance with the Heliopolis creation myth, Atum was the first god to exist. The god, lonely, then decided to create the god Shu and the goddess Tefnut. The union of these two gods resulted in the birth of gods Geb and Nut. Finally, the children of Geb and Nut were Osiris, Set, Isis, and Nephthys.1

Osiris was the first ruler in Egyptian history, and he brought civilization to the land. Because of Osiris, agriculture, laws, religious institutions, and culture were given to the people of Egypt.  During his reign was a time of prosperity for the ancient Egyptians. People were happy and so were the gods, except his brother Set. Set grew jealous, and resentful of Osiris’ success. Soon he began to plot his brother’s demise.2

Hieroglyphic of Osiris on the Wall of Nefertari’s Tomb | Courtesy of the Burial Place of Nefertari

Set threw a lavish and delicious banquet for his brother and his constituents. During the party, Set stood up and brought out a beautiful coffin, and announced a game. He told everyone at the feast that the person who could fit in the coffin could keep it. Unknown to the party attendees, Set had the coffin made to his brother’s exact measurements. One by one each of the guests attempted to fit into the coffin but were unsuccessful. Many tried to squeeze and shove themselves inside the carved box, but no one could fit comfortably inside the coffin. Finally, Osiris stood up to take his turn. As Osiris climbed into the box, Set seized the opportunity he had been plotting for. He shut and sealed the coffin with Osiris inside, and threw it into the Nile River. The river waters rushed Osiris’ living body out to sea, before finally resting in a tamarisk tree that was growing on the banks near Byblos in Phoenicia. Osiris, unable to break the seal on the coffin, struggled and fought for his life before dying in the very device intended to bury him.3

Isis, his wife and sister, was distraught by the events that transpired at Set’s feast. She decided that she would not rest until her husband’s body was found. Eventually, Isis succeeded in finding and retrieving Osiris’ body, and brought it back to Egypt. Once Isis and Osiris’ body were safely back in their homeland, the goddess then looked for a way to resurrect her beloved husband. As Isis searched for a solution, Set heard about his brother’s return. Set knew he had to act quickly, in order to make sure his plan for Osiris’ demise remained successful. Set found his brother’s body and cut it up into many pieces, and scattered them all over Egypt. Isis, upset about Set’s jealousy and interference, went on an expedition to find her husband, every piece of him. The goddess managed to retrieve all of Osiris’ body parts, except for one, to continue with her plan of revival. Isis was unable to find her husband’s penis, because it had been eaten by an oxyrhyncus fish. Regardless, Isis still managed to bring her husband back to life. During the resurrection, despite Osiris missing his genitalia, the god Horus was conceived during this time. Although Osiris was now alive and had co-created a son with his wife, he was still incomplete. Because of his missing body part he was unable to rule the land of the living. So Osiris was crowned the ruler of the Underworld.4

Osiris and his Wife Isis on Papyrus | Courtesy of the Book of the Dead

The word Osiris comes from the Egyptian word “Wsir.” This word can be translated to ‘powerful’ or ‘mighty’ in English.5 His job as ruler of the Underworld is to judge each Egyptian soul to determine their eligibility for the afterlife. In Egyptian art, the ruler of the Underworld is shown as being wrapped up from the chest downwards in mummy bandages. Another important feature of Osiris’ is his skin color, which is either green or black. He is typically these colors because green represents the color of rebirth and black symbolizes the color of fertility of the Nile Valley.6

Statue of the God Osiris | Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Osiris judges the dead by weighing their hearts against a feather. If your heart is light, then you are allowed to pass into the Land of Two Fields. There are three requirements for entering the afterlife. First, your name had to be written down. Second, you had to have a preserved body and a tomb. Lastly, during your life you had to perform good deeds so your heart would be light enough to pass the weighing test when you met Anubis or Osiris in the underworld. The first two criteria were to insure that Ba and Ka, the two parts of ones soul, would be able to find its body each night to rest. The Ba was ones personality, and each day it would go and watch over ones family members in the land of the living. While ones Ka was a life force, it was unique to each person, and it would go each day to indulge in the Land of the Two Fields. If one lacked a written name on ones tomb or a preserved body then ones Ba and Ka would get lost and have no place to rest each night.7

  1. Don Nardo, Egyptian mythology (Detroit: Lucent Books an imprint of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013), 48.
  2. Don Nardo, Egyptian mythology (Detroit: Lucent Books an imprint of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013), 49.
  3. Don Nardo, Egyptian mythology (Detroit: Lucent Books an imprint of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013), 50.
  4. Don Nardo, Egyptian mythology (Detroit: Lucent Books an imprint of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013), 52-53.
  5. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Egyptian mythology,” by Shari P. Miller.
  6. Robert A. Armour, Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt (New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2001), 73, 141, 177.
  7. Anthony Spalinger, “The Limitations of Formal Ancient Egyptian Religion,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, no. 4 (1998): 241.

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This Post Has 88 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Franchesca Baldwin

    This was a really interesting story that seemed similar with certain biblical stories such as Cain and Abel. It was interesting to learn about one of the first Gods of the underworld, and connect how a lot of belief in how to pass through back then still relate to now, such as having good deeds and the idea of a ‘light’ heart

  2. Avatar
    Janaya Felder

    I had some knowledge of Osiris and his role as ruler of the underworld, but as for how he was placed in the position I had no knowledge of.Set’s mission to rid of his brother was very determined to the point where he decided to spread Osiris’s body all across Egypt, which seemed so unnecessary. That really highlighted how much he truly despised his brother and did not want him getting in his way by being resurrected. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and am now inspired to pick up my love of studying Egyptian mythology again!

  3. Avatar
    Madeline Emke

    The article provided an in-depth look at an Egyptian myth focusing around death and the afterlife. This myth also reminds me of The Lion King, and how Scar plotted the death of his brother, Mufasa, because he wished to rule. Another similarity would be the story of Cain and Abel, from the Bible. This article, and the similarities drawn by many readers, shows how stories and myths draw inspiration from each other.

  4. Avatar
    Nelly Perez

    The story with Orisis and Set reminds me of the Cain and Abel story since Set was jealous of Osiris like Cain was jealous of Abel. Orisis was resurrected until Set cut him up in pieces which shouldn’t have been done because his genitals got consumed. Isis brought him back to life, but Orisis became the ruler of the Underworld.

  5. Avatar
    Francisco Cruzado

    The curious correlation between missing genitalia and inability to govern amidst the living (i.e. in the real and visible world, as a clear image) amazes me. It leads me to believe in the prejudices of the time, but also in the plausible historical connections of the myth to some ruler castrado. Additionally, it intrigues me a lot why color black represented the fertility of the Nile river, would it be because of the mud, the dirt, or what else? As in any other mythological reading, it always fascinates its reader because of the assumptions imbedded in it, sometimes hard to explain or to connect with present times. Osiris is, indeed, an interesting figure, unfortunately oversimplified by popular culture. Very great summary of the character’s mythological biography!

  6. Avatar
    Meadow Arriaga

    This story explains how Osiris, became God of the Underworld. If it were not for Iris, his body would have remained unable for resurrection. She made the right decision knowing all of this was down out of spite. The character Set remains me of Satan in the Bible. I can notice similarities between the two. Egyptian history interests me because I believe we all originated from there.

  7. Anthony Coronado
    Anthony Coronado

    I loved how this story as being a story a fictional story about the pantheon of the Egyptian gods, showed the morals held during that time on how the people of faith should act, as well as the views and the existence of the afterlife held to the morals. As well as the thought os the existence of two kinds of human spiritual beings coexisting.

  8. Avatar
    Sara Guerrero

    I enjoyed this story and the twists that came to it for instance, how persistent Set was in that his brother Osiris wasn’t resurrected, yet Isis prevented it by finding Osiris’s body when he was in the tomb and spread throughout Egypt. When Osiris became ruler of the Underworld and the three requirements to enter the Land of Two Fields was something unexpected, but great story.

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