The Osiris Myth: The Very First Embalming

‘Are you a Christian, Mademoiselle Blaylock?’
‘Of course I am.’
Burlón nodded. ‘Then you will believe in everlasting life. The ancient Egyptians, they too believed in everlasting life. They employed rituals passed down to them by their gods in order that their dead might live again. Do you perhaps know the story of Osiris?’

So begins Lizzie’s introduction to the Osiris legend in The Scarab Heart. But the version that Monsieur Burlón relates to her is barely the skeleton of a much richer set of tales, so maybe it’s time for me to put the record straight and give a slightly fuller account of the story.

Isis spreads her wings - photo by the Yorck Project

Isis spreads her wings - photo by the Yorck Project

Osiris was the first man to be created by the gods and, as such, he was also the first pharaoh. He ruled over Egypt with his sister-wife, Isis, and introduced agriculture and cattle farming to his people so that the land prospered.

But Set, his younger brother, was jealous of Osiris and plotted with a band of conspirators, including the Queen of Ethiopia, to be rid of him. Acquiring his brother’s precise measurements whilst he slept, he constructed a wooden chest that would fit him and him alone. At a banquet in Osiris’s honour he offered this chest as a prize to the man who could fit it perfectly. Many guests tried, but to no avail. However, when Osiris climbed into the chest, Set battened down the lid, sealed it with molten lead, and cast it into the Nile, where, carried by the river, it floated out to sea.

Eventually it washed up in the branches of a tamarind tree on the shores of the Phoenician city of Byblos. Over time the tree grew to an extraordinary height, its branches enveloping the chest that contained Osiris’s body. The king of Byblos saw the tree and ordered it to be cut down for use as a pillar in his palace. The extraordinary scent it gave off was bewitching, and its fame soon spread.

Isis and her younger sister, Nephthys (Set’s wife), who had transformed themselves into falcons in order to scour the world looking for Osiris, heard about the miraculous pillar and recognized the significance of the tale. Isis travelled to Byblos and enlisted the queen’s help in persuading the king to permit the removal of the chest.

Horus, Osiris, and Isis - photo by Guillaume Blanchard

Horus, Osiris, and Isis - photo by Guillaume Blanchard License: CC BY-SA 1.0

On returning to Egypt, she freed her husband’s body, bathed it with her tears, then concealed it in a swamp while she considered what to do. But Set, who happened to be on a hunting expedition in the vicinity, found the body and hacked it into fourteen pieces, hiding them all throughout the land so that they could never be found and reunited.

Isis managed to locate them…well, all bar one: the piece that Set threw into the Nile to be eaten by the crabs and fishes. Undeterred, she fashioned a replacement from wood, and with her nephew Anubis’s aid, she reunited the pieces using techniques she’d been taught by Thoth, the god of knowledge. This was the very first act of embalming. Again she transformed herself into a bird, and, hovering above her husband’s body, she fanned him with her wings and for a brief period of time brought him back to life. It’s during these moments that her son, Horus, was conceived.

Fearing reprisals from Set, she went to great pains to conceal her son from him when he was born, and, relying on the charity of strangers, set off travelling the world, this time in human form, though in disguise. She only dared to return when Horus had achieved manhood and was old enough to avenge his father’s murder—which he did by besting Set in a number of competitions or so-called “contendings” judged by Osiris’s and Set’s father, the Egyptian god Geb.