The Egyptian God Osiris: Facts & Symbol

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Osiris was one of the most important gods in Ancient Egypt. This lesson explores Osiris's role as the god of the underworld, fertility, and agriculture as well as several symbols associated with him.

Religion in Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians were a deeply religious people. They believed in a number of different gods that controlled all aspects of life. If you accidentally stub your toe, that's likely the work of a god or goddess. If your family grew a very good crop of wheat, that wouldn't have happened without the help of the gods. What about if the Nile flooded too much or not enough? You guessed it! The gods were behind that as well. Of all of the Ancient Egyptian gods, several were particularly important. Osiris, the god of fertility, the underworld, and agriculture, was especially meaningful.

History of Osiris

Osiris first got his start as a local god. Small groups of Egyptians prayed to him for fertility. Over time, Osiris's popularity made him one of the chief gods of all of the Egyptian Civilization. The earliest depictions of Osiris date back to about 2300 B.C.! Most images of Osiris, however, were created from the 1500s to about 1075 B.C.

According to the Greek historian Plutarch, Osiris was the son of the god Geb and the goddess Nut. His brother was Seth and his sister (and wife) was Isis. Osiris was the pharaoh, or king, of Egypt. Seth became very jealous of Osiris and his power. In an attempt to claim the throne for himself, Seth tried to drown Osiris in the Nile River. When Seth failed, he captured Osiris, this time cutting his body into 14 pieces that were hidden all over Egypt.

Osiris's wife, Isis, collected all but one of the pieces and put them back together. With her magic, Isis brought Osiris into new life. He was not truly living, but he also wasn't dead. As a result, Osiris was unable to rule the mortal world, but ruled the underworld and afterlife instead.

Significance of Osiris

At first, Osiris was closely associated with Egypt's pharaohs. Osiris represented pharaohs that had died and passed into the Egyptian afterlife. Eventually, Osiris had a connection to every Egyptian that died, royal or not.

Osiris is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, also called the Book of the Dead. Pharaohs were buried with written prayers, poems, and spells that were meant to act as a road map for their souls to find the afterlife. After traveling through various perils, the Egyptians believed the soul was presented to Osiris and a panel of 42 judges for final judgment. Osiris had the power to determine if a person's soul would continue to exist in the afterlife and enjoy all that it had to offer. Alternatively, Osiris could destroy a soul so it would cease to exist altogether.

Osiris depicted in the Book of the Dead
Osiris depicted in the Book of the Dead

Beyond ruling the underworld, Osiris was also viewed as the god of fertility and agriculture. You're probably wondering how that's possible. The god of the dead is also the god of new life and growing food? At face-value, that doesn't make too much sense, but to the Ancient Egyptians Osiris represented new beginnings. After Seth had cut him up and Isis put him back together, he was not reincarnated as his original self. Instead, he was given a new life. As a god, Osiris had the power to give new life within a family. As one family member died, their legacy was carried on by someone younger.

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