Osiris and The history of Abydos



Photos of the Temple of Osiris


The history of Abydos is intimately associated with the political and religious development of Egypt itself and dates to the beginnings of Egyptian history. Excavations there at the end of the 19th century by Emile-Clément Amélineau and Sir Flinders Petrie uncovered a series of pit tombs, the stelae (standing stone slabs) of which marked them as apparently belonging to the kings of the first two dynasties of Egypt. Doubt has subsequently been raised as to whether these tombs were the actual burial places of the pharaohs whose names they bore: in Saqqarah, a series of mastaba tombs were found that contained objects bearing the same royal names, and the far greater size of these tombs and the richness of their contents and decoration have led many scholars to suppose that these are the real resting places of the early kings and that the custom of constructing a sham burial, or cenotaph, at Abydos was practiced as early as the Archaic period. Some of the 2nd-dynasty pharaohs, however, may in fact have been buried at Abydos, where imposing brick funerary enclosures were built at the northwestern end of the necropolis area; one of these structures covers nearly 2 acres (0.8 hectare).

The tutelary deity of the necropolis city was the jackal god, called Khenti-amentiu in the Old Kingdom; in the 5th dynasty, his cult was gradually absorbed by that of the god Osiris, and the city soon became the focal point of the cult of Osiris. Abydos became a place of pilgrimage for pious Egyptians, who desired above all else to be buried as close as possible to the recognized tomb of Osiris, which was located at Abydos. For those who could not afford the expense of being buried there, stelae were set up, inscribed with the dead man's name and titles and a prayer to the god. Thousands of these stelae have been found in the city's cemeteries.

The pharaohs, though they were now buried near their city of residence rather than at Abydos, encouraged the cult of the deified king at Abydos, and they took special care to embellish and enlarge the temple of Osiris there. Over the centuries the temple of Osiris was successively rebuilt or enlarged by Pepi I, Ahmose I, Thutmose III, Ramses III, and Ahmose II. Some pharaohs had a cenotaph or a mortuary temple at Abydos. The temple of Seti I was one of the most beautiful of all such temples. Its plan is unique, for it has no fewer than seven sanctuaries, approached through two broad hypostyle halls. The sanctuaries are dedicated to the pharaoh and the principal gods of Egypt. In a long gallery leading to other rooms is a relief showing Seti and his son Ramses making offerings to the cartouches of 76 of their dead predecessors beginning with Menes. This is the so-called Abydos list of kings. The reliefs decorating the walls of this temple are of particular delicacy and beauty. Only 26 feet (8 m) behind the temple of Seti I is a remarkable structure known as the Osireion, but probably in reality Seti's cenotaph. This curious monument is an underground vaulted hall containing a central platform with 10 monolithic pillars surrounded by a channel of water.

Around and between the various temples of Abydos is a vast complex of cemeteries used in every period of early Egyptian history, from the prehistoric age to Roman times.


The origin of Osiris is obscure; he was a local god of Busiris, in Lower Egypt, and may have been a personification of chthonic (underworld) fertility, or possibly a deified hero. By about 2400 BC, however, Osiris clearly played a double role: he was both a god of fertility and the embodiment of the dead and resurrected king. This dual role was in turn combined with the Egyptian concept of divine kingship: the king at death became Osiris, god of the underworld; and the dead king's son, the living king, was identified with Horus, a god of the sky. Osiris and Horus were thus father and son. The goddess Isis was the mother of the king and was thus the mother of Horus and consort of Osiris. The god Seth was considered the murderer of Osiris and adversary of Horus.

According to the form of the myth reported by the Greek author Plutarch, Osiris was slain or drowned by Seth, who tore the corpse into 14 pieces and flung them over Egypt. Eventually, Isis and her sister Nephthys found and buried all the pieces, except the phallus, thereby giving new life to Osiris, who thenceforth remained in the underworld as ruler and judge. Isis revived Osiris by magical means and conceived her son Horus by him. Horus later successfully fought against Seth and became the new king of Egypt.

Osiris was not only ruler of the dead but also the power that granted all life from the underworld, from sprouting vegetation to the annual flood of the Nile River. From about 2000 BC onward it was believed that every man, not just the deceased kings, became associated with Osiris at death. This identification with Osiris, however, did not imply resurrection, for even Osiris did not rise from the dead. Instead, it signified the renewal of life both in the next world and through one's descendants on Earth. In this universalized form Osiris' cult spread throughout Egypt, often joining with the cults of local fertility and underworld deities.

The idea that rebirth in the next life could be gained by following Osiris was maintained through certain cult forms. In the Middle Kingdom the god's festivals consisted of processions and nocturnal rites and were celebrated at the temple of Abydos, where Osiris had assimilated the very ancient god of the dead, Khenty-Imentin. This name, meaning "Foremost of the Westerners," was adopted by Osiris as an epithet. Because the festivals took place in the open, public participation was permitted, and by the early 2nd millennium BC it became fashionable to be buried on the processional road at Abydos or to erect a cenotaph there as a representative of the dead.

Osiris festivals symbolically reenacting the god's fate were celebrated annually in various towns throughout Egypt. A central feature of the festivals was the construction of the "Osiris garden," a mold in the shape of Osiris, filled with soil and various drugs. The mold was moistened with the water of the Nile and sown with grain. Later, the sprouting grain symbolized the vital strength of Osiris.

At Memphis the holy bull, Apis, was linked with Osiris, becoming Osiris-Apis, which eventually became the name of the Hellenistic god Sarapis. Greco-Roman authors connected Osiris with the god Dionysus. Osiris was also identified with Soker, an ancient Memphite god of the dead.

The oldest known depiction of Osiris dates to about 2300 BC, but representations of him are rare before the New Kingdom (1539-1075 BC), when he was shown in an archaizing form as a mummy with his arms crossed on his breast, one hand holding a crook, the other a flail. On his head was the atef-crown, composed of the white crown of Upper Egypt and two ostrich feathers.


Our deepest gratitude to Steven Beikirch for not only kindly granting permission to use the photos on this page but for doing so enthusiastically.

You are encouraged to visit him at:

Man fears Time, yet Time fears the Pyramids

All photographs are copyrighted 1992, by Steven Beikirch, steveb@myriad.net.  Permission must be obtained from the owner to reuse any of the pictures.

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