Three giant statues of Osiris, Isis and Hapi, the Nile god of fertility, have been placed at the entrance to Museum Rietberg in Zurich. They were recovered from the sea bed by Franck Goddio, a French underwater archaeologist, who directed excavations of the site of Thonis-Heracleion, a long-forgotten sunken city which played a key role in Egypt before the establishment of Alexandria. It was here, in the trading hub, that the Greeks and the Egyptians first came into contact and where they forged a close relationship. Hapi, “god of fertility, lord of the river, life-giving steward of its floods,”
“stood for centuries at the very edge of ancient Egypt, gazing down imperiously upon the trading ships as they blew in from the Mediterranean. … And, on his plinth at the western mouth of the Nile, a massive red granite gatekeeper to one of the greatest port cities on earth.
Until one day, probably towards the end of the second century BC, there was a tremor and the ground began to churn and liquefy at Hapy’s feet. He wobbled, lurched, and then six tonnes of intricately carved stonework crashed into the sea.”
The exhibition “Osiris, Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries” is a rare treat. Its most outstanding part is devoted to the mysteries of Osiris, celebrated in the month of Khoiak, which was the last month of the inundation of the Nile, when the fields were fertilized and ready for cultivation. Those elaborate ceremonies commemorated the god’s death and rebirth. Though I thought I was well familiar with the myth of Osiris, never before had I pondered and experienced it so deeply as at the exhibition. The curators managed to recreate an eery underwater ambience with subdued light and scant use of new technologies. Somehow, despite the crowds, the atmosphere was quite intimate, the connection with the Master of Silence very palpable.
The threat of the sea was very real in ancient Egypt, where a number of cities sank beneath the waves. Seth, the brother and assassin of Osiris, as can be read in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition (written by Franck Goddio and David Fabre), “was the incarnation of that element of disorder (chaos) that is intrinsically embedded in order and is necessary for its dynamics. The pharaoh, in fact,“assembled and united in his person the two incessantly warring gods who found their balance in him.” Any order is always threatened with dissolution, as all human structures are fragile. Yet in every death there is a seed of rebirth and regeneration. As Plutarch put it, “Osiris is the Nile uniting with Isis the earth, and Seth is the sea into which the Nile rushes, disperses and vanishes.”
The dismemberment of Osiris by Seth was into 14 or 42 parts, depending on the source. Fourteen represents “the days of the waning moon as parts of it are subtracted from the full disk.” The waxing phase is Isis’ quest to reconstitute the body of Osiris, “culminating in complete reapparance of the full moon.” An alternative source talks about 42 parts which represent 42 Egyptian nomes, i.e. administrative units. Because the body of Osiris was the body of Egypt. His dark skin was the dark fertile earth and a cradle for the crops. As vegetation comes out of decomposition, so did Horus came into the world from the posthumous union of Osiris and Isis. Thus the dismembered corpse became the source of life and nourishment.
The valley of the Nile with its black fertile earth gave birth to the word alchemy, from the old Egyptian word kemet, i.e. the Black Earth. The Canopus vase, representing Osiris, contained “water from the inundation mixed with the bodily fluids of the god resulting from the putrefaction of his corpse, to fertilize the black earth of Egypt.”
In their wisdom, the Egyptians connected the agricultural cycle of death and regeneration with the experience of the soul in the afterlife. All the dead “participated in the course of the sun, which like Osiris, perpetually regenerated and triumphed over darkness.” As it often happens, when the mind is occupied with a subject, answers start coming unexpectedly from various sources. I was pondering the life and death cycle locked in the myth of Osiris, when I came across an article entitled “Sacred Soil” written by Stephali Patel for the new issue of the Parabola magazine (Fall 2017). He opens his article like this:
“SOIL IS BORN FROM THE CYCLE OF LIFE AND DEATH. Soil is about 50% air and water, 45% minerals, and 5% organic matter. Soil mineral is formed from the wearing of bedrock that is birthed from core of the earth. This weathering takes thousands of years and much of our present day agricultural soils are more than 10,000 years old. But before there was an Earth, there was just universe. The universe was originally composed primarily of the lighter atomic elements hydrogen and helium. The rest of the heavier elements, including carbon and oxygen, were fused in the hearts of the giant floating nuclear reactors we call stars. When a massive star is dying, it becomes hotter and hotter; its pressure-fueled expansion culminating in a violent explosion, a supernova. These massive explosions blow the heavier elements in the star’s core out into space, where they are incorporated into the formation of other planets, moons, and stars. The minerals within and on the earth come from stars that died when the universe was young. All living matter on Earth is composed of this ancient debris. And stars are still dying and exploding. Every year, 40,000 tons of cosmic dust rains down upon us, erasing all validity of human conceived borders. This cosmic dust settles everywhere, particularly in our soil. The chemical elements in the cosmic dust are taken up by plants, which are then eaten by us. Our bodies are constantly being rebuilt and nourished by dying stars.”
Osiris was the son of Earth (Geb – male) and Sky (Nut – female). The heliacal rising of Sirius was used annually to predict the coming of the Nile flood. This heavenly event marked the onset of earthly celebrations of Osirian mysteries down below. First, the sacred drama was staged – Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth. Officiants placed a mummified figure of the god in a tank garden. The statuette, made with barley and the black silt collected from the rising Nile, was watered until it germinated and turned into “Osiris vegetans.” Simultaneously, another figure of Osiris was made from precious stones and resins. This latter effigy was later transported in a barque greeted by a jubilant crowd:
“The divine barque navigated from Thonis-Heracleion to the holiest of holies in the Osireion – the ‘tomb of Osiris’ – in Canopus. The liturgical procession observed the course of the sun and the moon (moving from east to west). The course of the festivity merged with the cosmic trajectory: in the divine morning, the god crossed his town in rejoicing: he had triumphed over death and came forth entire, just like the moon had crossed invisibility to triumph in its fullness. The journey on water which followed symbolized the passage from the world of the living to the Afterlife (the west).
At the onset of the inundation, the offering of the primeval water was an evocation of the original birth of Osiris, prelude to the quest for the body, dismembered, reconstituted, interred, and returned to life.”
In every great mythical drama the strands of opposites are constantly being woven and unravelled while nature seeks to transmute itself. Osiris taught humans agriculture, provided them with laws and brought them civilization. But he would not have done any of these things without the nourishing power of darkness, chaos, passivity and wetness.