Death and Resurrection in Ancient Egypt

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Osiris | Description, Myth, Symbols, & Facts |

The first was the notion, epitomized in the Osirian myth , of a dying and rising saviour god who could confer on devotees the gift of immortality; this afterlife was first sought by the pharaohs and then by millions of ordinary people. Egyptian society, it has been said, consisted of the dead, the gods, and the living. During all periods of their history, the ancient Egyptians seem to have spent much of their time thinking of death and making provisions for their afterlife. The vast size, awe-inspiring character, and the ubiquity of their funerary monuments bear testimony to this obsession.

The physical preservation of the body was central to all concerns about an afterlife; the Egyptians were a practical people, and the notion of a disembodied existence would have been totally unacceptable to them.

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The components of the person were viewed as many, subtle, and complex; moreover, they were thought to suffer different fates at the time of death. The ka denoted power and prosperity.

In Ancient Egypt, what was the afterlife?

The ka gave comfort and protection to the deceased: its hieroglyphic sign showed two arms outstretched upward, in an attitude of embrace. It was represented as a human-headed falcon, presumably to emphasize its mobility.

The ba remained sentimentally attached to the dead body, for whose well-being it was somehow responsible. It is often depicted flying about the portal of the tomb or perched on a nearby tree. Although its anatomical substratum was ill-defined, it could not survive without the preserved body. In the pyramid of King Pepi I , who ruled during the 6th dynasty c. With his panther skin upon him, Pepi passeth with his flesh, he is happy with his name, and he liveth with his double.

The Stalinist and Maoist regimes in the Soviet Union and China were later to resort to the same means, with the same end in mind. The heart played a central part in how the Egyptians thought about the functioning of the body. Political and religious considerations probably lay behind the major role attributed to the heart.

Many of the so-called facts reported in the Ebers papyrus a kind of medical encyclopaedia dating from the early part of the 18th dynasty; i. This is surprising in view of how often bodies were opened during embalmment. During the process of embalming , the heart was always left in situ or replaced in the thorax. The annual flooding of the Nile River is still thought to be representative of this event.

Osiris and the Pharaoh

Isis managed to recover her husband's body; however Seth was very stealthy and stole away with it. After cutting up the body of the Egyptian god of the underworld, Seth hid the pieces throughout the Egyptian desert. The connection between Isis and Osiris was so strong that the Egyptian goddess proceeded to spend a number of years searching for the mutilated body parts of her husband.

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  • She finally managed to find all of the pieces save one, and is believed to have used her magical powers to restore her husband's body. Although there are different versions to this part of the story, it seems Isis became pregnant , presumably by Osiris and gave birth to a son, Horus. Osiris died once again and descended to fully assume his duties as Egyptian god of the underworld.

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    Some versions of the history of Osiris state that when he descended into the underworld he took over several important roles and duties as Egyptian god of the underworld from Anubis, who was believed to have been his son. Other tales contend that he rightfully obtained the important role as Egyptian god of the underworld because he was the first god to have died. However he obtained the role, it became Osiris' responsibility to judge the souls of the dead. It is said the dead kings of Egypt would rise with Osiris and inherit eternal life.

    By Egypt's New Kingdom it was said not only would the dead kings rise from the dead with him, but any Egyptian that performed the appropriate rituals would also. This belief that Osiris is responsible for new life after death caused him to be associated with the New Year and the cycles of nature. His worship continued to be popular until the rise of Christianity.

    At that time the Romans began to suppress the Egyptian religion and actively promote Christianity. Even in the face of active Roman suppression of the Egyptian religion, many people, Egyptians and others, continued to revere, sacrifice to, and worship him secretly for hundreds of years. To the ancient Egyptians, Osiris' resurrection after being slain by his evil brother Set represents the new beginning for good after it has defeated evil.

    To them, the tale was symbolized by the sun going into the world of the dead each night and being reborn with each new day. As such, he came to be identified as the Creator god who is king of the underworld and the afterlife and who controls life, death, rebirth, and resurrection. A pillar of continuity, representing the phallus created by Isis, became a symbol of the Ba or power of Osiris and was used in his worship.

    It's not surprising if the story of Osiris sounds familiar. Many of the elements of his story are similar to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Where their stories are very different is what is said to happen to people after they die. Ancient Egyptians believed the deities Anubis, Ammut, Henefer, Ma'at , Osiris and Thoth would greet the person in the afterlife and perform the weighing of the heart ceremony.

    The person's heart was weighed against the feather of Ma'at. If it was lighter than the feather they had lived a good, truthful life and would spend eternity in the kingdom of Osiris. In ancient Egypt, worship of Osiris was an important part of their everyday life.


    The story of his death at the hands of Seth and his 72 accomplices was retold each year as part of their worship. It was a story of regeneration and rebirth they saw play out each year with the cycle of the flooding of the Nile. Egypt was a very fertile place, one of the breadbaskets of the Old World.

    The ancient Egyptians attributed much of this to Osiris and they held many ceremonies to give praise to his name, actions, and attributes. Seen as the first king of Egypt, his symbols , the flail and the shepherd's staff, became important symbols of the pharaohs that came after him. His reign was viewed as the ideal which succeeding Egyptian rulers attempted to emulate. To his followers, he represented a time of peace, unity, and fertility. Osiris was the good shepherd who was loved by his people and it was felt that paying homage and venerating him would help Egypt and Egyptians to be successful.

    It was believed worshiping him would forever ensure fertility, prosperity and plentiful crops on the banks of the Nile. The celebrations dedicated to Osiris, including the Great Mystery Festival and a 5 day religious ritual, were held each spring.

    The Ancient Egyptian Afterlife

    They included plays, story telling, religious services, feasting, and fun. Some of the celebrations commemorated his life by planting grain moistened with water from the Nile in gardens in the shape of Osiris.