For the Ancient Egyptians, the cycle of life itself began and ended with Isis and Osiris.
Their story is one of the oldest known myths, and it informed spiritual beliefs, power structures, and gender roles in Ancient Egypt and beyond.
And who wouldn’t be drawn to a tale that has it all?
And by all, I mean devious party tricks, sibling rivalry, shape-shifting quests, true love – and a missing penis.
In 1922, the unsealing of King Tutankhamun’s tomb opened a portal to Ancient Egypt.
In the burial chamber, carvings on the wall show the young Pharaoh traveling to the afterlife.
Here he is welcomed by Isis, mother of Pharaohs and goddess of protection, and Osiris, king of the underworld.
Two of Egypt’s most powerful Gods, Isis and Osiris appear throughout funerary texts and art.
King Tut’s iconic death mask bears Osiris’ likeness, while symbols of Iksis are etched across his coffin.
The influence of these two deities extends far beyond mummies and tombs.
Long before Isis and Osiris, there was the creator God Atum.
Some accounts identify him as the creator of Shu, god of dry air, and Tefnut, goddess of moisture, who were the parents of Geb, the earth, and Nut, the sky.
Other versions say that Atum fashioned Geb and Nut himself, separating earth from sky when he discovered their illicit affair.
Either way, it’s a formidable family tree.
Geb and Nut had four children: Isis, Osiris, Set, and Nephthys.
These deities paired off in the womb, with Isis and Osiris falling for each other and Set and Nephthys forming their own bond.
As first born, Osiris became ruler of the earth.
He was essentially the creator of society, who brought law, farming, religion, and education to the people.
Not to be outdone, Isis brought medicine, healing…and beer brewing.
If Osiris stood for order, Set stood for chaos.
Even with the restrained Nephthys by his side, he couldn’t contain his desire to destroy his brother.
Set was known for causing storms, war, and general malaise.
But his most vicious plan began with a party.
At this gathering, Set produced an ornate chest and proposed a game: whoever could fit inside the chest, could keep it.
All the Gods tried to squeeze in, but none succeeded – for Set had designed the chest for Osiris’ body alone.
As his brother settled in, Set slammed the chest shut, sealed it, and flung it in the Nile.
As Set seized power over Egypt, the chest floated down the Nile and washed up at the kingdom of Byblos.
Here it merged with the trunk of a cedar tree, which the King promptly cut down and used to prop up his palace - not knowing that Osiris’ body was inside.
The image of this pillar containing the imprisoned God became the djed , a symbol of stability in Egyptian architecture.
Back with the Gods, things were anything but stable.
Furious, Isis vowed to find her husband and put an end to Set’s rule.
She and Nephthys took flight as falcons, questioning everyone they could find for news of Osiris.
Eventually, a group of children pointed them in the right direction.
Landing on the shores of Byblos, Isis transformed into a human and set about charming the palace maids--eventually gaining the favor of the queen.
Now an undercover nanny, Isis took to bathing the infant prince in fire in order to instill some godly strength – but when the king discovered her actions he was so terrified that he promised to give her anything in exchange for safety.
Of course, Isis demanded the chest.
She brought Osiris’ body back to the banks of the Nile, hiding it in the reeds until she could figure out how to revive him.
But Set found the body, hacking it into fourteen pieces and scattering them across Egypt.
Once again, Isis set out in search of Osiris.
She soon tracked down thirteen parts of the body, which she lovingly stitched back together.
But they had a little problem: Osiris’ penis had been eaten by a fish.
Isis had come too far to be thwarted by this.
Some say that she fashioned a new member for Osiris, with others adding that she drew out his last sexual powers with her beating wings.
Either way, the two used Osiris’ final moments on earth to conceive an heir.
By the power of Isis, Osiris was briefly revived, given a proper burial, and sent safely to the realm of the dead.
Here he was resurrected as the king of the afterlife, or Duat, where he would rule for eternity.
In the wake of Osiris’ departure, Isis raised their son Horus in hiding.
Under her guidance, he grew into a strapping young God who defeated Set to assume his rightful rule over Egypt.
The epic battle between Horus and Set was sometimes used as a metaphor for the war between Upper and Lower Egypt, with Horus’ triumph standing for the unification of the region.
The story served as a guide to death for all Ancient Egyptians.
Isis’ retrieval of the chest from Byblos informed the belief that Egyptians should only be laid to rest on Egyptian soil, and the second part of her quest highlights the importance of protecting the body after death.
Isis painstakingly searched for and reassembled Osiris’ body, thus constructing what can be considered the first mummy.
Her re-creation of the penis corresponds to the belief that the body should be buried intact.
During mummification, embalmers would construct absent body parts for the dead.
This ensured that they would travel to the underworld in the best possible shape.
For King Tut, this meant being buried with his penis propped at a 90-degree angle, a feature which scholars have linked to Osiris’ postmortem fertility.
Embalmers often placed the dead in decorated coffins, which eventually became kanthropoid or human-shaped to resemble Osiris’ chest.
Many bore the face of the God, and were decorated with the wings of Isis and Nephthys.
The Pyramid texts of the Old Kingdom frame Osiris as king and judge of the afterlife These writings were a set of utterances and hymns, intended for royalty to ensure safe passage to the afterlife.
To reach paradise, or the field of reeds, you had to meet with Osiris in the Hall of Truth.
Here he weighed your heart against the Feather of Truth, which you’d hopefully kept nice and light by steering clear of bad thoughts and actions.
If your heart wasn’t weighed down, Osiris let you pass.
This encounter between god and mortals was extended in the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom, which emphasize Osiris as the judge of all people regardless of class.
In the New Kingdom, which occurred between the sixteenth and eleventh century BCE, the Book of the Dead became the most popular guide to the afterlife.
A collection of funerary spells and guidelines written over hundreds of years, the Book guided the dead through face-offs with demons, confessions to Gods, the weighing of the heart, and other judgments of the spirit.
Isis and Osiris appear throughout these texts, judging or guiding the dead through their spiritual reckonings.
While Osiris reveals the challenges and promises of the afterlife, Isis stands for life itself.
From food and water to the nourishing powers of medicine and maternal instincts, Isis presided over living things.
She was widely worshiped as the Protectress and Mother of All Pharaohs, and is referred to as “The Great One” in the Pyramid texts.
Her behavior following the death of Osiris epitomizes the ingenuity and perseverance that she was beloved for.
This triumph indicates her possession of mighty magic, which allows her to shapeshift, revive the dead, and protect the vulnerable.
The awe-inspiring powers of Isis can be linked to the elevated role of women in Ancient Egypt.
Women had autonomy over marriage, property, and finances, and could be Pharaohs in their own right.
Non-royal women also served as scribes, doctors, and religious officials, carrying out different forms of protection that Isis also embodied.
Over time, Isis became the supreme Egyptian God.
Her temples were erected across North Africa, as well as Crete, Pompeii, and Northern Europe.
The Roman cult of Isis is still shrouded in mystery, but we do know that her followers launched a model ship filled with offerings to the Goddess every year.
In the classical world, she was more generally associated with the Goddess of food and fertility Demeter, and her cult in Rome came to rival that of Christianity.
It’s also been noted that Christian iconography of the Madonna and child borrows from the image of Isis protecting the infant Horus.
From mummification to mothering, she informed a host of practices and ideals.
From temple paintings to burial practices to secret rituals, Osiris and Isis infused ancient iconography and beliefs.
Our knowledge of their story myth comes from a similarly diverse range of sources.
Found on the walls of ancient pyramids - and aptly named the Pyramid Texts - the oldest religious writings in the world reference the grisly murder of Osiris.
Later texts like the Chester Beatty Papyrus and the Shabaka Stone also allude to this event and its fallout, while classical historians like Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus wrote their own versions of the myth.
While the premature death of Osiris and his separation from Isis could be seen as a tragic tale, the story reveals the Ancient Egyptian belief that the boundaries between material and spiritual, life and death, are porous.
For the Ancient Egyptians, Osiris offered a poignant reminder that life was fragile – even for a God.
As the great protector, Isis offered guidance on that fragile path and ensured that the channels between the living and the lost were always open.