We are unusually well informed about the Osiris myth because it was the only Egyptian myth written down, and in detail, by an ancient
Greek author, Plutarch (AD 45/50-125). Osiris was first worshiped only as a god of vegetation because his life cycle - birth, death, and
rebirth - paralleled the growth cycle of the crops on which Egyptians depended. He was later associated with other natural cycles that
created order in the Egyptian world, including the flooding of the Nile and the rising and setting of the sun. Many Egyptians came to
consider him a one-time earthly ruler, or pharaoh (FAIR-oh), and some viewed him as god of the moon. Eventually Osiris was worshipped
throughout Egypt as the god of the Underworld, where he chose to live after his resurrection. In this role, he was among the highest
ranked Egyptian dieties.
Initially, Osiris was worshiped mainly by the pharaohs and their royal families because only they, considered descendants of the gods, were
entitled to the privilege of eternal life. However, by the 18th Dynasty (1551-1310 B.C.), everyone who worshiped Osiris was promised the
possibility of life after death. It was as god of the Underworld that he enjoyed his greatest popularity, for he gave those who worshipped
him the hope of an eternally happy life in another world ruled over by a just and good king. In fact, in Egyptian culture the afterlife
was regarded as much more important than earthly life, which was seen as only a temporary period of preparation for eternal life.
As god of the Underworld, Osiris appeared regularly on funereal objects, including mummy coffins and cases. His presence assured that the dead
man or woman would, like Osiris, rise and live again.
Mummy cases were often placed inside of decorated coffins
Mummification Because the Egyptians believed that each person possessed a ka (kah), a spirit double which lived on in the Underworld, they
preserved the dead through a complex system of embalming and mummification. The prepared bodies were often enclosed in cases like
this one, made of plastered, painted, and varnished linen and were then placed in decorated coffins. They preserved the body because
the ka could live on only if it had a place to reside (a body or a ka statue, for example). Cases and coffins are covered with
standardized image symbols to assist the ka in its passage to the Afterworld. These symbolic characters, called hieroglyphics, make up
a system of writing used in ancient Egypt, in which figures or objects represent words or sounds. In fact, scholars have translated
the words on this coffin.
Rollover the image to see selected highlights from the Mummy Case of Lady Teshat
This mummy case encloses the remains of Lady Teshat (TEH-shet), a fifteen-year-old girl. Because her father was closely associated with the
pharaoh, she received an elaborate burial.
Detail of Osiris from the Mummy Case of Lady Teshat
Detail of Osiris Symbolic pictures of Osiris appear in several places on Lady Teshat's mummy case. Each image embodies
that identify the god. In this detail from the right shoulder, he is depicted as an
enthroned king, reinforcing his role as ruler of the dead. (See detail.) He holds a shepherd's crook and whip,
of his authority. He wears the red crown of Lower Egypt decorated with a curly ostrich plume, to
signify his earthly life and reign. His false beard is like those the Egyptian pharaohs wore to indicate their godly status. The green
color of Osiris's skin, associated with vegetation, symbolizes life after death.
Osiris is tightly wrapped like a mummy in an orange-red garment, an indication that he lived on after death through mummification. His stiff
pose is also due in part to the FORMULAIC
way Egyptians showed the human body; they regularly
depicted the most characteristic aspects of a figure. The head, legs, and feet are shown in profile (from the side), while the eye and
shoulder are represented as though seen from the front. His two hands, freed from the mummy wrappings, are folded across his chest and hold
the symbols of his divine power: a whip and a sceptor in the form of a shepherd's crook.
At the base of the throne is a stacked form, which might be a djed (jed) pillar. The djed pillar represents Osiris's backbone (certainly an
appropriate image for a mummy case), recovered by Isis; to the Egyptians it symbolized stability and continuity.