Osiris was the Egyptian god of rulership, death and rebirth. He lived in the Egyptian underworld, called the Duat, where he served as the judge of the dead. In Egyptian art, he was generally shown as a crowned pharaoh (Egyptian king), with green or black skin, holding the shepherd’s crook and flail that were the symbols of the pharaoh’s authority. The crook symbolizes the pharaoh’s ability to guide his followers, while the flail was a symbol of growth and fertility.
While we may tend to think of death gods as evil, or at least unfriendly, the Egyptians did not see Osiris that way. For them, he was a beloved figure who treated the spirits of the dead kindly and fairly, and offered the possibility of rebirth for the worthy. He was one of the most popular gods in Egyptian culture, and he was worshiped for over 3,000 years (approximately 3100 BCE to 30 BCE), until the Romans brought Christianity to Egypt.
Osiris was the first child of the Egyptian god of the earth, Geb, and the goddess of the sky, Nut. As firstborn, Osiris took his place as king of the newly created world with his sister, Isis, as his consort and queen. Osiris was a wise and fair king. He created laws and religion to bring order, and the world prospered under his rule.
However, Osiris’s brother, Set, the god of war and chaos, resented Osiris and plotted to kill him. Set tricked Osiris into entering a box, which he sealed shut and threw into the Nile River. Osiris died in the box, but Isis, who had been looking for him, recovered the box and hid it in the Nile swamps while she went to make a potion to bring him back into life.
While Isis was away, Set found Osiris’s body and tore it into pieces, scattering them all around Egypt. Set seized Osiris’s throne while Isis and her sister, Nephthys, searched for the pieces of Osiris. Once Isis found all the pieces, she returned Osiris to life and together they had a son, Horus. Osiris then descended into the underworld and became the ruler there. Horus went on to fight Set, and in some versions of the myth, overthrew Set to restore rightful rulership to the land.
Some writers compare Osiris to figures in other mythologies who also die and come back to life — such as Adonis and Attis in Greek myth, Tammuz in Mesopotamia, Izanami in Japan, or Balder in Norse mythology. This concept may be a symbolic way of representing the cycle of natural life, where the world “dies” in winter and “returns to life” in spring. For Egyptians, this cycle may also have represented the Nile River, whose waters flooded every year, bringing fertile soil, and then receded to allow them to grow crops.
The story of Osiris is also related to the Egyptian practice of mummification. When Isis found the pieces of Osiris, she wrapped them in bandages to hold them together while she returned Osiris to life. The Egyptian way of wrapping mummies is meant to symbolize this, in the hope that the mummy will return to life in the underworld just as Osiris did. In Egyptian art, Osiris is frequently shown as being completely or partly wrapped mummy-style.
The Egyptians held celebrations every year where they played out Osiris’s death and rebirth. These celebrations included making “Osiris Gardens,” which were wooden or clay boxes in his shape, filled with mud from the Nile and planted with seeds. These boxes were then wrapped like mummies and put in tombs.