Today, Peggy and I are beginning our series of blogs on our journey through Egypt up the Nile River on a riverboat with the UniWorld Cruise company. We hope you will join us. As always, all photos are taken by either Peggy or me unless otherwise noted.
Visiting the pyramids of Egypt at Giza is like climbing into a time machine. The Pyramid of Khafre on the left was built around 2,570 BCE and the Pyramid of Menkaure on the right around 2510 BCE, which makes them both over 4500 years old! The beginning of Egyptian history is traced back even further, to 3100 BCE, over 5000 years ago.
The Sahara Desert and the Nile River kick-started the process. 10,000 years ago the Sahara Desert wasn’t. It was a huge savanna where wandering herders grazed their goats and cattle. It is now thought that some combination of climate change and overgrazing changed the savanna into the vast desert it is today. The herders needed somewhere to go and the Nile River was their best option. The river provided a continuous source of water for thirsty stock. Its annual floods assured that there would be rich soil for farming. Increasing population along the river led to the creation of villages and towns, eventually leading to cities, kingdoms and even empires in a time period that extended over 3,000 years.
The pyramids speak to more than ancient history and the engineering marvels. They reflect the ancient Egyptians’ deep belief in the afterlife, magic, and the numerous gods who impacted their lives from birth to death— and beyond. This belief in the afterlife (plus the pharaohs’ exploits and claimed relationship to the gods) dominated the temples, tombs and monuments we visited as we explored the area around Cairo, made our way up the Nile, and visited the city of Alexandria.
There are numerous myths about the gods and I’ll be relating several as I go though my posts on Egypt. I find them both fascinating and fun. One thing to note here is that most of them have several versions. Five thousand years is a long time to keep a story straight. For example, today I am going to tell about one of the great founding myths, that of Osiris and Isis. Like most great tales, it is filled with murder, mayhem, adventure, sex, twists, magic and even a bit of humor. That Osiris was killed by his brother, chopped into pieces, put back together, and became God of the Underworld where he sat in judgement of the dead is generally agreed upon. The details on how he was killed, managed to get Isis pregnant with Horus afterwards, and was put back together vary with the teller.
The version that I am writing about was originally told by Plutarch in the second century AD. I first read it in a book by Joseph Campbell, Transformation of Myth through Time, over 30 years ago. I like this version because it has a Cinderella aspect to it, i.e. if the coffin fits, wear it.
This story starts with the goddess of heaven, Nut, and the god of earth, Geb. The god of air, Shu, separates Nut from Geb. Night and day are created by the sun god, Ra, who sails across the sky in his boat during the day, is swallowed by Nut in the evening, journeys through her at night, and is born again in the morning through a somewhat natural birth.
Nut and Geb get together and give birth to four children. The older twins, Osiris and Isis, are born first, and, in the tradition of Egyptian gods and pharaohs, marry each other. Osiris, with the help of the clever Isis, replaces Ra as the king of Egypt and gets the throne. Seth and Nephthys are born next and and marry each other. Now the fun begins. Osiris is the typical good son and represents order. Seth is the typical bad son and represents chaos. It’s Osiris that creates the trouble, however. One night he sleeps with Nephthys, claiming he thought it was Isis. (Joe Campbell notes that this isn’t paying attention to detail.) Whatever the reason, Seth doesn’t buy it. Would you? He vows to get even.
He builds a beautiful (and undoubtably incredibly expensive) sarcophagus/coffin made out of gold that is exactly fit to Osiris’s size. He waits until a great party is going on and everyone has consumed large quantities of beer (the go-to drink of the time) before showing up with his golden sarcophagus. “Whoever fits can have it!” he declares. Naturally everyone is excited to try, but nobody fits. Except Osiris. He’s just beginning to enjoy his triumph when 42 of Set’s servants rush out, slam the lid closed, wrap iron bindings around it, and throw it in the Nile.
End of story, right. A solid gold coffin can hardly be expected to float. Except it does. Osiris is a god, after all. In fact, it floats all the way to Syria where it lands and a tree grows around it. And what a sweet smelling tree it is. So sweet that the local king decides he wants to use it for a pillar in a castle he is building. Meanwhile, Isis, in deep mourning, is searching the world over for Osiris. She ends up in Syria where she stops for a drink at the community well and hears the story of the sweet smelling pillar from maids who work at the castle. “Aha, Osiris!” she thinks. She also learns that the king has a new son who needs a nursemaid. She applies for and gets the job.
Isis really likes the baby, nurses it from her finger, and decides to make it immortal by throwing it in the fire each night to burn away its mortality. While this is going on, she assumes the form of a swallow and flies around the pillar, twittering mournfully. One night the queen comes in on this scene and discovers her baby has been thrown in the fire and the nursemaid has become a twittering bird. Needless to say, she gets a little excited and screams. Isis immediately morphs back into herself, saves the baby, explains what she was doing, and asks the king if she can have the pillar. “Of course,” he says. (My thought is that he wanted to get the baby-burning goddess out of his life as quickly as possible.)
Isis gets a barge, loads the sarcophagus and heads home. Feeling lonely on the way, she opens the coffin, finds a quite dead Osiris, and climbs on in what seems to be a bit of Necrofilia. I’m not sure how it works, but she becomes pregnant (god thing again). Another version, which I like better, has her turning back into a swallow, flying over the coffin and being impregnated by magic. Immaculate conception is a common theme of Egyptian mythology. One myth I came across has the sphinx being born as the son of the lion goddess Sekhmeth after she is impregnated by a moonbeam from the Moon God. Explain that one to your husband. The Ankh, Egypt’s well known symbol of life and immortality, is also problematic when it comes to immaculate conceptions as well.
Back home in Egypt, Seth has assumed the throne and will not be glad to have Osiris back, dead or alive. So Isis heads into a papyrus swamp where she hides out and gives birth to Osiris’s second son, Horus. Nephthys has already give birth to his first son, Anubis.
All goes well until Seth follows a boar he is hunting into the papyrus swamp and finds the dead Osiris. Infuriated, he tears Osiris into 15 pieces and scatters them throughout Egypt. Once again, poor Isis sets out to get her dead husband back. Anubis, who is a Jackal in his animal form, and Nephthys help in the search. They can only find 14 pieces. Osiris is missing his genitals. A fish has eaten them.
They stitch Osiris back together with the parts they have and Anubis embalms Osiris, turning him into a mummy. Meanwhile, Horus grows up and goes to war with Seth to avenge his father. In a horrendous battle, Horus loses one of his eyes while Seth loses a testicle. Not quite reciprocal justice (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth), but close. Seth also loses the battle, however. Horus takes the throne and order is restored to Egypt while Seth is banned to the desert. Horus’s eye is magically restored and comes to symbolize making things whole and healing. It even brings life back to Osiris, who becomes god of the underworld.