Osiris, the lord of Abydos, was also the centre and crown of those Egyptian doctrines of immortality which were so elaborately developed at Thebes at the height of its glory, and so he continued to be down to the time of the Roman emperors, and even when the Egyptian temples were beginning to be emptied of worshippers, and the first Christian communities were beginning to be formed. The beautiful myth of Osiris and Isis, as related by Plutarch and confirmed by the monuments, grew up by degrees on the soil of Abydos where its hero was worshipped, and was not complete certainly till a somewhat late date. there can be no more appropriate spot for repeating it than here, while standing by the most sacred of all the tombs of Osiris.
Osiris, conjointly with Isis, who was his sister and wife, was king over the Nile Valley, gave it laws, and taught the world, which he journeyed all over, the arts of peace. At a feast after his return he allowed himself to be persuaded by his hostile brother Typhon [Set] to lie down in a chest which was ready for the purpose. Hardly had he got into it, when seventy-two conspirators, the accomplices of Typhon, flung down the lid, locked it, nailed it down and tied it up, and threw it with its living contents into the Tanitic mouth of the Nile, which carried it into the sea. It was borne to Byblos, on the Phœnician coast, and stranded close to an Erica shrub (a heath). The noble plant quickly grew round the chest, and became such a magnificent tree that the king of Byblos afterwards caused it to be cut down, and used as a beam to prop up his house. Meanwhile Isis travelled all over the country in search of her husband, found his coffin, revealed herself to the royal owner, removed the chest from the Erica, lifted it, weeping, on to her shoulders, and bore it away in a ship. As soon as she reached Egypt, and was in solitude, she opened the chest, and laid her face, bathed in tears, on that of her dead husband, and kissed him. At last she quitted the body to seek her son Horus, who was brought up in Buto, and to rouse him to vengeance. During her absence Typhon discovered the corpse, tore it into fourteen pieces, and strewed them all over the Nile valley. As soon as Isis learned this she gathered together the beloved fragments, and wherever she found one she erected a monument to her husband. Hence, as some say, there are many tombs of Osiris in Egypt, but others assert that all the limbs of Osiris were laid together in one place, and that Isis erected monuments where she found them only to mislead Typhon when he should endeavour to discover the real tomb. The most important of these tombs, even under the Pharaohs, was that of Abydos, where the head of Osiris was said to be buried.
While Isis was lamenting for her husband, and attending to his obsequies, Osiris had remained in the under world, and his son Horus had strengthened and armed himself for revenge. A furious struggle took place between him and Typhon, which lasted four days, and resulted in the overthrow of Typhon. Horus gave over the foe in bonds to his mother, Isis; she, however, granted him his life, and was re-united to her husband, Osiris.
Under the image of a husband and wife, this pretty legend very subtly represents the course of the phenomena of Nature in Egypt — the circuit of the sun, and the fate of the human soul. The inundation of the Nile, and the fertility of the earth, the illuminating power of the sun, the fundamental principles of human life, the ultimate triumph of goodness and truth, as figured by Osiris, are apparently assailed and vanquished by Typhon — that is, by drought and the encroachments of the desert, by the darkness of night, mists, clouds, and storms, by death, by lies, and all the evil and restless stirrings of the soul; but as soon as the diminished flow of the river swells again, the young crops grow green, a new sun lights and cheers the world, and disperses the mists, the human soul rises again in the other world to a new and everlasting life, truth triumphs over falsehood, and good conquers evil. Horus has overthrown Typhon, avenged his father, and restored him to his throne. Isis, the mother, is the feminine, and sympathetic element, formative, not begetting, the conceiving element of Plato, overflowing with love for the first and highest essence, which is goodness itself, though it must use that which is base and evil as its material and vehicle, even while it hates and shuns it. In this myth of the Divine family, which is amply illustrated by the monuments, every Egyptian saw a figurative representation of the fate of his own soul, and every dying man believed in a resurrection like that of the risen god. No wonder, then, that the grave of Osiris attracted all the pious souls in the country, and that devout princes and citizens commanded that their bodies should be brought to Abydos to be consecrated or interred under the shadow of the sanctuary. The vast cemeteries in which Mariette Pacha found graves of every period of Egyptian history from the very latest up to that of the builders of the Pyramids, are the asylums where the dead, who were always conveyed by water, hoped to find eternal rest.
The celebrated Temple of Abydos which was consecrated to this purpose, was built by Seti I. It is near the village of Arabat el Madfooneh, and in 1859 Mariette undertook the difficult task of disinterring the western portion, which was entirely covered by the detritus from a hill of the Libyan chain. El Madfooneh means “the buried.” Did the village of Arabat acquire this name from its ruined buildings, or from its association with the grave of Osiris. (Note: After the XVIIIth Dynasty, B.C. 1400, every deceased Egyptian was called “Osiris,” or “Osirian” — i.e., in the same condition as Osiris.)