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The cult of Osiris

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Originally the corn-god of Busiris in the Delta, Osiris attained national significance early in the Old Kingdom when he was coopted into the Heliopolitan Ennead. According to legend, Re (or Geb) divided the world between Osiris and his brother Seth, who resented being given all the deserts and murdered Osiris to usurp his domain. Although the god’s body was recovered by Isis, the sister-wife of Osiris, Seth recaptured and dismembered it, burying the pieces at different locations and feeding the penis to a crocodile. Aided by her sister Nephthys, Isis collected the bits and bandaged them together to create the first mummy, which they briefly resurrected with the help of Thoth and Anubis. By transforming herself into a hawk, Isis managed to conceive a child with Osiris before he returned to the netherworld to rule as lord and judge of the dead. Secretly raised to manhood in the Delta, their child Horus later avenged his father and cast Seth back into the wilderness (see Court of Offerings).

As the “place of the head” of Osiris (the meaning of its ancient name, Abdjw), Abydos was the setting for two annual festivals. The “Great Going Forth” celebrated the search for and discovery of his remains, while the Osiris Festival re-enacted his myth in a series of Mystery Plays. In one scene, the god’s barque was “attacked” by minions of Seth and “protected” by Wepwawet, the jackal-headed god of Assyut. The total identification of Abydos with death cults was completed by its association with Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming, always present in funerary scenes.

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