The Outstanding Story of Osiris: His Myth, Symbols, and Significance in Ancient Egypt

The Outstanding Story of Osiris: His Myth, Symbols, and Significance in Ancient Egypt

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Osiris, the green-skinned god of the underworld, lord of the afterlife and judge of the dead, is one of the best-known gods from ancient Egypt. His story provided his followers with reassurance for life after death, that the Nile would keep their lands fertile, and was an inspiration for what a king should be. He is the only deity that is referred to in ancient Egyptian writings simply as ‘god’ – a surefire indication Osiris was both powerful and popular. Being considered a good god, Osiris was also credited with teaching humanity agriculture, the arts, religion, laws, and morality. And his followers really enjoyed holding festivals in his honor.

Osiris and the Pharaoh

Some scholars have suggested that Osiris may have his origins in Lower Egypt as a very ancient king of Busiris. However it seems more likely that he was the local god of Busiris personifying Underworld fertility. Either way, by 2400 BC Osiris’s role and reach had expanded, as he became linked to the pharaoh. This connection was threefold; first, his story had evolved to include his role as the first king of Egypt – the one who had established the values for later kings to uphold. Second, he was considered the king’s father because he was Isis’ husband and she was said to be the pharaoh’s mother. Finally, Osiris was the higher aspect the pharaoh sought to become after death.

Osiris shown in typical mummy wrappings. Based on New Kingdom tomb paintings. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

A Son of Gods – The Beginning of the Osiris Myth

The name ‘Osiris’ is the Greek form of the Egyptian name Asir (or Wsir or Asar), which may mean “the Powerful”, “the one who sees the throne,” or “the one who presides on his throne.” Later on, Osiris became known as Un-nefer, “to open, appear, or make manifest good things or beauty”.

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From the 5th Dynasty (circa 2513–2374 BC) on, Osiris was also a member of the Ennead (a.k.a. the Great Ennead and the Ennead of Heliopolis), a group of nine Egyptian deities which were worshipped primarily in Heliopolis, but whose influence spread to the rest of Egypt as well. That’s also when Osiris became known as the first child of Geb and Nut.

Geb and Nut were the children of Shu and Tefnut, the creation of the first god, Atum. Osiris’ siblings were Set, Nephthys, and Isis. These three beings played key roles in the Osiris myth.

Outer coffin of Taywheryt depicting Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys. (CESRAS/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

The Myth of Osiris and Isis…and Set

There are some variations on the Osiris myth, but generally the story begins with Osiris as the king of the ancient Egyptians. Either through providing his wife and sister Isis with the power to rule in his place when he was away spreading civilization, or through the other’s pure envy, Osiris angered his brother Set. Set resented Osiris’ success and is said to have conspired to kill his brother after Set's wife Nephthys pretended to be Isis and seduced Osiris. The god Anubis was the result of their union. Some versions say that Set also lusted after Isis.

Set, Osiris’ brother and another important ancient Egyptian deity. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

As an interesting side note, Nephthys was believed to have been barren before she became pregnant with Osiris’ offspring. This part of the myth was later linked to the Egyptian desert flowers which didn’t bloom for years, until a large flood (Osiris) helped the barren land (Nephthys) become fertile and provided them with life (Anubis). Myths also said Anubis honored his father Osiris by giving him the position as the god of the Underworld .

Set soon put a plan in motion to get his revenge. According to Plutarch, Set either drowned or killed Osiris. The story is often said to include a beautiful chest tailor-made to Osiris’ size. Set ordered the creation of the chest and then invited his brother to a banquet. During the feast, he offered the remarkable chest to anyone who could fit inside it. Everyone tried it, but only Osiris fit inside. The moment Osiris laid down in the chest, Set nailed the lid closed. Then he sealed the chest with molten lead and threw it, along with his brother, into the Nile.

The chest (which some say inspired the idea for Egyptian sarcophagi ), was carried out to sea and then came to rest in a tamarisk tree growing near Byblos in Phoenicia. The tree grew around the god in the coffin and he remained there until he died. The local king later decided he liked the same tree and, with no knowledge of Osiris’ body inside it, had it turned into a column for his palace.

Rameses III censing and libating before Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, protected by winged Isis. Scene from tomb of Ramses III. (KV11) ( Public Domain )

Isis had been out looking for her beloved and eventually happened upon the palace, there she was taken in and cared for the king’s children while disguised as an old woman. When she revealed herself as the goddess after saving one of the king’s sons, the king offered her whatever she wanted. She chose the column and thus Isis found Osiris’ remains.

Revival, Desecration, and Resurrection

The goddess returned to Egypt with her husband and worked to reconstitute his physical body. Then Isis transformed herself into a kite (bird). She used magic words and the beating of her wings to revive him and then conceived a child with him. That child was Horus. She then hid her husband’s body and went off to raise her son.

Horus, Osiris, and Isis: pendant bearing the name of King Osorkon II. ( CC BY SA 1.0 )

But Set encountered Osiris’ body while he was out hunting one day. To prevent his brother from gaining the burial he deserved, the enraged Set cut Osiris’ body up into various pieces, with differing numbers according to the texts: 14 (half of a lunar month), 16 (the ideal height for a rise in the water level in cubits) or 42 (the number of the nomes of Egypt). The body parts were then scattered across Egypt.

Isis discovered what had been done and gathered all of the pieces of Osiris’ body that she could. The only part she could not find was his penis, which had been eaten by an oxyrhyncus fish (making it a forbidden food in ancient Egypt). With the help of Nephthys and Anubis, Isis patched up Osiris’ body the best she could and prepared it for a proper burial. That’s when they created the first mummy and Anubis became associated with embalmers . When the other gods (or at least Ra/Re) saw this, they resurrected Osiris, but because he was incomplete he could no longer rule in the land of the living. So he became the ruler and judge of the Underworld. Horus eventually avenged his father by killing Set and becoming the new king of Egypt .

Shroud from the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty showing Osiris and Anubis with a deceased man.

Osiris as the Egyptian Underworld Deity

Osiris was not an Underworld ( Duat) deity to be feared. In fact, his reputation as a good and benevolent king probably created a sense of security for people nearing the end of their lives. Although people did not need to fear the deity himself, it was no easy task to enter his domain . A decent burial, spells from The Book of Coming Forth by Day (better known today as The Book of the Dead ) and The Book of Gates , and amulets were provided for the dead to help them make the dangerous journey through the Underworld to the hall of judgement where their heart would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at .

It was pretty much guaranteed that a person who made it that far would be welcomed into the afterlife since the ancient Egyptian judgment did not seek perfection, instead it looked for balance. If the person could convince benevolent Osiris that he or she deserved to be there, they could stay.

The judgement of the dead in the presence of Osiris: Anubis brings Hunefer into the judgement area. Anubis is also shown supervising the judgement scales. Hunefer's heart is weighed against a feather, the symbol of Ma’at. Then Hunefer is brought to the right in the presence of Osiris by his son Horus. Osiris is shown seated under a canopy, with his sisters Isis and Nephthys. At the top, Hunefer is shown adoring a row of deities who supervise the judgement. ( Public Domain )

This association with the Underworld provides another explanation why Osiris is often depicted as a mummified pharaoh – dead pharaohs were associated with him and mummified to look like him.

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Osiris the Agrarian God?

Although it may seem contradictory at first, Osiris was also considered a fertility god – at least in terms of agricultural fruitfulness. But if you look at the agricultural cycle of apparent death and rebirth , you can begin to see some of the reasoning behind this. For the ancient Egyptians, Osiris was symbolically killed and had his body broken on the threshing room floor each harvest. Then the flooding of the Nile took place and the land (his body) was revived once again. These factors can easily be likened to elements of the Osiris myth.

In one agrarian ritual, a dirt figurine was created in a mold to represent Osiris and it was placed in a small sarcophagus. Seeds were planted in that dirt and then watered, creating an “Osiris garden”, or what some have called “grain mummies” or “corn mummies”. When the plants grew from the box it was said that the deity had been brought back to life. Some of these figurines, called Osiris’ Beds’ in that context, have been found in Theban tombs , where they have been found covered in the remains of wheat or barley. Tutankhamen’s tomb provided archaeologists with some fine examples that were made of barley and emmer.

Osiris’ bed, 450 - 300 BC, from Upper Egypt (Gabbanat el-Gouroud), clay. Musée des Confluences. ( CC0)

The ancient Egyptians also had a legend stating that their people had been cannibals until Osiris and Isis taught them about then persuaded them to use the practice of agriculture. Although there is no strong evidence to say ancient Egyptians were cannibals, they seemed to like the idea of Osiris having brought order to their civilization.

Osiris’ Symbols

The oldest found representation of Osiris dates back to 2300 BC, but he didn’t really become popular in images until the New Kingdom period (1539–1075 BC). Continuing with the agricultural connections, Osiris’ body was sometimes represented as a field and he was also linked to images of trees – a feature present in practically all the tomb- cenotaphs of Osiris. His skin color also shows this association; if it was green it could represent the rebirth of the vegetation and if it was black it was for the fertile soil of the Nile River valley.

Osiris, Egyptian God of the Underworld. ( Public Domain )

Osiris stands out from most other famous Egyptian deities because he is depicted as human, not an anthropozoomorphic (human/animal) being. Most depictions of the god stress his role as the ruler of the Underworld by showing him wrapped from the chest downwards in mummy bandages . If not in the wrappings, he is shown in a tight-fitting garment.

As a king of Egypt, he was depicted with the Atef Crown - a combination of the Hedjet, the crown of Upper Egypt, with an ostrich feather on each side. His power was shown in the crook and flail in his hands, which are usually crossed in front of his chest, and these items represented the fertility of the land and the king’s authority. Osiris is also shown wearing the long, curved false beard of a dead god.

Another symbol of Osiris is the Djed pillar . This symbolizes the stability and continuation of his power and may represent his spine. The pillar is sometimes decorated with the Atef crown or has two wedjat/udjat-eyes, and it has been decorated with the flail and crook at times as well. This pillar was seen as an important feature and ritually erected in some Abydos festivals. The raising of the Djed pillar was a nod to the resurrection of Osiris – a stable monarch.

A scene on the west wall of the Osiris Hall that is situated beyond the seven chapels and entered via the Osiris Chapel. It shows the raising of the Djed pillar. ( Jon Bodsworth )

The Rise of the Osiris Cult and its Rituals

Abydos was the center of the Osiris cult because the ancient Egyptians believed the deity’s head had been buried there. The city’s necropolis was the most popular choice for a burial, if the person could afford it and had a high enough status to be laid to rest near the deity. The next best option was placing a stele with the deceased’s name near the site.

Head of the God Osiris, ca. 595-525 BC. ( Brooklyn Museum )

Busiris ( Djedu) was another important Osiris sanctuary and it is where one could see the name of the city written with two Djed pillars. A third key site for the followers of Osiris was Biggah (Senmet). This small island was where Osiris’ body is said to have rested. But the reach of the Osiris cult was much wider since all the cities which claimed to have been a location where a part of his dismembered body was buried also had a cenotaph to the god.

Although deceased kings were originally the only ones to associate themselves with Osiris upon their deaths, by 2000 BC every dead man could be linked to the deity. The association with Osiris signified not resurrection itself, but the renewal of life in the next world and through one’s descendants. His popularity was cemented with the god’s benevolent nature in the afterlife as well as his role in creating order and law. People saw him as a god who could protect them during their lives and who would judge them fairly in the Underworld.

By making Osiris more accessible, he also became more popular and his cult spread throughout Egypt, sometimes with the god joining or absorbing other fertility and Underworld deities. This ability to incorporate the local gods enabled Osiris worship to remain prominent through to the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Serapis, for example, was a Hellenistic god that combined Osiris with Apis - the sacred bull of Memphis. Greco-Roman writers also saw connections between their god Dionysus (Bacchus) and the Egyptian deity. Osiris only fell with the rise of Christianity . But that hasn’t stopped scholars from noting some similarities between that religion with the ancient Egyptian god’s story.

Bust of Serapis. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC, stored in the Serapeum of Alexandria. ( Public Domain )

Although Osiris was the Judge of the Dead, he was also associated with rebirth, so the festivals related with him tended to focus more on celebrating life. This has already been noted with the Osiris figurines to enhance agricultural fertility.

Processions and nocturnal rituals also took place at his temples and aspects of his life, death, and rebirth were key elements of those rites. Osiris’ death was honored at the festival of the Fall of the Nile and his resurrection was celebrated in the Djed Pillar Festival. The following section of a hymn to Osiris suggests just how popular his festivals, and the god himself, were to the ancient Egyptian people:

Unto thee are offerings made by all mankind, O thou lord to whom commemorations are made, both in heaven and in earth. Many are the shouts of joy that rise to thee at the Uak festival [the 17th and 18th days of the month Thoth], and cries of delight ascend to thee from the whole world with one voice. Thou art the chief and prince of thy brethren, thou art the prince of the company of the gods, thou stablishest right and truth everywhere, thou placest thy son upon thy throne, thou art the object of praise of thy father Seb, and of the love of thy mother Nut. Thou art exceeding mighty, thou overthrowest those who oppose thee, thou art mighty of hand, and thou slaughterest thine enemy. Thou settest thy fear in thy foe, thou removest his boundaries, thy heart is fixed, and thy feet are watchful. Thou art the heir of Seb and the sovereign of all the earth. Thou hast made this earth by thy hand, and the waters thereof, and the wind thereof, the herb thereof, all the cattle thereof, all the winged fowl thereof, all the fish thereof, all the creeping things thereof, and all the four-footed beasts thereof. O thou son of Nut, the whole world is gratified when thou ascendest thy father's throne like Ra. Thou shinest in the horizon, thou sendest forth thy light into the darkness, thou makest the darkness light with thy double plume, and thou floodest the world with light like the Disk at break of day. Thy diadem pierceth heaven and becometh a brother unto the stars, O thou form of every god. Thou art gracious in command and in speech, thou art the favoured one of the great company of the gods, and thou art the greatly beloved one of the lesser company of the gods.

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Posthumous stele of Amenhotep I and Ahmose-Nofretary making an offering to Osiris. Limestone. New Kingdom, Dynasty XVIII, reign of Amenhotep III, c. 1390-1352 BC. Probably from Thebes. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Another important aspect of Osiris worship was to present dramatic passion plays reflecting the life, death, mummification, and resurrection of the deity. The plays involved local priests and important community members and the mock battles between The Followers of Horus and The Followers of Set were open to anyone. Some scenes were especially violent and there are even cases noted of the staged violence having become real and leading to deaths.

Once the battle was won by the Followers of Horus, the festival-goers celebrated by carrying out the golden statue of Osiris from the temple’s inner sanctum, so everyone could lavish it with gifts. It was then paraded around the city and finally placed at an outdoor shrine so the god could witness the festivities and people could admire him. This removal of the statue from the darkness of the temple also reflected on Osiris’ resurrection.

Late Period–Ptolemaic Period statue of Osiris. ( CC0)

In ancient Egypt, color was an integral part of the substance and being of everything in life. The color of something was a clue to the substance or heart of the matter. When it was said that one could not know the color of the gods, it meant that they themselves were unknowable, and could never be completely understood. In art, colors were clues to the nature of the beings depicted in the work. For instance, when Amon was portrayed with blue skin, it alluded to his cosmic aspect. Osiris' green skin was a reference to his power over vegetation and to his own resurrection.

Of course, not every use of color in Egyptian art was symbolic. When overlapping objects, such as when portraying a row of oxen, the colors of each animal is alternated so as to differentiate each individual beast. Apart from these practical considerations though, it is safe to say that the Egyptian use of color in their art was largely symbolic.

The Egyptian artist had at his disposal six colors, including black and white. These colors were generated largely from mineral compounds and thus retain their vibrancy over the millennia. Each of these colors had their own intrinsic symbolic meaning, as shown below. However, the ambivalence of meaning demonstrated by some should be carefully noted.

The color green (wadj) was the color of vegetation and new life. To do "green things" was slang for beneficial, life-producing behavior. As mentioned above, Osiris was often portrayed with green skin and was also referred to as "the Great Green". Green malachite was a symbol of joy and the land of the blessed dead was described as the "field of malachite." In Chapter 77 of the Book of the Dead, it is said that the deceased will become a falcon "whose wings are of green stone". Highly impractical of course, it is obvious that the color of new life and re-birth is what is important. The Eye of Horus amulet was commonly made of green stone as well.

The pigment green could be produced from a paste manufactured by mixing oxides of copper and iron with silica and calcium. It could also be derived from malachite, a natural copper ore.

Red (desher) was the color of life and of victory. During celebrations, ancient Egyptians would paint their bodies with red ochre and would wear amulets made of cornelian, a deep red stone. Seth, the god who stood at the prow of the sun's barque and slew the serpent Apep daily, had red eyes and hair.

Red was also a symbol of anger and fire. A person who acted "with a red heart" was filled with rage. "To redden" meant "to die". Seth while the god of victory over Apep, was also the evil murderer of his brother Osiris. His red coloration could take on the meaning of evil or victory depending on the context in which he is portrayed. Red was commonly used to symbolize the fiery nature of the radiant sun and serpent amulets representing the "Eye of Re" (the fiery, protective, and possibly malevolent aspect of the sun) were made of red stones.

The normal skin tone of Egyptian men was depicted as red, without any negative connotation.

Red paint was created by Egyptian artisans by using naturally oxidized iron and red ocher.

The color white (hedj and shesep) suggested omnipotence and purity. Due to its lack of color white was also the color of simple and sacred things. The name of the holy city of Memphis meant "White Walls." White sandals were worn at holy ceremonies. The material most commonly used for ritual objects such as small ceremonial bowls and even the embalming table for the Apis Bulls in Memphis was white alabaster. White was also the heraldic color of Upper Egypt. The "Nefer", the crown of Upper Egypt was white, even though originally is was probably made of green reeds.

The pure white color used in Egyptian art was created from chalk and gypsum.

In ancient Egypt, black (kem) was a symbol of death and of the night. Osiris, the king of the afterlife was called "the black one." One of the few real-life people to be deified, Queen Ahmose-Nefertari was the patroness of the necropolis. She was usually portrayed with black skin, although she was not a negro. Anubis, the god of embalming was shown as a black jackal or dog, even though real jackals and dogs are typically brown.

As black symbolized death it was also a natural symbol of the underworld and so also of resurrection. Unexpectedly perhaps, it could also be symbolic of fertility and even life! The association with life and fertility is likely due to the abundance provided by the dark, black silt of the annually flooding Nile. The color of the silt became emblematic of Egypt itself and the country was called "kemet" (the Black Land) by its people from early antiquity.

Black pigments were created from carbon compounds such as soot, ground charcoal or burnt animal bones.

The color yellow (khenet, kenit) was created by the Egyptian artisans using natural ochres or oxides. During the latter part of the new Kingdom, a new method was developed which derived the color using orpiment (arsenic trisulphide).

Both the sun and gold were yellow and shared the qualities of being imperishable, eternal and indestructible. Thus anything portrayed as yellow in Egyptian art generally carried this connotation. The skin and bones of the gods were believed to be made of gold. Thus statues of gods were often made of, or plated with gold. Also, mummy masks and cases of the pharoahs were often made of gold. When the pharoah died he became the new Osiris and a god himself. In the image to the right of the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, note the skin tones of the mummy and Anubis. Both are divine beings and both have golden skin. Compare this to the priest and the mourning women, who have the classic reddish-brown and pale pink skin tones of humans.

"White gold", an alloy of gold and silver (electrum), was seen as being the equivalent to gold and sometimes white was used in contexts were yellow would typically be used (and vice-versa).

" Egyptian blue " (irtiu, sbedj) was made combining iron and copper oxides with silica and calcium. This produced a rich color however it was unstable and sometimes darkened or changed color over the years.

Blue was symbolic of the sky and of water. In a cosmic sense, this extended its symbolism to the heavens and of the primeval floods. In both of these cases, blue took on a meaning of life and re-birth.

Blue was naturally also a symbol of the Nile and its associated crops, offerings and fertility. The phoenix, which was a symbol of the primeval flood, was patterned on the heron. Herons naturally have a gray-blue plumage. However, they were usually portrayed with bright blue feathers to empha their association with the waters of the creation. Amon was often shown with a blue face to symbolize his role in the creation of the world. By extension, the pharoahs were sometimes shown with blue faces as well when they became identified with Amon. Baboons, which are not naturally blue, were portrayed as blue. It is not certain why. However, the ibis, a blue bird was a symbol of Thoth, just like the baboon was. It may be that the baboons were colored blue to empha their connection to Thoth.

The gods were said to have hair made of lapis lazuli, a blue stone. Note in the image above of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony that the mummy and Anubis both have blue hair.

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Cats Rule in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians worshipped many animals for thousands of years. Animals were revered for different reasons. Dogs were valued for their ability to protect and hunt, but cats were thought to be the most special. Egyptians believed cats were magical creatures, capable of bringing good luck to the people who housed them.

To honor these treasured pets, wealthy families dressed them in jewels and fed them treats fit for royalty. When the cats died, they were mummified. As a sign of mourning, the cat owners shaved off their eyebrows, and continued to mourn until their eyebrows grew back. Art from ancient Egypt shows statues and paintings of every type of feline. Cats were so special that those who killed them, even by accident, were sentenced to death.

According to Egyptian mythology, gods and goddesses had the power to transform themselves into different animals. Only one deity, the goddess named Bastet, had the power to become a cat. In the city of Per-Bast, a beautiful temple was built, and people came from all over to experience its splendor.

1 Answer 1

The image is the central section on the east wall of the Osiris chapel in the Temple of Seti I at Abydos.

There is a high resolution image of the drawing made by Amice Calverley, and published in the third volume of her description of the Temple of Seti I at Abydos, available from the Ancient Egypt Foundation.

The third volume of her description is also available on their website.

Seti I is shown on the left as Osiris (Egyptian wsir) and carries the usual symbols of authority - the crook and the flail. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this image is the composite crown that SETI is wearing. This, together with the ram's horns, shows that the deceased King was being given the attributes of the god Amun-Ra in addition to those of Osiris.

Thoth is actually dressed as priest in this instance. He is standing before Seti and holding the Ankh or "Key of Life" to the nose of the deceased King, so giving him life in the afterlife.

In his other hand, Thoth is holding the lily and papyrus 'wands' of Upper and Lower Egypt (in this case, you can see the heads of the plants more clearly in the drawing than the photograph). Gods and goddesses are often portrayed carrying these, and they had a particluar significance in Egyptian 'magic'.

Around the wands are twined Uraeuses which in turn wear the Red Deshret crown of Lower Egypt and the white (actually painted yellow) Hedjet crown of Upper Egypt, once again symbolising the unified kingdom of Egypt.

The objects between Seti and Thoth appear to be Nemset libation vessels placed on stands and topped with lotus flowers. The Nemset was a kind of vase with a spout that was used to sprinkle water or other liquids during purification rites. These appear not infrequently in temple and tomb reliefs, and are often inscribed with hieroglyphic texts. There is certainly a border on the vessels here, but I can't make out any inscription inside it.

There are some particularly nice examples in the temple complex at Abydos that allow us to observe more detail.

For example, one in the Inner Osiris Hall of the temple of Seti I:

There are even reliefs showing Nemset vessels in use, as for example this relief in the second hypostyle hall:

Even with the high resolution image, the detail of the hieroglyphs is difficult to make out on a mobile phone screen, so transliteration & translation is probably out of the question from me for now (not to mention the time involved).

I know that translations were published by Alan Gardiner (probably through the Egypt Exploration Society). They may also have been included in Breasted's Ancient Records of Egypt, and possibly even now be available online.

However, I did a quick Google search, and found that the hieroglyphs have been transcribed, transliterated and translated into French on the website.

(A brief review of their site suggests that they have done this with most, if not all, of the surviving texts from the Temple of Seti at Abydos).

What is the meaning of the scarab beetle in ancient Egypt?

The fact that this beetle lays the eggs in a mass of manure, there they incubate and, apparently spontaneously (by means of an alleged self-creation) new beetles arise, was put in parallel with the birth of the Sun and with a concept of metamorphosis.

In addition, this insect pushes the ball of excrement, a fact that was put in relation to the idea that the insect was responsible for dragging the solar disk until the birth of the star occurred in the morning.

The beetle was an eminently masculine divinity, but curiously, around 3,000 BC we also found it as a representative of the goddess Neith.

The iconographic form of this animal, for funerary purposes, has received, in the Glyptics, the name of scarab, while when a stylization of the beetle is reproduced, without having the anatomical details of it it is called a beetle and can take the form of plate, tablet, button, etc.

The first Scarabs of the end of the Old Kingdom lacked any type of inscription and had no funeral connotations.

In the Middle Kingdom they began to be used more regularly and during the New Kingdom they became an essential element.

A series of inscriptions are recorded on the base and used as stamps. On the other hand, we know that during the New Kingdom some were used to commemorate important royal acts, as a vehicle of royal propaganda, and that others were integrated as part, since then, essential in the funeral field. The beetle, at this time, is the symbol of rebirth.

Among the most important Scarabs we have already mentioned the essential “Scarabs” of heart, which were included in the mummy from the Middle Kingdom as a theoretical substitute for the heart.

The idea was to engrave a magical religious text on the back, Chapter 30 of the “Book of the Dead”, whereby this body organ, site of the acts on earth, was not able to testify against the deceased in the moment of being weighed in the balance, since it would determine if the deceased was worthy of a future life.

Another type of beetle, the Steraspis squamosa, was represented from the Old Kingdom, especially in pieces of jewelry.

This is the beetle that is on the bracelets of queen Hetepheres, preserved in Boston.

Bracelet of queen Hetepheres

In Kritsky’s opinion (1993) it could have been related to Osiris, since these animals feed on the tamarisk, and this was one of the trees in which it was understood that Osiris’s body was stranded when he was killed and thrown into the river by his brother Set. In this way, Steraspis squamosa could also symbolize rebirth.

The Darkling Beetle was also represented. These insects have the ability to hide their legs and wrap themselves in a kind of shroud when they feel threatened, and remain in this position for a while.

Its similarity with a mummy could be the cause of representation (Kritsky 1993). A clear example of this insect is a necklace with pendants in the form of Tenebrionidae “Darkling Beetle” found in Giza, dating back to the end of Dynasty IV or beginning of the V that today is in the Cairo Museum (JE 72334).

Finally, the Rhinoceros beetle is among the objects that have bequeathed us from Ancient Egypt. In this way a small bronze sarcophagus found today in the Louvre Museum (E 3957) shows one of these animals. It is from the Ptolemaic Era and has an inscription that relates it to Ra.

A pendant from tomb of Tutankhamun. Two baboons with moon discs on their heads worship the sun god in scarab beetle form. He holds up a carnelian solar disc and all three sit inside a solar barque which carries the sun and moon across the sky. It is made from gold, lapis lazuli, carnelian, glass paste and other semi precious stones. New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, reign of Tutankhamun, ca. 1332-1323 BC. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Demeter’s Significance

Demeter, the Corn-Mother, was considered a very important goddess in the ancient world. She was the one that bestowed blessings upon harvesters. She was also known as Mother-Earth in pre-Hellenic cults and cults of Minoan Crete.

Demeter has been called “the Great Mother Demeter”, as her presence prevents crops from dying and drought. This title of hers later went to her daughter Persephone.

Demeter is venerated for revealing the art of sowing crops and plowing to mankind. It was primarily for this reason why she was called the “Gentle queen of the harvest and the mother of the land”.


Mafdet was the first known cat-headed deity in ancient Egypt. During the First Dynasty (c. 3100 BC – c. 2900 BC), she was regarded as protector of the pharaoh's chambers against snakes, scorpions and evil. She was often also depicted with a head of a leopard (Panthera pardus). [8] [9] She was particularly prominent during the reign of Den. [10]

The deity Bastet is known from at least the Second Dynasty (c. 2890 BC – c. 2686 BC) onwards. At the time, she was depicted with a lion (Panthera leo) head. Seals and stone vessels with her name were found in the tombs of the pharaohs Khafre and Nyuserre Ini, indicating that she was regarded as protector since the mid 30th century BC during the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties. [11] A wall painting in the Fifth Dynasty's burial ground at Saqqara shows a small cat with a collar, suggesting that tamed African wildcats were kept in the pharaonic quarters by the 26th century BC. [12]

Amulets with cat heads came into fashion in the 21st century BC during the 11th Dynasty. [4] A mural from this period in the tomb of Baqet III depicts a cat in a hunting scene confronting a rat-like rodent. [13]

A tomb at the necropolis Umm El Qa'ab contained 17 cat skeletons dating to the early 20th century BC. Next to the skeletons stood small pots that are thought to have contained milk for the cats. [15] Several tomb murals in the Theban Necropolis show cats in domestic scenes. These tombs belonged to nobles and high-ranking officials of the 18th Dynasty and were built in the 15th and 14th centuries BC. The murals show a cat sitting under a chair during a buffet, eating meat or fish some show it in the company of a goose or a monkey. A cat in hunting and fowling scenes is another recurring motif in murals of Theban tombs. [16]

The first known indication for the mummification of a cat was found in an elaborately carved limestone sarcophagus dated to about 1350 BC. This cat is assumed to have been Prince Thutmose’s beloved pet. [17]

From the 22nd Dynasty at around the mid 950s BC onwards, the deity Bastet and her temple in the city of Bubastis grew in popularity. She is now shown only with a small cat head. [2] [11] Domestic cats (Felis catus) were increasingly worshiped and considered sacred. When they died, they were embalmed, coffined and buried in cat cemeteries. [18] The domestic cat was regarded as living incarnation of Bastet who protects the household against granivores, whereas the lion-headed deity Sekhmet was worshipped as protector of the pharaohs. [19] During the reign of Pharaoh Osorkon II in the 9th century BC, the temple of Bastet was enlarged by a festival hall. [20] Cat statues and statuettes from this period exist in diverse sizes and materials, including solid and hollow cast bronze, alabaster and faïence. [21] [22]

Mummifying animals grew in popularity during the Late Period of ancient Egypt from 664 BC onwards. Mummies were used for votive offerings to the associated deity, mostly during festivals or by pilgrims. [7] Catacombs from the New Kingdom period in the Bubastis, Saqqara and Beni Hasan necropoli were reused as cemeteries for mummies offered to Bastet. [5]

In the mid 5th century BC, Herodotus described the annual festival at the Bubastis temple as the largest in the country, attended by several hundred thousand pilgrims. [23]

During the Hellenistic period between 323 and 30 BC, the goddess Isis became associated with Bastet and cats, as indicated by an inscription at the Temple of Edfu: “Isis is the soul of Bastet”. In this period, cats were systematically bred to be killed and to be mummified as sacrifices to the gods. [19]

As described by Diodorus Siculus, killing a cat was regarded a serious crime. In the years between 60 and 56 BC, outraged people lynched a Roman for killing a cat, although pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes tried to intervene. [24]

Cats and religion began to be disassociated after Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC. [2] A series of decrees and edicts issued by Roman Emperors in the 4th and 5th centuries AD gradually curtailed the practice of paganism and pagan rituals in Egypt. Pagan temples were impounded and sacrifices prohibited by 380 AD. Three edicts issued between 391 and 392 prohibited pagan rituals and burial ceremonies at all cult sites. Death penalty for offenders was introduced in 395, and the destruction of pagan temples decreed in 399. By 415, the Christian church received all property that was formerly dedicated to paganism. Pagans were exiled by 423, and crosses replaced pagan symbols following a decree from 435. [25]

Egypt has since experienced a decline in the veneration once held for cats. [19] They were still respected in the 15th century, when Arnold von Harff travelled to Egypt and observed mamluk warriors treating cats with honour and empathy. [26] Gentle treatment of cats is part of Islamic tradition. [27]

In 1799, members of the French Commission des Sciences et des Arts surveyed the old city of Lycopolis near Asyut for the first time and found mummified cats and remains of other animals. [28] They also found mummified cats and cat skeletons in the Theban Necropolis. [29] [30] In the 1820s, the Louvre Museum exhibited cat statues made of wood, bronze, and enameled pottery that originated mostly in Bubastis. [31]

In 1830, Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg accounted of having observed three different small cat forms in Egypt: the jungle cat, the African wildcat, and a sacred cat that was intermediate in size between the jungle cat and the domestic cat. He called this cat Felis bubastis. [32]

The Egypt Exploration Society funded excavations in Bubastis in the late 1880s. Édouard Naville accounted of numerous cat statues already available in Cairo shops at the time. At the city's cemetery of cats, he and colleagues emptied several large pits up to a volume of 20 m 3 (720 cu ft) filled with cat and Egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon) bones. [33] Among the bones, some embalming material, porcelain and bronze objects, beads and ornaments, and statues of Bastet and Nefertem were also found. By 1889, the cemetery was considered exhausted. [34]

In the late 1880s, more than 200,000 mummified animals most of them cats, were found in the cemetery of Beni Hasan in central Egypt. [35] In 1890, William Martin Conway wrote about excavations in Speos Artemidos near Beni Hasan: "The plundering of the cemetery was a sight to see, but one had to stand well windward. The village children came from day to day and provided themselves with the most attractive mummies they could find. These they took down the river bank to sell for the smallest coin to passing travelers. The path became strewn with mummy cloth and bits of cats' skulls and bones and fur in horrid positions, and the wind blew the fragments about and carried the stink afar." [36] [37] In 1890, a shipment of thousands of animal mummies reached Liverpool. Most of them were cat mummies. A large part was sold as fertiliser, a small part was purchased by the zoological museum of the city's university college. [35]

The Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon received hundreds of cat mummies excavated by Gaston Maspero at Beni Hasan, Sakkara and Thebes. The cats were of all ages from adult to kittens with deciduous teeth. Some of them were contained in statues and sarcophagi. The larger ones were bandaged in cloth of different colours with decorated heads and ears formed of rubberized tissue. [38]

The Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale funded excavations near Faiyum where Pierre Jouguet found a tomb full of cat mummies in 1901. It was located in the midst of tombs with crocodile mummies. [39]

In 1907, the British Museum received a collection of 192 mummified cats and 11 small carnivores excavated at Gizeh by Flinders Petrie. The mummies probably date to between 600 and 200 BC. [6] Two of these cat mummies were radiographed in 1980. The analysis revealed that they were deliberately strangulated before they reached the age of two years. They were probably used to supply the demand for mummified cats as votive offerings. [40]

Remains of 23 cats were found in the early 1980s in a small mastaba tomb at the archaeological site Balat in Dakhla Oasis. The tomb was established during the Old Kingdom of Egypt in the 25th century BC and reused later. The cats were probably mummified as tissue shreds were still stuck in their bones. [41]

Excavations in the Bubasteum area at Saqqara in the early 1980s yielded 200 cat mummies in the tomb of the Vizier Aperel. [42] Another 184 cat mummies were found in a different part of this tomb in the 1990s, comprising 11 packets with a few cat bones and 84 packets containing mud, clay and pebbles. Radiographic examination showed that mostly young cats were mummified most cats died of skull fractures and had dislocated spinal bones, indicating that they were beaten to death. In this site, the tomb of Tutankhamun's wet nurse Maia was discovered in 1996, which contained cat mummies next to human mummies. [5] In 2001, the skeleton of a male lion was found in this tomb that also showed signs of mummification. [43] It was about nine years old, probably lived in captivity for many years and showed signs of malnutrition. It had probably lived and died in the Ptolemaic period. [44] Mummified remains of 335 domestic and 29 jungle cats were excavated in the catacombs of Anubis at Saqqara during works started in 2009. [45]

In the 2nd century, Polyaenus accounted of a stratagem allegedly deployed by the Persian king Cambyses II during the Battle of Pelusium (525 BC): Cambyses II ordered placing of cats and other animals venerated by Egyptians before the Persian front lines. Egyptians purportedly stopped their defending operations, and the Persians then conquered Pelusium. [46]

Crowns of Egypt

Headdresses and Crowns of Egypt
Discover the history and religious beliefs surrounding the different types and styles of the crown of Egypt. The red, white and double crown of Egypt feature in many images, hieroglyphs, pictures and amulets found in ancient Egypt. The different styles of the royal crown of Egypt all had meanings, some were worn by the Pharaoh and others by the ancient Egyptian gods. The different types of crowns of Egypt represented status, power and authority of both the Egyptian Pharaohs and gods. The crowns associated with Egypt included the Atef, the Deshret, the Hedjet and the Pshent. Headdresses include the Khepresh that was the blue crown that was worn in battle.

Facts about the Crowns of Egypt
The different crowns of Egypt are depicted in ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics , art, artefacts and relics. Examples of the crowns and headdresses can be found in the tombs, temples and manuscripts of the ancient Egyptians. The following fact File provides a fast overview of the different Crowns and Headdresses worn by the ancient Egyptians. Discover the names, a description and the significance and symbolism of the different styles of Headdresses and different types of Crowns of Egypt.

The symbolism and significance of the butterfly in ancient Egypt

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: Ancient Egyptian art and artefacts reveal a great deal about the culture and beliefs of this civilization. It was a civilization steeped in myth, symbolism and imagery. Tomb art has been extensively analysed and studied in an effort to reveal the essential way of life of the Ancient Egyptians, their religious beliefs and their philosophy of life. It is agreed that symbolism was an inherent part of their lives and beliefs. They looked to nature and observed the behaviour of animals, plants, the environment and also the weather to attempt to rationalize the world they lived in. Their close observation of behaviour patterns in nature resulted in a complex hierarchy of gods and goddesses who were accountable for successful living. Among the animal kingdom, certain animals gained such distinction that they were linked to certain deities. The scarab beetle is one such creature. Insects featured variously in their art, their myths and their belief in magic. While the scarab beetle is possibly the most documented of the insects, other insects such as the bee, the fly, the locust and the praying mantis have all been investigated. The butterfly features frequently in Ancient Egyptian art and yet has not been the subject of in-depth study. This investigation attempts to examine the symbolism and significance of the butterfly in Ancient Egypt. Richard Wilkinson (1994) has provided a framework for analysing symbolism in Egyptian art. He suggests nine aspects which can be examined in order to reveal symbolism. In this study, a selection of art from various dynasties is systematically examined according to these nine aspects. Each art work portrays the butterfly. Through this careful examination it is hoped that a clearer indication of the role of the butterfly in Ancient Egypt will be obtained. Having discussed all nine aspects for each of the sources, a discussion and various conclusions follow which look at the trends which appear. Certain patterns emerge which indicate that the butterfly does indeed play a significant role as a symbol in Ancient Egypt.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Antieke Egiptiese kuns en artefakte openbaar baie oor die kultuur en oortuigings van hierdie beskawing. Dit was 'n beskawing ryk aan mites, simboliek en beelde. Grafkuns is deeglik ontleed en bestudeer in 'n poging om die wesenlike lewenswyse van die antieke Egiptenare, hul godsdienstige oortuigings en lewensfilosofie te openbaar. Daar word saamgestem dat simboliek 'n inherente deel van hul lewens en oortuigings uitgemaak het. Hulle het op die natuur gesteun en die gedrag van diere, plante, die omgewing en ook die weer waargeneem om te probeer om hul lewenswêreld te verklaar. Hul noukeurige waarneming van natuurverskynsels het tot 'n komplekse hiërargie van gode en godinne gelei wat vir 'n suksesvolle lewe verantwoordelik was. Sekere diere in die diereryk was so besonders dat hulle met sekere gode en godinne verbind was. Die skarabee kewer is een so 'n skepsel. Insekte verskyn onder andere in hul kuns, hul mites en hul geloof in magie. Terwyl die skarabee moontlik die mees gedokumenteerde insek was, is ander insekte soos bye, vlieë, sprinkane, en die bidsprinkaan ook almal ondersoek. Die skoenlapper verskyn gereeld in die antieke Egiptiese kuns, maar was nog nie die onderwerp van 'n grondige studie nie. Hierdie studie poog om die simboliek en belangrikheid van die skoenlapper in antieke Egipte te ontleed. Richard Wilkinson (1994) verskaf 'n raamwerk vir die ontleding van simboliek in Egiptiese kuns. Hy het nege aspekte voorgestel wat bestudeer kan word om die simboliek te openbaar. In hierdie studie, word 'n seleksie kuns van verskillende dinastieë, sistematies aan die hand van dié nege aspekte ontleed. Elke kunswerk beeld die skoenlapper uit. Deur hierdie noukeurige ondersoek, word daar gehoop dat die rol van die skoenlapper in antieke Egipte duideliker voorskyn. Na die bespreking van al nege aspekte vir elk van die bronne, volg daar 'n bespreking met verskillende gevolgtrekkings wat kyk na die tendense wat voorkom. Sekere patrone kom te voorsyn wat daarop dui dat die skoenlapper wel 'n belangrike rol as 'n simbool in antieke Egipte gespeel het.


Egyptian men and women wore makeup. They used black kohl eyeliner to line their eyes and darken their eyelashes and eyebrows. They colored their eyelids with blue or green eye shadow made from powdered minerals. Henna dye was used to color their lips and nails.

The charred remains of frankincense were also crushed and used to make the distinctive eye-liner seen on ancient Egyptians, as depicted in hieroglyphics of pharaohs. It also had uses in perfumery, traditional medicine, and even skincare.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about Egypt in the ancient world. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to Ancient Egypt.

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