Osiris: The Ruler of the Underworld

Weighing of the Heart | Courtesy of Charolette Lichirie Collection of Egyptian Art

In accordance with the Heliopolis creation myth, Atum was the first god to exist. The god, lonely, then decided to create the god Shu and the goddess Tefnut. The union of these two gods resulted in the birth of gods Geb and Nut. Finally, the children of Geb and Nut were Osiris, Set, Isis, and Nephthys.1

Osiris was the first ruler in Egyptian history, and he brought civilization to the land. Because of Osiris, agriculture, laws, religious institutions, and culture were given to the people of Egypt.  During his reign was a time of prosperity for the ancient Egyptians. People were happy and so were the gods, except his brother Set. Set grew jealous, and resentful of Osiris’ success. Soon he began to plot his brother’s demise.2

Hieroglyphic of Osiris on the Wall of Nefertari’s Tomb | Courtesy of the Burial Place of Nefertari

Set threw a lavish and delicious banquet for his brother and his constituents. During the party, Set stood up and brought out a beautiful coffin, and announced a game. He told everyone at the feast that the person who could fit in the coffin could keep it. Unknown to the party attendees, Set had the coffin made to his brother’s exact measurements. One by one each of the guests attempted to fit into the coffin but were unsuccessful. Many tried to squeeze and shove themselves inside the carved box, but no one could fit comfortably inside the coffin. Finally, Osiris stood up to take his turn. As Osiris climbed into the box, Set seized the opportunity he had been plotting for. He shut and sealed the coffin with Osiris inside, and threw it into the Nile River. The river waters rushed Osiris’ living body out to sea, before finally resting in a tamarisk tree that was growing on the banks near Byblos in Phoenicia. Osiris, unable to break the seal on the coffin, struggled and fought for his life before dying in the very device intended to bury him.3

Isis, his wife and sister, was distraught by the events that transpired at Set’s feast. She decided that she would not rest until her husband’s body was found. Eventually, Isis succeeded in finding and retrieving Osiris’ body, and brought it back to Egypt. Once Isis and Osiris’ body were safely back in their homeland, the goddess then looked for a way to resurrect her beloved husband. As Isis searched for a solution, Set heard about his brother’s return. Set knew he had to act quickly, in order to make sure his plan for Osiris’ demise remained successful. Set found his brother’s body and cut it up into many pieces, and scattered them all over Egypt. Isis, upset about Set’s jealousy and interference, went on an expedition to find her husband, every piece of him. The goddess managed to retrieve all of Osiris’ body parts, except for one, to continue with her plan of revival. Isis was unable to find her husband’s penis, because it had been eaten by an oxyrhyncus fish. Regardless, Isis still managed to bring her husband back to life. During the resurrection, despite Osiris missing his genitalia, the god Horus was conceived during this time. Although Osiris was now alive and had co-created a son with his wife, he was still incomplete. Because of his missing body part he was unable to rule the land of the living. So Osiris was crowned the ruler of the Underworld.4

Osiris and his Wife Isis on Papyrus | Courtesy of the Book of the Dead

The word Osiris comes from the Egyptian word “Wsir.” This word can be translated to ‘powerful’ or ‘mighty’ in English.5 His job as ruler of the Underworld is to judge each Egyptian soul to determine their eligibility for the afterlife. In Egyptian art, the ruler of the Underworld is shown as being wrapped up from the chest downwards in mummy bandages. Another important feature of Osiris’ is his skin color, which is either green or black. He is typically these colors because green represents the color of rebirth and black symbolizes the color of fertility of the Nile Valley.6

Statue of the God Osiris | Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Osiris judges the dead by weighing their hearts against a feather. If your heart is light, then you are allowed to pass into the Land of Two Fields. There are three requirements for entering the afterlife. First, your name had to be written down. Second, you had to have a preserved body and a tomb. Lastly, during your life you had to perform good deeds so your heart would be light enough to pass the weighing test when you met Anubis or Osiris in the underworld. The first two criteria were to insure that Ba and Ka, the two parts of ones soul, would be able to find its body each night to rest. The Ba was ones personality, and each day it would go and watch over ones family members in the land of the living. While ones Ka was a life force, it was unique to each person, and it would go each day to indulge in the Land of the Two Fields. If one lacked a written name on ones tomb or a preserved body then ones Ba and Ka would get lost and have no place to rest each night.7

  1. Don Nardo, Egyptian mythology (Detroit: Lucent Books an imprint of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013), 48.
  2. Don Nardo, Egyptian mythology (Detroit: Lucent Books an imprint of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013), 49.
  3. Don Nardo, Egyptian mythology (Detroit: Lucent Books an imprint of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013), 50.
  4. Don Nardo, Egyptian mythology (Detroit: Lucent Books an imprint of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013), 52-53.
  5. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Egyptian mythology,” by Shari P. Miller.
  6. Robert A. Armour, Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt (New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2001), 73, 141, 177.
  7. Anthony Spalinger, “The Limitations of Formal Ancient Egyptian Religion,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, no. 4 (1998): 241.
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  • This story was very interesting and kept me reading the whole time. I enjoyed learning more about Osiris prior to his days as the ruler of the underworld. The ironic thing is, Osiris will be waiting for his brother and get to deny him afterlife.

  • I always love reading about mythology and the sibling rivalry that always ends up with one of them dead and the other one struggling to live up to their expectations. Osiris himself was very powerful and fair in whatever he was in charge of. It is a shame that his wife was not able to put all of his body parts together to bring him back. I do believe that he rules the underworld with a good heart and with no anger. I wonder what happened to his brother Set when he found out that Osiris is now the ruler of the underworld?

  • I love reading about different cultures and this article describes the story of Osiris very well. What intrigued me the most about this story is the idea of “Ba” and “Ka” and the requirements to get into the underworld. Reading about the underworld as being a place where one would like to go after death was interesting because, as a believer in heaven and hell, I quickly assumed the underworld was associated with hell. This was a very well written and informative article and I would love to learn more about Egyptian beliefs.

  • I remember reading briefly about this but I never knew the full story. I think topics like this are so interesting because we hardly hear about the gods of other religions. It really makes you appreciate other cultures and beliefs because not every culture is the same and not every religion is the same. Overall this article was very well written and organized.

  • I had heard a little of this story but not the full thing. Its intriguing to read about ancient times because its so different from now. I love how Isis did whatever she could to bring her husband back from the dead. She truly loved him. Its sad that his own brother killed him all because of jealousy. All in all this article was well written and was very interesting.

  • It never fails that reading about ancient religion is interesting and head scratching, that is coming from a 21st century person with monotheistic beliefs. It is extremely fascinating to see the similarities between ancient Egyptian, Greek and also some aspects of Christianity. All of them have an afterlife, and the way you lived your life depends on if you go to happiness or misery. It is also interesting how these ancient people think of their gods, as basically divine people. They get have children and life similar to human lives, they are just immortal.

  • It is always interesting for me to read about other people’s cultures and beliefs, especially the stories. This article piece was very well written and informative about the history of an Egyptian ancient civilization. I love how Isis was such an exceptional and devoted wife to bring her husband back from the dead no matter the cost. It is also refreshing to read more about other civilizations and not only Greek/Roman mythology.

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