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History of the Egyptian Religion, part IV: Middle Kingdom

Author: Mirjam

Brought to you by Akhet

First Intermediate - Middle Kingdom (ca 2181 -1786 bc.)

The powers that built the solar temples of the 5th dynasty and the pyramids of the 6th dynasty weakened towards the end of the Old Kingdom, perhaps as a result of eroding economics, leaving the King less than divine. The power passed over into the hands of the nobles whose tombs now were larger and more elaborately decorated than the royalty's. The state cult was that of the sun-god Re at Heliopolis, whose priesthood and temples became more and more wealthy and powerful. When, by the end of the 6th dynasty Egypt was threatened by external forces, the decline was inevitable.

When the divinity of the king was disputed due to the collapse of royal authority, a gradual process of democratization of religious and funerary beliefs began. The nobles now claimed to have the right to individual immortality, something which hitherto had been the king's prerogative. In time everyone hoped for 'Eternal Life'. This coincided with the rise of the cult of Osiris.

The Middle Kingdom

During the dynasties 10, 11 and 12, unity and order was slowly reinstated and temples which had been destroyed due to neglect were restored and improved. At this time the state cult of Re was replaced with not only the cult of Osiris but also other deities important to the new kings:

At Thebes in dynasty 11 the falcon-headed Montu became a main deity, although his cult center and origin probably was at Hermonthis.

During the 12th dynasty Amun became the state god in Thebes and the temple to Amun at Karnak was developed into one of the greatest religious centers in Egypt. It is believed that at the same time the temple to Amun´s consort Mut was founded. This was the work of Amenemes I whose son Sesostris I built an exquisite shrine at Karnak, intended for the bark of Amun to rest at during festivals and processions. Other temples which were built or elaborated on were the temple of Ptah at Memphis, Hathor at Dendera, Re-Atum at Heliopolis, Min at Koptos and Osiris at Abydos.

The Cult of Osiris

When the Old Kingdom collapsed and ordinary man could no longer rely on the state and the divinity of the king, they began to look elsewhere for security in life and ways to immortality. And an obvious choice was Osiris, whom hitherto only the king had been able to become.

The name

The name Osiris is the Greek form of the hieroglyph 'Wesir' or Wsr', which is thought to mean 'He who is strong', but no definite conclusion has been reached. It is also thought to mean 'the place of the eye'

His authority as a king and a divine judge of the underworld probably came from his role as a source of fertility and his ability to regenerate life. Just as he had triumphed over death in the vegetation world, so was he thought to triumph in a wider sense over the deceased in the kingdom of the dead. His experience of suffering and his ability to conquer death made him a ruler not over the living but over the dead, thus promising them eternal life.


The origins of Osiris are unclear, what seems certain is that he was a fertility god from the beginning, personifying the regrowth of vegetation. The country became parched and 'died' from draught every year, but was brought to new growth and life by the inundation, and each of these stages seemed to correspond to a chapter in the myth of Osiris.

Sometimes he is called the 'Lord of Busiris', and it was probably here that his association with an earlier deity Andjety arose. It was also in Busiris that Osiris acquired his symbol, the 'djed-pillar' which came to symbolize strength and resurrection, and the royal insignia the crook and the flail. But there are also some evidence in the Pyramid Texts pointing at the fact that Abydos might have been the first cult center, where Osiris seem to have incorporated an earlier god worshipped there, Khenti-amentiu.

Besides being the ruler of the underworld, in his capacity as a vegetation god he was also regarded a corn-deity, with association to an early corn-god Neper and connects to other Near Eastern deities like Adonis, Dionysos, Tammus, but a common origin has not been proven.

The myth

There exits no written account of his myth, so it is surmised it was handed down by oral tradition. The earliest and most complete version is by Plutharch and thus it is Greek in style and of a much later period in history. It seems however that his role can be traced in the Pyramid Texts (Old Kingdom) and New Kingdom or Graeco-Roman inscriptions and reliefs on some temple walls refers to rites held at annual festivals held to Osiris.

In later days this myth tells of him as a king who ruled Egypt at an early period, who brought civilization and agriculture to the people before he was brutally murdered by his brother Seth and later resurrected by his spouse the faithful Isis. He was depicted in mummiform, wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and carrying the royal insignia.


From Dynasty 12 onwards the annual Mystery Plays were enacted by priests at the cult center of Osiris at Abydos. In these were acted out the events in the life and death of Osiris, it was an occasion of great rejoicing, not only for the priests but also for pilgrims who used to travel from many miles around to participate. Some of the rites were held outside of the temple precinct while others, the most sacred ones, were enacted in the most secluded parts of the temple.

At this point Abydos held a unique position as a center of pilgrimage. Many people arranged to be buried there, or to have their mummies transported there before being taken back to be entombed. It was also common to have a stele set up there. As it was believed that this was the burial place of Osiris, it was desirable to associate oneself with Abydos in some way, to ensure resurrection.

But the exact location of the first cult place of Osiris is yet uncertain. Right behind the 19th Dynasty temple built by Sethi I at Abydos lies a large and unexplained building, which is called the 'Osireion'. This was thought to be the burial place of Osiris.

In the temple of Sethi I, which was almost certainly built upon some earlier temples, there is a row of chambers set in line with the Osireion. The reliefs on the walls depict the rites which culminate in the raising of the djed pillar, which probably marked the height of the festivities, at which point the god was believed to come to life again.

Eternity for everyone

What was begun at Abydos during the 11th Dynasty, perhaps as a counterweight to the sun-cult at Heliopolis, continued and developed
into the most important religious center of all of Egypt. By the Ptolemaic times the festivities of the resurrection of Osiris lasted for about eighteen days and were held not only at Abydos, but at every other major town in Egypt. By dramatizing the life and death and resurrection of Osiris, the priests sought to ensure that the inundation and the regrowth of the crops would be returning to Egypt.

Even if these rites were also closely associated with the coronation and the jubilee of the king, their most important reason for their widespread popularity was their offer of immortality to everyone regardless of social status. To gain access to the realm of Osiris meant having to pass before the tribunal of divine judges in the Hall of Judgment, affirming one's purity by reciting the Negative confession. If deemed worthy and innocent of serious crimes, everyone was entitled to enjoy an eternity in the democratic realm of Osiris tilling and harvesting their allotted piece of land, the 'Field of Reeds', and enjoying their former earthly pleasures without pain and suffering.

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