Abydos (the Greek version of the ancient Egyptian name Abdu) is situated on the western bank of the Nile about seven kilometres west of the modern town of Balyana. It made its debut on the stage of Egypt’s ancient history even before the Dynastic period and retained its aura of sanctity longer than any other site in Egypt. This was because Abydos was the cult centre of Osiris, Egypt’s most beloved hero and the central figure of the country’s most popular myth.
The Osiris myth is one of the most poignant, and probably the most well-known of ancient Egypt. Surviving in oral tradition and variably recounted over the centuries, it has come down to us in many versions and with many contradictions. The earliest Egyptian sources are the Pyramid Texts (c. 2345-2181 BC), where the story is not in connected form. The most complete version is given by Plutarch, the Greek writer (c. 46-c. 126 AD).
According to the earliest version of the myth, Osiris, with his devoted wife Isis at his side, was a just god who ruled wisely and well. His brother Set, however, was jealous of his popularity and secretly sought to do away with him. At a rural festival Set enticed his visitors to try out a marvellously fashioned chest for size. When it came to Osiris’ turn, he unsuspectingly obliged, unaware that it had been made to his exact measurements. As soon as he lay down in it Set and his accomplices fell on the chest, shut the lid, and cast it into the Nile to be carried away by the flood.
The tormented Isis, this time in the company of her sister, the goddess Nephthys, set out once more on a harrowing journey to collect the pieces of the body. Having done so, she and Nephthys called on the gods to help them bind the parts together and restore the body to life. Isis crooned incantations until breath came to the nostrils of Osiris, sight to his eyes and movement to his limbs. Then, the devoted wife, in the form of a bird, descended on Osiris and received his seed. When Isis gave birth to her son, Horus, she nursed him in solitude, and raised him to manhood to avenge his father’s death.
The tales of Isis’ devotion to her son Horus are many and varied. She brought him up secretly in the marshes of the Delta until he was strong. Then Horus set out in search of Set, his father’s slayer, and many and terrible were the battles between them. Horus, however, triumphed over evil, and emerged as victor. With the approval of the gods the throne was restored to him.
The Pyramid Texts are full of references to the faithful wife seeking the body of her husband. The weeping and lamentations of Isis and Nephthys for Osiris were a widespread and sacred expression of sorrow to the Egyptians. They loved to dwell on the loyalty and devotion of Isis, the evil of Set and the filial piety of Horus. They rewove the tale in their many oral renditions and dramatized them in public performances. (For later versions of the myth see pages 184 and 186.)