John Locke was one of the middle section survivors of Oceanic Flight 815. Before the crash his father conned him for one of his kidneys and later pushed him out of a window, breaking his back, causing him to have to be in wheelchair. After this he spent the next four years of his life paralyzed from the waist down and looking for his purpose in life. He was then told by Matthew Abaddon that he must attend an Australian Walkabout after which he found himself aboard Flight 815. His paralysis was immediately healed upon crashing on the Island, which ultimately led him to believe that he had some sort of special connection to the Island. John was very handy with tools and a good hunter of boar and other animals of the Island, which proved to be very helpful in the survival of the group. Seen as antithetical to Jack Shephard, he and Jack were philosophical opposites and used to share leadership among the survivors.
When Locke discovered a Hatch on the Island, he was determined to open it, insisting that everything happened for a reason. He opened it and took it upon himself to continue pushing the button, believing that this was his purpose. However, Locke soon lost his faith in the Island and stopped pushing the button which ultimately caused the discharge. After this, Locke looked for his purpose again and led the mission to rescue Jack from the Others. Locke eventually decided to stay with the Others and with Sawyer’s help, he passed the test of killing his father. However, his apparent ability to commune with Jacob made John a threat to Ben, who shot him and left him for dead in the DHARMA Grave.
An apparition of Walt (possibly the Man in Black or the Island itself) found Locke and told him that he still had work to do. (This phrase was previously spoken by the MiB as Christian, hinting that he was impersonating Walt.) After Jack called the freighter for rescue, John (convinced that the freighter had no intention of helping them) led a group of his supporters to the Barracks for safety, where they were attacked by mercenaries. After the Oceanic Six left and Ben moved the Island, John assumed leadership of the Others, but was immediately separated from them as a result of the Island skipping through time. Locke left the Island via the Orchid, in an attempt to stop the erratic flashes through time and bring back everyone who left. After trying and failing to reunite them, John attempted to take his own life, only to be stopped and then strangled by Ben. His death was used to convince the others to return to the Island. John’s corpse was placed upon Ajira 316 and crashed on Hydra Island along with the plane in 2007.
After the crash, Locke appeared to have been resurrected, rejoining the Others and embarking on a mission to assassinate Jacob. However, his body was discovered in the hold of Flight 316 some days later. John Locke had been dead all along and had been replaced by The Man in Black. After several days he was finally buried in the graveyard. Jack later carried on and fulfilled Locke’s goal of protecting the Island.
4×11 – Cabin Fever
John Locke was born to Emily Annabeth Locke and Anthony Cooper on May 30, 1956. His mother was 15 years old when an unknown driver hit her, forcing an early delivery. Three months premature, John survived numerous illnesses; his nurses called him a miracle. John’s mother, Emily, ran out of the hospital ward upon learning that John was to be let out of his incubator for the first time and that she could hold him. Emily said she couldn’t do it, possibly referring to having to raise a child. While John’s grandmother discussed adoption with a nurse, Richard Alpert smiled at baby John from an adjoining room.
John soon entered foster care. At one point he had a foster mother named Florence, a foster sister named Melissa, and an unnamed foster brother with whom he played mousetrap. In 1961, when John was five, Richard visited, saying he ran a “school for very special children” like John.
He noticed John had drawn black scribbles attacking a stick figure. He laid several items on a table and and asked John which already belonged to him. John picked a knife and Richard left in a hurry, saying John was not ready to join his school. (“Cabin Fever”)
1×16 – Outlaws
Another of John’s foster sisters, Jeannie, fell from monkey bars and broke her neck fatally. Jeannie’s mother blamed her own negligence for Jeannie’s death, but when a Golden Retriever took up residence in Jeannie’s bedroom, she believed Jeannie’s spirit had returned to say the accident had not been her fault. Five years later, she died and the dog vanished. (“Outlaws”)
1×13 – Hearts and Minds
As a young child, Locke joined the Cub Scouts, eventually becoming a Webelos – where he learned skills such as identifying birds and tying knots. (“Hearts and Minds”)
4×11 – Cabin Fever
Teenage John’s love of science attracted bullying. In 1972, Richard approached a teacher who once freed John from a locker with a Mittelos Laboratories “summer camp” invite. John turned it down, favoring sports over science. When the teacher said John could not do those things, John responded with “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” (“Cabin Fever”)
Adulthood: Before Paralysis
1×19 – Deus Ex Machina
While working in a superstore’s toy department, Locke noticed his mother Emily stalking him. She told him he was “immaculately conceived,” paving the way for his special “destiny,” but an investigator discovered John’s living father’s identity, and a medical record of his mother’s psychiatric problems.
Acting on the information, Locke visited his father, Anthony Cooper, who invited the eager Locke on hunting trips, where the two appeared to bond. On one visit, Cooper was on a dialysis machine and revealed his kidney failure. Compassionately, Locke soon offered his kidney, and before their surgery he called their encounter an act of fate. When Locke awoke post-surgery, Cooper was gone.
The traumatized Locke was visited by his mother, who confessed his father had arranged their earlier meeting and all subsequent events to con him into giving away his kidney. Enraged, Locke drove to his father’s house, but the guard denied him entry. (“Deus Ex Machina”)
2×03 – Orientation
Locke has joined an anger management group where he trivialized members’ problems by comparing them to his own. He started a relationship with another member, Helen Norwood, who appeared to understand his state.
Locke was also in the habit of parking outside his father’s new, gated residence. At one point, his father confronted him and told him to go away. Locke nevertheless continued this stalking activity, until Helen caught him and made him choose between the two of them. (“Orientation”)
2×17 – Lockdown
During this time, he started a home inspection company called “Welcome Home.” He happened to inspect a house for Nadia, the childhood sweetheart of Sayid Jarrah.
Concurrently, Locke and Helen were living together, and he was preparing to ask for her hand in marriage, but presently, Cooper faked his death. After attending the internment, the couple were visited by people he had stiffed. Cooper revealed himself to Locke and asked his son’s help in retrieving money from an account. Locke agreed for $200,000.
Helen discovered his involvement, arriving at the scene of Locke’s delivering the money. In desperation, in the face of Helen’s outrage, he proposed, which she rejected, leaving him on bended knee and devastated. (“Lockdown”)
3×03 – Further Instructions
At some time, Locke joined a commune of farmers (including Mike and Jan) in Humboldt County, California who secretly grew and sold marijuana.
He invited Eddie, a hitchhiker into this “family,” not knowing he was an undercover police officer. Locke learned Eddie’s true identity, but could not bring himself to shoot him. When arresting the commune’s occupants, Eddie seemed to notice Locke but did not approach him. (“Further Instructions”)
Adulthood: After Paralysis
3×13 – The Man from Tallahassee
Having been conned by his father, rejected by the woman he loved, and so forth, Locke entered a state of depression, began therapy and started receiving government assistance. In 2000, he was approached by Peter Talbot, whose mother was engaged to Anthony Cooper. Suspicious, Locke contacted Cooper, threatening to expose him as a conman. Cooper initially agreed, but later had Peter killed. Cooper denied responsibility and said Mrs. Talbot had called off the wedding.
When Locke asked to verify this information, Cooper directed to a phone in front of a glass window. As Locke reached for the phone, Cooper pushed him out, dropping him eight stories, breaking his back, and paralyzing him from the waist down. (“The Man from Tallahassee”)
5×16 – The Incident, Part 1
He appeared dead until Jacob approached him and touched his shoulder. Locke gasped and opened his eyes. (“The Incident, Part 1”)
4×11 – Cabin Fever
In the hospital, Locke felt unable to enter his wheelchair, and broke down in tears at the sight of his immobile legs. In rehab, an “orderly” named Matthew Abaddon told him to go on a walkabout, even though John could not walk. (“Cabin Fever”)
Before Flight 815
1×04 – Walkabout
Sometime after his accident, Locke worked in a box company, where he was treated poorly by his boss, Randy. Locke attempted to re-enact his failed relationship with Helen with a phone sex operator who went by the same name. He invited her on a trip to Australia, but she declined, destroying his fantasy and ending the “relationship.” (“Walkabout”)
4×11 – Cabin Fever
Locke had stubbornly refused to allow his disability to affect the way he lived his life. He eventually decided to take Abaddon’s advice and go on a walkabout tour in Australia to give himself a challenge. (“Cabin Fever”)
1×04 – Walkabout
However, when he got there, the travel agent denied him access, because of his paralysis. He was left heartbroken, abandoned, and alone, as he watched the other people happily leave. (“Walkabout”)
2×19 – S.O.S.
He briefly encountered Rose at the airport, not knowing that later he would share a knowing moment with her about the healing properties of the Island. (“S.O.S.”)
1×25 – Exodus, Part 3
With no other options, he prepared to return to California aboard Flight 815. Much to his embarrassment, he had to be carried on to the plane by flight attendants. He was seated at the end of the row, in seat 24D. (“Exodus, Part 3”)
On the Island (Days 1-44)
1×01 – Pilot, Part 1
After the the crash of Flight 815, John Locke was shocked to discover that he had regained his ability to walk. At first, he walked gingerly, unable to comprehend what was happening. However, within seconds, he was running to Jack’s aid. Being able to walk again profoundly affected Locke, who, due to his self-expressed outlook as a “Man of Faith”, believed that it was his destiny to be on the Island, and that everything was happening for a reason. (“Pilot, Part 1”) (“Exodus, Part 2”)
1×02 – Pilot, Part 2
At the beach, Locke was approached by Walt who invited him to play backgammon. The two formed an unlikely friendship when Locke told Walt of the miracle that had occurred – John Locke regaining his ability to walk.
1×03 – Tabula Rasa
Locke constructed a dog whistle and used it to call Vincent, he gave him to Michael to give to Walt so they could build a relationship.
1×04 – Walkabout
Locke was the first survivor to see the Monster; he was out tracking boar after separating from Michael and Kate, and the Monster came through the trees and appeared in front of him. (“Walkabout”)
1×05 – White Rabbit
The next day, Locke saved Jack from falling off a cliff. The two conversed about Jack’s possible hallucinations, and Locke compared the situation to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He also said that everything on the Island is happening for a reason. Lastly, Locke told Jack, “I looked into the eye of this Island, and what I saw…was beautiful.” (“White Rabbit”)
1×06 – House of the Rising Sun
While checking out the caves, Jack and Kate found two bodies which Locke called “their very own Adam and Eve.” Later, Locke and Charlie talked about Charlie’s heroin problem.
Locke offered Charlie his guitar in exchange for his drugs, and Charlie handed over the heroin. (“House of the Rising Sun”)
1×07 – The Moth
Soon after this incident, Locke was responsible for beating Sayid unconscious and destroying his makeshift radio equipment which was being used to discover the origin of the distress signal. (“The Moth”)
During a trail hunt around the Island for the recently abducted Charlie and Claire, he threw a flashlight towards Boone, which he failed to catch and landed on a metal surface under the soil.
This led to the discovery of the hatch, an event which would turn out to be pivotal in the lives of the survivors of Flight 815. (“All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues”)
1×13 – Hearts and Minds
He kept it secret from the rest of the castaways, and wanted Boone to do the same. However, Boone was not quite as strong-minded as Locke; he was prepared to tell all to Shannon, his sister. Locke drugged Boone, to stop him doing so and to convince himself to give up all other attachments. (“Hearts and Minds”)
1×14 – Special
It was with Boone, also, that he discovered Claire, after her escape from the Staff. (“Special”)
1×18 – Numbers
Locke showed his caring side when he built a cradle for Claire as a birthday present, out of materials he found on the Island. (“Numbers”)
1×17 – …In Translation
Later, when the first raft was burnt, Locke gave a rousing but dishonest speech to the group blaming the Others even though he suspected Walt. He was eventually able to get Walt to confess to him. But Locke did not tell anyone else in the camp that Walt was responsible for burning the first raft. (“…In Translation”)
1×19 – Deus Ex Machina
But Locke still wanted to get into the Hatch. After spending a long time trying to think of a way to get into it, he constructed a trebuchet in a failed attempt to shatter the Hatch door’s window. Following this event, Locke had a vision. In it, he saw a Beechcraft crashing, as well as his mother pointing in its direction, and a blood-stained Boone. Also, he was confined back in his wheelchair, unable to move. The dream also mentioned a woman from Boone’s past who had died from a fall.
This dream was a sign, because, with Boone, he managed to track the plane to its resting place in the canopy. His legs had appeared to steadily cease to function, reducing him to a crawl. This meant that Boone was required to climb up to the plane. Unfortunately, though, the plane tipped and fell, nose first, to the ground, and Boone was mortally injured. Locke returned to the camp with Boone’s injured body, but fled back to the Hatch without telling Jack the true nature of Boone’s injuries.
At the Hatch, Locke explained that the Island told him what it wanted, and what he was to do next. He begged, and sobbed, pounding the door with his hands. After he did this, a light appeared in the window, before disappearing just as quickly. This seemed to re-affirm Locke’s faith. (“Deus Ex Machina”)
1×21 – The Greater Good
Locke returned to camp at Boone’s funeral, still wearing a shirt stained with Boone’s blood. He was confronted violently by Jack who demanded some sort of explanation. He was calmed down however, and soon after, he told everybody about the Hatch. However, the death of Boone and his numerous deceptions cost him much of his credibility. Jack never fully trusted him again.
Locke walked over to Shannon tentatively while she sits at the beach after Boone’s funeral and offers her Boone’s belongings. Locke tells Shannon that Boone was brave, and that he knows how it feels to lose someone you love.
Kate, Jack and Sayid run into the jungle and find Shannon with a gun pointed at Locke. Sayid intervenes and saves Locke, but caused Shannon to turn away from him. Locke admitted to Sayid the he beat him unconscious and destroyed his makeshift radio equipment. (“The Greater Good”)
1×23 – Exodus, Part 1
When Jack, Kate, Hurley and Rousseau traveled to the Black Rock to recover dynamite to blow the Hatch open, Locke was also part of the team. (“Exodus, Part 1”)
1×24 – Exodus, Part 2
During this trek, Locke was seized by the “Monster” and was almost pulled into a pit by its smoky tendrils. The “Monster” was only repelled by Kate throwing dynamite into the pit, which caused the “Monster” to flee. During this event, Locke had asked Jack to allow the “Monster” to pull him in; he believed nothing would happen. (“Exodus, Part 2”)
1×25 – Exodus, Part 3
When they eventually reached the Hatch, armed with the dynamite, Locke was the one who lit the fuse, despite Hurley’s protests. The Hatch door was blown open, and Locke and Jack stared down into the Hatch wondering what could be inside. (“Exodus, Part 3”)
Associated LOST Themes
Associated DHARMA Stations
Decoded Family Members & Lovers
Decoded Season 1 Characters
Decoded Season 2 Characters
Decoded Season 3 Characters
Decoded Season 4 Characters
Decoded Season 5 Characters
Decoded Season 6 Characters
Key Episode(s) to Decoding the Character
Osiris is the God of mortality and of the mortal being as mortal, hence in the ultimate stages of the development of Egyptian theology, any deceased individual is identified with Osiris, as is reflected by the use of ‘Osiris N.’ to refer to the deceased in the collections of afterlife literature known as the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead, where the conventional ‘N.’ of the translators represents the insertion of the name of the person on whose behalf the copy of the text was produced. This identification bridges gender, males and females alike being referred to as ‘Osiris’ in this context, albeit occasionally Hathor replaced Osiris as the vehicle of divine identification for the female deceased; and the Osirian identification apparently bridged species as well, since as animals who received funerary rites, such as the Apis bull, could be ‘Osirianized’ as well. Osiris is depicted anthropomorphically, virtually always mummiform, holding the crook and flail, symbols of royalty, and the atef crown, which resembles the ‘white crown’ of Upper Egypt but with two plumes on either side. The skin color of Osiris is generally green, symbolizing vegetative life and renewal. No single convincing interpretation of the name ‘Osiris’ has come forward (for the various hypotheses, see J. G. Griffiths, “Osiris,” in Helck and Otto), but the Os- component is written with the same sign – a throne, with the meaning ‘seat’ or ‘place’ – as the Is- component in the name ‘Isis‘, while the -ir component is written with an eye, as the verb ‘to make’, hence the wordplay of PT utterance 684: “the King will take his place as Osiris,” or “make his seat like Osiris.” A connection to the word wsr, ‘mighty’, has also been suggested. The most characteristic epithet of Osiris is wn-nfr, or ‘Onnophris’, meaning ‘Enduring in well-being/the good’.
Osiris is the passive object of the opus of resurrection, to which virtually all of the Gods of the Egyptian pantheon make a contribution large or small, just as they make their contributions to the defense of Re, the one pertaining to the cosmos as a whole, the other to the life cycle of the individual mortal being. Like many Egyptian myths, that of Osiris is not known to us through a narrative account, but rather through countless allusions to it in hymns, rituals and spells. The Greek philosopher Plutarch offers a famous narrative in his On Isis and Osiris, but this text can only be trusted to accurately transmit Egyptian ideas intermittently. Perhaps the longest single Egyptian account of the myth is the ‘Great Hymn to Osiris’ on the stela of Amenmose (18th dynasty) (trans. in Lichtheim, vol. 2, 81-86). What is clear is that Osiris, son of Geb and Nut, brother and husband of Isis, and king of an ideal Egypt, is murdered by his brother Seth, although the method is not clear. Vagueness on this subject comes about not only through a reticence in Egyptian sources to dwell at length on an inauspicious topic, but also probably because the death of Osiris at the hands of Seth is meant to symbolize all the diverse causes of mortality. Some part of Osiris’ fate involved being cast into the Nile and recovered (brought ashore, according to an important tradition, at Memphis) and some part involved dismemberment, although the ‘drowning’ and the ‘dismemberment’ are probably substitutable alternatives rather than discrete elements in a single account. The immersion of Osiris in the Nile, while it is on the one hand a symbol for disintegration, also establishes the immanence of Osiris in the Nile’s life-giving annual inundation; a related tradition is that the phallus of Osiris was never recovered from the Nile, but rather was consumed by a carp. This connection of Osiris to agriculture via the inundation is stronger than the identification claimed by older scholarship between Osiris and the crops themselves, the primary evidence for which is the beds for barley sprouts in the shape of Osiris which were a feature of the Osirian rites. The ‘Great Hymn’ is, at any rate, paradigmatic in its account that Isis “sought him without wearying … roamed the land lamenting, not resting till she found him,” (83) and that Isis protects the prone Osiris from further attacks, being “his guard … who drives off the foes, who stops the deeds of the disturber by the power of her utterance,” that is, her magic primarily, but also possibly as ruler in his stead, for she is characterized here as “the clever-tongued whose speech fails not, effective in the word of command,” (ibid.). Osiris is somehow reconstituted and resurrected, an event typically depicted by Osiris laying upon a bier while Isis hovers over his erect phallus in the form of a small bird of prey, either a kestrel or kite; the ‘Great Hymn’ describes Isis having thus “created breath with her wings,” (ibid.). Isis creates the missing phallus of Osiris for herself by means of her magic, a symbol for the magical reconstitution or resurrection of Osiris in general. Isis copulates with the risen Osiris, conceiving Horus, whom she raises in secret to vindicate Osiris and claim the sovereignty. The resurrection of Osiris, being ‘metaphysical’, so to speak, does not result in his return to his prior life, but his assumption of his new role as lord of the dead, Khenty-Amentiu, ‘Foremost of the Westerners’, an epithet which refers to the West (Amenti) as the land of the setting sun and hence of the dead. In this sense, the Egyptians resurrection is not a negation of mortality, but is instead predicated upon it. The futurity of Osiris is represented instead by Horus, who is conceived, in effect, posthumously; or, better, the reconstitution of Osiris is one and the same magical act as the conception of Horus, which is its proof, so to speak. The myth of Osiris and Horus is a myth of royal succession, in which the living king is Horus in relation to his deceased predecessor Osiris, whether or not there is a blood relation between them; but the myth becomes the basis for a doctrine of salvation. Horus vindicates his right to succeed to the sovereignty of the ideal Egypt before a tribunal of the Gods, to whom he must prove his claim against Seth, and when he is found ‘justified’ (lit. ‘true-of-voice’, ma’e-hru) and given sovereignty over the cosmos, there results universal jubilation inasmuch as the succession of Horus represents the victory over death itself as well as the triumph of legitimacy and civilization over the rule of force. Osiris himself presides over the tribunal which judges the dead, an event which assumes its most characteristic form in BD spell 125 with the ‘weighing of the heart’ (the conscience, as it were) – against Ma’et (truth, justice, the cosmic order).
The territory in dispute between Horus and Seth is, in a sense, Osiris himself, insofar as the parts of Osiris’ body are associated (albeit with some inconsistency and redundancy) with the nomes, or districts, of Egypt as well as the limbs of an ideal living being who is, in effect, every mortal being. Moreover, as can be seen from spells in the afterlife literature having as their goal the divinization of the parts of the deceased’s body by identifying them with various Gods, the entire pantheon of Egypt has a stake in the resurrection of Osiris and are, in some sense, manifest in his resurrected body. The body parts of Osiris were not understood to be interred at different places around the country; tombs of Osiris at several places around Egypt – the Abaton near Philae, Abydos, Busiris, Herakleopolis Magna – were rather resting places of his whole person, however this was conceived. The identification of the districts with the limbs of Osiris affirms the nation’s indivisibility, not its fragmentation, by literally taking up or ‘incorporating’ the local cults into the God’s body (Hans Betz, “Reliquie,” in Helck and Otto). Furthermore, the ‘dismemberment’ of Osiris is simply decomposition into formlessness, as contrasted with the integrity that is synonymous with life and hence with resurrection, and it is the integrity and totality of Osiris which theology consistently seeks to emphasize. Thus, for instance, PT utterance 247, possibly the earliest extant hymn to Osiris, calls Osiris ‘the Complete’, tem, associating him thereby with Atum, his great-grandfather. This point about integrity and resurrection helps to clarify the Egyptians understanding with respect to mummification. Inasmuch as the only genuine guarantee of the integrity of the body is not its embalming, but its resurrection, since only a living body is unified and integral, the mummy is properly regarded as a locus for the work of resurrection, and a shelter for the individual in that process, rather than as the goal of that process as such.
Patron of: the Underworld, the dead, past Pharaohs, agriculture (old form), fertility (old form).
Appearance: In his original form, a green-skinned man dressed in the raiment of a pharaoh. Following the Legend of Osiris, he appears as a green-skinned man in the form of a mummified pharaoh. He is often depicted wearing the atef crown with a pair of ram horns at its base.
Description: Throughout the height of Egyptian civilization, Osiris was the primary deity. In power, he was second only his father, Ra, and was the leader of the gods on earth. He was the husband of Isis and the father of Horus (and a number of other gods in some stories). Osiris resided in the underworld as the lord of the dead, as after being killed by Set, even though he was a god, he could no longer dwell in the land of the living.
After Osiris was killed, Isis resurrected him with the Ritual of Life, which was later given to the Egyptians so that they could give eternal life to all their dead. The spells and rituals cast by Isis, plus many others given to the people by the gods over the centuries, were collected into The Book of Going Forth by Day, colloquially known as The Book of the Dead.
In the underworld, Osiris sits on a great throne, where he is praised by the souls of the just. All those who pass the tests of the underworld become worthy to enter The Blessed Land, that part of the underworld that is like the land of the living, but without sorrow or pain. In some texts, in addition to the Judging of the Heart, Osiris passes final judgment over the dead, acting in this capacity as an Egyptian version of Radamanthus.
There is an interesting parallel between Osiris, a fertility/agriculture god, and the Greek Persephone, an agriculture goddess. Both end up in the underworld through treachery and both are kept there by “legal loopholes” in the laws of the gods. Persephone remains in the underworld for half a year because she tasted the food of the dead. Osiris remains in the underworld because Ma’at dictates that the dead, even dead gods, may not return to the land of the living.
Worship: Worshipped widely throughout all of Egypt, and his cult center was Abydos.
A composite funerary god worshipped during the Middle Kingdom period. In this form he represents the three aspects of the universe: creation, stability, and death.
Osiris was at times considered the oldest son of the Earth god Geb, and the sky goddess Nut, as well as being brother and husband of Isis, with Horus being considered his posthumously begotten son. He was also associated with the epithet Khenti-Amentiu, which means “Foremost of the Westerners” — a reference to his kingship in the land of the dead. As ruler of the dead, Osiris was also sometimes called “king of the living”, since the Ancient Egyptians considered the blessed dead “the living ones”.
Osiris is first attested in the middle of the Fifth dynasty of Egypt, although it is likely that he was worshipped much earlier; the term Khenti-Amentiu dates to at least the first dynasty, also as a pharaonic title. Most information we have on the myths of Osiris is derived from allusions contained in the Pyramid Texts at the end of the Fifth Dynasty, later New Kingdom source documents such as the Shabaka Stone and the Contending of Horus and Seth, and, much later, in narrative style from the writings of Greek authors including Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus.
Osiris was not only a merciful judge of the dead in the afterlife, but also the underworld agency that granted all life, including sprouting vegetation and the fertile flooding of the Nile River. He is described as the “Lord of love”, “He Who is Permanently Benign and Youthful” and the “Lord of Silence”. The Kings of Egypt were associated with Osiris in death — as Osiris rose from the dead they would, in union with him, inherit eternal life through a process of imitative magic. By the New Kingdom all people, not just pharaohs, were believed to be associated with Osiris at death if they incurred the costs of the assimilation rituals.
Through the hope of new life after death Osiris began to be associated with the cycles observed in nature, in particular vegetation and the annual flooding of the Nile, through his links with Orion and Sirius at the start of the new year. Osiris was widely worshiped as Lord of the Dead until the suppression of the Egyptian religion during the Christian era.
Osiris is represented in his most developed form of iconography wearing the Atef crown, which is similar to the White crown of Upper Egypt (but with the addition of two feathers at each side—see Atef crown (hieroglyph)). He also carries the crook and flail. The crook is thought to represent Osiris as a shepherd god. The symbolism of the flail is more uncertain with shepherds whip, fly-whisk, or association with the god Andjety of the ninth nome of Lower Egypt proposed. He was commonly depicted as a green (the color of rebirth) or black (alluding to the fertility of the Nile floodplain) complexioned pharaoh, in mummiform (wearing the trappings of mummification from chest downward). He was also depicted although quite rarely as a lunar god with a crown encompassing the moon.
The Pyramid Texts describe early conceptions of an afterlife in terms of eternal travelling with the sun god amongst the stars. Amongst these mortuary texts, at the beginning of the 4th dynasty, is found: “An offering the king gives and Anubis“. By the end of the 5th dynasty the formula in all tombs becomes “An offering the king gives and Osiris”.
Father of Horus
Osiris was the mythological father of the god Horus, whose conception is described in the Myth of Osiris and Isis, a central myth in ancient Egyptian belief. The myth described Osiris as having been killed by his brother Set who wanted Osiris’ throne. Isis briefly brought Osiris back to life by use of a spell that she learned from her father. This spell gave her time to become pregnant by Osiris before he again died. Isis later gave birth to Horus. As such, since Horus was born after Osiris’ resurrection, Horus became thought of as a representation of new beginnings and the vanquisher of the evil Set.
Ptah–Seker (who resulted from the identification of Ptah as Seker), who was god of re-incarnation, thus gradually became identified with Osiris, the two becoming Ptah-Seker-Osiris. As the sun was thought to spend the night in the underworld, and subsequently be re-incarnated, as both king of the underworld, and god of reincarnation, Ptah-Seker-Osiris was identified.
Osiris’ soul, or rather his Ba, was occasionally worshipped in its own right, almost as if it were a distinct god, especially so in the Delta city of Mendes. This aspect of Osiris was referred to as Banebdjedet, which is grammatically feminine (also spelt “Banebded” or “Banebdjed”) which literally means The ba of the lord of the djed, which roughly means The soul of the lord of the pillar of stability. The djed, a type of pillar, was usually understood as the backbone of Osiris, and, at the same time, as the Nile, the backbone of Egypt. The Nile, supplying water, and Osiris (strongly connected to the vegetation) who died only to be resurrected represented continuity and therefore stability. As Banebdjed, Osiris was given epithets such as Lord of the Sky and Life of the (sun god) Ra, since Ra, when he had become identified with Atum, was considered Osiris’ ancestor, from whom his regal authority was inherited. Ba does not, however, quite mean soul in the western sense, and also has to do with power, reputation, force of character, especially in the case of a god. Since the ba was associated with power, and also happened to be a word for ram in Egyptian, Banebdjed was depicted as a ram, or as Ram-headed. A living, sacred ram, was even kept at Mendes and worshipped as the incarnation of the god, and upon death, the rams were mummified and buried in a ram-specific necropolis. Banebdjed was consequently said to be Horus’ father, as Banebdjed is an aspect of Osiris.
As regards the association of Osiris with the ram, the god’s traditional crook and flail are of course the instruments of the shepherd, which has suggested to some scholars also an origin for Osiris in herding tribes of the upper Nile. The crook and flail were originally symbols of the minor agricultural deity Andjety, and passed to Osiris later. From Osiris, they eventually passed to Egyptian kings in general as symbols of divine authority.
The cult of Osiris (who was a god chiefly of regeneration and re-birth) had a particularly strong interest toward the concept of immortality. Plutarch recounts one version of the myth surrounding the cult in which Set (Osiris’ brother) fooled Osiris into getting into a box, which he then shut, had sealed with lead, and threw into the Nile (sarcophagi were based on the box in this myth). Osiris’ wife, Isis, searched for his remains until she finally found him embedded in a tree trunk, which was holding up the roof of a palace in Byblos on the Phoenician coast. She managed to remove the coffin and open it, but Osiris was already dead. As per one version of the myth, she used a spell she had learned from her father and brought him back to life so he could impregnate her. Afterwards he died again and she hid his body in the desert. Months later, she gave birth to Horus. While she was raising him, Set was hunting one night and came across the body of Osiris. Enraged, he tore the body into fourteen pieces and scattered them throughout the land. Isis gathered up all the parts of the body, less the phallus (which was eaten by a fish) and bandaged them together for a proper burial. The gods were impressed by the devotion of Isis and resurrected Osiris as the god of the underworld. Because of his death and resurrection, Osiris is associated with the flooding and retreating of the Nile and thus with the crops along the Nile valley.
Diodorus Siculus gives another version of the myth in which Osiris is described as an ancient king who taught the Egyptians the arts of civilization, including agriculture. Osiris is murdered by his evil brother Set, whom Diodorus associates with the evil Typhon (“Typhonian Beast”) of Greek mythology. Typhon divides the body into twenty six pieces which he distributes amongst his fellow conspirators in order to implicate them in the murder. Isis and Horus avenge the death of Osiris and slay Typhon. Isis recovers all the parts of Osiris body, less the phallus, and secretly buries them. She made replicas of them and distributed them to several locations which then became centres of Osiris worship.
The tale of Osiris becoming fish-like is cognate with the story the Greek shepherd god Pan becoming fish like from the waist down in the same river Nile after being attacked by Typhon (see Capricornus). This attack was part of a generational feud in which both Zeus and Dionysus were dismembered by Typhon, in a similar manner as Osiris was by Set in Egypt.
Death and institution as God of the Dead
Plutarch and others have noted that the sacrifices to Osiris were “gloomy, solemn, and mournful…” (Isis and Osiris, 69) and that the great mystery festival, celebrated in two phases, began at Abydos on the 17th of Athyr (November 13) commemorating the death of the god, which is also the same day that grain was planted in the ground. “The death of the grain and the death of the god were one and the same: the cereal was identified with the god who came from heaven; he was the bread by which man lives. The resurrection of the god symbolized the rebirth of the grain.” (Larson 17) The annual festival involved the construction of “Osiris Beds” formed in shape of Osiris, filled with soil and sown with seed. The germinating seed symbolized Osiris rising from the dead. An almost pristine example was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter.
The first phase of the festival was a public drama depicting the murder and dismemberment of Osiris, the search of his body by Isis, his triumphal return as the resurrected god, and the battle in which Horus defeated Set. This was all presented by skilled actors as a literary history, and was the main method of recruiting cult membership. According to Julius Firmicus Maternus of the fourth century, this play was re-enacted each year by worshippers who “beat their breasts and gashed their shoulders…. When they pretend that the mutilated remains of the god have been found and rejoined…they turn from mourning to rejoicing.” (De Errore Profanorum).
The passion of Osiris is reflected in his name ‘Wenennefer” (“the one who continues to be perfect”), which also alludes to his post mortem power.
Parts of this Osirian mythology have prompted comparisons with later Christian beliefs and practices.
Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge suggests possible connections or parallels in Osiris’ resurrection story with those found in Christianity:
The Egyptians of every period in which they are known to us believed that Osiris was of divine origin, that he suffered death and mutilation at the hands of the powers of evil, that after a great struggle with these powers he rose again, that he became henceforth the king of the underworld and judge of the dead, and that because he had conquered death the righteous also might conquer death…In Osiris the Christian Egyptians found the prototype of Christ, and in the pictures and statues of Isis suckling her son Horus, they perceived the prototypes of the Virgin Mary and her child.
Biblical scholar Bruce M. Metzger notes that in one account of the Osirian cycle he dies on the 17th of the month of Athyr (approximating to a month between October 28 and November 26 in modern calendars), is revivified on the 19th and compares this to Christ rising on the “third day” but he thinks “resurrection” is a questionable description.
Egyptologist Erik Hornung observes that Egyptian Christians continued to mummify corpses (an integral part of the Osirian beliefs) until it finally came to an end with the arrival of Islam and argues for an association between the passion of Jesus and Osirian traditions, particularly in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus and Christ’s descent into Hades. He concludes that whilst Christianity rejected anything “pagan” it did so only at a superficial level and that early Christianity was “deeply indebted” to Ancient Egypt.”
David J. MacLeod argues that the resurrection of Osiris differs from Jesus Christ, saying:
Perhaps the only pagan god for whom there is a resurrection is the Egyptian Osiris. Close examination of this story shows that it is very different from Christ’s resurrection. Osiris did not rise; he ruled in the abode of the dead. As biblical scholar, Roland de Vaux, wrote, ‘What is meant of Osiris being “raised to life?” Simply that, thanks to the ministrations of Isis, he is able to lead a life beyond the tomb which is an almost perfect replica of earthly existence. But he will never again come among the living and will reign only over the dead. This revived god is in reality a “mummy” god.’… No, the mummified Osiris was hardly an inspiration for the resurrected Christ… As Yamauchi observes, ‘Ordinary men aspired to identification with Osiris as one who had triumphed over death. But it is a mistake to equate the Egyptian view of the afterlife with the biblical doctrine of resurrection. To achieve immortality the Egyptian had to meet three conditions: First, his body had to be preserved by mummification. Second, nourishment was provided by the actual offering of daily bread and beer. Third, magical spells were interred with him. His body did not rise from the dead; rather elements of his personality – his Ba and Ka – continued to hover over his body.’
Saint Augustine wrote “that the Egyptians alone believe in the resurrection, as they carefully preserved their dead bodies.”
A. J. M. Wedderburn further argues that resurrection in Ancient Egypt differs from the “very negative features” in Judaeo-Christian tradition, as the Ancient Egyptians conceived of the afterlife as entry into the glorious kingdom of Osiris.
Marvin Mayer notes that some scholars regard the idea of dying and rising deities in the mystery religions as being fanciful but suggests this may be motivated by apologetic concerns, attempting to keep Christ’s resurrection as a unique event. In contrast he argues that the ancient story of dying and rising in the divine, human and crops, (with Osiris as an example), is vindicated and reaches a conclusion in Christianity.
Much of the extant information about the Passion of Osiris can be found on the Ikhernofret Stela at Abydos erected in the 12th Dynasty by Ikhernofret (also I-Kher-Nefert), possibly a priest of Osiris or other official during the reign of Senwosret III (Pharaoh Sesostris, about 1875 BC). The Passion Plays were held in the last month of the inundation (the annual Nile flood), coinciding with Spring, and held at Abydos/Abedjou which was the traditional place where the body of Osiris/Wesir drifted ashore after having been drowned in the Nile. The part of the myth recounting the chopping up of the body into 14 pieces by Set is not recorded until later by Plutarch. Some elements of the ceremony were held in the temple, while others involved public participation in a form of theatre. The Stela of I-Kher-Nefert recounts the programme of events of the public elements over the five days of the Festival:
- The First Day, The Procession of Wepwawet: A mock battle is enacted during which the enemies of Osiris are defeated. A procession is led by the god Wepwawet (“opener of the way”).
- The Second Day, The Great Procession of Osiris: The body of Osiris is taken from his temple to his tomb. The boat he is transported in, the “Neshmet” bark, has to be defended against his enemies.
- The Third Day, Osiris is Mourned and the Enemies of the Land are Destroyed.
- The Fourth Day, Night Vigil: Prayers and recitations are made and funeral rites performed.
- The Fifth Day, Osiris is Reborn: Osiris is reborn at dawn and crowned with the crown of Ma’at. A statue of Osiris is brought to the temple.
Wheat and clay rituals
Contrasting with the public “theatrical” ceremonies sourced from the I-Kher-Nefert stele, more esoteric ceremonies were performed inside the temples by priests witnessed only by chosen initiates. Plutarch mentions that two days after the beginning of the festival “the priests bring forth sacred chest containing a small golden coffer, into which they pour some potable water…and a great shout arises from the company for joy that Osiris is found (or resurrected). Then they knead some fertile soil with the water…and fashion therefrom a crescent-shaped figure, which they cloth and adorn, this indicating that they regard these gods as the substance of Earth and Water.” (Isis and Osiris, 39). Yet even his accounts were still obscure for he also wrote, “I pass over the cutting of the wood” opting not to describe it since he considered it as a most sacred ritual (Ibid. 21). In the Osirian temple at Denderah, an inscription (translated by Budge, Chapter XV, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection) describes in detail the making of wheat paste models of each dismembered piece of Osiris to be sent out to the town where each piece was discovered by Isis. At the temple of Mendes, figures of Osiris are made from wheat and paste placed in a trough on the day of the murder, then water was added for several days, until finally the mixture was kneaded into a mold of Osiris and taken to the temple to be buried (the sacred grain for these cakes were grown only in the temple fields). Molds were made from the wood of a red tree in the forms of the sixteen dismembered parts of Osiris, the cakes of ‘divine’ bread were made from each mold, placed in a silver chest and set near the head of the god with the inward parts of Osiris as described in the Book of the Dead (XVII). On the first day of the Festival of Ploughing, where the goddess Isis appears in her shrine where she is stripped naked, paste made from the grain were placed in her bed and moistened with water, representing the fecund earth. All of these sacred rituals were climaxed by the eating of sacramental god, the eucharist by which the celebrants were transformed, in their persuasion, into replicas of their god-man (Larson 20).
With the rise of the cult of Osiris during the Middle Kingdom the “democratization of religion” offered to even his most humblest followers the prospect of eternal life, with moral fitness becoming the dominant factor in determining a person’s suitability.
At death a person faced judgment by a tribunal of forty-two divine judges. If they led a life in conformance with the precepts of the Goddess Ma’at, who represented truth and right living, the person was welcomed into the kingdom of Osiris. If found guilty the person was thrown to a “devourer” and didn’t share in eternal life.
The person who is taken by the devourer is subject first to terrifying punishment and then annihilated. These depictions of punishment may have influenced medieval perceptions of the inferno in hell via early Christian and Coptic texts.
Purification for those who are considered justified may be found in the descriptions of “Flame Island”, where they experience the triumph over evil and rebirth. For the dammed complete destruction into a state of non being awaits but there is no suggestion of eternal torture.
Divine pardon at judgement was always a central concern for the Ancient Egyptians.
During the reign of Seti I Osiris was also invoked in royal decrees to pursue the living when wrongdoing was observed but kept secret and not reported.
Eventually, in Egypt, the Hellenic pharaohs decided to produce a deity that would be acceptable to both the local Egyptian population, and the influx of Hellenic visitors, to bring the two groups together, rather than allow a source of rebellion to grow. Thus Osiris was identified explicitly with Apis, really an aspect of Ptah, who had already been identified as Osiris by this point, and a syncretism of the two was created, known as Serapis, and depicted as a standard Greek god.
The cult of Osiris continued up until the 6th century AD on the island of Philae in Upper Nile. The Theodosian decree (in about 380 AD) to destroy all pagan temples was not enforced there. The worship of Isis and Osiris was allowed to continue at Philae until the time of Justinian. This toleration was due to an old treaty made between the Blemyes-Nobadae and Diocletian. Every year they visited Elaphantine and at certain intervals took the image of Isis up river to the land of the Blemyes for oracular purposes before returning it. Justinian would not tolerate this and sent Narses to destroy the sanctuaries, with the priests being arrested and the divine images taken to Constantinople.