A Jewish Osiris


The God Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth, who then cut him into pieces, which he distributed throughout Egypt. The papyrus Jumilhac says that the head was in Abydos, the jaws in Upper Egypt, the intestines in Pithom, the lungs in Behemet Delta, the phallus in Mendes, both legs in Iakémet, the fingers in the 13th and 14th nomes, an arm in the 20th nome and the heart in Athribis Delta.

Plutarch, who later told the story of Osiris, gave a different distribution. The important thing is that Osiris, a God who died and rose again, embodies the heart of the ancient Egyptians’ belief in the resurrection of the dead and in eternal life.

The idea of a dead and risen God is a paradigm, whose analogy with the figure of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, cannot be overlooked.

Several precious papyrus tell the story of the God Osiris, his many adventures. Murders, tricks, betrayals, magical transformations abound. To read them today, in an era both disenchanted and eager for misguided religious passions, can be conceived as a dive back several millennia, a dive into the dawn of an emerging, deeply religious feeling, in all the meanings of this ambiguous term.

The papyrus Jumilhac, kept in Paris, tells the story of the revenge of Osiris’ son, Anubis, who went after Seth, his father’s killer. Knowing that he was threatened, Seth took the form of Anubis himself, to try to cover his tracks, before taking many other forms.

« Then Imakhumankh walked at the head of the gods who watch over Osiris; he found Demib and cut off his head, so that he was anointed with his [blood]. [Seth] came looking for him, after he had turned into an Anubis (…) Then Isis dismembered Seth with her own teeth, biting him in his back, and Thoth pronounced his spells against him. Re then said: ‘Let this seat be attributed to the « Tired »; look as he regenerated himself! How beautiful it is! And that let Seth be placed under him as a seat. That’s right, because of the harm he did to all the members of Osiris.’ (…)

But Seth fled into the wilderness and made his transformation into the panther of this nome. Anubis, however, seized him, and Thoth said his magic spells against him again. So he fell to the ground in front of him. Anubis bound him by his arms and legs and Seth was consumed in the flame, from head to toe, throughout his body, east of the august room. The smell of his fat having reached the heaven, it spread in this magnificent place, and Re and the gods held it for pleasant. Then Anubis split Seth’s skin, and tore it off, and put his fur on him. (…)

And Seth made his transformation into Anubis, so that the gate-keepers should not be able to recognize him (…) Anubis pursued him with the gods of his retinue, and joined him. But Set, taking on the appearance of a bull, made his form unrecognizable. But Anubis bound him by his arms and legs, and cut off his phallus and testicles. (…)

After that Anubis entered the Ouâbet to check the condition of his father, Osiris, and he found him safe and sound, with firm and fresh flesh. He turned into a falcon, opened his wings behind his father Osiris, and behind the vase that contained the aqueous humors of this God (…) he spread the wings as a falcon to fly, in search of his own eye, and brought it back intact to his master. »

As we see, Seth is constantly transforming himself into anubis, then into a panther, finally into a bull. But Anubis always follows him, with Thot’s help. Then Seth is transformed into Osiris’ « seat » or Anubis’ « fur ». But it is the final transformation that is most pleasing to the supreme God, Re. Seth is consumed in flames and in the smell of fat, and he spreads himself into the magnificent Heaven.

It is interesting to compare the final transformation of Seth into flames and odours with that of Anubis, who takes the form of the falcon. This falcon, Horus, is one of the oldest, most archaic deities in the Egyptian pantheon. In the Osirian context, Horus represents the posthumous son of Osiris and Isis, who flies over his dead father in search of his eye and helps to restore his life.

The papyrus Jumilhac evokes the legend of Horus in chapter XXI, and compares it to a vine.

« As for the vineyard, it is the frame that surrounds the two eyes to protect them; as for the grape, it is the pupil of Horus’ eye; as for the wine that is made, it is Horus’ tears. »i

Wine stands for the tears of the son of the God Osiris, himself likened to a « vine ». How can we not think of this other ‘wine’, the blood of Christ, the sacrificed son of the living God?

iPapyrus Jumilhac. XIV,14,15, Paris. Copy consulted in Bibliothèque Ste Geneviève. Paris. Translation Jacques Vandier.

Bloody human body parts scattered


Drunk, the Bacchae rushed to the victims, skinning them with their bare hands, ripping their limbs off, and searching their internal organs. Their hands sticky with blood, they behead the unfortunate one who fell under the blows of sacred madness.

The Bacchanalians indeed represent, in the ancient Dionysian religion, a wild, extreme phenomenon. It is about getting drunk, taking part in nature’s orgy, and fully engaging in delirium and all its consequences.

It is in delirium that the metamorphosis can take place. There are several kinds of them.

The one of Harmony and Cadmos is spectacular. Snake scales gradually cover the body. First the feet, then the legs, then the hips, then the sex metamorphoses into sizzling, hideous snakes. Finally, the whole rest of the body is affected by this monstrous mutation.

The Dionysian religion is not a quiet one. Its followers are not immune to some degree of terror, of psychological or physical shock. But it is this metamorphosis that is the essential moment, after the wine of intoxication and the sharing of the members of the sacrificed victim.

Philostratus the Elder describes it this way: « Here are the choirs of the Bacchae, the stones dripping with wine, the grapes distilling the nectar, the clods of earth all shining with the brilliance of milk, here is the ivy with its creeping stem, the snakes raising their heads, the thyrsuses and the trees from which honey escapes drop by drop.

Behold this fir tree lying on the ground, its fall is the work of women violently agitated by Dionysus; by shaking it, the Bacchae made it fall with Pentheus whom they take for a lion; behold, they tear their prey, the aunts detach their hands, the mother drags her son by the hair (…)

Harmony and Cadmos are present. Already the lower extremities, from the thighs, are transformed into snakes, everything disappears under the scales from the feet to the hips; the metamorphosis spreads to the upper parts. Harmony and Cadmos are struck with horror; they kiss each other, as if, by this embrace, they had to stop their bodies in its flight and save at least what they still have left of the human form. »

From the point of view of comparative anthropology, it is tempting to consider possible analogies with other religions.

There are undoubtedly in the depths of human memory some ancient and indelible memories of ancient sacrifices, that will not be easily wiped away.

We could see for instance in the Bacchanals a distant analogy or an obscure link with the sacrifice of Christ, and the consumption of his blood and flesh shared among the faithful.

Of course, the sacrifice of Christ as celebrated by the Church is not an evolved, intellectualized version of an eminently wilder, more barbaric sacrificial paradigm, once celebrated in the name of the God Dionysus, in memory of his bloody and burning birth.

But it is nevertheless possible to see in it elements of analogy, and anthropological similarities, if only in the consumption of Christ’s « flesh » and « blood » by his disciples, at the height of communion.

The human mind, from age to age, has shown itself capable of designing paradigms that open universes, that play on all values, not to abolish them, but to guarantee the possibility of their continuing metamorphosis.

The Dionysian religion once incarnated one of these paradigms, and secretly continues to do so, metaphorically speaking, in the unconscious depths of humankind.

It is tempting to reflect on how Dionysian ideas may be embodied today in the excesses of contemporary humanity, and how they continue their secret life in our blind and thoughtless »modernity ».

Bloody human body parts scattered all over political crime scenes (resulting from targeted assassinations or downed civilian airplanes) continue to be regularly presented – in prime time – to worldwide audiences…