As in most ancient mythologies, Egyptian stories of their gods were changed over time according to the religious and political winds. What follows is a simplified, somewhat composite view of the story of these gods, who are only a few of the more important deities from amongst the well-populated Egyptian pantheon. The stories are derived from ancient Egyptian texts (like the Pyramid Texts and the more famous Book of the Dead), and from later sources, such as Plutarch.

Osiris was once a living king of Egypt, married to his sister Isis. Their brother Seth, the evil one, was married to another sister, Nephthys (incestuous relationships were not uncommon amongst the gods of ancient mythologies). Not content with his lesser position, Seth murdered his king and brother Osiris by tricking him into stepping into a golden coffin, which was then locked shut and thrown into the Nile River. After Seth took the throne, Isis recovered the body of Osiris, but Seth seized it again and cut it into 14 pieces, throwing them once again into the Nile. Isis once again recovered her husband's body, though this time from various spots along the river (these spots were considered sacred and became the sites of temples dedicated to Osiris). With the pieces of Osiris' body collected, Isis turned into a hawk, and with the breeze from her wings, she breathed life back into her husband's body (Isis and her wings are frequently represented on coffins and sarcophagi, bringing life to the deceased). Isis did such a good job of restoring Osiris to life that they conceived a son, Horus.

Osiris, however, was never quite the same, and he was relegated to kingship in the land of the dead. He is normally shown mummiform, with his flesh colored either white, green, or black, and he usually wears the atef crown, which is the white crown with the addition of a pair of feathers. At right, he is shown with his usual attributes (including here the crook and flail as symbols of his royal power), seated on a throne in the underworld, with the four sons of Horus standing on a lotus blossum in front and the goddesses Isis and Nephthys standing behind.





Spurred on by a vengeance-seeking Isis, Horus battled Seth until the usurper was defeated, though not before Horus had lost an eye (and Seth his testicles). At left, they are seen battling over the sema tawy, thus symbolically fighting for control of all of Egypt.




Horus later recovered his eye (at right, the wedjat, or Eye of Horus) and presented it to his father Osiris (the left and right eyes of Horus were associated with the moon and sun, respectively). Horus then became King of Egypt, and thereafter, every king was seen as the embodiment of Horus. Seth later reconciled with Horus but was relegated to being a god only of non-Egyptian lands (he still became associated with evil in general, as well as with many animals, such as the hippopotamus).




Horus was always portrayed as a falcon (or hawk), either as the bird itself or as a falcon-headed man, and he frequently wears the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. At left, Horus appears wearing a cut-away double crown (the better to see the White Crown part) on a papyrus version of the so-called Book of the Dead. Horus here acts as leader of the dead man's spirit.

His own wife was Hathor, whose mythological origins were even stranger than those of Horus. It seems that during the battles between Horus and his uncle Seth, Horus became angry that his mother Isis was not helping enough, so he decapitated her while she was sleeping. When she woke up, Isis took the first head she could find--that of a cow. In this guise, Isis becomes Hathor, whose name means "Mansion of Horus" (that is, a temple of Horus). During the New Kingdom, the two goddesses are frequently conflated, with Isis wearing the horns of Hathor (Isis herself is often shown wearing a headdress consisting of the hieroglyph for "throne", which forms part of her name). The "standard" image of Hathor is shown at right, with the solar disc (here with the addition of a cobra wrapped around it).



Horus and Hathor had four sons who were seen as guides for the dead, and thus became associated with the cardinal points, as well as with the four major organs preserved in canopic jars during the process of mummification (the jars shown at right have stoppers carved to represent the four sons). Each was also associated with a protective goddess. The four sons are frequently shown standing on a lotus blossom near the enthroned Osiris in the land of the dead (see above). If you really must know, these sons of Horus are:

  • Imsety: man-headed; held the liver; south; Isis
  • Hapi: ape-headed; held the lungs; north; Nephthys
  • Duamutef: jackal-headed; held the stomach; east; Neith
  • Qebsennuef: falcon-headed; held the intestines; west; Selket