Osiris, Isis & Nephthys

I’m reading an interesting paper on the Egyptian evidence we have/don’t have of the alleged affair between Nephthys and Osiris. And I thought I’d share.

The only actual statement about the affair comes from Plutarch’s account of the Isis and Osiris myth in his essay “On Isis & Osiris.”

As you may recall, Plutarch was a prolific writer and a Greek priest at Delphi. He traveled to Alexandria, which is probably where he got his Egyptian information. Reading his essay, it seems like he got a lot of the Egyptian details correct, though it is all filtered through his Middle Platonic philosophical lens. He’s writing in the 2nd century CE, too, by which time there was a lot of mixing of religious thought, especially in Alexandria. What’s more, the 2nd century CE was also the time of Isis’ greatest influence in the Mediterranean civilizations…so a lot of people were interested in Her and the Deities around Her. Yet Plutarch got his info from somewhere, so there must have been a tradition about it, at least in some nome or another.

Anyway, here’s his account of the Osiris/Nephthys affair:

They relate also that Isis, learning that Osiris in his love had consorted with her sister​ through ignorance, in the belief that she was Isis, and seeing the proof of this in the garland of melilote which he had left with Nephthys, sought to find the child; for the mother, immediately after its birth, had exposed it because of her fear of Typhon. And when the child had been found, after great toil and trouble, with the help of dogs which led Isis to it, it was brought up and became her guardian and attendant, receiving the name of Anubis, and it is said to protect the gods just as dogs protect men.

Plutarch, On Isis & Osiris, section 14
Common melilote; it also comes in white and purple; it is a healing herb, too

That’s it. We are left to guess how this all came about? In more human terms, we might wonder whether Nephthys intentionally deceived Osiris? Or was Osiris really that blind, really? Some scholars have proposed this incident as the reason Set murdered His brother Osiris, rather than His desire to rule in Osiris’ place.

In a text called The Book of Overthrowing Set, a magical text for weakening Set’s power, a threatening spell tells Set that His wife (the text does not name Her, so in no way are we sure Nephthys is meant) is raped in front of His eyes and there’s nothing He can do about it. (As an aside, for some damn reason I have been seeing far too much about raped Goddesses recently and I am about Up. To. Here. With That Bullshit. Calling raging Sakhmet now!)

This is kinda THE statue of Nephthys and Set

We find Nephthys and Set paired in several key places. For instance, the Pyramid Texts instruct Nephthys and Set to proclaim the good news of the king’s rebirth in Upper Egypt, while Isis and Osiris are to proclaim it in Lower Egypt. At least one statue of the pair exists.

And in one pretty crude magical text from the Ptolemaic period, we have Set, in the form of an ass, complaining that He was interrupted while mounting Nephthys, “the female donkey.”

Voice of Seth: [The] female donkey was taken, when I was seizing her tail. I was given deceit … Nephthys was taken, when I was on her anus … although she belongs to me as a wife.

Berlin papyrus 8278b
Set with ass’ head from a magical papyrus

And we also find both Deities with temples in the complex at Sepermeru in the Upper Egyptian nome of Oxyrhynchus. Since Sepermeru means “near to the desert,” it was an apt place for a temple of Set, Who is both attuned to and a bulwark against the perils of the desert. There’s also a passage in a ritual that may show us Nephthy’s care for Set. In the rite, Set has been killed and the Deities are rejoicing, all except Nephthys, Who instead dons a veil of mourning.

Yet all is not settled in Set’s and Nephthy’s world. In part of a ritual text, Nephthys reminds Horus of the danger She undertook for His sake—presumably danger from Set. She reminds Him that She left the “son of Set” to care for Him, Horus. In yet another text, Nephthys says of Herself, “I acted as a partner in deception. I destroyed the fortress of Seth.” But still, She is the only Deity Who mourns Set’s death.

So Nephthys and Set, definitely connected, if rockily so. How about Nephthys and Osiris?

Anubis, son of Osiris

According to our Greek Priest, Osiris and Nephthys slept together and, as is the way with Deities, Nephthys became pregnant with Anubis. In fear of Set, She exposed the child, Who was searched for, found, and reared by Isis, thus becoming Her loyal companion. (As an aside, Egyptians didn’t generally expose unwanted children; this was more known in Greek communities.)

The weirdest Anubis ever. This is a Roman version of the God as He was seen in some Roman temples

Yet here’s some interesting stuff. Yes, Anubis is indeed said to be a son of Osiris, mostly in Ptolemaic texts. At Isis’ temple at Isiopolis (Lower Egypt), Horus and Anubis were joined as Horus-Anubis and called the Son of Osiris. The Sicilian writer, Diodorus, wrote that Osiris has two sons, “one Who wears a dog’s skin” and the other called Macedon. Yet some scholars consider Anubis to be more an adopted son of Osiris, rather than a “son of His body.”

The closest thing we have to a Nephthys-Anubis connection is from a late-period papyrus known as the Papyrus Jumilhac that says, “Nephthys, Her bravery existed with Him [Horus], She had Him [Horus] hidden as a small child in papyrus, His name is Anubis and His image is as Mehit-imyut.” So, here we have Nephthys hiding the baby Horus, Who is also Anubis. Is Nephthys hiding Her own baby Horus-Anubis just as Isis hid Her baby Horus? Or is Nephthys simply helping Her sister, as She so often does?

A Roman altar dedicated to Isis, with Anubis on one side

Even more intriguing, in Egyptian texts, it is Isis Who is named as Anubis’ mother rather than Nephthys. We have a good handful of texts, particularly from a later period, that specifically name Isis as His mother. For instance, the Jumilhac papyrus brings us a reference to “Horus the child, Who is in this place, it is Anubis, son of Osiris, when He was an august child in the arms of His mother Isis.”

Plus, we see evidence of the Isis-Anubis connection in Greek and Roman Isis shrines and temples, where Anubis is included as the fourth Egyptian Deity worshiped with Isis, Sarapis, and Harpokrates. And just to make things more complicated (as they so often are), other texts identify Anubis as a son of other Goddesses, such as Neith and Bastet. But, in fact, currently we have no Egyptian texts that name Nephthys as Anubis’ mother either by Set or Osiris. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any; just that we don’t, at present, have them. And, like I said, Plutarch got his info somewhere.

I swear, this is how I see Them. Here’s a link to the artist’s work.

Okay. So there’s one more thing I would like to address regarding Nephthys and Her possible motherhood of Anubis. There is a particular passage often cited by scholars in relation to this topic, which says Nephthys, when She comes “in Her evil coming,” is called “imitation woman who has no vagina.” They cite this passage as evidence that Nephthys was barren.

But no. This passage is from a group of Pyramid Texts that describe a selection of Deities “in Their evil coming.” If anything, Their evil coming would be the exact opposite of Their usual coming. In this particular Pyramid Text, we have the “evil comings” of Osiris, Horus, Thoth, Set, Isis, Nephthys, and more. Isis, for instance, is said to be “extensively corrupt.” These texts mean absolutely nothing in terms of defining the nature of any of those Deities. So, in my somewhat-but-not-entirely humble opinion, we can fully ignore this as any kind of evidence that Nephthys could not bear a child.

The Two Sisters and a link to the artist

Other than Plutarch’s Greek account, the only source from Egypt that we have about Osiris and Nephthys is from a 4th century CE erotic spell written mostly in Greek with some Old Coptic passages. The spell uses a historiola—the telling of a myth within the spell—to empower it. In the spell, Isis comes crying to Thoth that Nephthys and Osiris are sleeping together. Thoth proceeds to instruct Her on the correct spell to use to get Osiris back…and which, of course, we humans can use in similar circumstances.

Other than that quite-late spell, there’s one pretty obscure Book of the Dead mention that might relate to such an incident, though it is not certain. In it, Thoth “makes the Two Sisters friendly toward Osiris,” yet it’s in a list of all kinds of things that Thoth has made good for Osiris.

In Plutarch’s telling, Isis seems pretty blasé about the whole thing and calmly goes in search of Anubis. Perhaps it’s because the Two Sisters are so close that it doesn’t really matter. From the earliest Egyptian texts we have, the Pyramid Texts, we see Isis and Nephthys doubling each other. Some texts inform the king that Isis conceives him and Nephthys bears him. (This is true of other pairs of Goddesses, too; one conceives and one bears.) To me, this is yet another example of the exquisite fluidity of ancient Egyptian Divinity. The Sisters are One, yet not One. They are Two, yet not Two. Here’s a post about the entwined and twinned nature of Isis and Nephthys.

Iseneththys aiding in the resurrection of Osiris

One scholar has suggested that Isis was intended as Osiris’ companion in the upperworld and Nephthys in the underworld. For me, the idea doesn’t ring true. Isis also has deep, deep underworld connections and we are told that Osiris rejoices when He sees Her there. And Nephthys, especially as Lady of Joy, has many and varied upperworld functions; She is not just associated with the land of the dead. The sisterly situation is not that black-and-white.

Of course, even outside of any sexual liaison, Nephthys and Osiris share an important connection. They are siblings, just as Isis and Osiris are. Nephthys searches for Osiris, too. She laments Him. She protects Him. She loves Him.

So what do we make of all this? Nothing? Anything? One thing we can say for sure is that It’s Complicated. We clearly don’t have anything definitive from Egyptian sources that are currently available to us. In fact, the scholar who’s paper I’m reading concludes that there simply isn’t any evidence to convict Nephthys and Osiris of adultery and declares Them innocent.

For my part, I’m going to guess that there was a genuine Egyptian tradition of Osiris with Nephthys. But for me, it is part of the Mystery of the Two Sisters. They share so much. Why might They not share a Beloved One as well?

The most beautiful “Osiris Rising” image I know. He is lying on His stomach and as He revives, His head rises up. I got to see this sacred image in person when an Egyptian exhibition came to Portland some years ago.