Jeremy J. Baer
In the ancient Egyptian lunar calendar, the festival occurred on the 17th of the month Hathyr, when the nights grew longer and the Nile receded. As nearly as can be determined the festival coincides with the Roman solar calendar on October 28th – November 3rd. The Roman adherents of the cult came to celebrate the festival after the emperor Caligula officially recognized Isiac worship and had a temple built to the cult on the Field of Mars.
In the earliest Egyptian myths, it seems Osiris, the embodiment of fecundity, drowned in the Nile on this date. Later myths have Osiris murdered at the hands of his scheming brother, Seth the god of chaos (whom Greeks equated with Typhon). Still later myths – the most complete version being preserved by the Greek writer, Plutarch – have Seth dismembering the corpse and scattering it across the lands. Isis and her friends among the gods search the lands to find the pieces and reassemble the body of Osiris. Isis, Great of Magic, resurrects Osiris, who later goes on to become the ruler of the underworld.
The Discovery of Osiris was like a passion play, commemorating the search for the murdered god and his magical resurrection. Statues of the goddess Isis were veiled in black, and it seems very probable that priestesses of the cult would have dressed so as well (it must be understand that in Ancient Egypt black was the color of the fertile Nile silt, and was thus a color of life not of death). Children wore a tress of long hair behind the right ear, identifying themselves with the iconic depictions of a young Horus. Both genders of all ages involved in the cult chanted laments and cries of grief. Some, in a ritual not unlike that of the Attis cults, beat their flesh with pine cones until bloodied.
A ritual idol of Osiris was dismembered and scattered along a predetermined route from the temple. They were then gradually “rediscovered” and assembled. A priest of the cult wore a mask of Anubis, the jackal headed embalming god, whose sense of smell had helped Isis locate several of the pieces. On November 3rd the cult adherents joyously shouted “let us rejoice!” They proceeded happily in procession through town, shaking a sistra. Those living in the countryside surrounding the towns fashioned idols of Osiris out of damp earth and seeds, and consecrated the idols in hallowed pine trunks. Others decorated lamps or vases and offered them to the god.
Much like the Navigium Isidis, one did not have to be a duly initiated member to participate in this public festival. While mystae and clergy certainly formed the backbone of any observance, the wider public could and did participate in the processions. The festival championed the triumph of rebirth over death. On one level, it assured the prosperity of future harvests, as Osiris embodied the powers of fertile agriculture. On another level, those especially educated in Hellenistic philosophy (such as Plutarch, one of our chief sources on the cult) may have reinterpreted the myths of the cult through the prism of Platonic theology. The festival thus appealed to people with a variety of spiritual needs and backgrounds. It held practices and beliefs in common with other related cults, such as those of Attis and Demeter.
There is much about this cult that simply cannot be reconstructed by the solitary practitioner. Creating and then dismembering a cult idol of Osiris, only to reassemble it, is probably beyond most people’s ken. Participating in a large procession is obviously impossible with the small numbers of modern adherents.
If one has a statue of Isis on one’s domestic shrine, covering it in black would be entirely appropriate, and wearing black even more so. One could go to a park or one’s backyard and fashion a makeshift Osiris idol out of damp earth and seeds, as was done in ancient times.
The festival falls conveniently enough during the modern Halloween, a time for remembering the dead (albeit secularly and with much humor and fun). Around the same time, Wiccans and Celtic pagans celebrate the festival of Samhain, a remembrance of the dead, and some Christians celebrate All Souls Day. It seems therefore fitting that modern Isiac cult adherents do likewise. Remember dearly departed loved ones during this occasion. Meditate on what they meant to you, and let it be not amiss to shed tears for them.
Then on November 3rd have a joyous occasion to celebrate the resurrection of the god Osiris. Light a candle or a lamp. Have a feast with living loved ones. Party! Know that death is but a doorway to another world. The memories of the dead live on in our hearts. The spirits of the dead pass on to the Underworld, and those who have contracted into cults of savior deities shall see their gods there to illumine the Stygian depths.
For the historical section, I am heavily indebted to Robert Turcan’s Cults of the Roman Empire.