Osiris Festivals and Rituals in Egypt
N. M. Krishnakumar
We will be discussing two important Egyptian festivals that have counterparts in India. The first one involves enacting death and resurrection of Osiris, it is more of a common man’s festival. The second is similar in theme but is for the kings, called the Sed festival. We shall discuss the first in section 1 and Sed festival in section 2.
Section 1. The festival of Osiris death and resurrection:
Following are the important points from Herodotus, Plutarch, Denderah temple walls and Firmicus Maternus, as mentioned in . There is some confusion with time and details of the rituals. This is possibly because of the regional differences and the changes in time because of the shifting Egyptian New year day. We have given the summary of the account that is just needed for our discussion. An interested reader can refer to the beautifully narrated classic .
At the grave of Osiris at Sais, the suffering of the god Osiris is displayed, and the image of Isis as a cow is carried out of the chamber from where it stood for the rest of the year.
- The Osiris festival at Sais was celebrated during the winter solstice (around December 21st-22st).
- The image of the cow is carried seven times around the temple.
- People fastened rows of oil lamps outside their houses, that burned all night long through out Egypt.
- Osiris was murdered on 17th day of the month of Athyr. Egyptians mourned for 4 days after that. It is argued in  that, this corresponds to November 13th through 16th, (and not in December) as it matches the Nile sinking, north winds dying away, the night lengthening and leaves falling off the trees.
- On the nineteenth day, priests carried a shrine that contained a golden casket into which they poured fresh water. While people shouted that Osiris was found, they took some vegetable mould, moistened it with water, mixed precious spices and incense, and moulded the paste into a small moon shaped image, which was robed and ornamented.
Denderah temple walls:
- The festival of Osiris, according to the writings on the walls of the Denderah temple, lasted for 18 days. A small image of Osiris was made out of sand or vegetable, earth and corn, to which incense was added, his face was painted yellow, cheek bones green. Images were cast in pure gold with a white crown.
- The festival opened on 12 day of Khoiak, with a ceremony of ploughing and sowing.
- The priests bury effigies of Osiris made of earth and corn.
- On the 20th day of Khoiak, sand and barley were put in god’s garden in the presence of the cow goddess Shenty.
- On the 21st day of Khoiak, god Osiris attended by images of 34 deities made a mysterious voyage in 34 tiny boats made of papyrus, illuminated by 365 lamps.
- On the 24th day of Khoiak, after sunset, the effigy of Osiris in a coffin of mulberry wood was laid in the grave. At the ninth hour of the night the effigy, which had been made and deposited the year before, was removed and placed upon the boughs of sycamore.
- On the 30th day of Khoiak, they went to the holy sepulcher, a subterranean chamber; they entered the vault by the western door, laid the coffined effigy of the dead god on the bed of sand in that chamber, and returned from the eastern door.
Fermicus has described a ceremony in which Osiris is viewed as a tree-spirit. As part of this ceremony, a pine tree is hollowed out at its center and an image of Osiris made of this excavated wood is buried as a corpse inside this hollow. This is kept for a year at the end of which it is burned. This ritual may commemorate the finding of Osiris body in a tree trunk.
Other observations in :
- When the effigies were taken up again at the end of the year or of a shorter interval, the corn would be found, to have sprouted from the body of Osiris. One of the sculptures in the temple of Isis in Philae shows corn sprouting from the body of Osiris. Thus, according to , Osiris is truly corn-god. In the words of the author, a very touching sentence goes as follows: “ The corn-god produced the corn from himself: he gave his own body to feed the people: he died that they might live. ”
- According to the myth, Anubis, Isis, Nephthys, Thoth and Horus put the pieces of Osiris body and wrapped it with linen bandages.
- According to a myth, Isis got the coffin of Osiris that was inside a Tamarisk tree trunk. She took out his coffin, then wrapped the trunk of Tamarisk in fine linen, poured ointment on it, and gave it to the king and queen of Byblus; the wood stands in a temple of Isis and is worshipped by the people of Byblus .
- According to , every year the people beyond the rivers of Ethiopia used to write a letter to the women of Byblus, enclose it in a pot, seal it and send it floating down the river to the sea. The intent was to inform them that the god Adonis, who was lost, was found. It arrived at the time when the Syrian women were weeping for their dead Lord. They took up the pot from the river water and read the letter and felt happy. This resembles the Ganga festival of India celebrated in Varanasi, which involves floating lamps in the river.
- The sycamore and the tamarisk were also the trees of Osiris. In inscriptions he is spoken of as residing in the trees. In tombs his mother Nut is often portrayed standing in the midst of a sycamore-tree and pouring a libation for the benefit of the dead.
- In certain temples the statue of Osiris, used to be placed for seven days upon branches of sycamores, intended to recall his presence for seven months in the womb of his mother Nut, the goddess of the sycamore.
The celebration according to the account of Plutarch, and that on the Denderah temple walls are quite close; however the main difference is the month of celebration which are Athyr and Khoiak respectively. According to the argument in  it happened in November, whereas according to Plutarch it occurred during the winter solstice. The argument in  goes as follows: The Egyptian year is 365 days long and hence has an error of a quarter of a day each year. That means the year begins one day earlier for every 4 years. Thus, in 1460 years, it return to the day it started once again. Hence, all Egyptian festivals also moved round the year once in 1460 years. Since, the Alexandrian year does not suffer from this discrepancy, at the time the Alexandrian year was enforced on the Egyptian event, the death of Osiris was on the 12th day of the supposed second Egyptian month namely Athyr. But, the temple records show that it is in Khoiak, that is the third Egyptian month. Thus, though the day of the solar year was correct according to Plutarch, that is it was November 12th, he called that month Athyr instead of Khoiak. That is, had the beginning of the year been reckoned a month before at the time of freezing Egyptian calendar, it would have been Khoiak.
There are several items in India that map to this. The most important of them is the Tamil calendar itself. There is an uncommon South India festival called Yaanai Pandigai that resembles the Osiris festival. Also the cart festival of Lord Jagannath in Puri, India and many more festivals resemble the Osiris festival. We discuss them in detail in subsequent articles.
Section 2: Sed festival:
Sed festival is meant for rejuvenation of kings. It was celebrated once in thirty years. One out of four, which is once in 120 years, the celebration was much grander. As it was celebrated once in thirty years, which was also the time taken by Saturn to go round the sun once, some believe that it was the return of Seth who is viewed as Saturn. Others believe, it is related to Sirius appearing on the same day of the month, which happens once in 120 years. Isis being linked to Sirius, they relate it to Isis. Some highlights of the celebration are as follows.
1. The ceremony involves king sitting in the shrine, enacting the dead Osiris. He will be wrapped in linen bandages like a mummy. Then the rest of the ceremony involves leading him to the netherworld by Anubis, the jackal god, burying of his effigy and later reviving him.
2. The queen and the daughters play a prominent role in the rituals.
3. One of the oldest illustrations of Sed festival is depicted as king in a shrine at the top of nine steps. There is a palanquin in front of the king with a child inside, possibly royal. There is also an enclosure made of poles and curtains inside which three men are dancing.
 J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, A study in Magic and Religion, 3rd Edition, Macmillan and Co. London, 1914
 Richard H Wilkinson, The Complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003