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Ancient Egypt
Introduction > Religion in the Lives of the Ancient Egyptians

The king, Osiris, and the rituals of rejuvination
One of the most significant functions of Egyptian ritual and myth was the reinforcement and protection of the office and body of the king. The most important myth associated the entity of the king with the gods Osiris and Horus. According to the myth, Osiris, the first king of Egypt, was murdered by his evil brother Seth. His death was avenged by Horus, the son of Osiris, and mourned by his sister/wife Isis and her sister Nephthys. This basic outline has myriad variations, the most elaborate version of which appears in the second century AD writings of Plutarch, but the focus of the myth was to associate the living king with the god Horus and his deceased predecessor with his mummiform father Osiris. In this way, each king of Egypt was incorporated into a mythological descent from the time of the gods. The myth also stressed filial piety and obligations of a son to his father. Osiris (or, according to various versions of the myth, at least part of the god's body) was thought to have been buried at Abydos, accounting for the sacred nature of the site throughout Egyptian history.

By the late Old Kingdom, posthumous identification with the god Osiris was adopted by the common people. After death, if they had lived their lives according to Maat and could truthfully confess that they had not committed any mortal sin before the divine judges in the Hall of Two Truths, they were admitted into the company of the gods. Coffins and funerary objects of the New Kingdom record that the name of the deceased was compounded with that of the god, and that the face of coffins belonging to men bore the false beard of Osiris.

Many rituals were dedicated to the eternal rejuvenation of the living king. The most important was the Sed festival (also known as the "jubilee"), which is attested from the Early Dynastic Period and was celebrated up to the Ptolemaic era. Throughout most of Egyptian history, the ritual was celebrated on the thirtieth anniversary of the king's accession to the throne and thereafter at three-year intervals. During the course of the festival, the king alternately donned the red crown of Lower Egypt and the white crown of Upper Egypt and, grasping implements such as a slender vase, a carpenter's square, and an oar, ran a circuit between two B-shaped platforms. The king was then symbolically enthroned. Because the central act of the ritual — running the circuit — was physical, the Sed festival may be the vestige of a Predynastic ceremony wherein the king proved his continued virility and physical ability to rule. Although there is great emphasis upon the celebration of the jubilee in annals and autobiographies of courtiers who served kings who celebrated the Sed, little is known about the specific ceremonies.

By the reign of Hatshepsut (Dynasty 18), another ritual was introduced that, like the Sed, emphasized the power of the king. This festival, called Opet, was celebrated annually at Thebes. The ritual took the form of a procession of the sacred barks of the Theban triad (Amun, Mut and Khonsu) accompanied by the bark of the king himself. Once within the sanctuary of the Luxor Temple, the ka (spirit) of the king was rejuvenated for another year by its temporary fusion with the gods.

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Figure 4: The gods Osiris (left) and Horus (right) (after Hobson 1987).  »

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