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Plutarch : On Osiris

Dernière mise à jour : 12 août 2023

Head of the God Osiris, ca. 595-525 B.C.E

Extracts from :

Plutarch's Morals

Theosophical Essays



X. The wisest of the Greeks bear testimony to this, such as Solon, Thales, Plato, Eudoxus, Pythagoras (some say Lycurgus also), by their travelling into Egypt and conversing with the priests.

Eudoxus, for example, they say, received lessons from Chonupheus of Memphis; Solon, from Sonchis of Sais; Pythagoras from Oenuphis of Heliopolis; and he being probably the most admired of these visitors, and himself admiring the people, copied their symbolical and mysterious style, and wrapped up his doctrines in enigmas; for the most part of the Pythagorean precepts do not fall short of the so-called hieroglyphic writings in obscurity; such, for instance, as, "Not to eat off a chair;" "Not to sit down upon a corn-measure;" "Not to plant a palm-tree;" "Not to stir the fire with a sword in the house."

And I myself think that the fact that the men (of his sect) call the unit "Apollo," the two "Diana," the seven, "Minerva;" and "Neptune" the first Cube; is analogous to the things set up upon the temples, and in truth to those done and painted there.

"Osiris The Lord of Abidos"


For the king and lord Osiris, they represent by an eye and a sceptre, and some even interpret the name as "Many-eyed," the "os" signifying many, and the "iri," eye, in the Egyptian language; and Heaven, as being exempt from old age by reason of its eternity, by a heart with an altar of incense placed below it.

And in Thebes there were dedicated statues of Judges wanting the hands: whilst that of the chief-judge had also the eyes closed, showing that Justice is above bribes, and not to be moved by prayer.

The Military class had the beetle for device on signet, for the beetle is never female, but all are males, and they breed by depositing their seed [in balls of dung]; since they make these balls, not so much to provide material for food, as a place for propagation of their kind.

XI. When therefore you shall hear the fables the Egyptians tell about the gods — their wanderings, cutting to pieces, and many such like mishaps you ought to bear in mind what has been above stated, and not to suppose that any of them happened or was done in the manner related.

For they do not really call the dog "Hermes," but the animal's watchfulness, sleeplessness, and sagacity (for by knowledge and absence of knowledge it distinguishes between friend and foe, as Plato says) make it appropriate to the most sagacious of the gods: neither do they suppose that the sun rises as a new born child out of a lotus, but it is in this way they picture the rising of the sun, enigmatically expressing that the solar fire is derived from moisture.

“The sun springing from an opening lotus

flower in the form of the child Horus.”

For that most savage and terrible King of the Persians, Ochus — who put many to death, and finally butchered Apis and dined upon him along with his friends — they styled "The Sword," and still call him by that name in the list of kings; that is not actually describing his person, but likening the hardness and wickedness of his disposition to an instrument of slaughter.

In the same way must you hear the stories about the gods, and receive them from such as interpret mythology, in a reverent and philosophic spirit, both performing constantly and observing the established rites of the worship, and believing that no sacrifice nor act is more well pleasing to the gods, than is the holding the true faith with respect to them, so will you escape an evil no less great than Atheism, namely, Superstition.


XXV. Do they, therefore, better, who believe the legends told about Typhon, Osiris, and Isis, not to refer to either gods or men, but to certain great Powers (dæmons), whom Plato, Pythagoras, Xenocrates, and Chrysippus (following the ancient theologians) assert to have been created far stronger than men, and greatly surpassing our nature in power, but yet having the divine part not entirely unmixed nor unalloyed, but combined with the nature of the soul and the senses of the body, susceptible of pleasure and pain, and all other emotions the result of these, that by their vicissitudes disturb, some in a greater, others in a less degree; for, in that case, as amongst men, so amongst dæmons, exist degrees of virtue and of vice.

For the deeds of the Giants and Titans, sung of by the Greeks, certain atrocious actions of Saturn, the pitched battle between Python and Apollo, the flight of Bacchus, the

wanderings of Ceres do not fall short in absurdity of the legends about Osiris and Typhon, and the others that one may hear told by mythologists to any amount — all the things that are shrouded in mystic ceremonies, and are presented by rites, being kept secret and out of sight from the vulgar, and have a shape similar to those mentioned of the Egyptians.


LI. Osiris, they represent by an eye and a sceptre, whereof the one signifies foresight, the other power; in the same way as Homer by calling Jupiter, who governs and reigns over all, by the titles "Supreme" and "Knowing," probably indicates by the "Supreme" his power, by the "Knowing" his good counsel and intelligence.

They frequently represent this god by the figure of a hawk, for that bird excels all in acuteness of sight and swiftness of flying; and by nature digests its food most rapidly of all. The bird is also said, when corpses are lying about unburied, to hover over them, and drop earth upon their eyes. And when in order to drink it descends upon the river, it sets its wings upright, and having drank bends them back again; by which it is evident that it protects itself, and escapes from the crocodile, for if it should be swallowed up, the wing remains as it stood, fixed upright.

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