Journal: Monday 11 November 1996
Each Nile cruise I’ve been on has had some sort of entertainment in the evening. Tonight was the weekly ‘galabeya party’, when we passengers were expected to dress up in newly purchased ‘Egyptian dress’ – galabeyas and head-gear – and generally make fools of ourselves – all in the spirit of good fun. After dinner Michael organised a play, enacting the myth of Osiris and Seth which we had seen depicted on the walls at Edfu, earlier that day. Of course the play’s main actors were the most outgoing and outrageous of our group.
The story, loosely taken from the creation myth of Heliopolis, goes very briefly as follows:
Geb, god of the Earth and Nut, goddess of the sky, produced four children, Isis, Osiris, Seth and Nephthys. Osiris, as the firstborn son, was given the right to govern the land of Egypt. He married his sister Isis. Their brother Seth however, known as a bit of a rebel, was jealous of the success of King Osiris of Egypt and set about plotting his assassination. Seth constructed a fine chest and at a banquet he tricked Osiris into lying in the box, which he quickly nailed down and threw into the Nile. When Isis heard of her husband’s death (while she was in the town now known as Coptos), she set about looking for the chest and the body of Osiris, eventually hearing that it had been washed ashore in the land of Byblos. The coffin landed in a tamarisk tree which grew around it and was eventually cut down and made into a pillar for the palace of the king (this later became the origin of the djed pillar, symbol of strength). Isis travelled to Byblos and gained a reputation with the ladies of the court for being a great healer and was given the pillar as a gift in return for her services. Isis had the chest containing the body of Osiris hewn out of the tree trunk and she sailed with it back to Egypt. When she arrived in the Delta, Isis opened the coffin and she and her sister Nephthys tried to revive the body. Egyptian legend tells that the goddesses breathed life and warmth into the body of Osiris enough for him to be able to impregnate Isis with their son, Horus, who she hid for protection in the northern papyrus marshes until he was grown.
Meanwhile Seth was still worried that Osiris would return again to disrupt his own assumed rule of Egypt. He found the embalmed body and had it cut into fourteen pieces, which he scattered throughout Egypt. Once more Isis set out to find the scattered parts of her husband’s body, sailing up and down the Nile attended by the birds and beasts, who loved her. Eventually Isis found all but one of the parts of Osiris’s body. The goddess pretended to bury each part of her husband’s body where she found it, explaining the many shrines to Osiris found throughout Egypt. What she actually did was to take the body to Horus who, with the help of Thoth and Anubis, reassembled it, except for his ‘manhood’ which had been eaten by a fish. The body of the god Osiris was buried at Abydos, where he became once more immortal.
Horus spent his life avenging his father Osiris, in the pursuit of his enemy Seth and there were many battles fought. Seth took many guises, especially the crocodile and hippopotamus. He could call up violent storms at will and had a great voice like thunder. One of these battles was fought at Elephantine Island (Aswan) when Seth took the form of a red hippopotamus and used his storms as a terrible weapon. In the last battle, Seth was overcome by the young god Horus, who killed him with a harpoon, avenging the humiliation of his father and bringing peace at last to his mother. At Edfu, the tradition of Horus’s triumph over Seth can be seen in the ‘Edfu Drama’ reliefs on the ambulatory wall. The drama is a universal myth of kingship and resonates throughout the world in many different cultures. It also explains many of the traditions of ancient Egypt seen in different temples up and down the Nile.
My group’s very irreverent recreation of the drama was hilarious and we all went off to our cabins having had a hearty laugh. It may have been a mere coincidence, but there was a violent thunderstorm during that night, the waves rocking the boat on the once-calm waters of the river, lightning flashing through our curtains and rain lashing our windows. We were told earlier that there had been no rain in Aswan for at least a decade. I now have a great respect for the god Seth……