The Efflux of Osiris

on July 17, 2009

I ran across something very novel and intriguing this week in the course of reading Robert Temple’s The Sphinx Mystery. Temple quotes an invocation from one of the ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, known as the “Book of Two Ways,” which is addressed to Osiris, the god of the dead:

“I am purified by thy efflux …exalted by the efflux which flowed out of thee. … It is the decomposition of Osiris. … I am the Great Soul of Osiris with whom the gods have ordained him to copulate, who lives on high by day, made by Osiris from the efflux of his flesh, by the seed which came from his phallus, in order to come forth by day that he may copulate with it.”

This is strange and highly technical language, but there are two things in it that stand out clearly. One is that the “efflux” of Osiris is a potent magical substance. The other is that this “efflux” is identified not only with the god’s semen — which might be expected — but also with the fluids of decomposition.

That is a powerful yet intensely alien equation.

Osiris was a god of the dead who was conventionally represented as a mummy. We moderns tend to think of Egyptian mummification as a nice, clean process in which the corpse was infused with chemicals to prevent it from decaying. However, it seems that either this was not the case or else there had been an earlier procedure, which had passed out of use when the art of mummification was perfected but which was still reflected in ritualistic formulas.

Temple explains, “The Egyptian word that is generally translated as ‘efflux’ is redju. Technically, it is the fluid of decomposition oozing from the corpse. . . . It was occasionally said to be responsible for the rise of the Nile and the inundation. It seems to have been conceived of as a kind of fluid emanating from the Earth at the source of the Nile, which created the life-giving Nile.”

What is most striking about this concept of redju is how closely it corresponds with rituals of secondary burial as practiced in other parts of the world.

Wherever secondary burial is found, the theory behind it is that the moist elements of a dead body incorporate its life force — and that if these are not removed before final burial, the corpse may be unnaturally reanimated by an evil spirit and return as a vampire or zombie to prey on the living.

Cultures that believe in this theory use a variety of procedures to reduce corpses to dry bones, ranging from cremation to exposing them on platforms for vultures to peck at to simply letting them rot in a safe place for a year or so.

In some locations, however, the rituals of secondary burial are extremely elaborate and involve an extensive interaction with the corpse as it decays. For example, Peter Metcalf writes of a tribe in Borneo known as the Berewan:

Among the things that interested me about the Berawan were their funeral rites, which involve what anthropologists call “secondary burial,” although the Berawan do not usually bury the dead at all. Full rites consist of four stages: the first and third involve ritual preparation of the corpse; the second and fourth make up steps in storage of the remains. . . .

During the first storage stage, the family may place the corpse in a large earthenware jar or in a massive coffin hewn from a single tree trunk. For secondary storage, the family may use a valuable glazed jar or the coffin left over from the first stage. During the third-stage rites, the family may take out the bones of the deceased and clean them. As the corpse decomposes, its secretions may be collected in a special vessel. . . .

But before this happy conclusion is reached, the hovering soul is feared because it may cause more death. Even more dread surrounds the body itself, caused not by the process of rotting, for that releases the soul of the deceased from the bonds of the flesh, but by the possibility that some malignant spirit of nonhuman origin will succeed in reanimating the corpse. Should this occur, the result will be a monster of nightmarish mien, invulnerable to the weapons of men, since it is already dead.

The reference to a tree trunk coffin is particularly interesting, since according to the myth of Osiris, he was murdered by his brother Set by being trapped in a coffin, which was thrown into the Nile and deposited at the foot of a tree that eventually grew to encase it. For that reason, Osiris was originally worshiped in the form of a tree trunk.

The goddess Isis found the coffin and was able to magically bring Osiris back to life just long enough to impregnate her with the god Horus. Following his second death, Osiris’s body was ripped apart by Set, but the scattered pieces were eventually recovered and given a proper burial.

In this sequence of mythic events, we see a strikingly close parallel to the Berewan ritual, with its two separate “storage” stages, separated by a phase where the bones of the deceased are cleaned and the fluids of decomposition collected in a special vessel.

It is that intermediate phase, which corresponds to Osiris’s temporary resurrection and impregnation of Isis, that may explain the equation between semen and the fluids of decomposition.

But there are still other parallels. The peoples of ancient Indonesia were great seafarers, some of whom crossed the Indian Ocean nearly 2000 years ago and settled on the island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa. Their Malagasy language is closely related to one still spoken in Borneo, and the practice of secondary burial is also very similar — although on Madagascar the dead are ultimately placed in a tomb, where they continue to serve as a source of vitality and fertility for the community.

Metcalf has written of those rituals as well, in Celebrations of Death, co-authored by Richard Huntington.

“The Merina people open the family tomb every few years, bring out the skeletons, rewrap them in new cloths, add the newly exhumed relics of those who have died since the last general tomb opening, and then replace all the relics and close the tomb. . . . Among the Sakalava of the western region, only the relics of royalty receive this sort of periodic attention. The royal ancestors belong, in one sense, to everyone, Commoners do not exhume and rebury their own dead, but rather they attend the annual ritual treatment of the “national ancestors.”

In this shift from a communal ritual to one that is practiced only on behalf of royalty, we may see the first stage in the process that would lead in Egypt to a cult focused exclusively on the exaltation of dead kings — as well as to the worship of one particularly outstanding prehistoric king as a god.

There is one further point of interest here, and that is the suggestion in Metcalf’s studies that Borneo was the primary center of diffusion for the practice of secondary burial, along with the underlying belief in a life-force.

This is a highly significant observation, since it fits in with a great deal of other evidence that the islands of Indonesia were once a great center of scientific and philosophical creativity, going back to the last Ice Age, when sea levels were lower and those islands were joined to form a subcontinent known as Sundaland.

Dying god myths appear to have originated in that region and spread from there to all the early agricultural societies of the Middle East and Europe. Flood myths may also be traced to the submergence of much of Sundaland as the ice melted. And the profound astronomical knowledge of the sailors of that region — who crossed thousands of miles of open ocean to settle the islands of Polynesia as well as Madagascar — is the most likely basis of the astronomical cults which inspired both Egypt and the other great early civilizations.

All of that, however — along with the even more perplexing centrality of those same myths and concepts to the ancient civilizations of the Americas — is a story for another day.


A listing of all my posts on the roots of civilization can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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