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This webpage reproduces a portion of
Isis and Osiris


published in Vol. V
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1936

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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(Vol. V) Plutarch, Moralia

 p101  Isis and Osiris
(Part 3 of 5 on this website)

41 367But the Egyptians, by combining with these physical explanations some of the scientific results derived from astronomy, think that dby Typhon is meant the solar world, and by Osiris the lunar world; they reason that the moon, because it has a light that is generative and productive of moisture,242 is kindly towards the young of animals and the burgeoning plants, whereas the sun, by its untempered and pitiless heat, makes all growing and flourishing vegetation hot and parched, and, through its blazing light, renders a large part of the earth uninhabitable, and in many a region overpowers the moon. For this reason the Egyptians regularly call Typhon "Seth,"243 which, being interpreted, means "overmastering and compelling." eThey have a legend that Heracles, making his dwelling in the sun, is a companion for it in its revolutions, as is the case also with Hermes and the moon. In fact, the actions of the moon are like actions of reason and perfect wisdom, whereas those of the sun are like beatings administered through violence and brute strength. The Stoics244 assert that the sun is kindled and fed from the sea, but that for the moon the moving waters from the springs and lakes send up a sweet and mild exhalation.

42 1 The Egyptians have a legend that the end of Osiris's life came on the seventeenth of the month, on which day it is quite evident to the eye that the period of the full moon is over.245 fBecause of this the  p103 Pythagoreans call this day "the Barrier," and utterly abominate this number. For the number seventeen, coming in between the square sixteen and the oblong rectangle eighteen, which, as it happens, are the only plane figures that have their perimeters equal their areas,246 bars them off from each other and disjoins them, and breaks up the ratio of eight to eight and an eighth247 by its division into unequal intervals.

Some say that the years of Osiris's life, others that the years of his reign, were twenty-eight;248 368for that is the number of the moon's illuminations, and in that number of days does she complete her cycle. The wood which they cut on the occasions called the "burials of Osiris" they fashion into a crescent-shaped coffer because of the fact that the moon, when it comes near the sun, becomes crescent-shaped and disappears from our sight. The dismemberment of Osiris into fourteen parts they refer allegorically to the days of the waning of that satellite from the time of the full moon to the new moon. bºAnd the day on which she becomes visible after escaping the solar rays and passing by the sun they style "Incomplete Good"; for Osiris is beneficent, and his name means many things, but, not least of all, an active and beneficent power, as they put it. The other name of the god, Omphis, Hermaeus says means "benefactor" when interpreted.

43 1 They think that the risings of the Nile have some relation to the illuminations of the moon; for  p105 the greatest rising,249 in the neighbourhood of Elephantinê, is twenty-eight cubits, which is the number of its illuminations that form the measure of each of its monthly cycles; the rising in the neighbourhood of Mendes and Xoïs, which is the least, is six cubits, corresponding to the first quarter. The mean rising, in the neighbourhood of Memphis, when it is normal, is fourteen cubits, corresponding to the full moon.

The Apis, they say, is the animate image of Osiris,250 and he comes into being when a fructifying light thrusts forth from the moon and falls upon a cow in her breeding-season.251 Wherefore there are many things in the Apis that resemble features of the moon, his bright parts being darkened by the shadowy. Moreover, at the time of the new moon in the month of Phamenoth they celebrate a festival to which they give the name of "Osiris's coming to the Moon," and this marks the beginning of the spring. Thus they make the power of Osiris to be fixed in the Moon, and say that Isis, since she is generation, is associated with him. For this reason they also call the Moon the mother of the world, and they think that she has a nature both male and female, as she is receptive and made pregnant by the Sun, dºbut she herself in turn emits and disseminates into the air generative principles. For, as they believe, the destructive activity of Typhon does not always prevail, but oftentimes is overpowered by such generation and put in bonds, and then at a later time is again released and contends against Horus,252 who is the terrestrial universe; and this is never completely exempt either from dissolution or from generation.

 p107  44 1 There are some who would make the legend an allegorical reference to matters touching eclipses; for the Moon suffers eclipse only when she is full, with the Sun directly opposite to her, and she falls into the shadow of the Earth, as they say Osiris fell into his coffin. Then again, the Moon herself obscures the Sun and causes solar eclipses, always on the thirtieth of the month; ehowever, she does not completely annihilate the Sun, and likewise Isis did not annihilate Typhon.

When Nephthys gave birth to Anubis, Isis treated the child as if it were her own;253 for Nephthys is that which is beneath the earth and invisible, Isis that which is above the earth and visible; and the circle which touches these, called the horizon, being common to both,254 has received the name Anubis, and is represented in form like a dog; for the dog can see with his eyes both by night and by day alike. And among Egyptians Anubis is thought to possess this faculty, which is similar to that which Hecatê is thought to possess among the Greeks, for Anubis is a deity of the lower world as well as a god of Olympus. fSome are of the opinion that Anubis is Cronus. For this reason, inasmuch as he generates all things out of himself and conceives all things within himself, he has gained the appellation of "Dog."255 There is, therefore, a certain mystery observed by those who revere Anubis; in ancient times the dog obtained the highest honours in Egypt; but, when Cambyses256 had slain the Apis and cast him forth, nothing came near the body or ate of it save only the dog; and thereby the dog lost his primacy and his place of honour above that of all the other animals.

 p109  There are some who give the name of Typhon to the Earth's shadow, into which they believe the moon slips when it suffers eclipse.257 45 1 369Hence it is not unreasonable to say that the statement of each person individually is not right, but that the statement of all collectively is right; for it is not drought nor wind nor sea nor darkness,258 but everything harmful and destructive that Nature contains, which is to be set down as a part of Typhon. The origins of the universe are not to be placed in inanimate bodies, according to the doctrine of Democritus and Epicurus, nor yet is the Artificer of undifferentiated matter, according to the Stoic doctrine,259 one Reason, and one Providence which gains the upper hand and prevails over all things. The fact is that it is impossible for anything bad whatsoever to be engendered where God is the Author of all, bor anything good where God is the Author of nothing; for the concord of the universe, like that of a lyre or bow, according to Heracleitus,260 is resilient if disturbed; and according to Euripides,261

The good and bad cannot be kept apart,

But there is some commingling, which is well.

Wherefore this very ancient opinion comes down from writers on religion and from lawgivers to poets and philosophers; it can be traced to no source, but it carried a strong and almost indelible conviction, and is in circulation in many places among barbarians and Greeks alike, not only in story and tradition but also  p111 in rites and sacrifices, to the effect that the Universe is not of itself suspended aloft cwithout sense or reason or guidance, nor is there one Reason which rules and guides it by rudders, as it were, or by controlling reins,262 but, inasmuch as Nature brings, in this life of ours, many experiences in which both evil and good are commingled, or better, to put it very simply, Nature brings nothing which is not combined with something else, we may assert that it is not one keeper of two great vases263 who, after the manner of a barmaid, deals out to us our failures and successes in mixture, but it has come about, as the result of two opposed principles and two antagonistic forces, one of which guides us along a straight course to the right, while the other turns us aside and backward, that our life is complex, and so also is the universe; and if this is not true of the whole of it, dyet it is true that this terrestrial universe, including its moon as well, is irregular and variable and subject to all manner of changes. For if it is the law of nature that nothing comes into being without a cause, and if the good cannot provide a cause for evil, then it follows that Nature must have in herself the source and origin of evil, just as she contains the source and origin of good.

46 1   [link to original Greek text] The great majority and the wisest of men hold this opinion: they believe that there are two gods, rivals as it were, the one the Artificer of good and the other of evil. There are also those who call the better one a god and the other a daemon, eas, for example,  p113 Zoroaster264 the sage,265 who, they record, lived five thousand years before the time of the Trojan War. He called the one Oromazes and the other Areimanius;266 and he further declared that among all the things perceptible to the senses, Oromazes may best be compared to light, and Areimanius, conversely, to darkness and ignorance, and midway between the two is Mithras: for this reason the Persians give to Mithras the name of "Mediator." Zoroaster has also taught that men should make votive offerings and thank-offerings to Oromazes, and averting and mourning offerings to Areimanius. They pound up in a mortar a certain plant called omomi at the same time invoking Hades267 and Darkness; then they mix it with the blood of a wolf that has been sacrificed, and carry it out and cast it into a place where the sun never shines. fIn fact, they believe that some of the plants belong to the good god and others to the evil daemon; so also of the animals they think that dogs, fowls, and hedgehogs, for example, belong to the good god, but that water-rats268 belong to the evil one; therefore the man who has killed the most of these they hold to be fortunate.

47 1   [link to original Greek text] However, they also tell many fabulous stories about their gods, such, for example, as the following: Oromazes, born from the purest light, and Areimanius, born from the darkness, are constantly at war with each other; 370and Oromazes created six gods, the first of Good Thought, the second of Truth, the third of Order, and, of the rest, one of Wisdom, one of Wealth,  p115 and one the Artificer of Pleasure in what is Honourable. But Areimanius created rivals, as it were, equal to these in number. Then Oromazes enlarged himself to thrice his former size, and removed himself as far distant from the Sun as the Sun is distant from the Earth, and adorned the heavens with stars. One star he set there before all others as a guardian and watchman, the Dog-star. Twenty-four other gods he created and placed in an egg. bBut those created by Areimanius, who were equal in number to the others, pierced through the egg and made their way inside;269 hence evils are now combined with good. But a destined time shall come when it is decreed that Areimanius, engaged in bringing on pestilence and famine, shall by these be utterly annihilated and shall disappear; and then shall the earth become a level plain, and there shall be one manner of life and one form of government for a blessed people who shall all speak one tongue. Theopompus270 says that, according to the sages, one god is to overpower, and the other to be overpowered, each in turn for the space of three thousand years, and afterward for another three thousand years they shall fight and war, and the one shall undo the works of the other, cand finally Hades shall pass away; then shall the people be happy, and neither shall they need to have food nor shall they cast any shadow. And the god, who has contrived to bring about all these things, shall then have quiet and shall repose for a time,271 no long time indeed, but for the god as much as would be a moderate time for a man to sleep.

 p117  Such, then, is the character of the mythology of the sages. 48 1 The Chaldeans declare that of the planets, which they call tutelary gods,272 two are beneficent, two maleficent, and the other three are median and partake of both qualities. The beliefs of the Greeks are well known to all; they make the good part to belong the Olympian Zeus and the abominated part to Hades, and they rehearse a legend that Concord is sprung from Aphroditê and Ares,273 dthe one of whom is harsh and contentious, and the other mild and tutelary.

Observe also that the philosophers are in agreement with these; for Heracleitus274 without reservation styles War "the Father and King and Lord of all," and he says that when Homer275 prays that

Strife may vanish from the ranks of the gods and of mortals,

he fails to note that he is invoking a curse on the origin of all things, since all things originate from strife and antagonism; also Heracleitus says that the Sun will not transgress his appropriate bounds, otherwise the stern-eyed maidens, ministers of Justice, will find him out.276

eEmpedocles277 calls the beneficent principle "friendship" or "friendliness," and oftentimes he calls Concord  p119 "sedate of countenance"; the worse principle he calls "accursed quarreling" and "blood-stained strife."

The adherents of Pythagoras278 include a variety of terms under these categories: under the good they set Unity, the Determinate, the Permanent, the Straight, the Odd, the Square, the Equal, the Right-handed, the Bright; under the bad they set Duality, the Indeterminate, the Moving, the Curved, the Even, the Oblong, the Unequal, the Left-handed, the Dark, on the supposition that these are the underlying principles of creation. For these, however, Anaxagoras postulates Mind and Infinitude, Aristotle279 Form and Privation, fand Plato,280 in many passages, as though obscuring and veiling his opinion, names the one of the opposite principles "Identity" and the other "Difference"; but in his Laws,281 when he had grown considerably older, he asserts, not in circumlocution or symbolically, but in specific words, that the movement of the Universe is actuated not by one soul, but perhaps by several, and certainly by not less than two, and of these the one is beneficent, and the other is opposed to it and the artificer of things opposed. Between these he leaves a certain third nature, not inanimate nor irrational nor without the power to move of itself,282 as some think, 371but with dependence on both those others, and desiring the better always and yearning after it and pursuing it, as the succeeding portion of the treatise will make clear, in the  p121 endeavour to reconcile the religious beliefs of the Egyptians with this philosophy.283

49 1 The fact is that the creation and constitution of this world is complex, resulting, as it does, from opposing influences, which, however, are not of equal strength, but the predominance rests with the better. Yet it is impossible for the bad to be completely eradicated, since it is innate, in large amount, in the body and likewise in the soul of the Universe, and is always fighting a hard fight against the better. So in the soul Intelligence and reason, the Ruler and Lord of all that is good, is Osiris, band in earth and wind and water and the heavens and stars that which is ordered, established, and healthy, as evidenced by season, temperatures, and cycles of revolution, is the efflux of Osiris284 and his reflected image. But Typhon is that part of the soul which is impressionable, impulsive, irrational and truculent, and of the bodily part the destructible, diseased and disorderly as evidenced by abnormal seasons and temperatures, and by obscurations of the sun and disappearances of the moon,285 outbursts, as it were, and unruly actions on the part of Typhon. And the name "Seth,"286 by which they call Typhon, denotes this; it means "the overmastering" and "overpowering,"287 and it means in very many instances "turning back,"288 and again "overpassing." cSome say that one of the companions of Typhon was Bebon,289 but Manetho says that Bebon was still another name by which Typhon was called. The name signifies "restraint" or "hindrance," as much as  p123 to say that, when things are going along in a proper way and making rapid progress towards the right end, the power of Typhon obstructs them.a 50 1 For this reason they assign to him the most stupid of the domesticated animals, the ass, and of the wild animals, the most savage, the crocodile and the hippopotamus.

In regard to the ass we have already290 offered some explanation. At Hermopolis they point out a statue of Typhon in the form of an hippopotamus, on whose back is poised a hawk fighting with a serpent. By the hippopotamus they mean to indicate Typhon, dand by the hawk a power and rule, which Typhon strives to win by force, oftentimes without success, being confused by his wickedness and creating confusion.291 For this reason, when they offer sacrifice on the seventh day of the month Tybi, which they call the "Coming of Isis from Phoenicia," they imprint on their sacred cakes the image of an hippopotamus tied fast. In the town of Apollonopolis it is an established custom for every person without exception to eat of a crocodile;292 and on one day they hunt as many as they can and, after killing them, cast them down directly opposite the temple. And they relate that Typhon escaped Horus by turning into a crocodile, and they would make out ethat all animals and plants and incidents that are bad and harmful are the deeds and parts and movements of Typhon.

51 1 Then again, they depict Osiris by means of an eye and a sceptre,293 the one of which indicates forethought and the other power, much as Homer294 in  p125 calling the Lord and King of all "Zeus supreme and counsellor" appears by "supreme" to signify his prowess and by "counsellor" his careful planning and thoughtfulness. They also often depict this god by means of a hawk; for this bird is surpassing in the keenness of his vision and the swiftness of its flight, and is wont to support itself with the minimum amount of food. fIt is said also in flying over the earth to cast dust upon the eyes of unburied dead;295 and whenever it settles down beside the river to drink it raises its feather upright, and after it has drunk it lets this sink down again, by which it is plain that the bird is safe and has escaped the crocodile,296 for if it be seized, the feather remains fixed upright as it was at the beginning.

Everywhere they point out statues of Osiris in human form of the ithyphallic type, on account of his creative and fostering power;297 and they clothe his statues in a flame-coloured garment, 372since they regard the body of the Sun as a visible manifestation of the perceptible substance of the power for good.298 Therefore it is only right and fair to contemn those who assign the orb of the Sun to Typhon,299 to whom there attaches nothing bright or of a conserving nature, no order nor generation nor movement possessed of moderation or reason, but everything the reverse; moreover, the drought,300 by which he destroys many of the living creatures and growing plants, is not to be set down as the work of the Sun, but rather as due to the fact that the winds and waters in the earth and the air are not seasonably tempered when  p127 the principle of the disorderly and unlimited power gets out of hand and quenches the exhalations.301

52 1  bIn the sacred hymns of Osiris they call upon him who is hidden in the arms of the Sun; and on the thirtieth of the month Epiphi they celebrate the birthday of the Eyes of Horus, at the time when the Moon and the Sun are in a perfectly straight line, since they regard not only the Moon but also the Sun as the eye and light of Horus.

On the waning of the month Phaophi they conduct the birthday of the Staff of the Sun following upon the autumnal equinox, and by this they declare, as it were, that he is in need of support and strength, since he becomes lacking in warmth and light, cand undergoes decline, and is carried away from us to one side.

Moreover, at the time of the winter solstice they lead the cow seven times around the temple of the Sun and this circumambulation is called the Seeking for Osiris, since the Goddess in the winter-time yearns for water; so many times do they go around, because in the seventh month the Sun completes the transition from the winter solstice to the summer solstice. It is said also that Horus, the son of Isis, offered sacrifice to the Sun first of all on the fourth day of the month, as is written in the records entitled the Birthdays of Horus.

Every day they make a triple offering of incense to the Sun, dan offering of resin at sunrise, of myrrh at midday, and of the so‑called cyphi at sunset; the  p129 reason which underlies each one of these offerings I will describe later.302 They think that by means of all these they supplicate and serve the Sun. Yet, what need is there to collect many such things? There are some who without reservation assert that Osiris is the Sun and is called the Dog-star (Sirius) by the Greeks303 even if among the Egyptians the addition of the article has created some ambiguity in regard to the name; and there are those who declare that Isis is none other than the Moon; for this reason it is said that the statues of Isis that bear horns are imitations of the crescent moon, and in her dark garments are shown the concealments and the obscurations in which she in her yearning pursues the Sun. For this reason also they call upon the Moon in love affairs, eand Eudoxus asserts that Isis is a deity who presides over love affairs. These people may lay claim to a certain plausibility, but no one should listen for a moment to those who make Typhon to be the Sun.

The Editor's Notes:

242 Cf. 658B, infra.

243 Cf. 371B and 376A, infra.

244 Von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, II 663. Cf. also Diogenes Laertius, VII.145; and Porphyry, De Antro Nympharum, 11.

245 Fourteen days, or one half of a lunar month, before the ἕνη καὶ νέα, if the lunar month could ever be made to square with any system of chronology!

246 That is: 4×4=16 and 4+4+4+4=16: so also 3×6=18 and 3+6+3+6=18.b

247 That is, ⅛ of a number added to itself: thus 16 + (16/8) = 18. Eighteen, therefore, bears the epogdoon relation to sixteen, which is broken up by the intervention of seventeen, an odd number.

248 Cf. 358A, supra.

249 Besides the famous ancient Nilometer at Elephantinê, others have been found at Philae, Edfu, and Esna.

250 Cf. 359B and 362C, supra.

251 Cf. Moralia, 718B, and Aelian, De Natura Animalium, XI.10.

252 Cf. 358D, supra.

253 Cf. 356E, supra.

254 Cf. 375E, infra.

255 Plutarch would connect κύων, "dog," with the participle of κυῶ, "be pregnant." If the animal were a bear, we might say, "bears all things . . . the appellation of Bear," which would be a very close parallel.

256 Cf. the note on 355C, supra.

257 Cf. 373E, infra.

258 Cf. 364A, supra, and 376F, infra.

259 Cf. von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, II p1108, and Diogenes Laertius, VII.134.

260 Cf. Diels, Frag. der Vorsokratiker, I p87, no. B51. Plutarch quotes this again in Moralia, 473F and 1026B.

261 Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Euripides, no. 21, from the Aeolus; quoted again in Moralia, 25C and 474A.

262 The language is reminiscent of a fragment of Sophocles quoted by Plutarch in Moralia, 767E, and Life of Alexander, chap. vii. (668B). Cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Sophocles, (p111)no. 785. "A task for many reins and rudders too" (πολλῶν χαλινῶν ἔργον οἰάκων θ’ ἅμα).

263 The reference is to Homer, Il. XXIV.527‑528, as misquoted in Plato, Republic, 379D. Cf. also Moralia, 24A(and the note), 105C (and the note), and 473B. Moralia, 600C, is helpful in understanding the present passage.

264 The casual reader will gain a better understanding of chapters 46 and 47 if he will consult some brief book or article on Zoroaster (Zarathustra) and the Persian religion.

265 That is, one of the Persian Magi or Wise Men.

266 Cf. Moralia, 1026B, and Diogenes Laertius, Prologue, 2.

267 Cf. Diogenes Laertius, Prologue, 8.

268 Cf. Moralia, 537A and 670D.

269 It is plain that the two sets of gods became intermingled, but whether the bad gods got in or the good gods got out is not clear from the text.

270 Jacoby, Frag. Gr. Hist., Theopompus, no. 65.

271 The meaning of the text is clear enough, but the wording of it is uncertain.

272 The translation is based on an emendation of Wyttenbach's, which makes the words refer to Chaldean astrology (p117)(i.e. the planet under which one is born). Cf. Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos, V.29.

273 That is, from Love and War.

274 Diels, Frag. der Vorsokratiker, I p88, no. B 53.

275 Il. XVIII.107, but Plutarch modifies the line to suit his context.

276 Cf. Moralia, 604A; Origen, Against Celsus, VI.42; Diels, Frag. der Vorsokratiker, I p96, no. B 94.

277 Ibid. p232, Empedocles, no. 18; p239, no. 17, l.19; and p269, no. 122 (= Moralia, 474B).

278 Cf. Moralia, 881E, and Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.5 (986 A22).

279 Cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.9 (90B).

280 Timaeus, 35A; Cf. Moralia, 441F.

281 Plato, Laws, 896D ff.

282 Cf. 374E, infra.

283 Cf. 372E and 377A, infra.

284 See the note on 365B, supra.

285 Cf. 368F, supra.

286 Cf. 367D, supra, and 376A, infra.

287 So also in the Egyptian papyri.

288 Cf. 376B, infra.

289 Cf. 376A, infra.

290 Supra, 362F.

291 The text and significance of this passage are none too clear.

292 Cf. Herodotus,II.69; Aelian, De Natura Animalium, X.21; Strabo, XVII.1.47 (p817).

293 Cf. 354F, supra.

294 Homer, IliadVIII.22.

295 Cf. Aelian, De Natura Animalium, II.42, and Porphyry, De Abstinentia, IV.9.

296 Ibid. X.24.

297 Cf. 365B, supra.

298 Cf. 393D and 477C, infra.

299 Cf. 372E, infra.

300 Cf. 367D, supra.

301 Cf. 369A, supra.

302 Cf. 383A-end, infra.

303 An attempt to connect Ὄσιρις and ὁ Σίριος? Cf. Diodorus, I.11.3‑4.

Thayer's Notes:

a Fragment 78.

b More generally, 16 and 18 represent solutions (x=4, y=4) and (x=3, y=6) of the hyperbolic equation

xy = 2x + 2y

which in modern terms has an infinity of solutions; Plutarch is saying that (x=4, y=4), (x=3, y=6), and (x=6, y=3) are the only integral solutions. To his positive solutions we would add today three more, at (x=0, y=0), (x=1, y=-2) and (x=-2, y=1): they are symmetrical to Plutarch's set with respect to the two asymptotes, and in terms of geometry represent one null and two imaginary rectangles. In theory, to find any others we are suddenly transported into the very difficult realm of Diophantine equations; but that these are the only five integral solutions can be seen instantly by inspecting the graph. Plutarch's square, and one of his two symmetrical rectangles, are shaded.

[image ALT: A hyperbole, the graph of the equation (xy = 2x + 2y).]

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 19 Nov 17