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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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(Vol. V) Plutarch, Moralia

 p129  Isis and Osiris

(Part 4 of 5 on this website)

(372)But now let us take up again the proper subject of our discussion. 53 1 Isis is, in fact, the female principle of Nature, and is receptive of every form of generation, in accord with which she is called by Plato​304 the gentle nurse and the all-receptive, and by most people has been called by countless names, since, because of the force of Reason, she turns herself to this thing or that and is receptive of all manner of shapes and forms. She has an innate love for the first and most dominant of all things, which is identical with the good, and this she yearns for and pursues; fbut the portion which comes from evil she tries to avoid and to reject, for she serves  p131 them both as a place and means of growth, but inclines always towards the better and offers to it opportunity to create from her and to impregnate her with effluxes and likenesses in which she rejoices and is glad that she is made pregnant and teeming with these creations. For creation is the image of being in matter, and the thing created is a picture of reality.

54 373 It is not, therefore, out of keeping that they have a legend that the soul of Osiris is everlasting and imperishable, but that his body Typhon oftentimes dismembers and causes to disappear, and that Isis wanders hither and yon in her search for it, and fits it together again;​305 for that which really is and is perceptible and good is superior to destruction and change. The images from it with which the sensible and corporeal is impressed, and the relations, forms, and likenesses which this take upon itself, like impressions of seals in wax, are not permanently lasting, but disorder and disturbance overtakes them, bbeing driven hither from the upper reaches, and fighting against Horus,​306 whom Isis brings forth, beholden of all, as the image of the perceptible world. Therefore it is said that he is brought to trial by Typhon on the charge of illegitimacy, as not being pure nor uncontaminated like his father, reason unalloyed and unaffected of itself, but contaminated in his substance because of the corporeal element. He prevails, however, and wins the case when Hermes,​306 that is to say Reason, testifies and points out that Nature, by undergoing changes of form with reference to the perceptible, duly brings about the creation of the world.  p133 cThe birth of Apollo from Isis and Osiris, while these gods were still in the womb of Rhea, has the allegorical meaning that before this world was made visible and its rough material was completely formed by reason, it was put to the test by Nature and brought forth of itself the first creation imperfect. This is the reason why they say that this god was born in the darkness a cripple, and they call him the elder Horus;​307 for there was then no world, but only an image and outline of a world to be.

55 1 But this Horus is himself perfected and complete; but he has not done away completely with Typhon, but has taken away his activity and strength. Hence they say that at Kopto the statue of Horus holds in one hand the privy members of Typhon, and they relate a legend that Hermes cut out the sinews of Typhon, and used them as strings for his lyre, dthereby instructing us that Reason adjusts the Universe and creates concord out of discordant elements, and that it does not destroy but only cripples the destructive force. Hence this is weak and inactive here, and combines with the susceptible and changeable elements and attaches itself to them, becoming the artificer of quakes and tremblings in the earth, and of droughts and tempestuous winds in the air, and of lightning-flashes and thunderbolts. Moreover, it taints waters and winds with pestilence, and it runs forth wanton even as far as the moon, oftentimes confounding and darkening the moon's brightness; according to the belief and account of  p135 the Egyptians, eTyphon at one time smites the eye of Horus, and at another time snatches it out and swallows it, and then later gives it back again to the Sun. By the smiting, they refer allegorically to the monthly waning of the moon, and by the crippling, to its eclipse,​308 which the Sun heals by shining straight upon it as soon as it has escaped the shadow of the earth.

56 1 The better and more divine nature consists of three parts: the conceptual, the material, and that which is formed from these, which the Greeks call the world. fPlato​309 is wont to give to the conceptual the name of idea, example, or father, and to the material the name of mother or nurse, or seat and place of generation, and to that which results from both the name of offspring or generation.

One might conjecture that the Egyptians hold in high honour the most beautiful of the triangles,​310 since they liken the nature of the Universe most closely to it, as Plato in the Republic311 seems to have made use of it in formulating his figure of marriage. This triangle has its upright of three units, its base of four, 374and its hypotenuse of five, whose power is equal to that of the other two sides.​312 The upright, therefore, may be likened to the male, the base to the female, and the hypotenuse to the child of both, and so Osiris may be regarded as the origin, Isis as the recipient, and Horus as perfected result. Three is the first perfect odd number: four is a square whose side is the even number two; but five is in some ways like to its father, and in some ways like to its mother, being  p137 made up of three and two.​313 And panta (all) is a derivative of pente (five), and they speak of counting as "numbering by fives."​314 Five makes a square of itself, bas many as the letters of the Egyptian alphabet, and as many as the years of the life of the Apis.

Horus they are wont to call also Min, which means "seen"; for the world is something perceptible and visible, and Isis is sometimes called Muth, and again Athyri or Methyer. By the first of these names they signify "mother," by the second the mundane house of Horus, the place and receptacle of generation, as Plato​315 has it, and the third is compounded of "full" and "cause"; for the material of the world is full, and is associated with the good and pure and orderly.

57 c It might appear that Hesiod,​316 in making the very first things of all to be Chaos and Earth and Tartarus and Love, did not accept any other origins but only these, if we transfer the names somewhat and assign to Isis the name of Earth and to Osiris the name of Love and to Typhon the name of Tartarus; for the poet seems to place Chaos at the bottom as a sort of region that serves as a resting-place for the Universe.

This subject seems in some wise to call up the myth of Plato, which Socrates in the Symposium317 gives at some length in regard to the birth of Love, saying that Poverty, wishing for children, insinuated herself  p139 beside Plenty while he was asleep, and having become pregnant by him, gave birth to Love, dwho is of a mixed and utterly variable nature, inasmuch as he is the son of a father who is good and wise and self-sufficient in all things, but of a mother who is helpless and without means and because of want always clinging close to another and always importunate over another. For Plenty is none other than the first beloved and desired, the perfect and self-sufficient; and Plato calls raw material Poverty, utterly lacking of herself in the Good, but being filled from him and always yearning for him and sharing with him. The World, or Horus,​318 which is born of these, is not eternal nor unaffected nor imperishable, but, ebeing ever reborn, contrives to remain always young and never subject to destruction in the changes and cycles of events.

58 1 We must not treat legend as it were history at all, but we should adopt that which is appropriate in each legend in accordance with its verisimilitude. Whenever, therefore, we speak of material we must not be swept away to the opinions of some philosophers,​319 and conceive of an inanimate and indifferentiated body, which is of itself inert and inactive. The fact is that we call oil the material of perfume and gold the material of a statue, and these are not destitute of all differentiation. We provide the very soul fand thought of Man as the basic material of understanding and virtue for Reason to adorn and to harmonize, and some have declared the Mind to be a place for the assembling of forms and for the impression of concepts, as it were.320

 p141  Some think the seed of Woman is not a power or origin, but only material and nurture of generation.​321 To this thought we should cling fast and conceive that this Goddess also who participates always with the first God and is associated with him in the love​322 of the fair and lovely things about him is not opposed to him, 375but, just as we say that an honourable and just man is in love if his relations are just, and a good woman who has a husband and consorts with him we say yearns for him; thus we may conceive of her as always clinging close to him and being importunate over him and constantly filled with the most dominant and purest principles. 59 1 But where Typhon forces his way in and seizes upon the outermost areas, there we may conceive of her as seeming sad, and spoken of as mourning, and that she seeks for the remains and scattered members of Osiris and arrays them, receiving and hiding away the things perishable, bfrom which she brings to light again the things that are created and sends them forth from herself.

The relations and forms and effluxes of the god abide in the heavens and in the stars; but those things that are distributed in susceptible elements, earth and sea and plants and animals, suffer dissolution and destruction and burial, and oftentimes again shine forth and appear again in their generations. For this reason the fable has it that Typhon cohabits with Nephthys​323 and that Osiris has secret relations with her;​324 for the destructive power exercises special dominion over the outermost part of matter which they call Nephthys or Finality.​325 But the creating  p143 and conserving power distributes to this only a weak and feeble seed, cwhich is destroyed by Typhon, except so much as Isis takes up and preserves and fosters and makes firm and strong.326

60 1 In general this god is the better, as both Plato and Aristotle conceive. The creative and conserving element of Nature moves toward him and toward existence while the annihilating and destructive moves away from him towards non-existence. For this reason they call Isis by a name derived from "hastening" (hiemai) with understanding,​327 or being borne onward (pheromai), since she is an animate and intelligent movement; for the name is not a foreign name, but, just as all the gods have a name in common​328 derived from two words, "visible" (theaton) and "rushing" (theon), din the same way this goddess, from her understanding​327 and her movement, we call herº Isis and the Egyptians call her Isis. So also Plato​329 says that the men of ancient times made clear the meaning of "essence" (ousia) by calling it "sense" (isia). So also he speaks of the intelligence and understanding as being a carrying and movement of mind hasting and being carried onward; and also comprehension and good and virtue they attribute to those things which are ever flowing and in rapid motion, just as again, on the other hand, by means of antithetical names they vilified evil; for example, that which hinders and binds fast and holds and checks  p145 Nature from hasting and going they called baseness, or "ill-going" (kak-ia), and helplessness or "difficulty of going" (apor-ia), and cowardice or "fear of going" (deil-ia), and distress or "not going" (an-ia).330

61 1 Osiris has a name made up from "holy" (hosion) and "sacred" (hieron);​331 for he is the combined relation of the things in the heavens and in the lower world, ethe former of which it was customary for people of olden time to call sacred and the latter to call holy. But the relation which discloses the things in the heavens and belongs to the things which tend upward is sometimes named Anubis and sometimes Hermanubis​332 as belonging in part to the things above and in part to the things below.​333 For this reason they sacrifice to him on the one hand a white cock and on the other hand one of saffron colour, regarding the former things as simple and clear, and the others as combined and variable.

There is no occasion to be surprised at the revamping of these words into Greek.​334 The fact is that countless other words went forth in company with those who migrated from Greece, and persist even to this day as strangers in strange lands; fand, when the poetic art would recall some of these into use, those who speak of such words as strange or unusual falsely accuse it of using barbarisms. Moreover, they record that in the so‑called books of Hermes it is written in regard to the sacred names that they call the power which is assigned to direct the revolution of the Sun Horus, but the Greeks call it Apollo; and the power assigned to the wind some call Osiris and others  p147 Serapis; 376and Sothis in Egyptian signifies "pregnancy" (cyesis) or "to be pregnant" (cyein): therefore in Greek, with a change of accent,​335 the star is called the Dog-star (Cyon), which they regard as the special star of Isis.​336 Least of all is there any need of being very eager in learning about these names. However, I would rather make a concession to the Egyptians in regard to Serapis than in regard to Osiris; for I regard Serapis as foreign, but Osiris as Greek, and both as belonging to one god and one power.

62 1 Like these also are the Egyptian beliefs; for they oftentimes call Isis by the name of Athena, expressive of some such idea as this, "I came of myself," which is indicative of self-impelled motion. bTyphon, as has been said,​337 is named Seth and Bebon and Smu, and these names would indicate some forcible and preventive check or opposition or reversal.338

Moreover, they call the loadstone the bone of Horus, and iron the bone of Typhon, as Manetho​339 records. For, as the iron oftentimes acts as if it were being attracted and drawn toward the stone, and oftentimes is rejected and repelled in the opposite direction, in the same way the salutary and good and rational movement of the world at one time, by persuasion, attracts and draws toward itself and renders more  p149 gentle that harsh and Typhonian movement, cand then again it gathers itself together and reverses it and plunges it into difficulties.

Moreover, Eudoxus says that the Egyptians have a mythical tradition in regard to Zeus that, because his legs were grown together, he was not able to walk, and so, for shame, tarried in the wilderness; but Isis, by severing and separating those parts of his body, provided him with means of rapid progress. This fable teaches by its legend that the mind and reason of the god, fixed amid the unseen and invisible, advanced to generation by means of motion.

63 1 The sistrum (rattle) also makes it clear that all things in existence need to be shaken, or rattled about, and never to cease from motion but, as it were, to be waked up and agitated when they grow drowsy and torpid. dThey say that they avert and repel Typhon by means of the sistrums, indicating thereby that when destruction constricts and checks Nature, generation releases and arouses it by means of motion.340

The upper part of the sistrum is circular and its circumference contains the four things that are shaken; for that part of the world which undergoes reproduction and destruction is contained underneath the orb of the moon, and all things in it are subjected to motion and to change through the four elements: fire, earth, water, and air. At the top of the circumference of the sistrum they construct the figure of a cat with a human face, and at the bottom, below the things that are shaken, ethe face of Isis on one side, and on the other the face of Nephthys. By these faces they symbolize birth and death, for these are the changes and movements of the elements; and by  p151 the cat they symbolize the moon because of the varied colouring, nocturnal activity, and fecundity of the animal. For the cat is said to bring forth first one, then two and three and four and five, thus increasing the number by one until she reaches seven,​341 so that she brings forth in all twenty-eight, the number also of the moon's illuminations. Perhaps, however, this may seem somewhat mythical. fBut the pupils in the eye of the cat appear to grow large and round at the time of the full moon, and to become thin and narrow at the time of the wanings of that heavenly body. By the human features of the cat is indicated the intelligence and the reason that guides the changes of the moon.342

64 1 To put the matter briefly, it is not right to believe that water or the sun or the earth or the sky is Osiris or Isis;​343 or again that fire or drought or the sea is Typhon, but simply if we attribute to Typhon​344 whatever there is in these 377that is immoderate and disordered by reason of excesses or defects; and if we revere and honour what is orderly and good and beneficial as the work of Isis and as the image and reflection and reason of Osiris, we shall not be wrong. Moreover, we shall put a stop to the incredulity of Eudoxus​345 and his questionings how it is that Demeter has no share in the supervision of love affairs, but Isis has; and the fact that Dionysus cannot cause the Nile to rise, nor rule over the dead. For by one general process of reasoning do we come to the conclusion that these gods have been assigned to preside over every portion of what is good; and whatever there is in nature that is fair and  p153 good exists entirely because of them, inasmuch as Osiris contributes the origins, and Isis receives them band distributes them.

65 1 In this way we shall undertake to deal with the numerous and tiresome people, whether they be such as take pleasure in associating theological problems with the seasonal changes in the surrounding atmosphere, or with the growth of the crops and seed-times and ploughing; and also those who say that Osiris is being buried at the time when the grain is sown and covered in the earth and that he comes to life and reappears when plants begin to sprout. For this reason also it is said that Isis, when she perceived that she was pregnant, put upon herself an amulet​346 on the sixth day of the month Phaophi; and about the time of the winter solstice she gave birth to Harpocrates, cimperfect and premature,​347 amid the early flowers and shoots. For this reason they bring to him as an offering the first-fruits of growing lentils, and the days of his birth they celebrate after the spring equinox. When the people hear these things, they are satisfied with them and believe them, deducing the plausible explanation directly from what is obvious and familiar.

66 1 And there is nothing to fear if, in the first place, they preserve for us our gods that are common to both peoples and do not make them to belong to the Egyptians only, dand do not include under these names the Nile alone and the land which the Nile waters, and do not assert that the marshes and the lotus are the only work of God's hand, and if they do not deny the great gods to the rest of mankind that possess no Nile nor Buto nor Memphis. But as for Isis, and the gods associated with her, all peoples own them and are  p155 familiar with them, although they have learned not so very long ago to call some of them by the names which come from the Egyptians; yet they have from the beginning understood and honoured the power which belongs to each one of them.

In the second place, and this is a matter of greater importance, they should exercise especial heed and caution lest they unwittingly erase and dissipate things divine​348 into winds and streams and sowings and ploughings, developments of the earth and changes of the seasons, as do those who regard wine as Dionysus and flame as Hephaestus. And Cleanthes​349 says somewhere that the breath of air which is carried (pheromenon) through the crops and then suffers dissolution (phoneuomenon) is Phersephone;º and a certain poet has written with reference to the reapers,350

Then when the sturdy youth come to sever the limbs of Demeter.

eThe fact is that these persons do not differ at all from those who regard sails and ropes and anchor as a pilot, warp and woof as a weaver, a cup or an honey mixture or barley gruel as a physician. But they create in men fearful atheistic opinions by conferring the names of gods upon natural objects which are senseless and inanimate, and are of necessity destroyed by men when they need to use them.

It is impossible to conceive of these things as being gods in themselves; 67f for God is not senseless nor inanimate nor subject to human control. As a result of this we have come to regard as gods those who make use of these things and present them to us and provide us with things everlasting and constant. Nor do we think of the gods as different gods among  p157 different peoples, nor as barbarian gods and Greek gods, nor as southern and northern gods; but, just as the sun and the moon and the heavens and the earth and the sea are common to all, but are called by different names by different peoples, so for that one rationality which keeps all these things in order 378and the one Providence which watches over them and the ancillary powers that are set over all, there have arisen among different peoples, in accordance with their customs, different honours and appellations. Thus men make use of consecrated symbols, some employing symbols that are obscure, but others those that are clearer, in guiding the intelligence toward things divine, though not without a certain hazard. For some go completely astray and become engulfed in superstition; and others, while they fly from superstition​351 as from a quagmire, on the other hand unwittingly fall, as it were, over a precipice into atheism.

The Editor's Notes:

304 Cf. Plato, Timaeus, 49A and 51A; also Moralia, 1014D, 1015D, and 1023A.

305 Cf. 358A, supra.

306 Cf. 358D, supra.

307 Cf. 356A, supra.

308 Cf. 368F, supra.

309 Plato, Timaeus, 50C-D.

310 Cf. 393D, infra.

311 Plato, Republic, 546B-C.

312 Cf. 429E, infra.

313 Cf. Moralia, 264A, and Rose, Plutarch's Roman Questions, p170.

314 Cf. 387E and 429D-F, infra.

315 Plato, Timaeus, 52D-53A. Cf. also Moralia, 882C and 1023A.

316 Theogony, 116‑122.

317 Plato, Symposium, 203B.

318 Cf. 373D, supra.

319 Cf. 370F, supra, and Diogenes Laertius, VII.134.

320 Cf. Aristotle, De Anima, ii.4 (429 A27).

321 Cf. Moralia, 651C, and 905C.

322 Cf. 372E, and 383A, infra.

323 Cf. 356A, supra.

324 Cf. the note on 356E, supra.

325 Cf. 355F and 366B, supra.

326 Cf. 356F, supra.

327 Cf. 351F, supra.

328 Cf. Plato, Cratylus, 397D.

329 Ibid. 401C.

330 Cf. 376D, infra. It is impossible to reproduce these fanciful derivations in an English translation. Most of them may be found in Plato, Cratylus, 401C‑415E. Note that Plutarch would connect the abstract suffix ‑ία with the shorter stem of εἶμι "go."

331 Cf. 382E, infra.

332 Cf. Porphyry in Eusebius, Praepar. Evang. III.11.2.

333 Cf. 368E, supra.

334 Cf. 362D-E, supra.

335 Plutarch attempts to connect κύων, "dog," with the present participle of κυῶ, "to be pregnant."

336 Cf. 359C-E and 365F, supra.

337 367D and 371B, supra.

338 Cf. 371B, supra.

339 Frag. 77.

340 Cf. 375B, supra.

341 Cf. Photius, Bibliotheca, 242 (p343 A 5 ed. Bekker).

342 Cf. 367D, supra.

343 Cf. 363D and 364D, supra.

344 Cf. 364A and 369A, supra.

345 Frag. 63.

346 Cf. 378B, infra.

347 Cf. 358D, supra.

348 Cf. Moralia, 757B-C.

349 Frag. 547.

350 Cf. The Life and Poetry of Homer, chap. xxiii. in Bernardakis, vol. VII.

351 See the note at the end of chapter 11 (355D, supra).

Page updated: 23 Feb 18