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This webpage reproduces a portion of
Isis and Osiris


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

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(Vol. V) Plutarch, Moralia

 p157  Isis and Osiris

(Part 5 of 5 on this website)

68 378 Wherefore in the study of these matters it is especially necessary that we adopt, as our guide in these mysteries, the reasoning that comes from philosophy, and consider reverently beach one of the things that are said and done, so that, to quote Theodorus,352 who said that while he offered the good word with his right hand some of his auditors received it in their left, we may not thus err by accepting in a different spirit the things that the laws have dictated admirably concerning the sacrifices and festivals. The fact that everything is to be referred to reason we may gather from the Egyptians themselves; for on the nineteenth day of the first month, when they are holding festival in honour of Hermes, they eat honey and a fig; and as they eat they say, "A sweet  p159 thing is Truth." The amulet353 of Isis, which they traditionally assert that she hung about her neck, is interpreted "a true voice." cAnd Harpocrates is not to be regarded as an imperfect and an infant god, nor some deity or other that protects legumes, but as the representative and corrector of unseasoned, imperfect, and inarticulate reasoning about the gods among mankind. For this reason he keeps his finger on his lips in token of restrained speech or silence. In the month of Mesorê they bring to him an offering of legumes and say, "The tongue is luck, the tongue is god." Of the plants in Egypt they say that the persea is especially consecrated to the goddess because its fruit resembles a heart and its leaf a tongue. The fact is that nothing of man's usual possessions is more divine than reasoning, especially reasoning about the gods; and nothing has a greater influence toward happiness. dFor this reason we give instructions to anyone who comes down to the oracle here to think holy thoughts and to speak words of good omen. But the mass of mankind act ridiculously in their processions and festivals in that they proclaim at the outset the use of words of good omen,354 but later they both say and think the most unhallowed thoughts about the very gods.

69 1 How, then, are we to deal with their gloomy, solemn, and mournful sacrifices, if it be not proper either to omit the customary ceremonials or to confound and confuse our opinions about the gods by unwarranted suspicions? Among the Greeks also many things are done which are similar to the Egyptian ceremonies in the shrines of Isis, and they do them at  p161 about the same time. eAt Athens the women fast at the Thesmophoria sitting upon the ground; and the Boeotians move the halls of the Goddess of Sorrow and name that festival the Festival of Sorrow,355 since Demeter is in sorrow because of her Daughter's descent to Pluto's realm. This month, in the season of the Pleiades, is the month of seeding which the Egyptians call Athyr, the Athenians Pyanepsion, and the Boeotians Damatrius.356 Theopompus357 records that the people who live toward the west believe that the winter is Cronus, the summer Aphroditê, and the spring Persephonê, fand that they call them by these names and believe that from Cronus and Aphroditê all things have their origin. The Phrygians, believing that the god is asleep in the winter and awake in the summer, sing lullabies for him in the winter and in the summer chants to arouse him, after the manner of bacchic worshippers. The Paphlagonians assert that in the spring he bestirs himself and sets himself free again.

70 1 The season of the year also gives us a suspicion that this gloominess is brought about because of the disappearance from our sight of the crops and fruits that people in days of old did not regard as gods, but as necessary and important contributions of the gods toward the avoidance of a savage and a bestial life. 379At the time of year when they saw some of the fruits vanishing and disappearing completely from the trees, while they themselves were sowing others in a mean and poverty-stricken fashion still, scraping  p163 away the earth with their hands and again replacing it, committing the seeds to the ground with uncertain expectation of their ever appearing again or coming to fruition, they did many things like persons at a funeral in mourning for their dead. Then again, even as we speak of the man who buys the books of Plato as "buying Plato," and of the man who represents the poems of Menander as "acting Menander," even so those men of old did not refrain from calling by the names of the gods the gifts and creations of the gods, bhonouring and venerating them because of the need which they had for them. The men of later times accepted this blindly, and in their ignorance referred to the gods the behaviour of the crops and the presence and disappearance of necessities, not only calling them the births and deaths of the gods, but even believing that they are so; and thus they filled the minds with absurd, unwarranted, and confused opinions although they had before their eyes the absurdity of such illogical reasoning. Rightly did Xenophanes358 of Colophon insist that the Egyptians, cif they believed them to be gods, should not lament them; but if they lamented them, they should not believe them to be gods. Is it anything but ridiculous amid their lamentations to pray that the powers may cause their crops to sprout again and bring them to perfection in order that they again be consumed and lamented? 71 1 This is not quite the case: but they do lament for their crops and they do pray to the gods, who are the authors and givers, that they produce and cause to grow afresh other new crops to take the place of those that are undergoing destruction. Hence it is an excellent saying current  p165 among philosophers that they that have not learned to interpret rightly the sense of words are wont to bungle their actions.359 For example, there are some among the Greeks who have not learned nor habituated themselves to speak of the bronze, the painted, and the stone effigies as statues of the gods and dedications in their honour, dbut they call them gods; and then they have the effrontery to say that Lachares stripped Athena,360 that Dionysius sheared Apollo of the golden locks, and that Jupiter Capitolinus was burned and destroyed in the Civil War,361 and thus they unwittingly take over and accept the vicious opinions that are the concomitants of these names.

This has been to no small degree the experience of the Egyptians in regard to those animals that are held in honour. In these matters the Greeks are correct in saying and believing that the dove is the sacred bird of Aphroditê, that the serpent is sacred to Athena, the raven to Apollo, and the dog to Artemis — as Euripides362 says,

eDog you shall be, pet of bright Hecatê.

But the great majority of the Egyptians, in doing service to the animals themselves and in treating them as gods, have not only filled their sacred offices with ridicule and derision, but this is the least of the evils connected with their silly practices. There is engendered a dangerous belief, which plunges the weak and innocent into sheer superstition, and in the case of the  p167 more cynical and bold, goes off into atheistic and brutish reasoning.363 Wherefore it is not inappropriate to rehearse in some detail what seem to be the facts in these matters.

72 1 The notion that the gods, in fear of Typhon, changed themselves into these animals,364 fconcealing themselves, as it were, in the bodies of ibises, dogs, and hawks, is a play of fancy surpassing all the wealth of monstrous fable. The further notion that as many of the souls of the dead as continue to exist are reborn into these animals only is likewise incredible. Of those who desire to assign to this some political reason some relate that Osiris, on his great expedition, divided his forces into many parts, which the Greeks call squads and companies, and to them all he gave standards in the form of animals, 380each of which came to be regarded as sacred and precious by the descendants of them who had shared in the assignment. Others relate that the later kings, to strike their enemies with terror, appeared in battle after putting on gold and silver masks of wild beasts' heads. Others record that one of these crafty and unscrupulous kings,365 having observed that the Egyptians were by nature light-minded and readily inclined to change and novelty, but that, because of their numbers, they had a strength that was invincible and very difficult to check when they were in their sober senses and acted in concert, communicated to them and planted among them an everlasting superstition, a ground for unceasing quarrelling. bFor he enjoined  p169 on different peoples to honour and revere different animals; and inasmuch as these animals conducted themselves with enmity and hostility toward one another, one by its nature desiring one kind of food and another another, the several peoples were ever defending their own animals, and were much offended if these animals suffered injury, and thus they were drawn on unwittingly by the enmities of the animals until they were brought into open hostility with one another. Even to‑day the inhabitants of Lycopolis are the only people among the Egyptians that eat a sheep; for the wolf, whom they hold to be a god, also eats it. And in my day the people of Oxyrhynchus caught a dog and sacrificed it and ate it up as if it had been sacrificial meat,366 because the people of Cynopolis were eating fish known as the oxyrhynchus or pike. cAs a result of this they became involved in war and inflicted much harm upon each other; and later they were both brought to order through chastisement by the Romans.

73 1 Many relatea that the soul of Typhon himself was divided among these animals. The legend would seem to intimate that all irrational and brutish nature belongs to the portion of the evil deity, and in trying to soothe and appease him they lavish attention and care upon these animals. If there befall a great and severe drought that brings on in excess either fatal diseases or other unwonted and extraordinary calamities, the priests, under cover of darkness, in silence and stealth, lead away some of the animals that are held in honour; and at first they but threaten and terrify the animals,367 dbut if the drought still persists,  p171 they consecrate and sacrifice them, as if, forsooth, this were a means of punishing the deity, or at least a mighty rite of purification in matters of the highest importance! The fact is that in the city of Eileithiya they used to burn men alive,368 as Manetho has recorded; they called them Typhonians, and by means of winnowing fans they dissipated and scattered their ashes. But this was performed publicly and at a special time in the dog-days. The consecrations of the animals took place at indeterminate times with reference to the circumstances; eand thus they are unknown to the multitude, except when they hold the animals' burials,369 and then they display some of the other sacred animals and, in presence of all, cast them into the grave together, thinking thus to hurt and to curtail Typhon's satisfaction. The Apis, together with a few other animals, seems to be sacred to Osiris;370 but to Typhon they assign the largest number of animals. If this account is true, I think it indicates that the object of our inquiry concerns those which are commonly accepted and whose honours are universal: for example, the ibis, the hawk, the cynocephalus, and the Apis himself, as well as the Mendes, for thus they call the goat in Mendes.371

f 74 1 There remain, then, their usefulness and their symbolism; of these two, some of the animals share in the one, and many share in both. It is clear that the Egyptians have honoured the cow, the sheep, and  p173 the ichneumon because of their need for these animals and their usefulness. Even so the people of Lemnos hold larks in honour because they seek out the eggs of the locust and destroy them; and so the people of Thessaly honour storks,372 because, when their land produced many snakes,373 the storks appeared and destroyed them all. For this reason they passed a law that whoever killed a stork should be banished from the country. The Egyptians also honoured the asp, the weasel, and the beetle, since they observed in them certain dim likenesses of the power of the gods, 381like images of the sun in drops of water. There are still many people who believe and declare that the weasel conceives through its ear and brings forth its young by way of the mouth, and that this is a parallel of the generation of speech. The race of beetles has no female,374 but all the males eject their sperm into a round pellet of material which they roll up by pushing it from the opposite side, just as the sun seems to turn the heavens in the direction opposite to its own course, which is from west to east. They compare the asp to lightning, bsince it does not grow old and manages to move with ease and suppleness without the use of limbs.

75 1 The crocodile,375 certainly, has acquired honour which is not devoid of a plausible reason, but he is declared to be a living representation of God, since he is the only creature without a tongue; for the Divine Word has no need of a voice, and


through noiseless ways advancing, guides

By Justice all affairs of mortal men.376

They say that the crocodile is the only animal living in the water which has a thin and transparent membrane extending down from his forehead to cover up his eyes, so that he can see without being seen; and this prerogative belongs also unto the First God. In whatever part of the land the female crocodile lays her eggs, well she knows that this is destined to mark the limit of the rise of the Nile;377 for the females, being unable to lay their eggs in the water and afraid to lay them far from it, have such an accurate perception of the future cthat they make use of the oncoming river as a guide in laying their eggs and in keeping them warm; and thus they preserve them dry and untouched by the water. They lay sixty eggs378 and hatch them in the same number of days, and those crocodiles that live longest live that number of years: the number sixty is the first of measures for such persons as concern themselves with the heavenly bodies.

Of the animals that are held in honour for both reasons, mention has already been made of the dog.379 The ibis,380 which kills the deadly creeping things, was the first to teach men the use of medicinal purgations when they observed her employing clysters and being purged by herself.381 dThe most strict of the priests take their lustral water for purification from a place where the ibis has drunk:382 for she does not drink  p177 water if it is unwholesome or tainted, nor will she approach it. By the spreading of her feet, in their relation to each other and to her bill, she makes an equilateral triangle.383 Moreover the variety and combination of her black feathers with her white picture the moon in its first quarter.

There is no occasion for surprise that the Egyptians were so taken with such slight resemblances; for the Greeks in their painted and sculptured portrayals of the gods made use of many such. eFor example, in Crete there was a statue of Zeus having no ears; for it is not fitting for the Ruler and Lord of all to listen to anyone. Beside the statue of Athena Pheidias placed the serpent and in Elis beside the statue of Aphroditê the tortoise,384 to indicate that maidens need watching, and that for married women staying at home and silence is becoming. fThe trident of Poseidon is a symbol of the Third Region where the sea holds sway, for it has been assigned to a demesne of less importance than the heavens and the air. For this reason they thus named Amphitritê and the Tritons.385

The Pythagoreans embellished also numbers and figures with the appellations of the gods. The equilateral triangle they called Athena, born from the head and third-born, because it is divided by three perpendiculars drawn from its three angles. The number one they called Apollo386 because of its rejection of plurality387 and because of the singleness of  p179 unity. The number two they called "Strife," and "Daring," and three they called "Justice," for, although the doing of injustice and suffering from injustice are caused by deficiency and excess, Justice, by reason of its equality, intervenes between the two. 382The so‑called sacred quaternion, the number thirty-six, was, so it is famed, the mightiest of oaths, and it has been given the name of "World" since it is made up of the first four even numbers and the first four odd numbers added together.

76 1 If, then, the most noted of the philosophers, observing the riddle of the Divine in inanimate and incorporeal objects, have not thought it proper to treat anything with carelessness or disrespect, even more do I think that, in all likelihood, we should welcome those peculiar properties existent in natures which possess the power of perception and have a soul and feeling and character. It is not that we should honour these, but that through these we should honour the Divine, since they are clearer mirrors of the Divine by their nature also, so that we should regard them bas the instrument or device of the God who orders all things. And in general we must hold it true that nothing inanimate is superior to what is animate, and nothing without the power of perception is superior to that which has that power — no, not even if one should heap together all the gold and emeralds in the world. The Divine is not engendered in colours or in forms or in polished surfaces, but whatsoever things have no share in life, things whose nature does not allow them to share therein, have a portion of less honour than that of the dead. But the nature that lives and sees and has within itself the source of movement and a knowledge of what belongs to it and  p181 what belongs to others, has drawn to itself an efflux and portion of beauty from the Intelligence "by which the Universe is guided," as Heracleitus388 has it. cWherefore the Divine is no worse represented in these animals than in works of bronze and stone which are alike subject to destruction and disfiguration, and by their nature are void of all perception and comprehension. This, then, is what I most approve in the accounts that are given regarding the animals held in honour.

77 1 As for the robes, those of Isis389 are variegated in their colours; for her power is concerned with matter which becomes everything and receives everything, light and darkness, day and night, fire and water, life and death, beginning and end. But the robe of Osiris has no shading or variety in its colour, but only one single colour like to light. For the beginning is combined with nothing else, and that which is primary and conceptual is without admixture; wherefore, when they have once taken off the robe of Osiris, dthey lay it away and guard it, unseen and untouched. But the robes of Isis they use many times over; for in use those things that are perceptible and ready at hand afford many disclosures of themselves and opportunities to view them as they are changed about in various ways. But the apperception of the conceptual, the pure, and the simple, shining through the soul like a flash of lightning, affords an opportunity to touch and see it but once.390 For this reason Plato391 and Aristotle call this part of philosophy the epoptic392 or  p183 mystic part, inasmuch as those who have passed beyond these conjectural and confused matters of all sorts by means of Reason proceed by leaps and bounds to that primary, simple, and immaterial principle; eand when they have somehow attained contact with the pure truth abiding about it, they think that they have the whole of philosophy completely, as it were, within their grasp.

78 1 This idea at the present time the priests intimate with great circumspection in acquitting themselves of this religious secret and in trying to conceal it: that this god Osiris is the ruler and king of the dead, nor is he any other than the god that among the Greeks is called Hades and Pluto. But since it is not understood in which manner this is true, it greatly disturbs the majority of people who suspect that the holy and sacred Osiris truly dwells in the earth and beneath the earth,393 fwhere are hidden away the bodies of those that are believed to have reached their end. But he himself is far removed from the earth, uncontaminated and unpolluted and pure from all matter that is subject to destruction and death; but for the souls of men here, which are compassed about by bodies and emotions, there is no association with this god except in so far as they may attain to a dim vision of his presence by means of the apperception which philosophy affords. But when these souls are set free and migrate 383into the realm of the invisible and the unseen, the dispassionate and the pure, then this god becomes their leader and king, since it is on him that they are bound to be dependent in their insatiate contemplation and yearning for that beauty which is for men unutterable and indescribable. With this beauty Isis,394 as the ancient story declares,  p185 is for ever enamoured and pursues it and consorts with it and fills our earth here with all things fair and good that partake of generation.

This which I have thus far set forth comprises that account which is most befitting the gods. 79 1 If, as I have promised,395 I must now speak of the offerings of incense which are made each day, one should first consider that bthis people always lays the very greatest stress upon those practices which are conducive to health. Especially in their sacred services and holy living and strict regimen the element of health is no less important than that of piety. For they did not deem it proper to serve that which is pure and in all ways unblemished and unpolluted with either bodies or souls that were unhealthy and diseased.396 Since, then, the air, of which we make the greatest use and in which we exist, has not always the same consistency and composition, but in the night-time becomes dense and oppresses the body and brings the soul into depression and solicitude, cas if it had become befogged and heavy, therefore, immediately upon arising, they burn resin on their altars, revivifying and purifying the air by its dissemination, and fanning into fresh life the languished spirit innate in the body, inasmuch as the odour of resin contains something forceful and stimulating.

Again at midday, when they perceive that the sun is forcibly attracting a copious and heavy exhalation from the earth and is combining this with the air, they burn myrrh on the altars; for the heat dissolves and scatters the murky and turgid concretions in the surrounding atmosphere. In fact, physicians seem to  p187 bring relief to pestilential affections by making a large blazing fire, for this rarefies the air. dBut the rareficationº is more effective if they burn fragrant woods, such as that of the cypress, the juniper, and the pine. At any rate, they say that Acron, the physician in Athens at the time of the great plague, won great repute by prescribing the lighting of a fire beside the sick, and thereby he helped not a few. Aristotle397 says that fragrant exhalations from perfumes and flowers and meadows are no less conducive to health than to pleasure, inasmuch as by their warmth and lightness they gently relax the brain, which is by nature cold and frigid. If it is true that among the Egyptians they call myrrh "bal," and that this being interpreted has the particular meaning "the dissipation of repletion," then this adds some testimony to our account of the reason for its use.

e 80 1 Cyphi398 is a compound composed of sixteen ingredients: honey, wine, raisins, cyperus, resin, myrrh, aspalathus, seselis, mastich, bitumen, rush, sorrel, and in addition to these both the junipers, of which they call one the larger and one the smaller, cardamum, and calamus. These are compounded, not at random, but while the sacred writings are being read to the perfumers as they mix the ingredients. As for this number, even if it appears quite clear that it is the square of a square and is the only one of the numbers forming a square that has its perimeter equal  p189 to its area,399 fand deserves to be admired for this reason, yet it must be said that its contribution to the topic under discussion is very slight. Most of the materials that are taken into this compound, inasmuch as they have aromatic properties, give forth a sweet emanation and a beneficent exhalation, by which the air is changed, and the body, being moved gently and softly400 by the current, acquires a temperament conducive to sleep; and the distress and strain of our daily carking cares, as if they were knots, these exhalations relax and loosen without the aid of wine. 384The imaginative faculty that is susceptible to dreams it brightens like a mirror, and makes it clearer no less effectively than did the notes of the lyre which the Pythagoreans401 used to employ before sleeping as a charm and a cure for the emotional and irrational in the soul. It is a fact that stimulating odours often recall the failing powers of sensation, and often again lull and quiet them when their emanations are diffused in the body by virtue of their ethereal qualities; even as some physicians state that sleep supervenes when the volatile portion of our food, gently permeating the digestive tract and coming into close contact with it, bproduces a species of titillation.

They use cyphi as both a potion and a salve; for taken internally it seems to cleanse properly the internal organs, since it is an emollient. Apart from this, resin and myrrh result from the action of the sun when the trees exude them in response to the heat. Of the ingredients which compose cyphi,  p191 there are some which delight more in the night, that is, those which are wont to thrive in cold winds and shadows and dews and dampness. For the light of day is single and simple, and Pindar402 says that the sun is seen "through the deserted aether." But the air at night is a composite mixture made up of many lights and forces, even as though seeds from every star were showered down into one place. Very appropriately, therefore, they burn resin and myrrh in the daytime, for these are simple substances and have their origin from the sun; cbut the cyphi, since it is compounded of ingredients of all sorts of qualities, they offer at nightfall.403

The Editor's Notes:

352 Cf. Moralia, 467B.

353 Cf. 377B, supra.

354 The regular proclamation (εὐφημεῖτε) used by the Greeks at the beginning of any ceremony.

355 Cf. Pausanias, IX.8.1, and Preller, Griechische Mythologie4, i.752, note 3; but the matter is very uncertain.

356 The month sacred to Demeter.

357 Frag. 335.

358 Cf. Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, i.44, Xenophanes, no. A 13; also Moralia, 171D, 228E, and 763D; and Heracleitus, no. B 127 (Diels, i.103).

359 Cf. Moralia, 707F.

360 The gold was removed by him from the chryselephantine (p165)statue of Athena in the Parthenon; cf. W. B. Dinsmoor, Amer. Journ. Arch. xxxviii (1934) p97.

361 July 6, 83 B.C., according to Life of Sulla, chap. xxvii (469B). The numerous references may be found in Roscher, Lexikon der gr. und röm. Mythologie, ii.714.

362 Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag.,º Euripides, no. 968.

363 See the note on 355D, supra.

364 Cf. Diodorus, I.86.3.

365 Ibid. I.89.5 and 90.

366 Cf. 353C and 358B, supra; Aelian, De Natura Animalium, xi.27, and Juvenal, xv.35.

367 Cf. Mitteis und Wilcken, Grundzüge und Chrestomathie der Papyruskunde, i. p125.

368 Cf. Diodorus, I.88.5.

369 Cf. 359D, supra; Diodorus, I.21.5; 83.1 and 5; 84.7.

370 Cf. 362C-D, supra.

371 Cf. Herodotus, II.46; Diodorus, I.84.4; Strabo, XVII.1.19.

372 Cf. Aristotle, De Mirabilibus Ausc. 23 (832 A14); Pliny, Natural History, X.31.62; Stephanus Byzant. s.v. Θεσσαλία.

373 Cf. Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus, II.39.6; Plutarch's source may have been Theophrastus, Frag. 174.6 (Wimmer, vol. III p220).

374 Cf. the note on 355A, supra.

375 Cf. Herodotus, II.69.

376 Euripides, Troades, 887‑888; cf. Plutarch, Moralia, 1007C.

377 Ibid. 982C; Aristotle, Hist. Animalium, V.33 (558 A17).

378 Cf. Aelian, De Natura Animalium, ii.33, v.52.

379 Supra, 355B and 368F.

380 Cf. Diodorus, I.87.6.

381 Cf. Aelian, De Natura Animalium, ii.35; Pliny, Natural History, X.40 (75).

382 Cf. Moralia, 974C; Aelian, De Natura Animalium, vii.45.

383 Cf. Moralia, 670C.

384 Cf. Moralia, 142D; Pausanias, VI.25.2.

385 An effort to derive these names from τρίτος, "third."

386 Cf. the note on 354F, supra.

387 Cf. 393B, infra.

388 Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, i.86, Heracleitus, no. B 41.

389 Cf. 352B, supra.

390 Cf. Plato, Letters, vii.344B.

391 Plato, Symposium, 210A.

392 Cf. Life of Alexander, chap. vii (668A).

393 Cf. 375D, supra.

394 Cf. 372E and 374F, supra.

395 372C, supra.

396 Cf. the Roman taboo in Moralia, 281C.

397 Cf. Rose, Aristoteles Pseudepigraphus, p233.

398 Cf. Müller, Frag. Hist. Graec. II p616 (Manetho, frag. 87).º An interesting note in Parthey's edition (pp277‑280) describes the different kinds of cyphi mentioned in ancient writers, and gives in modern terms recipes for three.

399 Cf. 367F, supra.

400 Cf. Moralia, 1087E.

401 Cf. Plato, Timaeus, 45D, and Quintilian, IX.4.12.

402 Pindar, Olympian Odes, i.6.

403 Some think the essay ends too abruptly; others think it (p191)is quite complete; each reader may properly have his own opinion.

Thayer's Note:

a Fragment 86.

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