The role of Osiris in the mythological cycle devised around Heracleopolis Magna
Lucía Elena Díaz-Iglesias Llanos
In the sources of ancient Egypt, a constant process of actualization of mythological contents can be established by means of the introduction, change or preferential use of some themes over others. It is inside this ongoing process that we frame the development of the mythological cycle of Heracleopolis Magna starting from the Heracleopolitan Period. It results in the creation of a new image of the city in the mythical sphere, possibly promoted from the circles of royal and religious power. The new imagery can be traced in the written documents of this period and those which follow. They contrast sharply with those stemming from the Old Kingdom, above all the Pyramid Texts, where it is remarkable the absence of mythemes that use any of the elements in the Heracleopolitan territory as a frame of reference for the mythological arguments that are introduced in the utterances. However, they are integrated from the Heracleopolitan Period onwards, especially in compositions of funerary and religious nature (Coffin Texts and Book for Going Forth by Day; hymns) on which our discussion is based.
Three factors give us the clue for the interpretation of the mythemes: the main characters at stake, the spatial contexts and the actions or situations envisaged.
As regards the first factor, the sources highlight the role played by the local god Heryshef and three of the most prestigious figures of the pantheon: Re, Osiris and Horus.
Concerning the second point, these characters are related with the following local landmarks: the capital itself, the lake/s of Heryshef’s temple, a place of cult of a local form of Osiris called Naref, connected with a necropolis in the nome; vegetable species such as the naret-tree and the uneb-flower. Through them, we assist in a process of recreation, whereby the city and surroudings, either anthropic or natural but “tangible”, are mythically reconstructed and projected into the realm of the gods and the deceased.
Lastly, the meaning of the characters and landmarks is rendered complete by relating them to specific situations and mythological events: the fight between Horus and Seth; the beginning of the destruction of humanity; the dwelling of the main deities and others of minor status; the crowning and triumph of these gods over their enemies, and therefore of order over chaos; the performance of rites such as the hacking of the earth; the subjection to trials and subsequent justification of the deceased before specific judges; the stopping in the nightly journey of the sun and the deceased in the Heracleopolis of the Beyond in order to be purified and reborn.
Among all the manifold aspects of the mythical topography of Heracleopolis, we will draw attention to those that turn the city and Naref into a place of appearance of Osiris. In this case, as in other examples of the manifestation of a god in the Heracleopolitan area (Osiris, Re, Herysef), either a specific feature of his personality or a concrete episode of his mythological cycle is selected. Osiris is therefore integrated in the following core themes: the crowning and handing over of elements of regalia endowed with a specific symbolism and function (Atef and Wreret-crowns); the jubilation and fear that his enthronement entails in the community of gods and the deceased; the arrangement of the burial of his body by his father Re or his son Horus, or of one of his limbs as the nome’s relic; and the celebration of rites as the hacking of the earth in relation to his being justified and triumphant over his Sethian enemies. The figure of Osiris and these episodes enhance the spatial frame, turning Heracleopolis into the legitimate seat of the royalty and Naref into the western counterpart of Heliopolis.
We consider that the new mythemes, and above all the Osirian occurrences, with their noticeable emphasis on royalty and the dynastic and legitimizing aspects of the office, are part of a complex cycle. This cycle seems to be linked with the historical and cultural development of the city that reaches the status of capital (more in a nominal than in a real way) of the country in the First Intermediate Period. The Heracleopolitan case-study underscores some issues concerning the analysis of myths in ancient Egypt: the need for contextual interpretations; the emphasis placed on their nature and purpose, which explains their highly dynamic character; their role as a means of articulating events and social values; the importance of the local traditions inside the national dynamics; and their function in the political and religious sphere as an instrument for justifying and legitimating power.