It is natural to begin with things Egyptian. But the stories that we have from the mythology of that great civilization are all fragmentary; for the most famous of them we have to go to a Greek work--to Plutarch's treatise on Isis and Osiris. In the story as given here the outline is Plutarch's. But included in it is the story of the Creation which is from Egyptian sources; the names of the deities are not as in Plutarch, but are given in forms sanctioned by Egyptian scholars. The second story is mythological in all that deals with the course of the Sun. The greater part of Egyptian mythology dealt with the appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of the Sun, and with descriptions of the World of the Dead. But no piece of mythology extant gives us in narrative form the Egyptian ideas on these subjects. To provide an outline in which this mythology could be given in story form, the tale about the brothers and their dying father has been invented. The hymn given in this story is from Adolf Leman's "La religion Egyptienne."
How greatly the story of Osiris and Isis influenced the ancient world outside of Egypt can be understood from the speculation which Plutarch commits himself to:
This thing that our priests to-day, with prayer for mercy and in dim revelation, most reverently do hint, even that Osiris is King and Lord among the dead, bewilders the minds of most men who know not how the truth of this thing is. For they fancy that Osiris, in whom most surely is all holiness of God and nature, is thus said to be in the earth and beneath the earth, where are hidden the bodies of those who seem to have had their end. But Osiris's self is far indeed from the earth, untouched, undefiled, immaculate of all substance that admits of corruption and death. And souls of men, here in the embrace of bodies and of passions, have no communion with the God save as in a dream, a dim touch of knowledge through philosophy. But when they are set free, and shift their homes into that Formless and Invisible and Pure, then in truth is God their leader and their king, even this God, so that fastened unto him, and insatiably contemplating and desiring that Beauty ineffable and indescribable of man--whereof the old legend would have it that Isis was in love, and did
ever pursue and with it consort-all beings there are fulfilled of all the good and fair things that have share in creation.
Plutarch's interpretation of the Osiris-Isis story is not necessarily an Egyptian one. Nor can we be sure that the prayer that Apuleius's hero, Lucius, makes to Isis is one that an Egyptian at any period might make:
O thou most holy and eternal saviour of the human race, and ever most munificent in thy tender care of mankind, unto the hazard of our sorrow thou givest the sweet affection of a mother. Nor doth any day or any night's repose, nay, not a tiny moment, vanish past empty of benefits, but ever on earth and sea thou art protecting men, driving aside life's tempests, stretching forth thy right hand of salvation. The threads of our life, by us inextricably entangled, thou dost untwine; thou stillest storms of fate, thou holdest the evil goings of the stars. Thee Heaven doth worship; the shades are thy servants; 'tis thou dost spin the world, and lightest up the sun, and governest the universe, and tramplest upon hell. To thee the stars make answer, for thee the seasons return, heaven's powers exult, the elements obey. At thy nod blow the breezes, clouds give fertility; thine is the germing of the seed and the growth of the germ. Before thy majesty the birds do tremble whose goings are in the air, and the beasts that haunt the hills, and the serpents lurking in the dust, and the monsters that swim in the ocean. But I, scant of soul for the offering of thy praise, poor of patrimony for the celebrating thy sacrifices, feeble of voice for the telling out my heart's knowledge of thy Majesty-nay, nor would one thousand mouths, one thousand tongues suffice, nor the long utterance of an eternal lauds,--I, what (in my poverty) my worship, at least, can do, that will I care to effect. Thy divine countenance and most holy godhead, stored within my heart of hearts, will I forever keep, and there will watch and picture it.