Abydos: First Dynasty Burials and the Cult of Osiris

By Darci Clark for Ancient Egyptian History April 2015


Located 256 miles south of Cairo in Upper Egypt, Abydos, called Abdju by the ancient Egyptians, is one of the most important and complex archaeological sites in Egypt. Activity at Abydos spans nearly 4,000 years of Egyptian history, from the burials of kings from the First Dynasty to an important religious site of later Egyptian life, the cult of Osiris, which continued well into the Roman period.  In addition to the knowledge gained from the royal monuments of the first Egyptian kings, archaeological excavations at Abydos have sparked a debate about whether human sacrifice played a role in First Dynasty royal funerals. Even though the site, in an area now called Umm el-Qaab, has been studied for over a hundred years, the buildings and burials at Abydos have remained an enigmatic puzzle for archaeologists and historians.

The earliest First Dynasty royal burial discovered at Abydos was that of Hor-Aha, or Aha (the fighter). Aha is thought to have succeeded Narmer, who began the First Dynasty and is credited with the unification of Egypt circa 3000 B.C. Aha’s reign was marked by innovations and sophistication in early Egyptian architecture including his mortuary complex at Abydos.

To ensure their status and position as leaders of the newly unified land, Aha and the other First Dynasty kings built tombs and cult structures which were designed to be impressive. The death of the king creates an opportunity for rebellion and foreign attacks, especially in a land which had just recently been unified. A show of power by the First Dynasty kings would have been required to keep order and control the population. It appears that in addition to his impressive mortuary complex, Aha further intensified his display of power by including human sacrifices in his royal funeral.

  Archaeological evidence indicates that thirty-five people were sacrificed and buried at Aha’s tomb in subsidiary graves, with another twelve buried around his cult structures. These enigmatic cult structures, what archaeologists today call funerary enclosures, have a basic rectangular shape and large mudbrick walls. The interior consists of a large open space where evidence of cult offerings have been found. Archaeologists do not know exactly what took place in the funerary enclosures but speculate that mortuary rituals were performed.

Evidence for ritual human sacrifice has been found in other ancient societies which were in the process of political transformation like First Dynasty Egypt. Similar sites have been found in Dynastic Sumer (Iraq) and the Shang Dynasty (China), but the evidence for human sacrifice was obvious since those sites were large pit burials and were totally undisturbed until they were professionally excavated. In comparison, the burials at Abydos had been looted in antiquity and some of the human remains removed so there was much less evidence at the site to analyze. Therefore, interpreting the subsidiary graves could only be based on the few human remains and the architecture of the graves themselves.

Image credit: http://xoomer.virgilio.it/francescoraf/hesyra/Abydos-enclosures.htmImage credit: http://xoomer.virgilio.it/francescoraf/hesyra/Abydos-enclosures.htm

Aha’s tomb complex featured what appears to be three main burial chambers. Whether these two extra chambers were meant to inter other people is unknown. Northeast of Aha’s main chamber are two other chambers, one of which may have belonged to a woman named Benerib.  Objects were found with the name Benerib (meaning ‘sweet of heart’) and it is possible that she was one of Aha’s wives. The nearby subsidiary graves contained young men all about twenty years old. The age of the men and the fact that their graves were aligned in straight rows suggests they may have been a military guard for the king. Aha may have chosen to spend eternity with his favorite queen, Benerib, and his military guard.

All the First Dynasty subsidiary graves followed a hierarchical arrangement which indicates the individuals buried were according to their social status. The occupants of these subsidiary graves, called retainers by archaeologists, varied in social class from servants to elite individuals based on the goods buried with them.While Aha’s subsidiary graves contained all young men, the subsidiary graves of his successor, Djer, contained mostly women and dwarves. In comparison to the forty-seven individuals buried with Aha, Djer had 318 retainers buried around his tomb, and another 269 encircling his funerary enclosure. The large number of female retainers were probably members of Djer’s royal harem. The subsidiary graves were built in adjacent rows with shared walls. These graves could not have had the roofs added separately, indicating that all the people died and were buried at the same time. This is some of the best evidence that human sacrifice occurred at Abydos since it unlikely that a large number of people died at the same time of natural causes. In addition, W. M. Flinders Petrie, who did some of the early excavations at Abydos, noted that some of the individuals buried around Djer’s funerary enclosure showed signs that they might have been buried alive.

Early archaeological methods were much different than the ones in place today. At the time he excavated at Abydos, Petrie saved the skulls he found in the subsidiary graves but not the entire remains. With only the skulls to analyze it is difficult to determine how the individuals died. Physical anthropologist Nancy Lovell has studied some of the skulls and noted that there was a pink colored stain on the teeth of some individuals which is an indication of strangulation. These stains are caused by an increase in blood pressure during strangulation, which triggers blood cells inside the teeth to rupture and stain the dentin, which is under the tooth enamel. Another physical anthropologist, Brenda Baker, who studied the skulls from Aha’s subsidiary graves, concluded there was no trauma evident. Petrie may have discovered visual evidence for human sacrifice in Aha’s tomb complex. The two images he found have been reconstructed below and have been interpreted as a person stabbing another in the chest while the blood is collected in a bowl.

 Image credit: Ellen F. Morris, “Sacrifice for the State: First Dynasty Royal Funerals and the Rites at Macramallah’s Rectangle,” pp. 31, https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/ois3.pdf

Image credit: Ellen F. Morris, “Sacrifice for the State: First Dynasty Royal Funerals and the Rites at
Macramallah’s Rectangle,” pp. 31, https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/ois3.pdf

However the retainers were killed, whether strangulation, ritual sacrifice, or some other method, it seems the practice did not occur at Abydos over a long period of time. While the number of subsidiary burials at Djer’s tomb was nearly ten times greater than of Aha’s tomb, the practice began to diminish after Djer’s reign. Even though the funerals enclosures have not been discovered for all of the First Dynasty kings, the number of subsidiary graves around their royal tombs steadily declined and apparently the practice of retainer sacrifice ended by the beginning of the Second Dynasty.

The connection between the god Osiris and Abydos has mysterious origins, but may have been a result of Early Dynastic mortuary rituals and religious beliefs. As early as 2450 B.C. Egyptian funerary inscriptions name Osiris (Early Dynastic name Khentamentiu) as the lord of Abydos, or lord of the Thinite province where Abydos is located. The name Khentamentiu is thought to be an earlier aspect of the god Osiris, with the name Osiris-Khentamentiu meaning “Osiris, foremost of westerners, the blessed dead.” At this time no archaeological evidence has been found for ritual activity at Abydos during the Old Kingdom period from 2686–2181 B.C.

The instability following the collapse of the Old Kingdom led to the development of new religious cults including widespread acceptance of the cult of Osiris. Previously immortality had been the exclusive province of the king until the end of the Old Kingdom, but during the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom changes in religious beliefs meant that Osiris could now offer immortality to non-royals as well. According to the new belief system, immortality could be had as long as a person led a virtuous life, worshipped Osiris, and correctly performed the funerary rites.As Osiris’ popularity grew, kings and common people came to see Abydos as a site of pilgrimage which would increase their chances at eternal life.

This was not because of the Early Dynastic burials at Abydos, but because of the assumption that Osiris himself was buried there. It is not known why Middle Kingdom Egyptians came to think that Osiris’ tomb was at Abydos, but they began excavation and renovation projects on the preexisting tombs in addition to building a new temple to honor Osiris. Apparently they thought the First Dynasty king Djer’s tomb was actually the burial place of Osiris because a large basalt statue of the god dating to the late Middle Kingdom was discovered there during excavations by Émile Amélineauin the late 19th century.

The myths surrounding Osiris are well known from a version written by the Greek historian Plutarch. The story says that Osiris was a king who was responsible for the beginning of Egyptian civilization. Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Seth, but his sister/wife Isis was able to restore his body and conceive a son, Horus. When Horus matured he fought with Seth to avenge his father’s murder. A divine tribunal was called to settle the dispute and made a judgement in favor of Horus. Osiris was resurrected and became king of the underworld. Horus received the honor of ruling the living world, but Seth the ‘Evil One’ was made an outcast.   One Egyptian source for the Osiris myth is the funerary stela of Amenmose from the New Kingdom 18th Dynasty, but like other Egyptian sources it does not refer directly to the murder of Osiris by Seth.

This excerpt from the stela’s Great Hymn to Osiris contains veiled references to the Osiris myth, and has prayers to the god to receive the power of transformation and entry to the underworld:

“His sister was his guard, she who drives off the foes, who stops the deeds of the disturber, by the power of her utterance. The clever-tongued whose speech fails not, effective in the word of command, mighty Isis who protected her brother, who sought him without wearying. Who roamed the land lamenting, not resting till she found him, who made a shade with her plumage, created breath with her wings. Who jubilated, joined her brother, raised the weary one’s inertness, received the seed, bore the heir, raised the child in solitude, his abode unknown. Who brought him when his arm was strong into the broad hall of Geb.

The Ennead was jubilant: “Welcome, Son of Osiris, Horus, firm-hearted, justified, Son of Isis, heir of Osiris!” The Council of Maat assembled for him the Ennead, the All-Lord himself, The Lords of Maat, united in her, who eschew wrongdoing, they were seated in the hall of Geb, To give the office to its lord, the kingship to its rightful owner. Horus was found justified, his father’s rank was given him, he came out crowned by Geb’s command, received the rule of the two shores. The crown placed firmly on his head, he counts the land as his possession, sky, earth are under his command, mankind is entrusted to him, commoners, nobles, sunfolk. Egypt and far-off lands, what Aten encircles is under his care, northwind, river, flood, tree of life, all plants. Nepri gives all his herbs, field’s bounty brings satiety, and gives it to all lands. Everybody jubilates, hearts are glad, breasts rejoice, everyone exults, all extol his goodness:

How pleasant is his love for us, his kindness overwhelms the hearts, love of him is great in all. They gave to Isis’ son his foe, his attack collapsed, the disturber suffered hurt, his fate overtook the offender. The son of Isis who championed his father, holy and splendid is his name, majesty has taken its seat, abundance is established by his laws. Roads are open, ways are free, how the two shores prosper! Evil is fled, crime is gone, the land has peace under its lord. Maat is established for her lord, one turns the back on falsehood. May you be content, Wennofer! [Osiris] Isis’ sons has received the crown, his father’s rank was assigned him in the hall of Geb. Re spoke, Thoth wrote, the council assented, your father Geb decreed for you, one did according to his word.

An offering which the king gives (to) Osiris Khentamentiu, lord of Abydos, that he may grant an offering of bread and beer, oxen and fowl, ointment and clothing and plants of all kinds, and the making of transformations: to be powerful as Hapy, to come forth as living ba, to see Aten at dawn, to come and go in Rostau, without one’s ba being barred from the necropolis. May he be supplied among the favored ones before Wennofer [Osiris], receiving the offerings that go up on the altar of the great god, breathing the sweet northwind, drinking from the river’s pools: for the ka of the overseer of the cattle of [Amun], [Amen]mose, justified, born of the lady Henut, justified, and of his beloved wife, [the lady Nefertari, justified].”

Yearly festivals were performed at Abydos which celebrated the life, death, and resurrection of Osiris. Since the cycle of death and rebirth parallels the agricultural cycle, the Osiris Festival (called ka-her-ka, meaning sustenance upon sustenance) was held during the fourth month of the Nile flood (Khoiak), when the waters receded exposing the silt-covered fields ready for planting. Those who had traveled to Abydos for the festival were able to participate in the procession which carried a statue of Osiris between his temple and tomb. The procession included reenactments of stories about Osiris’ life and resurrection.

An account of preparations for the Osiris Festival procession was found at Abydos on the Stela of Ikhernofret.

“I did all that his majesty commanded in executing my lord’s command for his Father Osiris, Foremost-of-the-Westerners, lord of Abydos, great power in the Nome of This. I acted as ‘his beloved son’ for Osiris, Foremost-of-the-Westerners. I furnished his great bark, the eternal everlasting one. I made for him the portable shrine that carries the beauty of the Foremost-of-the-Westerners, of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, bronze ssndm-wood, and cedar wood. The gods who attend him were fashioned, their shrines were made anew. I made the hour-priests [diligent] at their tasks; I made them know the ritual of every day and of the feasts of the beginnings of the seasons. I directed the work on the neshmet-bark, I fashioned the cabin. I decked the breast of the lord of Abydos with lapis lazuli and turquoise, fine gold, and all the costly stones which are ornaments of a god’s body. I clothed the god with his regalia in my rank of master of secrets, in my function of stolist. I was pure of hand in decking the god, a priest whose fingers are clean.

I conducted the Procession of Wep-waut, when he goes forth to champion his father. I repulsed the attackers of the neshmet-bark, I felled the foes of Osiris.

I conducted the Great Procession, following the god in his steps. I made the god’s boat sail, Thoth steering the sailing. I equipped with a cabin the bark “Truly-risen-is-the-Lord-of-Abydos.” Decked in his beautiful regalia he proceeded to the domain of Peqer. I cleared the god’s path to his tomb in Peqer. I protected Wen-nofer on that day of great combat. I felled all his foes on the shore of Nedyt.”

Sacred rites in honor of Osiris such as the ‘Raising of the Djed-pillar’ ritual were held in the temple. During this rite, a pillar representing Osiris was raised to the upright position signifying his resurrection. During the New Kingdom era construction on a new temple at Abydos was begun by Seti I and completed by Ramessess II, the second and third kings of the Nineteenth Dynasty. While the temple was dedicated to six major gods and the deified Seti I, it included special chambers where the Osirian Mysteries could be performed. Seti I is also credited with building the enigmatic building called the Osireion which is located behind the temple. It is thought the Osireion represents Osiris’ burial place as a primeval island. The Osirian Mysteries were ritual practices performed annually during the Osiris Festival to ensure the rebirth of the god.

By the New Kingdom era (1550-1077 B.C.) worship of Osiris had become the dominant religious cult in Egypt, even replacing the cult of the sun-god Re. Abydos remained an active cult site for Osiris through the Late and Ptolemaic periods (664-30 B.C.). It is likely that the temple of Osiris continued to function and remained a place of pilgrimage until all the pagan temples were closed in 390 A.D. on orders of the Byzantine emperor, Theodosius I.

Abydos was obviously a place of great religious significance throughout Egyptian history, from the earliest Dynasties to the early Christian era. There is still much to learn about First Dynasty burials and mortuary practices, including the search for further evidence of retainer sacrifice in the subsidiary burials. From the beginning of the Middle Kingdom kings and common people alike made the pilgrimage to Abydos to honor and celebrate the life, death, and rebirth of Osiris. Hopefully the excavations at Abydos will continue, and archaeologists will be able to learn even more about the site and its important role in Egyptian religious life.



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