Episode 68: Plutarch’s On Isis and Osiris
(Heartfelt thanks to Bram de Mulder of the Universiteit van Leuven for his insights into Plutarch’s retelling of the Isis and Osiris myth, into how Plutarch read the story esoterically, and for the superb bibliographie raisonée!)
On Isis and Osiris is one of the most influential esoteric documents surviving from antiquity. It retells a version of the myth-cycle about Isis, Osiris, their son Horus, and their adversary Sêt, one of the central stories of the Egyptian religious traditions. The essay then proceeds to mine the myth for philosophic wisdom, which has been hidden there by Isis herself. Along the way not only the text of the myth, but the way of life of the temple-priests of Isis and Osiris, their secret rites, and a multitude of other aspects of Egyptian religious culture are brought to bear, all of them conferring esoteric insights into the nature of reality. This reality, it turns out, is one based on Middle Platonist metaphysics with the particularly Plutarchian twist of an irrational cosmic soul, a conclusion which does not surprise us, but there are many, many surprises along the way to this conclusion, including a wide-ranging deployment of esoteric reading methods surpassed only by the great Philo of Alexandria.
An essential document for later appropriations of Egyptian religion as esoteric wisdom, the On Isis and Osiris also served as a kind of handbook for esoteric reading of texts, and had far-reaching influence on seemingly unrelated projects of appropriation, from Renaissance perennialist Christian Platonism to Crowleyan Thelema.
Works Cited in this Episode:
On Isis and Osiris (which you can read online here in the Loeb edition used in this episode, if you are so inclined. References are to Stephanus pages; if you are unclear what those are, see the notes to the previous episode):
- Esoteric etymologies: Isis = οἶδα 351f; cf. 352a, where Isis’ temple is called the ἰσεῖον because, through her mysteries ‘we shall know’ (ἐσομένων). 375d: ἵησθαι, φέρεσθαι.
Osiris’ name made up of ὅσιον + ἵερον: 375d.
Typhon from τύφω, ‘to puff up’, because he is an arrogant fellow; cf. 371b, 376a, and 367d, where his Egyptian name, Sêt, is etymologised as having to do with the use of force, this time presumably referring to a set of terms in Egyptian rather than in Greek.
Serapis = σαίρω, ‘to sweep’, hence ‘to set in order’, referring to his job as cosmic creator and ruler: 362c. At 362d other derivations are considered, maybe because this ‘sweep’ one is so obviously weak.
- Arithmological ideas: 367e-368a; cf. 373f-374b. Lots of astral lore, plenty-o-Pythagoreanism, and some 3-4-5 right triangles, which Plutarch thinks might be the key to interpreting the ‘nuptial number’ in Plato’s Republic.
- Levels of interpretation:
- Euhemerist: 359d-360d.
- Daimonic: 360d-361e.
- Physical: 363d-367e. Notes the similarity here to what the Stoics do: 367c.
- Platonist: 369a-c. 373d. Osiris is the Νοῦς, Typhon is the irrational soul: 371a. Isis is the female principle of nature, the Receptacle (see Pl. Tim. 49a and 51a): 372e. Horus is the kosmos: 373d; cf. 374d-e.
- The ancient tradition, handed down from the gods (361d (Isis); cf. 353e, 354c; cf. de Pyth. orac. 407e) to barbarians (the Egyptians passim; 369e-370c: Zoroaster and the magoi, cf. de animæ proc. 1012c, where Zoroaster teaches Pythagoras; 377f-378a, f.) and nomothetes and theologoi (360d; 369b, d-e; 375d; cf. de E Delphico 388e-f; de animæ proc. 103a-b) to Greeks (354e-f: Greek sages who learned at the feet of the Egyptians). Cf. de animæ proc. 1039b; in Col. 1107e; Numa 4; Fr. 190.
- Various references to initiation and privy rituals: 352a; 359c; 360f; 361f; 362b; 364a (Pythagoras, but with an initiatory tone); 364e.
- The ‘veil of Isis’: 354b-c: ‘But he who was appointed from the military class was at once made one of the priests and a participant in their philosophy, which, for the most part, is veiled in myths and in words containing dim reflexions and adumbrations of the truth, as they themselves intimate beyond question by appropriately placing sphinxes before their shrines to indicate that their religious teaching has in it an enigmatical sort of wisdom. In Saïs the statue of Athena, whom they believe to be Isis, bore the inscription: “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my robe no mortal has yet uncovered.”’
Hadot, Pierre. La voile d’Isis: Essai sur l’histoire de l’idee de nature. Paris: Gallimard, 2004.
On the programmatic introduction to the work, which is an excellent place to start exploring hermeneutical issues:
- Roskam, G. “Plutarch’s Yearning After Divinity. The Introduction to Isis and Osiris.” Classical Journal 110 (2014): 213–39.
On the ‘Egyptian stuff’ in On Isis and Osiris:
- Erler, M., and M. Stadler, eds. Platonismus und spätägyptische Religion. Plutarch und die Ägyptenrezeption in der römischen Kaiserzeit. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017.
- Griffiths, J. G. Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1970.
- Hani, J. La réligion égyptienne dans la pensée de Plutarque. Paris, 1976.
On how On Isis and Osiris fits in with Plutarch’s Platonism in general:
- Opsomer, J. “Plutarch on the One and the Dyad.” In Greek and Roman Philosophy: 100 BC – 200 AD. Volume II, edited by R. Sorabji and R. W. Sharples, 379–395. London, 2007.
- Petrucci, F. M. “Plutarch’s Theory of Cosmological Powers in the De Iside et Osiride.” Apeiron 49 (2016): 329–67.
On ‘Egyptomania’ (Plutarch emphasising Egyptian authority) vs. ‘cultural appropriation’ (Plutarch emphasising Greek/Platonic authority):
- Boys-Stones, G. Post-Hellenistic Philosophy. A Study of Its Development from the Stoics to Origen. Oxford, 2001 [not on On Isis and Osiris specifically, but offering valuable background].
- Brenk, F. E. “‘Isis Is a Greek Word’: Plutarch’s Allegorization of Egypt.” In Plutarco, Platón y Aristóteles, edited by A. Pérez Jiménez, J. García López, and R. M. Aguilar, 227–38. Madrid, 1999.
- Demulder, B. “Is Dualism a Greek Word? Plutarch’s Dualism as a Cultural and Historical Phenomenon.” In Space, Time and Language in Plutarch, edited by A. Georgiadou and K. Oikonomopoulou, 205–14. Berlin – New York: De Gruyter, 2017.
- Richter, D. S. “Plutarch on Isis and Osiris: Text, Cult, and Cultural Appropriation.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Association 131 (2001): 191–216.
- Van Nuffelen, P. Rethinking the Gods. Philosophical Readings of Religion in the Post-Hellenistic Period. Cambridge, 2011.