Plutarch on Isis and Osiris

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (August, 2005)

Plutarch was a Greek philosopher who lived in the latter half of the 1st century AD. His voluminous writings illustrate his immense learning, and the issues that were confronting thinkers of his day. They were the same problems that were being faced by the Jewish and Christian ascetics, coming from the east and encountering the achievements of science. All were asking themselves: but what about our traditional religions that we have believed in for thousands of years? What about ethics? How can we now explain the human condition?

Plutarch belonged in a pagan society that had for millennia settled for the myths of the gods, calling them by many different names. The myths were taught in the numerous shrines, whose priests practiced rites honoring the gods. In the hellenistic period they had become organised into mystery cults, making initiates who would never divulge their secrets, and were promised success in this life and life after death.

The most popular of these was the mystery of Isis and Osiris, of Egyptian origin. Plutarch was an admirer, giving a more edifying account of it than the one we have seen in the "The Golden Ass" in this section. His essay on Isis and Osiris takes the reader through his argument that these myths can no longer be believed in their traditional form, but they do contain much that is still valuable when better understood. They give a symbolic account of the workings of nature, and they even contain in allegorical form the truths of Pythagorean mathematics. Unconvincing as his allegories are, they illustrate the tensions of thinkers of his day, tensions that we can still recognise.

His essay was addressed to Clea, a priestess of the oracle of Delphi in Greece, who was critically inclined and apparently looked to Plutarch as her mentor. He writes to her , "Therefore, Clea, whenever you hear the traditional tales which the Egyptians tell about the must remember what has been already said, and you must not think that any of these tales actually happened in the manner in which they are related... If, then, you listen to the stories about the gods in this (allegorical) way, accepting them from those who interpret the story reverently and philosophically, and if you always perform and observe the established rites of worship, and believe that no sacrifice that you can offer, no deed that you may do will be more likely to find favour with the gods than your belief in their true nature, you may avoid superstition whch is no less an evil than atheism." (11)

Plutarch has experienced the mysteries of Isis as a way of searching for the truth by rational means. "The effort to arrive at the truth, and especially the truth about the gods, is a longing for the divine....It is well-pleasing to that goddess (Isis) whom you worship, a goddess exceptionally wise and a lover of wisdom, to whom knowledge and understanding are in the highest degree appropriate... The goddess collects sacred writings and gives them into the keeping of those that are initiated into the holy rites, since this consecration, by a strict regimen and by abstinence from many kinds of food and from the lusts of the flesh, curtails licentiousness and the love of pleasure, and induces a habit of patient submission to the stern and rigorous services in shrines, the end and aim of which is the knowledge of Him who is the First, the Lord of all, the Ideal One." (2)

He gives a full account of the myths of Isis and her consort Osiris, and of their enemy Typhon, showing how they symbolise natural events. Osiris stood for the Nile river, and Typhon for the sea. The battle between them stood for the battle between the fertilising river and the destructive sea, which was at the same time a battle between good and evil. He then moves on to the claim that the myths and rites contain Pythagorean astronomical and mathematical truths.

"The Egyptians have a legend that the end of Osiris' life came on the 17th of the month, on which day it is quite evident to the eye that the period of the full moon is over. Because of this the Pythagoreans call this day 'the Barrier', and utterly abominate this number. For the number 17, coming in between the square 16 and the oblong rectangle 18, which are the only plane figures that have their perimeters equal to their areas, bars them off from each other and disjoins them, and breaks up the ratio of 8 to 8 and an 8th by its division into unequal intervals. Some say that the years of Osiris' life... were 28; for that is the number of the moon's illuminations, and in that number of days does she complete her cycle." (42)

In another passage he links the Pythagorean right-angled triangle with the worship of these gods. " This triangle has its upright of 3 units, its base of 4, and its hypotenuse of 5, whose power is equal to that of the other two sides. The upright, therefore, may be likened to the male, the base to the female, and the hypotenuse to the child of both, and so Osiris may be regarded as the origin, Isis as the recipient, and Horus as perfected result." (56)

Of special interest to the eastern development of Judaism is Plutarch's information on the Persian religion Zoroastrianism. It was this source that taught a belief in the catastrophic end of the present human condition after a fixed number of years. The difference between this and the form found in the Enoch literature, passing into Christianity, is the figure for the length of time until the Eschaton. For the Zoroastrians, 6000 years; for Enoch, 4900 years with a sub-division of 4000 years, as we have seen. ("Chronology" in section 3 on this site)

The Zoroastrians used the same symbolism of light and darkness for good and evil that is found at Qumran and in the gospels. "Zoroaster the sage...called the good power Oromazes (Mazda) and the evil power Areimanius (Ahriman), and he further declared that among all things perceptible to the senses, Oromazes may best be compared to light, and Areimanius, conversely, to darkness and ignorance, and midway between the two is Mithras; for this reason the Persians gave to Mithras the name of Mediator.

"But a destined time shall come when it is decreed that Areimanius, engaged in bringing on pestilence and famine, utterly annihilated and shall disappear; and then shall the earth become a level plain, and there shall be one manner of life and one form of government for a blessed people who shall all speak one tongue. ....According to the sages, one god is to overpower, and the other to be overpowered, each in turn for the space of 3000 years, and afterward for another 3000 years they shall fight and war, and the one shall undo the works of the other, and finally Hades shall pass away; then shall the people be happy, and neither shall they need to have food nor shall they cast any shadow." (47)

The Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria is very close indeed to Plutarch, finding allegorical meanings in his own sacred scriptures, the truths of Platonic philosophy and Pythagorean mathematics. There can be no doubt that intellectuals in the Greek cities were engaged in a common pursuit, that of preserving their traditional religious writings which had become obsolete by finding in them a concealed level of meaning in terms of contemporary science. It was within this social context that it was possible for the gospels to be presented, with a surface meaning intended for popular use, and a hidden level intended for those who possessed knowledge.