Osiris and Orion
By John Legon
One of the generally-accepted theories of modern Egyptology has been that
the ancient Egyptians identified their god Osiris with the constellation of
Orion. This association has become so widely recognised that it would seem
futile to dispute the conventional view, and yet a detailed study of the Pyramid
Texts and some other primary sources for ancient Egyptian astronomy casts
considerable doubt over the validity of the interpretation, and suggests that
the equation between Osiris and the constellation of Orion has been merely a
convenient make-shift adopted by scholars owing to the lack of more precise
That the nature of the connection between Osiris and Orion is not as
straightforward as it at first appears was intimated by Alexander Badawy in his
academic paper, 'The Stellar Destiny of Pharaoh and the So-Called Air-Shafts of
Cheop's Pyramid' [MIO 10, 1964, 189-206]. Contrary to the popular view,
Badawy repeatedly referred to Orion not as a constellation, but as a star. He
thus described Orion as 'a kind of prince among the other stars', ' the most
powerful among the stars', and 'Orion, (probably alpha-Orionis), as the
brightest star in the southern sky...' The fact that Badawy referred to 'Orion'
as a star would seem to make little sense, but we have to remember that he was
translating a word in the Pyramid Texts, the meaning of which has not been
determined by Egyptologists with any degree of certainty.
In the Pyramid Texts, the term conventionally rendered as 'Orion' is the
word S3h, written in the singular with the 'star' determinative and the
s3h hieroglyphic sign meaning 'toe', or 'toes'. Thus the literal
translation of the word S3h in these texts is Toe-Star. This
meaning was indeed accepted by the great German philologist, Kurt Sethe, in his
fundamental work on the Pyramid Texts, and it was later adopted by Alexander
Badawy in his translation of a passage in these texts referring to the ascent of
the deceased king to heaven. Here, the translation of S3h as
'Toe-Star' gives significance to a typically Egyptian play on words: 'Thou must
approach the sky on thy toes as the Toe-Star (S3h)' (PT 723).
Substituting 'Toe-Star' for S3h in the Pyramid Texts similarly
explains the allusion to the god Seth's complaint that Osiris had kicked him:
'when there came into being this his name of Toe-Star, long of leg and lengthy
of stride' (PT 959); and likewise the method by which the soul of the deceased
king was supposed to ascend to the heavens: 'I have gone up upon the ladder
with my foot on the Toe-Star' (PT 1763). In neither case can we make sense of
these passages when the word S3h is supposed to signify the
constellation of Orion as a whole.
As indicated above, Badawy ventured to suggest that the 'Toe-Star' of the
Pyramid Texts might have been alpha-Orionis, apparently believing that
this was the designation of the brightest star in the constellation of Orion,
when in fact the star in question is known as beta-Orionis or Rigel.
Not only is Rigel one of the brightest stars in the night sky, and therefore an
obvious candidate for the star of Osiris, but it also marks one of the two
'feet' of the anthropomorphic figure of Orion. For this reason, it accords
perfectly with the translation of S3h as Toe-Star. But the same might
also be said of Saiph, which marks the other 'foot' of Orion, so how can we
choose between them?