Later this month, independent scholar Willem McLoud plans to hold a webinar to teach members of Ancient Origins that the Egyptian god Osiris was actually a Mesopotamian king. McLoud is going to base the claim on two papers he published over the past year, in which he argues for a new understanding of ancient history based on the self-aggrandizing “McLoud Chronological Model” of Egyptian history. Basically, he wants to rejigger the Middle Kingdom of Egypt to better fit with his preferred period of Mesopotamian history—questions of more import for Biblical history than anything else, really.
But I was amused by the effort to make Osiris into a real human king and a Mesopotamian. That’s because McLoud is unintentionally (or maybe on purpose!) following Hellenistic, Late Antique, and medieval myths that tried to do mostly the same thing. Leon of Pella famously wrote that Osiris was a human king (Augustine, City of God 8.27), a claim that Diodorus Siculus picked up and ran with at excessive length. The notion that the gods were really human kings traces back to Euhemerus, but it found its greatest fluorescence under the early Christians, who wanted to discount the pagan gods.
Late Antique and medieval people didn’t remember much about Osiris beyond the name, but they transferred much of his civilizing hero story to Hermes Trismegistus, perhaps because Diodorus had already indicated that Hermes was the “most honored” by Osiris. It doesn’t matter much. In the eighth century, however, the Arabs and Persians had developed a new story out of these parts. They were located in the Arabian Peninsula and Persia, so they decided that Egyptian civilization was “really” from their neck of the woods. They began to claim that Hermes came out of Babylon and bequeathed civilization to Egypt (al-Nadīm, Kitāb al-Fihrist 7.1, quoting Abū Sahl al-Faḍl ibn Nawbakhtī, Kitāb al-Nahmuṭān). This, in turn, was a myth derived from a highly distorted memory, preserved from Late Antique Greek sources, of the time when the Assyrians conquered Egypt in the seventh century BCE.
Here we are all this time later still listening to people use medieval ideas to explain myths that don’t need a rationalizing effort to turn them into (fake) history.
That said, this is as good a point as any to mention my new book, The Legends of the Pyramids: Myths and Misconceptions about Ancient Egypt, which is in the process of moving toward publication. The cover design is done, and I am happy to share:
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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