King Arthur and Osiris

Completed 9 September 2003.
Last modified 13 May 2004.
© Text Copyright 2004 Michael Wild

I can be reached at:- dagonet_uk 'at',uk



The finding of parallels between Arthur and Osiris has enjoyed a discontinuous history. Three authors have put forward the the idea that features of Arthur's life are show a likeness with with the story of the Egyptian god Osiris: arguing their case with different degrees of fervour. Chronologically the first author to make this identification was Owen Morgan (Morien) in his book 'The Light of Britannia'. For Morien the throwing of the mortally wounded Arthur's sword into the lake can be equated with the loss of the dismembered Osiris' membrum virilis (to use the euphemism that Morien often used) in the sea. In his book 'The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries', W. Y. Evans-Wentz proposes that Arthur and Osiris were both culture heroes concerned with agricultural innovation. The third Author, Lewis Spence, in 'The Mysteries of Britain, Arthur and Osiris can be identified with each other because they were both expressions of a common set of religious values that originated in North-west Africa.

Outline of Owen Morgan's theory

Here Arthur is presented, like Osiris as a solar deity, whose death each year signals the end of the old year and the birth of the new year sun. Also a likeness is seen between the sword of Arthur and the phallus of Osiris. For the sword of Arthur was thrown into a lake, where it was caught by a hand, and after Osiris body had been dismembered by his murderer, Typhon, his phallus was thrown into the sea. Morien's argument incorporates the rather convoluted etymologies that were one fashionable (a fashion that even so distinguished a commentator as Roge Sherman Loomis did not entirely eschew), and is rather unconvncing to modern eyes. However as a matter of record, the main extract where Arthur is identified with Osiris, is given elswhere.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing a little before A.D. 1147, states Arthur was mortally wounded by his nephew Mordred in a battle on the river Cambula, supposed to be in Cornwall. Elsewhere it is stated Arthur's mortal wound was received in his head. As we have seen, in all the solar legends the sun is described as a skull or head. He is a black skull or head on Decr. 20th, according to Druidism......

Having explained elsewhere what is to be understood by the Wounded Head of Arthur, we proceed with the narrative of his disappearance. It is identical with the disappearance of Adonis, of Phoenicia; the Tammuz of the eighth chapter and fourteenth verse of Ezekial__the Hebrews observing it at the time the sun is in the Tropic of Cancer, and the Druids when he is in the Tropic of Capricornus; and Osiris, of Egypt, murdered by his brother Typhon; of Aaron's official death on the Day of Atonement (end of the Jewish Civil Year); in fact, with each of the "dying"gods of the ancient world.

Owen Morgan (Morien), The Light of Britannia, London: Whittaker & Co., no date, pp. 179 & 186.

Both Arthur and Osiris are seen as solar deities whose deaths parallels the the winter equinox, when the sun's pathway across the sky is at its lowest. More explicitly, the throwing of Athur's sword into the lake, is seen as analogous to the loss of Osiris phallus in the after he has been murdered and dismembered by Typhon.

Outline of Evans-Wentz' theory

The area which Evans-Wentz has both Arthur and Osiris as being identified with was agriculture. Osiris taught the Egyptians the art of agriculture, but Arthur did not have any specific agricultural atribute like Osiris. Instead, Evans-Wentz relies on an argument given by John Rhys in his book 'Studies in the Arthurian Legend' to associate Arthur with agriculture. Once he has made this identification, Evans-Wentz finds a number of parallels between the stories of Arthur and Osiris. However his argument is not very coherent and is questionable in some parts. For instance he finds a parallel between Arthur and Osiris in the fact that Arthur was found by Merlin floating in the sunrise, presumably in a boat. Unfortunately he does not give his source for this aberrant assertion, though it most likely came from Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King'. Here the traditional story of the birth of Arthur was discreetly hidden and bowdlerised to make the tale acceptable to Victorian sensibilities:-

Merlin found the infant Arthur floating on the waves: the sun rising across the waters is this birth of Arthur, the birth of Osiris. (P. 321)

According to Evans-Wentz Arthur came from the Underworld, ruled by his father Uther Pendragon, to rule upon the earth and returned to rule there after his death upon the earth. This he finds a direct comparison with the story of Osiris. He finds a parallel between the Knights of the Round Table and Osiris and his companions. For Arthur's knights combatted evil upon the earth, while Osiris sails each night with his companions to combat the evil forces of the underworld.

Outline of Lewis Spence's theories

Lewis Spence is, to me, an enigmatic character of whose life I have been unable to find anything. Admittedly, my search has been limited to a superficial examination of the web. Here he is remembered for his theories about Atlantis and for his books being still in print (from the P.O.D. publisher Kessinger Publishing Company). Only my obsession with Celtic matters led me to a re-published edition of one of his books under the title 'Mysteries of Britain', here I discovered his exciting assertion that King Arthur and Osiris share a common religious heritage.

What was this heritage? Well it was that both were expressions of an originally Paleolithic religion that Spence calls the 'Cult of the Dead'. This, according to Spence, had its origins in North-west Africa in Paleolthic times and was represented by a cult known to the Greeks and Romans as the 'Cabiri'. From its homeland it spread northwards to Spain (the Iberian Peninsula), by migration and along trade routes to the British Isles. Here it became the dominant religion and persisted throughout the various cultural changes that occured in these islands in prehistoric times. It survived till the coming of the Celtic Druids who incorporated the 'Cult of the Dead' into their beliefs. In taking this stance Lewis Spence is echoing the views of John Rhys, who saw the origins of the religion that was Druidism in that of the original non-Aryan, or Iberian, inhabitants of this country (Lewis Spence, The Mysteries of Britain, 44; Legends and Romances of Brittany, P. 245). From its North-West African homeland, this Cult of the Dead spread eastwards across the continent until it reached Egypt, where it introduced Osiris to the Egyptian pantheon.

The central feature of this religion was a belief in the survival of the soul after death combined with the notion that it would return to re-inhabit its bodily remains. These were either the embalmed mummy of the Egyptians, or the bones stained red (the colour of life) of the earlier adherents of the'Cult of the Dead'. With both Arthur and Osiris, this survival after death was the central feature of a myth that saw its subject as returning after death to save the world. With Arthur this was his promised future return to fight against the worst crisis that Britain will face. With Osiris, it was his nightly battle with the forces of the underworld to ensure that the sun will rise the following morning. Both myths have several common features. Both men were earthly monarchs whose rule of their kingdoms was cruelly ended by their betrayal by a close relative. With Arthur this betrayal was the whole sad story of the usurpation of his kingdom and his mortal wounding by his nephew/son Mordred. With Osiris this was his murder by his brother Set and the scattering of the parts of his body throughout the land of Egypt. Both monarchs were rescued by their sisters. For Arthur this was Morgan le Fay, who spirited the wounded Arthur away on a boat to the paradisical Otherworld of Avalon, where his wounds would be healed. While the dead Osiris was taken by boat by his sisters Isis and Nephthys across the Nile to the Western region of Aalu where he rules a land of plenty. A further aquatic parallel also exists between King Arthur and Osiris. For the boat (Pridwen) in which Arthur made a voyage to the otherword of Annwn to obtain the magical cauldron of Pwyll can be compared with the boat in which Osiris nightly battles the forces of the underworld to ensure that the sun may pass through that dire region unharmed

Spence gave another view of Arthur's voyage aboard Pridwen in his book History of Atlantis, that was republished by Senate in 1995. Here (P. 130) Arthur was the leader of the elite of Atlantis who had escaped from the fabled inundation of this land. In later Welsh mythology, Spence saw the associations of Arthur with the western land Avalon and with the sunken land of Lyonesse as a distorted memory of Arthur's connection with Atlantis.

Although Spence does not, in this book, propose that parallels existed between King Arthur and Osiris, it is possible to infer that he might have thought that some connection existed between the two. Spence notes that the cult of Osiris was connected with that of the Cabiri, which followed the same eastward route as that of Osiris from North-West Africa to Egypt.

This cult of the Cabiri was a secret cult centred upon deified spear-bearing twin brothers who had invented boats, hunting, fishing, building, architecture, writing and medicine. In view of these roles as cultural innovators and heroes, Spence sees the Cabiri as originating, not from North-West Africa, which was an uncivilized region destitute of these arts, but of being invaders from the sunken continent of Atlantis who had first set foot upon the soil of North-West Africa

True, there is no connection made between Osiris, the Cabiri and King Arthur. That is apart from the Atlantean origins of both King Arthur and the Cabiri and the close association, in Egyptian religion, between the Cabiri and Osiris. One wishes that Spence had been more specific on this point. But he seem to have become a victim of a prolific imagination that led him to propose different theories in different books and made him unaware of such loose ends and inconsistencies.

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