As the centuries passed, the deity who came to be most loved and revered by the Egyptian masses was Osiris. Born of the god of the Earth and the goddess of the Sky, he went through the cycle of death and resurrection, like the Phoenician god Adonis and like Christ in the Christian story, becoming the symbol not merely of vegetable life in its death and renewal with the passage of the seasons but of spiritual life as well.
Osiris in human form was believed to have been the first to introduce the cultivation of grain into the Nile valley, to take fruit from the trees, to train vines to poles, and tread the grapes for wine. The harvesting of the crops came to represent his martyrdom at the hands of his brother Set, the symbol of drought and sterility; at the harvest, Osiris’s body was severed, as it were, by the sickle of the reaper, and trampled by cattle on the threshing floor. The annual rising of the Nile was considered the flood of the tears f the bereaved wife, the goddess Isis. When the flood subsided and the seed was sown again, his body was believed to have fertilized the new crop.
Meanwhile, Osiris reigned over the underworld as King of the Dead, opening the gates of eternal life- at first, during the earlier period, only to a privileged and powerful few, but later, in a democratic and moral spirit, to all who could prove themselves innocent of specified sins.
The ancient Egyptians knew of no other world but their long river valley, a secure “oasis” walled in between the broad desert wastes which only occasional raiding Bedouin tribes would venture to cross. The world beyond it meant little to them. The source of the Nile was unknown to them beyond the fact that it was located in an unfamiliar “Land of Ghosts and Spirits” somewhere to the south. At first the river was believed to gush forth from the underworld through a mythical cavern of Hapi, the god of the Nile, above the first cataract. But early in the third millennium, a military expedition into Nubia,beyond the First Cataract, showed that the river originated in remoter African lands many hundreds of miles to the south.
Thereafter, the southern frontier of Egypt was extended little by little, upstream to the Second Cataract and the Third. Expeditions to these and neighboring regions would return laden with such treasures as incense, ivory, ebony, panther skins, and African slaves, and once with a dancing pygmy to the boy Pharaoh. At no time did the Egyptians penetrate further south than the present day city of Khartoum in the Sudan. Herodotus, who traveled only as far as the First Cataract, could not obtain any information about the source of the river beyond the report that it arose from “fountains” somewhere in the center of Africa.