Spine as Symbol in the Ancient World: Egypt – The Backbone of Osiris as the World Tree

Djed – The Backbone of Osiris – Is the World Tree in Ancient Egypt

Reading the legends of ancient peoples around the world, you start to notice that no matter where people live on Planet Earth they all share a common language of symbols that varies only slightly. I described how humans share a similar origin myth and how that relates to the development of our healing traditions in the book Operating System Nature: The Birth of The Tradition. In that book I stumbled across a number of mythologies that use the human spine as a metaphor for evolution and relate it to the structure of the universe in the form of the World Tree.

Djed Symbol

Osiris was the son of Earth and Sky, the god of death and rebirth. Osiris was associated with the pharaohs after death since he was the example of the divine resurrection. He is also associated with the annual cycles of agricultural renewal. Because of all these associations with the earth, the sky, rebirth, and renewal, the annual rite of Osiris became an essential rite of at the beginning of the farming season.

The rite begins with the plowing of the earth and ends with the raising of Osiris symbolized through a pillar we know as the Djed. Raising the Djed is said to have bridged the earth and sky into harmony. It is a symbol of the stability of Osiris and represents his ability to link heaven and earth in harmony. It is also said to be his spine.

The Spine of Osiris

This spine of Osiris is the Axis Mundi, the World Tree, the pillar that connects the heaven and earth. It becomes a metaphor for a link between the worlds. The spine becomes the symbol for what unites heaven and earth in ancient Egypt.

The Djed symbol which represents Osiris is hieroglyph R11, which is essentially the hieroglyph F41 – the symbol for spine – placed atop a pillar representing stability. The association between the spine, Osiris, and resurrection is so strong that Djed amulets were often placed near the spines during mummification to help the person arise into the afterlife.

So the symbol for the ancient Egyptian god of resurrection, rebirth, the successive cycles of fertility, the bridge between heaven and earth, and aid to the divine pharaoh in afterlife, is the symbol for the spine.


By Jeff Dahl [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Sacred Cows

The more I read on ancient cultures, the more I find that cows were very important to them. Early agricultural societies relied heavily on the cow. They provided everything anyone could ever need. You can eat them. You can make clothing and housing from their skins. They can help you plow fields. They can pull heavy things from place to place for you on carts or loaded up. They represented wealth and could be used for trade. The more cows you owned, the less work you had to do.

Even today, our major economic system is named after cattle culture. Capitalism is rooted int he word caput – or head – which stands for head of cattle, a common method of describing how much wealth you had “I have 400 head of cattle” – meaning “When I count the heads of the cows on my land, I see 400 of them, I’m rich”

This wasn’t any different in ancient Egypt as we can see from this bit on the Djed from Wikipedia

By the time of the New Kingdom, the djed was firmly associated with Osiris.[3]
In their 2004 book The Quick and the Dead,[8] Andrew Hunt Gordon and Calvin W. Schwabe speculated that the ankh, djed, and was symbols have a biological basis derived from ancient cattle culture (linked to the Egyptian belief that semen was created in the spine), thus:
the ankh, symbol of life, thoracic vertebra of a bull (seen in cross section)
the djed, symbol of stability, base on sacrum of a bull’s spine
the was, symbol of power and dominion, a staff featuring the head and tail of the god Set, “great of strength”

The Spine Represented Life Itself

Again, what do we see here? The most sacred animal to these ancient people was represented in their symbolism by symbols taken from its vertebral column. The spine must have been the most essential aspect of the thing in order for a vertebra from it to represent life itself. The idea that the the symbols for life, stability, and power were derived from the spine, that the god Osiris, who represented the bridge between heaven and earth, and the resurrection of the Pharaoh, were all related to the spine shows how essential and valuable the spine was to the ancient Egyptians.

This isn’t unique to them, which will be explored more as this post becomes a series on the spine as it relates to the world tree throughtou human history.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash


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