The Lion King and the Osiris Myth

This blog highlights two fun facts about the new Lion King, which I had the pleasure of watching this weekend.

Pumbaa the Epicurean

When you want to smile then visit me: sleek, and fat I’m a hog, well cared-for, one of Epicurus’ herd. – Horace

I doubt the makers of The Lion King know much about the Epicurean tradition, but the connection between pigs and Epicureanism is accidentally depicted throughout the film in one of its most beloved characters. There’s a scene where Timon, Pumba and Simba are gazing at the stars and Pumbaa (the wild hog) expounds his crazy theory that they are giant balls of gas an incredible distance away. The other two characters’ theories are mythical or just wrong.

Pumba provides comic relief, and embodies the value of friendship, both of which the Epicureans were known for. Plus, his favorite song is Hakuna Matata (which means “No Worries”). In many ways, Pumbaa is made the cheerful mouthpiece for the Epicurean life–both the physics (the nature of things) and ethics (the life of pleasure).

The Ancient Egyptian Connection

Horus and Set conferring legitimacy to the double-crown

Horus and Set conferring legitimacy to the double-crown

The Lion King has become a modern myth, but in truth it’s a creative re-telling of a very ancient tale that probably originated in ancient Egypt’s earliest dynastic intrigues. The peoples of Kemet (the two lands that we know today as ancient upper and lower Egypt) believed their dynasties to be descended from Osiris, Isis, and their son Horus. As soon as the Pharaoh was given the crown of Horus, he was imbued with something of his spirit (his “ba“) and became an incarnation of Horus (and therefore descended from the gods). Horus was the embodiment of legitimate rule and order–although in some dynasties, the crown represented both Horus and Seth joined and ruling together–no doubt evidence of the political tensions that existed between the ruling houses of the north and the south. Most people today don’t know that Egypt was originally two countries that were unified, and they each had their own gods. The unification of lower and upper Egypt in the double-crown of the Pharaoh, and the seeming reconciliation of mortal enemies Horus and Set in the double-crown, are political devices tied to the Osirian mythical cycle.

In one of the iconic and tender scenes between father and son in The Lion King, Mufasa tells Simba that “just as the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West“, he would eventually die and Simba would have to replace him. To the people of Kemet “The West“, in fact, meant the Land of the Dead. Ancestors go to “the West” when they die. This is why the necropolis, the cities of the dead, were always built west of the Nile.

The solar cult was about order. The rising and setting of the sun is linked with stability because it happens without fail every day, and so it represents Ma’at (the natural order)–a guiding idea of the ancients Egyptians, who were obsessed with order and stability. It’s also a symbol of the Pharaoh, who secures said stability, and of the return of the divine King in the mortal King time and again.

Ancients told the tale of how Set (and his attendants) betrayed and killed his brother, the King Osiris, and cut his body into 14 pieces, scattering them to all the corners of the world. He then usurped the throne. Osiris’ wife Isis went throughout the world to find the scattered parts of Osiris, just as it is Nala that goes out of the pride lands to “look for help” at one point in TLK.

Plutarch’s Moralia revealed that the meaning of this is found in the natural cycles as they were seen in the heavens: Osiris represents the moon which, once it reaches its peak, takes fourteen days to go dark. These are the fourteen parts of Osiris’ body. Egyptians had a festival where they honored Set as “the black boar who destroyed the moon“. Any careful study of Kemetic religion will show that the original doctrines of Ma’at, or Divine Order, were sustained by the mathematical certainty that ancient astronomers found in the cycles of the sun, the moon, and the stars–and which had important repercussions for the agricultural cycles (and, they inferred, for their afterlife and their entire worldview).

Mufasa, whose name means King, is the new Osiris, the prototypical King. Towards the end of the movie, he becomes the prototype of all the Kings who look down from heaven, just as Osiris becomes the King of the West–the realm of the dead and of the setting sun.

His brother Scar (Set), had lost the battle for the throne to Mufasa, but betrayed him, killed him, and became the alpha male of the pride lands. During his reign, the pride lands turned into a desert and the natural order collapsed. In The Lion King, this is seen as ecological collapse. In ancient myth, Osiris was the green god of fertility and his brother Set was the Red God of the desert, so his rule meant drought.

In the myths, there are instances where Set’s masculinity is questioned. Some tales seem to indicate that he raped his nephew Horus, while others seem to indicate that Set was made an eunuch. This is because fertility is tied to sexuality, and he is the god that kills fertility and therefore assumed to be barren. Some may find a parallel for this in Scar’s effeminacy in the Lion King. In the new movie, Mufasa’s widow refused to take her side by Scar as his Queen. When Simba re-takes the pride lands, Ma’at (divine and ecological order) is restored, and the desert starts turning green again.

There are more parallels: Rafiki (the baboon, who is the shaman or magician of the pride lands) represents the god of magic Thoth, whose sacred animals are the ibis and the baboon. Scar’s attendants are hyenas. In the ancient myth, Set’s son Anubis and Wepwawet (both canine deities) were associated with Set because canines were often seen wherever there was death and decay, as they’re carnivorous animals. There is also a short scene that associates the deity Khepre (the Scarab, a symbol of Becoming) with the circle of life.

I won’t give any more details, except to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the new Lion King movie. It’s a very magical retelling of the 1994 film that doesn’t depart much from the original and, if you’re familiar with the subjacent mythology, you may also notice and enjoy the timeless, Pan-African intertextuality.

An archetype is like an old watercourse along which the water of life has flowed for centuries, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it has flowed in this channel the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return to its old bed.” – Carl Jung, father of psychoanalysis


About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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