In ancient Egyptian religion, Anubis is the god predominantly associated with death. As an embalmer, he is associated with mummification and viewed as a protector of graves. He also guides souls into the afterlife.
First mentioned in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 – c. 2181 BC), Anubis was most prominent during the Early Dynastic period in Egypt. The center of his cult was in Hardai (Cynopolis) in Upper Egypt. A shrine and a cemetery of mummified dogs and jackals were discovered at a place called Anubeion.
After the Early Dynastic period and the Old Kingdom, Anubis was overshadowed as god of the dead by Osiris. Tomb paintings of the Roman era (starting around 30 BC) show him taking the dead by the hand and guiding them to Osiris. He gained the title as inventor of embalming after practicing the art on Osiris’ body for the first time.
While early mythology describes Anubis as a son of Ra, a more popular recent version depicts him as the illegitimate son of Osiris, god of the underworld, and his sister Nephthys, a protective goddess of the dead.
Legend has it that Nephthys abandoned him for fear of Set, god of evil, to whom she was sister-wife. As a result, Anubis was raised by their sister Isis. He and his female counterpart Anput had a daughter, Kebechet, who was the goddess of purification.
The most common symbol attributed to Anubis is the canine. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, he is usually depicted as a canine (jackal or dog) or as a man with the head of a canine. He is also often pictured in black, a symbol of death, and the color of a corpse after it is embalmed.
He was also, at times, pictured carrying a flail or crook and flail. A crook is a stick with a hook at the end of it, and a flail is a stick with long tassels or ropes that hung from one end. Another item he is sometimes seen carrying is an ankh – an Egyptian symbol that meant life or immortality.
Most famously, Anubis was portrayed weighing the heart of a deceased person in the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text. If the heart was heavier than a feather, the soul would be abandoned to Ammut, a female demon. If it was lighter, the soul would ascend to heaven.
Like many Egyptian gods and goddesses, Anubis was usually portrayed in either a pure animal form or as a human with an animal head. In the case of Anubis, the animal was a jackal. His black jackal head had a pointed muzzle and long, alert ears. One of the possible reasons for depicting Anubis as a jackal is that these animals were often seen skirting cemeteries and were therefore associated with death.
In pure jackal form, Anubis was often portrayed laying on the ground in a manner similar to the Sphinx. In these instances, he was laying down but his head was up and alert and his paws were outstretched in front of him.
An article by Dr. Moya Smith of the Western Australia Museum notes that, in jackal form, Anubis would often have a sash around his neck called a sa.1 The article states that the sa represented protection, and that pharaohs and kings would wear them around their waists.
It is when Anubis was portrayed as a human with the head of a jackal that we see him with the flail and ankh. He can also be seen in many hieroglyphs and paintings wearing the wesekh, the broad rounded collar worn by the pharaohs.
He can also sometimes be seen wearing pharaonic head wear such as the Nemes headdress, particularly in modern renderings of the deity.
Facts About Anubis
- In the Greco-Roman period, Anubis was associated with the Greek god Hermes, messenger of the gods. The composite deity was called Hermanubis.
- Anubis is the Greek name for the Egyptian god. In ancient Egypt, he was known as Anpu;
- The Book of the Dead often shows priests wearing jackal masks performing embalming rituals;
- Anubis helped Isis and Nephthys to rebuild Osiris’ body (after he was killed by Set) before presiding over the first mummification;
- Other symbols associated with Anubis included the flail, a crook, and a scepter. The flail was an agricultural tool symbolizing the Pharaoh’s role as food provider. He was depicted with it in the crook of his arm;
- The Imuit fetish was closely related to Anubis. It represented a headless, stuffed animal skin that was hung on a pole and placed in tombs. Golden Imuit fetishes were found in the tombs of Hatshepsut and Tutankhamen;
- Many tombs in the Valley of the Kings were sealed with an image of Anubis as Jackal Ruler of the Bows (enemies of Egypt) subduing the nine bows;
- Carved prayers to Anubis were discovered in most ancient Egyptian tombs;
- Anubis’ characteristic black color also symbolizes fertility and rebirth as it resembled the color of the Nile’s fertile silt;
- As god of the underworld, Anubis was originally related to the Ogdoad, the eight primordial deities worshipped in Hermopolis during the Old Kingdom;
- Anubis is associated with the Eye of Horus in the Pyramid Texts of Unas. The Eye of Horus also acted as guide to the dead and helped in the search for Osiris’ body;
- Because of his embalming skills, Anubis gained great anatomical knowledge that made him the patron of anesthesiology;
- Legend has it that Anubis’ priests were skilled herbal healers;
- Other epithets given to Anubis due to his funerary role were “He Who is upon his Mountain” (i.e. the Necropolis), referring to keeping watch from above, “Foremost of the Westerners” (i.e. the dead), “Lord of the Sacred Land,” and “He Who Is in the Place of Embalming.”
- Smith, M. (n.d.). Secrets of the Afterlife – Anubis. Western Australia Museum. Retrieved November 23, 2020, from http://museum.wa.gov.au/whats-on/afterlife/curators-introduction/anubis
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