Anubis is known as the god of death and is the oldest and most popular of ancient Egyptian deities. The ancient Egyptians revered Anubis highly because they believed he had tremendous power over both their physical and spiritual selves when they died.
References to Anubis are found in texts dating back to the Old Kingdom. His fame lasted until the Middle Kingdom, when his role as God of death was taken over by Osiris and Anubis became Osiris’ assistant.
Anubis is the Greek translation of what the ancient Egyptians called him originally: Inpu or Anpu. Although the ancient Egyptian word for royal child is inpu, it is more likely that this god’s name stems from the word “imp” which means “to decay.”
Anubis was either seen as a man with a jackal head or completely in the form of a jackal.
In ancient Egypt, scavengers like jackals ruled the cemeteries. They dug up the freshly buried and tore at their flesh and ate it. Historians believe that this is what prompted the ancients to portray the god of the afterlife as a jackal, to fight fire with fire. New genetic research indicates that the ancient Egyptian jackal is not a jackal at all, but an ancient wolf.
Anubis’ skin is often depicted as black, while jackals are typically brown. The reason is that the color black is a symbol of death, but also a symbol of the Nile’s fertile and black soil.
Anubis Wore Many Hats as God of the Afterlife
- In very ancient history Anubis was known to be the absolute ruler of the underworld (called Duat). Later theories indicate that this role was taken over by Osiris.
- The Guardian of the Scales: one of his many roles surrounding the dead included the Guardian of Scales where he dictated the fate of souls. As depicted in the Book of the Dead, Anubis weighs the decedent’s heart against the weight of a feather. The feather represents “Ma’at” or truth. If the scale of justice tipped toward the heart, the dead person would be consumed by Ammit, a female demon the ancient Egyptian people dubbed “devourer of the dead.” If the scale of justice tipped toward the feather, Anubis would lead the decedent to Osiris so he could ascend to a worthy existence in heaven.
- The God of embalming and mummification: Anubis held the important role of overseeing the embalming and mummification of the dead. The daughter of Anubis (Kebechet), is frequently seen as his assistant in the mummification process of the dead. Ancient Egyptians believed that Anubis sniffed the bodies of the dead, so they preserved them with sweet smelling herbs and plants. Anubis also assisted in the “opening of the mouth” ritual to ensure a good burial. This ritual was performed so the dead person could eat and speak in the afterlife.
- Protector of Tombs: as the Egyptian god responsible for protecting the dead, many prayers to Anubis were carved into their tombs. Anubis held this role until Osiris gained popularity and took it over.
How Anubis Became God of Embalming
The mythology of the story varies, but according to legend:
- Osiris’ brother (Seth), killed Osiris by luring him into a fancy coffin, sealing it shut, and pushing it into the Nile.
- Osiris’ wife and sister (Isis), retrieved Osiris’ body on the Phoenician coastline, but an angry Seth chopped up Osiris’ body and scattered it throughout Egypt.
- Anubis, Isis and Nephthys, set about to find the pieces and were successful (except for Osiris’ phallus).
- Another Egyptian God called Thoth, helped restore the body and Anubis wrapped Osiris in linen, the action of which bestowed on him the title, “He Who is in the Place of Embalming”.
A Dysfunctional Family Tree
Several versions exist of how Anubis came into being:
- Son of Nephthys and Osiris: the most popular version is that Anubis is the son of Nephthys and Osiris. As the Goddess of Darkness, Nephthys would naturally be mother to a god who oversaw the embalming process and also guided souls into the afterlife.
- Son of Nephthys and Seth: it is also speculated that Seth is Anubis’ father. In this version, it is believed that Nephthys disguised herself as Osiris’ beautiful sister, Isis, to beget a half brother for Horus. As Seth is the God of darkness, storms and destruction, it is easy to see how Anubis could be his son.
- Son of Nephtys and Ra: in early mythology texts, Ra (the sun God), was depicted as being Anubis’ father, while his mother was speculated as being either Hesat the cow goddess, Bastet the cat-headed warfare goddess, or Nephthys.
Anubis’ wife is called Anput and has the body of a woman and the head of a jackal. Together they have a daughter called Kebechet, who is the goddess of purification.
A Shrine for Anubis
Anubis was worshiped all over Egypt, and his cult center was in Cynopolis, located in the 17th nome (province) of Upper Egypt. Translated, Cynopolis is Greek for “city of the dog,” which fits well because of the close relation between jackals and dogs, and the fact that some scholars believe Anubis was indeed an ancient wolf.
A shrine for Anubis was discovered in King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Made of wood, plaster, lacquer and gold leaf, the statue depicts Anubis in animal form in a recumbent position exactly how he is in his hieroglyph. As the sledge it rested on would indicate, the shrine was probably used in the funeral procession of the great Pharaoh, and was oriented to the west to help guide the Pharaoh into the afterlife (which the ancient Egyptians believed was in the direction of the setting sun).
Anubis in Art
Aside from the Anubis statue discovered in King Tut’s tomb, his representation can be found frequently in ancient Egyptian art. In the Valley of the Kings, an image of Anubis in his role as “Jackal Ruler of the Bows” was often used to seal tombs. The nine bows represented all the enemies of Egypt, and it was believed that Anubis had defeated every one of them. Anubis masks and statuettes dating back to early to late Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC) exist in museums today.
Sneak Peek Anubis Facts
- Anubis was the god of the dead and the underworld until the Middle Kingdom, when this role was taken over by Osiris.
- He is one of the oldest gods, references in text go back as far as the Old Kingdom.
- Anubis is the inventor and god of embalming and mummification.
- He guided the death through the underworld (called Duat).
- Anubis was the Guardian of the Scales, used to weigh the hearts of dead souls.
- His high level of anatomical knowledge due to embalming made him the patron of anesthesiology.
- A crouching statue of Anubis took a central place in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
- Priests who performed the embalming of dead corpses wore a jackal mask.
- Greek mythology blends Hermes with Anubis to result in the god Hermanubis.