Death isn’t exactly a comfortable topic of conversation in our modern culture. But in countless societies around the world and throughout time, death has been openly discussed, revered and even celebrated. Ancient Egypt is no exception — case in point, the deity Anubis, otherwise known as Inpu or Anpu, aka the god of death.
“Anubis is the Egyptian god of mummification, and one of the many deities related with the afterlife,” says M. Victoria Almansa-Villatoro, Ph.D. candidate in Egyptology at Brown University. “He is usually depicted as either some sort of canid, or as a cynocephalus god.”
Often represented by a man with the head of a jackal (cynocephalus literally means “dogheaded”), Anubis is said to have that feature because jackals specifically were associated with death and were known to lurk around cemeteries looking for meals of decomposing flesh. Ancient Egyptians hoped that by appointing Anubis as the patron deity of jackals, he’d act as a protector of the dead.
“Egyptians were very observant of their environment,” Almansa-Villatoro says. “In most cases, the animal aspect of their gods is chosen due to a specific connection. Jackals are scavengers, and therefore they were probably seen very often wandering around the cemeteries while seeking food, or even digging corpses out, and maybe carrying body parts around! This probably resulted in one of Anubis’s earliest epithets: ‘the lord of the necropolis.’ Furthermore, these canids would probably have meant a big problem for the first attempts at dead body preservation, since the animals were destroying burials and corpses. Therefore, it would have made sense for the Egyptians to worship a jackal god of mummification in order to keep jackals away from harming tombs.”
The ‘Guardian of the Scales’
Anubis had a couple of important jobs, however. In addition to guarding graves, Anubis was tasked with weighing the hearts of people who had passed on and were seeking judgment. Often called “the guardian of the scales,” Anubis was said to weigh the hearts of the dead against the weight of a feather which represented truth. If the scales tipped in favor of the heart, a female demon named Ammit would devour the deceased person. If the feather won out, Anubis would bring the person to Osiris, the king of the underworld, who would bring them to heaven. While some sources claim Anubis was the son of Osiris and was, in a sense, demoted to the role of the god of mummification so Osiris could take over as the ultimate deity of death, Almansa-Villatoro says that’s version of events is not quite right.
“His role was never usurped by Osiris,” she says. “This is a common misconception. Egyptians worshipped many different gods associated with the afterlife, and each one of them tended to have specific roles. Sometimes these roles could be overlapping, and one deity would be especially popular at a local level. In the case of Anubis and Osiris, their functions were clearly distinct since their earliest textual appearances.
“On the one hand, Osiris is the king of the dead, just like his son Horus is the king of the living. The previous and dead pharaoh was called Osiris since the Old Kingdom, while the current pharaoh would be Horus. From the Middle Kingdom also non-royal individuals were called Osiris after their death. On the other hand, Anubis was the god of mummification and cemeteries. According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris was also the first mummy, and in some later traditions, Anubis helped in the embalming process of Osiris.”
Anubis Is One of the Oldest Egyptian Gods
Text references to Anubis can be found dating back to the Old Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2613-2181 B.C.E.), also known as the Age of the Pyramids, but his legend may have an even longer history. “Anubis is one of the oldest gods in the Egyptian pantheon, since he appears depicted on administrative seals as early as the first Dynasty of Egypt (ca. 3100 B.C.E.),” Almansa-Villatoro says. “His worship continued until the Roman period at least, when he was assimilated with Hermes (Hermanubis) as the one who guided souls to the netherworld. It has been argued that Anubis was adapted even during Christianity as the dog-headed martyr St. Christopher, protector of travels and transportation.
With all this discussion of death, decaying flesh, protection, fate and more, you might be confused about whether Anubis is considered a hero or villain. Neither, according to Almansa-Villatoro. “Egyptian gods were never good or bad,” she says. “No moral judgements were ever applied to gods during pharaonic Egypt.”
To illustrate the ambiguity, Almansa-Villatoro points to the god Seth, Osiris’s brother. “Seth murdered his brother Osiris in order to usurp the throne of Egypt, and then was fought by the legitimate heir, Horus,” she says. “Although Seth has clearly evil connotations in religious texts, he was still worshipped, and people would name their children after him. The same thing happened with demons, who were on one side feared, but on the other side invoked as protective entities (especially for pregnant or nursing women and young children).” All that said, Almansa-Villatoro believes Anubis was most likely perceived as a “benign” entity since his role was to provide the dead with a sound body to ensure their survival in the afterlife.
“For Egyptians the interactions with their deceased is less of a taboo than it is for modern western cultures,” she says. “They would write letters to their deceased relatives asking for help or complaining about their bad luck and would go to visit tombs and ‘feast’ with their dead parents in specific festivities.”