Anubis is the Greek name for the ancient jackal-headed god of the dead in Egyptian mythology whose hieroglyphic version is more accurately spelled Anpu (also Anupu, Anbu, Wip, Ienpw, Inepu, Yinepu, Inpu, or Inpw). He is also known as Sekhem Em Pet. Prayers to Anubis have been found carved on the most ancient tombs in Egypt; indeed, the Unas text (line 70) associates him with the Eye of Horus. He serves as both a guide to the recently departed and as the patron of embalmers and mummification, though his primary role is as the guardian and judge of the dead.
Anubis in an Egyptian Context
As an Egyptian deity, Ra belonged to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system developed in the Nile river basin from earliest prehistory to 525 B.C.E. Indeed, it was during this relatively late period in Egyptian cultural development, a time when they first felt their beliefs threatened by foreigners, that many of their myths, legends and religious beliefs were first recorded. The cults within this framework, whose beliefs comprise the myths we have before us, were generally fairly localized phenomena, with different deities having the place of honor in different communities. Despite this apparently unlimited diversity, however, the gods (unlike those in many other pantheons) were relatively ill-defined. As Frankfort notes, "the Egyptian gods are imperfect as individuals. If we compare two of them … we find, not two personages, but two sets of functions and emblems. … The hymns and prayers addressed to these gods differ only in the epithets and attributes used. There is no hint that the hymns were addressed to individuals differing in character." One reason for this was the undeniable fact that the Egyptian gods were seen as utterly immanental—they represented (and were continuous with) particular, discrete elements of the natural world. Thus, those who did develop characters and mythologies were generally quite portable, as they could retain their discrete forms without interfering with the various cults already in practice elsewhere. Also, this flexibility was what permitted the development of multipartite cults (i.e. the cult of Amun-Re, which unified the domains of Amun and Re), as the spheres of influence of these various deities were often complimentary.
The worldview engendered by ancient Egyptian religion was uniquely appropriate to (and defined by) the geographical and calendrical realities of its believer’s lives. Unlike the beliefs of the Hebrews, Mesopotamians and others within their cultural sphere, the Egyptians viewed both history and cosmology as being well ordered, cyclical and dependable. As a result, all changes were interpreted as either inconsequential deviations from the cosmic plan or cyclical transformations required by it. The major result of this perspective, in terms of the religious imagination, was to reduce the relevance of the present, as the entirety of history (when conceived of cyclically) was ultimately defined during the creation of the cosmos. The only other aporia in such an understanding is death, which seems to present a radical break with continuity. To maintain the integrity of this worldview, an intricate system of practices and beliefs (including the extensive mythic geographies of the afterlife, texts providing moral guidance (for this life and the next) and rituals designed to facilitate the transportation into the afterlife) was developed, whose primary purpose was to emphasize the unending continuation of existence. Given these two cultural foci, it is understandable that the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tend to be either creation accounts or depictions of the world of the dead and of the gods place within it.
Because of his role in the process of embalming and mummification, Anubis played an extensive role in Egyptian religious thought and practice. Further, he was consistently one of the more popular deities to be represented in artistic media.
In temple inscriptions and other artistic depictions, Anubis was portrayed as a jackal-headed humanoid or as a jackal-like creature bearing the symbols of the god (typically a flagellum) in the crook of its arm. As Wilkinson notes, "the animal bears certain traits of the dog family such as the long muzzle, its round-pupilled eyes, five-toed forefeet and four-toed hind feet, while on the other hand, its tail is wide and club shaped and characteristically carried down more like that of the jackal, fox, or wolf. It is therefore possible that the original Anubis animal was a hybrid form, perhaps a jackal crossed with some type of dog." The animal symbolism (or explicit identification) of Anubis as canine is based upon the observed behavior of such creatures in the Egyptian desert, as "the jackals and dogs who lived on the edge of the desert were carrion eaters who might dig up shallowly buried corpses." Thus, the jackal god was specifically appealed to as a defender of the deceased against the depredations of his bestial brethren. Further, the black color of Anubis, which does not correspond to the deity’s canine antecedent, was evidently chosen for its symbolic associations. To the Egyptians, black was the color of death, night, and regeneration (especially through the fertile earth), and was also the skin tone of mummified flesh.
Characterization and Relationships
Originally, in the Ogdoad system, Anubis was god of the underworld. He was said to have a wife, Anput (who was really just his female aspect, her name being his with an additional feminine suffix: t). In many papyrus records found in pyramids, Anubis is said to be the fourth son of Ra, though in later ages he came to be affiliated with Osiris: a more logical attribution given that the latter deity was already seen as the god of the dead. In this tradition, his mother was said to be Nephthys (though he was "subsequently adopted by Isis as her own son"). Anubis was identified as the father of Kebechet, the goddess of the purification of body organs due to be placed in canopic jars during mummification.
God of the Dead
The most archaic form of the Anubis cult viewed the god as was as the guardian of the deceased, saving them from destruction wrought by purification or carrion eaters. Indeed, "for most of the Old Kingdom, Anubis was the most important funerary deity. His figure was carved in tomb entrances to warn off grave robbers at a time when no other deities could be shown in non-royal tombs." Propitiating this arcane deity meant that one’s ancestors, regardless of class or social stature, would be allowed to rest in peace. As Assmann notes:
- The god Anubis, for example, had a very specific function, one that is more unequivocally expressed than is the case with most of the other deities of the Egyptian pantheon. He is (like Osiris) a god of the dead and of the necropolis, though unlike Osiris, he was not the ruler of the dead, but rather the patron of embalmers, mummifiers, and mortuary priests. … Nevertheless, Anubis also had a specific form that separated him from the human realm and related him to a cosmic sphere. … Considered as a force of nature, he was the god of the transitional zone between the world above and the netherworld; this zone was called the "holy land" in Egyptian, and Anubis was its designated lord.
In a more mythically developed role, Anubis was also understood to be the arbiter of human souls, weighing their purity against the standard of justice—the golden feather of Ma'at, the goddess of truth. Those souls that passed the test were given renewed life in the Underworld, while those who failed were cast into the gaping maw of the Eater of Souls. In this role, "it is he whose duty it is to examine the tongue of the Great Balance, and to take care that the beam is exactly horizontal. Thoth acts on behalf of the Great Company of gods, and Anubis not only produces the heart of the deceased for judgment, but also takes care that the body which has been committed to his charge shall not be handed over to the 'Eater of the Dead' by accident."
This understanding is also attested to in the Pyramid Texts, which state (of the soul of a deceased king):
- Thou goest forth at the voice (of Anubis), for he has spiritualized thee,
- Like Thot, (or) like Anubis, prince of the court of justice (or, divine court),
- that thou mayest judge, that thou mayest lean upon the Two Enneads,
- who are between the two sceptres, in this thy dignity of spirit, commanded by the gods to be in thee (1713b-1714b).
Even after the cult of Anubis became sublimated by the more popular veneration of Osiris (described below), the jackal god retained the aspect of the divine arbiter.
Following the merging of the Ennead and Ogdoad belief systems, Anubis became relegated to lesser status in the organization of the mythic underworld, as he was displaced by the more popular Osiris. These two cults were brought into alignment by incorporating the jackal god into the complex of myths describing the death and resurrection of Osiris. Specifically, Anubis was credited with preserving the body of the murdered god, which set the stage for its reanimation:
- Anubis … lord of the Nether World, to whom the westerners (the dead) give praise … him who was in the middle of the mid-heaven, fourth of the sons of Re, who was made to descend from the sky to embalm Osiris, because he was so very worthy in the heart of Re.
In spite of this demotion, Anubis remained an important funerary deity, as many of his original aspects were maintained in the aftermath of the mythic consolidation, including his role as arbiter of the dead, his patronage of embalmers and mortuary priests, and his symbolic representation of the liminal relationship between life and death.
Patron of Embalmers
As one of the most important funerary rites in Egypt involved the process of embalming, so it was that Anubis became the god of embalming, in the process gaining titles such as "He who belongs to the mummy wrappings," and "He who is before the divine [embalming] booth." Having become god of embalming, Anubis became strongly associated with the mysterious and ancient imiut fetish, which was certifiably present during funerary rites, and Bast, who by this time was the goddess of magical ointments.
In one account (as recorded in the Book of the Dead), Anubis is depicted embalming the corpse of a king, which was seen as a necessary preparatory step prior to the monarch’s eventual resurrection:
- Anubis, who dwelleth in the region of the embalmed, the chief of the holy house, layeth his hands upon the lord of life [i.e., the mummy], ... and provideth him with all that belongeth unto him, and saith: 'Flail to thee, thou beautiful one, the lord! Thou hast been gazed upon by the Sun's eye, thou hast been bound up by Ptah-Seker, thou hast been made whole by Anubis; breath hath been given unto thee by Shu, and thou hast been raised up by the fair one, the prince of eternity.
This characterization of Anubis was tremendously relevant to cultic practice in Egypt, as many religious practices centered around the mummification of the beloved dead. When officiating at these ceremonies, high priests often wore an Anubis mask. Further, the god was explicitly called upon during the "Opening of the Mouth" ritual, where the officiant would incant:
- Thy mouth was closed, but I have set in order for thee thy mouth and thy teeth. I open for thee thy mouth, I open for thee thy two eyes. I have opened for thee thy mouth with the instrument of Anubis. I have opened thy mouth with the instrument of Anubis, with the iron tool with which the mouths of the gods were opened. Horus, open the mouth, Horus, open the mouth. Horus hath opened the mouth of the dead, as he whilom opened the mouth of Osiris, with the iron which came forth from Set, with the iron tool with which he opened the mouths of the gods. He hath opened thy mouth with it. The dead shall walk and shall speak, and his body shall [be] with the great company of the gods in the Great House of the Aged one in Annu, and he shall receive there the ureret crown from Horus, the lord of mankind.
Later Religious Evaluations
In later times, during the Ptolemaic period, Anubis was identified as the Greek god Hermes, as their functions were similar, becoming Hermanubis. The center of this cult was in uten-ha/Sa-ka/ Cynopolis, a place whose Greek name simply means "City of Dogs." Although the Greeks and Romans typically scorned Egypt's animal-headed gods as bizarre and primitive (they mockingly called Anubis the "Barker"), Anubis was sometimes associated with Sirius in heaven, and Cerberus in hell. This incorporation is attested to in Book XI of "The Golden Ass" by Apuleius, where we find evidence that the worship of this god was maintained in Rome at least up to the second century. Indeed, Hermanubis also appears in the alchemical and hermetical literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Anubis also repulsed early Christians. For instance, the writer Tertullian used the character of the jackal god to mount a polemic against what he sees as the primitive nature of their religious beliefs:
- Since, however, they had begun to worship both wild animals and human beings, they combined both figures under one form Anubis, in which there may rather be seen clear proofs of its own character and condition enshrined148 by a nation at war with itself, refractory149 to its kings, despised among foreigners, with even the appetite of a slave and the filthy nature of a dog.
- Budge (1969), Vol. II, 261.
- This particular "cut-off" date has been chosen because it corresponds to the Persian conquest of the kingdom, which marks the end of its existence as a discrete and (relatively) circumscribed cultural sphere. Indeed, as this period also saw an influx of immigrants from Greece, it was also at this point that the Hellenization of Egyptian religion began. While some scholars suggest that even when "these beliefs became remodeled by contact with Greece, in essentials they remained what they had always been" (Erman, 203), it still seems reasonable to address these traditions, as far as is possible, within their own cultural milieu.
- The numerous inscriptions, stelae and papyri that resulted from this sudden stress on historical posterity provide much of the evidence used by modern archeologists and Egyptologists to approach the ancient Egyptian tradition (Pinch, 31-32).
- These local groupings often contained a particular number of deities and were often constructed around the incontestably primary character of a creator god (Meeks and Meeks-Favard, 34-37).
- Frankfort, 25-26.
- Zivie-Coche, 40-41; Frankfort, 23, 28-29.
- Frankfort, 20-21.
- Assmann, 73-80; Zivie-Coche, 65-67; Breasted argues that one source of this cyclical timeline was the dependable yearly fluctuations of the Nile (8, 22-24).
- Frankfort, 117-124; Zivie-Coche, 154-166.
- Unlike many other Egyptian deities, there are virtually no images of Anubis as a fully anthropomorphized deity (Wilkinson, 189).
- Wilkinson, 188-189.
- Pinch, 104.
- Wilkinson, 189.
- Pinch, 104.
- Wilkinson, 187; Pinch, 104.
- For a mythic reference to the god’s daughter, see the account from the Pyramid Texts in Breasted, 113.
- Pinch, 104.
- Assmann, 82-82.
- Budge (1969), Vol. II., 262.
- The Pyramid Texts (Utterance 610), translated by Mercer (1952), 261.
- The Pyramid Texts (§1257), quoted in Breasted, 27.
- Wilkinson, 188.
- Book of the Dead - Plate XXXIII/XXXIV, translated by Budge (1896), 360.
- Frankfort, 135.
- A ceremony whose purpose was "to give back the mummy the senses it had enjoyed in life" (Pinch, 104).
- Book of the Dead - Plate V/VI, translated by Budge (1896), 267.
- Budge (1969), Vol. II, 265-266.
- Zofia Ameisenowa, "Animal-Headed Gods, Evangelists, Saints and Righteous Men," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 12 (1949), pp. 21-45. 43-45.
- Tertullian, Ad Nationes Book II:8, available online at tertullian.org. Retrieved June 28, 2007.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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All links retrieved October 30, 2021.
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