Anubis: The Jackal God of the Dead, Mummification, and the Underworld

Anubis is a key deity in ancient Egyptian mythology, primarily known as the god of mummification and the afterlife. Often depicted with the head of a jackal, Anubis oversees the embalming process and guides souls to the afterlife. He is the son of Osiris and Nephthys. Anubis plays a crucial role in the weighing of the heart ceremony, determining the fate of souls in the afterlife by weighing their hearts against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of truth. Revered for his protective qualities and association with death rites, Anubis ensures the proper passage and protection of the deceased.

Origins and Evolution

Anubis’ origins can be traced back to the early dynastic period of Egypt, around 3100 BCE. His worship was well established by the time of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 BCE), where he was initially considered the foremost god of the dead before Osiris rose to prominence. In early mythology, Anubis was associated with the burial practices and the afterlife, indicating his role as a protector of the deceased and a guide for souls in the journey through the Duat, the Egyptian underworld.

Over time, Anubis’ role evolved. While he retained his functions related to mummification and protection of the dead, he became more closely linked with Osiris, the god of the afterlife and resurrection. This relationship is particularly evident in the myth of Osiris, where Anubis assists in the mummification of Osiris after his murder by Seth, thereby ensuring Osiris’ resurrection and eternal life. This myth solidified Anubis’ role as a guardian of the dead and a pivotal figure in the rites of the deceased.

Iconography and Symbolism

Anubis is most commonly depicted as a man with the head of a black jackal or as a full jackal. The choice of the jackal is significant due to the animal’s scavenging habits and its frequent presence around cemeteries, making it a natural symbol of death and the protection of graves. The black color of Anubis’ skin, while not indicative of the actual color of jackals, symbolizes the color of mummified flesh and the fertile soil of the Nile, which was associated with rebirth and regeneration.

In artistic representations, Anubis is often shown attending to the deceased, overseeing the weighing of the heart ceremony, or performing rituals related to mummification. The weighing of the heart ceremony, a central part of the Egyptian afterlife belief system, involves Anubis weighing the heart of the deceased against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of truth and justice. If the heart is lighter than the feather, the soul is deemed worthy of entering the afterlife; if heavier, it is devoured by Ammit, a demoness with a crocodile head, lion’s front, and hippo’s hind.

Anubis is also depicted holding a was-scepter, a symbol of power, and an ankh, representing life. These symbols reinforce his roles in maintaining the balance of life and death, guiding souls, and ensuring their safe passage to the afterlife.

Functions and Roles

Mummification and Funeral Rites

One of Anubis’ primary functions is overseeing the mummification process, an essential aspect of Egyptian funerary practices. The Egyptians believed that preserving the body was crucial for the soul’s journey in the afterlife. Anubis was thought to provide the knowledge and protection necessary for the successful mummification and burial of the deceased. Priests performing mummification rituals often donned masks representing Anubis to symbolize his presence and protection.

Protector of Graves

Anubis is also revered as a protector of graves and cemeteries. His role in this regard is twofold: safeguarding the physical remains of the deceased from desecration and ensuring that their spiritual components are not disturbed. This protective aspect of Anubis is deeply ingrained in the Egyptian belief system, where the integrity of the burial site is essential for the deceased’s peaceful existence in the afterlife.

Guide of Souls

Anubis’ role extends to guiding souls through the underworld. As a psychopomp, he escorts the deceased to the Hall of Ma’at, where their fate is determined through the weighing of the heart ceremony. This guidance is not only a physical journey but also a spiritual transition, where Anubis provides comfort and protection to the soul, ensuring it reaches its final destination safely.

Judge of the Dead

While Osiris is often depicted as the ultimate judge in the afterlife, Anubis plays a critical role in the judgment process. He conducts the weighing of the heart, a crucial step in determining the soul’s worthiness to enter the afterlife. This function highlights Anubis’ association with Ma’at, the concept of truth and justice, and reinforces his role in maintaining cosmic balance.

Anubis in Egyptian Mythology

The Myth of Osiris

The myth of Osiris is central to understanding Anubis’ role in Egyptian mythology. According to the myth, Osiris, the god of the afterlife, is murdered by his brother Seth. Isis, Osiris’ wife, and Nephthys, his sister, find his body and seek Anubis’ help to embalm and mummify Osiris, thus enabling his resurrection and continuation as the lord of the underworld. This myth underscores Anubis’ essential role in the rites of death and his direct involvement in the process of resurrection and immortality.

The Weighing of the Heart

The weighing of the heart is a critical ceremony in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a collection of spells and rituals designed to guide the deceased through the afterlife. Anubis oversees this ceremony, weighing the heart of the deceased against the feather of Ma’at. This process determines the soul’s fate, whether it is worthy of eternal life or doomed to be consumed by Ammit. Anubis’ role in this ceremony highlights his importance in the moral and ethical aspects of the afterlife, where he serves as a guardian of truth and justice.

Worship and Cult Centers

Anubis was worshipped across Egypt, with significant cult centers at Cynopolis (modern-day El-Kab) and Lycopolis (modern-day Asyut). Temples and shrines dedicated to Anubis were often located near cemeteries, emphasizing his role as a protector of the dead. Rituals performed in his honor included offerings of food, incense, and prayers to ensure the protection and safe passage of the deceased. The cult of Anubis was particularly prominent during the Old Kingdom but continued to be influential throughout Egyptian history.

Anubis in Art and Literature

Anubis is a frequent subject in Egyptian art and literature, often depicted in tomb paintings, statues, and texts related to funerary practices. His image is commonly found in the Book of the Dead, where he is shown performing the weighing of the heart ceremony or attending to the deceased. These depictions highlight his central role in the afterlife and his importance in the religious and cultural practices of ancient Egypt.

In literature, Anubis is featured in various hymns, spells, and prayers, often invoked for protection and guidance. His portrayal in these texts underscores his multifaceted nature as a god of the dead, a guardian, and a judge.

Legacy and Influence

The legacy of Anubis extends beyond ancient Egypt. His image and symbolism have been adopted and adapted in various cultures and contexts. In Greco-Roman mythology, Anubis was syncretized with Hermes, resulting in the deity Hermanubis, who shared attributes of both gods as a guide of souls and a protector of the dead.

In modern times, Anubis continues to captivate popular imagination. His image is frequently used in literature, movies, video games, and other forms of media, often representing ancient Egyptian culture and the mysteries of the afterlife. Anubis’ enduring presence in contemporary culture reflects the lasting fascination with Egyptian mythology and the timeless themes of death, resurrection, and the afterlife.