In ancient Egypt the jackal-headed god Anubis was originally the most important deity linked to funerals and death. Over time, however, this role was taken over by the god Osiris, and Anubis became associated with preserving dead bodies and guiding the dead in the underworld.
In the sacred texts of the ancient Egyptians, both the cow goddess Hesat, who was the deity of childbirth, and the cat goddess Bastet, goddess of music, were named as the mother of Anubis. Later it was said that Anubis was the son of Nepthys, the wife of Seth, the evil god of storms and chaos. In this account of the god's origins, Anubis's father was either the sun god Re or the vegetation god Osiris, although Seth was also suggested as a possible father. When Anubis was born, Nepthys hid him in marshes on the banks of the Nile River to save the infant from Seth. Isis, the mother goddess and sister of Nepthys, discovered Anubis and, in this version of events, raised him.
However, records from the first millennium BCE refer to Anubis as the son of Sekhmet and Osiris. Sekhmet was a lion goddess who, according to one myth, was sent by the supreme god to destroy all life on earth. She was mostly a destructive deity who could bring plague and violence, but she could also be persuaded to cure sickness. Usually Sekhmet was identified as the alter ego of either Hathor, goddess of love, or Bastet. Yet whatever his origins, Anubis belonged to the second generation of gods who came after the creator and the four primeval deities: Tefnut, goddess of moisture; Shu, god of air; and their children—Geb, the earth god, and Nut, the sky goddess.
Some scholars believe that Anubis was originally Egypt's most important deity associated with burials, because of prayers addressed to him in the Old Kingdom (c. 2575–c. 2130 BCE). The Pyramid Texts, the oldest surviving body of Egyptian religious and funerary writings, which date back to the Old Kingdom, describe Anubis as the judge of the dead. However, by the end of the Middle Kingdom (c. 1938–c. 1630 BCE), Osiris had replaced Anubis as chief god of the cult of the dead. From then on, Anubis's main role was to assist in the preservation of the body. According to the myth of the resurrection of Osiris, after the god's death and dismemberment at the hands of Seth, the goddess Isis, who was Osiris's wife and sister, set out to restore his body. Anubis aided Isis in her task, and he embalmed Osiris's body when it was reassembled. By the time of the New Kingdom (c. 1540-c. 1075 BCE), Anubis had become a familiar figure in coffin paintings, where he was shown bending over the bodies of the dead. In addition to his role in preserving the dead, Anubis helped judge the dead, and he led honest souls to Osiris's throne.
Anubis is usually depicted with the body of a man and the head of a jackal. Sometimes he is portrayed entirely as a jackal wearing a band of cloth around his neck and sometimes holding a royal scepter. Although the oldest mentions of Anubis call him a jackal, some scholars think that the original animal might have been a wild dog. Many centuries later the Romans thought he was a dog and referred to "barking Anubis." However, neither jackals nor Egyptian wild dogs are black, which is the color of the jackal parts of Anubis in all representations.
During the second and first millennia BCE, jackals and wild dogs would have been a common sight in Egypt, scavenging around the edges of settlements and disturbing burials and even dismembered corpses—especially in the days before mummification. Egyptologists are unclear as to exactly why the scavenger animals were used to represent the god of mummification and the guardian of the necropolis (large, sacred burial grounds).
The preservation of the body was extremely important in ancient Egyptian religion. Although it was believed that a human being had more than one soul—some of the ancient Egyptian texts list up to five souls—their survival in the afterlife was linked to two factors: the continued existence of the body and the remembrance of the name. The body was the primary vessel that contained the soul, although a statue or other image could be used as a substitute. Moreover, Egyptians believed that the body must continue to exist with all its important parts intact or it would not function. Scholars think that this belief led to the development of a process of mummification in which organs that were believed to be vital were removed from the body, dried, and then put back into the corpse. For the ancient Egyptians the most important organs were the heart, which they believed controlled emotion, memory, and thought; and the lungs, liver, intestines, and stomach. Organs that the modern world recognizes as vital, such as the spleen, kidneys, pancreas, and brain, were not recognized by the Egyptian priests as essential to the deceased in the afterlife.
Over the centuries refinements improved the mummification process. For example, from about the 18th century BCE onward, special jars, called canopic jars, were made to hold the preserved lungs, liver, intestines, and stomach of the deceased. The lids of the jars were occasionally made to resemble the dead person whose organs were to be put inside, as in the case of canopic jars from the tomb of the Egyptian king Tutankhamen (c. 1370-1352 BCE). However, it was more common to make the lids in the likenesses of the four sons of Horus, the falcon-headed sky god. They were Hapi, Imsety, Qebehsenef, and Duamutef. Hapi, not to be confused with the Nile god of the same name, is depicted as a baboon-headed deity who was in charge of the lungs. Imsety is represented as having a human face and was protector of the liver. Qebehsenef, shown with the head of a falcon or hawk, guarded the intestines. The fourth son, Duamutef, was god of the stomach and, like Anubis, was jackal-headed.
Anubis was often confused with other canine or jackal-headed gods and divinities. For example, the god Wepwawet, whose name means "Opener of the Ways," is depicted almost identically to the jackal-headed Anubis. The only difference is that Wepwawet is shown with a gray or white head, a feature that led some people to describe Wepwawet, incorrectly, as a wolf. This misidentification began with the Romans, who called the city in which Wepwawet's cult center was based Lycopolis, or "City of the Wolf."
The Egyptian Book of the Dead (c. 16th century BCE)—a collection of spells and prayers used by ancient Egyptians as a guidebook for the souls of the dead on their travels through the underworld—describes Wepwawet as a protective deity who led the souls of the deceased to the underworld. The close resemblance between the two gods led over time to the personalities merging, and their many titles may have been interchangeable. These included "First among the Westerners" (westerners was another term for the dead), "Lord of the Necropolis," and "Lord of Abydos." Abydos was one of the most ancient settlements in the Nile Valley.
See also: ANIMAL-HEADED FIGURES; BOOK OF THE DEAD; DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE; EGYPT; GEB; HORUS; ISIS; NUT; OSIRIS; RE; SETH.
- Earthly Remains: The History and Science of Preserved Human Bodies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. ., and Michael Parker Pearson.
- Faulkner, Raymond, trans. The Egyptian Book of the Dead. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000.
- Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. .
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