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Anubis: God of Mummification and the Afterlife

Anubis Monument.
Anubis Monument.

One of the oldest gods in the Egyptian pantheon, Anubis holds his place amongst their bevvy of gods as the god of the afterlife, the helpless and of lost souls. Anubis is also the Egyptian patron god of mummification. His cult is believed to have emerged from the worship of an earlier and far older god Wepwawet who is depicted with a jackal head.

Images of Anubis’ image adorn early royal tombs from Egypt’s First Dynasty (c. 3150-2890 BCE), however, his cult following is believed to have been flourishing by the time these ritualistic protective tomb images were inscribed.

Images of jackals and wild dogs unearthing freshly interred corpses are thought to have been the inspiration behind Anubis’ cult. The cult itself was established in Egypt’s early Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 6000-3150 BCE). The ancient Egyptians saw a commanding canine deity as providing determined protection against the depredations of the packs of wild dogs, which roamed village outskirts.

Facts About Anubis

  • Anubis was the ancient Egyptian god of the dead and the underworld
  • During the time of the Middle Kingdom, Osiris took on the role of the god of the underworld
  • The Anubis cult emerged from an older jackal god Wepwawet
  • Anubis was credited with inventing mummification and embalming in his role as the god of the underworld
  • Anubis’ knowledge of anatomy accumulated through the embalming process led to him becoming patron god of anesthesiology.
  • He guided deceased souls through the perilous Duat (realm of the dead)
  • Anubis also attended the Guardian of the Scales, used during the weighing of the heart ceremony where the deceased’s life was judged
  • Worship of Anubis dates back to the Old Kingdom, making Anubis one of oldest ancient Egyptian gods

Visual Depiction And Mystical Associations

Anubis is portrayed as a robust, muscular man with a jackal head or as a black jackal-dog hybrid featuring sharply pointed ears. To Egyptians, black represented the body’s earthly decay together with the fertile Nile River Valley’s soil, which stood for life and the power of regeneration.

As a powerful black dog, Anubis was perceived to be the defender of the dead who ensured they were given their rightful burial. Anubis was believed to stand by the departed when they entered the afterlife and aided their resurrection.

In keeping with the Egyptian belief in the West as the direction of death and the afterlife, following the path of the setting sun, Anubis was referred to as the “First of the Westerners” in the period prior to the ascension to preeminence of Osiris during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (c. 2040-1782 BCE). Thus Anubis claimed the distinction of being the king of the dead or “westerners.”

During this manifestation, Anubis represented eternal justice. He maintained this role even later, even being replaced by Osiris who received the honorific “First of the Westerners”.

Earlier in Egypt’s history, Anubis was thought to be the devoted son of Ra and his consort Hesat. However, following his absorption by the myth of Osiris, Anubis was recast as Osiris and Nephthys’ son. Nephthys was Osiris’ sister-in-law. To this point, Anubis is the earliest deity inscribed on tomb walls and his protection was invoked on behalf of the dead buried within the tomb.

Hence, Anubis is typically portrayed as attending to the pharaoh’s corpse, supervising the mummification process and funeral rites, or standing together with Osiris and Thoth for the deeply symbolic “Weighing of the Heart of the Soul in the Hall of Truth” in the Egyptian afterlife. To arrive at the everlasting paradise promised by the Field of Reeds, the dead had to pass a test by Osiris Lord of the Underworld. In this test one’s heart was weighted against the sacred white feather of truth.

A common inscription found in many tombs is of Anubis as a jackal-headed man standing or kneeling as he holds the golden scales on which the heart was weighed against the feather.

Anubis daughter was Qebhet or Kabechet. Her role is to bring refreshing water and to provide comfort to the dead as they await judgment in the Hall of Truth. Anubis’ connection to Qebhet and the goddess Nephthys, one of the original five gods underlines his long-established role as the supreme guardian of the dead who guided souls on their journey into the afterlife.

Origins And Assimilation Into The Osiris Myth

Anubis held the role as the only Lord of the Dead across the span of Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2613 BCE) through to its Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE). He was also worshipped as the virtuous arbiter of all souls. However, as the myth of Osiris gained in popularity and influence, Osiris progressively absorbed Anubis’ god-like attributes. Anubis’ enduring popularity, however, saw him effectively absorbed into the myth of Osiris.

First, his original ancestry and historical back-story were discarded. Anubis’ earlier narrative portrayed him as the son of Osiris and Nephthys who was Set’s wife. Anubis was conceived during their affair. This story relates how Nephthys was initially attracted to the beauty of Set’s brother Osiris. Nephthys deceived Osiris and changed herself, appearing before him in the guise of Isis who was Osiris’ wife. Nephthys seduced Osiris and fell pregnant with Anubis only to abandon him shortly following his birth, fearing Set would discover her affair. Isis discovered the truth about their affair and began searching for their infant son. When at last Isis located Anubis, she adopted him as her own son. Set also discovered the truth behind the affair, providing the rationale murdering Osiris.

After being absorbed into the Egyptian myth of Osiris, Anubis was routinely depicted as Osiris’ “go-to man” and protector. It was Anubis who described as guarding Osiris’ body after his death. Anubis also supervised the mummification of the body and assisted Osiris in judging the souls of the dead. The many protective amulets, evocative tomb paintings and written sacred texts, which have survived show Anubis as being frequently called upon to extend the deceased his protection. Anubis was also portrayed as an agent of vengeance and a powerful enforcer of curses cast on one’s enemies or in defending against similar curses.

While Anubis features prominently in representations of artwork across Egypt’s vast historical arc, he doesn’t feature prominently in many Egyptian myths. Anubis’ duty as the Egyptian Lord of the Dead was limited to carrying out a sole ritual function. While undeniably solemn, this ritual was not suitable for embellishment. As the guardian of the dead, the originator of the mummification process and spiritual ritual to preserve the deceased’s body for the afterlife, Anubis appears to have been thought to be too absorbed in his religious duties to become involved in the types of reckless and vengeful escapades attributed Egypt’s other gods and goddesses.

The Priesthood Of Anubis

The priesthood serving Anubis was exclusively male. Anubis’ priests often were attired in masks of their god fashioned from wood whilst performing rituals sacred to his cult. Anubis’ cult was centred on Cynopolis, which translates as “the city of the dog” in Upper Egypt. However, as with Egypt’s other gods, functioning shrines were erected in his honour across Egypt. That he was widely revered throughout Egypt is a testimony to the strength of Anubis following and his enduring popularity. As with numerous other Egyptian deities, Anubis’ cult survived well into later Egyptian history, thanks to his theological connection with those gods of other civilisations.

Veneration of Anubis offered ancient Egypt’s people the reassurance they sought that their body would be treated reverently and prepared for burial following their death. Anubis also held out the promise of protection for their soul in the afterlife, and that the soul’s life’s work would receive fair and impartial judgment. The ancient Egyptians share these hopes with their present-day contemporaries. Given this, Anubis enduring popularity and longevity, as a focus of ritual cult worship is easily understood.

Today, Anubis’ image remains amongst the most easily recognizable of all the gods in the Egyptian pantheon and reproductions of his tomb paintings and statues remain popular, particularly amongst dog lovers today.

Image Of A God

Perhaps Howard Carter discovered the single most well-recognised image of the dog-headed god Anubis that has come down to us when he discovered Tutankhamun‘s tomb. The reclining figure was set as a guardian for a side room running off Tutankhamun’s main burial chamber. The carved wooden figure was positioned ahead of the shrine, containing Tutankhamun’s canopic chest.

The finely carved wood statue reclines gracefully in a sphinx-like pose. Draped in a shawl when it was first found, the Anubis image adorns a glittering gilt plinth complete with attached poles to enable the image to be carried in a sacred procession. This sleek representation of Anubis in his dog-like form is considered to be one of the masterpieces of ancient Egyptian animal sculpture.

Reflecting On The Past

What is it about death and the possibility of an afterlife that so captivates us? Anubis’ enduring popularity has its base in humanity’s deepest fears and greatest hopes, concepts, which effortlessly span epochs and cultures.

Header image courtesy:  Grzegorz Wojtasik via Pexels

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Anubis: God of Mummification and the Afterlife," Give Me History, March 13, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/anubis.

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