Anubis: The Jackal-Headed God of Mummification and Embalming
In this in-depth bio, you will learn who Anubis is in Egyptian mythology, his history, and the myths and beliefs behind his name.
You will also find out more about his role as the god of mummification. Read on.
Who Is Anubis in Egyptian Mythology?
In the myths of ancient Egypt, Anubis was the Egyptian god of the dead, embalming, and mummification. Like many other deities of ancient Egypt, Anubis held different roles in different regions and times, as his identity merged and shifted with other gods.
For 6,000 years, Anubis was variably worshipped as the god of the afterlife, the underworld (the Duat), guardian of gravesites and tombs, and the process of death and decay.
Like most of the gods of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, the story of Anubis does not follow a clearly delineated pattern but shifted and morphed throughout the history of ancient Egypt. The jackal-headed god was also not featured in many myths, although he enjoyed vast popularity and cult status throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean.
During the Old Kingdom period of Egypt (circa 2700 – 2200 B.C.), the jackal-headed god was believed to be the protector of graves. By the end of the First Dynasty, the process of embalming and mummification had spread throughout Egypt and was considered necessary for proper travel through the afterlife, thus elevating Anubis’ status in the Egyptian pantheon as the god of the afterlife and the Duat.
By the Middle Kingdom period (2050 – 1600 B.C.), Anubis was replaced by Osiris as the god of the underworld and relegated to the role of the Egyptian god of mummification. However, because of the importance of mummification and embalming in the Egyptian faith, he still held a prominent role in the Egyptian pantheon. Anubis was also the god who ushered the deceased into the Hall of Maat to face judgment.
While most modern interpretations depict Anubis as a sinister god to be feared, the ancient Egyptians regarded Anubis with awe and wonder.
Anubis was revered as a respecter of the dead and as the god who made progress through the afterlife possible. Anubis represented the anticipation and desire of life after death and was honored across Egypt because of it.
Depictions of Anubis in Egyptian Artwork and Literature
Due to his popularity over thousands of years, Anubis is one of the most identifiable gods of ancient Egypt. Typically pictured as a man with the black head of a jackal, depictions of Anubis have been found throughout Egypt in nearly every tomb and funerary temple. During the preparation of the dead, the priests of Anubis would wear masks of the god to invoke his power during their procedures.
Often represented with a red sash/ribbon tied at his neck, the ribbon of Anubis symbolized the protection of female deities, namely Nephthys (goddess of air and sometimes mentioned as Anubis’ mother) and Bastet (goddess of protection and the funerary canopic jars).
While the ribbon is shown at the neck of Anubis, it was also depicted upon the waist of the primary gods of the Egyptian pantheon and the pharaoh. This demonstrated the prominence of Anubis in the lives of all Egyptians.
Anubis was often shown with a sekhem scepter, a long staff with an animal head at the top, and a forked bottom, symbolizing power and dominion. When receiving offerings and sacrifices, the priests of Anubis wielded a sekhem scepter to represent the authority of the deity.
At the Enclosure of Sekhem at the Temple of Hu, Anubis was depicted as a reclining jackal, with the sekhem scepter positioned near him. The pharaoh would also invoke the god’s power by wielding the sekhem scepters of both Anubis and Horus during his annual offering.
Another common identifying feature of Anubis was the jackal-headed god holding the Egyptian crook and flail (heka and nekhakha), symbolizing kingship and fertility.
– The Multiple Uses of Anubis’ Depictions
Since every individual in ancient Egypt’s history was believed to meet Anubis at death, the god was featured on tomb entrances and walls, temples, statuary, spells and incantations, and gravesites. When featured in funerary temples, Anubis was often shown embalming or mummifying the deceased’s body or sitting over tombs to guard the dead within.
Another common representation of Anubis was of him standing with Thoth and Osiris in the Great Hall of Maat for the ritual of the Weighing of the Heart. In this frequent tomb depiction, Anubis was pictured standing or kneeling while holding the goddess Maat’s golden scale, weighing the Feather of Maat against the deceased’s heart.
During Egypt’s Predynastic and Old Kingdom period, Anubis was most often depicted in his full animal form. Some Egyptologists believe that jackals were commonly found in unguarded gravesite areas, feasting upon the remains of the deceased. To remedy this, the ancients appealed to the god of jackals to guard the remains of the dead. This deity morphed into the god who became Anubis, who was charged with guarding the cemeteries of the dead.
Anubis was depicted as black, even though Egyptian jackals and wolves were typically gray. The black coloring was believed to symbolize rebirth into the afterlife, as Egyptians believed black represented the beginning and regeneration.
Also, during the process of mummification, bodies were treated with resin and natron, which turned the bodies of the deceased black (Egyptian natron was chemical salt used for preservation, mined from Wadi Natrun, north of modern-day Cairo). The Egyptians also believed that black represented fertility, as the silt deposited during the Nile’s annual flooding was black in appearance and brought with it the Nile’s annual growth cycle.
Due to this, Egyptians believed Anubis was essential in helping males reclaim their ability to have sex in the afterlife.
– The Modern Controversy of Calling Anubis the Jackal-Headed God
While commonly referred to as the jackal-headed god, modern Egyptologists no longer identify Anubis in this way. Archaeologists now believe that Anubis’ animal form was not of the jackal but was that of the golden wolf native to Africa.
In 2015, using genetic analysis, researchers updated the name of the species and its taxonomy, referring to Anubis as the wolf-headed god instead of the jackal.
The Names of Anubis and the Meanings Behind Them
The god commonly referred to as the Egyptian god Anubis was not known by that name in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians referred to Anubis as Anpu (Inpu). The name Anubis is the transliterated Greek pronunciation of the god’s name.
The root of Anubis’ Egyptian name was defined as “royal child.” During the Old Kingdom period, he was believed to be the son of Atum-Ra and Hathor, or as the son of Bastet. During the Middle Kingdom, Anubis was believed to be the son of Nephthys and Set or Nephthys and Osiris.
The root of Inpu was the Egyptian verb “inp,” meaning “to decay.” It is not known whether “inp” was derived from Anubis’ Egyptian name or if it existed before Anubis being elevated to protector of the dead during the Predynastic period.
After Osiris became known as the god of the dead and Anubis was relegated to being the god of mummification, it is theorized that the deity known as Anpu went through a name change and was called “Imy-Ut,” meaning “He Who is in the Place of Embalming.”
However, his more popular name became “Nub-ta-djser,” which meant “Lord of the Sacred Land.” It was this name that the Greeks transliterated as Anubis.
As Anubis enjoyed great popularity throughout Egypt’s history and held such a powerful role, he was known by many names:
- Foremost of the Westerners (as the west was associated with death due to the setting sun)
- He Who Is Upon His Mountain (as the mountains were the homes of Egypt’s greatest tombs and necropolises)
- Lord of the Sacred Land
- Master of Secrets
- He Who Is in the Place of Embalming
- Foremost of the Divine Booth
- Ruler of the Nine Bows (Egypt’s enemies were typically represented as nine prisoners bowing before the pharaoh)
- The Dog Who Swallows Millions
Upon the Hellenization of Egyptian society beginning in 305 B.C., the Greeks equally held Anubis in high regard and equated him with the god Hermes. During this time, it was believed that Hermes, as Anubis, would welcome the dead into the afterlife by taking the deceased’s hand and guiding them through the relevant dangers and into the Hall of Judgment.
This version of Anubis became known as Hermanubis and remained popular until well after Egypt fell under the governorship of Rome in 30 B.C.
The Protector of Graves and the Dead
Evidence exists dating to 6000 B.C. that the worship of Anubis stemmed from jackals and wolves ravaging the graves of the dead. The earliest kingdoms of Egypt buried their dead on the west bank of the Nile, equating the west with death due to the setting sun.
To combat the scavenging of graves by wild beasts, the Egyptians prayed to the god of canines and jackals to prevent his demons from disrespecting the dead. Out of this, the first cults of Anubis were born, and the process of further honoring the dead began.
Even the wife of Anubis, Anput, and the daughter of Anubis, Kebechet, assisted in the process of preparing the body for its entrance into the underworld. Anput was considered the protector of the body as it moved through the mummification process, and Kebechet symbolized the herb-treated water used during embalming.
As Anubis was considered the original god of the dead, he was believed to be the vindicator of those whose tombs and graves were vandalized. To raid tombs and graves was considered a capital offense, as to desecrate the graves of the dead was to doom the deceased in the afterlife.
Anubis was believed to hold dominion over an army of jackal-headed demons to enact vengeance upon those that offended the dead by raiding tombs or desecrating graves.
As the cult of Osiris grew in the Middle Kingdom, Anubis was brought into the Osirian resurrection myth, leading to a face-to-face meeting between the god Set and Anubis.
After murdering Osiris, Set wished to further mutilate his brother’s body, preventing him from possibly resurrecting. As the guardian of the dead, Anubis was tasked to defend the helpless body, and he did so with viciousness.
Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch wrote of Set and Anubis:
“A story recorded in the first millennium B.C.E. tells how the wicked god Set disguised himself as a leopard to approach the body of Osiris. He was seized by Anubis and branded all over with a hot iron. This, according to Egyptian myth, is how the leopard got its spots. Anubis then flayed Set and wore his bloody skin as a warning to evildoers. By this era, Anubis was said to command an army of demon messengers who inflicted suffering and death.”
During the Middle and New Kingdoms, the priests of Anubis wore leopard skins during their rituals to further affirm his victory over the murderous Set.
Anubis, God of Mummification and Embalming
During the Old Kingdom period of Egypt, the god Anubis became known as “He who is in the place of embalming” and as “He who presides over the god’s booth” (with the booth referring to the king’s burial chamber). As such, the priests of Anubis were given charge over mummification and preparing the body for its journey into the afterlife.
As the Egyptians placed the highest of values on the afterlife, Anubis was considered the god of the dead for most of ancient Egypt’s early history. During this time, Anubis was believed to be the son of the cat-headed goddess Bastet and the sun god Ra.
As the god of the afterlife, Anubis was tasked with purifying the body for its long existence in the Duat and raising the soul upon entrance. Together with his mother, Anubis and Bastet were also charged with the protection of the organs of the deceased, which were kept in canopic jars.
During the Middle Kingdom period, the Ennead cult of Heliopolis grew in power and popularity and became the state-sponsored faith of Egypt. Because of this, Anubis’ role as the god of the dead was diminished and given to Osiris.
However, due to his massive popularity, instead of being fused entirely with Osiris and regarded as an aspect, Anubis was merely given a new position – the honored god of mummification.
Instead of being regarded as an earlier aspect of Osiris (a common fate of earlier Egyptian gods when replaced by newer cults), Anubis, and his priests and cults, were still held in extremely high regard.
The Anubis story then shifted, linking Osiris and Anubis together, with Anubis being the son of the slain and resurrected god and the goddess Nephthys. A connection was drawn between Isis and Anubis as well, with Isis becoming the protective guardian of the jackal-headed god.
Of this, the Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote:
“For when Isis found out that Osiris loved her sister and had relations with her in mistaking her sister for herself, and when she saw a proof of it in the form of a garland of clover that he had left to Nephthys – she was looking for a baby, because Nephthys abandoned it at once after it had been born for fear of Seth; and when Isis found the baby helped by the dogs which with great difficulties lead her there, she raised him and he became her guard and ally by the name of Anubis.”
After the god Set murdered Osiris and scattered pieces of his body, the goddess Isis reassembled the pieces and enlisted the help of her son to mummify the body. The organs of Osiris were given to Anubis to protect, with Osiris resurrecting as the god of the dead and Anubis becoming the god of embalming and mummification.
Anubis, the God Who Commanded an Army of Demons to Protect the Dead
Anubis was Egypt’s original god of the dead, who eventually became recognized as the god of embalming and mummification. Worshipped for 6,000 years, Anubis is one of the most identifiable gods of the Egyptian pantheon, with his black skin and jackal-head.
- Anubis was one of the oldest of ancient Egypt’s gods, worshipped originally as the protector of the dead before being acknowledged as the god of the dead during Egypt’s Old Kingdom
- Anubis was well-known for having the head of a jackal and was depicted in nearly every tomb throughout ancient Egypt for over 3,000 years
- Due to the importance Egyptians placed on death and the afterlife, Anubis was given many titles and honors, including “Lord of the Sacred Lands” and “The Dog Who Swallows Millions”
- Anubis’ true name was Anpu, as Anubis is the Greek transliteration of his name
- Anubis’ was worshipped in some form for over 6,000 years, and remained popular until the end of the Roman occupation, even being brought into the much later Osirian resurrection myth
While shown as a sinister god in most media presentations today, Anubis was revered with awe and wonder by the people of ancient Egypt. He was a guardian, a protector, and the weigher of the heart. Anubis was not to be feared.
He symbolized the hopes and dreams that life did not end at death and the body would be respected and honored for all time.