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In Egyptian Mythology, Who is Anubis?

By P. Matz
Updated: May 23, 2024

One of the original deities of ancient Egypt, tracing his origins all the way back to the Old Kingdom, Anubis, guardian and protector of the dead, was commonly depicted with the head of a jackal and the body of a man. According to Egyptian lore, the jackal-god, was in charge of the process whereby the heart of the deceased was weighed on a scale against the “feather of truth.” If the soul in question proved heavier than the feather, a guilty verdict was rendered and the results recorded for eternity by the God Thoth, who acted as scribe during the proceedings. The innocent were subsequently escorted by Anubis into the heavenly realm, while the souls of the guilty were either cast into a lake of fire to be consumed, or fed to a terrible deity named Ammit.

Amidst the changes of the Middle Kingdom, as Osiris grew in popularity, the god Anubis was relegated to more of a secondary role in the hierarchy of the underworld. With Osiris assuming the mantle of ruler of the dead, the role of Anubis became that of guardian to the departed soul. Since Anubis had traditionally been the god of mummification and funerary rites, he retained this role also. In an effort to explain the shift in power among the gods, Anubis was ascribed to be the son of Osiris and Nephthys, rather than a god equal in stature to Osiris who had simply been demoted.

As master of the embalming process, which involved the removal of various internal organs, the jackal headed god was also purported to possess great knowledge of the human anatomy. Priests of Anubis were, thus, not only skilled healers, utilizing their knowledge of the body and its functions, but also trained in anesthesiology as well.

During certain periods in Egyptian history, priests of Anubis wore jackal masks on their heads in honor of their deity, while performing the embalming process. Some historians posit that the Egyptian association with Anubis and the jackal drew its origins from the fact that jackals were common visitors to gravesites. As scavengers that fed on dead bodies, it is plausible that the concept of death and the jackal became synonymous in the minds of the early Egyptians. Some scholars have even suggested that the early tombs of the Egyptians were constructed not only to honor deceased rulers, but also to safe guard their bodies from the ravages of wild animals.

Although Anubis was honored across Egypt as a deity of the afterlife, Cynopolis in Upper Egypt was the capital of the Anubis cult, and archaeologists have unearthed the mummified remains of jackals and other types of canines in this region. During the Ptolemaic period, the Egyptian Anubis was also associated with the Greek god Hermes, the messenger deity, and garnered the name Hermanubis, a combination of the two names.

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