Back To CourseAncient Egypt Study Guide
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
In modern Western societies, there is a tendency to associate gods of death with evil. This largely comes from Christian associations of Hell and Satan being compared with the underworld and the guardians of the underworld. While this has inspired numerous entertaining and terrifying villains in Hollywood portrayals of Greek and Egyptian mythology, it is not how ancient populations understood these deities.
In few cases is this more evident that with the ancient Egyptian god of Anubis. Anubis, easily recognizable as an anthropomorphized jackal or dog, was the Egyptian god of the afterlife and mummification. He helped judge souls after their death and guided lost souls into the afterlife. So, was he evil? No, and in fact just the opposite. In ancient Egyptian mythology the ultimate evil was chaos. Nearly all of Egyptian mythology was focused around maintaining the cycles of cosmic order that kept chaos at bay. Few things were as significant in this goal as the rituals maintaining the cycle of life, death, and afterlife. Therefore, Anubis was not evil but rather one of the most important gods who kept evil out of Egypt.
With such an important role, it's not surprising that Anubis is one of the oldest gods in all of ancient Egyptian mythology. He was said to have invented the process of mummification and taught it to the Egyptian people. Anubis was first thought to be conceived sometime in the Predynastic period, when Egyptian civilization was first developing.
Many archeologists believe that the god Anubis was inspired by actual jackals, who dug up bodies that had not been buried deep enough. The theory is that a canine god was evoked in order to exercise some cosmic control over these canine scavengers. What we know for sure is that images of Anubis were already popular by Egypt's First Dynasty, when he appeared on royal tombs.
Anubis remained one of Egypt's most popular and powerful deities for centuries, even as other religious cults rose and fell. This required some reworking of his myths and origins over time. Originally, Anubis was said to be the son of Ra and Hesat. However, in the Middle Kingdom a new god of the dead became incredibly popular, named Osiris. In this time, Anubis was re-envisioned as the son of Osiris. This change allowed Anubis to remain extremely popular and placed him directly at the right hand of one of Egypt's most powerful deities.
So, what exactly did Anubis do in Egyptian mythology? Anubis actually shows up in very few myths. However, we get more of an idea about him in several of his epithets.
Let's start with Anubis' actual name. Anubis is the Greek form of his Egyptian name, Anpu or Inpu. This literally meant ''to decay,'' showing the association with death. While this may sound morbid, think about what else that could mean. A decaying corpse is one that remained undisturbed by jackals or vandals. Decomposition was also part of the cycle of regeneration and it's the reason why Anubis is black when it is not the natural color of jackals. Black symbolized the fertile soil of the Nile River. So, decay led to fertility and the cycles of life continued.
Perhaps the oldest moniker for Anubis was ''First of the Westerners.'' In ancient Egypt, the afterlife was a place far in the west, where the sun set. Anubis was seen as the king of this land and therefore the arbiter of eternal justice. He oversaw mummifications, participated in the weighing of the soul and the heart to test purity, and guided the worthy dead into the afterlife.
Even after Osiris rose to become the new lord of the afterlife, Anubis never lost his association with eternal justice. This is reflected in his other titles, such as ''The Dog Who Swallows Millions,'' in reference to the fact that all people eventually die; ''Master of Secrets,'' since he knows what lies beyond the grave; and ''Foremost of the Divine Booth,'' referencing the embalming booth that he presided over.
Anubis kept order in his role as guardian and defender of the dead. It was said that he controlled a vast army of spirits, or messengers, who roamed the land, reporting violations of Egyptian burial customs. Anyone who vandalized a tomb would answer directly to Anubis, even the gods. According to one myth, the god Set (a god of war and chaos) tried to approach Osiris' body by disguising himself as a leopard but was caught by Anubis and branded dozens of times with a hot iron (which explains how the leopard got its spots). Anubis then flayed Set and wore his skin.
In Egyptian mythology, Anubis was a god of mummification and the afterlife. Represented as an anthropomorphized jackal, Anubis oversaw mummification, weighed souls, guided the dead into the afterlife, defended against chaos, and punished those who violated tombs. He was also one of the oldest and most important gods in Egyptian civilization, venerated by the time the first royal tombs were built in the First Dynasty. He would later become associated with Osiris, a newer god of the dead, which placed him at the right hand of one of Egypt's most powerful deities. He was a necessary good and an integral part of the cosmic order, maintaining the cycles of life, death, and afterlife.
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Back To CourseAncient Egypt Study Guide
9 chapters | 107 lessons
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