Anubis – Origin Story, Powers, Symbols & Meanings
For thousands of years, ancient Egyptians worshiped the jackal-headed god known as Anubis. Originally Anubis was venerated as the god of the dead. After helping Isis restore Osiris’ body to full health, Osiris was given the honorary title of God of the dead. Therefore, Anubis’ role became centered on embalming, mummification, and funeral rites.
An objective and unbiased god, Anubis stands guard at the gates of the underworld and guides the souls of the dead as they proceed to be judged by a panel of gods. According to some ancient Egyptian myths – especially ones from the Old Kingdom period – Anubis is as old as time itself. He had a pronounced role in the Egyptian Pantheon due to his ability to serve as the bridge between life and death.
Who really was Anubis? How has his origin story and depictions changed over the centuries? The article below goes beyond surface-level myths and explores the origin story, powers, symbols, and meaning of Anubis, the Egyptian god of embalming and funerals.
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Anubis Origin Story
There are basically two origin stories of Anubis. The first, and less popular, account of Anubis’ birth states that Anubis was the son of Ra (also called Ammon-Ra, the Sun god) himself. In this story, Anubis’ mother is the goddess Hesat, a cow deity revered for providing the world with milk.
Ancient Egyptians believed that since the beginning of time, Anubis was tasked with the responsibility of helping lost souls to get to their rightful destination in the underworld. Prior to Anubis, the ancient Egyptians in the Pre-dynastic (before 3100 B.C.E) and Old Kingdom (c. 2686 – c. 2134 B.C.E) eras worshiped a jackal-headed god called Wepwawet (Upuaut). In the eyes of the ancient Egyptians, this version of Anubis had always been an ever-present god in the afterlife. He had a huge cult following with very respectable priests across ancient Egypt.
The second origin story, arguably the more popular and more recent, can be traced to the second generation of gods and goddesses during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (c. 21 BCE – 17 BCE). In this account, Anubis’ parents are the god Osiris and the goddess Nephthys. It begins when Nephthys plays a deceitful game on Osiris by posing as his wife/sister, the goddess Isis. The result of this deceit produces a child who would later become Anubis. After the birth of Anubis, Isis pardons her sister Nephthys and decides to raise Anubis as her own child.
Anubis Meaning and Epithet
The word “Anubis” is actually a Greek word. The Egyptian word for “Anubis” is “Anpu” or “Inpu”. In ancient Egypt, the word “Anpu” meant “deterioration and death”. It is also signified darkness and black, and mystery.
Anubis was reputed as the Lord of the Necropolis (a site that housed the dead – cemetery). Hence he was venerated as the “Lord of the Sacred Land” (“nub-tA-djser”). In the eyes of many, the sacred land referred to a place that someone went and never came back – almost similar to the land of the dead.
Only Anubis knew what happened after death. Therefore, he was the one that instructed the ancient Egyptians on how they should embalm and bury their dead in order to secure safe passage into the afterlife. This was seen in the ancient Egyptian book, “the Book of the Dead”.
As a result of the tremendous role he played in the afterlife, he earned additional titles such as: “He who is in the place of embalming” and “Master of Secrets”.
How Anubis came to the rescue of Osiris
Osiris was the favorite and most respected god of the ancient Egyptians. Often to the chagrin and envy of his brother, Set (Seth), the Egyptians worshiped Osiris because he blessed them with bountiful harvests. Everything positive was associated with Osiris. The Egyptians proclaimed Osiris patron god of ancient Egypt. He was also considered the first pharaoh of Egypt.
On the other hand, Set was seen as the evil desert god, someone who lived in the red hot desert regions of the kingdom. He was feared by the Egyptians because he was always out to destroy and cause chaos. Storms and famines were often attributed to Set.
Out of sheer jealousy and anger, Set carried out a palace coup and forced Osiris off his throne. Set killed his brother Osiris and cut his body into several pieces before scattering the pieces into the Nile.
Distraught and sad, Osiris’s wife Isis solicited the help of Anubis to put Osiris together. Anubis successfully restored Osiris’ body. Subsequently, Isis uttered a series of incantations and brought Osiris back to life. However, Osiris remained in the underworld as lord of the dead.
Egyptian mythology states that Osiris went beyond death and entered into paradise. As a result of Osiris’ triumph over the death, the sun god Ra – king of the gods – elevated Osiris to the position of Lord of the Underworld/Afterlife.
With Osiris fully restored and serving as the lord of the underworld, Anubis could now focus on embalming, funeral rites, and the protection of tombs or cemeteries. Anubis was also tasked with guiding dead souls towards the path of Osiris. Prior to their encounter with Osiris, the dead would have to be judged by a panel of underworld judges.
Anubis Introduces Mummification to the Ancient Egyptians
What Anubis did during the restoration process was considered the first mummification ever to be done in Egypt. As a result of his mummification and funeral rites ceremonies, Osiris was able to go through the underworld without any difficulty.
It is believed that had Anubis not mummified Osiris’ body, Osiris would have vanished into non-existence. As a result of this, ancient Egyptians always made it a point to mummify their dead, else the deceased struggled to gain entry into the afterlife.
When did Anubis lose his title of “God of the Dead”
For a long time, ancient Egypt revered Anubis as the god of the dead. However, the story says that after Anubis restored Osiris, Osiris was crowned lord of the dead. This change occurred around the Middle Kingdom Era (21 BCE to 17 BCE). Anubis dutifully accepted these changes. This even allowed him to focus on his other duties as the god of embalming, funerals, and cemeteries.
Why did Priests of Anubis wear leopard skins?
Set, realizing the good work Anubis had done to restore Osiris, turned himself into a panther and tried to attack Osiris’ body. Anubis stood his ground and protected Osiris’ body. Set fled the scene with his tail between his legs. But before Set could flee, Anubis scarred the panther, thereby creating the spots we see on the leopard’s skin. Ever since then, priests in charge of burials and mummification in ancient Egypt took to wearing a leopard skin whenever they carried out the funeral rites.
The Importance of Anubis in Ancient Egypt
Due to the inevitability of death, Anubis was somewhat feared by the living. The fear was more or less borne out of people dreading dying. Anubis was not considered an evil god. Simply put, a meeting with Anubis meant that one was dead. As a result of this, ancient Egyptians composed several prayer offerings to Anubis. They prayed to Anubis to safely guide them in the underworld so as to gain entrance into paradise.
The ancient Egyptians revered Anubis because he protected Osiris’ body from the vicious attacks of the god Set. As a result, Egyptians came to worship Anubis as the protector of tombs from unclean spirits and stray animals. For example, it was not uncommon for the desert or wild animals, say wild dogs and jackals, to dig up shallow dug graves and feast on the bodies of the dead.
Also, Anubis was called upon to fend off grave/tomb robbers who went about desecrating the tombs of their deceased ones. Sculptures, magical incantations and paintings of Anubis were placed in the tomb to guard against persons engaged necrophilia.
Why does Anubis have a jackal-like head?
Because it was not uncommon for graves and tombs to come under attacks from stray animals, particularly with shallow dug graves, the Egyptians believed that by offering peace offerings to these jackals the corpses of their loved ones would be spared. As a result of this association, ancient Egyptians naturally came to see Anubis with the head that looks like the head of a dog or a jackal.
They also believed that by inscribing/carving curses into the walls of the tombs, grave robbers would get scared off and not pillage the tombs. It was believed that Anubis, “the Curse Enforcer”, meted out dire punishments to those miscreants.
Why is Anubis dark-skinned?
Anubis automatically got associated with decay and rot because he was the god of death, embalming, and funeral. In other words, ancient Egyptians would probably have seen him and his underworld as a place devoid of light, that is, pitch black and darkness.
Additionally, because the bodies of the dead turned black as they decomposed, it was only natural that the god of embalming be painted black in artworks.
Another explanation of Anubis’ dark skin comes from the Nile River. The black sediments from the Nile were gold to the Egyptians. Without those rich nutrients that overflew the river’s banks, nothing downstream would have grown. With that said, the color black was not always associated with something evil or negative. Rather, the color black symbolized riches, fertility and prosperity – almost similar to where the good souls go to spend eternity.
The color black also symbolized something that is unknown and mysterious, that is, death and the afterlife.
Anubis Places of Worship
Archaeologists believe that Cynopolis (Kynopolis) was the most preferred place to worship and offer sacrifices to Anubis. Kynopolis was located in Upper Egypt. The Greeks called it “the Dog City”.
While conducting the rituals and embalming ceremonies, priests of Anubis wore wooden masks in the shape of the head of a jackal.
Without a shred of doubt, having Anubis on your deceased relative’s side meant that he or she could get the needed support in order to navigate into the afterlife. Therefore, Anubis shrines were installed in several famous temples and tombs in Egypt. This was evident in Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, discovered on November 4, 1922.
The jackal god was an ever-present figure at the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri. Other major Anubis worship centers were Asyut (Lycopolis) and Hardai.
How did the ancient Egyptians pray to Anubis?
Everything pertaining to death, Anubis had his hands in it one way or the other. For a typical ancient Egyptian, a prayer to Anubis might have looked something like this:
Depictions and Symbols of the god Anubis
Typically, Anubis is depicted as a well-built god with the body of a man and a jackal’s head. Like many ancient Egyptian gods and deities, it was absolutely imperative that they painted and sculpted Anubis in a superhuman manner, hence his strong physique. Without this, how else could he have protected the graves and tombs from tomb robbers or evil spirits?
Another very important point about Anubis is that he is depicted either crouching or standing in an upright manner. In his hands would be the golden scale and the ankh — a symbol of life.
The golden scale was used to weigh the dead person’s heart against Ma’at’s feather. The feather of Ma’at belonged to Ma’at, the goddess of balance, law, and order. She was considered the deity of everything that is true and just.
Anubis and Qebehsenuef
It’s worth noting that Anubis wasn’t the only jackal deity. Qebehsenuef, one of the Four Sons of Horus, was also represented as a mummified jackal and was believed to protect the intestines of the deceased.
We know this because canopic jars with Qebehsenuef’s image have been discovered in many burial sites.
Temples and archeological sites linked to Anubis
While Anubis was an important deity in the Egyptian pantheon, he did not have as many grand temples dedicated solely to him as some other gods did, like Osiris or Ra.
- Cenotaph of Anubis at Anubeion: Near Saqqara, there was a region known as the Anubeion, where a cenotaph dedicated to Anubis was located. The site was primarily associated with the god and the mummification process.
- Tombs and Burials: He figures prominently in many burial sites throughout Egypt. He was often depicted on tomb walls, guiding and protecting the deceased. Numerous tomb paintings, reliefs, and papyri show Anubis attending to the mummified bodies or leading souls in the afterlife.
- Osireion at Abydos: While this temple is primarily dedicated to Osiris, there are references and iconography related to Anubis. The association between Anubis and Osiris in funerary practices made it common for the two deities to be referenced together in burial contexts.
Major Anubis Facts
Below, we have put together 18 key facts about Anubis:
- Thoth (the moon god and all-knowing god) and his wife, the goddess Ma’at, were ever-present figures when Anubis weighed the hearts of the dead against Ma’at’s feather. Thoth was responsible for keeping the records of the verdict/judgement.
- To this day, colossal temples in honor of Anubis have yet to be discovered. However, historians and archaeologists have unearthed Anubis shrines in tombs of prominent Egyptian kings and queens.
- The ancient Egyptians offered some parts of the body of the deceased to Anubis to sort of pacify him. It is believed that during the embalming process of Osiris, Anubis kept to himself some vital organs of Osiris.
- The Egyptians considered Anubis the patron of lost souls. This role included protecting orphans.
- The word “Anpu” in ancient Egypt also meant “royal child”. This is somehow related to the word “inpu”, which means “deterioration” or “decay”.
- Anubis and Osiris were closely associated with each other for millennia. Anubis was seen as the right-hand man of Osiris, “the Lord of the Afterlife”.
- As god of cemeteries and embalming, he also played a crucial role by serving as the link between the underworld and paradise (Osiris’ home).
- Guilt-stricken after her horrible deceit, Nephthys abandoned the baby Anubis and leaves him in the care of her sister, the goddess Isis. Some mythologists believe that Nephthys did this because she was afraid of incurring the wrath of the god Set, her husband.
- Eventually Set found out about his wife Nephthys’ infidelity. The god of chaos rumbled and set out to destroy Osiris. That’s probably how come Set ended up killing his own brother Osiris. Well, the other reason was that he was jealous of Osiris’ rule in Egypt.
- After Osiris’ resurrection by Anubis and Isis, Anubis sort of became the right-hand man of Osiris. He always stood to defend Osiris in all his endeavors. Together, Osiris and Anubis ruled the underworld based on just laws and principles of Ma’at, the goddess of law and order.
- In ancient Egypt, the best god to call on to protect the tombs of your deceased ones was undoubtedly Anubis. Incantations and curses were placed in and around the tombs to ward off evil spirits and grave robbers. Due to this, Anubis came to be known as the “Enforcer of Curses”.
- Anubis always remained focused on carrying out his duty as the Lord Protector of the dead. He rarely got involved in the day-to-day activities of the ancient Egyptians. As a result of this, he did not feature very often in ancient Egyptian heroic stories or battles among the gods.
- Priests who were responsible for the mummification process dressed up in costumes similar to that of Anubis. They wore a jackal mask and often had leopard skin painted on their bodies.
- He was one of the first Egyptian gods to be painted and sculpted into the walls of the tombs of ancient Egypt.
- Anubis’ face is actually a mix of a dog’s face and the face of a jackal. Many archaeologists claim that his head is similar to the African golden wolf (i.e. a member of the Egyptian canid).
- Both ancient Egyptians and Greeks often housed their dead in a place called the Necropolis, the City of the Dead. Typically, these cities would be found on the outskirts of town. In Egypt for example, the city was across the Nile River.
- Here are some examples of Anubis’ famous appellations: “Lord of the Sacred Land” (“nub-tA-djser); “Foremost of the Westerners”; “He who is in the place of embalming” (“Imy-ut”); “He Who is upon His Mountain”; and “the conductor of Souls”.
- The Graeco-Roman rulers of Egypt merged the Greek God Hermes and Anubis to form Hermanubis, the lord and protector of cemeteries. The reason for this merger was because they saw some sort of similarities between Anubis and Hermes. Hermes even had a rod that could put people to sleep and wake them from the dead. Also, as messenger of the gods, Hermes had the ability to move between the worlds of the living and the dead – a feat primarily the preserve of Anubis.