The Greeks have Hades, the Vikings have Hel, and the Romans have Pluto—every culture across the globe has a god or goddess of the underworld. To the Egyptians, Anubis was that god and the Anubis symbol was always associated with death and what comes after. According to Egyptian mythology, Anubis preceded the ancient Egyptian god Osiris as the god of the underworld.
Origin of Anubis
The ancient Egyptian god Anubis was called “Inpu” or “Anpu.” These words are believed to have referred to the deterioration or decaying process a body goes through once it dies.
Anubis is believed to have originated with the Greeks, who later renamed the Egyptian god of the underworld as such. In ancient Egyptian religion, Anubis was the guardian and protector of the burial chambers, cemeteries, and tombs.
Throughout Egyptian culture, Anubis has always been associated with an unidentified canine or animal like a jackal, fox, or wolf.
There are a lot of theories surrounding the origin of the Egyptian god Anubis. One theory says that he was born to the domestic goddess Bastet, the cow goddess Hesat and the sun god Ra.
However, when the Osiris myth became popular in the Middle Kingdom, it was believed that Anubis was the illegitimate son of Osiris and Nephthys, the Egyptian goddess of darkness and death.
Like most gods in the past, Anubis has a female counterpart. Anput was the Egyptian goddess of purification and the exact opposite of Anubis. Anubis was believed to have a daughter, Qebhet, a serpent deity who assisted her father with various tasks in the underworld.
Anubis Symbols and Their Meanings
Like most Egyptian deities, Anubis had many roles to play. As such, he had multiple symbols associated with his awesome powers. Here are some of the most common Anubis symbols and what they mean.
Jackal or Jackal Head
Anubis is often symbolized by a jackal. It’s theorized that this is so because the actual animal is closely associated with the scavenging of the dead.
Anubis is also identified as the god of mummification and embalming. As such, the gauze often used to wrap the mummies during mummification is another Anubis symbol.
Crook and Flail
In ancient Egypt, the crook and flail were particularly important symbols of kingship and royalty. In fact, if you look at most ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, symbols, and drawings, you will see many deities depicted as holding either one or both of these things.
Many cultures closely associate dark colors or hues with the dead, and the Egyptians were no exception. In most ancient Egyptian paintings and art in general, you will find Anubis mostly represented in dark hues. This is by design.
It symbolizes the color that a corpse turns to after embalming. Anubis was also associated with the color black, which, coincidentally, was also closely associated with the Nile River.
When it came to the Nile River, the color black was used as an emblem of regeneration or rebirth as the river gave life to the land. Since Anubis was closely associated with the afterlife, this color became his too.
Anubis Symbolism in Ancient Egypt
As the god of the underworld, Anubis was widely regarded as the symbol of death in Egyptian mythology. His primary role was to safely guide the souls of the deceased into the underworld, where they would be judged.
Anubis was also a symbol of protection for his role of safeguarding the souls of the deceased from the vicious torments and scavengers that ravaged the path toward the underworld. This symbolism was reiterated when Anubis restored the body of Osiris after Set had dismembered it.
Anubis as the Protector of Graves and Tombs
Ancient Egyptians used to bury their dead in shallow graves. As a result, scavengers such as jackals would be seen digging up the ground to feast on the bodies of the dead.
To protect their dead from these animals, the ancient Egyptians would draw symbols of Anubis on the gravestones or the tombs. In these images, Anubis was portrayed as a dark-skinned man with a jackal head or the head of some scary-looking canine.
To enhance the protection of their dead from jackals and night scavengers, the ancient Egyptians would also evoke the name of Anubis in epithets.
Anubis’s Crucial Roles in the Underworld
In the Old Kingdom, Anubis was a highly regarded god of death and the afterlife. As Egypt progressed into the Middle Kingdom, he was gradually replaced as the primary god of death by Osiris.
Anubis essentially became an assistant to Osiris, with his main duties being to guide the souls of the dead into the underworld. Anubis was also tasked with assisting Thoth in judging the dead.
This ceremony specifically happened in the underworld. It mainly consisted of the heart of the dead being weighed against the feather of truth or Ma’at’s feather of truth. This would determine who was worthy of getting into heaven.
Anubis and Mummification
As the god of death, Anubis was closely associated with embalming and mummification. In ancient Egyptian culture, the mummification ritual was first applied to Osiris, the first Egyptian King to undergo the process to protect his body even in death.
Myth has it that Anubis helped Isis embalm and mummify the body of Osiris. As a reward for his excellent service, Isis rewarded him with the organs of the dead king.
The Osiris Myth
The “Osiris Myth” intertwined the fates of Anubis and Osiris inextricably. According to ancient Egyptian mythology, Anubis, after assisting Isis in mummifying and embalming Osiris’s body, was tasked with protecting it as the soul made its way through the underworld.
The story goes that on one occasion, Anubis saw the Egyptian god Set appear underground as a leopard. Set was intent on dismembering Osiris’ body, but Anubis thwarted these plans. In the scuffle, Anubis wounded Set using a hot iron rod.
Anubis even flays Set’s body and takes his leopard skin from him. Anubis would go on to wear this leopard skin as a warning to any other gods or goddesses who would want to try to disturb the dead for whatever reason.
Perhaps influenced by this epic tale, ancient Egyptian priests wore leopard skins when performing rituals over the dead. There is also a theory that the leopard got its spot due to the injuries Anubis inflicted on Set.
How Was Anubis Represented in Ancient Egypt?
Because everyone dies, Anubis was a popular, albeit feared, god in ancient Egypt. In Egyptian art, he was often portrayed as doing tasks such as using the scale to weigh a person’s heart against Ma’at’s feather, or the truth, or working over a mummy. These drawings were often depicted on tombs and caskets.
Anubis was often depicted with a man’s body and a jackal’s head. He was sometimes depicted as sitting on top of a tomb, protecting the dead. In the famous “Book of the Dead,” a highly sought-after Egyptian funerary text, Egyptian priests affiliated with Anubis are often depicted as holding onto an upright mummy while wearing wolf masks.
While Anubis was the beloved god of death in ancient Egypt, in pop culture, he is often depicted as a villain even though he serves a crucial role and is part of a process we all must go through—death.
For those who fully understand the myth, Anubis and Anubis symbols are welcome. He is the guardian of the dead and guides the souls of the dead through the treacherous underworld. The fact that he is part of the judgment process makes him even more beloved by his believers.