The gods of Egypt are amongst the most ancient deities known, and among these Anubis may well be the oldest. Archaeologists have found mention of Anubis from the earliest predynastic period of Egyptian history, more than 5000 years ago.
To the ancient Egyptians, the whole world followed the model of the valley where they lived; dominated by the sun and the Nile, both capable of bringing life as well as death. Their world was very orderly. The waters flowed from North to South, while the sun rose in the East and set in the West. Each year the Nile water would burst its banks, flow out across the fields and then recede, leaving behind fertilized land. Life, for the ancient Egyptians, had a definite rhythm which they enshrined in mythology.
There were many other gods who in turn took many forms and had many names. Each district and settlement had its own gods and myths, however some gods was common to all areas of the country and as a result these are the best known today, namely Osiris, Isis, Anubis, Bes, Ma’at, Khum, Seth, Hathor, Bastet,Thoth, Sobek, Amun Ra, Mut and Khonsu.
It is likely that Anubis was a primary deity of the very earliest Egyptians, he was certainly the chief god of the 17th Upper Egyptian nome, a city the Greeks called ‘Cynopolis’ or City of the Dogs. His general role changed with the growth of the cult of Osiris. Myth said that Anubis was a son of Osiris, not by Isis his wife, but by Nepthys (who had disguised herself as Isis) Worried about her own husbands anger at her giving birth, Nepthys then asked Isis to become Anubis’ foster mother.
In modern times Anubis is known primarily as the ‘God of the Dead’ but this has connotations which are quite missing from his role in Egyptian religion. The afterlife was very real to the Ancient Egyptians and they spent a great deal of their lives preparing for it, believing that when they died they would travel to Duat, the underworld, to be judged. The journey was understood to be difficult, so many spells and incantations were required to help them find their way.
These were written in the ‘Book of Coming Forth by Day’, often known as the ‘Book of the Dead’ which was placed inside the coffin. Around seventeen feet long the books of the wealthy would contain their personal choice of spells and decoration, while those less well off would buy one ‘off the peg’ and simply fill in the name of the deceased. It is clear from the many such books that have survived, that Anubis was not, therefore to be dreaded or feared, he was rather the friend of the dead; as ‘he who is upon his mountain’ Anubis was a protector, not only of the dead, but also of their resting places. This may be the major reason for his therianthropic representation, as a man with the head of a jackal; jackals were always to be found in or around a necropolis.
Anubis is always shown colored black as that is color of a body once it has been embalmed. His zoomorphic form is apparently that of a jackal, though some scholars argue that it is actually a jackal/dog hybrid. Howard Carter, describing possibly the most well known Anubis statue of all, the Anubis statue from the tomb of Tutankhamen, mentions dog like ears and pointed muzzle, but the low slung tail of a jackal.
A Basenji, the dog breed which bears the closest resemblance to an Anubis statue, has a distinctive curly tail. Whether this is a deliberately ambiguous depiction to be found in every Egyptian statue of Anubis is yet to be discovered.
While the ancient Egyptians had a strong belief in the existence of a soul or spirit, they were equally sure that both body and spirit were required in order to enjoy the afterlife; it was this belief which lead them to the invention of ever more complex techniques of mummification to preserve the body and to the construction of tombs to house it.
It was the role of Anubis to guard the body and protect it throughout the mummification procedure when he would preside over the embalming of the body and the ‘opening of the way’, the ceremony where the deceased became able to speak and eat again in preparation for the afterlife. For this reason an Anubis statue, more-so than any other Egyptian statue, was usually found in every tomb.
Anubis final, and perhaps most important role was to guide the deceased through the underworld to the Hall of Two Truths where he (always shown as a heart) could be judged. The belief was was that every person (including Pharaoh) would be required to weigh his soul against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of justice. As guardian of the dead Anubis checked that the scale was exactly horizontal before the judgement began. If the soul was too heavy it was Anubis job to give the deceased to Ammit, a dreaded demon who would destroy the deceased for ever, but if the judgement was favorable the deceased was viewed has having lead an upright and honest life and was welcomed by Osiris to the afterlife.
Whether as a jackal or a jackal headed man, an Anubis statue was part of every Egyptian home, reassuring the occupants that even in death they would have a fair and just guardian and protector to guide the way to immortality.