One of the most iconic and oldest gods of the ancient Egypt, Anubis was the god of death, mummification, embalming, the afterlife, cemeteries, tombs and the Underworld. However, Anubis is the Greek form of Egyptian Anpu or Inpu, which meant ‘to decay’, signifying his association with death. Apart from ‘First of the Westerners’, he was described as the ‘Lord of Necropolis’, who lives upon his secret mountain, where wild dogs and jackals would assemble.
He was also known as the ‘The Dog who Swallows Millions’, ‘Ruler of the Nine Bows’, ‘Master of Secrets’ and ‘He Who Is in the Place of Embalming’, indicating his role in the mummification process. In other words, Anubis, described as a black canine or a muscular man with the head of a black jackal, was the ancient Egyptian god of the dead and said to oversee every aspect of the process of dying. He facilitated mummification, protected the graves of the dead, and used to decide whether a particular soul should be granted eternal life or not.
In early mythology, Anubis was portrayed as a son of Ra, the ancient Egyptian deity of the Sun and his wife, Hesat or Hathor. Another tradition depicted him as either the son of the cow goddess Hesat or the cat-headed Bastet. However, after his assimilation into the Osiris myth, Anubis was described as the illegitimate son of Osiris and his sister-in-law Nephthys, who was ultimately adopted by Osiris's wife Isis, as her mother abandoned him immediately after his birth.
According to this story, Nephthys was the sister of Isis and married to Set. However, as she was attracted by the physical beauty of Osiris, the husband of her sister, she transformed herself to appear to him as Isis, his wife. Osiris slept with the transformed Nephthys and she became pregnant with Anubis. However, she abandoned her child shortly after his birth, as she was scared that the affair would be discovered by Set. Nevertheless, Isis came to know about the affair, found out the abandoned child and adopted him as her own.
Anubis was depicted in the legends as a black canine, a jackal-dog hybrid with pointed ears, or as a muscular man with the head of a jackal. The black colour symbolized the decay of the body as well as the fertile soil of the Nile River Valley, which represented regeneration and life. The powerful black canine was supposed to be the protector of the dead, who made sure they received their due rights in burial and stood by them in the afterlife to assist their resurrection.
The ancient people of Egypt believed that Anubis decides the fate of the dead, while conducting the process of weighing the heart of the dead against the feather of truth, representing the goddess Maat. The heart of a bad person would be heavy with evil and he or she would be eaten by Ammit, the Devourer. However, the heart of a good person would be light and Anubis would take him or her to a heavenly existence.
The ancient people of Egypt believed that the preservation of the body and the use of scented herbs and plants would help the deceased, because Anubis would sniff the mummy and only allow the virtuous to move on to paradise. During the process of mummification, the Egyptian priests used to wear Anubis masks, though it is not clear whether the Anubis mask was an original ritual or added later influenced by the Osirian myth.
Originally Anubis was a god of the underworld and later he became associated specifically with the embalming process and funeral rites. As he was the protector of the tombs, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were often sealed with an image of Anubis, who subdued the ‘nine bows; or the enemies of Egypt as the ‘Jackal Ruler of the Bows’ and it was thought that the god would protect the burial physically and spiritually. His presence is very much conspicuous in artwork throughout the history of Egypt, but his role is minimal in myths. His major cult centre was in Upper Egypt, located in Asyut or Lycopolis and Hardai or Cynopolis, which was known as ‘the city of the dog’. However, the archaeologists are yet to unearth any monumental temple dedicated to Anubis.