Anubis

Article | Updated 4 years ago

Article by Dr Moya Smith, Head of Department, Anthropology & Archaeology

Anubis is one of the most familiar gods of ancient Egypt. Painted  or carved on coffins and tomb walls, drawn on papyrus Books of the Afterlife, or created as a three dimensional figure in metal, faience, wood, clay, or stone, Anubis is either shown with a human body and the head of a jackal or as a jackal/dog often sitting on the top of a shrine.

When he is shown as a seated jackal/dog, Anubis often has a ribbon/sash tied around his neck. This looped red sash is a version of the sa sign, a word often translated as amulet, and it symbolised the protection of female deities. Not only Anubis wears this sash, it is also worn at the king’s waist and by gods and goddesses, again symbolising protective power.

A stone statue of Anubis staged against a black background

Statue of Anubis, Ptolemaic period, 305-30 BCE
© Trustees of the British Museum 

In some versions of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs Anubis assisted in the mummification and rebirth of the god Osiris. This responsibility for mummification and eventual rebirth is the same role Anubis fulfils for the human dead. As the god ‘who is in the embalming tent’ he oversees the process of mummification, and is often shown leaning over the mummified body. Anubis also supports the upright mummy near the tomb entrance in Opening of the Mouth ceremonies, where rituals ensure the justified dead will be able to breathe, speak and see again. Several cartonnage [linen and plaster] Anubis head masks have been found which may have been worn by priests during actual ceremonies at the time of burial.

According to spell 151 of the Book of the Dead, in the tomb chamber, a magic brick with an amulet of Anubis representing the god should be placed on the west wall, facing east to the mummy of the deceased. In this role, the seated jackal Anubis is protecting the dead from any aggressor. Larger figures of Anubis seated on a shrine have the same protective power.

In one of the final ‘acts’ in the voyage of the dead past obstacles on their journey to the Afterlife, Anubis can be the god who leads the dead to the Hall of Judgement and the god who assists in the Judgement itself. In the Judgement, Anubis ensures balance and scales are working correctly when the weight of the heart of the deceased cannot be heavier than the emblem of the goddess Ma’at if the deceased is not to be consigned to oblivion.

In Secrets of the Afterlife you can find Anubis on many objects including: the stela of Deniuenkhons, the four coffins, the papyrus of Nodjmet, two sheets from the papyrus of Nebseny, the papyrus of Padihorpare, and the statue.

A note of caution – there are other jackal headed gods – one of the four sons of Horus has a jackal head; as does the god Wapwawet. The ancient Egyptian who made the canopic jars in the exhibition, muddled up the representation of two of the sons of Horus – normally Duamutef would be shown with his jackal head, and Qebehsenuef with his falcon head. Here, the craftsmen has written Qebehsenuef on the body of the jar with a jackal head; and Duamutef on the jar with a falcon head!

A statue of Anubis guarding the entrance to a Casino

Anubis guarding the entrance to the Luxor casino at Vegas – you can find him everywhere!!
Image copyright WA Museum