Anpu/Anubis: Psychopomp and Guardian of the Dead
In Greek he is known as Anubis and in the original Egyptian, Anpu, but it has been by the Greek designation the Egyptian god of the afterlife is known. The meaning of his Egyptian name is uncertain (van Voss 403). Depicted generally as a resting black canid, most likely a jackal, or as a jackal-headed man, Anubis is “one of the oldest funerary deities” and featured prominently throughout Egyptian literature of the afterlife (van Voss 403).
Anubis may be best understood by his many epithets, such as Khenty-Imentiu, ‘foremost of the westerners’ indicating his leadership over Egyptian cemeteries, Neb-Ta-Djese, or ‘Lord of the sacred land’, and Tepy-Dju-Ef meaning ‘who is upon his mountain’ (Hart 26). These titles emphasize Anubis’ role as guardian of the buried dead. Anubis Imy-Ut, declares his role in mummification, as ‘he who is in the place of embalming’ (Hart 26).
Religious scholar David White notes that “The domestication of the dog has been recently placed tens of thousands of years earlier than any other animal sharing the human races evolutionary journey,” it would seem reasonable that the earliest guardian of the human enterprise in life would become a guardian of the human dead (2392). White also observes that there were two canine gods of the afterlife in Egypt, “… jackal- or dog-headed Anubis of Cynopolis was considered to be the “opener” of the northern paths of the dead, which the wolf-god Up-uaut or Ap-heru of Lycopolis opened the southern paths” (2393). Egyptologist Jan Assmann does not mention the southern wolf but instead compares the Anubis jackal with the Thoth baboon and their connection to the journey of sun-god, Re:
"The jackal was the animal of the western desert in the Egyptian picture of the world, just as the baboon belonged to the eastern desert. The “bas of the east,” the baboons, greeted the sun god at his rising, and in like manner, jackals towed the solar barque through the netherworld as the “bas of the west.” The jackal stood for the realm of the dead, which the sun good entered in the evening" (82).
One of Anubis’ roles is that of psychopomp and mediator of judgment in the Egyptian afterlife. This can be seen as an echo of the dog’s herding function in human culture, Anubis herds the soul to the judgment chamber with its assessors and Ma’at’s weighing pans. In their guarding function, dogs occupy the space between the domesticated human world and the outside wild. Here, Anubis occupies the space between the living and the dead and safely guides the newly deceased to the otherworld. As Assman also observes about Anubis, “he was the god of the transitional zone between the world above and the netherworld; this zone was called the ‘holy land’ in Egyptian, and Anubis was its designated lord.” Functioning as psychopomp, Anubis occupies the same space as Hermes “the primordial mediator and messenger, who, in Karl Kerenyi’s words, always stands in ‘a middle between being and non-being,” who is “at home while wandering, at home on the road itself” (Avens 78). Anubis also wanders roads, but in a much more restricted way than Hermes, mostly limited to the pathways between the deceased’s dwelling and tomb, from the deceased’s tomb to the afterlife place of judgment, and from tomb to a place of watchfulness over the physical lands of the dead, the cemeteries.
Classical historian Attilio Mastrocinque describes how Anubis was conflated with
Hermes in late antiquity:
"In Egypt Hermes was identified with Thoth, the god of wisdom and the scribe of the gods. Later in imperial times, a new god, Hermanubis, was created in order to identify Hermes with Anubis, who prepared the dead for their travel to the netherworld. Like Hermes, both Thoth and Hermanubis hold a herald's staff" (3938).
Egyptologist M. Heerma van Voss observes that Anubis was originally a ‘destroyer of corpses’ who transitions into an afterlife guide and the “embalmer of gods and men” (403). If the eating of corpses can be seen as a form of communion or sacred meal in pre-dynastic Egypt (Odajnyk, unpublished lecture), and if Anubis’ role originally came from this concept, then that consumption must contribute to the immortality of the deceased. And in a sense, such a sacred meal is a form of immortality as the deceased flesh became part of the animal that ate it. That literal in-cor-poration (from the Latin in + corpus meaning ‘into + body’), is a way to ensure that Anubis has the deceased’s soul for transport; he delivers the deceased’s heart to the Hall of Two Ma’ats for judgment. As van Voss put it, “Anubis tended not only the physical well-being of the dead but their moral nature as well. He played a prominent role in the judgment hall of the hereafter (403-404). Because Anubis operates Ma’at’s scale in the ‘weighing of the heart’ ceremony, he acts as an engineer or scientist, making the actual weight measurement for the goddess.
We see the Egyptians’ need for their physical body in the afterlife in the elaborate mummification procedures and tomb building. And during this period, Anubis evolves further into guardian, psychopomp, embalmer, and participant in final judgment. He becomes the embalmer, not just of human beings, but of the gods. In the Osiris cycle, Anubis is the god’s embalmer and from then on is usually depicted carrying Osiris’ flail. And Anubis may be the only member of the Egyptian pantheon that has a specific skill, which is reminiscent of only one Olympian god having skills and knowing a trade, Hephaestus, who was known as a smith and a skilled craftsman. Anubis is a mortician as well as a psychopomp. Jan Assmann notes:
"The god Anubis, for example, had a very specific function; one that is more unequivocally expressed than is the case with most of the other deities of the Egyptian pantheon. He is (like Osiris) a god of the dead and of the necropolis, though unlike Osiris, he was not the ruler of the dead, but rather the patron of embalmers, mummifiers, and mortuary priests. In contrast to the lunar intellectuality of Thoth, the solar-based royal rule of Re, the chthonic creativity of Ptah, or the celestial charm of Hathor, this specific complex of activities, qualities, and competencies is not easy to relate to the cosmic dimension. Anubis’s specific activities contributed to the success of reality – and in a most important way, considering the central role of the funeral in ancient Egypt – but these activities did not manifest themselves in nature" (81).
Anubis’ role as patron of funerary activities made him the lord over the transition of life to death, that most important of boundaries for the Egyptians. In his cosmic dimension as a jackal that stood at the beginning of the sun’s underworld journey, Anubis is a force of nature that embodies that transition (Assmann 82).
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