Anubis (Anoup, Hermanubis)

Category: Gods > Chthonic Gods

“To Hermanubis, the great god, who listens and is gracious!” (Kayser, Inscriptions d’ Alexandrei impériale 66)

(fig. 1) Statue of Anubis in the shape of a jackal (Wikimedia Commons)

1 A Greek hymn to Anubis

(Ed. E. Cougny, Epigrammatum anthologia Palatina cum Planudeis et appendice nova.)

King of all the celestials, be greeted, unwaning Anubis!¹
Your father is gold-crowned, much-reverend Osiris,
Zeus Kronides himself, great and mighty Ammon himself,
The monarch of the immortals, who is honored as Sarapis;²
And your mother is the blessed goddess, Isis of many names,³
To whom Ouranos Euphronides gave birth⁴ on the marble waves of the Sea,⁵
And whom Erebus reared as a light for all mortals,⁶
The most august of the blessed, who carries the scepter in Olympus,
The divine queen also of all the Earth and the Sea,
All-seeing one, unearther of great boons for mortals.
[Here the text breaks off.]

1: The ‘celestials’ (ouránioi) are the gods. That Anubis is called ‘king of the gods’ is an expression of devotion or praise, not a contradiction of the idea that, strictly, Zeus / Ammon is king of the gods.
2: Sarapis’ identity with Osiris is often affirmed by ancient sources, as is that of Zeus and Ammon. One reason for the further identification of Osiris–Sarapis and Zeus Ammon may be that Osiris is the son of Kronos (= eg. Kēb) in Egyptian tradition, as Zeus is in Greek mythology.
3: That Isis and Osiris are the parents of Anubis is not a very ancient idea, but parallels can be found in the Roman period. In Plutarch, Anubis is born of Isis’ sister Nephthys, but then adopted by Isis.
4: Euphronides, ‘son of the gracious one (Euphrone)’, is a poetic expression for ‘son of the goddess Night’, as Heaven (Ouranos) is her son in some Orphic cosmogonies. Whether our poet is aware of this meaning or simply using the word as a literary byname, the genealogy is Egyptian more than Greek, as Heaven is functioning as the mother of Isis (despite Ouranos being grammatically masculine).
5: I have not yet found an explanation for Isis being born upon the Sea (pontos).
6: If Erebus represents an Egyptian deity, I do not know which.

Greek text
Οὐρανίων πάντων βασιλεῦ, χαῖρ‘, ἄφθιτ‘ Ἄνουβι,
σός τε πατὴρ χρυσοστέφανος πολύσεμνος Ὄσιρις,
αὐτὸς ζεὺς Κρονίδης, αὐτὸς μέγας ὄβριμος Ἄμμων,
κοίρανος ἀθανάτων, προτετίμηται δὲ Σάραπις,
σὴ δὲ μάκαιρα θεὰ μήτηρ, πολυώνυμος Ἶσις,
ἣν τέκεν Οὐρανὸς εὐφρονίδης ἐνὶ κύμασι πόντου
μαρμαρέοις, θρέψεν δ‘ Ἔρεβος φῶς πᾶσι βροτοῖσι,
πρεσβίστην μακάρων ἐν Ὀλύμπῳ σκῆπτρον ἔχουσαν,
καὶ γαίης πάσης καὶ πόντου δῖαν ἄνασσαν
πανδερκῆ· μεγάλων [ἀγα]θῶν [σκ]άπτειρα βροτοῖσι
[Here the text breaks off.]

2 Anubis’ name and basic iconography

Anubis (Ánoubis) is the Greek adaptation of the Coptic name Anoub (Ⲁⲛⲟⲩⲃ, Bohairic) or Anoup (Ⲁⲛⲟⲩⲡ, Sahidic). In the indigenous Egyptian scripts, which only represent the consonants, it is spelled as ynpw,* reflecting an early pronunciation Yanāpaw (→ ˀAnāpəˀ → ˀAnōp). As with other Egyptian theonyms, the Greek form was borrowed into Latin, whence it was taken over into English.

(*This spelling is conventionally vocalized as Anpu, Inpu or Inepu by Egyptologists, but those are not historical pronunciations.)

In Greek, Anubis’ name is also expanded to Hermanubis (=Hermes–Anubis).

The god is usually represented either as a jackal or a jackal-headed man – or to use the less precise ancient Greek terminology, a dog-headed man.

In the image to the right, Anubis is holding two generic Egyptian attributes of the gods, the ankh ☥ (meaning ‘life’), and a scepter.

(fig. 2) Anthropomorphic Anubis with jackal head (Wikimedia Commons)

3 A “foreign” god?

It is often claimed that “the Greeks” or “the Romans” were hostile to Egyptian religion and its animal-shaped images of the gods. But that idea comes largely from certain vocal Greeks and Romans disapproving of other Greeks and Romans who wholeheartedly embraced the imagery and practices of Egyptian religion.

Above all, people across the Mediterranean worshipped Isis and Sarapis (or Osiris), and with them, other Egyptian gods who were in their train, chiefly including the dog-headed Anubis and Harpocrates. Indeed, the vast majority of the many Greek inscriptions mentioning Anubis are dedications to these three or four gods, Sarapis, Isis, Anubis (e.g., Inscriptiones Graecae X,2 1 78), and also Harpocrates (e.g., Inscriptions de Délos 2055). Such inscriptions sometimes explictly state that these gods were worshipped in the same temple (e.g., Inscriptiones Graecae XII.7 255) or even on the same altar (e.g., Inscriptions de Délos 2146).

We learn a little more about the specific character of Anubis from a dedicatory inscription of a different kind, which is “to Plouton and Kore, Demeter, Hermes, Anubis” (or “Hermes–Anubis”? Inscriptiones Graecae XI,4 1235). So, while Anubis is in the first instance an Egyptian god worshipped with Isis and Sarapis, he is also a god of the underworld commensurable with Greek chthonic gods.

But we should also mention an example of incommensurability. The Roman poet Vergil, for instance, opposes “the monstrous gods (composed) of all species and barking Anubis” to the Greco-Roman “Neptune, Venus and Minerva” (Aeneid 8.698–700) in an allegorical description of the battle of Actium, where the future emperor Augustus had contended against the forces of Mark Anthony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Since Vergil’s Aeneid was the quintessential work of the Latin canon in antiquity, we might expect this attitude to have remained entrenched in Roman culture, but that is not so.

Servius explains the passage as follows: “He called them ‘monstrous’ because under Augustus, the Romans had not yet received the Egyptian rites. And ‘barking Anubis’, because they depict him with a canine head. They believe that he is Mercury, since nothing is more intelligent than a dog” (and Mercury is the rational god par excellence). For this Roman commentator, what needed explanation in Vergil were less the “foreign” gods than the poet’s hostility to them!

4 Interpreting Anubis

So far, we have seen that Anubis is Egyptian; related to Isis and to her spouse (Osiris = Sarapis) in worship; dog-headed in his iconography; associated with the underworld; and sometimes identified with Hermes / Mercury. Happily, there is more information about each of these points and the connections between them in Greek and Latin writers – not to mention the abundant Egyptian sources, which I may explore in future additions to this page (gods willing).

Anubis’ Egyptian character

One of the earliest references to Anubis in Greek literature is found in Plato, Gorgias 482b, where Socrates swears an oath “by the dog, the god of the Egyptians”. The oath “by the dog” recurs frequently across the Platonic dialogues, and likely always refers to the worship of dogs that was practiced in the Cynopolite nome of Egypt.

Specifically, this was done in “Cynonpolis (gr. ‘city of dogs’), where Anubis is honored, and a kind of veneration and sacred feeding of dogs was instituted” (Strabo, Geography 17.1.40). The Platonic philosopher Olympiodorus explains this tradition as follows, specifically in reference to the passage from the Gorgias: “What the cult statues do for the Greeks, this animals do among the Egyptians, being symbols for the respective god to which they are assigned” (On the Alcibiades 2,136–138; and Hermias, On the Phaedrus, p. 26 specifically says that the dog is the last trace of the Hermaic series).

Images of Anubis

Carrying an image of Anubis at a procession, like shaving one’s head in the manner of an Egyptian priest, was regarded as a sign of devotion to Isis (Historia Augusta, Pescennius Niger 6.9 and Commodus Antoninus 9.4).

Apuleius describes just such an image as part of an Isiac procession: “that awe-inspiring messenger between the gods above and those below, exalted with his face now black, now golden, raising his long canine neck, Anubis, carrying a herold’s staff (caduceus) in his left hand, and brandishing a green palm branch” (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.11).

This Greco-Egyptian iconography combines Hermes’ caduceus or herold’s staff ☤ with an attribute common to the Egyptian deities surrounding Isis, the palm frond ⸙.

(fig. 3) Anubis in Greco-Egyptian style; the attribute in his right hand (a palm branch?) is broken off (Wikimedia Commons)
(fig. 4) Engraving of Anubis in carnelian (Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes, Anubis also wears an attribute on his head, such as the lunar (fig. 3) or solar disk (figs. 6 and 7; PGM IV.125). A ritual text also refers to a “royal crown of Hermanubis” specifically (PGM IV.3140), but I am uncertain what exactly this refers to. More rarely, the god is depicted with a human head and a modius or calathos crown (João Feliciano, The God Anubis in Late Antiquity, pp. 8–9).

Note that the practice of calling the purely Egyptian iconography ‘Anubis’ and the Greco-Egyptian ‘Hermanubis’ is a modern convention. Apuleius calls the Greco-Egyptian image Anubis, as we just saw.

The following image (fig. 5) also seems to represent Anubis, as João Feliciano notes, since the deity carries a caduceus and has a dog’s (or wolf’s) head. If so, he is being depicted specifically as a god of the underworld, with several chthonic symbols of Greek iconography, namely serpents for legs, a key, poppies and sheaves of wheat (both in his left hand and as a crown). This still leaves some features of the relief unexplained (such as the animal hide in place of ordinary Egyptian or Greco-Egyptian dress).

(fig. 5) Chthonic Anubis (?) being offered a ram’s head and a loaf of bread on two offering tables (Christies)

Anubis’ power

Reinforcing Apuleius’ description as “messenger between the gods above and those below”, Plutarch tells us that “Anubis among the Egyptians seems to have the same power as Hekate among the Greeks, being both chthonic and Olympian at once” (On Isis and Osiris 368e).

In a more philosophical register, Plutarch expands on this elsewhere: “The one who makes the celestial things manifest, and the rationality (lógos) of things carried upwards, is Anubis, and is sometimes also called Hermanubis; the former because he pertains to things above (ánō), the latter to things below. This is why they sacrifice to him a white rooster and a saffron-colored one, considering the former to be pure and bright, the latter mixed and variegated” (Plutarch, ibid. 375e). Here, Anubis is connected to the Greek ánō (‘above, upward’), the ‘Hermes’ in ‘Hermanubis’ to the underworld.

Plutarch also relates the interpretation that Anubis is the horizon between the two hemispheres of the cosmos, the one which is above us and visible (=Isis), and the one which is below us and invisible (=Nephthys). Therefore, “he is likened to the shape of a dog, because the dog can see both at night and in the day” (Plutarch, ibid. 368e).

Alternatively, he is a dog (gr. kýōn) because he ‘is pregnant’ (also kýōn) with all things: “to others again it seems that Anubis is Kronos, and as begetting all things from himself and carrying (kýōn) them in himself, he received the name of dog” (Plutarch, ibid. 368f).

Similarly superlative praise is found in an inscription that reads, “One (is) Zeus, Serapis and Helios Hermanubis” (Sammelbuch griechischer Urkunden aus Ägypten 1:238) – a proclamation of the unity of our god with Zeus, Sarapis and the Sun.

Anubis and Osiris

Artemidorus 2.39
Plutarch : 356f (phrour, cf. Procl), 366c, 368e
Diodorus Siculus
Proclus; Zosimus (Corpus Alchemicum Band 2 Translation p. 289f, 439, 450); Isis prophetissa

(fig. 6) Ptolemaic-period funeral shroud depicting Osiris, the deceased, and Anubis (Wikimedia Commons)
(fig. 7) Roman-period funeral shroud depicting Osiris, the deceased, and Anubis (Wikimedia Commons)

5 Anubis in Greco-Egyptian ritual

Juvenal 6.534

[Sections on the Egyptian-language sources may be added in the future.]