Most Egyptian deities are closely associated with an animal – depicted in art either with the head of the animal or as the animal itself. The animal chosen for a deity generally represents some important feature of the deity in question. The gods I’m writing about today are all represented by some sort of canid, a dog-type animal, and are gods that are associated with cemeteries and death (including Anubis, of course). There’s an obvious link between these types of animals and death: in Predynastic times, and throughout Egyptian history for poorer people, bodies were not buried in elaborate sealed tombs but were put in shallow graves in the desert sand. And so they were vulnerable to being dug up and destroyed by desert scavengers, like jackals and other canids.
“Some sort of canid” is a pretty mealy-mouthed way to put it, isn’t it? Surely everyone knows that Anubis’s animal is a jackal so why am I being so vague? Well, it turns out that there’s a fair amount of debate about which canid species is actually represented. The opinions I read while writing this article range from “of course it’s a jackal, I can even tell you the precise species” through to “a composite of canid features”, via “some sort of hybrid seen in the wild”. The matter isn’t helped by the fact that our neat categories (dog or jackal or wolf) don’t actually map terribly well onto either how the Egyptians thought or the real world. The Egyptians don’t seem to’ve separated jackals from dogs with quite such a hard line as we do. And when you look at populations of canids in North Africa there are signs of a large amount of interbreeding between nominal canid species, including with domestic dogs. So “some sort of canid” is probably the most accurate way to phrase it, and its at the jackal-y end of this spectrum.
This canid has large erect ears, a slender neck, long legs and a bushy tail. It is represented either standing (generally on a standard) or sitting (often on a shrine) with its tail hanging vertically down in both cases. It may wear a tie around its neck, and when it’s Anubis it often has some of Osiris’s regalia sticking out of its back (a sekhem sceptre or flail or both). It is often black, but generally that is not thought to be a feature of any real animal it’s based on but rather to be symbolic. As well as the usual associations with black – the fertile soil of the Nile and thus rebirth – it may also relate to the colour a corpse will go if you don’t embalm it, an example of protection by invocation of the thing you’re protecting against.
Canids of this sort are rare in Predynastic art but there are examples from funerary contexts. One of these is a rather fine figurine found in a Naqada III period (c. 3300-3100 BCE) burial, almost in the round – it’s carved from greywacke (usually used for palettes) so it’s fairly flat because of the nature of this stone but modelling of the body is apparent. The animal is portrayed standing up, and it was found propped up against some vessels in front of the face of the deceased woman – perhaps to protect her. Other examples in Predynastic art are amulets in the shape of recumbent canids, some dating to even earlier than the figurine. Obviously one can’t just assume that later beliefs apply in the Predynastic Period, but it seems plausible that these are a precursor to the later protective funerary deities like Anubis and Khentiamentiu.
All of the three or four major canine deities are attested in the Early Dynastic Period. Anubis is the one who is most familiar to us as he remains prominent throughout Pharaonic Egypt. Before the rise of the cult of Osiris he was the most important funerary deity and he continues to play a key role after Osiris takes over. Anubis is the deity who oversees the embalming process and protects the tent where this takes place as well as the burial chamber. He also watches over the necropolis to keep it safe. Mythologically speaking he gets hooked into the Osirian family in a variety of ways (depending on the telling) – often a son of Osiris, perhaps with Nephthys as his mother – and he performs the mummification process on Osiris when Seth has killed him.
As well as Anubis there was another early protector of the necropolis & the dead, mentioned above – this was Khentiamentiu, the canine deity who was worshipped at Abydos. The first temple at Abydos was founded in the Predynastic Period, and was probably dedicated to Khentiamentiu at that point. It’s definitely dedicated to him through the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom, and is still referenced as his temple during Pepi II’s reign (the very last king of the 6th Dynasty and the Old Kingdom). After that the temple is dedicated to Osiris, and from then on Osiris is the primary deity worshipped at Abydos. This doesn’t seem to’ve been a hostile takeover. Khentiamentiu means “Foremost of the Westerners” which is a title or epithet that Osiris later uses – so the two gods may have merged, or it’s even possible that they were always the same deity. In his book on Early Dynastic Egypt Toby Wilkinson speculates that they may always have been the same god, that “Khentiamentiu” was a way to (perhaps euphemistically) refer to Osiris.
There are also another one or two major canine deities who are represented by a canid in Egyptian art. A motif that is seen from at least the 1st Dynasty onwards is of a canid standing still on a standard, with his legs together rather than in motion (like Anubis normally is). This can be Anubis or Khentiamentiu but more often it’s Sed (in very early periods) or Wepwawet from the 3rd Dynasty onwards. It’s not clear if these are two separate deities or if Sed first gained the epithet Wepwawet and then changed his name to Wepwawet. The name Sed may live on after this change or replacement in the sed festival. This festival is generally celebrated by the king in his 30th year of reigning (if he gets that far!) and every few years after that, and is intended to prove his continued fitness to rule. None of the authors I read was willing to 100% commit to the god Sed being the reason the festival is called that – not least, I think, because we can’t be absolutely sure it really was the same word for both. The Egyptian script only records the consonants of the word, so for all both are written “sd” it’s possible they had different vowels. The similar name is not the only link, however – the canid standing on a standard shows up in depictions of the sed festival.
Wepwawet is how this god is known for most of Pharaonic Egypt. His name means Opener of the Ways, which has a variety of interpretations (not so much as alternatives, rather they are all aspects of this deity). The canine association here is not from their habit of eating the dead, but from the fact that they live on the peripheries of human settlement – at the boundary between the cultivation (the living) and the desert (the dead). And who better to lead you from one place to another than one who dwells in the space between? And so one facet of Wepwawet’s opening of ways is that he leads the deceased through the underworld, and the king to ascension. He is also involved in the magical opening of the deceased’s mouth and eyes after mummification – the “adze of Wepwawet” is one of the tools used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. But he is not purely involved in death – in the Memphite Theology he’s called “the opener of the body” which may refer to him opening the way out of the womb as a first born. And in a similar vein the Pyramid Texts refer to him opening the way for the sun to rise in the sky. Death, birth, and also during life – Wepwawet’s standard was often carried in front of the king or deity in a procession, opening the way for him. And his frequently attested warlike character sees him opening the way to military conquest for the king. All of which is a rather significant set of characteristics for a god that a lot of us (me included) think of as “the one that looks like Anubis, but isn’t”!
The theme that kept coming up over and over while I was reading for this article was blurry boundaries – in the modern day we tend to want to put things, events, ideas into neat little categories with no overlap but the world doesn’t always co-operate. “Some sort of canid” because we can’t even divide the real animals up into neat non-overlapping groups or species, let alone match the consistent yet ambiguous way that this canid is depicted in Egyptian art to one of those groups. It’s also difficult to tell which god is meant by a given canid depiction, unless there is an accompanying label. Even the gods are not entirely clearly defined. Appropriate, I think, for a collection of deities whose roles straddle the boundaries between this world and the next to be neither clearly the one thing, nor clearly the other.
“Animals in the Ritual Landscape at Abydos: A Synopsis” Salima Ikram
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris” David O’Connor
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” ed. Diana Craig Patch
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Wepwawet in Context: A Reconsideration of the Jackal Deity and Its Role in the Spatial Organization of the North Abydos Landscape” Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson