An Egyptian friend of mine recently posted an article concerning the god Anubis and his view that the depiction of the god as a black canine, commonly held to be a jackal may be a Xoloitzcuintli (commonly known as a Xolo), a breed of hairless dog indigenous to Meso-America.
He responded to my comments with this article, and out of respect to the trouble he has taken with such a reply, I wish to address the points that he has raised, and also to put forward my argument for the “Jackal Theory”. However, before I do so, I must admit to having no official expertise in either Egyptology or Pre-Columbian Meso-American religions. Contrary to my friends touching compliment, I am not an Egyptologist, merely a student of the subject, who harbours hopes of one day holding such an honour. That said, let’s begin.
The fact that the Xolo is native to the Americas is not disputed here, rather my friend points to the possibility for Pre-Columbian transatlantic travel, and the recent attempts to cross the Atlantic on a reed built vessel, christened the “Ra II”. This vessel was actually built in Latin America by Bolivians, but was built using technology easily within the capabilities of the Egyptians. It sailed from Morocco to Barbados successfully, captained by Thor Heyerdahl. This, combined with the apparent existence of nicotine in some Pharaonic era mummies and similarities of Anubis to gods worshipped in Meso-America form the basis of this argument. Let us first examine these, before proceeding to my arguments in favour of the “Jackal Theory”
Ancient Egyptian Naval Capabilities
Where the Ancient Egyptians capable of crossing the Atlantic? These days it is widely agreed that pre-Columbian contact with North America had been made by the Viking civilization, so the idea of earlier contact must likewise be given serious thought.
The Egyptians lacked the magnetic compass, but were perfectly at ease with astronomy, and were also skilled boat builders. In fact, Egyptian boat building skill extended beyond the design of Heyerdahl’s “Ra II”. The kbnt ships that Egypt used for trading overseas were built using Lebanese timber[i] and, according to the report of the Third Intermediate Period official, Wenamun, were capable of surviving storms quite well[ii]
So in answer to the question, with their technology would crossing the Atlantic have been physically possible, I would say, yes. After all it is physically possible to row across the Atlantic, if you so wish, and are sufficiently determined. The question therefore is, did they?
On this the evidence is not so good. There are no Egyptian accounts of any trans-Atlantic missions. There are no records of any contacts with any people there, nor of any exotic goods that they surely would have brought back with them. It must be remembered and emphasised that Pharaonic Egypt had a very highly developed state structure that kept records of large transactions, trade missions and military campaigns. Individual Pharaohs also used such missions as propaganda opportunities, as can be seen at Deir El Bhari with Hatshepsut’s expedition to Punt. If such a relatively short journey requires a colonnade to itself, it is hard to imagine that a trip to the Americas doesn’t warrant a single mention on any temple wall, in any officials tomb, in any folk record, in any papyri, or even in any tales handed down and recorded by classical authors.
If the Egyptians conquered a new land, they were uncharacteristically modest in recording their truly outstanding victories against both the elements and the enemy, and never spoke of the exotic produce they were sure to have brought back. Neither did they leave behind a stela, or any inscription, at their destination.
Punt Colonade, Deir El Bahri. By the author.
Nicotine in Egyptian Mummies
The only published study on this matter is that undertaken by Institut für Anthropologie und Humangenetik, Munich[iii] . Findings from this study remain controversial and ultimately inconclusive. The signature of the nicotine found in the bodies does not point specifically to the tobacco plant, rather only to the family to which it belongs, the Solanaceae family. The Mandrake plant also belongs to this same family, and was widely used by the Egyptians. It is attested to in medical papyri[iv], and has anaesthetic properties as well as narcotic. Other plants used in folk medicine also belong to this same family.
In addition it should be noted that only a single intact mummy was involved in the tests, and no details concerning the exact provenance of the mummy, and other incomplete human remains used in the study, has not, to the best of my knowledge, been provided.
Without a strong provenance, it is impossible to know for certain whether or not these bodies have been contaminated, and in the case of the parts, or even the whole mummy, whether or not they are genuine or fakes from a later period. Excavation techniques in the 19th and early 20th centuries were not conducted in the same manner as the “forensically aware” techniques of the current era, and modern contamination is also possible. The possibility of tomb robbery as the ultimate source of some of these parts cannot be completely discounted either.
Similarity of Anubis to Meso-American Gods
The nearest likeness to Anubis I have been able to locate in Meso-American religions is the Aztec god Xolotl, hence the name Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo, for the breed of dog that is being linked to Anubis.
A brief look a chronology is important here. Anubis is one of the older gods of the Egyptian pantheon. Figurines in his image (though without being able to be conclusively identified as representing him) go back to the Pre-Dynastic period, and he mentioned repeatedly and explicitly in Old Kingdom funerary texts[v] . This gives the birth of his cult to be some time in the late 4th or early 3rd millennium BCE, at the latest.
Aztec civilization, however, is much, much more recent. The Aztec civilization flourished from the 12th to 16th centuries CE. It’s people probably did not migrate into the central American region before the 6th century CE. Pharaonic Egypt had ceased to exist as an independent state in 30BCE, and had been ruled by a foreign dynasty since 343BCE. Had the Egyptians crossed the Atlantic at any point in Pharaonic history, they would never have met the Aztecs, nor Xolotl.
The Aztecs would not have been there to be taught of Anubis by the Egyptians. It is fortunate, for had the two met, then the Egyptians would just as surely have decimated the local population with their eastern hemisphere diseases, just as Cortez did. Indeed, had the contact occurred, Cortez may have found his contact had much less influence on the natives, who would by that time developed the same immunities as his own people. The Vikings, it should be noted here, made no contact with the Aztecs, landing thousands of miles to the north.
Xolotl shares certain traits, besides his canine imagery, with Anubis. Both are guides of the dead. But whilst Anubis has his role end here and upon the embalming table, and is otherwise a relatively minor god in the great scheme of things, Xolotl is a major figure in Aztec mythology, taking in roles associated with fire, bad luck, and guarding the sun at night in the underworld. As well as his canine forms, he could also be a mythical beast, featuring reversed feet. These are areas with which Anubis is never associated, and indeed, remind one more of Set than of Anubis.
The Jackal Theory
My arguments for the imagery of Anubis to be that of a jackal, or, perhaps, a jackal hybrid with another local canine, is based on both visual similarities, the habits and natures of the animals in keeping with the nature and role of the god, and the confirmed knowledge of, and interaction with these animals by the Ancient Egyptians.
Several canines were known in Ancient Egypt, listed below:
· The Egyptian Jackal (Canis aureus lupaster)
· The Saluki
· Several subspecies of Fox, including the Nile Fox.
· Arabian Wolf (Canis Lupus Arabs)
Of these, the Arabian Wolf is currently an endangered species due to hunting and killing by farmers. It’s current habitat within Egypt is believed to be restricted to the Sinai, but may have been wider in the past. Little research has been done.
The Anubis imagery, of which are best example comes from a statue of Anubis in fully canine form atop a shrine, found in tomb KV62 of Tutankhamun (18th. Dyn) and now in Cairo Museum depicts an all black canine, with large, pointed ears, long slender jaw and body, as shown here.
Anubis. Egypt Archive
In terms of body shape, I believe this imagery closely resembles that of the subspecies of jackal found in Egypt, Canis aureus lupaster, shown below.
Canis aureus lupaster. Unknown orignal source.
The sub-speicies of jackal known in Egypt is a desert living creature, that as well as hunting small prey can also be a scavenging carrion eater[vi]. As such, they would have been attracted to Ancient Egyptian cemeteries, were food could be found amongst the bodies of the recently deceased. They would have been particularly visible in times of epidemic. Both these factors, along with it’s living in the “dead” lands of the deserts would likely have strengthened the link between the god Anubis and the jackal.
The difference in coloration may well be the result of symbolism in Egyptian religion. There are numerous other examples of this in Egyptian imagery, including most notably, Osiris, whom is often depicted with black skin, and, like Anubis, is a deity associated with death and the afterlife[vii]. This is currently the most widely accepted view amongst experts, though there remains the possibility of the Anubis canine depiction being a hybrid wither another breed, of which I believe the most likely to be the Saluki.
The Saluki (sometimes confused with the Greyhound, though it’s possible both were known in Egypt) was known in Egypt from at least the time of the Old Kingdom. They are tall, athletic, slender canines with coats that can be a variety of colours, including black, with both smooth and “feathered” fur. Animals with the latter have short body hair, with long “feathers” at the tail, ears and legs. Salukis were bred for hunting, but retain the traditional canine qualities of loyalty and obedience to their perceived alpha, or pack leader, the human. They also have a tendency to “sing”, with a varying howl, when their owner is away for long periods of time, for example, if he died. Thus, with the “mourning wail” for their separated owners, their role as loyal and dutiful guides to living creatures out in the deserts, alongside the similarly canine jackals, it is feasible that the Saluki would be a likely candidate, given their role, nature and appearance, to be part of a hybrid imagery for Anubis.
Feather coated Saluki. Wikimedia Commons
Given the above arguments, my personal conclusions are that the cult of Anubis grew up in Pre or Early Dynastic Egypt, and the iconography of the god is a natural product of the Ancient Egyptian view of life and death. Factors such as the sterility and inhospitable nature of the desert to humans, contrasting with it’s suitability for the carrion eating jackal make sharp symbolism that would be as clear to a modern eye as to ancient ones.
The symbolism of black in association with both death and rebirth are quite clear, in terms of both the long standing Egyptian solar tradition (day as opposed balanced by night, living balanced by after living, the transition from one to the other occurring in the west, beyond the valley) and also, as it would appear in the cult of Osiris, with it’s emphasis life coming anew from the black soil.
I do not dismiss the possibility that the Anubis canine could be a hybrid of a jackal with the desert hunting Saluki, for which some Egyptians would depend upon for hunting, guidance and possibly protection in the “dead” lands of the Western Desert.
I do not feel that Anubis bears anything beyond surface similarities to much later canine cults of Meso-America. Aside from the total silence of the Egyptians concerning the American continent, and the fundamental differences between Xolotl and Abubis, the chronological differences involved further rule out the possibility of links.
Is this a Euro-Centric view? I do not think so. I think subscribing to the idea that the Meso-American civilizations developed independently of those of the Ancient Near East does nothing to demean either family of civilizations. Egypt remains, to me, in many ways, the most remarkable of all civilizations, as the first large nation-state in history.
My view that she did not give birth to Meso-American civilization does nothing to dent those achievements, whilst the development of another family of sophisticated civilizations in Meso-America is perhaps testament to the fact that, as humans, even when separated by vast distances, times and conditions, we all aspire to harmonious, lawful, organised societies. A thought which I find most heartening.
1 David, Rosalie: Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt
11 Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol. II “Report of Wenamun”
111Published in Naturwissenschaften, Vol 79, #8, August 1992
1V Papyrus Hearst
V Wilkinson, Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt
V1 University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology website (Link)
V11 Wilkinson, Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt