Few ancient cultures have captured the modern imagination like the Egyptian and Maya civilizations, with their elaborate belief structures. The author
Few ancient cultures have captured the modern imagination like the Egyptian and Maya civilizations, with their elaborate belief structures. The author traces a remarkable resemblance between two dog-headed gods associated with the ritualistic voyage to the afterlife: Anubis of ancient Egypt and Xolotl of Mexico.
According to conventional chronologies, both civilizations seem to have emerged around 7,000 years ago, a product of the progress of the Neolithic Revolution . In both regions, the theory holds, the indigenous peoples began mastering husbandry, agriculture, and pottery. As they both flourished, they developed elaborate, vivid masterpieces of iconography and monumental masonry. As we slowly begin to decipher their beliefs, we are learning how obsessed they were with their journey into the afterlife.
Both of these mysterious cultures adamantly believed that they would face a dangerous odyssey upon death, an odyssey filled with monsters, gods, and gatekeepers. But the most striking parallel lies in the fact that both cultures most closely associated this descent into the underworld with an anthropomorphic dog god. This canine of the netherworld was represented by an actual species of dog, identical in both ancient cultures, and whose genetics are being traced today.
The Anubis Shrine of Tutankhamun was discovered in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings, topped by a statue of Anubis, in the form of a jackal or dog god. (Jon Bodsworth / Public domain )
Anubis: Ancient Egyptian Dog-Headed God of the Afterlife
Anubis, as you may know, is the Egyptian god who is depicted with the head of dog and the body of a man. Anubis was believed to have presided over the death process and was closely associated with mummification, tombs, cemeteries, dogs and the underworld. The Egyptians believed that at the climax of one’s underworld journey, one would be judged by Anubis and his relative Osiris,
At the final judgment, Anubis and Osiris would weigh the individual’s heart against the feather of Maat (truth). If their heart was too heavy with selfish/wicked deeds, then their soul would be discarded and fed to a monstrous crocodile god. It’s noteworthy that the mythology of Anubis seems to have suffered a demotion as his cult became eclipsed by that of Osiris. In the oldest versions, Anubis is the son of the solar god Ra, but following the surge in popularity of the Osiris cult, the birth of Anubis was revised, making him the illegitimate son and guardian of Isis.
Our Orion and Sirius (seen above) constellations were known as Isis and Anubis, her faithful dog companion, by the ancient Egyptians. ( elladoro / Adobe Stock)
Connecting Anubis with the Dog Star Sirius and the Maya Xolotl
The ancient Egyptians associated the constellation we call Orion with the god Osiris. If we liken the Orion constellation to a man firing a bow, then the star Sirius seems to follow this celestial man, like a small companion. The Egyptians linked this star with Isis and Anubis, which is fascinating because we now know, due to advancements in radio telescopes, that Sirius is a binary star. Sirius is then, an older star with a younger, much smaller star, orbiting it.
If the Orion Constellation is thought of as a king god, and his consort as the star that shadows him, it fits like a glove that the smaller binary star orbiting Isis is her faithful dog guardian, Anubis. What is so curious about this, is that the binary nature of Sirius is not evident with the naked eye. Modern science was not even certain that the star was binary until the 1970s. Both the ancient Egyptians and their mysterious neighbors, the Dogon, seem to have been aware that Sirius was a binary star before they had the capability required to make this observation.
Xolotl, on the other hand, was a Maya and Aztec god of deformities, death, fire, lightning and monstrosities, he too was depicted with a canine head and a human body. Like his Egyptian reflection, Xolotl also is outshined by his twin brother Quetzalcoatl, just as Anubis is by his close relative Osiris. As Quetzalcoatl was associated with the morning star quality of Venus (when it precedes the dawn), Xolotl also had astronomical significance, as he was associated with Venus when it preceded moonrise.
Statue of Xolotl, another death dog god, in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. ( JuanToño / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Dog Breeds of Ancient Egypt and Mexico
In 2015, scientists studying the African Golden Jackal determined that it was actually not a species of jackal, but a species of wolf. The scientists then changed the name of the species to the African Golden Wolf. It is this species that has been commonly accepted by archaeologists as the animal sacred to Anubis. But something else important happened in 2015. Archaeologists from Cardiff University in the United Kingdom investigating at Saqqara discovered catacombs filled with millions of dogs, mummified in honor of Anubis.
The Saqqara temple to Anubis at the ancient city of Memphis was a coveted destination for devotees to make offerings, as well as being a commercial powerhouse for the cult who lived there and maintained it. Quite a few species of mummified animals were discovered including wolves and jackals. However, over ninety percent of the mummified animals were dogs, and they were clearly domesticated and bred. It would seem then that this unknown domestic species, and not the African Golden Wolf, was the preferred species to offer to Anubis.
The Mexican hairless dog , also known as the Xolo, has been found in Maya and Toltec burial sites dating back to ancient times. There was ritualistic sacrifice and burial of the animals in what has been interpreted as enabling the ancients interred to have the canine serve as guide and companion on the descent into the underworld. Conquistador chronicles report that large numbers of this species linked to the god were served as food at what the Spanish described as a “banquet.” When the genes of the Xolo were sequenced by scientists in 1999, their DNA was identical to canine species of the Old World.
Similarities Between Anubis and Xolotl
It’s not entirely clear from the reports on the Memphis mummies what species of dog they were, as that would require genetic testing. It is nevertheless worth noting that the Xolo species and Mediterranean species look very much like the depictions of Anubis, who was depicted as being a black, short-haired (if not hairless) rectangular canine, with very large, spade-shaped ears, pointing straight up.
These are certainly the most common features of the dog species and its resulting icons. Furthermore, the Mediterranean species is known as the Pharaoh Hound, who got its English name due to their resemblance to dog icons of ancient Egyptian tombs – Anubis. Could this be the species of dogs mummified in Memphis? Even if they were not identical species, the iconography and the physical attributes of the species are identical. Why is it then that these two geographically remote and supposedly distinct cultures, were both compelled to sacrifice or ritualistically inter these specific dogs and conjure up the half-dog half-man god of the underworld?
Dead Dogs and Diffusionism
Diffusionism is an anthropological school of thought relating to the concept that ancient culture was transmitted either from a singular source (heliocentric diffusion) , or from limited culture centers. There were early anthropologists and archaeologists who were convinced that there was a cultural link between the Old World cultures of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia, and that all civilization originated from these sources.
This view was regarded by the academic community as extremist and was dismissed. They were labeled the hyper-diffusionists and became outcaste, but these burial customs of seemingly identical dog species could lend credibility to their claims. If genetic analysis of the mummified from Saqqara established a sequential link between the dog species buried in Mexico, then that would suggest a culture that was once united, diverged, and took the dog species with it.
Pre-Colombian imagery of Xolotl, the death dog god. ( Public domain )
Looking to Genetics to Solve the Anubis / Xolotl Mystery
Just as the ancient myths believed these gods and these animals were psychopomps (soul guides), maybe these ritually interred canines can guide our understanding of our origins. So maybe these friendly guardians don’t just guide us to the afterlife, but back in time as well. Through the information carried in their blood today, and through the genetic information preserved in their mummies and burials, could we possibly follow the black dog of Egypt into the distant past to better understand the origins of civilization.
Dogs have guarded us as we’ve slept for countless years, sharing our hearths, affections, and meals. So it’s to some extent no surprise that totally remote and unconnected societies would symbolize a guide god in the form of a dog. But how can it be that physically identical dogs, both close relatives of greater civilizer gods, were buried in such a similar ritualistic manner? Of course, in discussing this death dog god parallel, we have not mentioned the building of step pyramid structures, underground water tunnels, and astronomical alignments, all of which point to at least some degree of cultural diffusion long ago.
Top image: The Mexican hairless dog, or Xolo, is strikingly similar to depictions of Anubis. Source: eAlisa / Adobe Stock
By Mark Andrew Carpenter
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