The Egyptian jackal gods, represented with jackal heads on human bodies or entirely as animals, are distinctively Egyptian deities. They served essential functions in the Egyptians’ understanding of what happened after death and acted as guides and protectors in the complex process of reaching the afterlife. We do not know exactly when and why ancient Egyptians began associating jackals and other canines with funerary gods, but the association began at some point in prehistory, perhaps from observations of these animals’ scavenging habits. Already in the Predynastic period (ca. 5200–3100 BC), jackals had become identifiable symbols of the gods of specific districts, and they appear in some of the earliest written documents to survive from Egypt (around 3100 BC). They are among the earliest funerary gods in Egypt and remained prominent symbols in Egyptian religion for more than 3,000 years.
In real life, the common golden jackal lives in open savannas, deserts, and arid grasslands. Side-striped jackals are found in moist savannas, marshes, bushlands, and mountains. The black-backed — also called silver-backed — jackal lives primarily in savannas and woodlands. Egyptian jackals are mostly back because the color black was chosen for its symbolism, not because Egyptian dogs or jackals were black. Black symbolizes the decay of the body as well as the fertile soil of the Nile River Valley which represented regeneration and life.
Jackals are opportunistic predators, feeding on small to medium-sized animals. They weigh up to 14 kg and can grow up to 85 cm in length. While they are not normally dangerous, they are still known to attack humans. The Egyptian jackal, which may have been the inspiration for the Egyptian god Anubis, is actually not a jackal at all but a member of the wolf family. New genetic research in the open-access journal PLoS ONE finds that the Egyptian jackal is Africa’s only member of the gray wolf family. The new wolf, dubbed by researchers as the African wolf, is most closely related to the Himalayan wolf. Since jackals were often seen in cemeteries, the ancient Egyptians believed that Anubis watched over the dead.
Anubis was the god who helped to embalm Osiris after he was killed by Seth. Thus, Anubis was the god who watched over the process of mummifying people when they died.