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Statuette of the god Anubis, ptolemaic Period 304-30 B.C., wood with gesso and paint

Statuette of the god Anubis, ptolemaic Period 304-30 B.C., wood with gesso and paint

In the most ancient ritual texts from the beginning of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (ca. 2686 BC), the supreme god of death and the underworld was the dark god Anubis, an embalmer-deity with the head of a jackal or wolf.  By the end of the 5th dynasty (2345 BC) this role was assumed by the great mummy Osiris who transcended death itself to live on forever as lord of the underworld. Yet Anubis remained an important deity in his role as embalmer and protector of the dead on their journey to the afterlife.

Anubis attending the mummy of the deceased (tomb mural from the tomb of Sennedjem, ca. 1300 BC).

Anubis attending the mummy of the deceased (tomb mural from the tomb of Sennedjem, ca. 1300 BC).

One of the most distinctive Egyptian deities, Anubis was usually portrayed with a powerful human body surmounted by the black head of a jackal.  Sometimes he was portrayed simply as a black jackal wearing a ceremonial ribbon, and in one or two statues he is portrayed as fully human.  As with the enigmatic desert god Set, the exact nature of the animal associated with Anubis is hard to ascertain.  For centuries, Egyptologists have identified the creature as a jackal–but increasingly, scholarly consensus inclines towards a subspecies of wolves which have long since gone extinct in Egypt.  The black color was not meant as a zoological illustration, but instead denotes mastery of night and the secrets of death.

Anubis in his recumbent form lying atop a coffin: from the the tomb of Tutanhkamun (ca. 1323 BC)

Anubis in his recumbent form lying atop a coffin: from the the tomb of Tutanhkamun (ca. 1323 BC)

Anubis was also known by various sacred titles such as “He who is upon his mountain” and “He who is in the place of embalming”.  In addition to embalming the corpses of the deceased so that their spirits would live on in the afterlife, Anubis was a psychopomp who lead the newly dead spirits to the great scale of the underworld where they faced judgment.  Under the watchful eye of Thoth, each dead person would then place their heart upon the balance where it would be weighed against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth and order.  If a person had led a virtuous life, their heart would balance against the feather, but if they had been violent, dishonest, and dissolute, their heart would weigh too much for them to enter the afterlife—whereupon Anubis would throw them into the jaws of a crocodile demon known as “the devourer” and their soul would be annihilated.

A papyrus depicts Anubis leading the departed to the great scale of judgement (the devourer eagerly awaits on the right of the scale)

A papyrus depicts Anubis leading the departed to the great scale of judgement (the devourer eagerly awaits on the right of the scale)

This weighing was regarded as all-important to obtaining an eternity of bliss, so Egyptians were careful to please Anubis with temples, carvings, hymns, and offerings.  Egyptian tombs also demonstrate that the living made plans to deceive Maat when the moment of absolute truth arrived and the walls are graven with litanies of virtues which the dead perhaps did not possess and suspiciously plaintive lists of sins which they claim to have never committed.

An artist's rendition of NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft

Yesterday NASA’s spacecraft MESSENGER entered orbit around Mercury, the least explored of the Solar system’s rocky inner planets.  This is the first time a spacecraft has been in orbit around Mercury and it represents a tremendous engineering achievement. Since gravity becomes more intense the closer one comes to the sun, Messenger had to slingshot back and forth among the inner planets for some time in order to accomplish the tricky feat. The spacecraft had to undertake a 4.9 billion mile (about 7.9-billion kilometer) journey to enter orbit around the closest planet to the sun. Of course that hefty mileage only is equal to 0.00083 light years!

Having survived the grueling trip, the spaceship must now carry out its mission in the blistering bath of solar radiation.  To survive next to the star, Messenger is equipped with a large sun visor which prevents the little craft from frying like a quail egg.

NO! The Messenger spacecraft is not an old lady playing golf!

Messenger will try to determine the planet’s mineralogical composition and learn about its geological history (the surface of Mercury is reckoned to be one of the oldest in the solar system).  The robot probe will fully map Mercury and analyze the planet’s composition.  Like Earth (but unlike Mars and Venus) Mercury has an internal magnetic field.  Additionally, the tiny world is incredibly dense. In order to learn more about the planet’s core Messenger will measure the extent to which the planet wobbles on its rotational axis.  Studying the partially molten interior of Mercury should provide clues about how the planet formed which will help us better understand the creation of all planets (especially in conjunction with the flood of data regarding exoplanets which we are beginning to receive).

Since the craft will be trying to learn the secrets of Mercury’s molten interior, it is worth reflecting on the deity whom the planet is named after.   Although he was worshipped as a messenger, a herald, and a god of commerce, the Greco Roman god Hermes/Mercury was also quietly worshipped as a god of the underworld. The Greeks and Romans regarded him as a psychopomp who guided souls down to Hades with his magical staff. Because (like the somewhat similar African traveling god Eshu) Hermes was able to go anywhere at will he was one of the only entities in the Greco Roman pantheon free to enter and leave the underworld.

Although we are not capable like Mercury of going everywhere at our whim, I think it is a tremendous accomplishment to navigate a robot spacecraft into broiling orbit around the innermost planet.  That we are using the craft to learn the secrets of the fiery underworld of the swift planet seems like a fitting tribute to the god who was slayer of Argus, giver of charms, messenger, schemer, luck bringer, and patron of travelers and wayfarers (even those voyaging to their last end or to places the ancients could never dream of).

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