American Gods episode 4 explained: Anubis, Ibis and the Egyptian afterlife


Episode 4 of American Gods was fairly light on gods. But Anubis and Ibis, two members of the Egyptian pantheon, played a very important part. Who are they?

Git Gone, this week’s episode of American Gods, was mostly about Laura Moon’s life. But it was also about her death. She meets Anubis just after she dies, and again after her resurrection, at which point she also meets Ibis.

On the starry plain of the Duat, Anubis tries to weigh Laura’s heart against a feather, telling her the circumstances of her death commit him. She refuses, saying:

"Against a feather? I can already tell you who wins. I lived my life, good and bad, definitely not light as a feather."

So instead of leading her on through to the afterlife proper, he tells her:

"In life, you believed in nothing. You will go to nothing. You will be done. There will be darkness."

But right at that point, Shadow drops Mad Sweeney’s lucky golden coin on her grave, and she’s sucked back out of the Duat. After saving Shadow, when she’s a bloody mess and her arm has fallen off, she runs into Anubis again. This time, he’s with his business partner, Mr. Ibis. They take her back to their funeral parlor and fix her up all nice.

You may not recall, but you already met Mr. Ibis. He’s the one writing down the Coming to America stories at the beginning of episodes 1 and 2. And Anubis helped that nice lady Mrs. Fadil to the right door of the afterlife in episode 2.

If the book is any guide, we’ll be seeing a lot more of these two over the course of the series on Starz. But in the meantime, an introduction. Who are Ibis (a.k.a., Thoth) and Anubis (a.k.a., Mr. Jacquel)?

A confusion of gods

Ancient Egyptian religion is somewhat of a confusion of gods. They grew into a pantheon over time, but actually started as city-state gods. In the prehistoric Middle East and Northern Africa, most cities had walls and their own, specific gods. As Egypt gradually grew into a nation, joining the disparate cities together under succeeding kingdoms and dynasties, the gods stayed. Egypt kept all of them. Over time, gods with the same responsibilities morphed together, or were promoted and demoted until the Egyptian pantheon became a fairly involved bureaucracy.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Egyptian mythology is awfully complex, with a range of overlapping characters. Take the Egyptian afterlife. There’s Osiris, who is kind of Anubis’ boss. Osiris is the god of resurrection, probably stemming from his origins as a fertility and harvest god (crops die at the end of every year, and the harvest god resurrects them in the spring). Anubis existed first, but after Osiris spread across Egypt, he became the more popular death god.

Anubis and Ibis

Via Ancient Egypt Online:

"So Anubis was relegated to a god of mummification. To save face it was stated that Anubis had voluntarily given up his position when Osiris died as a mark of respect. Some myths even stated that Anubis was the son of Osiris and Nephthys (who was herself associated with the funeral rites). Anubis was still closely involved in the weighing of the heart, but was more a guardian than a ruler.He became the patron of lost souls, including orphans, and the patron of the funeral rites."

And via Ancient Egypt Online’s entry on Thoth:

"Although Osiris and Isis were generally credited with bringing civilisation to mankind, Thoth was also thought to have invented writing, medicine, magic, and the Egyptian´s civil and religious practices. He was even credited with the invention of music, which was more often associated with Hathor. Thoth was the patron of scribes and of the written word. He was scribe of the underworld who recorded the verdict on the deceased in the hall of Ma´at and was given the epithets “He who Balances”, “God of the Equilibrium” and “Master of the Balance”."

Animal aspects

Like many ancient gods, the Egyptians are represented by various animal incarnations. Anubis is usually shown with the head of a jackal, or as an actual jackal. A jackal is a large, black, dog-type creature. The Gods of Ancient Egypt by Barbara Watterson mentions in Southern Egypt, jackals prowl the edges of the desert, where the Egyptians buried their dead. Some depictions of Anubis also show him as a wolf.

Thoth has two different animal aspects: Ibis and baboon. Why more than one? He’s an amalgamation of a number of different gods, another of which is a hare. He also subsumed a group of eight frog and snake gods who represented male and female aspects of primordial natural forces: water, infinite space, darkness and invisibility. His most common aspect is the ibis, although he appears as a baboon for the weighing of the feather on the Duat. And Thoth usually also holds a reed pen to show he’s the god of knowledge, writing, records, wisdom, arts and sciences. He’s a scholarly god.

Weighing the heart against a feather

In the Egyptian afterlife, just after a person dies, as you’ve seen in American Gods, they appear before the gods to weigh their heart against a feather. According to The Gods of Ancient Egypt by Barbara Watterson, this event is attended by Osiris and forty-two assessor gods, while Anubis releases the scale so the heart can be weighed, and Thoth stands by to record the verdict.

Every Egyptian was buried with a list of confessions, stating that they didn’t lie or cheat or steal, so no matter how heavy the guilt of their heart during life, the magic of writing could change everything after death. The list of confessions made it true, so no matter what they did during life, they all get to go on to the afterlife.

In the book version of American Gods, Anubis tells Shadow that they use a specially made feather that’s never lighter than a human heart. I like that. It’s kind. Who goes to heaven? Everyone.

Related Story: American Gods episode 3 explained: Who are the Zorya sisters?

I hope you enjoyed dipping a toe into the rich and multifaceted ocean of the Egyptian gods. If you’re looking for more information, the Barbara Watterson work referenced above is a good one. It’s organized and clearly written, and many sources on the Internet actually reference her. I’ve only read bits and I’m fascinated; highly recommended for further reading on Anubis, Thoth, and the rest of the gods of ancient Egypt.