Who was the ancient Egyptian god of death?

A vintage illustration from the Papyrus of Ani showing Osiris (left) with Isis (right) on a scroll with cursive hieroglyphs from circa 1250 B.C., during the 19th Dynasty of the New Kingdom.
A vintage illustration from the Papyrus of Ani showing Osiris (left) with Isis (right) on a scroll with cursive hieroglyphs from circa 1250 B.C., during the 19th Dynasty of the New Kingdom. (Image credit: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

The ancient Egyptians are known for many things, such as mummification, the great pyramid, a sophisticated writing system and a belief in the afterlife. Considering that death and devotion to many deities was featured so prominently in this culture, who was the ancient Egyptian god of death?

While Osiris is often considered the Egyptian god of the underworld or god of the dead, experts told Live Science it's not that simple.

It would be a mistake to call Osiris a god of death, Andrea Kucharek, who directs a project at Heidelberg University in Germany that looks at Osirian ritual texts, told Live Science in an email. "He does not bring or cause death but is sovereign of the dead," Kucharek said. "In fact, he is also very much a god of life, ensuring the fertility of plants, animals and humans."

Ancient Egyptians saw Osiris as a special deity; after he "died," his life was ritually restored.

Related: What did ancient Egypt's pharaohs stash inside the pyramids?

"Osiris was unusual among Egyptian deities since he himself had died and had been restored to life in a new transfigured state thanks to the help of rituals that were performed for him," Mark Smith, a retired professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford, told Live Science in an email. "Ordinary deceased people in Egypt hoped to undergo the same process of transfiguration and restoration to life using the same rituals that were performed for Osiris, so in a sense, he served as a model for them."

Other Egyptian deities were associated with the dead, such as Anubis, Horus, Hathor and Isis. However, it would also be inaccurate to call any of them a god of death. The jackal-headed Anubis is a particularly important god associated with the dead. He "is the god of embalming," Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist and researcher at the University of Warsaw, told Live Science in an email. In Egyptian mythology, Anubis "performed the very first mummification — of Osiris himself," Laura Ranieri Roy, the founder and director of Ancient Egypt Alive, told Live Science in an email. 

The "ancient [Egyptians] had no death cult, and as a result, they did not worship a god of death," Egyptologist Martin Bommas, director of the Macquarie University History Museum in Australia, told Live Science in an email. 

The closest supernatural being the ancient Egyptians had to a "god of death" might be a scarcely recorded Egyptian deity called "Death, The Great God," John Baines, a professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Oxford, told Live Science in an email. "There is an ancient Egyptian god called 'Death, The Great God,' but this god is extremely rarely attested and a malign presence, not a beneficial one."

One of the very few instances in which this enigmatic god is recorded appears on a papyrus that dates to around 3,000 years ago, to the 21st dynasty. This papyrus shows a "winged serpent with two pairs of human legs and a human head, his tail ending in a jackal's head," Françoise Dunand, professor emeritus of history at the University of Strasbourg in France, and Christiane Zivie-Coche, director emeritus of studies at École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, also in France, wrote in their book "Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE (opens in new tab)" (Cornell University Press, 2004). 

The writing on the papyrus says this deity is called "death, the great god who makes gods and men," Dunand and Zivie-Coche wrote in their book. It's possible that the person who wrote this papyrus tried to create this "Death, The Great God" but that it never caught on, Dunand and Zivie-Coche noted. 

As a result, while the Egyptians had gods dedicated to the dead and mummification, the idea of a god dedicated to death itself never took on a life of its own. 

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.