Looking at how different cultures perceive death, we can start to understand how they embrace it. Especially when it comes to how they shape their afterlife, the gods who run it, and the roles those gods play in everyday life. From first glance, one can detect several similarities between ancient Egyptian and ancient Mayan perspectives of the afterlife. For instance, the fact that in both cultures one must travel through a hellish netherworld to reach paradise.
The real difference is how they constructed their gods and their role in the underworld. In ancient Egypt and ancient Maya, it is Anpu and Ah Puch.
Anpu is his Egyptian name, while Anubis—the name which is most commonly known—is his Greek name. He is the god of the underworld, embalming process, and funeral rites as well as the patron of lost souls and the helpless. He is also one of the oldest gods of Egypt, even before Osiris came into power over the underworld. In appearance, he is depicted as a black canine, usually a jackal, or a muscular man with the head of a jackal. Rarely, he appears as a man. Black symbolizes the fertile soil of the Nile River and rebirth in the afterlife.
Before the rise of Osiris during the Middle Kingdom, Anubis was known as the First of the Westerners, or king of the dead. He watched over proceeding from start to finish, guiding each soul and determining their fate. Even after stepping down so Osiris may rule the afterlife, Anubis still presided over mummification and the Weighing of the Heart. He acts as a guide to the dead and helps them find Osiris, leading the innocent on to a heavenly existence and abandoning the guilty to Ammit.
Ah Puch is the Mayan god of death, darkness, disaster, childbirth, and beginnings. In Quiche Maya, he is the ruler of Mitnal, the underworld. In Yucatec Maya, he was just one of the lords of Xibaba, their term for underworld. In either case, it is a place of fear. Ah Puch is depicted as a skeletal figure with protruding ribs and a skull head, or a bloated figure that suggests decomposition. He often wears bells tied in his hair—a sound one never wanted to hear. He is associated with owls and dogs, and even today, the legend persists that when an owl screeches, someone nearby will die.
Ah Puch likes to surface at night and skulk around. A haunting figure that stalks the houses of the sick or injured. The only way to escape his attention is to howl, shriek, moan, and scream. At which point, he will assume the person is already being dealt with by some of his lesser demons. Only then will one prevent Ah Puch from taking someone down to Mitnal, the lowest level of the Mayan underworld.
From one god who protects the dead to one god who preys on the living. These gods’ depictions in each society reveal how the ancient Egyptians cherished death as they did life and how the ancient Mayans feared it. Unfortunately, unlike the many texts written about Anpu, there are hardly any in depth references to Ah Puch and how he played in everyday life of the Mayans. What was his roles as the god of childbirth and beginnings? Were sacrifices made to him? Were depictions placed on scared grounds? Or was he really just a menacing demon that hungered for death? Compared to Anpu, Ah Puch is an ancient mystery. A dark presence—or fate—no one wishes to think about. In either case, the gods of these two cultures reveal one truth: how we perceive death determines how we live our lives.
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