For ancient Egyptians, death marked the start of a harrowing journey through the underworld, past fiery lakes and through gates and caverns guarded by strange and dangerous creatures. There was a monster with a knife for a head and a demon fisherman who netted human souls. To ensure their safe passage to the afterlife, the dead were mummified in an elaborate process that included placing protective amulets among the layers of fine linen wrapped around the body. Priests recited spells to guide the deceased past obstacles and hostile forces. Coffin walls were inscribed with a map of the underworld. These practices were combined with the expectation that the deceased would also receive a divine form of assistance from jackal gods.

Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt, an exhibition at the U-M Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, explores the identities of these gods and their crucial roles in funerary customs and religious beliefs about the afterlife. The exhibit features selections from the U-M Library’s extensive papyrology collection as well as a variety of Egyptian artifacts, some of them unearthed in Karanis by U-M archaeologists during the 1920s and 1930s. Hanging throughout the exhibit, more than a dozen cloth educational panels provide a detailed history of these gods, from their early associations with wild canines to the height of their influence in Egyptian religion, to their eventual decline as a misunderstood yet widespread symbol.

The jackal gods were mythical beings, nearly all male, with hazy origins dating back to 3,000 BCE. The exhibition profiles three major jackal gods: Anubis, Wepwawet, and Duamutef. The most widely known, Anubis served as the divine embalmer who oversaw mummification. He also joined the deceased in the hall of judgment, where the deceased’s ultimate fate was determined by weighing the heart against a feather. Anubis checked the balance of the scales and ensured the deceased’s fair (and favorable) appraisal. Wepwawet, known as the “Opener of the Ways,” helped the dead navigate the demon-studded paths of the underworld. Duamutef, one of four sons of Horus, the falcon-headed god of the sky, was responsible with his brothers for protecting the deceased’s internal organs, which were placed in canopic jars. The exhibit includes one of these jars, which traditionally held the deceased’s stomach.

The full array of artifacts in the exhibit provides a fascinating look at the three dominant jackal gods. Their likenesses survive on papyri, painted coffin panels, and in the shapes of amulets. Most interesting is a “dog” mummy, used by an animal cult as an offering to one of the jackal gods. The contents of this mummy, though, as determined by an Xray, turned out to be far from canine. Through coins and figurines, the exhibit documents the persistence of the jackal gods and their cults under Graeco-Roman rule. It concludes with a collection of modern objects–including toys, CDs from a band named Anubis, and a comic book depicting a ferocious-looking jackal god–which demonstrate the jackal gods’ transformation from once-helpful deities of the underworld to fanged creatures of death in pop culture.

They’re on display through May 3.