The Enigmatic Imiut: Magical Gear for Ancient Egyptian Priests
The Imiut is a peculiar artifact which has puzzled Egyptologists for a very long time. It was worshipped for its supposed magical powers, making it a fetish, but no one is entirely sure what it was actually used for. In art, the Imiut is a stuffed skin of an animal, normally a big cat such as a leopard, or occasionally a bull. This religious object was already in use as far back as the First Dynasty.
The Imiut was closely associated with embalming and the jackal-headed god Anubis. One explication for the use of the bull representation of the Imiut fetish is that Anubis was also known as the ‘Lord of the Cattle’. However, in some cases Imiut was also considered a god in its own right and the fetish was associated with him.
Tomb painting from the 14th century BC depicting two priests, one holding a papyrus roll and the other a vase for libations (liquid offerings). ( Public Domain ) The priest on the right is wearing the Imiut fetish.
Embalming Ceremonies and Protection
Images of the Imiut fetish show the head and paws of the animal are removed and the stuffed skin is tied to a pole with its neck facing downwards. The pole is stuck into a pot, and the blood of the animal is often shown to be dripping into it. One explanation for this is that the Imiut represents an animal that has been sacrificed.
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The imiut fetish is an enigmatic symbol in the ancient Egyptian religion associated with Osiris. It symbolizes a decapitated animal skin tied to a pole inserted in a jar. They are often depicted in pairs. (Jeff Dahl/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Another way of interpreting the Imiut fetish is that it was somehow connected with embalming and its associated god, Anubis. In some instances, Imiut was regarded to be a god, a precursor of Anubis, one might say. This deity was an ancient god of mummification whose name meant ‘He Who is in His Wrappings’. Unlike the other gods worshipped by the ancient Egyptians, Imiut was rarely depicted in art. Instead, he was represented by the fetish, which was present during the mummification process. For one reason or another, Imiut was not a particularly well-known god amongst the ancient Egyptians and his role as a god of mummification was eventually taken over by Anubis and Osiris. Interestingly, the Imiut even became one of the epithets of the god Anubis, which is seen in this inscription, “A sacrifice which the King gives and Anubis, the One on his Mountain, the Imiut, the lord of the necropolis.”
Illustration from the ‘Book of the Dead’ of Hunefer. ( Public Domain ) A priest on the far left is wearing the Imiut fetish while performing a ritual on the mummy.
Yet another possible function of the Imiut is that it was used as a symbol of protection. This may be seen, for instance, in its placement by the side of the pharaoh’s throne since the earliest times. Additionally, the Papyrus Jumilhac contains a story of how the Imiut protected the infant Horus when his mother, Isis, was hiding him in Chemmis. The text also provides an explanation as to how the name of Anubis came into being.
Representations of the Imiut
Images of the Imiut fetish have been found in various media. The earliest representations of the Imiut are from the First Dynasty, i.e. between 3100 and 2890 BC, indicating that it is a very ancient symbol. The Imiut has been found on various wall paintings. For example, it can be found on the walls of the chapel dedicated to Anubis at Deir el-Bahri.
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Funerary stele of the priest Hor, depicted presenting offerings to two manifestations of the sun god. Below each scene is an inscription comprising words of praise for the two represented deities. ( Public Domain ) Note the Imiut worn by the priest.
Moreover, these fetishes have also been found in their physical form. For instance, a set of Imiut fetishes was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. This was a stylized version of the popular object, as it was made of gold. More commonly, however, the Imiut was made of an animal skin stuffed with linen. One example of this can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the Imiut fetishes housed there is from the 12th Dynasty, and its pole is placed in a vase that once contained a sort of ointment.
Imiut fetish from circa 1919–1885 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art. ( Public Domain )
Whilst the Imiut was widely used by ancient Egyptians and many representations of it survive to this day, we do not know exactly what it was used for. As seen in this article, several interpretations have been provided by Egyptologists. It may be possible that the function of this fetish evolved as times changed. In any case, it would not be surprising if discussions about this object continue in the future, especially if new evidence comes to light.
Three representations of the Imiut fetish. (Cow of Gold/ CC BY 3.0 )
Top image: Ay as Sem Priest in tomb of King Tutankhamun. Note the leopard pelt – this is an example of the Imiut. Source: Lucas/ CC BY NC SA 2.0
By Wu Mingren
Cow of Gold, 2017. Imiut. [Online]
Available at: https://cowofgold.wikispaces.com/imiut
Dollinger, A., 2010. Ancient Egyptian symbols: the imiut. [Online]
Available at: http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/symbols/imiut.htm
Egyptian-Gods.org, 2017. Egyptian Symbols: Imiut Fetish. [Online]
Available at: http://egyptian-gods.org/egyptian-symbols-imiut-fetish/
Hill, J., 2010. Imiut. [Online]
Available at: http://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/imiut.html
Hill, J., 2010. Imiut fetish. [Online]
Available at: http://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/imiutf.html
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017. Anubis Fetish (Imiut). [Online]
Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/545547
As a form of dress it's difficult not to suspect some relationship to Heracles/Hercules' rite-of-passage-like acquisition of the Nemean Lion pelt or shamanic use of such skins for drums facilitating passage to the other world. In its form as a pelt hanging from a pole it hints at something akin to Odin's shaman-like inverted dangling from the World Tree..